Ship of the Damned, part fifteen
by Sue N.


Despite his protestations, Styles proved a quick learner and a hard
worker, carrying out even the smallest, most tedious or most menial
task with a will and a cheer that showed plainly how relieved he was
to be away from Midshipman George and the bosun. But he also took
time to study the young officer who had rescued him, and was,
frankly, startled by what he saw.

He was astonished to realize that Lieutenant Kennedy knew guns almost
as well as Lieutenant Hornblower knew navigation. Assigned to one of
the 18-pounders on the foc'sle when the Indy had beat to quarters, he
had missed seeing Kennedy blossoming into a first-rate gunnery
officer, in charge of the Indy's heavy 24-pounders, and was amazed at
the competence and confidence the young man displayed here in his
element. There was no sign of the uncertainty, the panic, he had
shown at Muzillac, none of the false bravado he had so often assumed
on Justinian to disguise the terrors that plagued him. He was utterly
at ease, something Styles had never seen in him before.

Nor could he miss seeing the differences between the way Kennedy
exerted command and the ways adopted by Resolute's officers. Never
once did the young man resort to bullying tactics or cruel, cutting
remarks, never once did he threaten, insult or belittle, never once
did he in any way demean the men working under him. He gave orders in
his light, clear voice and with an even tone, using humour when he
could, exhibiting patience when he had to, explaining carefully what
was not understood and even demonstrating when that was required. But
never once, not even when Styles could see the strain in those blue
eyes, hear it in that level tone, did he raise his voice or give in
to anger. Consequently, the men worked for him with an eagerness and
a cheer sadly lacking in other parts of the ship.

Down here, it was like bein' on the bloody Indy again...

Yet, despite his calm outward demeanor, Archie noticed Styles'
scrutiny and was made nervous by it. He knew how devoted the man was
to Horatio, and how unlikely it was that he himself should ever
measure up to his seemingly perfect friend in the eyes of any of his
men. And while Matthews could be counted upon to give any man who
tried the benefit of the doubt, Styles, he knew, was a much harder,
much sterner, much more unforgiving judge of men. Of officers.

And he had seen much more of Kennedy's failures and flaws than he had
of his abilities...

A half-hour before noon, with Kennedy and Roberts deep in
consultation at the far end of the deck, Hale wandered down and
grinned evilly at the sight of Styles, still working at the port for
number six. He meandered slowly over to the big seaman, holding his
cat-o'-nine-tails in his right hand and tapping it idly against his
left palm, his leering eyes narrowed almost to slits in his broad,
ugly face.

"There you are!" he hissed, smiling hatefully as the broad back
stiffened. "I wondered where you'd got to! 'Ow'd you manage to
finagle this?"

Styles turned slowly about, careful to keep his anger under tight
control. "I didn't finagle it, sir," he rasped through clenched
teeth. "Leftenant Kennedy requested me an' Roberts. Said 'e needed
carpenter's mates."

"Carpenter's mate?" sneered Hale, leaning upon the gun. "You? I don't
believe it!"

Styles lifted two dark brows. "Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but if Mr.
Kennedy says I'm a carpenter's mate, then I reckon I'm a carpenter's
mate. Unless," he suggested with a slight smile, "you're callin' the
leftenant a liar?"

Hale stood up straight at that and sucked in his breath sharply, his
face darkening to red, his mouth twisting into a deep, ugly scowl.
"Now, you look 'ere--"

"Is there a problem here?" asked a quiet voice behind him.

Hale whirled sharply and found himself staring into a young,
attractive face marked by dark blue eyes and a fine mouth that was
neither smiling nor frowning, but set along perfectly sober lines.
The boy was smaller than Hale, shorter and far less broadly built,
yet there was a command about him that owed nothing to size or bulk.
Hale disliked him immediately.

"No problem, sir," he answered grudgingly. "I was simply--"

"Then if there is no problem," Archie said quietly, calmly, "I do not
believe we need you. Unless," he arched a slim blond brow slightly,
"you have some acquaintance with guns?"

Hale's eyes narrowed further, and he ground his teeth together
furiously. "No, sir," he rasped, "I ain't got no ac--"

"Then I suggest you leave," Archie said, still with that calm, quiet
voice. "I will not have my men bullied, is that understood?"

"Sir--"

"Is that understood?" Archie repeated much more sharply, much more
loudly, drawing startled gazes from men all about the gundeck. And
from Styles in particular.

"I got my duties, sir--"

"Not down here, you do not!" Archie informed him coldly, his gaze
holding Hale's prisoner. "Go back up top, where you are allowed to
torture the men at will. But you will not venture back down here
unless and until I send for you. Is that clear?"

Hale drew himself up to his full height and tried to tower over the
smaller, younger man, but found his gesture completely ineffectual.
The boy would not cower, would not cringe, would not even acknowledge
Hale's superiority of size. He seemed utterly immune to the big man's
power, and thus completely negated it.

"Aye aye, sir!" the bosun spat furiously, clutching the cat until his
knuckles showed white. "Whatever you say, sir!"

Archie smiled slightly, coldly, and inclined his fair head. "Exactly
so," he murmured. "Now, go."

Hale threw up a hasty salute and turned, stalking away furiously
while mutteringly blackly under his breath.

"One more thing," Archie called down the deck, stopping the man in
his tracks and bringing him slowly about. "The cables in this ship
are a mess; so many are frayed through they simply cannot be used.
And I shall not even speak of the deplorable condition of the sails.
As bosun, I believe you have the responsibility for seeing that they
are properly maintained, and for reporting any needed repairs to the
first lieutenant." He inclined his fair head slightly, his blue gaze
impaling the obviously seething Hale. "It would seem, sir, that
your... compulsion... for maintaining discipline has overrun your
obligation to maintain the ship. I suggest you reconsider your
priorities, before the Navy Board hears of this dereliction of duty."

Hale stiffened and all but choked on his rage at that, but knew there
was not a bloody thing he could do or say that would not see him
putting his head into a noose. So, saying nothing at all, merely
snarling wordlessly and turning upon his heel, he stalked to the
companionway and hurried up it, his fury mingling with humiliation,
his soul flooding with hatred for the young leftenant.

God, the puppy would pay!

As Hale disappeared from sight, Rogers, his mates and all the men
working on the guns regarded Archie with a new respect, and not a
little shock. No one, in their memory, had dared challenge the bosun
so directly, so openly, and certainly none had ever dared call his
actions into question, much less threaten him. Yet their admiration
for the lieutenant's courage was mixed with an anxiety for him that
bordered on fear. They all knew Hale was a powerful, sinister force
in Resolute, knew he had Thorne's backing in his oppression of the
crew. To defy Hale was tantamount to defying Thorne, and that, as
poor Mr. North had so unhappily proven, was a foolhardy, dangerous
proposition.

"Get back to work," Archie ordered quietly, absently raising a hand
to rub his forehead as the ache behind it began pounding all the
harder. "We haven't much time before the noon meal--"

"Or our first ration of grog," Styles put in with a broad grin,
seeing the strain in the young man's eyes and hoping to alleviate it.
"I been lookin' forward to that all day!"

Archie smiled slightly, recognizing Styles' intent and grateful for
it. "Yes, and I can just imagine what kind of work I shall get out of
you after it," he joked tiredly. "Even if we get the ports to close,
I doubt they will ever do so evenly again! Now, go on. Might as well
work while we can."

"Aye, sir," Styles answered, knuckling his forehead in salute and
turning to go back to work. After a step, however, he turned back to
Kennedy, who had bowed his head and was rubbing his eyes. "Sir?" he
called softly.

Archie raised his head and frowned slightly, wishing the damned
throbbing would cease. Or at least ease. "Yes, Styles, what is it?"

The big sailor stepped closer to the younger man and gazed more
intently at him than ever he had before, seeing plainly the lines of
weariness and pain in the young face, the strain in his eyes. Yet he
also saw something more, a character and a resolve that had
previously eluded his notice. He knew it could not have been easy for
Kennedy, even with the security of his rank, to challenge Hale, and
had to respect him for it.

"I just wanted-- well, sir, I just wanted to tell ye I appreciate
what ye done for me," he said quietly, smiling slightly, "bringin' me
down here, first of all, when I got no true business bein' here, an'
then standin' up to Mr. 'Ale on me be'alf. Thank ye, sir."

Archie was startled by the words, and it showed plainly in his wide
eyes and open mouth. But he quickly gathered his wits and, even as a
slight blush crept into his cheeks, a smile curved about his mouth
and warmed his eyes.

"You certainly are welcome, Styles," he breathed. "I-- I did only
what I felt I had to--"

"Aye, sir," Styles agreed, nodding slowly, "mebbe so. But I know that
didn't make it no easier for ye. I value what ye done, sir, an' I
just thought ye should know."

"Thank you," Archie said. "I appreciate that."

Styles smiled and nodded, saluted again, then turned and went back to
his labours.

Behind him, Archie exhaled slowly, his mind swimming. Styles...
expressing gratitude and... and admiration... to him?

It had to be the headache!
**********

Shortly after noon, all hands were piped to the deck to witness
punishment, and the pall hanging over the ship grew darker still. For
Hale, in his fury at Kennedy, had managed to goad two sailors into
open insubordination, and those two now would be joining poor Willie
Dudley at the gratings. The mood of the men was ugly, for they knew
Willie to be innocent, knew Hale had bullied the other two into
condemning themselves, knew this punishment had been orchestrated
solely to prove how powerless they were under the despotic command of
Thorne and his minions, how utterly without recourse they were. But,
like a rope being stretched too taut, with too much pressure upon it,
they were beginning to fray from the strain, and were coming ever
nearer the point of breaking altogether.

Glowering, sullen and surly, the hands formed themselves into a crowd
aft of the mainmast and stared blackly at the grating that had been
rigged at the gangway. Marines were drawn up on the quarter-deck,
their muskets and bayonets at the ready, and the officers, in dress
uniforms, stood on the larboard side of the maindeck. Placing himself
as far from Thorne as he could without being unduly obvious about it,
Archie stood straight and stared blankly ahead, pale, tightly
composed, and feeling desperately sick to his stomach. He had never
enjoyed floggings, as he knew some officers did, was horrified and
disgusted at the spectacle of seeing men whipped into submission. But
at least on the Indy there had been the consoling knowledge that
floggings were rare, ordered only when absolutely necessary, and
administered with restraint. Captain Pellew relied upon example and
respect, not brutality, to keep order, and so far he had been
incredibly successful.

Oh, God, to be back upon the Indy now!

Swallowing hard against his nausea, he glanced to starboard and saw
her, there, framed against the horizon, her topsails gleaming
brilliantly in the sun. All at once, a hard, wrenching wave of
homesickness, of longing, twisted through him, gripped him, wrung
hard at his gut and his heart, all but knocking him to his knees.
Merciful God, how could she be so close, and still so far? How could
she be within sight, yet out of reach? God, God, how could Captain
Pellew, who seemed to know the heart and mind of every man who moved
in his sphere, not know of the horrors taking place in a ship easily
within range of his vision?

<And should you ever -- ever! -- need us, sir, we are but a
cannon-hail away.> How ironic that Captain Pellew should have uttered
those words before sending his men into a ship whose cannons would
barely fire...

"Sair?" It was Midshipman Stewart, at his elbow, speaking softly
enough to prevent others from overhearing. "Are ye all right? Ye
dinna look well."

Archie pulled himself from the raging torrent of his misery and
forced himself to meet Stewart's eyes, suddenly realizing from the
boy's expression how truly awful he must look. "I-- I am-- fine," he
lied unconvincingly. "It is but-- a headache. From earlier," he added
pointedly.

Stewart nodded slowly, but did not believe him. His experience with
his brother's fits told him Kennedy should have been recovered by
now, that the after-effects were rarely this long-lasting. No, the
lieutenant's ailment had naught to do with his fits; he had the
sickness that infected all who came into Resolute.

As all watched, the master-at-arms brought his three prisoners up on
deck, assisted by the ship's corporal and a Marine. A thick, heavy
silence fell upon Resolute as the pitiful procession appeared, and
angry eyes darted from the condemned to the man who was prosecutor,
jury and judge. Thorne was respendent in his full dress uniform, a
shining figure of absolute authority, and absolute evil. Striding
forward, he swept icy eyes about the deck, then glanced down at the
paper he held, on which the names of the three men were written.

"Willie Dudley!" he called in a dark, thunderous voice.

Blanched white and shaking visibly, Dudley shambled forward, pulled
roughly along by the master-at-arms. He was a small man, thin, so
seamed and wizened by the sun that he could have been of any age. But
his eyes were wide and white-rimmed with terror, a terror that shone
plainly on his face.

Thorne wasted no time, and showed no pity. "You have been accused of
stealing rum from the ship's stores!" he announced. "Have you
anything to say on your own behalf?"

Dudley was shaking his head slowly, insensibly. His mouth opened and
closed several times, but no words came from him. His wild eyes
beseeched Thorne for mercy, but none was forthcoming. Offering not a
word in his own defense, offering not the slightest resistance, he
was led to the grating and stripped of his shirt. And there, plain to
all, were the deep, ugly, unhealed scars from his last flogging,
barely a week ago. He had been given fifty lashes then, and the
hideous welts criss-crossed his naked back, soon to be joined by
still more.

Archie's stomach turned over at the sight and he shuddered, closing
his eyes tightly against the suddenly too-bright glare of the sun.
Oh, God, God! he prayed frantically, his soul twisting in terror. Not
again, not now! Please!

Imperceptibly, Stewart moved closer to the lieutenant, supporting the
stricken man with the solid strength of his own body. All the colour
had drained from Kennedy's face, and Stewart could see his throat
working furiously as he swallowed frantically against rising nausea.
He himself had ceased being sickened by the brutal floggings
administered so regularly upon Resolute, and was certain Kennedy
would soon reach the same unfeeling state.

It was a comfort, really, this numbness...

The bosun's mates grabbed Dudley's arms and lashed them tightly to
the grating at the wrists, then followed suit with his legs. When the
man could not move, when the knots were tried for security and found
satisfactory, the master-at-arms turned to Thorne and reported,
"Seized up, sir!"

Thorne nodded, then opened his copy of the Articles of War, the holy
writ governing all aspects of life in His Majesty's Navy, and went
immediately to number thirty. Holding the Articles as if it were the
Bible, he began to read in a hard, merciless voice: "All robbery
committed by any person in the fleet shall be punished with death, or
otherwise, as a court martial, upon consideration of the
circumstances, shall find meet." He closed the Articles, then glared
at Dudley and pointed accusingly at him. "This man is a thief, caught
stealing rum from his shipmates! For this heinous offense, he is
sentence to seventy-two lashes, to be administered at once!"

A low, angry groan went up from the crew at that, and the sound
brought the Marines forward two steps, their muskets rising instantly
into place. And at Hale's signal, bosun's mates fanned throughout the
ranks, imposing silence with brute force.

"Mr. Hale," Thorne ordered in a hard, cold voice, "do your duty!"

An evil smile spread across Hale's face and he stepped forward,
carefully removing his cat from its red baize bag and shaking the
long tails free. It was an ugly device, crafted solely for the
purpose of torture. The handle was made of manilla rope, one inch in
diameter and about two feet long, one end whipped. To the other end
were spliced nine pieces of line, about a quarter-inch in diameter,
these "tails" about two feet long. And because Dudley was being
punished for theft, each tail was knotted every three inches or so.

Standing behind and slightly to one side of Dudley, Hale shook the
cat once more, then swung it back the full reach of his arm and, with
his entire strength, brought it down and across Dudley's naked,
scarred back, tearing an immediate, full-throated scream from the
sailor.

"One!" counted the master-at-arms in a detached, unemotional voice.

Hale struck again, Dudley screamed again, and the master-at-arms
counted again. Roughly every twenty seconds the cat descended upon
Dudley's back with a brutal force, tearing wounds into wounds and
starting a flow of blood that would not be stopped. All the while,
the surgeon watched Dudley to endure he did not lose consciousness,
and Thorne watched Hale to endure he used his full strength. He need
not have worried.

The crack of the lash against unprotected flesh and the hideous,
inhuman sounds of Dudley's screams tore into Archie's mind and soul,
filled him with a pain, a sickness, a horror that threatened to drown
him. He flinched, gasping, with each stroke, and had to bow his head
and close his eyes against the wretched sight. Yet nothing could shut
out the sounds.

Standing near the edge of the crowd at the mainmast, Matthews found
himself watching not Willie Dudley, but Lieutenant Kennedy. He had
seen countless floggings in his lifetime at sea, and though the sight
never failed to distress him, still he was experienced enough to hold
what he felt inside, to pretend to watch without actually seeing, to
spare himself unnecessary agony. But that young man, he knew, had not
yet learned that, and his heart went out to the lad for all the
anguish he so obviously felt.

"No," Styles said quietly, catching Matthews' arm as the man started
forward. "Best to leave him be."

Matthews looked up sharply, and was startled to see that his mate's
dark eyes were not on him, but on Kennedy, and that the scarred face
wore an expression of concern every bit as deep as his own. "He's not
seen anythin' like this," Matthews objected in a low, worried voice.
"If sommat's not done--"

"There's nowt to be done," Styles told him, still watching Kennedy.
"If we make a move, the Marines will fire, you know that. And--" He
swallowed hard and shook his dark head slowly, his mouth twisting
into a bitter scowl. "'E's got to learn t' stand on 'is own, you know
that as well as I. If 'e don't, that bunch up there will eat 'im
alive." He narrowed his eyes slightly, his scrutiny of Kennedy
continuing unbroken. "'E's got it in 'im. 'E only needs t' reach fer
it, and pull it out."

Matthews' frown deepened, and he stared quizzically up at his mate,
astonished by this assessment of Kennedy's character. "I thought ye
didn't like 'im."

At that, Styles switched his attention from Kennedy to Matthews, and
frowned. "I never said I didn't--"

Matthews shrugged. "Ye never said ye did, either."

Styles glared down at the older man. "I don't recall ever sayin' I
liked anythin'!" he retorted sharply. "But that don't mean--"

"All right, all right!" Matthews soothed, raising his hands in a
placating gesture. "But the way ye've talked about 'im in the past--"

"The past is the past," Styles grumbled, staring down at the deck.
"Maybe I just never really seen what 'e's like." He grinned suddenly
and looked up. "'E knows guns, though, I can tell ye that! An' 'e
knows 'ow to stand up to that bastard 'Ale." His gaze drifted again
to Kennedy, and the smile faded, replaced by a look of sorrow. "'E
don't belong 'ere," he murmured. "It'll kill 'im, sure as I'm
standin' 'ere."

Matthews sighed and frowned, shaking his grizzled head slowly. "Don't
none of us belong 'ere," he said softly. "An' if we stay much longer,
this damned ship will kill us all."
**********

Archie tried not to watch, tried not to see, not to hear.
Desperately, he resorted to the trick first learned in his childhood,
then perfected in Justinian, of retreating into himself, of pulling
his mind out of the present and sending it as far from this horror as
was possible. That trick had enabled him to survive Jack Simpson, had
enabled him to survive bleak imprisonment and that damned Spanish
hole. Except that he had sent his mind so far away that time he had
almost not gotten it back. Would not have gotten it back, if not for
Horatio.

Horatio...

The crack of the lash and the terrible sound of a scream ending upon
a thick, heavy gurgle ripped his mind from the safety it had almost
found and dragged it back to the present, tearing a soft groan from
him. God, was he to be denied even that refuge here? Looking up, he
saw the surgeon hurrying forward to Willie Dudley, whose head had
sunk as far forward as the grating would allow. Grabbing the man's
pigtail, the surgeon pulled his head back and shoved two fingers
against his throat, seeking a pulse. Archie did not know whether he
should pray for the man to find one or not.

"Water!" the surgeon shouted harshly, letting go the head and
stepping back.

A bosun's mate came forward, carrying a bucket. At the surgeon's nod,
he slung the bucket forwrd, throwing water over Dudley's back and
rousing the man from his stupor. The surgeon nodded again, then
turned and walked away. Hale resumed the flogging, and the
master-at-arms continued his relentless counting.

"Thirty-three!"

Archie gasped and shuddered, then closed his eyes tightly and pressed
a badly shaking hand to his forehead, where the ache now throbbed in
time to Hale's lash. Yet he found that if he concentrated on the
headache, he could almost forget about the flogging. Anything was
better than that...

By the fortieth lash, Dudley was no longer screaming, had gone
utterly, dreadfully silent. At forty-six, Hale ceased, glaring at the
man and gesturing the surgeon forward once more. This time, however,
water would not help.

"He's dead," the surgeon announced with not the slightest trace of
emotion. "Might as well cut him down."

"'E can't be!" Hale shouted furiously. "'E was sentenced t'
seventy-two--"

The surgeon shrugged. "You may go on, if you wish, but it will do no
good. I tell you, the man is dead."

Hale swore foully and strode forward, but saw that the surgeon was
right. Dudley was dead. "Cut th' bastard down!" he ordered his mates.
Still fuming, his anger a palpable force, he made his way to where
Thorne stood and saluted. "'E's dead, all right, sir," he reported
through clenched teeth. "Wot should we do wi' 'im?"

Thorne scowled blackly, infuriated that Dudley should have escaped
justice in this manner. "Throw him over the side," he ordered coldly.

Archie's head came up at that and he stared in shock at Thorne.
"Sir!" he gasped without thinking, his soul flooding with horror.
"You cannot--"

"Cannot what, Mr. Kennedy?" Thorne spat, turning upon the lieutenant
in a rage. "Do you forget that I have command--"

"I do not, sir! But you cannot just throw a man over like-- like so
much offal--"

"I can, and I will," Thorne hissed, his eyes glittering, "for that is
exactly what he is! Human offal! He was a convicted thief--"

"He stole only rum, sir!" Archie protested, his blue eyes wide in his
white face. "He--"

"What he stole is not important," Thorne seethed, staring
malevolently at Kennedy. "That he stole is! And a thief--"

"Even a thief has a Christian soul and deserves a Christian burial!"
Archie insisted. "My God, sir, you cannot in charity--"

"MR. KENNEDY!" Thorne shouted, his eyes glittering like diamonds in
his red face. "One more word from you, sir, ONE MORE WORD, and I
shall have you placed under close arrest! Is that understood?"

Styles started forward at that, his face black with rage, and
Matthews grabbed him hard and held him, calling upon Oldroyd to help
him. "You'll do him no good!" he hissed into his struggling mate's
ear. "He'll be thrown into the brig, and you'll be at the gratings!
And that won't help any of us!"

Archie stared at Thorne in wordless shock and horror, unable to utter
a single word. He was trembling now with rage, and clenched his hands
so tightly into fists he could feel his fingernails cutting into his
palms. He hated Thorne as he had rarely hated anyone in his entire
life, and the full force of that hatred shone plainly on his face.

"I mean it, Mr. Kennedy," Thorne warned in a low, harsh voice. "One
more word, just one, and I will have you arrested. I would not try
me, if I were you."

Even so, Archie opened his mouth to speak. And Thorne gestured for
the Marines.

A thousand thoughts whirled through Archie's mind at once, yet one
managed to make itself clear. If he allowed himself to be arrested,
he would be of no use -- no help -- to the men. And it was clear now
as never before that he was all they had.

As bitterness churned violently through his soul, as rage tore at his
heart, he closed his mouth and ripped his gaze from Thorne's, then
bowed his head in sick acquiescence.

Thorne smiled thinly in triumph and waved the Marines back. "Well,"
he gloated smugly, "you see who is in command now!" He turned to Hale
and gestured insolently toward Dudley's body. "Mr. Hale, pitch me
that scum overboard! I'll not have a thief befouling the deck of my
ship!"

Hale grinned wolfishly and saluted, then motioned forward two of his
mates, who grabbed Dudley's lifeless, bloody form and carried it to
the side.

Archie stared hard at the deck, his eyes and mind burning, and,
hearing a splash, silently recited a prayer for the soul of Willie
Dudley. And for the souls of all held captive in this floating hell.
**********