Ship of the Damned, part two
by Sue N.

The day, after what seemed a month of storms, was as
beautiful as any he could remember. The cloudless sky
stretched above him like an infinite canopy, its deep,
shining blue so intense it almost hurt the eye to
behold. The glorious golden warmth of the sun engulfed
him and sank deep into him, finally easing the chill
that so many days and nights of driving rain, slashing
wind and wild seas had seemed to make a permanent part
of him.

How could he ever have taken for granted what a wonder
it was just to be dry and warm?

He wondered if anyone else about him felt the
particular magic of a day like this, a day so
miraculous it could banish entirely the darkness, cold
and fear inflicted by a shattering succession of
brutal storms. Did they notice the deep blue colour
and gently heaving swell of the jewel-bright sea, the
crisp snap of taut sails, the rhythmic song of the
rigging in the steady wind, or the laughter and spirit
of men who once again had triumphed in the very face
of death? He fervently hoped they did, for only then
could they understand how he had come to love his
ship, his world, his life, as fiercely as he did.

"Mr. Kennedy, report!"

The crisp command, rapped out imperiously as Captain
Pellew stepped upon the quarter-deck, shattered his
reverie and jolted him back to the present.

"Sail to starboard, sir," he answered, "about three
points off the quarter. She's hull down and still too
distant for me to discern her nationality. But it is
most definitely a sail."

Pellew strode past his lieutenant to the starboard
railing and stared out for long moments, narrowing his
eyes against the glare of sun and sea, then nodded.
"Aye, there she is. Good eyes, Mr. Kennedy, to see her
at this distance."

Archie straightened as a flush of pride swept through
him. At his side, Horatio smiled and bowed his head
slightly, as if in congratulation.

"Deck, there!" Midshipman Hardy called down from the
maintop, his young voice quavering with excitement and
ultimately breaking, as it was prone to do of late.
"She's one of ours! I still can't quite make her out,
but she's definitely a frigate, and British by her
sail plan!"

Pellew frowned deeply and drummed his fingers on the
rail, his mind working. The sail plan was no
guarantee; the Dons had been known to employ such
ruses before. No, best to take no chances.

"Mr. Edmund," he called to the quartermaster, "stand
by to beat to quarters!"

"Aye aye, sir!" Edmund barked.

"Well, gentlemen," Pellew turned back to his
lieutenants and fixed his keen gaze upon them, "any
speculation? What ships of ours do we know of in these
same waters?"

Both frowned in concentration, reviewing ships they
had encountered or had word of during their past three
months in the area, then Horatio supplied
thoughtfully, "Corinth, perhaps? She-- "

"No," Pellew broke in, "she was recalled to Channel
duty. She would be off Ushant by now. And Dauntless
was given convoy duty-- Who is she?" he hissed
impatiently, turning back to stare at the newcomer.

Hornblower joined him at the rail and watched the ship
with equal interest. "Whoever she is," he said
quietly, "she is a listless sailor. She should be
making better time with this wind. Damaged, perhaps?"

"Or a trap, hoping to catch us with our guard down."

Horatio glanced at his captain and thought that highly
unlikely. Pellew had about him all the coiled
intensity, the fierce concentration of the hunter on
the prowl, his every predatory instinct now fully
engaged. From this moment on, nothing that ship could
possibly do would take this man by surprise. Not for
the first time, Hornblower was put in mind of a wolf
among the sheep.

"Look!" Archie cried, pointing. "She's tacking-- She's
seen us!" He opened his glass quickly and peered
through it, watching the frigate's oddly clumsy
maneuverings. "She's coming about-- No, she missed
stays. God, that's sloppy work! She's trying again-- "
Unconsciously, he held his breath. "Aye, here she
comes. She's coming about, sir! Likely we'll see a
signal soon!"

"Very good, Mr. Kennedy," Pellew murmured, taking out
his own glass and raising it to his eye. His firm
mouth turned down in a frown of disapproval. The young
man was right; the sailing was sloppy. He could not
imagine what captain would tolerate such.

Thy waited in a taut, expectant silence for what
seemed an eternity, all eyes fastened to the ship and
narrowed against the glare of the sun. Horatio clasped
his hands tightly behind his back and discreetly
shifted his weight from foot to foot, while Archie
chewed his lower lip and drummed his fingers on the
railing. And though Pellew gave no outward sign of
emotion, inwardly he seethed that such appalling
seamanship should be exhibited by a British frigate.

God forbid he should ever allow HIS crew to sink to so
abysmal a depth of ineptitudeÖ

With lumbering, agonizing slowness she drew nearer,
and still no signal did she make. Pellew could wait no
longer. In a voice of deepest calm he gave the order,
and Edmund piped all hands to quarters. The drummers
took up the command, calling the men to their
stations, and all at once, the crew poured across the
ship to the sounds of bare feet slapping against the
deck, orders being shouted, hammocks being stowed. Men
raced up the rigging and down ladders to their posts,
and all decks were cleared of everything that could be
for action. Suddenly, Indefatigable seemed to come
alive, a ship throbbing to the pulsing beat of every
heart within her.

Archie took quick leave of Horatio and rushed off the
quarter-deck to take his position with the guns,
already going over in his mind every action that must
be taken. As ever, he felt the heated rush of
excitement through his veins and the hard clench of
fear in his belly, but both were, by now, familiar,
and therefore manageable. And soon, he knew, he would
be much too busy to notice either.

Normally, Horatio's position during battle was to
oversee the larboard nine-pounder long guns and
24-pounder carronades. This day, however, he would
have added responsibilities, for with Mr. Bracegirdle
still confined to the surgery with injuries received
during the storms, he would also be acting as first
lieutenant. He prayed he was up to the task. He
glanced briefly at his captain, and saw a figure of
taut, grim resolve, dark eyes hard, firm jaw set, head
slightly lifted, strong hands gripping the folded
telescope. He was in every way a man in full command
of himself and those about him, and Horatio envied
that deeply.

However calm he appeared outwardly, however, inwardly
Pellew felt the intense thrill of the hunt singing
through his veins. This was what he loved: facing and
meeting the enemy on the open water, sighting his prey
and giving chase, pitting his skill against any who
would threaten his ship, his crew and his country. He
had no qualms, no doubts, for he knew this crew, knew
there was not a better one to be found, knew they had
no match, much less superior, in all the world. And if
he were given but half a chance, he would prove it.
Aye, and prove it gladly!

"Have the guns run out, Mr. Hornblower!" he ordered
crisply, his eyes beginning to gleam like polished
obsidian. The young man conveyed his order in a firm,
carrying voice, and soon the decks of Indefatigable
resounded with the scrape and thunder of cannon being
run out upon their carriages and through the ports as
the ship showed her teeth.

"Deck, there!" came the hail. "Sir, she's signalling!"

"About bloody damned time!" Pellew growled, snapping
open his glass and raising it to his eye. "What signal
is she making?" he called.

There was a pause as Hardy consulted the signal book
and interpreted the flags being run up by the opposing
ship. "She-- she's making her number, sir!
Forty-one--" He glanced down at the book and ran his
finger along the list. "She's the Resolute, sir!"

Pellew continued to stare at the approaching ship.
Resolute was a small frigate, a sixth-rate with only
28 guns, and older than Indefatigable. Even so, she
deserved better handling than she was getting...

"Make the recognition signal," he ordered. "Let's see
if she gives the correct response."

Horatio exhaled slowly and stared up, watching as the
series of flags was hoisted. Another tense period of
waiting ensued, and he found himself silently counting
the seconds. Twenty... thirty... Good God, what were
they doing over there? Forty-five...

"Aye, sir, she's making the proper response!" Hardy
called out, sounding more than a little disappointed.
"She's Resolute, all right." And that meant there
would be no battle...

Pellew's expression never softened, and his stance
never relaxed. "Mr. Hornblower, order the men to stand
down. And Mr. Hardy," he called in a grim tone,
"signal the captain of Resolute. My compliments, and I
should be glad of his company in my cabin in one
hour!"
**********

Resolute lay alongside Indefatigable, and, still on
watch, Kennedy studied her with a slight frown. She
was considerably smaller than the Indy, and, though he
knew he tended to regard all ships as somehow inferior
to his, it would have been clear even to the most
objective eye that this one certainly was.

She had a rather slovenly look to her that was unusual
in any ship of the Royal Navy. Her sails were crudely
patched and unkempt, and her rigging nowhere as taut
as any captain should have liked. He could see she had
been through a battle, and the repairs looked only
half-hearted at best. She was a dull, drab, almost
sullen figure squatting in the shadow of the Indy's
glory.

"Well, Archie, what d'you think?" Horatio asked
quietly as he came upon his friend. His gaze, as well,
was rived to Resolute.

"I think Captain Pellew would set us all adrift if we
ever allowed that to happen!"

Horatio gave a wry smile. "It is a pity, isn't it? She
could be a pretty ship, if-- "

"If her captain and crew cared?" Archie finished for
him. He grimaced. "Can you imagine what she must look
like below?"

"No, and I'd rather not!" Horatio retorted. "I've seen
enough stinking holes in my time, thank you, and I
would just as soon-- "

"Boat's coming off," Archie interrupted softly as the
barge left Resolute's shadow. "Strange," he murmured,
frowning, "I didn't hear any pipes, did you?"

"No, I didn't." He sighed. "Well, shall I report, or
will you?"

Archie turned away from the frigate. "I suppose I
should, as I'm still on watch. For another ten
minutes, anyway." He grinned at his friend. "I trust
you'll not let her sink in my absence?"

"Oh, no," Horatio assured him, his brown eyes
twinkling. "I shall leave that honour to you!"

"Villain," Archie retorted.

Horatio drew himself up to his full height and
glowered down at the smaller Kennedy. "May I remind
you, Lieutenant, that Article Twenty forbids
contemptuous words to any superior officer? I could
have you court-martialled and removed from the Service
for that!"

"Horrors!" Archie gasped, clapping a hand to his
heart. "Oh, sir, what was I thinking?" With an
elaborate flourish, he swept his hat from his head and
bent forward in a low and elegant bow, his left foot
forward, his hat down by his right knee. "I apologize
most humbly, Your Reverence, and beg your forgiveness
of my unworthy person!"

Horatio inclined his head and frowned, screwing his
features into a mask of dramatic concentration. "Well,
I suppose a truly great officer should be
compassionate, tempering justice with mercy-- " He
returned Kennedy's bow. "Lieutenant, you are forgiven.
No mention of this transgression shall appear in your
record."

If possible, Kennedy's bow went even lower. "Most
Grand Signor, you are benevolence itself, and I am not
worthy of your generosity!" Then, with all the grace
and grandeur drilled him into by his childhood dancing
master, he straightened, replaced his hat and saluted
gravely, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. When Horatio
returned his salute most soberly, Archie turned
lightly away and quickly departed the quarter-deck
before either of them could burst into laughter.