A Momentary Haven
West of Ireland: July 24th 1920
Sunrise, above the eastern hills, brought a fanfare of birdsong. The wondrous spectacle made Sean reflect on the marvel of the blessed land with its rich rural beauty.
"Compelling beyond words," he muttered, his paisley scarf saturated with sweat from his big bull neck "Mornings are my favourite time of the day. Especially summer ones." He grinned and turned his gaze from the distant hills. His companion, a tall young man, was crouched by a boulder shivering and unimpressed.
Sean laughed at the sorrowful exhibit. "Good God Cormack! There you are. Six foot of you aching away in the morning dew. Life in the Volunteers is not so romantic now, is it?" Then taking off his cap, he mopped his brow with the end of his dirty scarf. His black curly hair, flecked with grey, gently swayed in the soft morning breeze.
Looking up from his melancholy self-indulgence, the young man sighed. "How can you, and the others be so calm after what we've just done Sean?" He was clearly nervous and needed consoling.
"Oh come now Cormack! We're not so calm as you think. I don't like killing, neither does Sammy or Daniel, but the man was an informer. He was working for the police. This is war lad! It's a very dirty business. There is no glory in this, only necessity and I said as much when you first came into the column."
He watched as Cormack sighed and looked down at the wet grass shaking his head. "I can't get over the wretched way his eyes bulged as you and Sammy strangled him. Then Daniel muffling the gun and shooting him in the back of the head."
Sean nodded in agreement. "Daniel is a good lad. He held his nerve when it was needed. However, he has seen death before."
During the entire ghastly affair, Cormack had been useless. He had gone to pieces. "I've brought about distrust in Sammy and Daniel, haven't I?"
"God love us! What makes you say that?"
"They couldn't wait to get out of my sight after the deed was done."
"Don't be silly Cormack. They're planting the corpse where it can be found by the Black and Tans. The set up has to look right." Sean was a little more forgiving than the others and knew his companion was not at fault. "You'll make good when the time comes."
"Christ! Daniel's just seventeen. Four years younger then me."
"He has been with us longer then you. With the rest of the column rounded up and interned, our operations have not been that daring of late. Before you joined, this sort of thing was commonplace. You're going to have to get used to it Cormack. This is a big one and the informer's body is bait for the Black and Tans. You can't afford to be self-indulgent when you face these English reserves. They're all ex-squaddies and most have killed before. They're good! Better opponents than our regular policemen."
Cormack seemed oblivious to his advice. "Planting a murdered corpse in the pub's yard is just going to get the villagers into trouble." He looked down into the gully at the small village. "A nice little place like this - out in the middle of nowhere and we are going to lure the Tans in and frame its people. For what?"
Sean looked down upon Cafgarven. The sleepy little community nestled snugly in the gully. A small church, standing like a sentinel upon the scarp, watched out over the rooftops. The quaint presbytery, close by, had a splendid little vegetable garden to the rear, close to the graveyard. It was a most tranquil setting.
He smiled. "It is a charming little village. The people keep well out of the troubles." He looked back at Cormack. "It's important that everyone gets a taste of the Tan's community policing. These people are our best weapon combined with the brutality of these shell-shocked English soldiers. That's what they are lad. Trigger happy men that have endured years of trench warfare. They don't know how to react to their surroundings."
"What do you mean?" Cormack's blue eyes became focused and striking against his pale skin. He twisted his neck to get rid of the stiffness and blinked nervously. His black locks fell across his forehead and it was obvious that he was not cut out for this type of thing.
Sean smiled soothingly. "These reserves are not proper policemen." He lingered a while searching for the words. "They're unemployed soldiers that have been slung upon the scrap heap by their ungrateful rulers. They're desperate young men. A generation that have no skills except that of fighting. These are, principally, what your Tans are made up of my lad. In a way, I suppose one could sympathise with them."
"You have pity for them?" It was now Cormack's turn to show revulsion. "The stories that have been told about…"
"That's right," cut in Sean. "We need them to have such a press and we must encourage them to earn it. For it furthers our cause. Especially when we push them to the limit, keep them paranoid that anyone of us has the potential to kill. Even mild mannered people like those below." He looked back down at the village where the presbytery's garden door opened and out walked the Parson, a tall lean spectacled man. "The Tans could be the best weapon we've got. Their brutality is winning world wide condemnation."
"So killing the informer has been done simply to put the village under suspicion?" Cormack still disapproved.
"It will breed another pocket of resentment. We also need to see if we can kill a Tan. There's a fifty-pound bounty for the death of one. We need to let them know we are active and we can get them looking in the wrong places."
"Like the innocent village below."
"Yes Cormack, especially the little place below. We need them to hate the Crown forces too. Likewise, we need the Crown forces to distrust them. Can't you see that these Tans are too heavy handed for their intended job? They are a match for us alright, but the local law abiding sheep down there." He pointed to the village, "these people that would let us continue under British rule for another seven hundred years. We need them to hate too! And like it or not - these Tans are better at whipping their passions up then we ever can. Particularly if we can help our vicious little hunting hounds along way with a nicely planted snitch in the alehouse yard. Think of it. One of their pals viciously murdered. It'll make their English blood boil and when they are nicely worked up we plug one and retreat.
They're not logical men, you see, and the R.I.C. will not be able to contain them when inflamed. The Tans will run riot like they did in Balbriggan and Tubbacurry. They'll smack a few heads. Maybe kill a local?" He scanned the village below. "Then little Cafgarven will become resentful and hating of British rule and another wee village to suffer the Tan hostility. We want to infect the countryside with hatred."
Cormack sighed and shook his head. "All this has become so sordid. I never thought it would be like this."
"I told you to get rid of the romantic notions and think about this seriously before you came in." Sean stopped and pondered a little, knowing recrimination would be useless. "This is what the reality of fighting is and as you can see, the old fables become clouded. Poets and bards have a fancy of their own around warm fires with fine ale. Take the repugnant side of it on board and live for the cause. We've got enough dead heroes for inebriated men to sing of. The British are still here and have always won. Your new outlook may be pessimistic, but it's a lot better then the idyllic one you've replaced lad. Perhaps you'll learn to control it and put it to good use."
Cormack leaned back against the rock, holding his rifle upright with the butt standing upon the soil. "Do you see it all as loathsome then? I mean you don't seem distressed by what happened to the man we murdered."
"I did not get pleasure from the killing, but I will not bask in self indulgence about it. I'm distressed about confronting a Police patrol with Black and Tan back up. In case you haven't noticed, there are only four of us when the old Flying Column numbered thirty and more. We could do with that sort of firepower now." He allowed his gaze to scan the distant meadows, "no sign of their vehicles yet!"
"The parson is up early." Cormack had calmed. "Can he see the Village Street from his garden?"
"No," answered Sean. "Besides Sammy and Daniel have placed the body and are making their way back through the wood and along the other side of the scarp."
Almost immediately the two men appeared on the summit and stealthily made their way down using the shrubs and bushes for cover.
Sean chuckled at their antics as they descended. "Will you look at those two now? Sammy's bald head shining like a second sun - he should keep his cap on and wee Daniel's ginger mop is screaming out in all directions from beneath his."
"There on their way," gasped Daniel as the came into the clearing.
Sean held a placating hand out to Cormack as though gently bouncing a slow moving bubble. The young man had stiffened and almost clicked the bolt of his weapon in readiness. "The parson might hear." He then put his finger to his lips and looked at Daniel. "Not so loud Daniel."
"Two vehicles," whispered Sammy, he, like Sean, was a brutish looking man in his late thirties. "One car leading and a Croslley Bessinger behind. It's full of Tans."
"So they've taken the bait," replied Sean. "I was rather hoping they might give it a miss and all this become a waste of time."
Sammy smiled. "Then we could have pissed off home."
"We still could now. It's not to late," ventured Sean. "Do we really want to try and plug a Tan for fifty quid we might not live to spend?"
"And probably wont get because Dublin is hard up," added Daniel.
Sean winked at him. "Now you're thinking boy." He looked to Sammy who would have the final say. "They'll find the corpse now and we can let nature take its merry course where a Black and Tan introduction, for the village, is concerned."
Sammy shook his head. "Sorry lads. We still need to shoot one before we make a run for it. One shot and out as quickly as we can."
"I had a funny feeling you were going to say that." Sean hid his anxiety and moved out of the clearing, leaving the others behind. He covertly moved downwards along the worn path, searching for a position that afforded a good view of the high street. As the marksman of the group it would be down to him to make the killing shot and he needed to consider the probable things the Tans would do. He knew they would place look-outs on the high road in and out of the village, so good targets would be among the guards. However, in the past, the Tans had displayed vigilance when doing such duties. They would, no doubt, be surveying the hillside, so he would need to keep himself well concealed.
Finding a small bush next to a rock, he laid upon his stomach and looked down into Cafgaven. He had a clear view of the high street and the main road where the police vehicles would enter the village. Content that he had a good line of fire anywhere upon the approach road, he allowed his gaze to drift up the hill towards the church grounds.
The parson was still picking vegetables from a tomato patch. How oblivious the holy man was and what would be his reaction when the Tans arrived? Sean could not help having a pang of remorse for the man whose morning contentment would soon be shattered.