A Fair Match
by Archer's Aim

 

Autumn, 1809, somewhere between the Carolina coast and the islands . . .

In hindsight, it had been an interesting week, a perfect example of Horatio Hornblower's peculiar luck, mused Mr. Bush.

They'd started out the week leading their squadron out from the islands, in search of French ships. And they'd found them. Only three days from port, they'd taken two prizes, a frigate and a sloop, both sure to bring a good price from the Admiralty.

The cost for their success had been a high one. Many of their crew were dead, or laid up with severe injuries. The Frenchman, meanwhile, had come off somewhat better, with fewer deaths and injuries, among them both captains and most of the officers. Since there were so many Frenchmen imprisoned below deck, Hornblower had been forced to place larger-than-normal prize crews aboard each ship, to prevent the French from retaking the vessels.

No sooner had they seen the prizes off, when the squadron found itself in the midst of one of those sudden Atlantic storms, scattering ships like grains of sand. After two days of the most miserable weather imaginable, they'd finally seen the stars break through the clouds, and determined they were alone, leaking and many days journey father north than anticipated.

To top it all off, yesterday a sudden bout of food poisoning left the remaining crew decimated. At this point, they barely had enough men to work the ship, much less man the guns.

The answer would be more men, but in the midst of an ocean, where would they get them?

"Sail to port, sir!" shouted a seaman.

Bush was immediately alert. "Can you make her out?"

A pause, then, "She's ­ American, sir, by her colors. Merchant ship. Definitely armed."

"Call the Captain."

American. Bush thought carefully. Although technically neutral in the ongoing conflict with France, the Americans were known to have been of assistance to their enemy, and hostile toward their former home country. More to the point, everyone knew that the Americans were sheltering British sailors on their ships, presenting them with papers alleging the men were now citizens of their country. The Admiralty had responded by authorizing the boarding of such vessels, and the impressment of British sailors back into their proper fleet.

Which meant they could find men to re-crew the ship in the middle of the ocean, he thought with a chuckle, then assumed a more sober demeanor, hearing his captain coming on deck.

"Who is she, Mr. Bush?" demanded Hornblower.

Bush studied the signals. "The 'Fair Kate', sir, merchant ship out of Boston. A Captain Peabody. Returning from a trip to the islands."

"Indeed," muttered Hornblower.

"Sir," Bush ventured, "we need men . . ."

"A fact I am well aware of, Mr. Bush," Hornblower replied tartly.

"Yes, well, I'm sure you recall the Admiralty's position on our men serving with the Americans . . ."

Hornblower was silent, merely looking back at Bush. Then he slowly smiled. "And she has just left British territory . . ."

"Exactly, sir," Bush responded with a slight grin.

"Mr. Bush," Hornblower said calmly, eyes fixed on the other ship. "Signal her captain that we intend to remove all able-bodied British seamen from his ship."

 

"Mr. Adams?"

"Captain, she's a British frigate out of the islands. A Captain Hornblower in command."

"Hornblower?" Peabody yelped. The men around him were startled. The 'Fair Kate', a new ship designed, in part, by her captain, was technically on her maiden voyage, but most of the crew had previously sailed with Peabody on other ships. And their captain, though young, was noted for being quiet and circumspect under most circumstances ­ unless, of course, his family was involved.

Peabody continued to stare at the other ship, lost in his own thoughts. A sail suddenly snapped in the changing breeze, and he realized that, except for the wind, his ship had gone silent. Drawing a deep breath, he looked over at his bridge crew and explained, "I've heard of him ­ one of the stars of the Admiralty, they say. A hard man to defeat ­ or keep down." Taking another deep breath, he turned to his lieutenant and asked, "And they want?"

Studying the signals, Adams let out a curse, "All able-bodied British seamen."

"Damn 'em," a grizzled seaman named Taft yelped, hands gripping hard on the wheel. "We've 'eard o' this one afore, sir. Anyone who sounds like they're Brit gets taken, no matter how long they've been here."

"You'll not let them take any of us sir, will you?" asked young Charley, the captain's ward, in a distinct Cockney accent. "They took my friend Davey's uncle off the 'Theodora' last year. Thirty years in America, papers in his hand and he wrote that he's stuck on a ship-of-the-line until his case is heard ­ and that could be years!"

Peabody resumed his silent contemplation of the British frigate, staring as if to memorize her every detail, then shook himself from his reverie and asked, "Taft, where's my family?"

"Down below, sir," replied Taft.

"Keep them there," Peabody ordered, then turned, "Mr. Adams, signal the British and inform them that everyone aboard Kate is now a citizen of the United States, and we all have the papers to prove it."

"And then, we will be leaving."

 

"Sir, they say they have no one aboard save American citizens, and politely decline our request to come aboard," Bush said, lowering his glass. Glancing over at Hornblower, he smiled inwardly. His captain's face seemed impassive, but Bush could tell Hornblower was annoyed.

"Oh?" he merely said, "Mr. Bush, would you kindly tell them that . . ."

"They're running, sir!" yelled Bush, seeing 'Fair Kate' suddenly spreading her sails and turning away from them. Hornblower started, as the American leapt away, much faster than expected.

"Mr. Bush!" Hornblower ordered, and it was enough ­ Bush snapped orders to the crew, and they raced off after their new prey, beginning the maneuvers that would put them in position to fire on the American ship . . .

 

"Captain," Adams said nervously. "They're chasing us."

"Well, of course they are," Peabody chuckled. "That's what they do." Noting that his lieutenant looked a bit nervous, he added gently, "We'll lead them a fine dance, don't worry."

"Sir, shall I run out the guns?"

"No!" Peabody yelled, and everyone around him froze. He stood still for a moment, then seemed to regather his composure as he explained, "I'll not be the first to fire on ­ her." Smiling suddenly, he added, "After all, we don't want to start another war, now do we?"

"But, sir," Charley objected, "if they fire at us . . ."

"Oh, he will, Charley," said Peabody cooly. "Which means we'll just have to be faster ­ and smarter ­ than he is . . ."

 

Throughout the day, the British and the Americans conducted an intricate dance. Time after time, Hornblower brought his ship into a perfect position to fire on or board the upstart American, and time after time, he found that the 'Kate' had unexpectedly anticipated him, moving into exactly the wrong position for him to take any action against her. He tried ­ God knew his gunners were almost as good as those of 'Indefatigable', but except for some minor wood splintering from a glancing blow against her railing, the American remained unharmed.

And twice, the 'Kate' moved into a position to fire upon the British ­ and did not. The first time, to be certain, Horatio could have convinced himself that it was a mistake on the part of the Americans, that they had not seen the opportunity presented by his position. But the second . . .

 

"Damn it!" exclaimed Adams softly ­ but angrily.

"What?" asked a nervous Charley, creeping closer to his lieutenant.

"Captain could've taken out her masts that time!" he explained in a lowered voice. Looking toward Peabody, standing motionless, hands clasped behind his back as he stared fixedly back at the pursuing ship, he wondered, "Why won't he fire?"

 

"Coming about again, sir," Bush said, trying ­ and failing ­ to keep the frustration out of his voice. Hornblower merely stared at 'Fair Kate', and Bush could see his mind churning as he tried to come up with another strategy for cornering the elusive ship.

"Another sail, sir!" a seaman cried, "One of ours!"

"Mr. Bush!" snapped Hornblower.

"Aye, sir," said Bush, already raising his glass. Smiling, he added, "The 'Dolphin', sir. Requests permission to join the hunt."

"Thank her captain for me, and signal her to block 'Fair Kate' from the port side," Hornblower smiled. "We have her now."

 

"Captain!" Taft exclaimed. "'Nother ship ­ and she's runnin' out her guns!"

"Mr. Adams," Peabody said calmly.

"Aye, sir?"

"You may fire on /that/ ship, sir, as soon as you are ready. 'Cause as little damage as possible, just -- force her back, then let out the rest of our sails. It's time the British saw our heels."

The lieutenant smiled. "Aye, sir."

"And Mr. Adams?" the captain added quietly, "/Only that ship/." Looking fixedly at Hornblower's vessel, he said softly, "Leave Captain Hornblower alone."

 

It had been over so quickly.

Hornblower had neatly turned his ship to block the 'Kate' from moving forward, and had seen 'Dolphin' taking her position to block any attempts to turn aside. He anticipated an easy catch. And then, with no warning, the American's guns, which had been silent throughout the day, roared out, taking down 'Dolphin's masts and smashing part of her deck. They could hear the screams of injured men, even at this distance. While 'Dolphin' wallowed in the swells, the 'Kate' quickly cut around her, putting the injured ship between herself and Hornblower. More sails were loosened, she suddenly caught a freshening wind and lunged forward, away from her pursuers ­ and began heading northwest, toward the American coast, where Hornblower knew neither he nor his ship would be welcomed by the shore batteries.

For a few minutes, Hornblower remained perfectly still, staring at the sea in front of him, empty now of the presence of the 'Fair Kate'. She had vanished, so quickly that he could have convinced himself she had been a mirage, were it not for the listing 'Dolphin' nearby.

"Mr. Bush," he said quietly. "Signal 'Dolphin', and see whether she requires any assistance."

"Aye, aye, sir," Bush said, then having given the order, and seeing his captain still staring at an empty horizon, he ventured to say, "Not a fair match sir, seeing as how she was much more maneuverable than we are, thanks to a full crew."

"Was she, Mr. Bush?" Horatio asked, looking over at him, an eyebrow quirked.

"And of course, she's American, so obviously Captain Peabody is more familiar with these waters and their currents than we are," Bush added.

"Yes," Hornblower replied, "but still," in a strange voice, "I was unable to catch her, unable to take her, and unable to prevent her from damaging 'Dolphin'. Everything I did, Peabody outmaneuvered me. It was as if he could read my mind." Sighing, he headed without another word below to his cabin, where Bush knew he would review the entire engagement over and over again, seeking to find the answer for what he would see as a failure.

Bush turned back toward the horizon, and murmured, "I don't know whether to hope we meet you again, or that we never see you again." Then he shrugged and resumed his duties, stowing the mysterious encounter in the back of his mind.

 

"Any sign of her, Mr. Adams?"

"None, sir," he replied happily, "she's given up!"

A cheer went up from the hands. The captain sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly. Then, he drew himself up to his full height, turned to his lieutenant and requested, "Please resume our course. I'd like to get us into friendlier waters as quickly as possible."

"Aye, sir," Adams replied, and headed toward the wheel. Passing Charley, he motioned him to join him. As they walked near Peabody, he heard Adams say, "You see? Nothing to worry about. An Admiralty man against Captain Peabody ­ it's not even a fair match!"

Smiling slightly, Peabody turned to the seaman standing near him and said, "Taft, any problems below?"

"Nah, sir, things be just fine," Taft replied, but something in his tone caused the captain to look more closely at him. "And my family?" he asked astutely.

"Uh, well, sir," Taft hedged, "Ya know it's excitin' to a young one, being at sea, and in battle, and all . . ."

"What did he do?" the captain asked in a somewhat martyred tone.

"Oh, nothin' much sir, just tried a couple or three times to sneak up onta the deck," Taft said, then, seeing the captain's face pale, he added quickly, "don't ya be worryin' sir, we caught the scamp afore he had time ta get close ta trouble. Young Master Collin's fine."

"Good," Peabody replied, his eyes straying back to the sea behind him. "Good. Thank you."

"Aye, sir," Taft said softly, and seeing the captain's attention elsewhere, he left.

For a few moments, the captain watched the waves as the 'Kate' reached her top speed and flew along the coast, heading once more toward Boston, and home. Then, he sighed.

"No, Horatio," mused Archie Kennedy quietly, "certain sure, it wasn't a fair match at all."

 

A/N on impressments: Sadly, impressments did occur from 1790-1812. According to my research, the U.S. merchant fleet had 60,000-100,000 seamen, and most sources agree that 25% were British. On average, US ships paid better wages and provided better working conditions (not a criticism of the British Navy, which was, after all, involved in a war, providing unique hazards for seamen aboard fighting ships.)

In need of sailors, Naval vessels boarded American ships and seized men believed to be British seamen shirking their wartime duty. The US had been issuing "protections" ­ citizenship papers describing the features and data of their carriers. These descriptions were often vague. And the same trade in fraudulent or illegally-obtained papers that flourishes today, did so then. Papers could be bought for as little as a dollar. Men lied about their birthplace to claim US citizenship. And companies, desperate to get their ships to sea, looked the other way. The problem was compounded by the British government's failure to accept renunciation of citizenship ­ once a Brit, always a Brit. No matter how long you had lived in the 'colonies.'

Two hundred years down the line, I am not prepared to pass judgment as to who was right and who was wrong. I merely use it as a plot device.