Ship of the Damned, part six
by Sue N.

"You are doing WHAT?" Horatio asked sharply, his brown
eyes wide. He stared at his friend in stunned
surprise, refusing to believe he had heard aright.
"Archie-- "

"I will be sailing in Resolute until we make
Gibraltar," Archie repeated evenly, the worst of his
own shock past and given way now to weary resignation.
"She is badly short-handed, and Captain Pellew offered
to send a complement of men and an officer to help.
And since I am junior here," he smiled crookedly, "the
privilege fell to me."

Horatio rose abruptly from his seat at the wardroom
table and began to pace, shaking his head slightly and
scowling. "But why? Why send you? Why send anyone? Why
not simply-- "

"What?" Archie countered quietly, his gaze following
his friendís agitated movements. "Leave them to
flounder about on their own? Come, now, Horatio, you
don't mean that. You've seen that ship, you know what
a sorry state she's in. It is our duty to help them."

Reason told Horatio that Archie was right, that they
could not simply sail off and leave Resolute as she
was, yet instinct told him that was exactly what they
must do, and the sooner the better. That ship was in a
sorry state, and he suspected there was more to the
reason than a shortage of crew.

God, even Justinian had looked smarter than Resolute!

"We will be sailing together, Resolute and
Indefatigable," Archie went on, not certain whether he
was trying to reassure Horatio or himself. "So we will
never be more than a cannon-hail away. And when we get
to Gibraltar, I shall come back to the Indy. It is
only temporary."

Horatio sighed sharply in frustration, then dropped
back down onto the bench across the table from Archie.
"I do not like it-- "

"Yes, well, I am not thrilled, either," Archie said
with a touch of wry humour, "and Captain Pellew
certainly was not happy. But," he shrugged, "I do not
believe there is anything in the Articles of War that
states officers must like their duty to do it."

Horatio managed a smile for his friend's sake. "We
must do something about that, then," he quipped. "When
next we are in England, remind me to bring the
oversight to the Admiralty's attention."

"Oh, I shall, Lieutenant Hornblower!" Archie assured
him with a wicked smile. "And no doubt the Admiralty
shall let you choose which ship you wished to be
hanged on! Until then, however, perhaps you can help
me decide which men to take with me."

"How many?" Horatio asked, trying to reconcile himself
to this unforeseen -- and thoroughly unpleasant --
turn.

"Ten."

"TEN?" he cried, all his former misgivings springing
back to life. "Only ten? For that-- that-- Good God,
Archie, ten men will never be enough-- "

"Yes, but ten are all I am getting, so they will have
to do," Archie said stoically. "And we are only going
over to help, not to take over the ship. So ten should
be fine. Now, will you help me pick them or not?"

Horatio grimaced and bowed his head, realizing his
friend was trying his best to accept this and make the
best of it, and that he should do the same. "All
right," he sighed. "Ten, eh?" He frowned in thought.
"Well, naturally, you should take Matthews-- "

"Good!" Archie breathed in relief. "I was hoping you
would say so. Frankly, I cannot think of anyone I
would rather have with me for such a task."

Horatio smiled slightly. "And there is no one I would
rather send! If you are only allowed ten, you might as
well take one who equals three or four. And Styles, of
course-- "

"Styles?" Archie repeated softly, his eyes and voice
filled with uncertainty. Try as he might, he could
never feel easy around the man, always felt as if
Styles were watching him for some sign of weakness,
some excuse not to follow him. And in Justinian, he
had been one of Simpson's preferred henchmen...

"He's a good man, Archie," Horatio said quietly and
with deepest conviction, "and an able seaman. True, he
can be a bit of a hot-head, but Matthews will keep him
steady. And he has proven himself a valuable man in a
tight spot-- "

"With you, yes," Archie murmured, his reluctance
unabated. "But-- he does not-- He does not think as
highly of me as he does you, that is clear! He saw me
panic at Muzillac-- "

"And he saw you overcome it and then save my life,"
Horatio countered calmly, his brown gaze intent upon
his friend. "Archie, listen to me. Styles is a good
man, but, like any other good man, he has his faults.
And, yes, he has in the past acquired something of a
reputation as an undisciplined troublemaker, and
perhaps not entirely without cause. But," he regarded
his friend searchingly, "surely you, of all people,
would not hold a man's past against him when he has
worked so hard to overcome it? Surely you would not
discount what a man is simply because of what he was?"

Archie flinched as the words struck a nerve, then
bowed his head and stared at the table, his blue eyes
filled with shadows. He, perhaps better than anyone,
knew what a hell-hole Justinian had been, and how
adept Jack Simpson had been at poisoning a man's soul
and twisting his spirit until it broke. But he also
knew how far he had come from that hell-hole, and
reckoned others -- Styles -- might have made the exact
same journey.

"All right," he agreed quietly, "I will take him.
And-- I will consider him upon his merits, as I would
any other."

Horatio smiled slightly and nodded. "That is all I
ask. So," his voice turned brisk, "if you take
Matthews and Styles, you must take Oldroyd. He would
be lost without them, and he is a good man, if not
exactly the brightest."

"And what of Brown and Lewis?" Archie asked. "From the
look of Resolute's sails, she could use some men who
are good with needle and canvas. And Roberts-- "

"The carpenter's mate?" Horatio asked sharply.
"McCready will be furious-- "

"Would you rather I took McCready?"

"No, then the captain would be furious. All right,
Roberts it is. McCready shall simply have to fume."

"Oh, he will do more than fume," Archie said with a
smile, recalling the man's infamous temper. "But I
shall not be here to see it."

"Coward," Horatio teased. "Leaving me here to face his
wrath and smoothe his ruffled feathers, while you-- "

"Yes, well," Archie answered with a sly smile and
gleaming eyes, "as acting first lieutenant, you are
responsible for the crew's morale. Perhaps, sir, an
offer of your spirit ration might smoothe those
feathers nicely?"

"Lieutenant Kennedy," Horatio said with a deep scowl
that never reached his eyes, "you are an unprincipled
rogue-- "

"Perhaps," Archie chuckled. "But I do not have to face
a carpenter with a temper and a tongue that can sear
paint off the Indy's sides!"
**********

While Kennedy retired to his cabin to pack his
dunnage, Horatio summoned the group he and Archie had
decided upon to inform them of their temporary
transfer. And not a one, he could plainly see, was
pleased, though it was Styles, naturally, who put
their displeasure into words.

"Transfer? To that stinkin' barge?" he protested
sharply, his dark eyes filled with furious disbelief.
"Sir-- "

"Resolute is a frigate," Horatio countered quietly,
standing straight and meeting that glare evenly, "one
of His Majesty's frigates, and you will remember that.
It is our duty to assist our comrades in need,
whatever our personal preferences. So while you are
there, I shall expect you to conduct yourself as
sailors in His Majesty's Navy, and as representatives
of Indefatigable and Captain Pellew. Is that
understood?" When there was no answer, he frowned and
stepped closer to the still-fuming man. "Is that
understood, Styles?" he asked pointedly.

"Aye aye, sir," Styles muttered sourly, earning a
frown and a shake of the head from Matthews.

"Good," Horatio said. "I will also expect each of you
to give Mr. Kennedy your utmost cooperation. Resolute
is as short of officers as she is of ratings, and I
have no doubt he will need every man jack of you to go
beyond the normal limits of your duty without
complaint, just as I know he will. I do not doubt that
your time in Resolute will be difficult. However, it
goes without saying that none of you will make it any
more difficult than it has to be." Again, his gaze
sought out Styles' scarred, glowering face. "Do I make
myself clear?"

A chorus of "aye aye, sirs" greeted his words, though
Styles' seemed rather more grudging than most.

"Very well, then," Horatio said. "Go below and gather
your belongings. You will be called when it is time to
go. Dismissed." Men knuckled foreheads in salute, and
he turned away to leave.

"Mr. 'ornblower, sir?"

Styles' voice startled him, brought him up short. Not
knowing what to expect, he turned about, and saw that
Matthews, frowning thoughtfully at Styles, was as
uneasy as he. Forcing an attitude of calm command, he
went back to the men. "Yes?"

"Sir," Styles began quietly, his dark gaze fixed upon
the young man, his expression guarded, "won't you be
goin' with us?"

Horatio sighed heavily and frowned, certain he had
made that part clear. "No, Styles, I will not. Mr.
Kennedy will be the officer in charge." He lifted his
chin in a fair -- if unconscious -- imitation of the
captain and clasped his hands behind his back, arching
two dark brows. "Is there a problem?"

"Oh, no, sir," Matthews answered quickly, hoping to
save his mate from landing himself in trouble, "no
problem at all." He nudged Styles in the ribs with an
elbow. "We'll go below now an'-- "

But Styles was in no mood to be moved. "It's no
problem, sir," he said quietly, evenly, a challenge
lurking in his eyes. "It's just that you've more
experience than 'im, and if it's likely to be as
difficult as you say-- "

"Are you saying you doubt Mr. Kennedy's abilities?"
Horatio asked coldly, his brown eyes flashing with
anger. "That is insubordination-- "

"I weren't sayin' nothin' like that, sir!" Styles said
defensively. "I just-- "

"What?" Horatio demanded, stepping closer and glaring
at the bigger man. "You want to pick and choose which
officers you will follow and which you will not, is
that it? Perhaps it has escaped your notice, Styles,"
he said in a hard voice, "but that is not how things
are done in the Navy!"

"It weren't nothin' like that, sir, I'm sure of it,"
Matthews said soothingly, stepping between the two and
discreetly pushing Styles back. "It's just that we've
grown accustomed to your ways, is all. But you're
right, sir -- an officer is an officer, and we shall
follow one as we do the other."

Horatio instinctively knew that Matthews' words had
been meant as much for Styles as for himself, and he
was grateful the man would be going along. Archie
would need such a calm, steadying presence to help him
through the difficult days ahead.

"I want you men to listen to me," he ordered quietly,
drawing forth every ounce of command he possessed. His
lean face set into firm lines, and his brown eyes
bored into them. "The days ahead are like to be very
difficult for all of you, with long hours of hard work
in an unfamiliar ship with an unfamiliar crew. Yet I
know you will be up to the task. I want you to promise
me that you will do your best to look after Mr.
Kennedy, to help him in any way you can, and to ease
as much as possible whatever burdens fall upon him. I
know he will do the same for all of you. Can I count
upon you?"

"Aye, sir," Matthews answered easily. Such behaviour
was as natural to him as breathing.

For Styles, however...

"And you?" Horatio prompted, impaling the man with his
gaze. "He will need you, Styles. He will need your
strength and your skill and, yes, your spirit. He will
be in a strange ship, with a strange crew, as will all
of you. But you men, at least, will have each other.
There are ten of you. There is only one of him. And no
man, officer or not, can stand for long alone. Every
man must trust someone, and, for that, he will have
only you."

He hesitated a moment, then let go his anger. Relaxing
his stance and softening his gaze, he said quietly, "I
am aware of your regard for me, and I deeply
appreciate it, and am honoured by it." For the moment,
he spoke directly to Styles, needing desperately to
reach him. "And if you think me any kind of officer, I
say it is your regard which has made me so. I have
come to depend upon you as good men, and true. And now
I must do so again. Mr. Kennedy is my friend. But,
more than that, he is an officer, and a good one. Yet
I cannot help but be anxious for him; God alone knows
what awaits him, what awaits all of you, in Resolute."
He swallowed hard, trying not to let his fear
overwhelm him. "In the past, when I have faced
difficult situations, you -- all of you -- have been
there to support me, even to guide me. And often it
was that support alone that got me through. I want you
-- I ask you -- to do the same for Mr. Kennedy. Treat
him as you would me, follow him as you would me, trust
him as you would me. And look after him. In the end,
you may be all he has."

Styles stared at Hornblower for long, long moments,
his mind filled with conflicting images. He saw a
young man in a boat during a night raid, having a
violent fit and endangering them all; then saw the
same young man on another night, still weak from
near-starvation yet working as hard as the rest of
them to rescue enemy sailors from a shipwreck. Saw the
young man panicked by a sudden enemy attack, but
racing across a bridge -- and against a burning fuse
-- to rescue a friend. Saw a young man cringing in
terror before the Devil himself in one ship, and
standing straight and confident upon another...

...saw a boy battling his own demons, and those
inflicted upon him, to become a man...

...and made his decision. "You can count on me, sir,"
he said quietly, steadily. "I'll take care of 'im. We
all will." The familiar crooked grin creased his dark,
scarred face. "After all, 'e's one of ours. Can't very
well leave 'im to the tender mercies of those sorry
bastards over there."

Horatio relaxed and grinned broadly as a tremendous
surge of relief swept through him. "Thank you,
Styles!" he breathed fervently. "I shall rest easier
knowing he is in your hands." He turned his gaze to
Matthews and nodded. "We are sending our best to
Resolute. Whatever awaits you over there, I am certain
you will be more than equal to it!"


**********