The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 34

  Kate scrambled back down to report. “It’s going to be awfully hard,” she concluded, after describing the route. “I think it will take at least two hours to get to the forest, maybe three, depending on how much you boys can pull. That’s if we don’t have an accident going down the mountain.” She reached back to retie her ponytail, which had come loose during her climb. “And there’s something else.”

  “What’s that?” asked Reynie, sensing bad news.

  “I don’t see how we’re going to avoid being spotted. If they find Number Two, they’ll come back here and discover we’re gone — in which case McCracken and Curtain are sure to climb up and take a look around like I just did. If they don’t find her, they’ll keep circling the island on their Salamander looking for her. Either way, as best I can figure it, they’re almost certain to see us crossing that rocky plain. We’re going to be completely exposed for a long time. We’ll have a big head start, so we might outrun them —”

  “But then what?” Constance said. “They’ll know where we are, and we can’t even be sure there’s help waiting for us!”

  Reynie rubbed his temples. Constance was right, of course. And if McCracken’s prediction was accurate, then two of the other Ten Men would be awake by then, and possibly Martina as well. There would be an awful lot of sharp pencils flying around that forest, and plenty of legs to chase down fleeing children.

  “Maybe we should find a place to hide and wait for Mr. Benedict to wake up,” Sticky said. “He’ll know what to do.”

  Kate shook her head. “He might sleep for hours. We need to figure this out ourselves.”

  By “ourselves” Kate mostly meant Reynie, and she and the others instinctively turned to him now. Reynie frowned. He was trying hard to figure something out, but his mind kept nagging him with that strange feeling of déjà vu. What was it he had been reminded of ? He’d been looking at Kate, and the sky, and the circling hawk . . . Wait. Had it been a hawk? He started, then looked up into the sky. No, not a hawk. A peregrine falcon.

  “Kate! Look there! Is that falcon —”

  “Why, it’s Madge!” Kate exclaimed. She took out her whistle and blew it. The falcon streaked down out of the sky, lighting on Kate’s wrist just as she finished tugging on her protective leather glove. “Good girl, Madge!” Kate said, stroking the bird’s feathers. “I’m so sorry I don’t have any treat to give you. I’ll have to owe you one.”

  A small leather pouch was tied to Madge’s leg. Kate hastily undid the clasp and took out a letter. “It’s from Cannonball!”

  The children all gathered close to read:

  Dear Kate,

  How we hope this finds you! We know you’re in danger, and I’m writing as quick as I can to tell you of our situation and to see how we may help. In case any of the details are important, I’ll give you all I have.

  Last night we were hiding in the forest, anxiously awaiting your appearance, when we heard an explosion. Soon after that Number Two stumbled out of a mountain tunnel into our view. She’ll be all right, but at the time she was in such a condition we felt obliged to carry her to the skiff (our landing boat) and then to the Shortcut for bandages.

  She protested loudly — much too loudly, in fact, as her hearing had been affected by the explosion. She was a bit out of her head, too, but it was clear enough that she believed you to be in danger, and that she’d gone looking for you in the tunnel only to find herself cut off (and quite battered by rocks) when the entrance blew. She insisted we leave her and go find you children. But this would have contradicted Milligan’s instructions, and we dared not risk upsetting his plans even if Number Two’s injuries hadn’t required immediate attention. She’s safely bandaged up now, though, and has fully recovered her senses. It was her idea to send Madge with a note, and — now she tells me I’m taking too long, so let me hurry on.

  We’re aboard the Shortcut, a few miles out to sea. Our plan was to return immediately to the forest, but we’ve run into difficulty. The skiff’s motor was damaged on shoals as we left the bay — there was a horribly tricky tide — and the skiff is now quite noisy and painfully slow. We worry that using it might endanger you by calling attention to the bay. Milligan advised that we must be stealthy above all else. Is this still the case? Send word, Kate, and let us know what we should do!

  Things to consider: Captain Noland, per Milligan’s directions, contacted the Royal Navy at dawn (mere minutes ago as I write) but their patrol boats may not arrive for some time. The captain can’t bring the Shortcut too close to the island for fear of grounding her, but in the skiff we can reach the bay shore in two hours at most. We’ll await you there or come for you as you think best — just tell us where to look!

  We’re counting on Madge to find you with her sharp eyes. When you send her back, just say “frog food” and she’ll fly straight to me — I’ve been feeding her those steak bits ever since we took her aboard. Do hurry, Kate, and send your reply!

  Cannonball (Joe Shooter)

  The moment he finished reading, Reynie began to pace. What he really felt like doing was curling into a ball. The letter should have encouraged him, but under the circumstances it was heartbreaking. If they sent Madge right away with a reply, and if everything went exactly as hoped, the slow and noisy skiff would reach the bay just as the children arrived. But Kate was right — they would almost certainly be spotted crossing that rocky plain; the Salamander, then, would be hot on their trail, and Milligan had said the Salamander was very fast on land and water both. Even if they made it to the skiff . . . well, a damaged skiff would be easy pickings. They would be snatched up by Mr. Curtain’s crew long before they reached the Shortcut.

  The others were all groaning now, having slowly come to understand what had distressed Reynie right away: there was no way out of this.

  “At least Number Two is safe,” said Sticky gloomily. “That’s something, anyway.”

  The others nodded but said nothing. They were all relieved Number Two was safe. Her good news was their bad news, though, for Mr. Curtain and his Ten Men, not finding her in the western woodland, would continue to circle the island. That made it even more likely the children would be intercepted before they reached the bay.

  Reynie glanced down at Mr. Benedict’s sleeping face, frowned, and went back to pacing.

  “Maybe we should try to hide,” said Constance. “Those patrol boats will come eventually, right? Maybe they’ll get here in time to save us.”

  “We’d have to be awfully lucky,” said Kate. “I say we run for it and hope for the best. Milligan’s probably in the forest, remember. If we can just get to him, he can help us.”

  Sticky was feverishly polishing his spectacles. “What do you think, Reynie? Should we run for it or hide?”

  Reynie gritted his teeth. What did he think? It would be hard to hide everyone from the Ten Men for long. And even if the patrol boats arrived soon and sent their crews ashore, Reynie doubted their chances against Mr. Curtain’s group of nasties, especially since the Ten Men had the Salamander. But running? Reynie’s mind returned to the skiff. Noisy, Cannonball had said — so they couldn’t even hope to avoid detection in the heavy gray mist. And unlike Kate, Reynie didn’t count on Milligan’s being able to help them. No, hiding seemed the better option, although it was a nearly hopeless one, and although . . .

  Reynie paused in his pacing. He did see one other option. He had seen it from the very beginning, in fact, but had kept shoving it aside. If it worked, it was their best chance of escape. But if it didn’t, all would be lost — and for it to work Reynie must depend upon something he felt could not be depended upon.

  “Reynie?” Kate prompted. “What do you say?”

  Reynie stared at the sleeping figure of Mr. Benedict. They had risked life and limb for him, had come to the ends of the earth to save him. If Mr. Benedict were awake right now, what would he have Reynie do? He felt a tugging at his sleeve. Constance was gazing up into his face.

  “You should
trust him,” she said.

  “Trust him?” Kate repeated. “Trust who? Reynie, what’s she talking about?”

  Reynie returned Constance’s gaze. He knew she was right. He knew what Mr. Benedict would have him do. The question was whether he had the courage to do it.


  “Give me a pen and paper,” said Reynie, making up his mind. “I know what we need to do!”

  What Shines in Darkness

  Descending the mountain with the sledge was the most arduous physical challenge either of the boys had ever attempted, and if not for Kate they never would have succeeded. Her excellent eyes, her sense of balance, her gauge of distance and slope — to say nothing of her unusual strength — saved the boys from deadly tumbles more than once. And all the while the sledge had to be kept aright to spare Mr. Benedict and Constance, who struggled mightily to keep him on the sledge without falling off herself. Halfway down the mountain Reynie and Sticky were already trembling and aching from their exertions — and they were pulling downhill.

  By the time they reached level ground even Kate was exhausted. Despite the cooling mist and the unfailing wind, her face radiated heat, and her leg muscles and lungs burned from their unusual strain. Gazing out through the mist across that wide rocky plain, remembering how hard crossing it had been just the night before, Kate’s shoulders drooped. She doubted the boys could make it without a long rest — probably several long rests — and there was no way she could pull the sledge alone. Still, the crossing must be attempted. She looked at Reynie and Sticky, both of them gasping and doubled over.

  “We can’t rest long,” she said apologetically. “A minute or two, and then —”

  Sticky straightened abruptly. His face, dripping with perspiration and taut with fatigue, bore a look of resolution so intense it startled Kate. “No, let’s go now. We can’t afford to rest.”

  Sticky’s tone struck Reynie just as his expression had struck Kate, and when Reynie looked up wonderingly he noticed something missing. “Sticky, what happened to your spec-tacles?”

  “They fell off and slid down an embankment. I didn’t want to waste time going after them. Never mind, I can see well enough to see we have a long way to go.” He took one of the sledge grips in a hand already raw from pulling. “I’m ready when you are.”

  Reynie, who didn’t feel ready in the least, wiped his brow and made an effort to stand up straight, while Kate drew her shoulders back, suddenly encouraged by Sticky’s display of fortitude. “Where did all this toughness come from?” she asked.

  Sticky gave her a weak smile. “I’ve been saving it up.”

  “Well, now was the perfect time to spend it,” said Kate, impressed.

  Indeed, over the long, grueling trek across the plain, Sticky gave all of them hope. It was Reynie who’d had the idea and Kate who’d plotted their course, but it was Sticky who sacrificed the most — and in the process inspired the others to greater effort. His skinny frame quaked with exhaustion, sweat streamed from his head, and more than once his legs wobbled and went out from under him, but each time he rose, collected himself, and set to the task again with a fierceness they’d never seen. The fact was that Sticky had finally been given a chance to make up for his errors — a chance to get his friends out of danger — and he was passionately determined to succeed, no matter the cost to himself.

  When Reynie slipped, Sticky helped him up. When Kate uncharacteristically despaired aloud at their progress, Sticky assured her they would make it, and somehow managed to double his efforts. Time and again his body faltered; time and again Sticky hauled himself up and pressed on. It was a noble thing to behold, and as the group at long last drew near the forest, Reynie found himself thinking that even if they were caught, he was grateful to have seen Sticky at his finest.

  “We’re actually going to make it,” said Constance incredulously, and it was true — their pace had slowed to a crawl, and the boys’ hands were blistered and bleeding, but they lacked just a few yards until they could leave the exposed plain for the shelter of the forest.

  “Of course we’ll make it,” Kate wheezed as she strained forward. “We just need to . . . Hey, what’s that?”

  The others saw it, too, a lumpy black object on the ground ahead. The object blended in almost perfectly with the rocky ground, and because of the mists they hadn’t seen it until they were almost upon it. It wasn’t a large rock, or even a group of rocks, but appeared to be a long, shallow pile of mud — though where such a lot of mud would have come from was impossible to guess. And then, as the children came closer, they saw that the object was Milligan.

  Kate cried out and stumbled forward, landing on her knees beside her father, who had opened his eyes at the sound of her voice. As she wiped mud from his face and begged him to tell her he was all right, Milligan gave her a relieved smile. “Now that I see you’re all right, I can’t compl —” He was cut off when Kate threw herself upon him, mindless of the mud.

  Milligan groaned, then whispered hoarsely, “Better stop hugging me, Katie-Cat. Afraid I’ll black out again. From the pain, you know. It’s considerable.”

  Kate had drawn back with a horrified expression. “Oh! I’m so sorry! How badly are you hurt? Did you really fall off a cliff ?”

  “Jumped, actually,” said Milligan.

  “But how did you get here, then? McCracken said you must have broken every bone in your body!”

  “Not all of them,” Milligan muttered. (He seemed to be trying not to move his mouth very much.) “And I got here by dragging myself, mostly. I was on my way to save you.” He swiveled his eyes toward the other children and Mr. Benedict on the sledge. “Is everyone all right, then? How is Mr. Benedict?”

  For a moment Kate couldn’t answer. She simply shook her head and stared. Now that she’d gotten over the shock of discovering Milligan here, she was coming to realize just how bad he looked. She’d seen him in a frightful condition before — in fact it was only a year ago that she’d seen him covered in mud just like this, and injured as well — but this was much worse. He looked as though he’d been trampled by a stampede. His face was so bruised and swollen with hornet stings he was scarcely recognizable; his shirt and trousers were in tatters; his hat and jacket were gone . . . and yet he’d been coming to save her. Kate took his hand and held it, noticing as she did so the handcuff and short length of chain dangling from it. She felt anger swelling up inside her.

  Milligan winced, and Reynie, standing behind Kate, gently reminded her not to squeeze.

  “Mr. Benedict’s all right,” Kate said, easing Milligan’s hand back to the ground. “We’re all fine. But how did you survive if you fell — I mean jumped — into a ravine?”

  Milligan swallowed with some difficulty and said, “The bottom was all mud. I’d been there earlier looking for the cave, so I knew.”

  “But McCracken said it was more than fifty feet down!”

  “Well . . . I was able to slow myself a bit by dragging along the face of the cliff, and of course I had to land just so . . .” Milligan winced again, though no one had touched him, and his breath came in ragged bursts. “Still, I’m afraid in the darkness I . . . slightly misjudged the distance.”

  “Kate,” Reynie murmured. “We need to get him into the trees.”

  “Right! Okay, Milligan, we’re going to lift you onto the sledge and —”

  Milligan made a noise of dissent. “Listen, Kate, I think I’m going to . . .” he swallowed “. . . black out again, so listen carefully. Leave me — cover me with pebbles or something if you must — and make for the bay. You can’t escape if you’re dragging me, and I am ordering you to escape, do you hear? Go now . . . leave me behind . . . That’s an order, so don’t even think —” Milligan abruptly closed his eyes and fell silent.

  “Can’t anyone stay awake around here?” Constance moaned.

  “Let’s get him onto the sledge,” Sticky said, coming around to help lift. “I assume we’re disobeying his order.”
/>  “Of course we are,” said Reynie. “We have to save him.”

  “I was hoping he would save us,” said Constance.

  Kate said nothing. Her grief had rapidly transformed into something else, and she was clenching and unclenching her fists, boiling with anger at the Ten Men for what they’d done to Milligan. She despised McCracken in particular, but all of the Ten Men had played a part. In her fury, Kate wanted revenge more than anything, and for a moment it blinded her to all else.

  “Kate!” said Reynie, shaking her shoulder. He’d been calling her name again and again. “What’s the matter? We have to move him! If we can get into the trees, they might not even see us! We’re almost there, Kate!”

  Kate looked up and saw the boys staring at her wonderingly. She leaped to her feet — but it was already too late. She saw it on Constance’s face. The tiny girl was staring out into the mist with a look of deepest dread. And the next moment they all heard what she had sensed.

  The rumbling.

  In horror the children saw the Salamander appear at the far northern edge of the plain, a black shadow moving through the mist like a shark through water. Whipping out her spyglass, Kate found McCracken at the helm — with his own spyglass fixed on her. Beside him stood Mr. Curtain, gesturing angrily, and behind stood Martina, Garrotte, and Sharpe, all awake now and surely seething with vengeful wrath. In the spyglass they seemed close enough for Kate to reach out and hit, and she wanted badly to do just that — they weren’t the only ones seething with vengeful wrath. But even in her anger Kate was sensible enough to realize this encounter was ill-timed. She and the others were doomed. She only hoped she could get a lick at McCracken before he overpowered her.

  “How long do we have?” Reynie asked her. “We can’t beat them to the bay, can we?”

  “At that speed? With us dragging the sledge? We’ll be lucky to make it ten yards into the trees. At least they’ll have to go to the trouble of getting out. That’s some comfort.”