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At Smuggler’s Point
Cat Meadows didn’t have a chance to shout before gunshots blasted the air.
The world slowed as she watched the young Luke Tyler thrown backward into the sea. He reached out to her. He trusted her with his life. He thought of her as his fearless leader. He expected her to save him.
Then he was gone. Beneath a mist of red stained ocean, as his body sank under the waves.
Cat choked back the fear as a shot seared past her head. Gunfire echoed around Cadogan Bay. It mingled with the shouts and screams of her friends. She ducked into the cool water; making herself the smallest possible target as she quickly surveyed the chaos.
A thin line of Revenue Men had come out of hiding to surround Cat and her gang. She recognised their uniforms; royal-blue coats, yellow vests, white trousers and black hats. They marched forward armed with muskets. These were the men sent to catch pirates in the act of landing illegal cargo. Their duty was to kill the smugglers where they stood or take them for hanging.
Cat’s crew wouldn’t get past them without facing either a bullet or a noose. She could see three of her men on the beach. One of her horses had fallen, the other was rearing up and pulling at the reins of the cart loaded with kegs of illegal rum. Tommy Meadows, his height acting against his favour, had ducked behind the cart with Fletcher Greaves, who was crouched low and only recognisable by his long black coat and tricorn hat. Their rudimentary barricade could only protect them for so long. Old Smithy, his foot bloody and twisted, was desperately crawling across the sand toward them, screaming for their aid. Young Joe was nowhere to be seen.
There was a sudden deep roar behind her.
Cat turned to John Strong. Her closest friend and a great giant of a man twice her age. She’d seen him lift barrels, still brimming with beer, above his head. But now, he was being pulled underwater as the Dutch boat eased passed him.
The traders were trying to make their escape as a fresh hail of musket fire rained down.
Without a second thought, Cat dived.
The cold, dark water blinded her and she pushed off hard against the sand toward where she’d seen John disappear. The water wasn’t deep nor was the tide strong but in her boots and long skirts the ocean could be lethal.
She caught a thrashing hand and quickly grabbed the rest of John’s arm to pull him to the surface, but he was stuck fast. Confused for a moment, Cat realised he was trapped. Cat pulled herself down to his flailing feet. Searching in the dark, she quickly untangled his ankles from the ropes trailing from the escaping boat. They broke the surface panting and spitting.
Cat didn’t look back at the beach and instead swam out to sea. The shouting and gunfire told her all she needed to know. She didn’t want to witness another of her gang fall at the feet of this relentless posse.
John was struggling to keep his bearded head above water and his limbs splashed around wildly.
“Come on, Man,” she shouted, “swim!” But she may as well ask him to fly. His panicked eyes begged her for help as he gurgled and spat and his head bobbed below the waves.
“Onto your back, Man!” Cat grabbed him around the neck and swam hard toward the cusp of the bay. She prayed the Revenue Men didn’t know about the cliff path. Few people did. She fought against the water, her already aching muscles were quick to weaken at the strain of swimming with only one arm as she pulled along a man twice her size. The waves jostled her as she fought to keep on a heading toward the smooth, flat, rocky outcrop a hundred yards or so further out to sea.
Those rocks would be scattered with pools of saltwater, places where shrimp and seaweed had collected at the high tide. It was a place she’d clambered to as a child and spent many a warm afternoon playing happily. But now, as her body weakened and the sea gained strength, Cat struggled to fight the undercurrent and it threatened to drive her toward the sharp rocks of the cliff to her left.
The swell pushed her up then pulled her back to the beach, back toward the muskets and further from the safe landing. For every stroke forward, the tide seemed to pull her back three and all the while, she swam perilously close to the cliff face.
Gasping for air, Cat realised she’d never reach the landing. She knew she’d be pulled under the swell and John would be nothing but a dead weight to her as they were smashed against the cliff. She knew she was about to die.
The sun was stretching over the horizon on what promised to be a glorious spring morning, yet she would drown here and her body would wash up on the sands of her beloved Cadogan Bay.
But the very inevitability of her predicament steadied her resolve.
Cat fired her determination and decided that she would not be pulled under, she would not accept her fate, and she would fight to rule her own damned destiny.
With a final rush of energy pulled from the deepest pit of her reserves, she surged forward just as a wave caught her, lifting her and John up and tossing their bodies, like rag-dolls, against the great jagged rocks at the cliff base.
She coughed in pain and surprise as she clung to the barnacles and cracks of the razor-sharp fragment of cliff. To her great relief, John was at her side, clinging with first one hand and then the other, heaving himself up onto a rough boulder. They were still far short of their safe landing. But if they fell back into the swirling ocean, they would only be smashed, once again, against the rocks and their strength had already started to fade.
Cat’s arms, weak and tired from the swim, struggled to hold her weight. As a second wave crashed over her she didn’t have the strength left to hold on and was torn from the cliff face.
But the sea had not won.
The great, firm hand of John Strong grabbed hold of the cloth of her dress and as the swell pushed her up, he held on tight; determined. Cat grabbed his arm. She was just inches from the solid ground but had to fight with every ounce of her spirit to prevent her body being swept away. Then, as a wave crashed forward, she was carried up and onto the rock, smashing hard against its surface.
Grasping onto the rough barnacles and jagged edges, Cat managed to cling against the cold, wet, and unforgiving surface. She spluttered and coughed trying to catch her breath. The water stung her eyes, she tasted blood and salt on her tongue and there was an awkward trickle of water at the back of her throat that she tried in vain to swallow or cough away.
Cat’s body was numb with cold. John began to traverse the uneven boulders, edging his way toward the safe landing and she followed his lead with difficulty. Another wave crashed against them but didn’t have the height or strength to pull either of them from their perches as they continued their careful escape.
It was only a few feet to safety, but every inch forward seemed to take an eternity. The sun was clear of the horizon by the time the two smugglers finally crawled, bloody, soaked and exhausted onto the smooth, seaweed strewn, undulating surface of black rock. It was a natural pier jutting several hundred yards out to sea.
John took a deep, long breath. Cat noticed his hands and feet were bleeding and she began to inspect her own wounds. Jagged cuts littered her hands and arms stinging from the salt and without the sea to wash it away, blood was beginning to trickle across her skin. Her jaw was starting to throb and Cat realised that her face was likely to be in a worse state than her limbs.
Clawing their way up the old cliff path was always going to be hard work, but with their limbs torn to shreds, Cat thought it may just be impossible. At least she still had her boots, but poor old John’s feet were bare.
From their refuge, the curve of the bay masked their view of the beach and the crashing of the waves muffled any sounds of shouting or gunfire. But they were sure that the Revenue Men would still be there; perhaps even attempting pursuit by boat.
The pair exchanged a glance. Nothing needed to be said; they could see the grim determination in each other’s eyes.
It was Cat who made the first move. Unsteadily, she heaved herself onto her feet and did her best to wring the water from her clothes, staining them with blood in the process. She stood, hands on hips, assessing the climb.
There was a well-worn track, like a twisting scar, carved into the cliff-face by a thousand footsteps. But it was narrow with many sheer drops along the way. Cat hadn’t attempted the climb since she was a child and looking at it now, she thought she must have been possessed by a kind of madness to have attempted it then.
She called out to John, “We could hide out here, just until they’ve left?”
“Aye,” he called back, nodding as he surveyed the task before them, “but the tide be on the turn, Lass. We mayn’t ‘ave an hour.”
They had the choice of the sea, the noose, or the cliff.
She chose the cliff.
The first few feet of the path were easy enough, but it narrowed as it rose and she left a trail of wet, bloodied handprints where she reached out for support. The grazes on her palms and fingers quickly filled with grit and, as irritating as this was, she was certain it was nothing to the suffering of poor John’s feet.
She moved at a steady half crawl, half climb. The wind whipped at her skirts and her damp hair kept lashing across her face, occasionally blinding her. Stones and pebbles dislodged beneath her feet and she found she had to slide along rather than walk to ensure a sturdy foothold. She looked down to John, still there, like a great, old goat; slow, steady and resolute. Below him was the black, shining rock, its pools glittering in the sun. One slip and that would be her final resting place.
She steadied herself, her stomach swirled at the thought of the sudden, freefalling plummet and then… she grabbed at the cliff, pressing her belly against it, closing her eyes and trying to convince herself that she was on safe ground. But the wind at her back and the solid rock against her chest made her feel as if the world was on a sickening, tilted axis, and any moment now, it would tip too far and—
“Are thee well, Cat?” called John from below.
She managed a nod but realised he would not have been able to see such a small gesture. She wanted to call back to him, but her voice wouldn’t come. Instead, she took a step onward and forced her body along the barely-there trail inch by painful inch. If she focused her whole mind on each tiny movement; on moving her hand forward along the rock, grabbing the next handhold, sliding her foot along the smooth dirt of the narrow track and shifting her body weight sideward, slowly, carefully… then she wouldn’t have the space in her mind to think about what was below or about what may be waiting for them above. If she focused on clawing her way along, she could push away thoughts of twisted bodies lying bloodied on the beach and of Luke’s face disappearing into a mist of his own sea-tainted blood.
After what seemed like hours of painstaking climbing, she reached up and rather than bare rock she felt tufts of wiry, sand-grass that told her the summit was within her grasp. With wild relief, she looked up at the grassy fringe of the cliff top just yards away. She could have cried. She wished she could leap those final feet just as the sheep that frequented this path would do in summer but instead, she took a deep breath, suppressing the joy that threatened to overwhelm her and edged onward.
Suddenly, she was struck by the fear of what, or whom, may be awaiting her at the top. The image of another line of Revenue Men standing in readiness, with muskets poised, stalled her for a moment. But she couldn’t bear to look down and couldn’t bear the thought of clinging any longer to the infernal rock. So, knowing she could be damned either way, she heaved herself up.
Her body strained almost beyond its limit, Cat reached for the tufts of grassy fringe and felt around for a solid handhold to pull her body up. Grabbing a great handful of the dry grass and hoping the roots and earth would hold, she scrambled the last few inches managing to get her arm over the top and, with the help of a tentative foothold, she eased her head over the natural parapet glancing around for any sign of the posse.
There was no one.
The sun was long above the horizon and the promise of a warm, cloudless day was bathing the coast in bright sunshine. The crash of sea against rocks was far below and the gentle breeze was filled with the familiar cawing of gulls.
Wherever the Revenue Men were, it wasn’t here.
Cat heaved her torso over the top and rolled onto the sweet-smelling, earth grass, panting with exhaustion. She felt her limbs would never work for her again; but a call from below reminded her of one more duty. Belly to the earth, Cat leant over the edge and stretched down to John, supplying him with a firm handhold to beat those last few feet to the top.
Finally, the smugglers lay desperate and exhausted in the soft summer sun.
“Are thee well?” John asked, through heavy panting.
“A few scratches, nothing more,” she knew his question went further but for now she was only willing to assess her wellness skin deep, “and you?”
“Bruises, cuts, nothin’ broke,” he replied, matching her matter-of-fact tone.
Cat wanted to stay hidden, safe and untroubled, and wait until the threat had passed. But she knew the posse was not going to simply pass through the village like a night shadow. Luke was dead. Most likely her men on the beach, Tommy, Fletcher and poor, wounded, Old Smithy, were dead too. She hadn’t even seen what became of her last man, Joe, she realised he must be lost too. As would be the Dutch sailors who’d delivered the rum. If they hadn’t drowned or been shot already, then they certainly would be caught for the noose.
There was nothing more she could do for any of them. But her Inn, her home, and her village may yet be untouched. There was still a chance she could warn them and get people to safety.
“We have to get to The Swan,” Cat said urgently.
Suddenly, John reached forward and grabbed her hand. He looked at her and squeezed. His hand was cold, bloodied, and bruised but his gesture was warm. She looked at his gentle eyes, dark and kind, piercing through the rugged, sea-dog features, greying, badger-like beard, and tough, leathery skin. John Strong was as rough, hard, and weather-beaten as the cliff they had just climbed but his gentle soul was betrayed by those eyes.
The small gesture said so much more than his words ever could and Cat had to choke back the tears that threatened to swell up at this simple sign of sympathy.
It was then that they both knew; Cat Meadows had just lost everything.
A MURDER. A MAP. A MUTINY.
You can’t run away from yourself…
A swashbuckling tale crammed with daring escapes, battles at sea, treasure hunts, and love in unexpected places!
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