With Tom as hostage the Pirates make demands
Boswell, Barney, Umbrage and Will Nudd had searched the town for Tom without success.
‘Our priorities must still remain the same.’ said Professor Paragon grimly. ‘We must rig and ring the bells in order to overcome the pirates. Only then we can try and save Mr Buckram. But also we must find Tom. We need more gulls…’
Luther Speke was also considering his priorities. The bells would probably be recaptured when Scabbard returned as long as they had not been taken away and hidden. The threat of harm to the boy should be sufficient to avoid that. The other main task was to deter any attack on the Black Leopard whilst awaiting the return of the expedition. Cannon were being primed and directed at the quay and the boats moored there, and the few crew available had been ordered to busy themselves in full view on the landward side of the ship as much as possible. After all, the yokels could not know how many men he really had on board… could they?
If only he knew more accurately the strength of the enemy.
‘You said there were hundreds of them attacked you. Well, I see no sign of them.’
‘Carnage was the one who saw most of what happened.’
‘Ay. Well, there was mebbe a few on the machine, hard to see, it being armoured, could be half a dozen. Then there was six on cart horses, and perhaps another dozen on foot that I saw.’ said Carnage.
‘Hardly hundreds.’ snapped Speke.
‘More could be coming in…’
‘Quite possibly.’ If only he knew a bit more about these people, thought Speke. How were they organised, what sort of discipline had they? They certainly had courage, but how stupid or impetuous were they? How far could they be pushed before they reacted? He would have to be careful how he used this Tom creature
‘But we’ve got this little kid!’ gloated Blackheart.
‘No good having a hostage if you don’t use him…’
‘Wait till the townsfolk see him with a knife to his throat – that’ll stop them in their tracks. Then they’d have to set free our mates who could guard the bells for us.’
‘I don’t know about that. But bring him up anyway. I want to show him to them when they appear.’
Spud and Tom came back on deck.
‘Come on Mr Speke, let’s take him ashore again to bargain with.’
‘Oh no, you don’t.’ said Spud angrily. ‘I’m in charge of him. He stays here with me.’
‘Oh no he don’t, fatty.’ said Steelclaw, trying to push Spud aside.
‘Oh yes he do !’ said Spud, pushing him back, but Blackheart grabbed his arms from behind and with the help of the others threw him face down on to the deck and sat on him.
‘You’ll pay for this!’ shouted Spud.
‘You just stay quiet matey, unless you want a thump in your pudding muncher!’ hissed Steelclaw.
‘I’m coming with you then.’ grunted Spud. ‘To make sure no harm comes to him.’
‘ “No harm comes to him”?’ laughed Blackheart. ‘What’s the point of that? We’ll probably have to rough him up a bit to show we mean business; may even have to go a bit further… ‘ He grinned again as he drew his finger across his throat.
The pirates took hold of Tom.
‘Let him go!’ shouted Spud, struggling to get free.
‘Best place for you, Mr Bigbelly, is stowed with all your grub!’ said Steelclaw. ‘Let’s lock you in your cabin.’
‘Just wait!’ shouted Speke. ‘You haven’t got half a brain between the lot of you, have you? If we hurt the kid now they may kill the prisoners. If we just hold on to him and threaten them so as to get your mates free and out to guard the bells, who’s to say that any reinforcements who didn’t know might get to the forge and kill our men before hearing about the threat? And if we take him ashore that could be what they want. Not only will they realise how few we are, but we could be ambushed big time, get ourselves captured or killed and lose the kid – our only bargaining advantage. Sir Jasper would just love that. wouldn’t he? No, we’ll show them the boy, give them their instructions, and when the expedition returns the situation will be reversed. We’ll have the firepower and experienced ruthless fighters against a load of dosey gribboes. Then we’ll drive them on to the quay and blow them to bits with cannon.’
* * *
The two smaller bells were about to be loaded on to the dray when Biscay flew down to the forge with the news that Tom was apparently safe, but once again a prisoner. He had been spotted when he was brought back up on deck a few minutes before.
The Professor and most of his party left the forge and hurried down to the Quay. They were dismayed to see that Tom was now prominently positioned on a box by the ship’s rail dwarfed by the huge pirates either side of him, with several others manning the ship nearby.
‘Those two are Steelclaw Hawkins and Blackheart Luke. We escaped from them.’ said Will Nudd. ‘Nasty characters, they be.’
‘And standing beside them is the Quartermaster, Luther Speke.’ said Boswell. ‘He is the one who wanted to have Doctor Johnson and I killed. Tom couldn’t be in worse hands.’
‘I think he has a telescope. Perhaps it would be best if he didn’t realise yet that either you and Doctor Johnson were with us?’ suggested the Professor. ‘He might surmise that you had been rescued by the authorities and could have been brought here with the militia or yeomanry perhaps following. He might then harm Tom.’
‘Of course. How foolish of me.’ said Boswell. ‘I’ll slip away for the moment.’
‘What are they going to want I wonder?’ said Barney. ‘It’s no good shouting across to them – they’re too far off to hear.’
‘I’m sure they’ll find a way to communicate.’ said the Professor grimly. He was right. The Quartermaster, who was now looking at them through his telescope waved to someone behind him and soon a lone figure with two flags stood clearly in view on the poop deck. He began to place the flags in various positions about his body.
‘Is that some kind of signal language?’ asked Barney.
‘Yes.’ sighed the Professor. ‘It is called Semaphore. And no, I have no idea what he is saying…’ He waved his hands from side to side and shook his head, and this was apparently understood, for Speke snapped his telescope shut, shook his fist at them, and turned away.
A few minutes passed and then a fat pirate in a small dinghy came rowing around the stern of the ship and across the harbour towards them. When he got within earshot he rested his oars, took a rather grubby handkerchief from his sleeve, and waved it at them. ‘Parley?’ he called out.
‘Yes, certainly.’ shouted Professor Paragon.
When the pirate reached the quay he secured the boat and climbed, puffing slightly, up the steps.
‘Afternoon all.’ he said. ‘Sorry about the makeshift flag, but we haven’t got a white one – never needed it. The name’s Tadmartin, Spud Tadmartin. Do I say ‘Take me to your leader’ ?
‘We are all partners in the fight against you.’ said the Professor sternly. ‘Anything you have to say can be said to all of us.’
‘Fair enough. I must say, you’re a gutsy lot, you are, groat me like a shotclog if you ain’t. And that young Tom and Miss Elisabeth – I was proud to be looking after them.’
‘Of course!’ said Barney. ‘I saw you on the cart with them.’
‘And they have spoken warmly of your care.’ said the Professor. ‘We are indebted to you.’
‘Thankee, pirate.’ said Umbrage reaching up to shake Spud’s hand. ‘You shall be well considered at the outcome.’
‘No, please don’t shake me hand. Mr Speke will be watching and I’m not one of his favourite people. It’s only because he sees me as expendable that he’s sent me on this errand.’
‘We understand.’ said the Professor. ‘What message do you bring?’
‘Well, he’s threatening negative client care big time – if you get my meaning. He says you’ve got to leave the bells well alone, no hiding ‘em away or ringing to summon reinforcements, or anything of that kind. And release our crew members you hold as prisoners and allow them to return to the ship. In fact nothing more to be done until the return of the Captain. If Mr Speke suspects you’re trying anything out of sight or anything is done contrary, then – well, not to put too fine a point on it – young Tom will be killed.’
‘Hmm…’ said the Professor. ‘We must consider what message to send back.’
‘I wouldn’t take too long – he’s not a patient man. I’d just say “Agreed” if I was you, and I’ll give him the thumbs up.’
‘But…’ Whatever the Professor was going to say was cut short. There was a loud ‘Bang’ and a flash from one of the starboard gun ports, the whistle of an incoming cannon ball, and then a ‘Crunch’ as a small building at the end of the quay crumbled apart, totally demolished.
‘They’ve blown apart the fishermens’ privy!’ exclaimed Will.
‘Lucky no one was in it.’ said Spud. ‘A bit drastic as a cure for constipation. I told you not to take too long. That was by way of a hurry up hint. Our gunnery’s spot on – won awards for it we ‘ave. He definitely means business, does Speke, and he’s an evil sod, believe me.’
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.