Bilgebob dragged himself wearily out of the hold and flopped down, gasping for air. Dirty brown water dribbled from his fur onto the deck. The storm winds had eased with the coming of the new day allowing the battered crew to re-float the vessel on the rising tide. Pitchrake leaned forward. Grasping the tiller with one paw he hauled the sopping rat to his feet.
‘Well? How bad is she? And don’t dress it up any, I know we’re in trouble for she wallows like a cracked keg.’
Levi and the others stood huddled at the base of the mast, their feet braced wide on the pitching deck. Poppy gingerly stepped forward and offered Bilgebob a cloth. He took it with a nod and began rubbing the filth from him.
‘Bad, indeed. She split two boards on that cursed sandbar and the water’s gushing in down there. Even if we had a bucket apiece, which we haven’t, and worked around the clock, which we can’t, we’d still lose the fight. We’re sinking. Fast.’
Pitchrake removed his cap and dragged a paw through his fur.
‘How long, lad?’
‘About four marks, tops.’
Poppy glanced toward Levi, her brow puckered into a puzzled frown.
‘Roughly two hours,’ said Levi.
Deepdale steeped away from the mast and approached the tiller, addressing the skipper.
‘What if we ditched this lot?’ he said, indicating the coaster’s stacked cargo.
Pitchrake surveyed the piles of crates and heaped bales, sucking air between his teeth as he shook his head.
‘It’s not mine to ditch, my friend. Besides, we get paid on its safe delivery. No delivery, no fee.’
Deepdale watched the starboard rail dip toward the waves. The boat’s pitching seemed to have worsened in the short time since Bilgebob climbed out of the hold. The bows now plunged deeply into the heavy sea, throwing a salty spray over the deck.
‘What’ll happen to the cargo if the ship goes down?’ he asked raising an eyebrow.
‘What’ll happen if … what sort o’ question is that? If we go down, it goes — ’
Pitchrake paused, finally grasping the Ranger’s mind. He batted the side of his nose with a claw and winked.
‘Mister fox, I’d like you to cut them cargo straps, if you please. An’ if you and your crew don’t mind lending a hand I’d like all yon freight ditching in the drink. I’m not about to lose me boat.’
Deepdale spun around, slapped Lapblud on the shoulder and together they grabbed the nearest bale and heaved it over the side. Levi and Poppy joined in and within minutes a line of crates and bales were bobbing and rolling in the boat’s bow wash, drifting slowly toward the distant shore.
With its load lightened, The Sparrow rode the waves more easily, rearing over them like a freed stallion. Overhead, the sail whipped and slapped in the breeze. Pitchrake mopped his brow with the back of his paw and pulled on his cap.
‘Right, afore we go congratulating one another, let’s not forget we’re still sinking. Not as fast maybe, but sinking is sinking. All we’ve done is bought us some time. Bilgebob, how many buckets do we have?’
Bilgebob scooted to the bows where he rummaged around among a stack of coiled lines. A minute later he stood, a wooden bucket in each paw.
‘These two,’ he shouted, ‘and we’ve a canvas bucket in the hold.’
Pitchrake stared down at the deck as he rubbed his jaw, thoughtfully.
‘Still not enough,’ he said eventually. ‘Water would still be coming in faster’n we can shift it. We’d be fighting a losing battle.’
Bilgebob scurried to the open hatch.
‘But we still ought to try. We can’t just give up.’ A seagull wheeled overhead shrieking loudly, its wings almost tipping the mast.
‘Wait,’ said Levi, stepping forward. ‘Poppy, remember that pirate film we saw a few weeks before coming out to Caellfyon? The one where the galleon was holed below the water line and was sinking?’
Poppy shook her head slowly. Levi turned excitedly toward the skipper.
‘Skip, do you have any large tarps – I mean big enough to go around the keel?’
‘We have the spare sail,’ he said slowly, giving Bilgebob a puzzled look.
‘Aye, she’s big enough,’ answered the Bosun.
‘Right oh,’ said Levi, ‘secure some lines to it – one to each corner, and we’ll feed her underneath the boat, around the keel and draw her tight. It won’t keep the water out, but it’ll slow it down … maybe buy us some time. Now, who’s the best swimmer?’
Pitchrake leaned over the open hatchway, his paws on his knees. Behind him, Lapblud proudly grasped the tiller in both paws and tried to steer a true course northward.
‘Well? Let’s have your report,’ shouted the Skipper into the opening. ‘Has it made a difference?’ There was a splashing down below, followed by a bump and a muffled curse.
‘Still leaking,’ shouted Bilgebob eventually from the hold. ‘But she’s slowed a good deal. Not much pressure behind it now.’
‘Good lad.’ Pitchrake leaned forward, offering the Bosun his paw.
Once the old water rat was back on deck swabbing brown water from his fur with a grubby cloth, the Skipper resumed his interrogation.
‘And do you feel we’ve a chance now, lad?’ he asked, eagerly. Bilgebob nodded.
‘Aye.’ He halted his mopping and called to Levi. ‘Let’s have them buckets, boy, it’s time for you to get your hands dirty.’
Levi yanked on the rope securing the spare sail to the keel, inspected the knot once more and then stooped to retrieve the two wooden pails. He wandered over to the two water rats. Behind him, Whitespike pushed himself up from his improvised seat by the mast and joined him.
‘Let me help, Levi. I’d like to repay you folk. ‘Bout time I did something.’
Levi threw the buckets to the deck, sat by the edge of the hold and dangled his legs down into the opening.
‘Whitespike and me will take first shift,’ he said, addressing the Skipper. He paused and glanced up at the sun. It was almost mid-day. ‘But once we’ve baled her out will we be able to make up the lost time?’
Pitchrake shook his head.
‘Not a chance. She’ll still wallow like a drunken pig in a bathtub.’
‘Besides,’ added Bilgebob, ‘we’ll need to bale round the clock, so that means teams. This is no cruise, boy. Once this is over you’ll be wanting to keep them pearly white feet on dry land, that’s for sure.’
The colour drained from Levi’s face.
‘But Rasse – that Polecat you saw on the wharf – he could be there by now. He wants to kill me.’
Pitchrake squatted down and laid a paw on Levi’s shoulder.
‘Don’t you be fretting about that right now, I need for you to be fixed on keeping The Sparrow afloat. Besides, Bilgebob and me have chewed over your dilemma while you were jawing with your badger friends. There might just be summat we can do. But first we need to rid ourselves of all that liquid ballast.’
Levi stared into the Skipper’s face waiting for him to continue. Behind him, Bilgebob threw the sopping cloth onto the deck and stepped toward the hatch.
‘Aye, come on, lad, get you down in yon hold and start baling, you, too, Stripey.’ The Bosun then turned and signalled Deepdale and Lapblud. ‘You and all, we need to make a chain – to tip the buckets over the side and get the empties back to the lads below. Flex them muscles, this is set to be a tough afternoon.’
Levi glanced from Bilgebob to Pitchrake waiting for one or the other to explain their plan. Then, realising he was going to have to wait a while longer, he snatched a bucket, offered the Skipper a crooked smile and leapt down into the darkness.
Rasse brushed aside a pine branch with his paw and peered out between the trees. He was hot, his damp fur matted with sweat. Behind him, his troopers panted in the woodland gloom.
‘Are we there yet, boss?’ asked Flagg as he pushed himself to the front and inhaled lungfulls of fresh air. ‘These flamin’ pinewoods have near been the death o’ me.’
Rasse glanced behind him over Flagg’s shoulder to the darkness beyond. They had entered the woods during early morning. A layer of mist had cloaked the land then, hinting of the approaching autumn. Once inside, the narrow trees crowded in on them shutting out the daylight and smothering them in its close, humid atmosphere. He turned back and took deep, cooling breath.
‘Aye, this is it. And if my reckoning is right the town is just beyond that rise.’ He pointed down the open slope that tumbled away from the woodland edge, toward a slight fold in the ground crowned with an ancient circle of standing stones. ‘And unless I’m very much mistaken there’s the henge that gave the port its name.’
He leapt over the shallow ditch bordering the woods and landed among a verge of wilting cow parsley, their drooping heads browned by the summer sun.
‘Come on you lot, we ain’t got all day.’
The polecats followed Rasse over the ditch. Then together they trudged down the slope, each one of them savouring the fresh coastal air. The sun had almost completed its climb above them by the time they reached the stone circle. The small troop formed an untidy line between two of the prehistoric columns and stared at the small town curved around the base of a horseshoe cove below. A narrow jetty stretched out into the still water. A single boat was moored there.
‘There she is,’ cried Flagg, jumping up and down. Rasse cuffed him, raising a laugh from the others.
‘Don’t be soft. Ours has a single mast, with a square sail – so unless it’s sprouted another on route …’
‘Do you think she might have been and gone, boss?’ asked one of the others.
Rasse shook his head, a wicked smile creasing his mouth.
‘Nah, not a chance. What, with that storm the other night she probably had to take shelter in a bay – and that would have cost ‘em dearly. No, they’re still out there somewhere, heading this way. And when they arrive, they’ll get the surprise of their miserable lives.’ He started walking down the hill toward the town. ‘Come on, boys, skulking through them hateful woods has set me throat afire, and where there’s a seaport there’s beer.’
Rasse stirred himself and sat up, shaking his head slightly to clear his fuddled mind and adjust to his unfamiliar surroundings.
The room he was in was gloomy. Smoke-blackened beams sagged beneath a low-slung ceiling. Bars of amber sunlight slanted onto the sawdust-strewn floor and glinted off tankards hung from iron hooks, but failed to illuminate the room, leaving it littered with shadows.
Snatches of memory filtered through Rasse’s foggy mind. They had spent the evening in The Navigation, a dockside pub. He had drunk too much, no doubt, but not too much to slip the barman a peg or two in return for some space to spend the night. He looked about him. A rank, smoke tainted bar-room may not be much but it was better than a filthy alley.
He was on a cold, hard bench. A table cluttered with tankards was before him. Slumped untidily on the bench opposite him Flagg was snoring heavily. Something moved at the edge of Rasse’s vision and he turned to see Rooter step away from the window.
‘Wondered when you’d be joining us,’ said Rooter.
‘Just woke up.’ Rasse padded the bench until his paw found his cap. He pulled it on and stepped away from the table.
‘I’m not surprised. The amount you put away last night,’ replied Rooter in a stroppy tone.
Around them, the other troopers stirred, roused by the sound of voices. All except Flagg, that is. He snored on regardless.
‘You been keeping watch then?’ asked Rasse, nodding toward the window.
‘Aye. Thought someone better had.’
‘And?’ said Rasse, ignoring the sarcasm in Rooter’s tone.
Rooter turned back and wandered over to resume his look-out position, talking over his shoulder.
‘The two-masted whatever-it-was left a little after dawn. The jetty’s clear now. There was some activity on the wharf for a while but all’s quiet. No sign of our boat, yet.’
One of the polecats, a nasty looking creature with a scarred cheek and one eye, turned to Rasse.
‘Maybe she ain’t coming here after all, boss. Maybe you scared ‘em off.’
Rasse shook his head.
‘No, she was loaded with freight for here remember? The dock master at Cultaine told us so. You can’t go round dropping folks’ goods where you like. If it’s bound for here, here’s where it’ll land. No question. Like I told you, the storm probably drove it landward the other night … forced ‘em to take shelter. They’ll be here – and soon I reckon.’ He turned to the others. ‘Come on you lot, you’ve had your fun, now we need to get into position.
He aimed a kick at Flagg’s leg. The drowsy polecat bolted upright, coughing and spluttering, his glassy eyes staring wildly about him.
‘You and all, dim-wit, we need you to make up numbers, ‘cause in that state you’ll be little use for owt else. Rooter, you nip ahead and find us some cover close to that jetty.’
The polecats huddled behind a pile of crates, stacked on the wharf barely twenty metres from the jetty. Behind them, the late afternoon sun was sliding toward the rooftops and those troopers that were not falling asleep again were beginning to grumble. That is except Rooter who maintained his vigil, staring out over the glistening waters of the bay. Suddenly, his body went rigid. He dropped down quickly and nudged Rasse.
‘Here she comes,’ he said. ‘Single mast with a square sail. She’s approaching the bay from the north. Should be docking in – ’
‘The north?’ interrupted Rasse. ‘They should be coming in from the south.’ Rooter shrugged.
‘Maybe the wind or the direction of the tide means she has to – I dunno, I’m no bloomin’ sailor am I.’
Rasse passed the word to the others. They loosened their weapons and waited. No longer bored, tension was now visible in their bodies.
Rasse peered around the side of a crate and watched The Sparrow draw alongside the Jetty. A small group of dockrats strolled across the wharf toward her. One of them lazily tossed a mooring line to Bilgebob who was waiting at the bow. Some of the dockrats halted and stared at the decks, scratching their heads. Rasse led the polecats out of hiding. With weapons drawn they swarmed toward the boat.
‘Stand aside, folks.’ Rasse dismissed the dockrats with a wave of his sword. ‘We’re on official business, and we believe this vessel to be carrying smuggled goods.’
One of the dockrats sniffed and pointed toward the boat.
‘Not this one, chum. Unless she’s smugglin’ fresh air.’ He stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away. ‘C’mon lads, there’s nothing for us here.’
Rasse quickly surveyed the empty deck, his eyes darting from one crew-rat to the other. A low growl rattled in his throat and he glared at the scheming rat standing nervously by the tiller.
‘Right,’ he said, wetting his paw and testing the edge of his blade, ‘I reckon it’s time we found out what’s been goin’ on here.’