Pass the Pen

Part Seven -Midshipmen's Chances
by Mebbie10

 

Midshipmen's Chances

Dr. Hepplewhite's Patient Journal:

"Midshipman Simpson was brought into sickbay just a few minutes ago by seamen Styles and Matthews. I must say that they just dumped him unceremoniously in one of the hanging cots. I have never seen two men so in a hurry to leave a fellow crewman to the ministrations of their surgeon. They offered as explanation only that the man had been found in the hold just as I saw him.

"The man is still out cold, which is not unusual considering the head wound he received in the taking of the prize. It's been almost an hour since the man was brought down. I have had my loblolly boys to move him to one of the bunks against the hull where I can watch and make sure that no further harm comes to the man.

"I have known cases of head wounds that caused intermittent blackouts and seizures. Both of these symptoms usually portend an ominous cause, either internal bleeding in the cranial cavity or a serious skull fracture.

"The man does have new bruises, bruises that are of a suspicious nature, ones that could not have been caused in a fall. Indeed, some look very like fist marks. I fear the young man has been a victim of foul play.

"I can only wait and see what happens over time. For now he breathes well and appears to have no broken bones. I have ordered my mate to check him every half hour and record his vitals. Only time will tell, so we wait."

***

Captain Sir Edward Pellew's Personal Journal

"Have I done the right thing? I pray God that I have. These young officers from the Justinian, so full of promise for the future are all troubled men. One, Hornblower, has all the makings of a fine officer. He has the loyalty of his men and he is just as dedicated to them. He instinctively does the right thing, and comes out smelling like a rose no matter what seems to happen to him. However, he is of a taciturn nature and is prone to periods of self-doubt and depression.

"Mr. Simpson, having proved himself brave and fearless in battle, has yet to gain the esteem of the crew."

Pellew tossed the pen down, shaking his head and reaching for the tankard that held his evening glass of wine. All glass had been struck below; in fact anything that might break had been tucked away. The ship was beginning to roll into the troughs. He had to save his inkwell from sliding off his desk a couple of times since he started to add to his journal. He wrapped both hands around the pewter mug and looked at the deadlights that covered his stern windows. He drank a sip and rose to check the barometer that hung on the cabin wall.

The mercury was still dropping. 'This storm is going to be a bad one.' He thought. 'Bowles would not order preventer stays up if it were not. The man has a true sense of weather. He has saved my ship more than once.' His oilskins were swinging where his boat cloak and undress jacket usually hung. His sou'wester was perched on the sideboard; his servant had made the change without even asking his permission. 'The man's getting impertinent.' Then a further thought occurred to him. 'I'll have to put him in his place one of these days.'

The smile that was playing across his lips died away as his eyes returned to the journal. 'I'd better finish that while I have the time.' He resumed his seat and picked up the pen, opening the inkwell and dipping the nib. He almost locked the top of the pot down, but he hesitated, he would need to dip into it again and he could catch it if the ship rolled under him.

"Now, back to this Simpson, the man is a capable midshipman," He wrote, "I should think, although he's rather old for the post. I can only wonder how many times he has sat his examinations. The men are oddly silent; they neither praise him nor deride him. I have seen some looks from those of the crew that came over from the Justinian, but no word has reached my servant or Mr. Bowles." Here he stopped once more.

The thought of the master made him smile again. 'The men would talk to Bowles.' Bowles had come over from the Justinian as soon as he could gain the masters release. 'A better man does not exist.' Then a random thought struck him about Bowles, 'And, he speaks French.'

Dipping the pen he continued writing. "About Mr. Kennedy though, I have heard many things, for the most part complimentary, but I have some misgivings. He seems unsteady. With more time in service than Mr. Hornblower, he does not have the natural leadership abilities that Horatio has. It is odd how I wrote his given name, rather than his surname just now. I will need to govern that impulse. Have I come to think of him that familiarly? Without a doubt Mr. Kennedy is wellborn and very likeable and the men do follow him.

"I really wonder what happened down among the barrels in the hold. Is Mr. Kennedy capable of doing a fellow officer harm? Of murdering him? I will make enquiries as soon as possible. I will not loose an officer from the service if I can avoid it." He extended his arm to dip the pen again, when the inkwell suddenly slid across the desk. The ship had heaved. He grabbed for it, but the fiddles around the outer edges of the desk caught it for him. He picked up the pot and dipped his quill once more. "Those enquiries will not be made tonight, however. We are in for a severe storm and all hands will be needed to keep the Indy afloat."

He locked the lid of the inkpot and placing the pot and his quill into his writing case, he sanded the journal to dry it quickly. The ship rolled again, catching him half standing, he struggled to keep his balance as he closed the book and reached for the oilskin pouch that would keep the pages dry if his quarters were swamped.

***

Minutes later Pellew ran up the ladder to the quarterdeck; he checked the binnacle as he walked, or rather climbed, to where Bowles and Hornblower were standing. The wind lifted the back of his sou'wester, making him fasten it more securely under his chin. The other officers and the quartermasters were already drenched, even with their heavy weather gear.

The glass was still falling. "This weather hasn't bottomed out yet!" He yelled over the sound of the waves crashing into the starboard side, the guns were drawn in and stoppered. Looking upward he saw that every sail had been securely gasketed to it's yard and the only canvas that was spread were the fore and main topsail, just enough to give her steerageway. The officers and men had done everything humanly possible to secure his ship.

The Indy rolled again. This time the waves struck over the side and washed across the deck. It swept several of the deck watch into the trussed up cannon before the Indy struggled upright. Pellew watched as several men had to be helped up and two had to be carried below at their petty officers direction.

Pellew struggled forward to the railing and held on as the ship began to lift again. He found Bracegirdle beside him as the deck fell from under his feet. "I've never been prone to sea sickness before, Mr. Bracegirdle, but I am beginning to know how Mr. Hornblower feels. I may heave yet!" He shouted, "We are going to have to take in that main tops'l! It's worn its larboard clew, see it's starting to rip the corner of the sail!" He pointed up, Bracegirdle's eyes followed.

"Aye Sir!" Both of them staggered upright again as the deck came back up underneath their feet. "Mr. Kennedy!" Bracegirdle called to the officer as he was coming back to the quarterdeck from rigging safety lines along the waist. The first lieutenant gave the necessary orders to take in the sail.

"But sir, what of the safety lines up there?" Kennedy yelled back.

"Sail first, Mr. Kennedy!"

"Aye sir!" Kennedy's division went aloft.

***

Wavering lights. Not the star showers of before, but just wavering lights. 'Where am I?' Jack thought to himself.

"Owww! Nawt again!" Someone shouted off to his left. A scream followed the shout.

'Hell, it must be hell.' He thought.

The lights flared, then they seemed to swirl around his head, now they flickered again. He put out his hand and touched the blackness to his right. Whatever he was lying on swung away from his push. His world spun around him again.

'Easy there, Burke, easy. I'll try to be as quick as I can."

Hepplewhite's voice. He must be in sick berth again.

'But I live!' The thought was almost triumphant. 'I live! - But how did I get back here?' He struggled to sit up in the cot, the thing swung under him again, the mix of the ships rolling and his own headache almost sent him head over heels out onto the deck.

He still could not see clearly, the meager lights were just disks of yellow in a background of black and dark blue. He only knew Hepplewhite by the mans shaved pate when it reflected the yellow light.

The ship rolled again, Jack laid back down waiting for his stomach to catch up with the motion. The Indy seemed to be determined to go over on her beam-ends and take his hanging bed with her. He banged into the frigates side when the cot reached the end of its swing.

He had to get out of this bunk, it was finishing the beating that someone had startedbeating? The hold, he had gone theregone there to what? To do what? He shook his head, trying once again to sit up; he had gone to find that Kennedy chap. Why?

***

Pellew and Bowles stood over the binnacle, the barometer had stabilized, but it was still low and the storm showed no tendency to lessen.

"We are going to have to get the storm stay sails up or we'll be pooped, sir." Bowles said. The Indy was at the bottom of a roll and had started back up again. They could almost converse normally in those few moments. The ship suddenly skewed to starboard, scudding into a trough. Pellew looked aft, over Bowles shoulder, he felt his face go slack as he saw the wall of water that was coming for them.

"NO TIME, BOWLES! HOLD ON! HOLD ON!" He yelled as the wave started to broach over the stern, he heard the great lantern break away from its base and roll toward the men at the wheel. The boom of the spanker tore loose from the mizzen. The fork of the boom broke where it met the mast.

Cables with their block ends that had come loose when the boom broke away snaked with lightning speed across the quarterdeck, carrying away everyone that they came in contact with. The boom, it's compound parts shattering as it fell crosswise to the deck splintered as it hit one of the cannon.

The lantern rammed into the back of the helm. It's glass adding razor sharp daggers to the deadly wood shards.

The wave washed away as quickly as it had come, leaving the stern of the ship in a shambles.

***

Kennedy, in the maintop with his division watched with horror as he saw first Hornblower, then the quartermasters and Bracegirdle who had been standing by the wheel and finally Pellew and Bowles fall and be swept under the bottle green water.

When the foam finally dissipated he could not find Bracegirdle, the quartermasters or Hornblower. But Pellew and Bowles had been carried with the railing into the waist. Pellew lay motionless in the broken spindles of the railing, but Bowles was trying to get up on all fours and reach for his captain at the same time.

***

Jack finally got a leg over the edge of the hanging cot and fell rather than rose out of his bed, but he was on his feet. The deck didn't seem to be pitching as wildly as it was a few moments before, but it still threw him off balance as he tried to take a few steps toward the doorway.

"Mr. Simpson! Sit down now! Please sir!" Hepplewhite's voice cried across the din of injured men's grunts and groans.

The pain stabbed through his head and he obeyed gratefully, sitting on a plank bench built into the bulkhead. He realized that his ribs were hurting as much as his head and he still could only see shapes and could not make out any separate faces. What had happened to him in that hold? Why was he hurt again?

***

"Matthews!"

"Aye Mr. Kennedy!"

"See if you can get a whipstaff on the tiller, or some kind of tackle that will allow us to steer her. With the spanker gone and the tiller waving free, we have to get control. Take whatever men you need."

"Aye." Matthew struck off toward the captain's cabin and Styles made to follow him.

Kennedy stopped him with an upraised hand. "Not you Styles. Go and locate Mr. Heather, get his division up here. We need to clear that wreckage away. If you can't find him, bring the carpenter! Hell, bring the carpenter anyway!"

Styles didn't answer but pulled at his forelock and immediately went forward.

"You men there!" Kennedy shouted. His own division turned their heads to him. "Get those storm staysails up. Lloyd, you make sure they are got up properly." The older topman, who was respected by his mates, began giving directions to the men.

Kennedy reached for a backstay and slid to the deck. 'How am I able to do this now?' He thought, 'I've never been in a position like this before and been able to perform my duties. Maybe it's because no one is shooting at me or threatening me.' The thought was fleeting and was gone from his head as he began to wade through the wreckage and still swirling water. Where was Horatio?

Bowles had made it to a sitting position, blood flowing freely from a cut on his cheek, he held Pellew's head in his lap, the captain was apparently still unconscious and crimson tendrils spread from the right sleeve of his oilskins. Bowles had found a handkerchief and was holding it to the back of Pellew's head. It was turning red, soaking through the cloth in seconds.

"Mr. Bowles, can you get up?" Kennedy asked the master.

"No, lad, my leg is hurt, I'm doing well to sit here. Can you get us some help? We need to get him below."

"I'll try sir, but we have to get steerage way."

"You are right, of course, Mr. Kennedy."

Pellew's left hand floated up from where it was resting across his chest to reach the young man. "Mr. Kennedy?" It was a whisper; Pellew's eyes were slits, his face contorted by the pain. It was an obvious effort to talk.

Kennedy bent to his captain, kneeling beside him. "Yes, Captain?"

"Take care of my ship, Mr. Kennedy. I'm depending on you. You have command."

Kennedy's head jerked back as he tried to lean over his commander. 'Oh no, not now, no fit.no fit.' He thought, as he fought off the darkness. He beat the devil back and went to one knee by Pellew. "I'll take care of her, sir."

"Very good, Mr. Kennedy." Pellew drifted off into semi consciousness again, his body relaxing into Mr. Bowles' arms.

Kennedy suddenly realized that he had been kneeling in the blood that ran from Pellew's sleeve and his breeches were stained.

Styles was back with a group of men and was beginning to carry the wounded below. Kennedy followed the sailor's gaze. He could see through the captain's cabin all the way to the mountainous waves beyond.

"'Ere Mr. Bowles, let me take him." Styles said and easily took the Captain from the master. Finch helped Bowles to his feet and drew the master's arm around his shoulders to take him below.

Kennedy climbed what was left of the starboard ladder to the quarterdeck and took in the damage there. Both rings of the double wheel were shattered. The tiller ropes appeared to still be intact, although it looked like a couple of turns were almost cut through. He could see Matthews through the deck directly below the wheel.

"Mr. Kennedy, sir?"

"Yes, Mattie?"

"I didn't have to take any of the bulkheads down to get to the steering gear, sir. The bulkheads are all gone and the Captain doesn't have much of a cabin anymore."

"I know that. Are we shipping water? Can you tell?"

"No sir, I can't."

"Well, if we are, we will have to take care of it later. If we can't get steerage way we'll be right back into the heart of that storm. Get that steering gear back in service."

"Aye, sir!"

Where was Horatio? So far the wreckage that had been cleared had given him no sign of his friend. Where was Horatio?

Archie Kennedy could feel the panic begin to rise again.

***
Pellew had only cried out once when Styles inadvertently bumped into the walls of one of the companionways. He cradled Pellew's head into his shoulder and moved faster toward sick berth. He could hear the stumping of the master and Finch behind him. He shoved two wounded men out of his way in his haste to get Pellew to medical attention. Styles was unprepared for the crowd of crewmen who were already there.

Hepplewhite was blood soaked to the elbows and there were several of the crew who had lost an arm or a leg. Styles knew a cannon had come loose in the foc'astle but had not had any idea of the havoc it had caused. The surgeon turned to him with anger clear in his face. The anger turned to irritation as he saw whom the hurt man was. "Take him back to his quarters, Styles, he shouldn't be here."

"He doesn't have any quarters, Sir, all carried away."

***

Jack was still sitting on the bench as the officers were brought in. The bench, very close to where his cot had been and was screened off by a curtain that was half drawn back. With his eyesight still unclear and the meager light in the sickbay he could tell that the men were officers, but could not see their faces.

'Styles always did have a soft spot for that Kennedy fellow. Now he's carrying him like a baby.' He thought.

Jack closed his eyes, resting his head against the bulkhead; he tried to remember who had been in the hold with him last night. Kennedy? Yes. All he had wanted to do was to thank him, wellmaybe not thank him. Kennedy had been wearing his white knee breeches instead of the trousers that he knew Archie liked better. How did he know that? How did he know any of this?

Kennedy! Kennedy had been close to him. Jack saw, in his mind's eye, Kennedy's fist flying toward his face. Kennedy! Kennedy and his white breeches!

Opening his eyes, he could see Styles peeling the oilskin coat off of the white breeched officer in the hanging cot next to him. He watched as Hepplewhite slit the sleeve of the shirt of the officer and using pincers begin to draw shards of glass out of a great wound in the officer's forearm. The patient made no sound, evidently he was out cold.

Minutes later both Styles and the surgeon moved away, leaving the man lying on his side, facing away from Jack, the curtain still hiding the man's head and shoulders. Kennedy, it had to be Kennedy.

'Jack's missed you boy.' Simpson was horrified by the thought, it was his own voice in his head, but the words were malevolent, cloying.

'I can't let you ruin me, boy. I can't. Jack's missed you boy.'

His hand moved to the tray of surgical instruments that lay on the bench beside him. Two or three flensing knives were under his touch. His fingers closed around the longest of them.

The blade glistened before his eyes; he could see the shape and the brightness of the edge. Mesmerized, he held the blade closer. His eyesight still wasn't clear enough to discern faces, just voices and shapes, like the breeches and well-muscled legs of the officer. It wasn't Hornblower; his legs were long and slim. It had to be Kennedy.

'I don't want to do this!' He thought, but he stood up and took one unsteady step toward the still figure. Looking up, he could see Hepplewhite's bald head working over a blue breeched figure. That had to be the master, Bowles.

His left hand reached for his right wrist. 'I do not want to do this.' Something in his conscious mind fought to control the mania that was overwhelming him.

"Jack's missed you boy. I can not let you ruin my second chance." His left hand lost the battle and his right lifted high, the blade pointed down at the prone officer, defenseless in his unconsciousness.

The blade flashed in the lantern light.

(To be continued.)