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Fidus Achates
by Sarah B.

Part Nine

"It's yer weak 'eart, Styles. That's what it is."

Heaving an impatient sigh, Styles looked up from his dinner to glare at the seaman sitting opposite him in the mess. The other man was a dark-haired fellow with a nervous twitch. "I gave me word, Griggs. No trouble while Mr. 'ornblower's not on board."

"Yeah, but - " Griggs looked around quickly, but the mess was its usual lively, noisy self, and he leaned forward with a determined expression on his grimy face. "But you heard the new lieutenant. He knows about 'obbs, what kind of man he is, and he won't be like the captain was. If 'obbs has some kind of, heh heh - accident - belowdecks Trent won't do nothing."

"And what does that 'ave to do with me?" Styles tried to sound uninterested as he sliced into the meat on his plate.

Griggs leaned even closer, his black eyes glittering. "You know damn well. We all felt Randall's belt, more than once,and that bastard was right there with 'im. It's our time now, to get back what they took."

"It's done now," Styles said with a slow shake of his head. "Let it go, mate. Just be worse on you if you don't."

"No! Lissen t'me - it *won't.* We'll get away with it."

Styles concentrated on his eating and said nothing.

Griggs was silent for a moment, and when Styles looked back up the other man was looking at him with narrowed eyes. Annoyed, Styles waved his knife and asked, "Well?"

"Don't you want *revenge*, Styles?" Griggs voice had a disbelieving quality to it. "Did you forget what they did to you?"

"No, but that's over with. Best move on."

"Move on! Styles, they beat you black and blue. You 'ad bruises all over, they coulda killed you! You're gonna just let that go?"

"I gave my word," Styles said, more forcefully, and looked straight into Griggs' eyes so there would be no mistake. "I do what Mr. 'ornblower says, and I gave my word."

Griggs stared at Styles for a moment, then leaned back and shook his head. "So Randall and the others just beat on you and you don't fight back. You let them hit you and laugh at you and it don't mean nothing to you. God, Styles - "

"I told you, mate!" Styles snapped. "Now leave me alone. Mr. 'ornblower - "

"'ornblower! He should want revenge more than anyone. Didn't 'obbs try to stop you goin' to 'im when the ship was run aground?"

Styles winced, remembering that awful day, running through smoke and fire to get to where the lieutenants were trapped. And Hobbs and Randall standing there with those damnable smug expressions *No, you don't!* -

"Them lieutenants coulda drowned, Styles! Would that have been all right with you?"

Styles frowned as he looked down at his foot, his appetite gone. "Course not."

"And he's probably gloating now that Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Bush are wounded. He wants them to die, tried to make them die, are we going to stand for that?"

Styles tried not to think of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Bush wounded, but those two horrible visions rushed to his memory anyway, Mr. Bush cold and bleeding on the deck and Mr. Kennedy...

There were no words for the dread Styles felt. He shook his head again and tried to let it pass.

"No. Dammit, it's time we took back our own. Time we stopped letting the rats run things around here."

Styles looked back up and tilted his head. "I can't join you, Griggs. Sorry."

"Well, that's a shame," Griggs said, regarding Styles almost resentfully, "'Cause I heard about you, Styles, from some of them other ships. Heard you were not to be messed with, that when somebody crossed you they paid for it. But it looks different now."

"'ere now!" Matthews' voice suddenly came over Styles' shoulder. "What's all this, Griggs? What are you on about?"

Griggs looked up as Matthews circled the bench to sit next to him, and immediately adopted a meeker attitude. "Nothin', sir, just talkin' to Styles here."

Matthews' keen eyes looked at Styles, and Styles knew he wouldn't miss a trick. "Well, you best run along now, son. There's work to be done up on deck and the sooner it's seen to the better the captain'll like it."

"Aye, sir," Griggs said, and almost leapt to his feet in his haste to be out of there.

Matthews watched him go, then turned wary eyes on Styles. "What was that all about?"

"Nothin'," Styles muttered, pushing his food about with the tip of his knife.

"Never mind, I heard enough comin' in. Is he plannin' some business that I should know about?"

Styles shrugged.

Matthews wasn't convinced. "And he wants you in on it too, I can tell. Now come on, Styles, we gave our word to Mr. Hornblower. He's countin' on us."

"Aye," Styles sighed, then looked at Matthews solemnly. "But it's wearin', Matty, I tell you that. Wearin' awful bad."

Matthews looked at Styles evenly; after a pause he said, "Out wi' it, then."

Styles let out a long, slow breath and stared at the table. "Randall and his men, they knew what they was doin' when they laid into me. It - it hurts, still does, and there's this part of me that wants to take 'em, just once, like back when you didn't tangle with the likes of us. D'you remember?"

"Too well," Matthews said, and there was an edge to his words, "And d'you remember what we've become since then? Thanks to Mr. Hornblower I'm a bosun and you're a bosun's mate. You want to tell me we'd have gotten here if we'd've stayed in *that* division?"

Styles winced again; Matthews didn't like saying Simpson's name. He kept his eyes on the table.

"Now you think on that, Styles," Matthews said sternly, his eyes hard as glass, "When you want to go followin' the likes of Griggs, you think on where we'd be if it weren't for Mr. 'ornblower, and Mr. Kennedy as well. Even Mr. Bush. I'd rather cut me own throat than let any of 'em down. Thought you felt the same."

"I do," Styles admitted, looking at his shipmate with anxious eyes, "I ain't stupid, it's just - "

"Just nothin'. You're a changed man, Styles, it's the likes of Griggs you have to stay away from. Go carve another doll if you're that itchin' for somethin' to do."

Styles sighed again. "All right."

"And tell me if there's anythin' in the wind against Mr. Hobbs so's we can stop it together," Matthews said as he rose, and he fixed Styles with a commanding expression. "Now that's an order, Bosun's Mate."

Styles gave Matthews a lopsided smile. "Aye, sir."

Matthews smiled back, then leaned forward and put a fatherly hand on Styles' shoulder and looked him square in the eye. "You're a better man now, Styles. Let's make the lad proud of us when 'e comes back."

Styles stared at Matthews for a moment, then nodded assent. As Matthews moved off into the shadows, however, Styles couldn't help raising his eyes into the lamplit gloom of the mess and thinking, *Nobody messed with us, and when somebody crossed us they paid for it. And I miss it.*

*****************************************

Bush awakened to soft blackness and the sultry smells of tropical plants, sweat and vinegar that reminded him he was still in the naval infirmary in Kingston. Knowing that full alertness would do nothing but disappoint him, Bush floated in half-awareness for a while and took stock of his situation.

Memory returned to him, and Bush recalled the day's events; how he had read that Shakespeare play aloud complete with accents and voices to change the characters, much to the amusement of Kennedy and a few passing hospital attendants. They had gotten through most of the play, but gradually the heat of the day permeated even the relative coolness of the stone-walled infirmary, and by the end of the second act Bush looked up to see Kennedy's eyes closed and his cheeks flushed with sleep. Feeling fairly drowsy himself, Bush laid the book aside and followed his shipmate's example.

Sleep did not come immediately; Bush knew his turn at the inquiry was less than a day away, and it bothered him that he could see no clear-cut way out of their crisis. Telling the truth, the absolute truth, might end with them all facing the noose; yet anything less could be seen as suspicious and end the same way. To many mens' eyes they were already convicted, and who knew what men such as Clive and Hobbs had already said? And they had heard very little of which way the tide was turning...

They were grave matters, but eventually the warmth of the day overtook Bush and he slept. He did not think he was tired enough to sleep for long, but the next time he opened his eyes the slatted stripes of sunlight had travelled from near the floor to halfway to the ceiling, and he knew it was hours later. Dr. Sankey was standing over him, that hateful cheery smile on his face, and Bush immediately wished he had remained asleep.

"Good afternoon, lieutenant," the doctor chirped, "It's time to have another look at your stitches."

"Ah, yes, your miraculous creation," Bush grumbled, but complied because the sooner he was better, the sooner he could stop feeling so damned helpless. With Dr. Sankey's help his shirt came off, and his saber wound was carefully examined.

"Excellent, Mr. Bush! Excellent!" Sankey exulted as he peered closely at the thin black line on Bush's chest. Bush himself had to admit that the injury was healing nicely; it still hurt like blazes, but it was an annoying, itchy hurt rather than the curtain of agony he was experiencing before. Soon he might even take full breaths again without feeling like he was going to fall over.

As Dr. Sankey examined his handiwork Bush glanced over at Kennedy, but that man was still sound asleep, the heat causing his fair hair to cling to his forehead in darkened tendrils. Bush hoped he wasn't catching a fever, for in this clime such a downturn could quickly result in death. He felt his own blood was close to boiling from this blasted tropical weather.

Another thought struck him, and Bush asked, "How is Mr. Wellard?"

"Hm? Oh, fine, doing splendidly," Sankey glanced over his shoulder towards Wellard's cot. Bush could just barely see that the boy was lying still, his dark hair a sharp contrast to the white sheets. "He's resting too as you can see."

"Hm. More laudanaum?"

Sankey shrugged, "It dulls the pain, lieutenant, and keeps him quiet so that bullet wound of his can heal. The best of modern medicine, you know!"

"Of course."

Sankey finished his work and left, and Bush fell back into a doze. Fell into it very easily and then...

...and then, just now, he had woken up.

Still wrapped in that soft blanket of half-sleep, Bush began to once again fall unconscious; that fall was stopped short, however, by an unusual sound very close to him: sloshing water, followed by two people speaking in very low tones. Curious, Bush opened his eyes to have a look.

A marine was sitting on a small chair between Bush's and Kennedy's beds, facing Kennedy. Bush couldn't tell what he was doing at first, but then he bent to his right, and Bush saw two things at once: that the marine was the young man Russell, and he had a damp cloth in one hand aiming for a bowl of water on the floor.

"Mr. Russell," he called out softly.

The marine started a bit, then looked over his shoulder and pulled himself upright. "Mr. Bush, sir. I didn't mean to wake you, sir."

"That's all right. What are you doing?"

"Oh - " Russell turned to face Bush, the cloth still in his hand. "Mr. 'ornblower asked me to bring you 'is dinner, sir, said he didn't want it. When I got 'ere you was sleepin', and they'd just changed Mr. Kennedy's bandages. It's awful 'ot and Mr. 'ornblower 'ad some cold water on 'is tray so I thought I'd try an' use some of it to make the lieutenant comfortable."

As Russell spoke, Bush pushed himself a little more upright in the bed and tried to get a look at Kennedy. "Is he ill?"

"Don't know, sir, 'e ain't really come to. 'e was just mumblin' like the 'eat was gettin' to 'im. Been shot meself once, in the leg, and I know 'ow gettin' them bandages changed can take it out of you."

Bush nodded, remembering himself how much he had dreaded the tugging and pulling, when his wound was still fresh and tender. And Kennedy's injury was far worse than his. He met the young marine's earnest hazel eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Russell. I'm certain Mr. Kennedy appreciates that you're looking after him."

"Just doin' what Mr. 'ornblower would do, if 'e was here," Russell shrugged, and glanced at the table that separated the two beds. "'e wanted you to have this, 'e said."

Bush followed his eyes and saw a small tray containing tidy dishes of cut-up fruit and sweet breads, along with an earthenware pitcher.

He frowned. "Mr. Hornblower doesn't want this?"

Russell shook his head, then glanced over his shoulder as if nervous about something. Looking back he said, in a lower voice, "I went to see if 'e wanted to take 'is exercise an' 'e's just sittin' in the dark at 'is desk. Doesn't want to go out 'e says, and told me to bring this to you and the other officers. I think 'e's catchin' some fever maybe."

"Hm," Bush replied, looking at the tray thoughtfully as Russell turned back to Kennedy. After a moment of gathering his courage he sat up, and when Russell turned back to the bowl of water on the floor said, "Is there any further word on the inquiry?"

Russell shook his head as he took the damp cloth in both hands and studied it. "They're goin' around in circles, sir, but they can't do that forever. Storm's got to break sometime, you take my meaning."

"Yes."

"I 'eard someone say you'll be takin' the chair tomorrow, is that true?"

Bush nodded, his stomach knotting up again.

Russell's eyes stayed on the cloth, as if he was thinking about something very hard. After picking at one frayed edge for a few moments the youth said quietly, "I don't like that Hammond. Or Mr. Buckland. But I think they'll get what they want."

Bush's eyes flicked over to Kennedy's cot. "What do they want?"

Russell raised his eyes to Bush then, and the older lieutenant was surprised at the resentment there. "Good men out of the way so they can do as they please."

The emotion in the young man's words told Bush this was a voice of experience, not mere speculation. Mindful of where they were, however, Bush leaned forward a bit and whispered, "Watch your tongue, private, or you'll be seeing yourself hanged with the rest of us."

Russell blushed and moved to wring the cloth out to cover his chagrin. "Sorry, sir," he mumbled.

As he moved, Bush caught sight of Kennedy's still form lying on the next cot, a clean new bandage around his middle as Russell had said. Kennedy's face was flushed, however, and his expression looked exhausted and troubled, even in sleep.

"It's all right, Mr. Russell," Bush said softly, very slowly swinging his legs off the cot to sit on the edge. "But this is a touchy business and I don't want to see you entangled in the same web that's trapped the rest of us."

Russell's shamed expression eased a bit, but he still bit his lip as he wrung out the cloth in the bowl.

Bush watched his actions then said, "I'm certain you have other duties, and now that I am awake I can take care of Mr. Kennedy. Thank you for your conscientiousness."

Russell looked up again and blinked. "What's that mean, sir?"

Bush smiled. "It means you're a good man, Russell. Mr. Hornblower would appreciate what you're doing."

"Oh. Yes, sir," Russell handed Bush the cloth and rose, picking up his musket that lay at his feet. Looking around as if aware he was on display, the youth arranged his face into the blank lines that the marines usually wore, replaced his hat and nodded curtly.

"Thank you , sir," he whispered, and squaring his shoulders quickly walked away from the beds and out the infirmary door.

Bush watched him leave, then turned his attention to Kennedy. Moving gingerly to the chair beside Kennedy's cot, he folded the damp cloth in his hands and placed it on the younger man's forehead. Almost immediately, Kennedy's eyes opened a little.

Seeing this, Bush smiled a little. "Good evening, Mr. Kennedy. How are you feeling?"

Kennedy did not smile back. "Horatio's up to something."

This non-sequitor startled Bush a bit, but then he thought, of course; Kennedy had been awake the whole time, and listening. "I'm sure he's contemplating his fate like the rest of us. But how are you feeling, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Like someone...has deposited burning shot on my chest," Kennedy grumbled, pausing between words as he struggled against his infirmities, "But you don't understand. When Horatio...is contemplating, he paces. When he's still...the decision has already been made."

"And what decision would that be?" Bush asked as he lifted the water pitcher from the table. As he suspected, the water inside was much cooler than the sultry air.

"Knowing Horatio..." Kennedy took a deep, shaking breath and closed his eyes. "Damn! Why did I have to get shot..."

"To keep me company," Bush replied as he presented a cup of water and gently lifted Kennedy's head so he could drink. "Here, it must be from a wellspring or something. Slowly." As Kennedy drank, Bush continued: "Are you hungry? Mr. Hornblower sent us some fruit and sweet breads."

"In this heat? No, thank you. Is that where...the water came from as well?"

Bush nodded. "Mr. Russell brought it, the young marine if you remember."

"Remind me to commend him to the commodore later," Kennedy remarked, and closed his eyes. "It does feel good after baking in this oven all day."

Bush removed the cloth from Kennedy's forehead and frowned; it had grown warm again. "Mr. Russell mentioned that the changing of your bandage had caused you some distress."

"Merely the result of being poked and prodded for half an hour." Kennedy turned his head away and said quietly, "We have to think of a way to stop Horatio from sacrificing himself."

"Well, we have the wit and fire of my testimony tomorrow for that," Bush replied, and dipped the cloth in the water again. "Remember that not everyone is against us."

"Enough are," Kennedy mumbled, "Buckland and ...and the doctor. And Hobbs..."

Bush considered this as he wrung the cloth out. "Buckland I won't argue about. Hobbs, though...I'd almost think Hornblower had started to win him 'round. Remember he looked after us on the ship."

Kennedy grimaced as if conceding the point, but the troubled look did not go away. "He could still go either way. And he was down in the hold...if he saw us..."

"Enough, Mr. Kennedy," Bush said as he took Kennedy's chin, tilted his face toward him and once more laid the cloth on the perspiring young man's forehead, "Let's concentrate on one day at a time, shall we?"

"That would be poor strategy, Mr. Bush," Kennedy argued, "But I will say I trust your wit and...your fire."

"Damn well you should," Bush smiled as Kennedy's eyes closed once more, and waited until the young man had once more drifted off to sleep to return to his own cot. Once there he had little to do but sit and go over his thoughts, and try not to think that Hobbs might have seen them in the hold, and his testimony could go either way.

***

The Jamaican sky faded from blue to crimson, on its way to another warm starlit night. In their rooms the accused lieutenants took their meals but not their leisure; Hornblower barely noticed his food, and spent the twilight hours enveloped in contemplation and melancholy. He contemplated a visit to the infirmary, but feared that if he saw Archie and Bush again, so close to a possible apocalypse, he would either weaken and blurt out his plan or display some shameful emotion that would give them a clue of what he was prepared to do. *I have already said goodbye*, Horatio thought sadly, glancing at where the volume of Vaughan's poems was safely stowed away. *I will give none of them cause to grieve that they might have stopped me.* So he sat alone and still in the dark, and thought.

Buckland, on the other hand, paced and fretted about his quarters like a hungry spider waiting for a fly to land in its web. He did not want to go out or stay in; he only wanted to know that things would go as Hammond had promised. He only wanted to know that his future was assured. Visiting the infirmary never occurred to him.

On the Renown, the hands were finished up the day's chores, silently and doggedly coiling ropes and rinsing decks with the measured tread of those who have done such work a hundred times before, and can perform each motion in his sleep. From his perch by the steps to the poop deck Matthews watched the men work, thumbing his rattan cane nervously. Mostly he watched Styles, who was a great shadow moving back and forth across the deck in front of him transferring cleaned bedclothes to be stored below. Matthews watched his friend carefully in the fading light, because despite their conversation earlier he had seen the gleam in Styles' eye. Almost didn't recognize it because it had been a long time, but the animal glint was there.

It was in other mens' eyes too. Matthews grasped his cane, and hoped this nasty business with the charges would be cleared up soon and Mr. Hornblower would come back.

In the captain's quarters, Lyman James was sitting at his desk when a tap came at his door. He barely glanced up. "Come in."

The door opened and Trent popped his head in. "You asked to see me, captain?"

"Yes, I did," James replied curtly and folded his hands as Trent came to stand formally before his desk. "How are you finding the ship's company?"

"Well enough, sir, under the circumstances. I think we'll get them into shape."

"No doubt *we* will," James echoed, a little sarcastically. "You've put them to work, then?"

"Aye, sir, the hands are seeing to repairs and to the stores." He paused before continuing. "Most of them are doing their work without a word, sir, the recent business seems to have cowed them sufficiently."

"Most of them? Not all of them?"

Trent frowned. "Well, you know how it is on these ships, sir. Always a few ruffians to contend with. But they know there's a new captain on board; I doubt we'll see any trouble from them."

"A new captain - and a new first lieutenant, eh, Mr. Trent?" James raised one eyebrow. "There are many things I admire about you, Mr. Trent. You think on your feet, you are very keen and intelligent, and you have a stunning nautical skill. In addition...you were recommended to me with the observation that you are very attuned to matters of right and wrong."

Trent colored a little. "Is that right, sir?"

"Yes, one might say over-attuned. It is the only flaw I see in you. The number of men flogged on your previous ship the Hercules suggests that you find offense in every shadow."

"Not at all, sir," Trent answered swiftly, his grey eyes on the wall in front of him. "Every stripe on those beasts' backs was justified, I assure you. Well - well, as the current situation should show you, there can be no lenience in discipline now or else the whole navy might be lost. "

"I need no man to tell me what the current situation shows," James growled, rising to pace before the Renown's bay windows. "Nor do I need a weathervane to see which way this wind is setting. Your former captain informed me that you would find someone to beat on every watch. If not for his intervention there wouldn't have been an unbloodied grating on the Hercules."

Trent's jaw jutted in indignation. "With respect, captain, there was insubordination rampant on that ship, and the lash is the only thing a man without breeding understands. And these were scarcely men. They were brutes, they were - evil - "

The captain's gaze was hard. "Mr. Trent, the men who serve under us are seeking example, not denigration. While under my command you will submit each request for discipline to me before it is carried out, is that understood?"

Trent's eyes widened a bit, but he knew better than to argue. Looking down at the desk he said, "Yes, sir."

"Good," Captain James nodded, then moved back to his chair. Sitting down he said, "I did not call you into my cabin for a lecture, Mr. Trent. I have a mission for you ashore."

Trent frowned. "Sir?"

"I need information about this ship," James continued, shuffling some papers in front of him, "Not statistics and formal nonsense, a real idea of how this ship operated under Sawyer's leadership. I need you to talk to one or two of her former lieutenants."

"Talk to the lieutenants."

James nodded. "Lieutenants Bush and Kennedy are wounded, so that leaves Buckland and Hornblower." James leaned back and surveyed Trent keenly. "Talk to Hornblower, Mr. Trent. From what I've heard he gained the respect of his men through trust in their abilities, not by beating the skin off their backs. You could learn much from him. And then you will be the finest officer the navy has ever seen."

Trent's lips pursed until they were white; then he took a deep breath and said, "Aye, sir."

"Right," Captain James stacked some of the papers together and handed them to Trent. "These will get you in to see the lieutenant. Report to me first thing tomorrow morning."

Trent looked at the papers in dismay, but squared his shoulders and nodded. "As you wish, captain."

James nodded and once again busied himself at his work. "You're dismissed, lieutenant."

The shadow across his desk wavered, changed shaped, then slid in departure, and still Captain James did not look up, or he would have noticed the thinly veiled look of resentment in the younger man's eyes as he departed, and the firm set of his jaw that told his thinking: he did not need to be taught anything at all.

 

To be continued...