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CHILDREN'S BIG READ.

Byline: By Phil Carradice

Jeb stared at him, his face puzzled and unsure. "What sort of feeling?" Johnny's eyes had not left the shore line. He seemed to be searching for something. "I can't rightly place it," he said. "I feel we're being watched - and I don't mean by them dogs back on the island, either. Yes, that's it. Somebody is watching us."

He glared around the deck and his gaze fell on Harriet and Ben. "Move those damned kids down below!" he shouted. "And run up the Jolly Roger!"

As the flag was hoisted to the masthead, Harriet and Ben were hustled below deck. Despite the danger, Harriet could hardly restrain a smile. She had been having exactly the same feeling as the pirate. Suddenly she knew that the hidden watcher, whoever he was, spelt as much danger to Johnny Four Toes as he did to her. She felt better.

Harriet and Ben were bundled below deck and locked into one of the small cabins next to the hold. There they had the torment of knowing that the treasure they had laboured so long to uncover and carry from the cave lay only a few feet away. And yet it was as far beyond their reach as if it had been buried on some distant isle in the Spanish Indies.

Within a few minutes of the key being turned in the cabin door, they heard the thunder of feet on the deck above their heads as the pirates ran to man the capstan bars. Listening carefully, they even managed to pick out the combined intake of breath as the crew drove the bars forward. Then came the creak of the cable as the anchor slowly freed itself from the seabed and snaked its way on board. Finally, the Caroline gathered way and they were off.

"What do you think will happen to the Squire and the others?" asked Harriet. She was lying on the bunk, listless and preoccupied. She and Ben had spoken hardly a word to each other as the Caroline cut into the swells of the Severn Estuary. Yet she was keenly aware that the motion of the sea had increased over the past few hours - it was going to be a rough night.

Ben shook his head. "I should think they'll be all right. The first passing ship will probably lift them off and take them into Swansea. They might have to wait a day or so but at least they'll be safe back there, which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for us."

Harriet knew the boy spoke the truth. Once Johnny Four Toes and his gang were safely out of the danger zone, well away from the Squire and his friends, then they would not need the security of hostages. Ben's life, and hers, would be worthless, she was sure.

The yacht suddenly pitched into a heavy swell, the movement making Harriet cling to the side of her bunk for safety. She glanced at Ben, eyes questioning. "She certainly buried her bows into that one," she said.

Ben nodded grimly but said nothing and lay back on his bunk. The night wore on, the yacht battered and tossed around like a cork in a bowl of water. The Caroline was built for speed, not for fighting heavy seas like this, and even a novice sailor could sense that she was making heavy weather of the voyage.

Harriet lay and tried to work out what she felt. Fear? Yes, she was afraid. She did not want to die. But there was something more, the feeling that, by her actions, by her enthusiasm for the quest, she had unleashed a force that would grow and grow until it had consumed everything in its path. Whatever it was, it was vicious and evil and she had brought it to life.

Eventually Harriet fell into a restless sleep. When she awoke a few hours later, dawn was breaking and she could feel that the motion of the ship had changed. She was still rocking and lurching in the swell but now she was not ploughing forward into the breakers. The yacht had come to a stop. Ben was already on his feet, peering out of the starboard scuttle.

"We've hove-to alongside their lugger," he declared.

Harriet pushed her way to the porthole. The boy was right. The low sleek shape of the lugger was hard up alongside their starboard bow and, gazing over her deck towards the shore, Harriet could see that they were lying off a small inlet. She did not recognise the place. Even as they watched, three pirates clambered across the gap between the two vessels. A few minutes later came the sound of hammering and soon the lugger began to settle gently by the bows.

"They've stove in her planking," said Harriet. "Getting rid of the evidence, I suppose. And they really don't need her now that they've got the Caroline."

The lugger sank easily and elegantly. Soon, only her single mast was visible above the shallow water. Within minutes the Caroline had gathered way again.

A sudden bang from the door brought their heads around. Jeb stood in the cabin threshold. "Johnny says you're to come on deck," he growled. "No nonsense or I'll batter your brains in myself."

A thin unpleasant drizzle had begun to fall and the deck as they came up the companionway was slippery and dangerous. They found Johnny Four Toes at the stern of the yacht, watching as the coast and the mast of the lugger, still pointing upwards from the sea like an admonishing finger, disappeared over the horizon. The man seemed to have recovered some of his good temper.

"Welcome," he beamed, as if he was the Squire himself, throwing open the deck of his ship to casual visitors. "Make yourselves at home." Then he grinned but, somehow, the smile failed to work and turned, instead, into a grimace. "After all, you're not going far."

"But where are we going?" asked Ben.

Johnny Four Toes glanced over his shoulder, back in the general direction of the island. "West," he said. "Back to Pembrokeshire."

Harriet could hardly believe her ears. "That's stupid. It's the first place the Squire will look. That's where he'll be heading as soon as he gets off the island."

Johnny nodded. "Indeed. But he won't be leaving the island in a hurry. And by the time he does, we'll have finished our business and be away. If by some miracle he gets ashore, he's got no ship and so he'll have no choice but to go by road. And that is a very slow way to travel, very slow indeed."

Harriet shook her head. It seemed to be a foolhardy thing, this returning to Pembrokeshire. But she was not about to argue with the pirate. It was his funeral, she thought.

Yet again Johnny seemed to anticipate her. "We need to victual the ship. It's a long haul across the Atlantic, even in a fast vessel like this. And there's only one place to stock up with supplies for gentlemen of fortune like us."

Something her father had said a week or two before seemed to resurface in Harriet's brain. "The Point House Inn?" she said. "At Angle?"

Johnny Four Toes nodded and stared at her with new respect. "Well, girl, I'm almost inclined to say you'd make a good pirate. Black Bart would have been proud of you."

Harriet opened her mouth to respond but the Caroline bit deeply into a breaker and a wave of swirling water came surging along the deck. Johnny Four Toes turned towards Jeb and Tom. "Let's get some lines rigged up across the deck. There's plenty of bad weather ahead, I should say." He turned back to Harriet and Ben. "And you two had better get below again. You'll be a lot less bother down there." Continues tomorrow.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 15, 2007
Words:1327
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