As I See Fit: Homeward Bound
by Mebbie10

Part Seven

Pellew turned away from Rimble and started down the ladder, running his right hand along the larbord ladder inside rail. The outboard rail was still not repaired. It had been about the hundred and fiftieth thing on a list of one hundred eighty eight items to be fixed on board the Altamira.

His mind was slowly turning itself off and a wandering thought about where he would bed down went through his head when he heard the explosion off to starboard. Running back up the ladder, he jerked the night glass out of Grimes' hands and joined Rimble at the stays.

"Only one." He whispered as much to himself as to his first officer.

Rimble answered, his voice not as strong as usual. "Maybe they are afire, sir."

"Perhaps, but not likely. I would not send the Altamira into a sea of burning wreckage. It was always a long shot, a chance to damage the ship. Maybe we caused some loss to their crew, if they were in boats in the water. God help them." Pellew was searching what he believed was the horizon, finding nothing. "If it has convinced them we are sunk, that's what I need. That's what we all need."

"Yes, sir."

Edward has taken the glass down from his eye. "Keep the lookouts relieved. They are as blind as we are up there. This time of year we might have icebergs." He pulled his watch from a pocket, popping it open; he smiled at Mandy's face inside the cover.

'A wife is a comfort.' He thought then noticed the hands of the watch were still. He had forgotten to wind it. He made his way down the ladder once more, pausing a moment to look at the chalkboard that usually held the senior midshipmen's navigational problems. Now it showed the ringing of the ships bell. The bell itself had been silenced with wads from the gunner's stores.

If they were to get safely out of this situation quiet was a requirement. Even the repair work was muffled. Sounds could carry over miles at sea and so could smells. The galley fires had not been relit, and the men were being served cheese and ships biscuit with winter apples they had brought aboard in Boston.

He stopped at Bennington's cabin as he made his way to his quarters and knocked softly on the door. He would reset his timepiece from Bennington's then retire for a few hours. Remembering the rainy and fog he knew there would be no noon sightings today. Before the master could answer, Farley, one of the senior midshipmen, begged for his attention.

"Captain, Mr. Rimble sends his respects and could you join him on the quarterdeck?"

"I will be there presently." Bennington held the door for Pellew to enter his cabin. He had to admit to himself that the three and it could be no more, minutes it took for the master to produce, unlock the case and show the ships chronometers to him were unbearable. He wanted to be back on the quarterdeck.

His watch set, with another smile, as always, for Amanda's picture, he snapped it shut and was finally free to rejoin Rimble.

He found the first officer gazing off to the east, no glass to his eye, watching a dull red glow. "It has to be the Montezuma. Maybe they are afire." It was a quiet comment. When Pellew didn't answer, he added: "We have to be behind them now."

"Perhaps, Mr. Rimble, but I'm not counting on it. We will keep this course and pray the weather stays as bad as it is. We need time to lick our wounds." His hand found the wooden rail. "She can't take another bombardment like that one again."

"True, sir."

They were distracted when a whisper reached them from the lookouts. "Ice, sir, just off to starboard one point off the bow." Pengarth reported. The middy had another piece of Amanda's wedding dress wrapped around his head, a wad of padding covering one ear.

Both officers looked, but could see nothing. The mountain of ice was just twenty feet off the starboard quarterdeck when Pellew finally saw it. "There!" He rasped and pointed at it. In the haze and fog the berg almost faded into the water's surface, white sides broken up with dark shadows where the fissures were.

"Nearly invisible." Pellew muttered turning away from the rail. "I'll be in the main cabin, Mr. Rimble. Call Mr. Baines if you need to be relieved. Don't wear yourself out. You will be needed later."

"Yes, Captain."

***

"Grimes, bring that bucket up now." Amanda said as he entered the cabin without a knock.

"Yes, Ma'am."

Instead of his usual, at least usual since his marriage, silk nightshirt, Amanda had found one if his old woolen flannels. It lay across the window seat. He stared at it numbly as she lead him into the screened off area.

"We will have some warm water in a few minutes, Teddy. The surgeon has his brazier hot and they are heating water on it. Let me help you change." Amanda said as she reached for the collar of his tarpaulin jacket to pull him out of it.

She shook it, throwing water across the cabin's canvas floor covering then draping it across the barrel of one of the cannons. Layer by layer, she got the wet clothes away from his body, until he stood naked and trembling before her. The bandage, still tight across his chest and arm, was as sodden as his clothing had been.

Reaching in the slit of her skirt to find the scissors in her pocket with her right hand, she touched his shoulder with her left. She was startled to find it cold to her touch and the surface of his skin trembling as if in the shakes of a fever. Quickly she started to cut the cloth bands away, he stopped her with a hand over her fingers as she pulled at the linen bandage.

"What is wrong, Teddy?"

"You should not do this. Call the surgeon." His words were as cold as his flesh.

"He is busy, besides which, you are my husband. I have helped dress wounds this day that are far more serious than this. Let me help you." Laying down the scissors she reached for his hand. He pulled his fingers away with a stifled groan. "Teddy! Your fingers!" She grasped his hands, the bandage momentarily forgotten. He drew them back. Once more she carefully reached for them again, gently she brought them forward into the light. Several of the nails were torn and there were cuts and bruises on the palms and fingers.

"The sails, Mandy, they were frozen and my hands aren't hard anymore." He gasped softly as she began to bathe them in the warm water.

Bandages changed and in the dry flannel nightshirt, he finally began to relax. Grimes appeared with a tray holding a pewter mug and a wooden bowl, both steaming. Pellew started to push the food back at Grimes.

"Captain, what is it now? Why not eat? Can I feed you?" Amanda asked.

"My men are not eating hot food. I cannot either."

She faced him, looking up from picking up the wet clothing and soiled linen, her face set in a mask of hardness. "When was the last time you ate?"

She already knew the answer, but he did not. He stopped motionless, his brow pulled into that upside down Y. "I don't remember. It was the last time I sat down with you."

She motioning Grimes away and stepping closer to him, she spoke again. "Teddy - That was two days ago. I know that they, the crew I mean, had a hot meal before we went into action. That was yesterday. No foolishness. Eat. Drink too. It's hot cider." He did as he was told.

The feather mattress from the four-poster with as many pillows as Amanda could find were piled up against the base of the window seat. She sat down burrowing into the makeshift bed. "Teddy," She said, holding open the quilts, "Come to bed."

His hunger eased, he moved in beside her.

Reaching for his shoulders, drawing him back against her breasts, his body molding into her, she wrapped him in her warmth, her legs holding him gently. With another gasp he sat up, pulling away. Hugging him and pulling him back again, she kissed the back of his neck. He shrugged her away.

"Teddy." It was a whisper, just meant for him. "What is it now?"

"You can't want to sleep with a murderer!"

"Murderer?" Her hands never left his body.

"I murdered that man tonight." Staring straight ahead his hands knitting together in his lap, his voice stilled. She waited on him to go on. "As surely as if I had pushed him. We both had plenty of time to get down. Down safely, but I"

"Edward, no more." Her hands finding his shoulders and massaging them gently she tried to ease him down again. He sat up once more. This time drawing one knee to his chest and wincing as he wrapped his arms around it.

Getting up on her knees, she moved behind him, nestling his head into her shoulder. He did not object and finally relaxed, his body sagging and bowing into hers. "Teddy?"

"Yes." The answer was quiet.

Her question was no less soft. "Why did you go into the rigging?"

"Because I was able to. I asked the men to do it. Could I do any less? Amanda, there are not enough men" He was silent for a couple of minutes. Turning to her, his arms stole around her waist. His face buried into her shoulder, the mahogany of her hair veiling him from the dim light. Shutting out reality. His body shook once. He forced the next sob back into his chest. He could not show his weakness to her. One hand stole between the pillows and the deck. He felt the hardness of the Altamira's wood.

He didn't deserve this ship.

"Amanda, I have lost a quarter of my crew. There was no one else to go aloft and I could do it." He pulled back from her shoulder; her shift was wet where his head had rested. Her fingers brought him back into her embrace.

"Edward Pellew, you are no murderer." Her voice was a whisper, soft in his ear. "You are my husband, you are the man I love. You did as you saw fit. It was the right decision."

Relaxing against her finally, they lay back into the pallet. He went to sleep, head on her shoulder and wrapped in her arms. The last thing he remembered was her soft whisper, over and over: "I love you Edward Pellew, I love you."

***

Awakening to another gray day, he found himself alone, staring at the bulkhead above him. He was almost startled when Amanda parted the curtains. She handed him a tankard of coffee, cooled by its trip from the orlop. As he closed his fingers around it he murmured, "Zebras."

"Zebras?" She was astonished.

"I dreamed of zebras - and icebergs."

She sat on the gun carriage. He pulled the blankets closer around his shoulders, struggling up, favoring his right arm. "Do you hurt, Captain?"

"No, not really, stiff more than hurt."

"What about zebras?" She sat back, crossing her arms, truly interested.

"I've only seen two. Someone said there were more."

"I have never seen a live one."

Reaching for her hand he wanted to tell her he would take her to see the zebras, but he let the thought die. Unless they could get out of this situation, there would never be time for them. "The thing is Amanda, there were more zebras. Several more. But I didn't see them. They were in a grove of young trees and their stripes broke up the horse shape, blended them in with the shadow of the limbs of the trees. They were invisible. Then that iceberg, yesterday was it?"

Nodding, she silently urged him to speak further.

"That iceberg. I didn't see it until we almost ran our bowsprit right into it. It was broken up by the dark and light shadows. Mandy, do you still draw?"

"Yes, Teddy."

"Do you think you could draw this ship?"

"With all the rigging and spars?"

"Spars, yes, rigging, no, perhaps"

"Yes, I could do that." She answered.

"Excellent!" He was becoming incensed with whatever idea he was hatching. She had never seen him like this. Jumping up from the pallet he spilled the now stone cold coffee down the front of his nightshirt.

She grabbed the tankard from him as he fought to open the overlapping curtains to the outer cabin. Jerking open the cabin door he called for Jacobs to find paper and for word to be passed for the carpenter, purser and bosun. Then gasping, he held his right arm close, a little spot of red showing on the dingy white flannel. "And Grimes!"

"Aye, sir?"

"Ask if Mr. Rimble and Charles Hammond are well enough to join me here."

Amanda began to hand him pieces of a clean uniform. As he drew up his breeches and fastened them, he saw her reach for the ever-present scissors, another change of bandage. It hurt to have the lint pulled away from the wound, but he knew it had to be changed.

"How did you get wounded there? What did you do?" She asked as she cut the knots apart.

He knew he must look a little embarrassed. It had been a reflex action. "I really don't remember." He truly did, but needed to have her think otherwise. "I put up my arm to save my face from the splinters and then I was on the deck." He looked around at her. Her arms were crossed and her head down, keeping her eyes on the deck between her feet, silent laughter shook her frame. She tossed her head back and forth, fighting back a smile. There was a knock on the door and the warrant officers made their way into the main cabin. She finished up winding a strip of linen around his chest. The wound was healing if he could just not break it open again.

Jacobs entered after a discreet knock, a roll of paper in his hands. The table had been brought back up sometime during the night. His sleep had been so complete that he had not heard the racket his steward and the crew must have made restoring it to its place. Grimes put sand weights on the corners of the sheet of paper to hold it down and placed a handful of sharpened charcoal next to it.

Amanda, picking up one of them, regarding the point of the stick, said, "Side first? Bow?"

"Broadside, outline will do."

Smiling she gave a naval reply, "Aye, aye, Captain. Very well." With a toss of her head to knock a wisp of hair from her eyes, she began to draw in sure swift strokes.

The six men looked over Amanda's shoulder as she sketched in two icebergs behind the shape of the Altamira. Edward, who lightly held her shoulders as she drew, as if to tell these men that this woman was his, nodded to her. "Now, put in the ice shelves on the bergs." She drew the shadows where the breaks in the mountain of ice would be. The ships sails, braced around, stood out suddenly.

"Mrs. Pellew, draw those lines across the ships profile." Amanda's hand drew the charcoal in deft lines across hull, sails and masts. There was an audible gasp as the ship disappeared against ice and gray waves.

The carpenter and bosun, normally not part of Pellew's command staff, were trading comments at a rapid rate. Pellew stared at them, the habitual slight smile on his lips. Rimble, Charlie and the purser followed his gaze. "Well," he asked, "Can it be done?"

The men nodded and shot a couple of questions to the purser, who, flipping open his account book, gave an answer back. The purser and the bosun nodded to the carpenter.

"Aye, sir, it can be done. But we do not have enough paint to do the hull and sails. We can drape canvas, painted canvas and cover the sides.

The bosun chimed in: "The real problem is the storm canvas. We can send down the topsails, sir, paint them and send 'em back up. Jibs and spanker 'il take a little longer. It's them courses, sir, that's going to take the longest."

"I have to have them. We have to get under way."

"Aye, sir. Not saying it can't be done, just it's gonna take awhile."

"Captain?" Rimble spoke up from the chair Amanda had drawn out for him.

"Mr. Rimble." Pellew answered.

"May I suggest that we light the galley fires and feed the men a good meal? This is a lot of work and the men are hungry for some hot food."

"Your suggestion makes sense. Let us hope we are far enough away from the Montezuma. Make it so."

"Amen sir." Rimble added.

***

Eight hours later Edward Pellew, who sat with a compass in his lap and Charlie Hammond, who had made his way carefully down the side, were rowed out into the still thick fog. Edward checked his watch, cradling the compass between his legs. "It's time." He said, in a voice just audible to the cox'n and Hammond.

They heard the creaking of the yards across the water as the wood took the weight of the storm topsails, then the muted squealing of the blocks as the sails were spread.

Hammond peered into the soupy fog. "I can't see her."

"In this mist, who could see anything?" The Captain replied. The cox'n was pulling his forelock. "Harris?"

"Sir." The cox'n answered. "The men said we lost sight of 'er at a 'af mile."

"Thank you, Harris." Pellew looked back to Hammond. "A half-mile!" Both of them turned to the jolly boat riding even with them. It could still be seen. "Pull for the jolly boat, Harris, we will join Mr. Pengarth and return -- " The words trailed away as the sound of rushing waters filled his ears, "Oh my God! Harris! Pull away! Pull away! As fast as you can!"

All eight oars slashed into the water. The constant drilling of the crew was the only thing that kept the men from total confusion. The bow wave lifted their boat, the jibs with all their black slashes passed twenty feet over their heads. The men who were perched in the bowsprit rigging laughed and pointed at them. They were so close that Pellew could see the still damp black paint that streaked the soles of their shoes as the hands walked, hand hold to hand hold back to the fore deck.

The ruse had worked. "Did you see us?" Pellew called to Rimble as the launch hooked on to the Altamira's side.

"Aye, sir. The whole time."

Pellew wanted to yell for joy but said instead, "Then why did you try to run us down?"

"He wanted your job, Edward." Hammond said under his breath, laughing at his own joke.

"Be quiet, Charlie." It was not an order.

"Sorry, sir. You turned into our course." Rimble's voice held a note of reproach.

"Well, you can heave to and let the cripples back on board. Recall Mr. Pengarth."

"Aye, sir."

***

He was still amazed at the amount of information that could be learned through a closed door. He had lifted his hand to knock, but his hand did not fall to the wood. He was smiling, a tiny lift of the lips. Amanda and Mille were talking about babies.

"Millie, what happens?"

"Having them is not nearly so joyful as getting them, Mrs. Pellew."

Edward repressed another snort of laughter. He could imagine that was true. Making this child had been joyful. He rubbed his chest, grimacing through his smile at the sudden tightness there. He paused, listening again.

"It hurts, Amanda." Pellew was startled at Millie's use of Mandy's given name. Usually Millie was most punctilious about that. "It hurts worse than anything you can imagine. But, when they lay that child in your arms for it's first suckle, all that is forgotten. And, since it seems your husband cherishes you, he will love the child. When you see that babe in his arms, and his loves light in his eyes for you and the child, there was never any pain at all."

Edward finally knocked and entered the cabin.

***

Edward stood, at four bells in the afternoon watch telescope clasped between his hands, his arms still warm from holding her. Their meal had been Spartan, but hot, and he had just drawn her close as they sat in silent companionship, at their coffee. He had opened his mouth several times to ask her about the child, but had let the moment pass without uttering a word. She would tell him in her own time.

Rimble, balanced on one leg, his wounds still making their presence known, was waiting for Edward's orders. "Are you sure you should be back on full duty so soon? I know the surgeon"

"Please, sir. I want to stay. It's my place."

Edward Pellew shook his head. "Very well." His hands moved behind his back, using the glass to bridge the inches between them. This time is was his turn to wince as the splinter wound twinged once then went back to sleep. "Very well," Pellew repeated, "Mr. Bennington, set us a course due east. Mr. Rimble, get us underway. It's time we tried to go home."

***

The temporary patch in the forepeak was still holding. The captain had gone round the ship twice since they had spread the topsails. He could see the trembling of the bracing timbers each time the bow bit into the waves.

Ordering the log thrown, he realized that the Altamira was not making the speed he needed for a quick passage. Balancing the speed of the ship against that hole in the hull was a frustrating equation. He could not spread the courses.

"She makes decent speed with only two masts, Mr. Bennington." He said, rocking back on his heels, chin jutting forward to balance him against the roll of the ship in the still troubled storm waters.

The master turned to him open mouthed. Then realizing his captain's comments were as much for the crew as for himself. "Aye, sir." The master returned as he too faced forward.

The men were going about their tasks silently, surreptitious glances forward, then to port or starboard. It was all Edward Pellew could do not to do the same.

Grimes brought him a tankard of coffee and biscuit that must have had the last of the fresh butter spread over it. He held his masters glass as the Captain chewed off bits of biscuit and washed them down with tepid bitter coffee.

"Zurzur?" The master's mate called down from the main top, his arm pointing due northeast.

Pellew tossed the biscuit over the taffrail and pitched the tankard to the deck, spilling what was left on the spotless deck. He scanned the horizon. "Nothing.nothing." He muttered. Baines, who had the watch, was beside him and nodded in agreement.

Slapping the glass shut, he crammed it his tail pocket. "I'm going up, Mr. Baines, keep us on course."

Up and over the futtock shrouds and onto the platform, the Captain stood next to the master's mate. "Where? Where?" Pellew felt like shaking the man, but gripped the shroud with white fingers instead.

"There, zur." The mate pointed again.

Pellew followed the man's gaze, bringing up the telescope as he did so. He leaned forward into the shrouds and braced himself against the tarred rope in his eagerness to see the other ship. Finallyfinallyhe saw the spars and topmasts but nothing more. "You must have eyes like a hawk."

"Thank you, zur!"

They were going to pass to the south of the vessel, a ship that was under topsails only. She was making slow passage and unless some untoward thing happened the ship would pass before the dawdling Altamira.

"Can you see a flag?" Out of the corner of his eye Edward could see the man strain forward, squinting.

"No, zur."

"Tell me the second you do."

"Aye, zur."

"Mr. Pengarth!" Pellew called down in a stage whisper. The boy looked up from the waist and waved in reply. "Bring up another glass for the mate!" Pengarth nodded and quickened his step astern.

It seemed like hours as the two ships moved closer together. Pellew licked at his lips and chewed on them as he watched the ship grow larger in his eyepiece.

'Damn it to Hell! Can't I get away from that devil?' Pellew thought. 'This ship can't take another beating.' He took the glass down from his eye and closed it quietly. "I'm going down. Report to Mr. Baines any change in course or speed."

Again the taciturn "Aye, zur."

The Captain did not slide down the backstay, but went down the ratlines. He needed time to think before he had to issue his orders to Baines and Rimble.

There was no mistaking that the Montezuma was hostile. A first strike was not out of the question. It was the element of surprise. If he waited, the chance that they really were invisible to the coming Montezuma was only half. But if they could not be seen! He could blow them to kingdom come. No crew! Pellew shook his head again, holding up a moment half way to the deck. His orders. No hostile actions! His mind raced back to that day in Kingston when he was given command of this ship. Using the tarred ratline as a pivot he swung inboard and dropped to the deck. He reached out and touched the scarred railing.

That day in Kingston had been three months ago. Before they had been mauled to the point of sinking, before someone in his own crew had tried to sabotage his ship, before Amanda conceived his child. Orders be damned. His mind had been made up before his feet landed on the deck.

"Mr. Rimble, send the hands to quarters. Have the charges in every other gun on both sides drawn. Replace the balls with grape shot. I want to decimate the crew of that ship. And..tell off the boarding parties. Mr. Baines to be in overall command." Pellew held up a hand to Rimble, who had started to protest. "No, Mr. Rimble, you are not able. If we succeed I will send you aboard as prize master. Mr. Pengarth to assist Mr. Baines."

"Aye aye."

"As quietly as possible, Mr. Rimble, we may not be obvious to them. I don't want to advertise our presence."

"Aye, Sir."

"Now, here is what I want to do."

***

Edward Pellew once again rested his hands on the rail and looked into the waist. All of the still able bodied, and that included most of the lesser wounds from the sick berth, were being told off into the ships boats. The boats were already in the water and the oarsmen were at their places. Some of those men came from the orlop as well, leg wounds that would prevent them from joining the boarding parties. Everyone seemed to know what the stakes were. Quiet competence. These men were a unified crew, a crew that knew their jobs. He was proud to command them.

He went down the ladder into the waist to walk among them once more. He knew, with certainty, that he was sending some of them to their deaths. Baines walked with him. The officer glanced over his shoulder, seeming to search for someone in the crowd of men. "What is it Mr. Baines?"

"Nothing, sir. The crews are ready."

"It is not 'nothing', I can see that. Where is Mr. Pengarth?" Pellew began to look around for his young officer as well. "Tell me now."

Baines met his eyes. "I sent Mr. Pengarth to locate Mr. Buetow. He did not answer the muster."

"Iahm..well, Pengarth is needed here now ." Pellew waved an arm at the Marine sergeant. "O'Hearn!"

The Marine banged his musket as he came to attention. "Sir!"

"Here, give me that rifle. Go find Mr. Pengarth and tell him he is needed on deck. Bring him back."

The stern sergeant that had guarded the Pellew's cabin these past months was surprised but handed over his weapon to his captain and disappeared into the gun deck. Pellew's gaze was drawn back to the port side; the time was coming close that the boats would be pulled away from the Altamira. One last change of course. One last bracing of the yards. He looked around him, the men forming into lines and going over the side.

Pengarth ran up, followed by O'Hearn who reclaimed his musket with a pull at his forelock. Pellew nodded to them. "Be careful you two. Mr. Pengarth, watch after the sergeant here. I don't know what I would do with anyone else outside my door."

"I will sir." A grin split Pengarth's face from ear to ear.

"Well, get on over to Mr. Baines. He's ready for your help."

"Aye, sir."

Pellew's eyes followed Pengarth as he went forward. He wondered if he would ever watch his own child walk away from him and into danger. At this moment he was not at peace with himself, he longed to call the young midshipman back and hold him in safety aboard the Altamira. But no. The lad needed to go.

"I'll watch after him sir." Edward turned his head with a jerk to look at O'Hearn. The marine had never spoken without being addressed first.

Edward's answer was quiet. "Thank you, Sergeant. You be careful too."

Pellew walked away toward the stern. Rimble leaned over to see him. "I'm walking the ship, Mr. Rimble. Wait until she's in range then make the course change."

When the Altamira turned to show her starboard broadside to the Montezuma the last two boats would be manned and cast off. The Altamira would go dead in the water and Pellew's desperate gamble would begin.

He truly didn't know why he was walking the ship. It had been less than two hours since he had made the same trek. 'Maybe I just need to be alone with her.' He thought as his hands automatically reached out to touch the timber framing. Passing into the forepeak he once again checked the braced in timbers. The marine guard that had been on duty for the last two weeks was gone. Assigned to a boarding party with some misgivings on Pellew's and Rimble's parts. Crossing his arms and staring at the patch, Pellew breathed sigh of resignation. It had to be done and it was. In a few moments the cannon would fire and the ship would come to life with all the noise and furor that a warship could engender. In his mind he heard the roar of the men as they went up the side of the Montezuma. A sound he would not glory in.

He was staying with the Altamira.

Against his duty, against his judgment, and against everything in his warrior soul.

He would stay.

Passing through the makeshift sick berth in the wardroom he nodded at the one doctor remaining: Reed. The other surgeons were in the ships boats, by this time cast off and moving behind the shadow of the Altamira and probably slowly gaining on their mother ship. Silently he touched the hand of one of the top men who would never go aloft again. This man who had worked on the skysails, this man who now had only this hand.

Closing the door quietly behind him, he paused, a hand over his mouth, momentarily sickened by the havoc and harm he had created. Thankfully his attention was drawn to the sounds of the yards creaking round once again. Rimble changing course. They must be within cannon range. He needed to get on deck. To claim his place for what might be the last time. He reached for the handrail and put his foot on the ladder rung, but for some reason he couldn't move.

The runners, all with hushed voices were calling the ship's company to action stations. His own ships boy had been sent back to Rimble with word that he would be back on deck in moments. For some reason, though he waited.

Charlie appeared at the head of the ladder and started down, one rung at a time. Edward had seen Charles Hammond get stronger over the past few days, but the stairs seemed to slow him down, he descended riser by riser, until he stood at the foot of the ladder. Amanda appeared next a smile spreading across her face.

He knew he answered her smile with one of his own. The thin, habitual turn up of the corners of his mouth, almost amused, stern smile. She was wearing trousers, the ones Millie had altered for her, her riding boots and one of his undress uniform jackets.

"You'd better change that." He picked at the blue uniform jacket. "The crew will think you are me!" He looked at her critically. She had stopped on the ladder several steps from the deck; his eyes were at the level of her belly.

"Amanda, are you with child?" He was shocked at his own words. They had just tumbled out with no fore thought. He had to get topside. Why was his body not willing to move? He looked around, there were only the three of them near and the ship was very quiet. It was almost as if time and action were suspended in that little space between the decks.

She looked over his head at Charles Hammond. Her mouth was just a little bit open and confusion shown in her eyes. Whatever responses she had received from Hammond had helped her make up her mind. Uncertainty vanished. She met her husband's gaze.

"Yes, Edward, I am."

Pellew closed his eyes, a sigh of resignation and relief rushed out of him. Why now and here? 'No' he thought, 'No more questions. I have given my wife a child. I am a father. The next few hours will either damn us to death or lead to total victory. New life. There is no question now. I will defeat this rogue ship once and for all. No more of these cat and mouse games. This mouse is going to roar!'

She must have seen the change in his face. "Edward, you take care of the ship. I'll take care of our child." Her hand touched her body.

He heard Charlie walk away. His arms went around her thighs and he laid his head against her. Her fingers caressed the great scar on his forehead; he felt her lips against his hair. "Edward.."

"Shhhh, Amanda, you and this child are my reason for living, I love you both. He pulled back, the moment passed. He could hear the footfalls of the men overhead, rushing to quarters. Pellew stepped back, allowing her to alight on the deck. He turned to Charles Hammond who was standing, waiting, just out of earshot. "Charlie!"

"Yes Edward?"

"Take care of my family." This was a command, not a request.

"I will, Captain."

***

Rimble stood braced against the starboard hammock nettings, a glass tucked in between a hammock and rope, just under his fingertips. His hands were white, bloodless, gripping the rope. Pellew came up behind him, pretending that he had not seen the grimace of pain that had fled from the first officer's face as he heard someone approach, and pulled his own small glass from the tail pocket of his coat.

The mist was falling again. Merciful weather, the gray clouds would hide them further. Edward searched for the boats, looking where they ought to be; he finally saw the flash of an oar. They were closer than they should have been to the Altamira. They had made good time. Still watching the edge of the blade, he saw it arc up into a standing position. The boats would now wait on the Altamira to make the next move. "Do you think they see us?" Pellew asked in a hushed voice.

Rimble shook his head, picking up his glass to look at the Montezuma. "I don't think so. We're close enough to read her compass. Sir, d'you think?"

"Yes. I'm going into the waist to help with the guns. You know what to do." Pellew extended his hand. "It's been a wild ride, Ethan, I could not have asked for a better man."

Rimble returned Edward's grasp. "Thank you, Captain."

Pellew ran down the rungs into the waist.

***

Grimes held out his boarding saber. Pellew took it, noticing at the same time that Grimes had a sash around his waist with two crude Navy issue pistols and a long knife stuck in its folds. "You are going then?"

"Yes sir, with the last boat." Grimes replied.

"Good then. Millie?"

"I've seen her into the lady hole, she and younger Kirkland are nestled down there snug and secure. She has your pistols sir."

"Very good. She's a brave woman, Mr. Grimes. Take care of yourself."

"I will, sir."

It seemed to Pellew that he was saying goodbye to everyone that mattered to him. His hand brushed his face and lingered a moment crossing his lips. Sticking the sword into one of the empty pike stand holes around the main mast and grabbing a slow match he looked up. The yards were bare except for the foremast. No jibs, no main courses or main topsails and no mast at all where the mizzen once stood. The Altamira was almost barren of hands, only twenty or so men tended to the deck. He called six of them to him. Over his head he heard Rimble break the silence and order the turn to bring the
Altamira broadside to the Montezuma.

Of the starboard battery, the three guns on the forecastle and the two guns on the poop would be silent unless there were clear targets for them, the remaining sixteen would fire in two groups of eight, first the chain shot, then the grape. Pellew and the other gunners ranged themselves down the side.

He looked back toward the quarterdeck where Rimble stood with eyes only for the Montezuma.

Would there never be an end?

All the gunners turned toward the stern and waited, slow match in hand. The other hands were at the braces, ready to wear over the ship, if needed to turn on the other tack to bring the port side guns to bear.

Pellew had to wonder, could the Montezuma see them? Was the other ship trying to get into position to fire? Did they need to? On the course they had last been on they should be in firing position but no boom of the guns, no swish of the balls through the rigging and tearing of the sails. Only silence.

He saw Rimble turn toward them, speaking trumpet coming up, almost in habit, for his voice would not need the assist to be heard on the deserted deck.

"Fire!"

The slow match came down and the first eight cannon spoke.

Edward had almost not been fast enough moving back from touching the fire to the hole. He sprawled on the deck tripped by the guns tackle as it took up the recoil, the slow match tumbling toward the port side. As his head hit the deck he heard a sharp crack. 'Not my head again, please, no more broken bones.' He thought. Making it to his knees, he shook his head, no pain, and no dizziness. 'Nothing wrong!' he yelled inwardly. Scrambling for the slow match he regained his feet to move to the gun to his left, the grape had to go next; to sweep the deck before his boarding crews tried to climb the side of the Montezuma.

Dully, as he again watched for Rimble's signal he wondered why the Montezuma had not answered their fire. After all that noise and thunder, even from the paltry half broadside there should have been an almost instant response. But there was nothing! Nothing! He stared at the first. Rimble was intent on watching the Montezuma. Waiting for the roll that would expose her deck to their grape.

"Fire!" Again Rimble's command.

Pellew's match had been on its way down before the word was complete in Rimble's mouth. Each gun followed, one at a time and very well aimed by it's gunner for maximum spread of the deadly shot. When his own gun loosed its charge, he dropped the slow match in its tub and ran to the quarterdeck. Looking over his shoulder he could see the sword still stuck in the pike rack. 'Never mind' he thought. 'I won't need it.'

The powder monkeys who were bringing up fresh charges, stopped in their tracks as they saw there were no gun crews to load. One lone crew of four men was serving all the guns.

Slowly, ever so slowly, a ragged, ill aimed response started to boom from the Montezuma. Pellew and Rimble watched, helpless, as ball after ball whizzed through the rigging. Some cut stays and holed the sails, but none had caused any real damage.

"Mr. Rimble, go over with that last boat. There is something not quite right over there." The first was gone from his side instantly.

As Rimble's head disappeared over the side one ball struck home. A solid hit on the foremast just below the fighting top. Edward watched in open mouth amazement as the topmast gracefully toppled over, the top sail that had been drawing wind, wrapped itself into the jib stays and falling into the bowsprit, taking that mast, one that had been jury rigged from an earlier injury, with it. The fore course yard tacked across the bow and fell to larboard, trailing it's rigging over the side.

The whole world slowed for Pellew, the main was pulling forward against her stays. Two more shots from the Montezumathere was a change in the sound of the ballnot a swoosh, but a whine"Damn, bar shot!" he said aloud. No one heard him. The quarterdeck was barren. That had been the delay in the Montezuma's reply. They had been drawing and reloading the guns. The Altamira, with no drawing sails was loosing headway. She was finally dead in the water.

Each of these last shots found their targets. Each cut more of the standing rigging. The main, no mizzen to counter the pull of the fallen foremast bent further away from him. If another shot rammed home, either cutting more of the rigging or hitting the mast itself, it too would go.

"Please, God, don't take my ship." He whispered to the deserted deck around him.

Co-whump. Whump.

Not one, but two bar shot hit the base of the main mast. Idly, for there was nothing else he could do, he noticed one had hit directly above the hilt of his forgotten sword.

If it was possible for the mast to go over the larboard side more slowly than the fore, it did.

Now, trailing the broken masts and useless rigging over the port side, the Altamira began a slow turn in the current away from the Montezuma and presented her defenseless starboard side to the Montezuma's cannon.

'I might as well get Amanda and Charlie out of the magazine. She said she'd rather spend weeks of terror and die with me. If that death comes it should be with me beside her.' Edward thought, no longer a captain, but a husband.

The mist was clearing, the sun trying to burn through for the first time in ten days. He looked up at the disk, pale yellow through the clouds, and then started for the ladder. There was no firing from the Montezuma, but a dull roar sounded over the waves, the men had begun to board. It was the sound of a pitched battle.

A husband. Not a captain. His glass rolled between the binnacle and the base of the lashed wheel, unused and unwanted. He mentally wished Rimble and Baines success and put his foot on the first rung.

Four heads poured through an open larboard gun port, dark men, heads swaddled in bright scarves, well-made bright clothes with swords and pistols in their hands. They seemed startled at the deserted decks, not seeing at first the solitary figure in a gold laced uniform standing stock still on the quarterdeck ladder. The four moved aside for another man, darkly dressed with a long rapier in his hand, a weapon from a century before, elegant and deadly. It drew Pellew's attention immediately; he backed up onto the deck.

***

Charlie Hammond, his buttocks jammed against one of the timbers in the magazine, his arms crossed, stood talking to Amanda. Screened off by the heavy timbers, double walled and heavy glass window blocks, no sound from the outside made it through. They were blind and dumb in the semi darkness.

"There has been no call for the powder monkeys, Charlie, they are all just sitting out here." Amanda said. Only the youngest boys had been left. The older ones had gone with the boarding parties. The boys sat silent, cross-legged, occasionally a cry or a short, self-conscious laugh.

"It's been thirty minutes. Amanda, I'm going on deck and see what's going on. Wait here." Charlie pulled himself away from his perch and came out of the magazine.

"I'm going with you."

"No, we could be boarded"

"There would be more noise. I'm coming."

"Amanda, Edward would never forgive me if something happened to you. Please stay here." He knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that she would be in his footsteps as soon as he cleared the bulkhead. Giving up, he grabbed her hand and led her away from the powder room.

A shout wafted up from the gratings under their feet. "Charlie! That's coming from the lady hole. Go on, find out what's going on and help Edward. I'm going down to Millie!" She took a lantern from its bracket and was gone before Hammond could limp along behind her. He turned back and started up the gangway to the gun deck taking each rung one step at a time.

***

The crew that had been left to serve the Altamira's guns were some of the ambulatory wounded. They engaged the boarders with whatever weapon was at hand, rammers parried heavy blades, a bucket stopped a pistol ball, a worm found an eye and bored straight through the back of a skull. The Altamiras had superior numbers but they were not able bodied.

The dark dressed man, clearly a Spaniard, but with the wide nose of the mestizo, broke out of the fight, sword, scarlet rivulets releasing drops that spattered the deck, still in hand. He turned to Edward, who had run down from the quarterdeck to help repulse the boarders.

Pellew looked around, nothing but a swab at hand, he scooped it up as he moved into the fray. Charles Hammond's head poked up from the gangway, with a yell, he took the last two steps in a jump, his hands finding the forearm of an attacker, stopping a cutlass that was aimed at one of the gunners.

Out of the corner of his eye, Pellew saw the flash of the rapiers blade; instinctively he brought the swab up, braced between both hands and turned the blade at the last second. The blade darted in again, Pellew dropped the swab from his left hand and pointing it at the deck he parried knocking the slender steel away. His attention completely taken by his attacker, he was slowly backed against the ladder to the quarterdeck.

Charles Hammond, both hands holding the sword arm of his opponent slowly turned the wrist inside out, the bones of the swordsman's forearm breaking with an audible snap, the cutlass fell to the deck, Hammond's hand found the pommel as it fell and he thrust downward, pinning the screaming man to the deck, sword upright through his chest. Looking up, he heard the dull thwang of the rapier against the wood of Pellew's swab. In fighting the boarder, Hammond had worked across the deck to the base of the shattered main mast. Pellew's saber was still stuck in one of the pike racks, blade down. He jerked it out and grasping it by the blade turned to Pellew who was being herded, one step at a time up to the quarterdeck.

"Captain!" He yelled once and threw the saber at Pellew. Then he tried to recover the cutlass from the dead man's chest, he was pulling at it when he was knocked across the shoulders by a wild swing of a worm, he fell into the open hatch and tumbled down the ladder way. One groan and he swooned, senseless on the grating below.

Edward Pellew, his attention drawn to the sound of his name, saw the sword clatter to the deck at his feet. One last lunge with the rammer and he bent and jerked the sword knot toward him. The ivory grip came under his palm and he began to slash at the black-coated man with the quicksilver rapier.

A saber is not a fine weapon; it is made for hacking and has a tremendous weight on the downswing. It could cleave a man's head into two pieces if the swing was long enough downward, it could severe it clean off if it were in the hands of a mounted cavalryman or swung with the weight of the whole body behind it. Sabers were not made for close or fine work. The rapier, for all its length is a better fit for close in fighting. Edward Pellew seemed to remember this from somewhere in his past learning as he was backed, parrying each thrust and cut, into the binnacle.

He rolled from under the Spaniard's lunge and the glass of the binnacle shattered as the rapier's blade sunk into one of the compasses. One good swing, just one, Pellew threw his right arm up, the saber's blade high over his left shoulder and back. With all the power he could muster the blade started down. The man, his opponent slipped like oil out of the swing and onto his knees, and Edward's own blow landed into what was left of the binnacle frame, cutting the lantern in two and spilling the oil.

Lunging out with the rapier, the mestizo thrust at Pellew's ribcage. Edward parried again.

'Just one good cut, that is all I need. If I can meet the blade it will shatter the steel, if I can meet with his body I can cut him to the spine.' The thought ran through his head, and then as he brought the sword back to hack again, he had to parry another thrust. 'You never were a swordsman! Amanda how true you were that day.' One more step out of the blades flashing arc. 'I can hack and swing with the best of them to board a ship, but this, this is a swordsman.' The man drove him back another step, Pellew met each thrust purely in defense, fighting now his back against the rail. The clang of their weapons rang back in his ears from the railings and the gun carriages. He could find no room to draw back for a swing, even if he had the time between attacks.

"Agh!" Pellew's ankle turned on a ringbolt, one he had stepped over thousands of times. He fell, his sword flying out of his hand, coming to rest against the taffrail, his arms open and his body unprotected.

Immediate pain seared through him. Suddenly the man was chest to chest with him. The rapier sank completely through his shoulder, the point emerging through the deep blue of his uniform jacket.

Temporarily stunned, he went to the deck, taking the sword, for the man had not recovered it, with him. The privateer swept the saber up from the deck. Edward was completely in his power. But for some reason the man hesitated. Pellew's hand went to his shoulder, the fingers splaying out around the blade, it's hilt only inches from his chest. Pellew struggled to sit up, trying to get his weight off of the cutting edge of the slim blade.

"Why?" Pellew gasped. The question struggled out of him. His attacker, Pellew's own saber now in the man's hands, was aimed at his throat. "Why?"

A thick accent met his ears, not quite Spanish, not quite English. "My brother and my son were on the Altamira the day you took this ship." The man leaned closer, the sabers point pressed on Pellew's skin, not breaking the surface tension. "Do you have children Englishman?"

"No." He forced out, the saber began its pressure, an intense pain following it.

"And you never will!"

Pellew closed his eyes, a silent prayer whispered from his consciousness. 'Keep my family safe, Lord, keep --"

His face was suddenly sprayed with a warm liquid. Opening his eyes he saw a flashing blade, it's owner just out of his diminished sight, finishing a savage cut that severed the man's neck almost completely. The white bone of the mestizo's spine was all that kept the head from dropping to the deck.

Then almost as abrupt, a savage thrust between the man's arm and ribcage followed. The blades tip burying itself into his heart.

"I..don'tmiss." A flat statement that was as savage and cold as the thrust of the steel.

The man fell on his side across Pellew's feet. Edward was dimly aware that it was his own dress sword that was sticking up from the privateer's chest.

"Edward, don't you remember our fencing masters insistence on proper form?" Amanda said as he finally looked up at his rescuer.

***

"Edward, not your shoulder again!" She exclaimed as she knelt beside him. He was still trying to sit up, holding his fingers tight around the wound, the sword still skewered through his body. "Charlie! Charlie!" She yelled over her shoulder forward into the waist.

Hammond, moving slowly, finally thrust his head over the top of the quarterdeck ladder. On seeing the tableau he immediately turned to one of the ships boys, "Get the doctor, boy!" He swung the lad bodily toward the wardroom companionway. Charlie noted absently that the bow was beginning to pitch downward a little. "Hmm" he grunted. 'The orlop has to be knee deep in water.' He thought as he turned back and hurried as fast as he could to the quarterdeck.

"I can get up." Edward grunted, drawing to his knees. Amanda stood beside him and held to his right forearm, he stood shaky, not quite hunched over but obviously trying to get away from the pain. Charlie had finally made it all the way to the quarterdeck and the surgeon was right behind him.

"What have you done, Pellew?" Charles Hammond asked.

"Gotten myself into trouble, as usual." The words came out through clenched teeth. Amanda, still standing close and holding his arm, felt his buttocks tighten as another wave of pain washed through him. "God, Charlie, pull it out!"

Hammond looked at the doctor, who nodded his assent. Charlie grasped the hilt. "Ready, Edward?" Pellew nodded. Amanda took a tighter hold on him. The surgeon put an arm around his waist. Hammond pulled the sword straight back. Edward rocked on his feet but still stayed upright. The doctor immediately pulled his jacket away from his body and began to dress the wound.

Amanda chided her husband, trying to take his mind off the doctor's actions. "You are supposed to turn your body sideways, Edward, to present the least of yourself to your opponent. Don't you remember? Our master was very forceful about that."

He shook off her fingers and ran his arm around her shoulders. The excitement from the fight was waning and the weakness from the wound was coming on in a rush. He looked at the privateer lying dead on the deck, his own sword still buried in the man's body. Looking forward he gazed at the Montezuma. He could see two of his own boats heading for the Altamira.

"Charlie, what's going on?"

Hammond picked up Edward's telescope from where it had wedged itself against the base of the wheel and put it to his eye. "Looks like the are bringing over some prisoners."

"We took her then. Good. You can put 'em on the pumps, chain 'em there if you think best."

Amanda suddenly felt his weight shift onto her. "Edward?"

"I think I'd best sit down, m'dear."

"Lie down would be more like it." They began slowly moving toward the ladder to the waist. When they were out of the earshot of Charlie, he sat on the ladder step; she sat on the step below.

"You killed that man."

"He was going to kill you."

"But Amanda."

"I told you, Teddy, you couldn't die on me. Edward, your child needs you. I need you." Her fingers gripped his thigh.

He looked out over the shattered mast stumps and at the now pronounced cant to the deck. His dream of command was dead. This was to have been the start of their life. He shook his head and let his hand fall on her shoulder. It was over.

"Teddy." She roused him from his dark thoughts. "I might as well tell you now. This was not the first man I killed today." He pulled back, head coming up to meet her eyes. "And he was one of your officers."

"Oh Amanda." With an indrawn breath, he started to say more when the black that had been eating at the edges of his consciousness finally claimed him.