Thump! Sally landed squarely on her backside.
More shocked than hurt, she found herself sitting waist deep in a shallow hole in the floor. Her shoulders and upper body stuck out above the deck and there staring down at her and looking more shocked than she was, was the face of the Field Marshall.
An angry snarl curled the fox’s mouth and his forelegs pulled him to the edge of the splintered wood. He peered down into the dark space below. “Macgregor! Carlysle!” He snapped loudly. “You blasted fools! I know you’re down there! Report at once!”
As Sally struggled to stand up, she heard a scurrying noise from the shadows under the deck. Two lights appeared strapped to wooden helmets on top of two furry heads. A nasally American voice piped out: “Alright, alright, alright. Calm down, Chief. Just problems with one of the props for tunnel number six. We’ll have it fixed in a jiffy!”
The voice issued from a furry snout with two very big, protruding teeth. As the creature finished speaking, a large tongue popped out licked the teeth and lips and slipped back into its grinning mouth.
Jack Douglas was still angry: “For goodness sake, Carlysle! You almost injured our young guest here! And be careful about what you say soldier – remember: loose lips sink ships!”
Both of the creatures sniggered at that and Jack Douglas puffed in exasperation. “Just get it fixed and quickly!”
Carlysle grinned up at the fox and then turned and noticed Sally for the first time. “Well, good day to you there, ma’am.” He beamed again, a great big, infectious toothy, charming smile and Sally couldn’t help but smile back. MacGregor, meanwhile, who had not spoken a word yet, put a paw to his mouth and blew her a kiss.
This last act seemed to infuriate the fox even more and he growled, his hackles standing on end. Sally thought that if he hadn’t been red already, he would certainly have flushed scarlet with anger “Macgregor, try to remember your manners! You’re not in the North Continent now!”
The animals both put their front paws together in exaggerated apology and Sally had to cover her mouth with her hands to stop from laughing. They turned and crept back under the floor and she saw the great, paddle shaped tails disappear behind them. As she rubbed her bruised behind and heaved herself back up onto the deck, a whirring, sawing noise punctuated by hammering started up from under the floor below them.
“Are you alright, Miss Hargreaves?” The fox looked concerned.
“Yes, I’m fine I just bruised my b- Beavers? Are they beavers?” She couldn’t quite believe what she was saying. Had she just been spoken to by two American beavers?
“Yes, in charge of the tunnelling detail. The only two here with any real construction experience. They’re good lads really and between the pair of them, they’ve managed to tunnel through half the ship without the peglegs knowing. They’ll have that hole patched up in no time.”
He lowered his voice. “Between you and me, though, our friends from the Northern Continent are a blasted unruly lot. Heaven alone knows what they get up to down there most of the time.”
With the sound of the beavers busy fixing the hole behind them, Jack Douglas started moving along the deck again and Sally walked quickly alongside.
“Anyway, where were we, Miss Hargreaves? Ah yes, your questions. Well, I’m sure that the most burning issue that you have right now is your presence here on the Huntress.”
“Yes, please Mr. Douglas.” Sally was beginning to recover from the shock of everything and finally found herself able to construct sentences again. “Please, do you know why I am here?”
“Well, I’d say that that was much more courteous than the first time you asked that question.” He glanced up at her and she reddened with embarrassment again. A small smile crept across his mouth and she realised that he was not being completely serious. “And please, madam, call me Jack.”
He continued to trundle across the floor towards the far end of the prison deck but more slowly now as he reflected on the answer to her question.
“Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that we believe that you are more than likely a prisoner here like ourselves.” He shrugged and continued, “Some of our contacts on the upper decks reported your abduction at eleven hundred hours. You were tied up and unconscious, and the blighters had the stink bag on you.
From what we can gather it would seem that the peglegs weren’t expecting that particular stop off on our journey. It wasn’t on the map and seems to have taken them as much by surprise as it did yourself.
I wouldn’t mind betting that pirates being pirates, the blighters saw an opportunity to steal something and so they did: you! I dare say they’re not even sure what they’re going to do with you now that they have you here. That’s why they bundled you up and dropped you below decks. More than that, we can’t say, I’m afraid.”
“Field Marshall Douglas!” An urgent voice cut through their conversation. They both turned to see the otter, who Jack Douglas had introduced as Cynthia earlier, come bounding across the deck towards them. “There’s news!” She exclaimed breathlessly as she came to a halt in front of them.
“One second, please, Miss Hargreaves,” the fox said politely and walked a short distance away with the otter, who began to excitedly whisper. Sally saw the fox’s ears twitch in interest. “He what?!” The hackles stood up on his back once more. Whatever had happened, Jack Douglas wasn’t pleased!
After another minute of animated conversation, the fox wheeled himself back over to stand by the young girl. He looked up at her. “You…er…you mentioned a brother when we first untied you.”
“Yes, His name’s David.” Sally’s heart leapt into her throat. “Is he here? Has somebody seen him?”
The fox cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Here, no. But I believe that we may well have spotted him.”
“What? Where? Where is he? Is he alright? Has anything-“
The fox cut her off mid-sentence and continued quickly: “The pirates weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the ship’s unscheduled stop. You see, the Peglegs don’t know it yet but we managed to get one of our lads ashore in all the kafuffle! A Corporal in the Hispanic Cavalry, name of Rodriguez! A zebra! The reason that I mention this is that we had hoped that this would be the last that anybody on board this ship would see of him.
“What I wasn’t expecting was to receive news within hours of his escape that the blasted fool would be following the ship!” Jack Douglas sighed in exasperation again. “And what is more, reports would seem to suggest that he is not alone. He has a young civilian with him.”
“It’s David!” Sally’s face lit up; she just knew it. Her heart told her so. “He’s short with brown hair.”
“I can’t confirm it, you understand but that would seem to fit the description we’ve been given. They were spotted on the banks of the river not twenty minutes ago. Our man up there is a species with a very acute sense of sight. Sharper, thankfully than any of the crew of this soulless vessel.
“I’ll be honest with you, Miss Hargreaves, I have absolutely no idea why the Spaniard is in pursuit of the Huntress after the pain that he suffered here and the effort entailed in his escape...I just hope he knows what he’s doing. Between you and me, I never much understood him at the best of times. Terribly thick accent, you know. “
“And my parents? Do you know-“
“You were brought on board alone, I’m afraid, Sally.” The fox fell silent; he didn’t know what else to say to comfort the young girl.
Sally suddenly felt the urgency of the whole situation: trapped on the ship alone, David outside, her parents vanished. “I have to get off of this ship. I need to find my brother and my parents. Can you help me? Can you get me off? David’s out there and he needs me and he can’t hear. He-”
“Now, now young lady. Pull yourself together.” The fox spoke in his very reassuring firm but gentle tone. “Drink some more of your tea. There’s everything to play for but I have to remind you: this is a prison. Even though it looks as if we have our liberty down here, I assure you the reality could not be further from the truth. Above decks, it’s a different story.” He saw the look of hope on her face starting to fade and added: “We can’t be certain of anything in our situation, you understand, but never say never and all that. We’ll do our best to help, I promise you, Sally, but it will take a lot of planning.”
Sally looked down at the fox, a smile on his face, his eyes alight with mischief and she finally thought to ask: “And what about you? Why are you prisoners here?”
“Ah, that’s an answer which requires an extremely long explanation.” Jack Douglas let out a deep sigh; one which was heavy with things lost but not forgotten. “But the very short version is that we are prisoners here because we are valuable and the peglegs stand to make a lot of money when they deliver us at the other end of this voyage.” He paused briefly. “We are valuable because we are the Last Ones.”
“The Last Ones?” Sally frowned but her tone had softened. She recognised the note of sadness in his voice. “You said that before. What does that mean? The last what?”
“Well, quite simply put,” his voice caught in his throat and he looked away from her for a second and coughed. When he looked back, his tone was strong once more. “We are the last of our kind. You met the platoon, madam. They are the last hedgehogs, the last field mice, the last hares. Blossompouch is one of the last red squirrels. Carlysle and MacGregor are the last beavers. Cynthia Landrey is the last otter. General Smithers the last mole. And so it goes on. We are the only ones left. The Last Ones.”
Sally was shocked, “But what happened to the others?”
“Hunted.” The word hung in the air between them like an echo from a gunshot. He fell silent and although the young girl wasn’t sure what to do or say, she felt as if she should say something. Anything.
“So, you are…”
“Yes, exactly.” He stopped, straightened his back and puffed out his chest proudly. “I am the last red fox in the world. At your service, madam.”