Rowley rescued and Charnock the Slaver captured
Jasper’s expedition had crossed over the southern pass by Saturday evening. They struggled all day on Sunday through very difficult terrain and pitched camp as the light failed, just where the ground started to fall away and forest began to spread out again down below them.
Even though Nathan Boon had said that the outlaws were still several miles south from this point, the seagulls thoroughly surveyed the track far enough ahead to ensure that no forward lookout was anywhere near.
The party expected to approach the outlaws during the latter part of Monday morning and so next day they set off after a thorough overnight rest, all pistols primed and very alert. The Quinceyites now went well ahead of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell, who were both mounted and escorted by Will Nudd, the five Bashem brothers, Twiga, Hawser Trunnion, and four other pirates, and who were constantly kept informed of the forward party’s progress by the Gullnet.
As Jasper’s group descended the path the dying bracken, stunted scrub and straggling pines were succeeded by thicker woodland with rowan, hawthorn, holly, aged oaks, and denser undergrowth either side. Now the party fell into their planned formation with Aunt Hetty on her donkey in her Sister Hepzibah mode leading the three pack horses behind them.
After about two hours progress Rockall glided down to report.
‘Two guards near the path.’ he squawked. ‘Main camp in clearing off to the right. Gang are big ‘uns, all of them. Hungry looking. Mr Buckram tied up at back of makeshift hut. Looked a bit rough. They’re about five minutes flight further on.’
‘Dear old gull thing,’ sighed Morry. ‘It may have escaped your notice, but we seem to have come out without our wings…’
‘Yes.’ said Rathbone. ‘Most efficient report, but how far on foot do you think?’
‘Sorry.’ said Rockall. ‘Two miles-ish, that’s all.’
‘Well done – you’re Rockall, aren’t you? My old acquaintance.’ said Jasper. ‘Would you warn Doctor Johnson please? And Mr Buckram needs to be told as well. It might just be the last straw for him if he recognises us without knowing how things have changed. Perhaps Fastnet would attend to that?’
The track began to twist and turn through the woodland, and the first indication that the enemy was near was the sound of rustling in the undergrowth. A few minutes later a bald, brutish man, chewing on a straw, clad in torn and filthy clothing, stepped out in front of them. What once had been a shirt was open to his waist, and foul sores and contusions covered his face, throat and gross belly and could be seen through the greasy matted hair on his chest. He had a cutlass in his hand and at first he did not speak.
Jasper’s party came to a halt. Four more outlaws, equally unkempt, appeared from the shrubbery behind them. Another three then joined the first in front, but there was no sign of Charnock. The outlaws were armed with cudgels, swords, and daggers but only three had guns.
‘Well, well, well… What ‘ave we ‘ere?’ said the bald man. ‘Will we all be converted, I wonder?’
‘They’d better ‘ave a few special prayers up their sleeves today!’ sniggered another.
‘We are the Mission of Redemption to the good people of Cumberland.’ said Jasper. ‘And as we have to take this route from Summerdale we have offered to meet with certain persons on a most delicate matter. I do so hope that you are those whom we seek. Have you a Mr Buckram in your care?’
‘Yus we ‘ave. Your lucky day, ain’t it?’
There was laughter from the other outlaws. Rather sinister laughter, thought Aunt Hetty. ‘Heaven be praised.’ said Jasper. ‘We bring the ransom you requested. We come in peace, brother.’
‘Yea, peace be unto you.’ said Rathbone.
‘And unto you mush – for ever I expects. Got the guineas, ‘ave you? Well give ‘em ‘ere then, unless you wants yer throats slit straight away.’
‘The Lord likes not that sort of language my son.’ reproved Aunt Hetty grimly.
‘Stow it, you old trout. This looks like being one of our rare good days, so lighten up a bit. Where’s that ransom?’
‘For safety’s sake we have spread some of it amongst our party. In case anybody might have sought to rob us.’
‘You’re already being robbed. With added value – we’ve got your mate.’
‘Yea, verily.’ said Clarence. ‘But extortion too is a sin brother. You should let the lord come amongst you.’
‘Not bloody likely. There’s enough of us in this share out already. You said you’ve got some of it on you. Where’s the rest then? You trying it on?’
‘Heaven forfend my son.’ said Jasper. ‘The rest is all in the pack horse panniers.. We thought that you might be in need of sustenance and so have brought food and drink for your succour. I myself am more accustomed to a crust of mouldy bread and a chipped mug of stale pond water after a hard day in the pulpit, and whilst we deny ourselves the solace of alcohol (‘Since when?’ whispered Clarence) we have also brought rum for you – for medicinal purposes, of course.’
‘Very thoughtful, for a god-botherer. Well, follow me, the lot of yer. Any funny business and the old bag gets it first…’
They were led through the trees into a small clearing where makeshift shelters had been rigged, and a kind of rough hut with a bracken covered roof had been formed from green branches. There were the charred remains of a fire in the centre of the clearing but still no sign of Charnock or any other outlaws.
Where are the rest of these ghastly gonaphs? thought Aunt Hetty. Things may not go quite as smoothly as Jasper has planned – I’d better be ready, just in case…
‘Right, ‘ere we are. Get it all unpacked then. Particularly the gold.’
‘Of course.’ said Jasper. ‘But before we count out the guineas can we see that your hostage is unhurt?’
‘You can see ‘im alright. Dunno about unhurt. He got a bit stroppy at first so we had to duff him up a bit, but he’s not too bad now, apart from near starving. Bring old Buckram out…’
Rowley was dragged stumbling into the clearing with his hands tied in front of him and set down against a tree. His face was drawn and slightly scarred and he had obviously lost weight, but his eyes were bright and he was very alert.
‘So, it’s you.’
‘That’s right, Mr Buckram – Mr de Quincey…’
‘I know, I know. Fast… – the seagull’s been here.’
‘Wassee on about?’ said the hairless one.
‘He’s rambling a little.’ sighed Jasper. ‘Not really surprising, brother,’ he said reproachfully, ‘After all he’s been through. And look, there is a seagull – sitting on that branch.’
‘Never mind that. Let’s have a look at the meggs.’
‘The yellow boys, the lurries – the money, you canting cove!’
‘Ah, yes, of course. Er, just a minor point – we were told that a Mr Charnock was in charge?’
‘The upright man’s gone chase and is running the coney trap rig – short of peckage we are. He’s left me to steer the scrag lay so there’d better be no dead cargo, nor towers nor swimmers, or every cull will take a whinyard in the guts.’
‘Brother Archibald,’ sighed Jasper, ‘I follow some of this, but being from Tunbridge Wells and so more familiar with the vulgar tongue – could you interpret for me?’
‘He says their chief has gone hunting and trapping rabbits, because they have little food. This, er – gentleman is in charge of the ransom procedure, and he hopes that what we give him will not be worthless and that the coin had better not be counterfeit otherwise each of us will have a sword thrust into our stomachs… That’s pretty near the drift I think..’
‘Most helpful. How charming. Thank you brother.’ said Jasper. He turned to the outlaw. ‘Please help yourself to what we have brought…’
‘We’re going to. Come on culleys – you two empty them panniers – this bishop’s giving us lunch! Right – leave the vittals. Any money bags? Good, very good. Now, Mr Parson, that’s six bags so far…’
‘Correct. With the warm rich clink of a hundred golden guineas in each one.’ said Jasper. ‘We have the rest.’
‘Well you’d better ‘ave.’ leered the outlaw, taking hold of Jasper’s collar. ‘Not that it matters to you any more ‘cos the outcome’s goin’ to be the same.’ He slowly raised his cutlass…’I’ll take this tub thumper meself – Now kill ‘em all!’
Before he could strike there were the cracks of four pistol shots from behind Jasper. A hole appeared in middle of the bald man’s forehead, the cutlass slipped from his grasp, and he slumped to the ground and slowly toppled over, the eyes still wide and surprised in death.
Jasper brushed his collar with his hand and looked around the clearing. Besides the leading outlaw, the three with guns also lay dead, their unfired weapons still in their hands. Both Morry’s pistols were smoking, and Clarence and Tembo had each fired once.
The remaining four outlaws had dropped their bludgeons and swords. Not a word had been spoken in the few seconds during which the tables had been turned, but the fate of their colleagues and the unfired pistols pointing at them rather indicated that deep trouble and probably permanent disadvantage would be the response to anything other than instant surrender.
‘Thank you, gentlemen.’ said Jasper quietly. ‘Please secure the prisoners and untie Mr Buckram.’
‘Gordon Bennet!’ exclaimed Aunt Hetty. ‘That was pretty impressive Jasper. I needn’t have worried.’
‘Thank you Hepzibah. But it was not quite as I had planned. And it’s not over yet. Where are Charnock and the others?’
‘’E’s ‘ere, you bastards!’ came a voice from the trees at the same time as the crack of a musket shot. Jasper’s hat flew off and he fell to the ground clutching his shoulder. His men were caught at a disadvantage. They had replaced their pistols and were tying up the prisoners and untying Rowley as Charnock burst into the clearing with six more outlaws. Only Charnock was armed with a gun, now discharged, but all of them carried axes or clubs as they leapt towards Jasper’s men.
‘Lucky I was prepared.’ sighed Aunt Hetty as she lifted up Miss Minima and rang her as loudly as possible whilst screaming out ‘No Toquela! Ya Basta! Basta!’ at the same time throwing a handful of fine sand in the air.
The whole spectrum of colours whirled all about the clearing and the outlaws staggered back from their prey, bemused for the moment. Aunt Hetty tossed aside her wimple and her hair changed from black to bright green and stood up in writhing spikes above her head. She threw open her black gown to expose a lining of purple and gold embroidered with silver lightning strikes, and twitched Arnold on to the ground before her where he turned into a snarling panther. Or so it appeared to the outlaws, looking through the swirling colours.
‘Back, you creatures of the black latrine!’ she screeched. ‘This is witchcraft. And I am the rankest hag that ever troubled daylight!’
The outlaws backed off a little, except for Charnock.. He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and then looked around the clearing.
‘It’s only conjuring, you fools!’ he bellowed. ‘You’re none of you hurt are you? Well get on with the business then…’ But it was too late. The precious moment’s grace was all that was needed for Rathbone and Archibald to draw their unfired pistols. As the outlaws attacked again two more instantly fell dead, and a third, hit in the chest, staggered sideways, spluttering blood from the side of his mouth, before dropping his sword and falling at Jasper’s feet.
‘Drop your weapons, you scum.’ spat Rathbone. ‘The last one to do so will be the next one to die…’
‘I think that’s about it.’ coughed Jasper, now sitting up but still holding his shoulder. ‘Your reputation, Brother Charnock, is a very foul one, but foolishness has not featured in it so far, I believe.’
Any thoughts of continuing the fight that Charnock may have had dissolved as Doctor Johnson and his escort now came into the clearing. Believing that the all outlaws had been overcome, and not aware of Charnock’s attack, the gulls had flown with the news to those waiting up the track who therefore hurried to join the Quinceyites.
The surviving outlaws were made to crouch down to be tethered. One tried to draw a hidden dagger, but Clarence, as calm as custard, chopped him below the right ear. ‘Tut, tut,’ he sighed. ‘Naughty, naughty. Now look what’s happened. I must caution you – you have the right to remain unconscious, but anyway thank you for helping me with my anger displacement therapy.’
All the surviving outlaws were now thoroughly secured and Jasper was surrounded by anxious well wishers.
‘Hold on, Sir J, let’s get this clobber off you…’ fussed Rathbone.
‘Breath easy Cap’n – you’ll come through…’ sniffed Archibald.
‘Oh no – not you!’ sobbed Morry. ‘I’ve got some smelling salts somewhere…’
‘Lie on your side… No, prop him up… Where’s he bleeding? Put on a tourniquet…’
‘Give the poor bugger some air!’ snapped Aunt Hetty. ‘Let’s have a look at him. Ah, Doctor Johnson – bit of a mess, isn’t he?’
‘Well, Sir Jasper Scabbard, I think you have more than paid your debt. Let us see… Good, good – a nasty wound, but there doesn’t appears to be any particularly very deep penetration….’
‘It was close range but I think I’ve only been hit by relatively small shot. Charnock had been hunting and must have been after pigeons or game.’
‘Praise be, you are right sir.’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘There are bits of lead about your ear and in your hair and especially closely grouped around the wound to your shoulder. I don’t believe the muscles have been irreparably damaged but it will be a painful business extracting the shot and you will have to keep that arm still until the wound has healed, but I am delighted to say that we have not lost you yet.’ He looked around the clearing. ‘This has been a desperate business… So many dead.’
‘These are utterly ruthless vermin and it has been a kill or be killed affair. We were not dealing with the decent people of Summerdale here. I expected the fight to be a bitter one.’
‘I imply no criticism, Sir Jasper, quite the contrary. You knew the odds and yet shrewdly chose a plan that has saved Mr Buckram’s life, even though you and your men were willingly placing yourselves in the greatest danger, only overcome by your remarkable martial skills.’
‘Bloody brave, I call it.’ said Will Nudd. ‘I’d shake your hand if it weren’t for your shoulder.’
‘One buckles one’s swash as best one may, but it would have gone much worse for us without the foresight and prompt assistance of Madam Paragon – I rather feel you’ve saved our lives, Hepzibah…’
‘Nonsense, Jasper.’ said Aunt Hetty, picking up Arnold, who had almost instantly reverted to his normal toad mode. ‘It was all a team effort and a damned good one too. You look a bit bushed, Doctor J. Pull up a corpse or two and make yourself comfy.’
‘I was surprised at how simple the Spanish spell was.’ said Jasper. ‘ “Don’t touch, That is enough!” ‘
‘I’d might have known you’d speak Spanish. Very likely really, in your profession… But it wasn’t a spell – Miss Minima gave us the colours, Arnold just got stuck in, and I wanted to startle them and buy some time.’
‘Your remarkable toad appears to have special abilities.’
‘No use having a familiar if he’s not familiar with the craft. You should meet my cat – well perhaps not, not without having special counselling first. Now let’s get your shoulder cleaned up and dressed. I’ve got tweezers in me first aid kit and plenty of potions – we nuns are good at this… Let’s see now – I’ve got a nice pot of green balsam of the Adders Tongue plant, mixed in with Bifoil, One-blade, and Moonwort, then there’s some Bistort powder to shake over the minor bleeding places, some Scabious juice to clean the wounds, and, even though it is supposed to resist witchcraft, some Bay Tree oil to fend off infection.’
‘Right, lads.’ said Rathbone. ‘The captain’s being well looked after – I think. Don’t give him any of your soup, will you Missis?.
‘Watch it, you cheeky ha’poth. And will one of you find me some fresh water. There’ll be some nearby – it’ll be one of the reasons they camped here. And we need a fire please.’
‘What happens now?’ spat Charnock, lying face down on the ground with his hands tied to his feet behind his back.
‘You’ve got two alternatives.’ said Jasper. ‘We either hand you over to the authorities and let the law take its course…
‘Or you get preached to death by wild curates.’ leered Aunt Hetty.
Charnock looked around at corpses of his men. ‘I’ve seen the sort of preaching you lot dish out.’ he snarled. ‘I’ll take my chances with the law. No jail has held me yet. Nor no attempts to get me up the gallows tree neither.’
‘We’ll camp here tonight but need to bury the bodies first.’ said Rathbone. ‘All hands to tidy up…’
‘What happened to this one?’ asked Boswell. ‘Has he fainted?’
‘No.’ said Morry. ‘My pistols were empty when this yingtong comes at me with a cudgel, so he went through a life changing experience.’
‘I had to snap his neck. Unfortunately he died.’
* * *
Whilst Jasper was being made comfortable in the outlaw camp, in Goldcaster Luther Speke was well advanced in the preparations to make a second attempt to rob him of his treasure.
Unlike most of the other pirates neither he nor Blackheart, nor Steelclaw, had been outside Goldcaster town since the attack seven days before and so were unfamiliar with the countryside. They now knew that the chest was supposedly safely hidden at this Tingle Stone thing, but what was that and where was it? Speke had spent most of Sunday gnawing on his lips and chewing on his nails, and worrying at his wart whilst trying to find out. Direct questions by him would have aroused suspicions, and even though many citizens were obviously getting ready for some sort of celebration, conversation dried up as soon as he or his henchman drew close.
The only map he had was the navigation chart because Scabbard still had the detailed map of the area with him. But on Sunday evening it occurred to Speke that that very difficulty might be the key to finding out the location of this blasted stone.
He had approached the Mayor and asked for his guidance.
‘As well as in Goldcaster town there are a number of properties in Summerdale where repairs must be made, particularly at a certain water mill, I believe. I need to prepare a schedule of work to be done and examine the properties for myself, (with an escort of course.) But as you see, dear sir, this naval chart is of no use for that purpose. Our Captain has taken his own map with him and I wondered if you might have another I could borrow?’
‘Yes, I see your difficulty, Quartermaster.’ Mr Bagley had said. ‘And of course I have such a map. But I need to obtain Professor Paragon’s agreement to this. I am sure he will not object, but we are working closely together in all matters relating to your activities.’
‘Please assure him that I intend nothing untoward. He can trust me as much in the countryside as in the town.’
‘Do not concern yourself about that, Mr Speke. He has his own way of knowing what’s happening and his own means of remedying any contraventions. I shall see you in the morning.’
With this Speke had to be content and spent that night consumed with frustration.
At nine o’clock on Monday morning Speke had been waiting outside the Mayor’ s Parlour for Mr Bagley to arrive. At two minutes past nine he was eagerly examining the large scale map spread out on Mr Bagley’s desk.
‘The water mill is just here..’ said Mr Bagley. ‘On the Rowan River about half a mile north of where it curves around this large wooded area.’
And what a lovely, beautiful, and exciting large wooded area it was, with a lovely little hill in the middle, and the beautiful Dancing Sisters stone circle clearly marked on the top of that hill, and at last the Tingle Stone actually named in the centre of the circle. Oh, joy! gloated Luther Speke.
A visit to the water mill would be an ideal excuse to reconnoitre the approach to the circle and Speke had no difficulty arranging for the mill owner and a Summerdale escort to accompany him that afternoon to examine what repairs were needed.
Elated he sought out Steelclaw and Blackheart.
‘I know where the Tingle Stone is!’ he said triumphantly.
‘So do I.’ said Blackheart.
‘Yeah. I was in the Inn and got chatting to this Barney bloke. He was saying how pleased they were with how we was doing and that, and that today we ought to take it a bit easy, seeing as how they were having a celebration ceremony tonight up at the Tingle Stone in the Dancing Sisters circle. And I asked him where was that then, and he told me.’
‘When was this?’ hissed Speke.
‘Oh, late last night.’
‘And you didn’t tell me?’ Speke grabbed Blackheart by the throat. ‘A whole night wasted, and me without a wink of sleep – you crapulent swillbelly…’
‘Glurgle glug glugugugugurgl.’ replied Blackheart
‘What’s he saying?’
‘Not a lot.’ said Steelclaw. ‘I think he’s dying.’
‘What? Oh, yeah. Right.’ Speke released Blackheart, who staggered back, holding his throat.
‘Anyway,’ said Steelclaw. ‘We couldn’t have done nothing. It was dark.’
‘You’d be amazed what I can get up to in the dark.’
‘No we wouldn’t, Mr Speke. We’ve been there, we’ve counted the corpses. Mostly we caused ‘em. But last night we didn’t know the way, and we hadn’t got a plan, and you always says be prepared before you strikes.’
‘I suppose so. But I should have been told.’ Speke turned to Blackheart. ‘You alright?’
‘Glug.’ nodded Blackheart, who had long since learnt that whatever the aggravation, only with the Quartermaster stood he any chance of short term gain, let alone a long term life.
The water mill owner was a much aggrieved man, and regarded the Quartermaster with ill concealed distrust and malevolence, responding with sour grunts to any conversational overtures Speke attempted during the afternoon excursion. The other members of his escort were by contrast quite chatty, rather relishing their task, and curious about the life of piracy. Speke was happy to gain their confidence with lying anecdotes about his supposedly merely mischievous adventures, and the little party progressed up the road that ran alongside the river, accompanied by two apparently amiable seagulls who circled above them as they rode along.
‘I’m surprised how many people are using this road today.’ said Speke innocently. ‘Where are they all going?’
‘Ah, the ceremony tonight – up the Dancing Sisters. They’re taking up all the grub and drink and bits and pieces for the celebration. Three days late but never mind, even though the moon’s now waning.’
‘Oh. Is that a difficulty?’
‘No, no – just superstition really. They used to say that the power to harm grows when the moon is shrinking, and then it’s best to steer clear of the stones. Load of rubbish I reckons.’
‘Oh, I see. And this celebration – a kind of harvest festival is it?’
‘Well, sort of. More like a fertility rite really – much more fun, if you take my meaning…’
‘How very interesting.’ said Speke. ‘I find these traditions fascinating. Do many people attend?’
‘Could be a hundred, two hundred sometimes – they come from all over Summerdale if the weather’s fine like this.’
‘And are there rituals, dances, that sort of thing? How pleasant it must be.’
‘Not ‘arf! The women go round widdershins and the men circle them sunwise. Then they bring a sheaf of corn to symbolise the killing of the Bright Lord…’
‘Yeah, and then they offer it to Cernunnos, the Stag God of the Seven Tines – he’s the Guardian of the Stones.’
‘Used to be a proper blood sacrifice, years and years ago. They thought that the next year’s harvest would be even better with blood going into the ground…’
‘But of course we’re much more civilised these days.’
‘I’m sure you are.’ laughed Speke amiably. ‘The very thought… So that’s it, is it?’
‘Oh, no. Then we have the feast.’
‘And when the sun has set the fun and games begin – all around the circle and down into the woods – no, I wouldn’t miss that for anything.’
‘Good heavens, you certainly do have a jolly time, don’t you? And like other similar traditions I suppose it all finishes at midnight, does it?’
‘No way! Many of us will be at it until dawn and plenty still sleeping it off in the woods ‘til tomorrow morning.’
‘My word,’ said Speke, inwardly cursing at the prospect of another night totally lost to him, ‘No wonder you look forward to this event. Ah, I see that everybody else is leaving the road and going up that track through the wood.’
‘Yes, that’s the main way to the circle. So tell us more about this Casanova bloke you rescued from the Doge’s Palace…’