Skulduggery, short story by Paul Rushworth-Browne at Spillwords.com

Skulduggery

Skulduggery

written by: Paul Rushworth-Brown

@Brown9Paul

 

CHAPTER 1

MISSING SPARKS

The bleak Pennine moors of Yorkshire, a beautiful, harsh place close to the sky, rugged and rough, no boundaries except the horizon which in some places goes on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divide the land on one side of the lane and on the other. Sheep with thick wool and dark snout dot the hills and dales. One room cruck cottages scattered, smoke billow out of some and not others. Dry stone walls divide and fall, a patchwork of green, green and greener. Long grasses whisper while swaying in the chilled wind, waiting for the summer months. As the sun goes down, the silvery beck glistens amongst the ghost-like trees that line the bank. The countryside sings its songs to the beat of the day, a chorus of echoes from the undulating hills. Clouds line the horizon and widen the gap between the blue and the moor.
Thomas Rushworth, a man of medium height, and a face weathered by the punishing wind and harsh burning summer sun of the Pennines, the boyish good looks hardened by winter months, invigored and alert. Thick dark brown eyebrows crowned honest, deep-set eyes, a straight nose and chiselled chin.
A broad-brimmed straw hat, sweat-stained and tipped slightly, shadowing his relaxed expression. The hat peaked a weathered, leathery countenance and allowed the thickness of the bowl like cut to be seen reaching the nape and covering the top part of the ears. The hat, slightly too big but held down with a worn, sandy coloured broken string at the base of the crown. A shaven shadow, but with a slight nick on his long chin from the old steel straight blade that he used. Long white shirt greyed by frequent washing opened at the top to show bristled chest hair, speckled with grey, peeking through the top. It hid his brawny upper arms, born of hours upon hours in the fields, tapering to the wrist and his rough, calloused hands. A pinkish-red tattered sheepskin tunic frayed at the bottom stretched and secured across his chest with two sheepskin ties. A brown jerkin dyed with madder plant dye and mutton sleeves wide at the top. Tight, dirty, cream coloured hose covered both slender legs from hip to waist, stained from the day’s cultivations. The ‘codpiece patch’, a similar colour to the hose, covered the groin area but Thomas did not find the need to advertise his masculinity unlike some others in the village. Dirtied leather and wool shoes tied at the top gathered loosely around the ankles, and the thick sheepskin soles tried their best to keep out the unfriendly earthen chill. Not a tall man but one of confidence which made him seem taller. His bearing was upright, although he walked with care, before putting weight down on the foot lest a stone pierce the thin leather sole.
It had been a severe winter, and a ten-week deep freeze had made life intolerable for Thomas and his family. Trees split, birds were frozen to death and travellers told stories of the Thames freezing, stopping river traffic and allowing people to walk across it.
Thomas remembered the stories his father told him as a boy about the great drought that had brought king and country to its knees and the memories of the summer of the flooding which spoiled crops and decimated food reserves. Thomas was only a youngster then, but he could still remember the feeling of the pangs of hunger that he had felt when his mother had carefully split what little bread and pottage that they had into small portions for their family of six.
‘Better the pangs of hunger than resorting to eating the unimaginable that others in the village had succumbed to,’ his father said.
He sat there on the hard-uncompromising wooden stool warmed by the central fire, smoking his clay barrel-shaped pipe and silently staring into the flames. The shine of the fire reflected off his face and dried the film of mud that caked his leather and sheepskin foot coverings. The aroma of his manly smells from the day’s labour, made more pungent by the heat of the fire, drifted up to his nostrils but was quickly overpowered by the recent release of steamy faeces by the cow that lived in the corner of the one room cottage.
He could feel the breeze sneaking through the gaps in the closed shutters, and it reminded him of the daub and wattle repair needed to the exterior of the far wall. A job for the summer after seeding had been done, he thought.
He watched a spark fly out of the fire and briefly ignite a piece of straw, forcing the English Mastiff to reposition itself to a safer distance from the fire. The flame was quickly extinguished by the dampness of the trodden straw and the wet earthen floor, which at times flooded with the Spring rains. All the while Bo, a frisky rat terrier situated himself at one corner of the hearth, one eye on his master and one on the hay crib, his favourite hunting spot where he could be assured of a scratch and pat, a reward for the erasure of a pest.
His wife silently stirred the pottage in the cauldron, ensuring that added grain did not stick to the bottom. The gutted rabbit snared last night added a wealthy protein to the mix, a treasured prize.
The smoke from the fire mixed with the sweet aroma of Thomas’ pipe tobacco, which filled the room that was perpetually smoky. They didn’t have a chimney and it was far too early in the season to open the shutters at night.
Bo, hearing a familiar rustle in the hay, pricked up his ears and focused his full attention on the mound of hay currently consoling the cow and one lamb. He lifted himself slightly from the floor, shifting his weight forward he moved slowly yet purposefully toward the sound, but not giving too much away so as not to frighten his quarry.

‘Pssst, what is it dog?’ He said, with a broad Yorkshire accent.
Bo briefly looked at his master before instinctive focus got the better of him, he wagged his tail in anticipation, lifted his head and bolted towards the slowly moving hump of hay with no thought of the unexpectant lamb who darted clear of the charge to take refuge on the furthest side of the cow who, used to such commotion and unaffected, continued to chew on its cud.
The English Mastiff, a huge dog which lacked the agility of his tiny friend stood wagging his tail. He watched Bo run and dive snout first into the mound of hay lunging at the rat. It was almost half his size and almost as long with the tail; seizing it by the mid-spine he flung it out of its cover being careful not to get bitten in the first instance by its razor-sharp yellowed teeth. The rat, sensing its demise, landed awkwardly but recovered to flee along the bottom of the wall. Bo bounced out of the hay and pounced again, but this time biting harder through the spine, cracking the vertebrae, and demobilising his prize as it flew to land with a thud. The English Mastiff barked a sign of support and watched on as Bo tended to his prize.
‘Rex, behave.’ Yelled Thomas.
Rex excitedly wagged his tail but laid on all fours with his head held high in anticipation.
Standing over the wet, limp, bloodstained carcass, Bo watched for signs of life. A sudden twitch sent him into a frenzy. Taking the limp carcass by the neck, he savagely thrashed his head from side to side. He lost his grip at the last moment and watched as the rat slammed against the wall. Rex barked again. Bo pounced once more, not biting but sniffing and nudging with his snout to prompt signs of life. He gave his victim one last deep bite on the neck, released and bit again. Satisfied that he had completed the task, he stood over the rat and lifted his head for approval.
His master grabbed its long tail and flung it out the door for the village dogs to consume. Bo tried to follow, but Thomas closed the door quickly in anticipation, then scratched him behind the ears as he returned to his stool beside the fire. Rex took up his position at Thomas’ feet, waiting for a pat of acknowledgement for his part in the hunt.
The Mastiff raised his broad skulled head painted with the black mask that was common to the breed. The dog could hear footsteps, but they were recognisable, so he wagged his tail and put his massive head back down on his robust fawn coloured paw. The latch lifted and dropped and lifted again, the door opened sending the smoke from the fire curling and scattering toward the rafters as if to flee the sudden chill in the room.
Thomas turned, raising his hand in an impatient gesticulation. ‘PUT THE WOOD IN THE HOLE LAD!’ He yelled angrily.
Wee Tom came running in, quickly followed by his older sister Margaret., who closed the door quickly so as not to acquire the ire of her father.
‘Where have ya’ been lad?’
‘Running in the green.’ Young Tom paused in front of the hearth and looked to find the Mastiff who lifted his head. He let out a slight giggle and ran to where the dog quietly laid. Young Tom sat on the dog’s back and grabbed his ears. The dog lowered his head and patiently grumbled, allowing the young one to have his way. Tom bounced up and down on the dog’s back while a slobbery line of dribble fell from the corner of the dog’s shiny lip and pooled on the dirt floor below him.
‘Leave the poor beast, Tom!’ shouted his father.
Margaret walked over and lifted Tom balancing him on her hip, ‘Come on brother it’s almost suppertime.’
It wouldn’t be long before she had one of her own, thought her father. His other daughter had already participated in the naming ceremony and now lived away. He rarely saw her because Haworth wasn’t the most accessible place to get to, especially in winter, but he thought of her often and prayed for her happiness each night.
Agnes spooned some of the three-day-old pottage, to which she had added grain, peas, beans, and onions from the garden. A piece of dark rye bread was placed on top of the bowl and handed over to the master of the house.
‘Ta wife, I could eat the lord’s horse all ta myself,’ he said with a mischievous smile.
‘Husband, I don’t think Lord Birkhead would be happy about his missing horse,’ she replied without a pause smiling cheekily.
‘Well, if he gets any fatter, the horse will be crushed by his girth so better the beast be used for a grander purpose.’
All who heard laughed at the imagined sight of the horse falling foul to the weight of the lord of the manor. All except Grandma Margery, who sat with her back to the far wall, away from the chill emanating from the door. She was fighting hard to keep her eyes open, the relaxation of the muscles in her neck allowing her chin to drop and be jolted back into contraction less she miss the evening meal.
She noticed the rest of the household laughing and leant forward ‘What did you say son, I didn’t hear,’ she said with growing impatience and a curious look.
The poor dear’s hearing is all but gone, thought Agnes, she couldn’t have that much longer left, but she is a wily old wench that one and she sees and hears more than she makes out.
‘It’s alright grandma, Thomas were just enlightening us on the health of the lord o’ the manor.’
The old woman, never backwards in letting her thoughts be known, ‘Lord o’ the manor? That bastard worked thy father to ta grave he did!
‘Without as much as ta muchly for 20 years of service, he couldn’t even pay his respect at his funeral. He knew he had the king’s evil, and he still worked him from dawn to dusk while he wasted away. No royal touch ceremony for him.’ Her face wrinkled in a scowl.
The excitement had taken its toll, and she began to cough, a chesty rasping cough causing her breathing to labour. She finally cleared her throat and spat the phlegm into the fire. It landed on the hearth rock and started to bubble; the circumference of the red-green blot dried as she sat back to gain back her energy expended during her rant.

She wiped the remaining spittle from her chin with her sleeve and watched as Thomas broke bread and dipped it into the bowl, quickly stuffing it into his mouth to ensure that no drips were wasted. He retorted and opened his mouth as the steam emanated and his face went red and contorted from the hotness of his first bite. Thomas quickly waved his hand in front of his mouth, fanning, trying hard to cool the hot morsel of soaked bread which burned the roof of his mouth. He could already feel the loose skin forming and he knew it would be a day before he could jostle the loose dead skin from its place with his tongue.
‘God wife are you trying to kill me it’s hot enough ta start the blacksmiths forge.’ He declared while taking the clay tankard of ale from Margaret who, smiling, had reacted quickly to her father’s dilemma.
He guzzled the ale, soothing the roof of his mouth, but the area still stung when he touched it with his tongue.
‘Maybe you won’t be in such a hurry ta scoff down thy dinner in the future, son,’ Margery whispered.
Unperturbed, Agnes stirred the pot and replied, ‘Well ‘usband what did you expect, it came from a hot place. Would you rather it cold?’
She poured some of the stew into another bowl for wee Tom, blowing on it to cool its intensity.
Tom ran over to climb up on his father’s lap. His father quickly placed his bowl on the stump beside his stool, grabbed him around the waist lifting him to blow raspberries against the skin on his stomach much to his pleasure. He giggled, so his father did it again before sitting him down on his lap, roughing up his hair tenderly. Agnes handed her husband the wooden spoon and the bowl.
Agnes looked on with content, smiled and then frowned, remembering his sickness as a baby, and she thanked the Lord for his mercy.
Agnes served young Margaret, who took the bowl to Grandma Margery, who had temporarily dozed off. Her hair covering wimple was lying crooked on her forehead as she leaned her head back against the wall. Her Eyes were closed, mouth open as she breathed a deep chesty breath. A deep, guttural vibration emerged from her throat. Her thick woollen kirtle bunched at her feet, holding a collection of straw attachments.
Young Margaret touched her on the shoulder, ‘Grandma, you awake? Here’s thy tea ‘n ale.’
‘Of course, I’m awake daft lass, did you think I was dead?’ As she tried to nod the grogginess away. ‘Not yet. Soon, but not yet.’ Grandma straightened her wimple, sat up straighter, well as straight as the curve of her back would allow, took the bowl and began to blow on it, coughing again as she did.
She took her first spoonful, ‘Delicious Agnes, even better than yesterday and the day before that.’ She proclaimed while lifting the wooden spoon to her lips to blow on it before placing it in her mouth.
With an utterance that only Agnes and Margaret could hear, she mumbled, ‘Might need to stoke the fire a bit prior to serving. Hot pottage keeps the chill away.’ Looking down at the bowl cheekily to erase suspicion from her son.

Thomas looked over to see Margaret and Agnes smirking at grandma, trying hard to keep a stiff upper lip. He couldn’t hear what she had said, but he knew that he was the bane of the muffled colloquy.
‘DON’T GIVE US ANY CHEEK MOTHER OR ELSE I’LL HAVE YOU SENT TO THE DUCKING STOOL!’ Thomas roared in a threatening tone but then became quiet and complacent seeing the humoured sparkle in the eyes of his wife and daughter.
Margery looked at him, grunted a sound of inconsequence and took another spoonful, winking at young Margaret.
‘Dead, she’ll probably outlive us all,’ mumbled Thomas noticing Agnes’ contempt for his lack of respect, judgement and lack of empathy.
Thomas watched his mother through the smokiness of the fire. The lines in her forehead told many a story like the rings of a tree. The Reformation, the Black Death, The War to which she still remarked being always loyal to the House of Lancaster. Her praise for good Queen Bess and her foul thoughts of the Scottish King that replaced her.
He heard the bell of compline ringing, a reminder of prayers and the coming of night, and it reminded him of the coming day’s work.
Wee Tom still sat on his father’s lap; his father helped him guide his spoon into his mouth, albeit more liquid dribbling down his chin than making its target.
‘Gew on son get ta ya’ mother.’ He set him down and gave him a pat on his behind, watching him proudly as he walked over to her.
Grandma had finished her pottage and sat there leaning forward, wooden bowl and spoon still in her lap and a tankard of ale still half full dripping its contents because of the angle that she held it.

 

CHAPTER 2

THE OLD WOMAN’S SECRETS

While Agnes fed the wee one, Thomas sadly reminisced. He looked over at his mother remembering the difficulty she had faced in his father’s last days. Weeding the hide through the day, cooking, washing and tending to father through the night. She was much younger then, but firm and of high morals and wished no ill of her husband. As a young lad, he often wondered if they loved each other because they never showed any affection outwardly. The question was answered many years later when his father got the sickness; he could hear his mother quietly weeping in the darkness of the night and his father trying to console her between raptures of coughing and wheezing.
By day he continued to work the fields often kneeling in the dirt trying to fight against an uncontrollable fit of coughing. You could hear him trudging home through the mud, a constant drizzle making it difficult for him to see. His cold, wet clothes clamped against his feverish skin. Eyes deep in their sockets darkened by rings of tiredness, foreboding and worry, for he knew not what would become of his family once he was gone.
He would stagger in out of the weather and collapse on the bed, often spouting delirious ravings as mother undressed him and dried him as best as she could. Often, he wouldn’t get up again and remained there to battle the growing ache in his chest, coughing to try to get some respite from his clogged airways.
His persistent choking cough was always followed by the splatter of blood in the rag that mother, Margery, continually rinsed and gave back to him. The wakening, delirious ravings and night sweats, the chills, chest pains and shortness of breath and the irreversible weight loss. His mother tried to feed him broth, but most times it would end up coughed over mother and dribbling down his chest. This all ended one night when the coughing stopped, and the wheezing quietened eventuating in dark, solemn, peaceful silence.
He thought back to the times as a youngster when wee Tom was just a sparkle in his Agnes’ eye; his father and mother had to tend to the fields for the lord from sunrise until sunset, pruning, weeding, scaring birds in Spring, harvesting and ploughing in summer and smoking and weaving in Autumn. They had to spread manure to prepare the fields for the crops, prune branches, harvest the hay and cut the wheat. Not to mention collecting the brew from the lord’s favourite cottage to appease his alcoholic tendencies and wash down the pheasant and imported wine.
They were good times, happy times, at harvest father would often carry him on his shoulders through the fields on a Sunday after church. He would swing him around by the hands so that his feet acted as a sickle to cut down the wheat. They would play hide and seek in the long wheat stalks. He was always able to sneak up on him, but he knew his father allowed him to, laughing and acting surprised when he did.
He never spoke much of his family, saying that they moved up here from Mould Greave when he was a very young lad. He said that his father left for war one day and didn’t return, even though his mother waited and waited. One day she got the sickness and passed, leaving him and his elder brother and sister to fend for themselves.
Thomas was only seventeen when his father passed, but he could still remember looking through the gap between the black loose-fitting curtain and the wattle wall, put up to separate the living from the dead. His last sight was one of sadness, as his mother Margery and her cousin silently dunked cloths in cold water and gently wiped the soil of a lifetime from his body. Margery was solemn but did not cry as she realised the living hell that had tortured her husband for the previous three months and now, she knew he was at peace.
He laid there outstretched on a makeshift bench put together with some locally sourced planks. He was completely naked except for a loincloth which covered his more modest parts. The once muscular physique had wasted away and the bones of his ribs protruded through the pale, loose skin. The muscle in his arms had deteriorated, and now unapologetically sagged loosely to the table. His unshaven face was turned slightly, and his hair messed and wet where his mother had wiped the grime from his forehead. Silently, he continued to watch as they wound his body in a winding sheet, covering his face, and tightened by a knot under his chin.
His mother Margery and her cousin knelt beside the body and clasped their hands together in unison, later joined by relatives, neighbours and friends who guarded the corpse throughout the night. Two candles flickered, the shadows dancing on the black cloth that donned the walls. There they would remain until the vicar from Saint Michael and All Angels’ chapel arrived to administer last rights, and sprinkle holy water.
They would bury him on the grounds of Saint Michael and All Angels; however, as much of the church’s land had been acquired by the noble right of King Henry VIII, and distributed to the wealthy, ground space was at a shortage. An older grave site would be dug up, the bones removed, and there his father would be placed.
After his father had passed, the copy-hold inheritance of the hide automatically passed to Tom or as they now called him Thomas being the eldest son; his mother attended the manor court in Haworth with him. All the other freeholders and copyholders tenanted to his lordship would be there as well. Here, his tenancy would be accounted for and recorded on the Haworth manor court roll of Martin Birkhead, Esquire, as a proof of the right to the tenancy. He would swear an oath to Lord Birkhead, lord of the manor of Haworth, in exchange for yearly labouring services on his lands to the south-east of Haworth, a patch of non-arable land called Hall Green. They left after the day’s work, digging in the horse manure and human faeces, made harder by the constant drizzle. This valuable fertilizer had been collected over the course of the winter. They walked through the furrowed fields a dog barked in the distance, past the manor house at the foot of Main Street with its large cut ashlar gritstone and deeply recessed mullioned windows. The manor stood out in all its splendour amongst the nearby cruck houses. They walked up, up, up Sun Street, muddied and slippery underfoot. The cottage merchants along the road, sold all manner of items from vegetables to wimples, but they were in the process of packing up for they too had to attend the court. They looked over the expanse of open Pennine countryside and moorlands on one side of the road. The sun was going down and cast shadows from trees on the other. The church tower of Saint Michael and All Angels was a continual reminder of the distance and steepness of the climb to the square.

 

CHAPTER 3

ROUGH TOUCH

Arriving outside their destination, mother ushered Thomas inside; they were both wet, feet muddied from the road, ‘Go on Thomas, go on inside we don’t want ta get the payne of two shillings for bein’ absent. Let the steward know who you are, and you’re taking your father’s tenure at Hall Green.’
Thomas ducked his head going through the doorway and was immediately stunned by the sharpness of the smell, urine-soaked straw and rotting food that had been thrown or dropped on the muddy, manure-covered floor. A man stumbled with a toilet bucket spilling more over the sides than what he was putting in. He tried at drunken modesty when he saw Margery, turning toward the wall to save embarrassment.
Another man used a form as a bed, face down, still clinging to the almost empty Jack, a leather waterproofed mug lightly held for a future swig before staggering home. The window had no glass and shutters kept out the evening air, which on some nights, depending on the way of the wind, rid the room of the layers of smokiness. The shutters also served the purpose of denying the vicar’s representative, that occasionally walked by, to collect notes on the immoral goings on after dark. Three- legged stools and the odd cut barrel were used as a gaming table. Wide, rough planks rested on full size-barrels separating the barkeeper from the clientele and shelves behind housed pewter dishes, leather jacks and the odd pewter tankard for the patron with a more modest income. Most of the light came from the fire in the hearth, but the odd tallow candle chandelier and grease lamp provided enough light for the card games, arguments and political debates. The serving wench tracked backwards and forwards, replacing empty jacks with full ones for the patrons, on occasion disappearing upstairs for more physical pursuits and monetary gain.
One individual sat almost semi-conscious on his stool, head leaning against the wall, red bowl hat pushed up. A vomit stain donned his tunic and dripped to the earthen floor. Two others looked on, whispering and sizing him up, no doubt debating percentages of their share of his shillings, Thomas thought.
Both wore a black slouch hat which shadowed their face. No doubt strangers as they were dressed more notably than the rest of the patrons. One had a black eye patch, which made him look further mysterious. He had on a red sheepskin doublet done up with a whole row of buttons lined from neck to waist, and a tan overcoat was placed on the stool beside him. A thick black belt wrapped around a sword leant against the wall near where they were sitting. The other, a slightly bigger man, held his sword, instinctively looking at his partner then around the room to try to gain truths from the expressions on the local’s faces.
They were a ragtag bunch of tinkers, peasants and yeomen in from the weather, hiding from the wrath of their lord and their wives if they knew they weren’t pushing the plough. The steward noticed the young lad and the old wench that walked through the door he assumed they were here for the payne.
The drunkard who they had come to know as John Hargreaves, was a mess and the two strangers were annoyed that he had so easily parted them from their brass. They were even more annoyed that the steward had not told them of the demon dog from Stanbury who had killed so many rats. If they were to be working the territory for him, they would need to ensure better disclosure from the steward in the future. They had met Hargreaves at the rat baiting and although a cheap drunk, had been generous with his celebrations. They watched patiently as he used their coin to purchase half the tavern a round of ale.
Margery elbowed him, ‘There he is Thomas, the steward, sitting yonder playing the card game. Nip on over and let him know who you are.’
‘No mother not before the manor court,’ replied Thomas nervously not really knowing how to address the situation.
He had been to the manorial court once before with his father, before he died, but that was some time ago when he was only a young lad. His mother had castigated his father for taking him, saying it was a house of ill-repute and her sons would not be subjected to such a place. He remembered his father shrugging his shoulders and arguing the benefits of the excursion and how it would prepare his sons for future responsibility. His father had been greeted with many silent nods. How he had beamed with pride as he introduced his two sons to those nearby.
Impatiently, she led Thomas toward the table, ‘Go on now, make thy self-known before someone else gets in before us ‘n takes our hide.’
The steward, in tight breeches, a short blue waistcoat of desirable fabric with sleeves reaching to just above the elbow. He wore a white ruffled long-sleeved shirt, cravat, and a ribbon dragged over one shoulder. His baggy black coat reached just above the knees and met with the tight stockings and garter. His thick leather shoes were polished and shined in the candlelight. He had an air of dignity, but the hidden importance of his office was not about him as he looked at his cards and the eyes of his companions.
Straight long black hair framed his face, thinned eyebrows, a thin black moustache and a small, triangular nest of hair sat below his bottom lip which brought nobility to his full face. A man of medium build, but those hands, they hadn’t done a day’s work, almost like marble extensions of his arms.

He looked at his cards and tried to read the eyes of his companions but knew of Thomas’ presence and the old wench that accompanied him. He also knew of the drunkard that was going to be left penniless in a ditch that night if he wasn’t careful. He always liked to come to the Kings Arms early to see who was cheating at the games, like these two non-locals were. They probably did the rounds, Keighley, Oakworth, Oxenhope, Stanbury; making a good living from unsuspecting folk who knew no better. They apparently didn’t spend any of their hard-earned winnings on their dress, for they looked ragged and worn, he thought to himself.
The cards depicted the countries of England and Wales, but he knew that the card’s lime complexion hid the distinguishing mark somewhere in the textual description or inner frame. Nobody, he thought, could be that lucky.
His deputies would meet him at eight o’clock and by that time his companions would have won all of his coin and he would have them. He didn’t like outsiders coming to town to take advantage of his people; he liked that monopoly for himself. The steward organised the rat baiting to coincide with the manor court for just that reason.
The steward had an inkling that the lord knew of his small pastime but allowed him to go unperturbed just as long as it did not cause disharmony among residents of the parish. The steward liked the extra shillings it brought in to supplement his income, primarily when the dog was ‘on’ and the owner, that he brought up from Stanbury, was right in his judgement of the number of rats. Of course, this was all calculated and controlled with the number of dried herbs he put in his feed. He knew that some in the village won and some lost, all that mattered to him was that he was at an advantage.
‘I’m terribly sorry, but gentlemen, you are very fortunate tonight. One is afraid one’s luck is at an end. You have emptied my pocket.’ Said the steward dropping his head disappointedly.
‘It’s alright your grace we can take cash or goods. What about your pretty gold ring?’ Replied the other player. Another whispered and smiled with a toothless grin having already raised the stakes and bowed out of the game.
They were unlikely men, the steward thought, especially Archie, the one with no teeth. He had an enormous nose that was continually running, which he regularly wiped on his sleeve. A faded red baggy cap tilted slightly, and a continual toothless smile added to his peculiarity. His dirty red, straw-like hair bristled from below his cap. He continually licked his lips and swallowed as if he always had too much saliva, spraying some of it when he tried to enunciate certain words. His companion’s shirt attracted most of the spray, which wet the linen and blossomed into small wet patches that dotted his arm and shoulder.
The steward heard the call of the nightwatchmen from down the street, ‘Sleep well ta thy locks, fire ‘n thy leet, ‘n God give theur grand night for now the bell rings eight.’ Which was followed by the customary eight rings of the bell.
It was a chilly spring evening, and the drizzle was not strong, but constant, keeping the soiled roads muddy and the thatched roofs damp.

The sun was setting, and the only light emanated from the candles in the small cottages down Main Street.
Further away, the night watchmen called out again, then continued down the road. He would be awake most of the night watching for strangers that might carry the sickness from York. If approached, he was under orders to refuse their passage and had the will and the weapons to enforce it. It wouldn’t be the first time that a stranger found himself the lodger of the night watchman and his wife in the lock-up on North Street.
‘You have won many shillings. How about one more hand?’
‘Goodness me,’ as he took the gold ring from his small finger and placed it on top of the coinage in the middle of the table.
The toothless one quickly picked up the ring and bit it with one of his last remaining teeth at the side of his mouth. He nodded and placed the ring back on top of the pile, snickering with a foul cackle as he peeked at his companion’s hand.
‘Alright then your grace, we will give you one more chance to win thy coin back, but don’t go complaining to the night watchman or the old steward if you lose,’ Archie replied confidently as he looked again at his partner Stuart’s cards.
The steward wiped a small droplet of spittle that had made its way to the back of his hand, with his handkerchief, ‘Indomitably not, one is ah gentleman!’
The steward placed his cards face up on the top of the half barrel.
The toothless one’s sadistic smile grew, and he let out another foul cackle as Stuart placed the winning hand down on the surface, ‘Well your grace it seems like the night were ours,’ as he reached over to grab the gold ring.
The steward slammed his fist down on the top of the poor old boy’s hand, possibly cracking a finger in the process.
His voice turned deeper, and he stood knocking over his chair, ‘SIMPLETONS, I AM A GENTLEMAN AND THE STEWARD, NOW GET READY TO PAY THY DEBT!’
The toothless one, with fear and shock in his eyes ran toward the door colliding with Thomas, who braced for the impact. The culprit was knocked backwards over the sleeping man’s form and into the arms of the steward’s deputy who had been lingering near the bar.
He was a big man, both in girth and height and picked his quarry up off the floor by the scruff of the neck. The toothless one’s dirty cloth slippers started running in mid-air, trying to get purchase on the earthen floor. Spittle was firing from his mouth and dribble cascaded down his chin; his hat had fallen off, showing a large bald patch on the top of his head sided by wispy, red hair.
‘Let me go, you sod, let me go, you have no right to hold me.’ Said the captive as he struggled to remove the deputy’s hands from the back of his tunic.
Thomas, albeit stunned by the goings on, remained unharmed and apologetic, believing he had wronged the stranger. He looked for his mother through the mayhem that had occurred. He saw her, lonesome on a stool near the hearth, warmed by the fire she was oblivious to the goings on and worried about the keeping of the hide.

‘LET ME GO YOU VERMIN! I HAVN’T DONE ANYTHING!’ Archie yelled, trying to hit the deputy with backward swinging arms that missed and slowed as his collar was squeezed tighter. Then his arms went limp beside him like a rag doll.
‘Relax yourself coney-catcher; thy work is done here.’ Said the deputy who had the situation well under control.
He walked him over to a stool and plonked him down, then bound his hands with shackles roughly while his captive tried to struggle out. The toothless one quickly stood and tried to take a step until the deputy put his rather large hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down onto the stool. He tried to stand again, the deputy slowly losing patience, put his hand on the top of his head and forced him back down unapologetically. He sat there with a glum look on his face, wiping his runny nose on the sleeve of his upper arm.
Some in the room heard the word coney-catcher and whispered the news until everyone knew that there were tricksters thereabout. The crowd started to gather around pointing and calling out obscenities to the two men who looked glum and disappointed.
The steward sat back down but grabbed Stuart’s wrist as he reached for the winnings, ‘I will take that, kind sir!’
The other deputy grabbed his wrists and shackled them quickly, shoving him over to sit on the stool beside his partner.
The steward scraped the rest of the winnings into his money purse, raising his eyebrows with a look of satisfaction, ‘Seems like the night were mine after all.’
Stuart looked at the steward, hoping for leniency, then down at the ground with a look of despair and regret.
Stuart thought of the events that had led to his predicament. He thought of his wife and children back in York and the hardship they had endured these past weeks. He remembered his wife, who had taken ill with the sickness. First there were the pockmarks on the legs, the fever, head pain, and then the lumps in the groin and under the armpits the size of an egg. He didn’t have resources to pay for doctors, then once the body collectors found out, the red ‘X’ was painted on the door, that was the end of it. With sadness in his heart, he covered her with a linen sheet and allowed them to take her away to the mass grave on the outskirts of town. Fearing for his children, he smuggled them out of the house to his brother’s, on the edge of town. Unfortunately, a day later they were bitten with the same symptoms and were also carted away. He knew he wasn’t a bad man, but desperate times called for desperate measures and his toothless acquaintance’s plan to flee the sickness and earn easy coin seemed like a good idea at the time.
As the steward stood, the publican and his helpers placed tables together for the twelve, the apostles that would determine the fate and future of many on the night. The steward sat and the twelve jurors approached and took their seats, led by the reeve of the manor who was the intermediary between the villagers and the lord.

The reeve was from a good family, voted to his position by the villagers each year to represent them and to evenly distribute responsibilities of labour to be carried out on the lord’s demesne.
Yarns about the coney-catching were the topic of the night, especially what punishment the toothless one and his companion would get for their trickery at cards. The two men sat on their stools, hands shackled, faces forlorn and glum, looking to the floor and quietly whispering ideas for their defence.
By this time the room was packed, the light from the tallow candles highlighted the layers of smoke which separated the floor to rafters. All eyes were on the two culprits, who sat nervously awaiting the next stage of their ordeal.
‘HEAR YEE HEAR YEE, THE HAWORTH MANOR COURT IS NOW IN SESSION. ALL WHO HAVE BUSINESS ON THIS NIGHT COME FORWARD AND BE RECOGNISED!’ Yelled the deputy confidently.
Thomas looked at his mother who was standing near the fire and she gestured for him to walk forward toward the table.
The steward rose from his chair, an experienced orator, ‘Eh up folk of Haworth! The first case involves these cheeky two who thought me a rabbit for their stew. These cony-catchers, these vultures, these fatal harpies that putrefy with their infections in the flourishing estate of England. What say you?’
The occupants of the room, ale in hands and a touch tipsy, jostled for a good vantage point. They were aroused by the steward’s words and started to yell obscenities.
‘He emptied me pockets this evening, he did, HANG THEM!’ Yelled one disgruntled individual who sparked a call-in unison from many of the other patrons.
‘YEA HANG THE BASTARDS!’ They all screamed.
‘Hang the bastards and let no citizen from Haworth lose coin by these two again,’ said another.
The two sat nervously watching and started to worry about their fate, ‘They can’t hang us, it’s the first time we been caught,’ whispered the toothless one as he wiggled and discreetly tried to free himself from his bonds.
The player sitting beside him quietly accepted his fate, ‘Oh shut up. We should have left when I said so earlier.’ He exclaimed.
Being argumentative, ‘How was I to know he was the damn steward?’ ‘We’ll plead insanity that’ll get us off it has before.’
The steward continued, ‘Even though hanging would be a fitting punishment for these putrid two, they still have their ears and have not been scarred by previous misdeeds. What do you say in thy defence?’ The steward pointed towards the two men. ‘Insanity drove us to do it. Times are tough in York and our little ones have no food. PLEASE HAVE MERCY!’ Yelled Archie looking at his companion for support. ‘INSANITY, what say you?’ The steward looked at the twelve who turned to each other and whispered, gesticulating, nodding and shaking their heads in disproval.

As they hushed, one of the twelve, the reeve from the manor stood representing the group, ‘CAUGHT RED HANDED WITH MARKED CARDS, we say a day on the’ pillory and finally to be released into God’s hands with the lopping of the right ear.’
Some patrons cheered as others booed, missing out on a good hanging; however, they knew that even though there would be no hanging, they could still have their retribution while the culprits were on public display.
‘NOOOO, NOOOO, PLEASE ‘AVE MERCY, our wee ones starve if were absent!’ Screamed the toothless one.
‘IT WERE HIS IDEA, NOT MINE TAKE HIM’ He stood and pointed to his companion.
The deputy once again forced his shoulder downward for a seat on the stool. His companion, somewhat shocked, looked up at him silently, then at the crowd who had become even more excited by the thought of the coming punishment.
The steward rose, and the crowd settled for the verdict, ‘THE FOLK OF HAWORTH HAVE SPOKEN! Take them to the pillory and let the locals decide their fate over the next day. Let it be known that the citizens of Haworth will not be the victims of coney- catchers any longer. TAKE THEM AWAY!’
The steward could have hanged them, but he knew the difference between punishment for hanging and punishment for thieving and questions would be asked by the justice of the peace if the sentence did not fit the crime.
The deputies took the scoundrels by their shackles out into the night air, followed by the rabble, who lit the way with candles seized from the alehouse, covering them to shield them from the drizzle. They sloshed through the mud of the square to the pillory which was set outside the rocky made steps to Saint Michael and All Angels Church, a reminder to all who might be caught on the wrong side of the law.

Hearing the commotion, the vicar and his offsider appeared with a torch, ‘Who goes there?’ He called out as he lifted the torch to get a glimpse of the crowd that disturbed him.
The mob were not used to seeing the vicar out of his usual Sunday regalia, ‘Putting coney-catchers on the pillory vicar. Caught red-handed they were. Steward has sentenced them to three days,’ said the deputy.
The vicar, not wanting to get involved in the village’s business, lifted his two fingers piously, ‘God save you.’ He turned and hurriedly walked back to the church out of the drizzle.
In the wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, the toothless one and the player were unceremoniously placed. The deputy forcing their head and hands into curves of the frame, closing, latching and replacing the old, rusted lock. Then the other deputy took a large four-inch nail and placed it at the top of the player’s outstretched ear. He took a wooden handled hammer and struck home four times, sending the nail through the ear deeper and deeper into the wood behind. The small crowd cheered in unison each time the hammer struck the nail. The player screamed, his face contorted with the pain, blood dripping down the side of his face and off the bottom of the frame. He whimpered from the sting as the shock took hold.
The toothless one continued to plead his innocence, once again trying to divert blame to his companion and promote sympathy for his young ones that had not been fed.
‘HAVE MERCY! I will leave Haworth and not return. I SWEAR IT! have mercy—’ His last word was cut short as the deputy made the first blow on the nail head, through the ear cartilage into the timber behind. The crowd once again cheered ‘AYYYYE… AYYYE… AYYYE’ After each stroke of the hammer and then laughed, some hysterically having never witnessed such good entertainment before.
The toothless one screamed, swallowed and screamed again, tears in his eyes, ‘YOU SON OF A WHORE, I will have you one day I swear it. Your wife, your young ones, will never be safe. They will spend their days lookin’ over their shoulder.’ His hands trembled, and his matted, wet hair stuck to his face. Droplets of blood dribbled down the wooden frame and dripped, to be diluted by the constant drizzle on the ground below him.
The deputy smiled wickedly, walked around the back of the frame and placed a well-aimed kick between the legs of the toothless one, ‘Oh SHUTUP you insignificant fopdoodle!’ He bellowed.
He then raised his head to the sky and roared with a deep belly laugh, feeling good about his dealings and insult.
The crowd cheered and laughed as the toothless one grimaced in pain and shrieked as he felt the pain in his ear as it ripped a little. The discomfort moved from his ear to between his legs, but it was a different type of pain and his breath was knocked from his chest and felt like his testicles would rise into the cavity of his empty stomach.
Blood mixed with his long dirty reddish coloured hair and started to congeal on the side of his face.
‘COP THAT YOU! That will teach ya’ not to come diddling Haworth grand folk,’ as one of the men stepped forward and spat in his face.
The ale flavoured phlegm clung to his face and slowly dribbled down his cheek to rest in the corner of his open mouth. His lips quivered as he frustratedly tried to squeeze his hands through the holes in the frame.
One of the other onlookers picked up a handful of mud, squashed it into a ball, then threw it at the player hitting him square in the side of the face. A small blotch of red emanated from his skin from the concealed stone. The crowd cheered as the rain came down harder. Having their fill of insults, they all returned quickly to the alehouse to warm themselves by the fire and leave the toothless one and his companion to the ravages of the night.
The two were left in the dark to ride the pain and discomfort of the last few minutes. The rabble followed the dwindling candle back across the square and back into the Kings Arms to await the next order of business.

While they were away, the steward had dealt with and fined one who had allowed his cattle to stray onto the lord’s demesne. He had also dealt with and received payment from a freeman who wanted to dispute the erection of a fence by his neighbour. They both accepted the payne. One for erecting the fence without the lord’s blessing and the other for knocking part of the fence down without the lord’s blessing. The steward also took coin from a man and woman who had engaged in pre- marital sex, and as such, were bound together forever. All monies collected of course went to the lord’s coffers to keep him in the luxury that he was used to. Well, all except a small portion that the steward and the clerk skimmed for themselves.
The door opened and Thomas and his mother watched the rabble make their way into the room once again. They were quick to report the goings-on that had occurred outside, especially the treatment of the toothless one at the hands of the big deputy. The deputies returned to the side of the steward who was ready to call business to an end and return to his penny ale.
One last time he stood, ‘Is there any more business, if so, say it now or forever hold thy piece.’ Looking around the room he noticed the old wench pushing Thomas forward through the crowd.

Paul Rushworth-Brown

Paul Rushworth-Brown

Paul Rushworth-Brown was born in Maidstone, Kent, England in 1962. He spent time in a foster home in Manchester before emigrating to Canada with his mother in 1972. He spent his teenage years living and going to school in Toronto, Ontario where he also played professional soccer in the Canadian National Soccer League. In 1982, he emigrated to Australia to spend time with his father, Jimmy Brown who had moved there from Yorkshire in the mid-fifties. Paul was educated at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. He became a writer in 2015 when he embarked on a six-month project to produce a written family history for his children, Rachael, Christopher and Hayley. This four hundred page book traced his family's ancestry back to Haworth, Yorkshire where his ancestors had been living as copyholders or peasant farmers since 1590. Through this research, he developed a passion for writing and Skulduggery, Winter of Red and the soon to be released Dream of Courage is a continuation on from this.
Paul Rushworth-Brown

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