1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 17

Chapter 9

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Mulligan was busily kicking in the wattle walls of the tiny house, bellowing his rage at the innocent timber and daub.

Finnegan had to admit that, crude as the sentiment was, he could see the point of it. They’d come on the place just before dawn, barely a murmur in the morning dew. Every man in Finnegan’s band had got his start as a livestock thief in country far better guarded than this. Or at least, far better guarded than they thought this was.

They’d taken their time around Huntingdon, split up, tried not to act like an organised search party, watched carefully until they got the right place — old hand off Cromwell’s farm, right part of the world, right ages of children, answering the meagre descriptions they had. Questions, innocent enough, were asked and answered wherever folk grew expansive over their beer.

Finnegan himself had found and talked to a man who’d worked for Cromwell on the farm he rented out toward St. Ives a way, and visited the place. New tenants now, it seemed, and they’d been perfectly happy to talk with him about the famous fellow who’d been hauled away the year before last.

More questions, more patient watching, more careful hiding of the attachment of one group of men to another. Finnegan had made sure, or so he thought, that no one lot of them looked like they were getting close. It would take a cunning fellow to add up all that was being seen and learnt and deduce that they were getting closer day by day to whoever had given Cromwell’s children shelter.

He’d even let two groups of the lads blow off steam in a tavern brawl one night, trying to make a show of them being rival groups of mercenaries after the same bounty. If it looked like they were working across each other, they might not scare away their prey. Finnegan and Tully had laughed together at how over-careful he was being as he finally narrowed the search step by step to a fensman’s cabin seven or eight miles out of town down the local river, the Great Ouse it was called, and into the edges of the real fens.

Slipping by night through the fringes of the fen country, boggy as it was, proved no great hardship. The height of the growth, even this early in the summer, would have covered regiments.

Finnegan had been sure he’d had the place properly surrounded, and blown his whistle as soon as he could be sure of enough light to rush the house properly. With the door kicked in and the place surrounded, five men in, and seven to stand watch around would be enough to make sure nobody showed fight. The last thing he wanted was dead children; corpses were poor hostages and wonderful for provoking a man to revenge, so every man had gone in with bata in hand in place of sword or pistol. A cracked head would put the fight out of a man or woman and wouldn’t kill a child, and he’d sent in the five best stick-fighters in the band.

Except it had turned out that whoever had been left inside that hut had had a gun, a dubious-looking old matchlock, probably a fowling piece older than its owner. The ambush-party-of-one had let drive with a load of bent nails, chips of gravel and cheap, sulphurous powder and then run in the confusion. It was a miracle that nobody had lost an eye to the thing; O’Halloran was missing a tooth and a piece of moustache where one of the bits of stone had taken him in the top lip.

That had been the signal for slingers — slingers! in this day and age! — to rise from the undergrowth and start pelting Finnegan’s men with rocks. Even the smaller ones had been enough to raise painful welts through buff-coats. There were a couple of broken fingers and Tully wouldn’t be seeing much out of his left eye nor standing up without an attack of dizziness for a week or two. A volley of stones, and the slingers had vanished altogether. How they’d done that in very near plain sight was between them and the devil, that was for sure.

Finnegan had had his lads out into the smallholding that surrounded the cabin, and beyond into the fens all morning and half the afternoon, but caught sight of nobody. From time to time a stone would hurtle out of nowhere and knock one of them arse-over-end into the muck. No smoke, no noise, just sudden pain. Occasionally they’d catch sight of some ragged figure whirling his sling. Of course, they’d be vanished by the time anyone reached the spot. Finnegan had, eventually, fallen them back on the cabin.

“Sure and we were spotted coming,” Tully said, holding a wet kerchief to the side of his head, the linen slightly pink where the cut was still oozing. “And we should’ve brought helmets and breastplates.”

“Spotted before that,” Finnegan growled. “They’re not as soft nor as foolish as we fooled ourselves they were. Burn this. We lay up and wait for Cromwell back near town. He’s to come here to start finding his children, we’ll have him then.”

Finnegan wasn’t one who gloried in the wreck and destruction of war, but there was a satisfaction in watching the cabin go up, the thatch tinder-dry in the warm breezes of summer. It might’ve been a little more fun to do it at night, but you took your entertainment where you found it.

“Mulligan!” Finnegan called the man over. With O’Hare up at York, and no word from him yet, Mulligan was his best for sending off for independent action. “Take six fellows and get over to Cromwell’s old farm and put that to the torch as well. Turn out the people before you burn it, it’s them that led me here, so it must be them that warned of us. See Cromwell’s friends suffer for aiding him. I want that man with no safe place when he comes here.”

Mulligan frowned. “We’ve to leave witnesses alive? Arson, that they hang a fellow for?”

Finnegan waved it aside. “I’m away to find a justice of the peace. I’ve a letter of commission from the king, given me by the earl. He’ll not have constables after us for what’s done at the command of the king, not without us being able to go before a court, at least. I’ve money for lawyers and the king has more, to attend that matter for us. Even if they can find a judge who’ll hear it quickly, we can be gone before it comes to gaols and rope. Just see there’s no dead, a hue and cry for murder we don’t need at all.”

“I’ll be about it. Consider the place burnt before sundown.” Mulligan turned to pick his usual cronies for such things, and Finnegan left him to it. Now he thought on the matter, there were other things a king could commission besides a manhunt. Was it the king who appointed constables, or the justices? Or, and here was a simple next step for you, get himself appointed justice of the peace for this locality and the boyos — or at least the smarter of them — as constables and he could go about his manhunt with no need for lawyers at all. For, when all was said and done, prison-breaking, escape and rescue were all felonies, and all of the concealment that was going on was misprision. If he got a commission as justice of the peace he could arrest, and sentence for that himself. The fines would help cover his expenses, and the threat of a whipping, branding or the pillory might loosen a few tongues. The earl would like that as a solution, since he’d complained bitterly about the lawyers and the courts hampering things he wanted to do. Finnegan could turn that on its head and make them regret all their careful precedent and argument while it served the king’s need.

“You look like you’re thinking,” Tully said, still with the cloth clamped to his head. “And not about anything pleasant, either.”

“Nor am I,” Finnegan replied. “I think some of you boyos are going to have to be constables for a time.”

Tully laughed, a bark before he stopped, wincing. “Don’t make jokes, man, my head’s fit to murther me. This lot, constables?”

“Constables. There’s a lot of blather in this land about tyranny, Tully, and I think it’s time they learned the meaning of the word from Irishmen, that know it.” Finnegan stamped his soggy boots to try and fit them a little better. “I’ll pay a call on a squire or two this evening after I’ve sent to the earl for the commission I’ll need. We’ll see how badly the king wants this Cromwell brought to justice for his prison-breaking, when the earl asks him to commission a lot of torai as constables and their chief as a justice of the peace.”

Tully barked again and winced, and the other boyos around laughed too. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Finnegan, have mercy on a wounded man. It’s like a spike in my head to laugh right now. You, a fuckin’ justice of the peace?”

Finnegan grinned. “Let’s be back to that fleapit we’re staying in, I’ve letters to write.”