. Rutherford Commons
“Am I the only one feeling the awkwardness of this situation?” Randall Flax said on an exhale. The words seemed to float along with the smoke from his pipe— loud enough for the passengers up front to hear but dissipating well before reaching the ears of the soldiers riding in the back.
Whiskey Jack steered the lorry to the left, taking the final westward turn after riding north from the harbour for quite some time. Rampart Road, was little more than a pair of wagon-wheel tracks across the Rutherford Commons, a sprawling expanse running adjacent to the wall. The myriad black crows and other assorted fowl that brazenly scavenged the market fields would have been left without a roost but for the occasional crabapple tree fully ablaze in autumn reds.
The only building of note was behind them almost as far east as the Old Quarter; the large academy dedicated to technologies of the industrial era. Apart from a few smaller trade schools there was not much else until one made their way toward the Farmers’ Market near the west-end gates of an emerging area known as the Palisades.
“Driver!” called Captain Digby. “Those ladies walking along the roadway up ahead. I wish to speak to them.” The three women, all appearing to be in their mid-thirties stood to the side of the roadway as Whiskey Jack pulled to a stop beside them. The initial calls of greeting quickly became tempered with guarded smiles when the women noticed the five soldiers riding in the back of the lorry.
“Maude,” said Mrs. Chandler to one of the three women before anyone else had had a chance to speak. “These two gentlemen were giving me a ride home when the militia joined us. They are looking for a boy named Thomas Chandler.”
“Is that so?” said the woman addressed as Maude. “You can tell them we haven’t seen Thomas— fact is no one’s seen the boy all morning. He was absent from assembly.”
“Great Builder!” Mrs. Chandler exclaimed.
“Kids miss school,” said Whiskey Jack, cutting in before Mrs. Chandler had a chance to give herself away. “Ain’t no big deal.”
“It is a big deal, Mr. Jack. Especially when the boy in question is responsible for the sinking of a foreign vessel in our port. A vessel that was depending on us for safe haven.” Captain Digby practically spat his displeasure from the back of the lorry. “Would you ladies happen to know where Thomas Chandler resides?”
“Not sure if I recall the exact address,” the woman identified simply as Maude appeared to have assumed the role of spokeswoman on behalf of the the other two. She turned her attention to Mrs. Chandler. “How you holding up Gracie?”
“Well, you know how it is Maude,” Mrs. Chandler exhaled then nodded. For a moment she looked as though she were going to cry until she regained a measure of composure. “I think I recall that boy they are looking for.” Mrs. Chandler spoke directly to Maude. “Doesn’t he live at forty-two Rampart?”
Maude took a moment as if considering her answer before she nodded. “Now that you mention, I seem to recall. But like we said we ain’t seen the boy.” Maude paused before adding, “For the benefit of the gentlemen in the back of this lorry I want to say that Thomas Chandler is a good boy. His mother is hard working and always has been. She can turn to us anytime and she knows it.”
“I would hope the mother realizes I have no doubt that she is hardworking and honest,” Captain Digby shifted to better regard those seated in the front of the lorry. He paid particular attention to Mrs. Chandler as if considering her in new light. Though he spoke to the group at large it seemed as though his words were for her alone. “If the boy cooperates he’ll come to no harm from us. What happens after is for other men to decide.”
“The Chandlers’ place is further along Rampart in a stretch of rowhouses— number forty-two,” Maude said to Captain Digby. “Keep riding west until you’re directly across from the Farmers’s Market. You’ll see it on your left.”
Park the lorry here,” instructed Captain Digby after directing Whiskey Jack to turn down a dirt alley perpendicular to Rampart Road. “We’ll keep it here, out of sight of his door.”
“Which door was it?” questioned the militiaman with the short sleeves. “Did you notice?”
“Red door, two hoses back. We’ll walk over from here. If the boy flees fire a warning shot into the air,” he directed this order to the short-sleeved soldier. “You other three hold your shots until my command. Bear in mind, we will take this boy one way or another. I prefer it to be alive. He will be taken to the Telford Barracks for due process.”
“Why not Clockhaven barracks?” asked one of the men. “It’s closer.”
“The girl who witnessed him sinking the ship is one of the Faulkners. She’s back with her family on the north Telford. We need an identification from the girl. We’ll deliver him to the Telford Barracks after.”
“If not the morgue beside it,” said one of the men.
The captain then turned to the trio in the front of the lorry. “Thank you for your patience gentlemen- and you my lady.” Captain Digby removed his hat and bowed to Mrs. Chandler. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”
The two bedroom flat was in the clutter of townhouses that crowded the road near the west end gates. Across the road farmers from the fells were already starting to set up stalls and tents in anticipation of the Saturday Market. This end of the Commons, no matter what the hour, once Friday arrived took on an air of nomadic festivity with minstrels playing bawdy songs while men and women drank and danced.
The flat where they found themselves sipping tea was plain enough, well maintained and neat. Whiskey Jack looked about the single room that served the multiple roles of kitchen, dining and living area.
“Having that long hallway off the entrance is actually a bit of a blessing,” observed Whiskey Jack who held a hunk of cheese balanced on a piece of biscuit. “I hardly hear the sound off the street.”
“The bedrooms off the hallway are quite noisy though,” said Mrs. Chandler. Apart from the two bedrooms off the hallway the only other room was a small pantry behind the kitchen.
“This cheese is nice,” said Randall, who had an almost rodent like aspect to his eating.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Chandler. “You two have been a blessing for my shattered nerves, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for causing you to be delayed from your affairs like this.”
“It’s an inconvenience, I won’t lie,” said Whiskey Jack. “But Randall and I don’t blame you for it do we Randall?”
“No ma’am.” said Randall, who had finished with his cheese and started into poking at the ash inside his pipe. “I blame those militia buggers.”
“Gentlemen and Mrs. Chandler!” Captain Digby interrupted. The captain stepped from behind the pantry door. “Refrain from speaking until the boy has been apprehended.”
“I’m just fit to be buggered!,” Randall cursed and shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe what were doing here to tell you plainly. Using a boy’s own mother to to ambush him in his home. And look at the three of us. Suppose those jokers hiding in the bedroom jump out trigger-happy- we’re sitting right in the crossfire.”
Captain Digby strode from the pantry to the kitchen table, the directness of his approach left no doubt he had run out of humour.
Randall stared back without flinching under the stare. “I weren’t aware of no law prohibiting private conversation amongst guests to a lady’s domicile.” said Randall, laying down his pipe and glaring right back at the militia captain.
“What makes you such a petty man, Mr. Flax?” Captain Digby’ expression indicated he had not quite finished what he intended to say. The moment of tension held steady until Captain Digby altered his tone, offering an explanation for his order with just a hint of conciliation in his voice. “I need to be able to hear the moment the boy is at the door.”
The captain needn’t have worried. A moment later the muted but very audible sound of a slamming door broke the silence followed by footsteps in the hall on the other side of the wall. Through the common chimney pipe that vented this flat with the next they heard a boy call out, “Mother? Are you home?”
“THOMAS RUN!” Mrs. Chandler angled her head up toward the chimney pipe. “THE MILITIA IS WAITING FOR YOU OVER AT AUNTIE MAUDE’S! THERE’S ANOTHER HIDING BEHIND A LORRY DOWN CURDLE’S LANE! THEY SAY YOU SUNK A SHIP!”
The sound of a door slamming from the flat next door set Captain Digby and his men to action, battling each other in their efforts to run down the narrow hallway for the front door.