Ship of the Damned, part twenty
by Sue N.

The grim and desperate battle for control of Resolute raged on and
below the quarter-deck as the mutineers sought to take the ship once
and for all. But Stewart refused to surrender, much to Matthews'
surprise. The lad showed a fighting spirit he never would have
expected, and a knack for firing others to that same spirit. Still,
he was young, inexperienced, and rash. Matthews longed for a cooler,
wiser head, though he was grateful for what he had.

But, good Lord, where was Mr. Kennedy?

The Marines -- or what remained of them -- were now on deck and
trying to reach the quarter-deck. Seeing them, needing them, Stewart
called his own men forward to give them covering fire. All at once, a
figure broke from the shadows at the mainmast and ran forward,
screaming wildly in pain and terror. Stewart looked down, and
recognized Midshipman George.

"There, lads!" he cried, pointing to the midshipman. "Gi' 'im
cover--"

But it was too late. Finney's lot had also seen the midshipman, their
nemesis, and fell upon him like a pack of blood-crazed wolves,
swinging cutlasses, tomahawks, whatever they had to hand. He went
down amid the crush of vengeful bodies, and was all but hacked to
pieces. Stewart's stomach turned over at the sight, but he knew he
could not afford to be sick.

Not now. Not yet. After...

There was a new commotion at the foot of the quarter-deck, at the
companionway, and Stewart re-directed the fire. But muskets were
emptying at an alarming rate, and he feared they could not hold out
much longer.

Through the haze of smoke, a fair head appeared at the top of the
ladder, and Stewart heaved a sigh of relief. "Mr. Kennedy!" he
shouted. "Och, thank God, sair! Thanks be t' God!"

Archie pulled himself onto the deck, then onto his feet, hurting as
he had never hurt before. But Styles was immediately behind him,
lending strength and support. With his left arm hanging useless at
his side, he staggered forward to Stewart, his face deathly white in
the monlight.

"The captain is dead," he rasped. "We are on our own."

Stewart bowed his head at that, and Matthews swore under his breath.
But Archie, managing to hold himself together, looked about the
quarter-deck, taking in their situation. "How many are we?" he
breathed.

Stewart swallowed and forced himself to think. "We've about fifteen
up here, sair," he reported. "Marines are below -- six, I think --
and tryin' to reach us. The mutineers hold the foc'sle an' the decks
below. But I've noticed fighting still on the maindeck-- I think,
sair, some o' the lads are havin' second thoughts."

"They should never have had that first one!" Archie said bitterly.
Then, raising a hand to his head, he repeatedly went over the
numbers, the positions, the weapons, in his mind, but always came up
with the same answer. "We'll never hold her," he breathed. "By sheer
numbers, they are bound to prevail."

Stewart went white at that; the possibility of defeat had never
occurred to him. "Sair?"

Archie turned and stared over the railing, unable now even to see the
lights of the Indy. "But she is there," he breathed, not knowing he
spoke the words aloud. "She must be! Captain Pellew would never leave
his station. And when he sees-- what has happened--" He turned again
and stared up at the rigging. She was under reefed topsails only. But
the mutineers could easily get her under full sail...

"Matthews, Styles," he called quietly, bringing the men to him at
once. "We cannot leave them a ship ready to make sail. We must ensure
the Indy takes her."

"Aye, sir," they agreed together.

He continued to stare up at the rigging, considering her poorly
patched sails and the possibility of slashing them into uselessness.
"But I dare not send men aloft," he said aloud. "They would be easy
targets--" He sighed and squared his shoulders, though the left one
hurt unmercifully. "We must bring down her masts."

"Sir?" Styles gasped. "What--"

"We must train the quarter-deck guns on the masts and bring them
down. We must, God help me, fire upon our own ship."

Styles wanted to protest, but had no other course of action to offer.
Matthews merely set his mouth hard and nodded grimly, seeing the
sense of it at once.

"I will fire the shots myself," Archie went on. "I have no idea how
the Admiralty will look upon this, and I will not leave any man save
myself open to disciplinary action. But I will require a team to
load--"

"Ye've got one, sir," Styles said quietly, without hesitation. "And,
if ye don't mind, we'll aim her for ye." He grinned bleakly. "It
takes two good shoulders for that, sir."

Archie nodded, regarding the man soberly. "Thank you. I'll have the
foremast first, if you please. Swing 'round one of the twelves. And
God help us if we hole her."

While Stewart directed what covering fire was possible, and as the
remaining Marines at last reached the quarter-deck, Matthews and a
hastily gathered crew seized upon one of the twelve-pounders and
worked furiously to loose her from the ring-bolts that secured her to
the ship's side. While his mates toiled at the gun, Styles looked
again at Kennedy, who had sunk to his knees and was resting against
the wheel.

"God damned officers!" he growled. Then, looking about, he spied a
dead sailor nearby, and his gaze fixed upon the bright scarf still
knotted about the man's neck. With another growl, he stalked forward
and knelt at the dead man's side, hurriedly untying the scarf without
the smallest twinge of remorse. Kennedy needed it more than a
corpse...

Archie sagged weakly against the wheel, closing his eyes and
breathing heavily, his shoulder and arm on fire, his head throbbing
tightly. Consciousness threatened to desert him, but he clung to it
with a desperate ferocity, holding the looming darkness at bay by
sheer force of will. Even so, he never felt Styles' hands unbuttoning
his jacket and taking it from him, never felt the blade slicing
through his waistcoat and shirt or the fingers pulling the cloth away
from his flesh. Only when a wad of cloth was thrust into the wound,
bringing it once more to agonizing life, did he revive, and then with
a thick cry of torment.

"Jesus, sir, I'm sorry!" Styles whispered in a shaking voice as
Kennedy flinched violently and cried out horribly. "But it's got to
be done before ye bleed t' death!"

Archie gasped heavily for every breath as the pain seared through to
his spine. Tears slid down his face, cutting rivulets through the
blood and powder grime, and he bit his lip until it bled just to keep
from screaming. Still he fought to hold onto ebbing consciousness,
refusing stubbornly the lure of blessed oblivion. He would not desert
his post...

Styles gently replaced Kennedy's jacket and buttoned it to hold the
scarf in place, wishing all the while the young man would simply let
go and let himself collapse. He had never imagined Kennedy possessed
such determination, and had to respect it even as he lamented it. He
knew now just how badly he had misjudged the young man in the past,
and deeply regretted it.

"Rest, sir, please," he soothed, easing Kennedy back against the
wheel. "Ye've done yer best--"

"No," Archie breathed faintly, forcing his eyes open and struggling
to focus them on Styles' face. "Not yet. Have-- have to cripple her--
for the Indy--"

"We can do it--"

"No!" he rasped, reaching for Styles' arm with his good hand and
clinging tightly, desperately to it. "It is-- my responsibility--
Please!" he whispered. "I cannot-- abandon my duty! Too many others
already have-- You see what it has led to."

"This is not yer fault!" Styles said harshly, his dark eyes filled
with anger. "Ye couldn't have stopped it! Ye tried yer best--"

"And I must continue trying," Archie said softly. "You do understand,
don't you?"

"No!" Styles snarled. Then, exhaling sharply, he hung his head and
shook it. "Yes."

Archie smiled slightly. "I knew you would. You're a good man. I am
grateful to have you with me."

Styles looked up at that, startled. "Sir?"

Archie continued to regard him with that weak smile. "We've come a
long way, haven't we?" he murmured. "From Justinian--" He swallowed
and forced himself to sit up on his own, groaning at the fresh waves
of pain that sliced through his shoulder. "But we still have a ways
to go-- Help me, please," he asked suddenly, softly. "I do not
think-- I can stand."

Against his better judgment, Styles circled a strong arm about the
lieutenant and helped him carefully to his feet, tightening his hold
upon him when Kennedy reeled heavily against him. "Just take yer
time, sir," he urged quietly. "We ain't in no rush."

Archie nodded, but said nothing. Speaking was a strain upon his
strength he could not afford. Pray God he could rest soon...

Matthews came up and eyed the lieutenant worriedly, wondering why the
lad didn't simply let himself fall. "Sir?" he called softly. "The
gun's ready."

Archie nodded and opened his eyes. "Thank you," he breathed.
Gathering his failing strength to him, he pushed himself away from
Styles and made his way on unsteady legs to the waiting gun. Assured
that she was properly loaded, he took linstock in a shaking hand and
uttered a brief prayer.

"Clear!" he shouted hoarsely, waiting until every man had run to
safety. With another prayer -- and a petition for pardon -- he
lowered the linstock to the touch hole, and fired upon Resolute.

The shot resounded in the night with a deep, hideous crash, and was
answered at once with a chorus of screams. The shot had missed the
mast and plowed into the deck, injuring, maiming and killing
countless men there. Archie's heart turned cold, but he knew he had
to try again.

"Matthews, Styles!" he rasped. "Bring her two points larboard."

"Two points larboard, aye," Matthews answered instinctively, getting
the crew to work at once.

While Matthews tended the gun, Styles turned his attention to
Kennedy. The young man was swaying noticeably upon his feet, and
holding tightly to the railing to keep from falling. Styles doubted
he had much more fight left in him.

"She's ready, sir," Matthews called.

The words floated to Archie across a great distance, and for long
moments he did not understand them. And even when understanding
dawned, he was not certain he could let go of the railing and walk
the few short steps needed to reach the gun. But the mast had to come
down; he had to make certain the Indy could take her.

"Sir!" Styles shouted, rushing forward and catching him just as he
fell. "God, sir, what're ye doin'? Let one of us--"

"No," Archie whispered, refusing to hand over the linstock. "It is my
responsibility-- I must do this!" he insisted softly, staring
pleadingly up at Styles.

The big man grimaced deeply, admiration for Kennedy's spirit mingling
with anger at his stubbornness. "Aye, I know," he said roughly.
"Duty!"

Archie swallowed and nodded. "Yes, Styles. Duty. You understand,
don't you?"

He sighed sharply. "Aye, I do. I don't like it one bloody bit, but I
understand. Just-- try to avoid the recoil!"

Archie grinned weakly. "I will." He straightened with an effort and
glanced about the deck. "Clear!" he called with what strength he
could muster.

Again the men removed themselves to safety, and again he found the
touch hole. Immediately, the gun belched forth powder and shot with a
deep-throated blast, and this time the shot carried true, tearing
through the mast and carrying half of it away. A cheer went up from
the quarter-deck, while, on the main deck, a shocked stillness fell
over the mutineers.

Archie sank weakly to his knees, only vaguely aware of what he had
done. But as Matthews and Styles rushed to him and urged him to rest,
he shook his head and, clutching at Styles, fought to his feet once
more. And though they stared at him as if he were mad, he said
softly, exhaustedly, "I will have the mainmast now."
**********

On the foc'sle, rousing himself from his shock, Showell shouted for
silence from the men about him and glared aft at the quarter-deck. He
had never expected such resistance, had thought to take Resolute
after only a few minutes of fighting. The men should have flocked to
his side, should have seen their cause was lost and rushed to join
him. But someone, someone had sparked their fighting spirit, and was
threatening to blow the ship apart rather than surrender her into his
hands. And he knew exactly who it was.

"Kennedy!" he spat. "Kennedy an' them damned Indefatigables-- Right
then, lads, let's give 'em a fight! Nash! Swing 'round one o' them
nines!"
**********

Pellew raced up the ladder to the quarter-deck, clad in nightshirt
and dressing gown, as another volley sounded across the water. "What
in God's name is happening?" he growled, fairly snatching the glass
from Bracegirdle's hand and training it upon the distant flashes.

"I don't know, sir," the first lieutenant admitted in a deep
confusion. "Resolute is firing--"

"Yes, I can hear that!" Pellew snapped. "But at what?" He scanned the
distance intently, but could see nothing. The first blush of coming
dawn was beginning to lighten the sky, but it was of no help.
"Another ship? And if so, where is she?"

Bracegirdle shook his head tightly, his frustration matching the
captain's. "There is no other ship, sir, not that we can see."

"Then what the devil is she firing at?"

"Sir," the lieutenant answered with a sinking feeling of awful
certainty, "it would seem-- she is firing upon herself."
**********

The shot from the foc'sle plowed into the mizzenmast, bringing it
down and sending a shower of splinters across the quarter-deck.
Styles howled as one of the shards, a foot-long spear of pine,
imbedded itself in his upper left arm, while another tore a deep and
bloody furrow across his chest.

"Styles!" Archie shouted as the big man fell. Bleeding from his own
countless cuts, he pulled himself across the deck to where Styles
lay, praying he would not be sick. One of the bodies over which he
had crawled had been Master Trent's, with head and one arm torn off.

"I'm all right, sir," Styles gasped, forcing himself upright.
"Matthews--"

"Leg wound," Archie reported. "He will be fine. We've got to silence
that gun!"

Styles stared at him in outright astonishment. "Ye don't give up, do
ye, sir?"

"Not anymore," Archie breathed. "Can you help me, or are you too
badly hurt?"

Styles laughed aloud at that. "Me? Badly 'urt? Jesus, sir, 'ave ye
looked at yerself lately?" When Kennedy met his jest with an
expression of utter confusion, Styles sighed and forced himself to
his feet, then carefully pulled the lieutenant to his. "All right,
then, sir, let's finish this. I'm damned tired o' those bastards!"
**********

Indefatigable beat to quarters, and hands poured from every section
of the ship to battle stations. Within moments, Bowles had her turned
toward Resolute and bearing down under a great spread of sail, like a
bird of prey with its victim sighted. Pellew, now in uniform, paced
the quarter-deck with tight, fierce movements, his face set hard, his
glittering gaze fixed upon the shadowy form of Resolute.

And at his station with the larboard nine-pounders and carronades,
Horatio, too, stared fixedly at the distant frigate, seeing the
flashes of guns, hearing the thunder of their firing, and racked with
fear for the friend caught up in that madness.

Good God, Archie, he cried silently, his nerves rioting, what is
happening over there?
**********

"Sir!" Stewart cried wildly. "Mr. Kennedy, it's Indefatigable! Praise
the Lord, sir, she's comin' like an angel of mercy!"

Archie looked up and felt his soul rise sharply at the glorious
sight. It was, indeed, the Indy, driving toward them under all the
sail she could carry, plowing through the waters like Neptune's own
chariot. Never had she looked so beautiful as she did now, and tears
slid down his cheeks.

<And should you ever -- ever! -- need us, sir, we are but a
cannon-hail away.> Oh, God, he had heard the guns!

With the last of his strength, he turned to Styles and, mimicking the
man's own words from an occasion now forgotten, smiled weakly and
rasped, "It's the bloody Indy--"

His words ended amid a tremendous explosion that rocked the
quarter-deck and flung him into the air. White-hot shards of pain
tore agonizingly into his chest and abdomen, wrenching an anguished
cry from him. Then, mercifully, blackness engulfed him, dragging him
into a void deeper than the sea itself. He felt nothing more, not
even when he collided violently with the wheel and dropped to the
deck beneath it.
**********