Cherrybrook Rose

Copyright Tania Crosse 2008

The line of men in their ugly uniforms and forage caps sat on their closely cropped heads was lengthening as they were marched out of the tunnel accompanied by several armed guards and even more prison warders amongst them Molly's father. Jacob Cartwright had worked since a boy in the Dartmoor quarries, his skill and experience gaining him a respected position as the years went by. That was how Rose and Molly had originally met, when Jacob had come to Cherrybrook to order gunpowder for quarry-blasting, and for some reason had brought Molly with him. But he wasn't getting any younger, and some time ago had decided, like other of his colleagues, that being a prison warder would be more suitable employment for a man of more mature years. The Governor had to be careful who he employed, and Jacob fitted the bill admirably. A strong, sturdy local, experienced in directing strong-willed men, and of course his expertise in quarrying was invaluable. He was a fair and just warder, popular with the inmates, for though he would deal toughly with those who deserved it, he was one of the few who found room in his own strictly-regulated role to reward good behaviour with clemency and understanding.

He hurried along now, his sharp eye ever watchful, unaware of his eldest daughter and her friend looking immediately down upon him. The girls would not utter a sound, of course, for they knew his concentration must not be distracted for one second. It filled them both with unimaginable horror, therefore, when one of the convicts behind him swiftly picked up a heavy stone that happened by some oversight to be lying by the side of the track, and went to smash it over his head.

The scream lodged in Molly's throat, her suddenly weak and trembling knees buckling under her whilst at her side, Rose's jaw hung open in appalled disbelief. But in that terrible moment, another prisoner bounded forward and in a brief struggle, plied the weapon from his fellow inmate's grasp. Before Jacob Cartwright could turn round to investigate the scuffle behind him, two Civil Guards emerged from the tunnel and spying the second convict with the rock still in his raised hands, rushed at him with a lustful cry. One of them slammed the butt of his Snider carbine into the man's stomach. He fell to the ground, dropping the stone, totally defenceless against the two guards who became intent upon kicking him into submission with their steel-capped boots.

Molly remained motionless, her muscles incapable of doing anything more than keeping her upright, but beside her, the indignation swirled in Rose's breast like a rising tide, drowning her senses in unleashed fury. In a trice, she flung aside her riding skirt, vaulted the stone wall and careering down the steep bank, began to pummel the back of one of the guards.

'No, you senseless fools!' she shrieked, spittle spraying from her incensed lips. ''Twasn't him! He stopped the other one!'

Her fists continued to pound ineffectually at their target, and it wasn't until Jacob's arms encircled her, pinning her own to her sides, that she was forced to stop, though she wriggled like a mad woman, her hat flying from her head and her dark curls whipping across her face like some wild witch.

'Hush now, Miss Rose!' the strong, steady voice commanded.
'And you two, stop before you kill 'en, will you!'
His authoritative tone ran like ice through the guards' brains as they ceased their retribution with reluctance. Every man held his breath, his heartbeat quickened, as the tension crackled along the halted line, those that were near enough confounded by the savage but beautiful apparition that even now was desperately attempting to break free from the burly warder's hold, her chest heaving deliciously up and down.
'Is this true?' Jacob asked in his usual calm manner.

'Yes. Of course 'tis!' Rose told him. 'He was the one who was about to hit you over the head with the stone!' she accused, pointing at the guilty villain who merely grinned back. 'That poor fellow stopped him, and those idiots - '

'All right, all right!' Jacob tried to interrupt.

'We saw it all from up there! Ask any one of these men - '

'Rose, do calm down!' Jacob hissed warningly in her ear. 'Never ask a prisoner to cop another! Now!' He raised his voice again as he turned back to the guards, slowly releasing his grip on her as he did so. 'I believe what this young woman says. Six four nine's always been a troublemaker. I'd just that second had to rebuke 'en. The other fellow's new. Model prisoner, so far. So, all right, everyone! Show's over! Move along now!'

A general moan rumbled along the line of convicts as they began to trudge back towards their meagre evening meal, an hour of oakum picking and an hour of reading or writing in their cells, or if they weren't literate under the prison teacher's tuition, before lights out. It had been a rare entertainment, and that untamed, spirited wench . . .

'Yes, get up, you bastard.'

Jacob had already moved on and didn't see the final blow that one of the guards inflicted with his boot upon the prostrate form of the prisoner. But Rose did, and the soldier's shin felt the crack of her own foot as she lashed out at him, her blazing eyes deepening to an outraged indigo. He backed away. He had the feeling he'd seen her somewhere before. She was dressed like a lady in a riding habit, and although she spoke with a local accent, it was refined, and her words were well chosen and articulate. You never knew . . . And he didn't want any trouble.

With a scathing glance in her direction, he bent down to thrust a hand under the criminal's armpit and drag him to his feet. The convict stifled a gasp of pain, one arm clutched across his middle, but he lifted his head and turned to look at his saviour.

The tortured expression on his face was like a spike in her compassionate heart. He was young. At least, fine creases were only just beginning to radiate from the outer corners of his clear hazel eyes, so she imagined he could be no more than thirty. It was difficult to tell exactly, for though his cap had been knocked from his head, his hair had been clipped so closely, the scissors had grazed his scalp in places, but a cap of light down was just visible here and there. A trickle of blood was curling down his chin from his torn lip, but the pained shadow of a smile twitched at his mouth and his gaze held hers until the other guard cuffed him about the ear and forced him to stumble onwards.

Rose stood and watched as the rest of the work party was marched past, a strange knot frozen solid in her chest as she fought her way back to reality. A convict. Guilty of some heinous crime. Ah, well . . . He must deserve to be incarcerated in Dartmoor's infamous gaol. Put to some of the most gruelling toil known to man, treated like the scum of the earth. The quarry was probably the most feared and hated of prison work. Not a moment's rest was allowed from the strenuous, crushing labour. Serious accidents were frequent, no care given to the prisoners' safety - except if Warder Cartwright was on duty, for he could not find it in his Christian soul to allow even a convicted felon to be maimed if he could help it. Others were less mindful and as well as paying no heed to other dangers in the quarry, would order convicts to pick out by hand any unexploded charges. It was not uncommon for a hapless villain to be blinded or have his hand blown away when the powder went off belatedly.

A whimper scraped from Rose's lungs. And she somehow prayed that the prisoner - whoever he was, but who had possibly saved Jacob's life - never suffered such a tragedy.

She buried the sickening thought somewhere deep in the darkest recesses of her passionate young mind, and retrieving her hat from amongst the grass at the side of the track, scrambled back up the slope to where Molly was waiting.

Tania Crosse Reading an Extract