By Let’s Talk short story com­pe­ti­tion run­ner-up Julie Hogg

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Smug­glers by Julie Hogg

Ten-year-old Bet was de­ter­mined to get to the bot­tom of this mys­tery. Why were there muf­fled voices out­side here bed­room win­dow at night? Whose were they and why at night? None of it made sense to Bet and she needed to solve this mys­tery.

The Cornish vil­lage had been Bet’s home now for three months, fol­low­ing the death of her par­ents in a ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent. Be­ing an or­phan and only child, it had been de­cided that she would have to leave the city and go and live with Aunt Pol, who had mar­ried a Cor­nish­man 20 years ago.

Bet had set­tled in fairly well and liked liv­ing in the vil­lage, which was sit­u­ated on the south coast at the top of some rugged cliffs. Morn­ings, she at­tended the lit­tle school with about a dozen other chil­dren of mixed ages. Her aunt waved her off each morn­ing from the pretty cot­tage which had be­come her home. Wis­te­ria cov­ered the out­side and the leaded win­dows peeped through the pur­ple flow­ers which bloomed ev­ery sum­mer.

Bet had come to like the cot­tage, and in­deed her aunt and un­cle were very good to her. They had made her very wel­come and she now felt as if she be­longed there. She helped her aunt with the chores when­ever she could and en­joyed meet­ing the lo­cal shop­keep­ers on vis­its into the vil­lage. Grad­u­ally she was get­ting to know the lo­cal vil­lage in­hab­i­tants and they were, in turn, get­ting to know Bet.

One of the vil­lagers was a teenage boy called Jim. Bet had met him on a few oc­ca­sions as he helped to land his fa­ther’s fish­ing boat in the early morn­ings. Jim and his fa­ther wanted to land their catch in time for the lo­cal mar­kets and were al­ways in a rush to off­load their fish­ing bas­kets and whisk them away on the wait­ing cart. If Bet found that she had a few mo­ments to spare be­fore school, she would take a de­tour down to the shore­line to watch them and, be­cause she found her­self be­com­ing fond of the ban­ter she re­ceived from Jim, tried to catch his at­ten­tion by throw­ing stones into the sea to see how far out they would go.

“You’ll be late for school Bet if you don’t get a move on. I can hear Miss Tay­lor ring­ing the bell!” Jim would call to her, smil­ing and teas­ing.

Bet would an­swer, usu­ally con­vey­ing that she knew she was in time, but none­the­less didn’t want to get in their way or make a nui­sance of her­self.

On this par­tic­u­lar even­ing as Bet got up from her bed and peeped through the cur­tains, she could see noth­ing, even though she could still hear the muf­fled voices. Her bed­room win­dow, which was slightly open, was at the side of the cot­tage and Bet as­sumed that the voices were at the front of the house.

She knew that it had been some time since her aunt and un­cle had gone to bed so she de­cided to leave the cot­tage by the back door and creep round to the front to see if she could dis­cover what was go­ing on.

Af­ter pulling on some warm clothes against the cool night air, she very qui­etly crept down the stairs, avoid­ing the stair num­ber five which creaked, and made

her way into the kitchen, stroking Al­fie the bea­gle in the hope that he wouldn’t be ex­cited to see her.

Luck­ily the moon was out, although it was also cloudy. Bet no­ticed that, once the moon dis­ap­peared be­hind a pass­ing cloud, it be­came quite dark, but when it shone, she could see quite well. Out­side, she did up her jacket against a fresh breeze com­ing in off the sea. Creep­ing round the side of the house, she also heard cart­wheels mak­ing their way along the track which passed by the front of the cot­tage. Some­thing was def­i­nitely afoot!

Bet thought that it would be a good idea to keep her­self hid­den. Af­ter all, she had no idea what was go­ing on and it was in the dead of night so she guessed that, what­ever it was, these peo­ple wanted to re­main un­ob­served.

As she peeped very care­fully round the cor­ner of the cot­tage, the muf­fled voices be­came louder. She could see men car­ry­ing huge loads on their shoul­ders up from the beach, over the cliff top and load­ing them on to carts. She could not count how many there were and de­cided to try to get a lit­tle closer.

If only she could make it as far as the front hedgerow. She could re­main hid­den as it was fairly high and she was not that tall. She looked up to her aunt and un­cle’s bed­room win­dow. Their win­dow was also slightly open but the cur­tains were closed. Bet won­dered if they could hear these sounds too. They must do!

She waited un­til a cloud con­cealed the moon­light and qui­etly made her way to the front hedge. Peep­ing through a small gap, Bet counted more than a dozen men busily fill­ing up the carts with large bar­rels. Smug­glers, thought Bet, and, as she looked down to the sea from the cliff top, she could see the wreck of a sail­ing ship just out in the bay.

She was so sur­prised, she took a sharp breath. Then she spied Jim stand­ing just the other side of the fence. What’s more, he had heard her sigh and was look­ing through the hedge right at her. Their eyes met, just as the moon came out from be­hind the cloud. Would Jim be­tray her?

But not. He quickly put his fin­ger to his lips as if to say “Ssshh,” and looked around to make sure no one else was look­ing. Bet crouched right down and didn’t move. She didn’t know how long she stayed crouch­ing down; she only knew that it was a long time, mak­ing her legs ache.

Once the carts were loaded up they were taken fur­ther down the track, Bet had no idea where, but she could guess that the lo­cal hostelry might be their des­ti­na­tion. She se­cretly made her way back to her bed­room, chang­ing back into her night­dress and get­ting back into bed, her mind full of what she had seen and heard that night. Then she heard stair num­ber five creak and foot­steps mak­ing their way up to her aunt and un­cle’s bed­room. Her un­cle must be one of the smug­glers!

The next morn­ing, Bet went down to break­fast as nor­mal. Her aunt and un­cle were al­ready hav­ing their por­ridge.

“Good morn­ing Bet,” greeted her Un­cle Jed. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes thanks Un­cle Jed,” Bet replied, try­ing to act nor­mally and not mak­ing eye con­tact. Aunt Pol dished up her por­ridge and she sat down at the table to eat her break­fast.

On her way to school, Bet was keen to see if Jim was down on the beach un­load­ing his boat and hur­ried down the cliff path. But he was nowhere to be seen. Bet was dis­ap­pointed. But there was no time to lose as she could hear Miss Tay­lor ring­ing the school bell.

Bet scam­pered quickly back up the cliff path and down the track to­wards the school. Com­ing the other way Bet spied Con­sta­ble Jack­son. He was look­ing on the ground at the cart tracks and Bet put two and two to­gether. Con­sta­ble Jack­son was search­ing for ev­i­dence.

“Morn­ing young Bet. You hurry on down to school now be­fore Miss Tay­lor marks you late!”

“Yes Con­sta­ble Jack­son. I’m hur­ry­ing as fast as I can.”

“You mind that you do, young miss.”

But Bet was wor­ried about Jim. What had hap­pened to him? Had Con­sta­ble Jack­son caught the smug­glers last night? “Are you look­ing for some­thing Con­sta­ble Jack­son?”

“Noth­ing for you to worry about. Get you off to school!” Con­sta­ble Jack­son waved her off im­pa­tiently.

Bet thought that she had best not make Con­sta­ble Jack­son an­gry so car­ried on her way. When she had nearly reached the school gates, Bet spot­ted Jim and his fa­ther com­ing to­wards her. She thought quickly on how she should warn him:

“Hello Jim. Now don’t you go telling me off too for be­ing late to school. Con­sta­ble Jack­son just told me off up the hill there. I promised I would get my­self straight in to school!” She made sure Jim’s fa­ther was look­ing the other way and put her fin­ger to her lips, mim­ing “Sshhh!”. Jim re­alised and winked at her.

Pic­ture: Dor­ling Kin­der­s­ley/Thinkstock

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