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Chapt. 8: A Sudden Storm

By Michael Jesse

To Jack's surprise, they did make it. Spider and the other men were climbing into the landing boat as MacWilde caught up and tossed Jack tumbling inside. Jack was nearly trampled by men scrambling aboard and when he looked up MacWilde was still in the water, chest deep, heaving the boat away from the shore. Behind him, the giant ruah came to a halt on the beach and watched as the men fled.

When they were all back on the ship, Laura ran to Jack and threw her arms around him. "We could see it all from here," she cried, nearly strangling him. "I was so afraid you were going to get hurt or … or . . .."

But Jack was exultant and oblivious to his sister's worry. "It was amazing," he whispered as he pulled her close to the rail where they could talk. "They didn't suspect a thing. I was talking to Ronnie the whole time and he broke free at exactly the right time and he got away! Did you hear what he said?"

"No, I could see it all but I couldn't hear that well, except the really big one."

"When Ronnie got away he called back to say goodbye, and he said . . . he said he'll never forget us." Jack's voice choked but he fought it off. "I warned them, Laura. I talked to them exactly the same way I talked to Ronnie. I told them everything Capt. MacWilde was saying, and I could tell they understood me. You should have seen how shocked they were that I could speak their language."

Jack slumped on a bench emotionally exhausted, and Laura held his hand. It was the first time in her life she had ever worried that she might lose him.

As evening settled in, the ship anchored again close to shore and after supper Jack and Laura sat on the deck and watched MacWilde and Procktor talking together as they leaned on the railing of the upper deck.

"Let's see if we can hear what they're talking about," Laura said. The children crept up the stairway and sat quietly on a step just below where the two men stood.

MacWilde's voice was the easiest to hear. "–and it would have worked if that thickheaded Shaughnessy hadn't let go of the blasted rope."

"It was a most unfortunate loss, I must agree," Procktor replied. "But for this expedition to be profitable you will need to do much more than replace one animal."

"I'm well aware of that, Elias. Ten, I believe, is what I agreed to."

Procktor patted one of the bulky pockets. "The contract specifies a minimum of ten animals, half male and half female to ensure adequate breeding stock, in good health and uninjured during capture or transport. There would, of course, be a bonus for each additional specimen."

"With a premium price on adult males with full racks, if I recall," MacWilde added.

"Correct, but after what we witnessed today my advice in that regard would be to concentrate on more attainable goals. These full-grown bulls would appear to be rather difficult to capture in the first instance, would no doubt require considerable feed during transport and may be completely untrainable. The combination would considerably lessen their value from an investment standpoint."

MacWilde seemed surprised by this. "But surely the public would pay to see them."

"Doubtless, but they would also pay to see the head and rack mounted — which requires much less overhead on our part. And over time the young males we capture will grow to be just as magnificent physically, yet be relatively tame because they were reared in captivity."

"Ah, but the wild males are such majestic creatures."

"Majesty, my dear Captain, is an intangible value at best. In order to maximize profit and minimize risk it would be more practical to eradicate the adult population as a preemptive measure in order to facilitate the harvesting of the calves."

"Humph," MacWilde grunted. "Not very sporting."

"Perhaps not, but as this is business rather than recreation, we cannot allow romanticism and sentimentality to distract from operational effectiveness."

There was a lull in the conversation as MacWilde and Mr. Procktor quietly watched the landing boat being hoisted aboard as evening settled in. This happened to be the moment when Jack sneezed.

Laura quickly dragged her brother to his feet so that by the time MacWilde looked down the stairwell it appeared that the two had only just arrived. "Good evening, Captain," Laura said in her most polite voice, "and good evening to you, Mr. Procktor."

Procktor nodded a minimal greeting and then occupied himself by touching each of his vest pockets in precisely the same order and repeating the sequence three times. Meanwhile, MacWilde went down on one knee in front of the children.

"Well, I'm sorry things played out the way they did today," he said. "Exploration has its dangers. But tell me truthfully, Jack, aren't you a little disappointed that your ‘Ronnie' gave us the slip?"

"Well, sir, I–"

"That's actually what we came to speak with you about, Captain," Laura said. "We decided that since you don't have Ronnie anymore and Jack knows a lot of the animals' calls, perhaps we could go with you next time and try to attract them for you."

Jack managed not to say, "we did?"

MacWilde grabbed both children by the neck, pulling them to his chest in a fatherly embrace. "What grand children! Elias, are these not the grandest children in half the world?"

"They would appear to qualify," Procktor acknowledged.

"May we, Captain?" Laura asked again. "I'm sure Jack would be a great help."

"I have no doubt that he would," MacWilde said. "But no, I don't want to put either of you at risk. It was foolish of me to do that the first time. It's far too dangerous."

"But sir–"

"Now, now, don't argue. After what happened today I'm not letting you two off of this ship until we are safely back home. Be good children and go get some supper and then it's off to bed with you."

Jack and Laura did as they were told and when they could speak freely Jack asked, "What was that all about? We don't want to help them catch more ruah!"

"Of course we don't, but I was hoping he'd take us with him next time so you could use your flute again to warn them. This is worse than we thought. They're obviously not going to give up until they capture their ten ruah and who knows how many they'll kill trying?"

"You're right," Jack said. "We have to do something."

It was late. Jack and Laura went to their bunks. Night came and the ship grew dark and quiet, creaking gently in the wind. Heavy clouds blocked out the stars though a faint glow on the horizon hinted at the presence of a full moon. In the near-total blackness two small figures crept quietly across the deck and climbed down the ropes leading to the small flat boats that were still moored to the side of the ship. The ship swayed more on the sea than it had for most of the voyage and as they climbed into one of the boats they were startled by how rough the water had become.

"I'm . . . I'm not sure this is such a good idea," Jack ventured as Laura untied the boat. "What if we can't get back in time?"

"Don't be a weenie," she replied handing him a paddle, "I'm sure the ruah are staying close by. We just have to get to shore and you can call out to them to warn them. Then we'll be back on the ship before anyone wakes up."

It was a good plan, or would have been had the weather not changed. A strong wind pushed at their backs and helped them get to shore as lightning flickered in the distant sky. A fat raindrop hit Jack's forehead, smelling of dust, and then another on his arm. Before he could say "I told you so," a flash of silent lightning lit the land around them like daylight and as the darkness closed in on them again the thunder came. And then the rain began.

Fortunately, in that second of illumination, Laura had spotted a nearby cliff with a rocky outcropping that might provide shelter. Holding hands, they ran towards it, stooping over in the downpour as their backs became drenched. They stumbled through the darkness until they found the rocky wall that leaned forward and huddled against it as the rain came down in sheets inches in front of them.

"Laura?" Jack said.


"This was a really dumb idea."

Laura did not argue. It was her fault. She had been the one who had insisted they sneak off the ship and now look where they were. From where they sat they could still see the ship flicker on the stormy horizon, one of its sails loose and flapping raggedly in the wind.

"What do you think they'll do when they realize we're gone?" Jack asked, trying not to sound afraid. "They'll come look for us, won't they?"

"I don't know. They might think we were swept overboard," Laura said. "The landing boat we took could easily have been torn off by the weather. It might not occur to them that we would have left on purpose because–"

"Because that would have been incredibly stupid of us?"

Laura sighed. "Something like that."

There was nothing else to say and both fell silent. The lightning became less frequent and then died out altogether though the rain continued to fall most of the night.

When the children woke it was morning and the sky was clear. They crawled out from under the overhanging cliff and stood squinting in the sunlight on the beach.

The ship was gone. They could see for miles up and down the shoreline and there was no trace of the ship — no wreckage nor any sign that it had ever been there.

"Not good," Jack said. "This is not good at all."

"At least we're on dry land," Laura insisted with insufficient sincerity. "We might have been much worse off if we'd stayed on board. It could be worse."

Jack was no longer looking out to sea, but behind them. He tugged at Laura's sleeve.

"I think maybe it just got worse," he whispered as Laura turned.

Behind them stood the giant ruah that had chased Jack and MacWilde.

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