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Chapt. 7: Bait
By Michael Jesse
Jack and Laura ran up the stairwell and out onto the deck where the men had gathered around the mast. Up in the crow's nest a sailor MacWilde called Spider was pointing excitedly to the west. At first they saw nothing but water. Then, a dark band appeared along the horizon and all the men cheered.
The ship slowly closed the distance and after a time they were near enough to see rolling grassland hills and a deep woods in which stark white birches stood out against the pines.
The sailor in the crow's nest called down, "Cap'n, there be a flock of them beasties aboot three degrees to port."
"Good eye, Spider," MacWilde yelled back. "Helm, go three degrees to port and let's have a look."
Spider climbed nimbly down the mast. He was a small, wiry man who seemed never to completely unbend his elbows and knees, and his eyes were cold even when he smiled.
Soon they could all see figures moving on the beach. Most were younger versions of Ronnie, scampering like puppies in the shallow water of a white sand beach. They had not yet grown horns, and instead of the flute-like sound Ronnie made, these ruah children whistled.
"Oh, look at them! How cute!" Laura cooed. She glanced around happily, wanting to share this experience with everyone. A few of the younger crew members watched with innocent delight, and even some of the more weather-beaten sailors smiled at the wonder of it, displaying the most horrible collection of bad teeth. Others, like Spider, studied the ruah with the patient menace of predators. Mr. Procktor showed no emotion at all.
Two adult ruah lounged together in tall beach grass, facing each other as if deep in conversation, and Laura guessed they were females because they had no horns. When they noticed the ship, the two females were quickly on their feet and began herding the little ones off the beach towards the woods. They whistled instructions to the children and Laura was surprised to realize she could make out some of their words.
"She's telling them to get away from the water, isn't she?"
Jack nodded. "And the other one said she was going to get help. She said someone's name, I think."
The ship had come as close to the shore as it could without running aground and several of the men began busily preparing two small, flat-bottomed boats.
Laura suddenly had a horrible thought. "Captain MacWilde," she called, running up to him.
"What is it, dear?" MacWilde asked, concerned, bending down on one knee in front of her.
"You aren't going to hurt them, are you?"
MacWilde laughed and patted her head in a fatherly way. "No, of course not, Laura, my worried little thing. I assure you we don't want to hurt them at all. Mr. Procktor here wouldn't want us to do that, would you Elias?"
"Certainly not," Procktor said, touched one of his bulging pockets. "Our contract with Capt. MacWilde expressly states that the animals are to be returned ‘alive and in good health'."
"I knew it!" Jack said accusingly. "You said you were going to let Ronnie go free, but you really want to catch more of them, don't you?"
"Let him go free?" MacWilde repeated with surprise. "Why would you have thought I was going to do that?"
"Before we left, Captain, you said . . . you said we were taking him home. I remember you said that."
"Oh, wellll," MacWilde laughed. "I meant we were bringing him home for . . . a visit. You wouldn't want to lose Ronnie, would you? I thought you'd become quite attached to him."
"I have, sir, but shouldn't we leave them here where they belong? I thought we were just coming to study them."
"That's exactly what we want to do," MacWilde said. "We want to study them, but we can't do that unless we get one of them up close. Our mission is to . . . gather up a few of these magnificent animals and bring them back — with Ronnie — so that other children like you and Laura can see them and appreciate them. I think that's a very good mission, don't you Mr. Procktor?"
"Yes, I certainly do," Procktor said blandly. "It will make the children back home very happy."
"And so, Jack," MacWilde said. "I have an important task for you. We're going to bring Ronnie up and take him on one of the boats over to shore. But we don't want him to be frightened and get himself hurt, so it would be very helpful if you would come along and play your music to him and help keep him calm. When we get to shore, just keep him in a good mood until some of his little cousins approach. Then we'll toss a net over a few of them and Ronnie will have some friends. Can you do that?"
Jack and Laura exchanged a look, and then Jack quietly said, "I guess so."
"Excellent!" MacWilde beamed and led the way down the stairs.
Spider reached the cage first and immediately picked up a rope with a noose at the end.
"I'll get him for ye, Cap'n."
"No!" Jack cried. "Captain MacWilde don't let him."
"This animal has to be on a lead, son," MacWilde said. "It's for his own safety, and everyone else's as well if he gets spooked and starts swinging around those horns of his."
"He won't. I promise." Jack held up his flute and played what sounded like a simple melody, but with it he said, "Ronnie, it's time. Remember what we planned."
Jack played a little longer and then slipped his flute into his robe pocket, and took the leash. Squeezing easily between the bars of the cage before anyone thought to stop him, Jack approached the animal. It lowered its head and stood motionless as Jack slipped the loop around its neck and made sure it was not too tight.
MacWilde grinned as Ronnie obediently followed Jack out of his cage. At MacWilde's direction, a thickly-built, small-headed man named Shaughnessy held the end of the leash, but it seemed hardly necessary. Jack's flute seemed to mesmerize the creature. Even Procktor appeared to be impressed as he watched with one eyebrow raised and a slight change in the shape of his mouth that was arguably a smile.
Getting an animal the size of a small deer from a ship onto a small boat that must then be lowered six feet by pulleys to water level would normally be a tricky maneuver at best. But the strange beast that Jack had named Ronnie stepped fearlessly from the ship's deck onto the boat.
Accompanied by a half-dozen men armed with large nets and long spears, MacWilde and Jack escorted Ronnie to shore as Laura watched from the ship, fretting.
One of the adult females was still standing on the shore watching the boat approach, but the others had disappeared into the woods about 20 yards back from the beach. The landing boat scraped onto the sand and the men climbed out and pulled the boat up onto the beach. The female retreated into the woods and they could no longer see her, but her whistle carried urgently in the wind.
Jack continued to play, intently watching the hand that held Ronnie's leash. Shaughnessy would have been as tall as MacWilde but had very short legs. Above the waist he was powerfully built and though he held the leash casually he would only need a second to tighten his grip.
The other animals were nowhere in sight but MacWilde was confident they'd soon return.
"That tree will do," he said, pointing to a white birch that grew at the edge of the beach where the grasses grew thicker over the sand. "We'll tie him to a branch and sit quietly over there and I wager they'll walk right up to us, just as this fellow did himself. They're beautiful animals, but not very bright."
"What is he saying?" Ronnie asked suspiciously.
"Never mind," Jack said. "It's almost time."
"Hand me that leash, Shaughnessy," MacWilde said holding out his hand. As the burly crewman extended the leash and loosed his grip the animal bolted, startling everyone — even Jack, who had been expecting it. Trailing the rope, it ran 50 yards at a burst and then turned and looked back at them.
"Blast it Shaughnessy," MacWilde yelled.
The strong man grabbed himself by the hair with both fists and cursed his own stupidity and worthlessness with such passion that MacWilde soon began consoling him.
Ronnie paused at the edge of the woods and called, "We forgot to say goodbye,"
"I know," Jack played.
"Thank you for helping me. I'll never forget you."
"Goodbye, Ronnie," Jack played, but he started to cry and could not keep his mouth puckered correctly to say anything more.
MacWilde noticed Jack's tears, but misunderstood them. "I'm sorry, Jack," he said. "That wasn't exactly what I planned."
"Stupid!" Shaughnessy said to himself again.
A new sound came on the wind and MacWilde motioned for all to be quiet. It was similar to Ronnie's flute-like call, but deeper and much, much stronger. Jack and Laura recognized it at once. It was like the trumpeting they'd heard before, but now there were many voices instead of one. The men looked at each other nervously and gripped their spears.
Within seconds the clamor filled the air all around them as several full-sized ruah came charging out of the woods and stopped in front of them. These were all much bigger than Ronnie and had more developed horns. One of them looked elderly. His hair and mane were nearly white and he walked stiffly, but his eyes were terrifying. He glared at them while repeating the same few notes that Jack did not understand. The old ruah's voice was soft and wheezy, like a cracked wind instrument left forgotten and dried out, as he repeated the syllables "say-ve-on." Jack did not have the word in his vocabulary, but he was pretty sure it was not a compliment.
The largest ruah was the size of a draft horse with horns like tree branches, and Jack could tell he was the leader. He piped a low note that silenced the old one — who continued to fidget and glare. The giant ruah took a step toward Jack and the men and tilted his head to one side, as if studying them. Then he played a series of deep notes that only Jack understood as, "I've never seen one before, but you're right. I thought they'd be bigger."
"Mr. Shaughnessy," MacWilde said calmly and with no hint of fear. "Please take the other end of this net, but don't make any sudden movement until I give the word, right?" He took a few slow steps sideways so that the rope net spread out like a blanket between himself and the unmoving Shaughnessy.
Jack raised his flute to his lips and quietly played a little melody.
"Good idea," MacWilde said cheerfully, seeming completely unconcerned at their predicament. "Nice calm music, yes. Look how they're all staring at you, Jack. Keep playing. Spears at the ready, men — just in case, but don't be hasty. When I count three, Shaughnessy and I will endeavor to capture this one on my left. Just keep the rest of them away from us, if you would." Jack played again.
"We can bring ‘em down if we need to, right Cap'n?"
"If you really need to, Spider, but please avoid that if you can. Just scaring them off would be fine. Ready everyone? One . . . two . . . three!"
As if they had understood every word MacWilde had said, the animals easily stepped aside to evade the attempt, and with a sudden swing of his horns the largest ruah slapped a spear out of the hands of a sailor who had inched too close. And now all of the ruah were staring at Jack.
MacWilde grabbed Jack by the arm and pushed him behind his own body. "My boy, listen now. As your commanding officer I'm going to give you an order. That big fellow looks a bit dangerous. If he comes at us and we can't stop him I want you to run as fast as you can back to the boat. Can you do that for me, son?"
"Yes, sir, but maybe if we just backed away they'll leave us alone."
"Ah, perhaps so, but that's not why we came all the way across the ocean now is it? You just be ready to run. Now you men, I'm going to pace slowly to my left and try to get this fellow's attention. If I can get him to focus on me you'll have an opportunity to net him. If you want your paychecks you'd better get him before he gets me. Jack, stop playing your flute. I'm not sure that's helping right now. You just stay quiet and be prepared to run. All right men here I go."
MacWilde moved to his left and made aggressive gestures to attract the animals' attention, but they ignored him. The elderly ruah was beside himself in agitation, going red-faced behind his short white facial fur. The big ruah took a step toward Jack and said, "Do you understand what I am saying?"
"Yes," Jack played. "I learned from my friend."
"Jack, back away, please," MacWilde cautioned. "Do it slowly and not suddenly, but get out of his range, son."
At this moment the elderly ruah fell onto his knees, though no spear had been thrown. His eyes bulged and rolled back showing white and he fell forward, his thick horns biting into the dirt. The others crowded around him and it was at this moment that Spider chose his opportunity, lunging forward and hurling his spear at the side of the ruah closest to him, a reddish colored male not much older than Ronnie. The weapon fell short of its aim, hitting it in the hip but going in deeply. The terrified animal tried to run, but stumbled as it put weight on its wounded leg. The largest ruah sprang forward and with a single swing of its horns disarmed the first row of men, snapping their weapons like twigs. The men fell back, tripping over each other and panicked into a rout, running full-tilt down the hill towards the landing boat.
That left Jack and MacWilde alone in front of the giant ruah, which ignored the fleeing men and focused only on Jack. MacWilde scooped him up from behind and carried him at a run down to the landing boat where the men were already scrambling aboard. Jack was facing backwards, slung over MacWilde's shoulder, watching the massive animal chasing after them, and he knew MacWilde had no chance of outrunning it.
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