Run Aground
by Idler

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Bush looked up from the paper to stare at Fanshawe in disbelief. Fanshawe, for his part, seemed blithely oblivious of his captain's agitation.

"My baggage..."

"Dunnage..." growled Bush, in disgust.

"My 'dunnage', sir, is arriving with the coach, as is my manservant."

This was pushing things too far. "Manservant?" Bush demanded, his voice rising, reflecting both fury and utter astonishment.

"Er...yes, sir." Fanshawe blinked in surprise. "Is there some difficulty?"

"There are no servants aboard these vessels. Only seamen," snapped Bush.

"Oh, is that all." Fanshawe smiled disarmingly, rummaged in a pocket and withdrew a folded note, handing it to Bush. "My uncle-Admiral Summerscales, by the way-suggested as much, and assigned him to the revenue service. That way, he can serve with me without fear of being pressed-as revenue crews all carry a protection."

"You, Mr. Fanshawe, still serve the Royal Navy, and as such remain bound by the Articles of War." He caught Fanshawe's long-lashed gaze, and held it. "All of them."

Fanshawe's eyes widened. "Sir, I must protest. Do you mean to suggest..."

"I mean to suggest nothing, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush interjected flatly. "I am merely...reminding you. I expect you will not forget it. Now...if you are to join us," he barely suppressed a sigh as he gestured to a vacant chair, "please do so."

He reclaimed his own, and studied the men surrounding the table. Merely faces, now...but they would not be so for long. "My orders tell me-and you men of Greyhound have confirmed it-that Harry Carson is the man at the root of the worst of the local smuggling activity. Everyone knows it, but no one has cared to prove it or dared attempt to stop it...until now. We will do so, though we shall find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage until we are joined by the Witch-with Greyhound alone, we shall undoubtedly be outmanned and outgunned at every turn. Much as I hate to admit it, we cannot stand and challenge him gun for gun. At least..." he grinned wolfishly... "not yet. But...this is what I propose we do until then: our Greyhound can certainly snap at his heels..."

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

"Empty..."

Bush slammed his fist furiously-and far too hard-onto Greyhound's starb'd rail. The self-inflicted pain pushed his already frayed temper beyond the breaking point, and he gave vent to it with a stream of obscene invective that would have done credit to even the coarsest bos'n.

He angrily turned on Dawes and Fanshawe who were staring, seemingly transfixed by his wrath. "Put her about, damn you! There is nothing for us here. Or can you do no more than gawp at me like a pair of frightened rabbits?"

Chastened, the two officers promptly scuttled away; he vaguely heard Dawes as he issued the proper orders, and felt the cutter begin to answer.

Bush struggled to fight down his rage. Two weeks...two weeks, it had been, of sailing impotently up and down this coast. For nothing. It seemed that wherever they were, the smugglers were not, always one step ahead. Greyhound had nosed cautiously into this bay, fully expecting to find the tiny vessel that had tantalized them for the past day and night; appearing, and then vanishing as if it had never been. Instead, the bay was calm and peaceful, as if mocking them...mocking him.

He saw himself with frightful clarity, in that moment...stamping about-or at least foolishly attempting to; it was surely a ludicrous sight-and cursing violently, like some comedic madman. Had he been Hornblower, he would have merely cleared his throat.

No. Had he been Hornblower, the bay would not have been empty.

He turned tiredly to Greyhound's master, his anger gone...replaced now by disgust, and a sharp sense of uselessness. "Mr. Burton, take us home. We can revictual, take on water, and give the men a decent meal. We shall begin again tomorrow."

"Aye, sir." Burton nodded, and mopped his face with the huge red handkerchief which typically protruded from a pocket. An' begin chasin' shadows again, he groused silently. He watched his captain clump wearily up and down the tiny scrap of decking-doubtless the only 'quarterdeck' he would ever walk-his frustration evident in every line of his face, in the set of his shoulders, and was suddenly deeply ashamed of his own.

The light was fading as Greyhound's cable paid out, the anchor splashing loudly into the waters of Mount's Bay. The men cheered at the sound, knowing that it heralded spirits, fresh food from ashore, and a night of skylarking under the watchful eye-he had but one, after all-of the bosun.

To Bush, it was the sound of failure.

After a myriad of details were seen to-to their captain's tight-lipped satisfaction-and all was secure, Greyhound's officers were at last rowed ashore. Bush passed the brief journey in silence: he barely looked up as the boat bumped gently against the salt-crusted stones of the quay. Wordlessly, Bush hoisted himself out of the boat and began to trudge slowly up the path, as if reluctant to leave his ship behind, perhaps as a final admission of defeat. Dawes delayed a moment to pass a few final words to his cox'n before clambering ashore and falling into step with Fanshawe. Through the growing twilight, the windows of the Two Brothers glowed cheerfully in the distance; from this aspect, it looked almost hospitable. The thought of good food and a glass caused Fanshawe to quicken his step. "Come on, Dawes..."

Dawes snagged his arm; at that pace they would have quickly overtaken their captain, and left him toiling slowly in their wake. He shook his head. "He may not cherish our company...but leaving him behind would do him no good."

Fanshawe stared at Dawes for a long moment, then shifted his gaze to watch his captain's back. "You are right...I did not consider that." Dawes had an open and pleasant face, and-more than any other-seemed to accept him as a fellow officer, and not an object of amusement. He was suddenly overcome by the need to speak his mind, and the words tumbled out before he could stop them. "Do you know, Dawes...he is not quite the man I thought he was."

Dawes frowned . "And what did you expect?"

"When I first heard of him, saw him...he seemed so...so..." Fanshawe faltered in embarrassment, " ... heroic." He laughed self-consciously. "He seems somewhat less so upon closer inspection."

Dawes thoughtfully considered his words for a moment. "All heroes do, I should think. You ought not to judge too quickly, Fanshawe."

Fanshawe smiled. "Evelyn."

Dawes' friendly face returned the smile. "Evelyn, then. Give him a bit of time; he is well accustomed to battle, but this cat-and-mouse game of smuggling is another thing entirely. He needs to find his feet."

Fanshawe rolled his eyes. "Poor choice of words, that."

Chuckling companionably, the two men followed their captain's slowly retreating figure at a more leisurely pace, with the small knot of warrant officers trailing a respectful distance behind. The stately procession eventually reached the inn; Bush immediately left them, brushing brusquely through the swinging door that led to the inn's back rooms. He had obviously located Mara Bryce, the inn's unpleasant proprietress: a sharp exchange of voices issued from behind the closed door, and their captain's face was dark with anger when he ultimately emerged.

The parlour's few occupants were grudgingly evicted, allowing Greyhound's officers to gratefully take their place. Several bottles of an adequate claret made a timely appearance, thus cheering the assembled party still further and taking the edge from their recent disappointments. Save for Bush, who sat silently apart from the jovial assembly, wholly unaffected by their increasing good humour.

Mara Bryce staggered into the parlour, struggling under the weight of a steaming and heavily-laden tray, and placed it with an aggrieved thump on the center of the table. As her eyes ranged along the faces of the battered men gathering there, her lip curled with unconcealed scorn. "God, look at you. A right sad lot of seamen you are, the very flower of the Royal Navy. Small wonder you are here, instead of at sea where you belong. And you will be outmaneuvered once again tomorrow, just you wait and see."

Bush's face was rigid with anger as he stood to face her, eye to eye; but somewhere deep within him he believed there was truth in her words. When he spoke, his voice was icy. "Madam, I must warn you..."

"Oh yes, the able Commander Bush. You have been far too successful..." her voice dripped with contempt "...in blundering about on your own to seek anyone's advice. Why indeed should you heed mine?"

"Why indeed should you offer it?" he snapped.

"God help me, I do not know. Pity, perhaps. Or the sooner to be rid of your lot." She shrugged indifferently. "In any case, there will be a run tomorrow night, in Carson's cove."

Bush eyed her angrily, with obvious mistrust. "And how, precisely, do you come to know this?"

She laughed scornfully. "Everyone in Mount's Bay knows this. Everyone 'cept you, that is. The signs have been under your very noses all along, but you-you sorry fools-haven't the wit to see them." She stepped to the window that overlooked the bay. "Look here, Commander."

Bush, his face like stone, reluctantly joined her. "Yes? And what is it that I
have so stupidly overlooked?"

"Do you see the inn on the bluff across the bay? Mother Redcap's? The good Mother is a...a 'friend' of Carson himself." She plucked a substantial telescope from a high shelf which had until now escaped Bush's notice, and held it out. "Take a closer look."

Bush accepted it; to his surprise, he found it to be a beautifully balanced instrument, of exquisite quality-it was far finer than his own. Bush wondered momentarily how she might have come by such a lovely thing; had she been anyone else, he might have asked.

He leaned on the window ledge and brought the inn into focus; even in the gathering dusk the fine glass allowed him to clearly pick out even the smallest details, from the yellow flowers in the boxes to the large sign depicting a red-hatted woman cheerfully stirring a large pot. "I see nothing amiss."

She shook her head in disgust. "You truly are a useless lubber. Look at the wind vane."

Bush was growing tired of the game, but complied nonetheless; he might as well play this out, he thought wearily, and not lose his temper once more for her amusement. "So?" he demanded, unable to completely conceal his irritation.

"God." She sighed resignedly, as a teacher might when faced with the dullest of pupils. "And which way is it pointing?"

His sigh matched hers. "West."

"And the wind is...?"

"Backing south'rdly." Understanding began to slowly replace the aggravation that had seemed indelibly etched on Bush's face. "But...is it not simply broken?"

"Oh, no; it's not broken. It shows the way the wind blows, it does." She laughed, though there was a bitter edge to the sound. "But it has naught to do with the weather."

Bush studied her as if to somehow discern her motives...or even, perhaps, her veracity. Failing miserably, he jerked his head sharply toward the door. "Leave us. And shut the door behind you."

He turned back to the men seated at the table; they were all staring, the food and drink long forgotten. Fanshawe was the first to break the stunned silence. "It could be a trap, sir."

Bush laughed; it had a sinister quality which Fanshawe found unsettling in the extreme. "Oh, I expect it is, Fanshawe. But it places us closer to our quarry than we have been thus far. We must see this thing through. Tomorrow."

 

*~*~*~*~*

Two bells of the first dog found Greyhound beating up the coast, keeping to her usual patrol. To any observer, it was just another day, apparently no different from the one before. But this day...this day, as she had approached the inlet known to the local citizenry as Carson's cove-after the smuggler who boldly used it to deliver and receive his contraband cargo-she had hurriedly dropped one of her boats before continuing northward. She would, in time, return.

Dawes and Fanshawe covertly watched Bush's face as the men labored at the oars. Both young officers had earlier suggested that they take charge of the scouting party, to spare their captain the difficulty of going ashore in this rough country. Bush had declined the offer with sufficient vehemence to assure them that they pressed the issue further at their peril. The master was perfectly capable of taking command of Greyhound's feint northward, he had said. Her captain was needed here.

Her captain, however, was finding his earlier excitement waning, with a gnawing anxiety rapidly assuming its place. The prospect of action at last had been intoxicating: but...for what to prepare? Had Mara Bryce spoken the truth, or was she instead sending them into the jaws of a trap or on some fool's errand to divert them from a rich run elsewhere? She was an unlikely informant, as she obviously had no love for the Navy. Still, he could not ignore the possibility that her information was correct. He could not let them slip through his fingers again.

And if it were a trap? Well, he considered, that would have to take care of itself.

As the launch ground noisily onto the pebbled shore, Bush felt his heart sink still further. Carson had chosen his landing place wisely indeed: the beach was broad and open, with no cover at all. It was bounded at the rear by a seemingly impenetrable cliff, though he reasoned that there must be a narrow and winding track leading through it, doubtless wide enough for a string of pack ponies to be led carefully along it: there had to be a way to carry the goods inland. He struck off towards the cliff, his mind struggling to beat down the apprehension and doubt, and instead grapple with the problem at hand.

Once the track was discovered, he could post his men along it to lurk unnoticed in the shadows until after the goods were landed. Once laden and hampered by the darkness, the unforgiving terrain, and the pack animals, the local men could be easily taken and the goods seized. But that would allow the smugglers themselves to go free. And that would not do. Bush wanted them all; wanted them with a fiery passion kindled from the ashes of the past weeks' disappointment and failure, and from a future lost and never to be regained.

He would not...could not...fail this time.

Fanshawe watched with dismay as his captain struggled across the uneven ground. They had tramped all round the inlet, surveying the stony beach and the distant scrub trees that formed its border. The scouting party had returned with news that there was indeed a crevice that afforded a passage through the cliff face to the post road inland; it was narrow and treacherous, but obviously well-used. The footing here was bad, very bad, and Bush was clearly tiring, and having great difficulty keeping his balance. Fanshawe could stand the sight of it no longer-too many years spent in the service of elderly admirals, perhaps-and hurried to his side. He grasped Bush's elbow, saying, in a low voice "Here, Captain, allow me to assist you."

Bush roughly shook his arm free as he snarled "Leave off, Fanshawe, you damned useless molly." He gathered up the shreds of his tattered dignity and stalked off across the shingle as best he could.

Dawes had seen the incident unfold, and fell into step beside Fanshawe, who still wore an expression of wounded surprise. "Never mind, Ev...it is not you. He still feels the loss of the man he was, and cannot accept the man he is. But he will, in time."

Fanshawe eyed him curiously. "As you have?"

"No. Not yet." Dawes chuckled, and reached out with his good arm to clap him solidly on the shoulder. "I deserved that, my friend."

Bush finally halted to catch his breath, leaning heavily on a boulder that had long ago fallen from the cliff's face above. His officers warily joined him as he surveyed the vast expanse of open beach that lay before them. Dawes looked around him, his trepidation plain. "Quiet as the grave, sir," he whispered. It was truth, indeed...the only sounds were those of the waves and the mournful cries of the curlews that wheeled overhead.

Fanshawe shuddered delicately. In the growing twilight, with sea-mist rolling off the water's surface and beginning to wisp inshore, the deserted beach was undeniably eerie. "If we were to be trapped here, with this cliff at our backs, we might well dig our own graves."

Bush silenced him with a fierce glare, and viciously hissed "Hold your tongue, damn you!" Later he must speak to the man regarding one of the most basic tenets of command: One might be wrong, but one must never be unsure. Not publicly, at any rate. Privately, he too was at a loss. They could never conceal themselves close enough to shore to mount a surprise attack; even if they burst from the distant trees at a dead run, the smugglers would have more than sufficient time to put to sea in their boats. There was no closer cover to speak of; the beach was empty save for the myriad large mounds of seaweed washed up by the tides. It did indeed look for all the world like a graveyard.

Bush's blue eyes suddenly lit with excitement. He stepped away from the boulder, calling to the men of the scouting party who had dropped to rest on the shingle. He jabbed a finger at three of them. "You, Perkins...and Cooper, and Bates...get back to the launch. Row back to Greyhound-she must be at the rendezvous point by now-and get shovels, quickly." He hastily pencilled a note on a scrap of paper, and thrust it at the startled Perkins. "Give this to the master. And..." his mind was working furiously, the rapidity of his thoughts surprised him "...and bring a small cask of pitch. Quickly, men! Run!" He turned back to his officers; they were regarding him as if he had gone mad.

"Shovels, sir?" Fanshawe's handsome face wrinkled in confusion. "Why ever for?"

"Why, Fanshawe?" Bush smiled thinly. "Why, so we might dig our own graves, of course."

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

 

Six small boats knifed swiftly through the black water. Their oarlocks were muffled; the men lay on the oars, sending the boats silently into the pitch-darkness of the bay. Carson had chosen this night carefully, with a seaman's sure knowledge of the weather: a thick darkness, illuminated only by a pale sliver of moon, with even that often obscured by scudding clouds and the sea-mist that lay heavily on the water's unruffled surface. Before them, a single light glowed from a crevice in the face of the cliff that loomed blackly in the distance-the signal that all was well, and that men waited to receive what the boats would bring them. The boats, filled to capacity with brandy, tea, tobacco, and lace had been dropped in response. Money would change hands, as would a single small package.

Men slid soundlessly into the chilly water as the keels touched bottom and drew the boats more firmly onto the shore, then settled to the task of offloading their cargo with a quiet efficiency borne of lengthy experience. It would not take long, and they knew their shore-bound counterparts would soon emerge from the darkness. A shuttered lamp was lit, its feeble light a signal that all was nearly done.

An owl hooted softly from the distant trees; all else was quiet. Dead quiet.

One of the smugglers raised his head, suddenly startled. The barest suggestion of movement had caught his eye; it seemed, unbelievably, that the mounds of seaweed were...stirring. Surely a trick of the light, he thought, chiding himself for his superstitious foolishness. The man bent again to his task, though not without a vague sense of foreboding. As he worked, dark figures begin to slowly arise from the beach, long strands of weed still clinging to their shapeless forms; in the faint lamplight, they appeared as ghouls exhumed from the earth itself, their graveclothes mouldy and decayed from ages spent in dank and long-forgotten tombs.

The smugglers froze as if suddenly rooted to the sand, transfixed by the horrors that surrounded them. The man nearest the lantern shrank back in fear as he found such a spectre arising from the weed-strewn shingle, very nearly at his feet. The lamplight illuminated the figure's face; it was misshapen, inhuman. It thrust its ruined face close; in the flickering light, it seemed the face of a demon cast forth from the bowels of hell to walk abroad amongst the living. "Put up your hands, or prepare to meet my maker," it hissed.

The man shrieked and dropped to his knees, gibbering in terror. The others followed his lead, though despite their submission the creatures were relentless, seizing each one without mercy. Demonic flames flared behind them; the odor of burning pitch, like the fires of hell, filled the air. Their boats...their only means of escape from this nightmare...were ablaze, the flames roaring, greedily consuming them.

A figure detached itself from the darkness and approached the ghastly tableau; the grim spectres had no need to see its face. One of the phantoms, incongruously, grinned hugely. "Damn fine owl, sir."

The figure entered the circle of light, the flames glinting off the brass and lace that marked him as an officer in the King's navy.

One of the captured smugglers stifled a sob of relief, and quavered "We...we thought you was devils, zur."

"And I am the Earl of Hell, eh?" Bush's smile was a fearful thing, almost evil in its intensity. He turned to the sergeant of marines, who stood with his hands clamped firmly on the collars of two of the still-terrified smugglers. "Well, Stokes...your beauty has stood you in good stead tonight."

Stokes grinned back, though his scarred and misshapen face turned the gesture into a hideous grimace. "Thank'ee sir...at yer service."

Bush nodded. "I can indeed rely on that, Stokes. And on your marines, I see." He gestured toward the cliff face, from which Stokes' marines were leading a slow procession of pack ponies. Several were already laden with trussed-and faintly protesting-bundles slung carelessly across their backs. "They also did well tonight."

He turned his attention back to Dawes...and Fanshawe, who was fastidiously brushing sand and bits of seaweed from his uniform with obvious distaste. "Load the goods onto the ponies as they had planned...but that is where their plan ends, and ours begins."

"Sir?" One of the marines was striding toward him, a small canvas-wrapped package dwarfed by one rawboned hand. "Sir...I found this on one of 'em. Might be important."

Bush accepted it; the waxed canvas wrapping was unmarked, with no indication of the identity of the intended recipient. "Thank you, Hughes. Well done." He frowned as the contents tumbled out into his hands: a small book, leather bound. A dried and rusty stain on one edge suggested that its owner had not parted with it willingly. He opened it carefully and sucked in a breath. "Well done indeed, Hughes. Had this fallen into the hands of the French..."

The book was a work of art. A most dangerous work of art, for all of them.

The first several pages were a wonder of neat script and tiny watercolor images. Every signal flag used by the fleet in peacetime and in battle had been carefully reproduced and meticulously explained: including, to Bush's horror, the list of substitute signals to be used in the event of capture of the originals. The balance of the book contained hundreds of precise entries that documented the entire British fleet, listing each vessel's number and strength. Aboard ship, it would have been dropped over the side at the first hint of capture; obviously, its creator had had no such opportunity.

"Good God," muttered Bush, shaking his head. Important? Deadly, more like. The book had been a labour of love, the product of countless hours of painstaking effort by some unknown and conscientious officer...and might have doomed them all. Thank God, he corrected mentally. And, he realized with astonishment, he must also thank Mara Bryce.

He tucked the book safely into his jacket as marine Sergeant Stokes dragged one of the captured smugglers to stand cringing fearfully before him. "This 'un had it, sir."

"So." Bush eyed him coldly. "You would sell your countrymen."

The smuggler's frightened expression turned to a sullen mulishness. " Some toff give it t' me, t' give t' 'arry Carson...'twas wrapped up, like." He shrugged. "Din't know wot was in't."

Bush could barely contain his rage, and turned away before the temptation to shoot the man where he stood became too powerful to ignore. These stupid, shortsighted men. They thought only of their own small profit, and gave no thought at all to the cost. Truly evil, traitorous men like Carson used them, and their mindlessness.

Carson was not even among them; he had stayed with his ship. The blazing boats were signal enough that the operation had gone awry; he had turned tail and left his men. Cold bloody bastard, thought Bush. It was a cold bloody business.

Carson's vessel had fled unchallenged, which told him that Burton, Greyhound's master, had properly obeyed his orders and remained hidden in a nearby inlet, though Bush could well imagine what it had cost him in pride to do so. But with the balance of Greyhound's crew ashore, there would have been no hope at all of a successful engagement. That would have to wait until next time.

And there would surely be a next time. Bush knew deep in his bones that he had made an enemy this night; an enemy who would not rest until one of them breathed his last. It was more than the loss of tonight's revenue; even more than the loss of vital information that would now never reach the hands of the French. It was the loss of Carson's sovereignty over this place. And that? That was personal, and would not be forgotten.

Though Carson was not the only one destined to be surprised tonight. He smiled slightly as he considered the likely reaction of the local authorities when he presented them with not only the captured contraband but with Carson's men and local accomplices as well. Perhaps no one had dared cross Carson before-but things were different, now. Very different.

Bush turned to his lieutenants. "Ready?"

Dawes nodded. "Aye, sir." He indicated the string of scrubby ponies, dwarfed by their huge burdens. "It will be rough going up the cliff, laden as they are. Stokes, here, and his marines will shepherd our prisoners. He roped them together, and..." he grinned wickedly "...cut their waistbands. They'll have a devil of a time climbing the track whilst holding up their trousers. No doubt they'll be too preoccupied to try to escape."

Bush chuckled in agreement. "No doubt. I will have to commend Stokes on his ingenuity."

"And you, sir?" Dawes looked suddenly ill at ease. "The cliff-track..." his voice trailed off uncertainly.

Oh God. The cliff track. Bush's heart sank as he looked up at the cliff; the path must be nearly vertical in spots. Flushed with success, he had not spared it a second thought ...but there was no chance at all he could scale such a thing. And damned if he would have one of the ponies unloaded so he might sit astride it like some ridiculously overgrown child.

He was suddenly glad of the darkness, and turned toward it. "Mr. Dawes, you are in command of the balance of tonight's activities. I trust you will safely deliver this night's profit to the authorities. Take Fanshawe with you, and what men you need."

Dawes nodded firmly. "Yes, sir. You can depend on me, sir." He quickly turned away, calling, "Stokes...assemble your men."

" 'Ere, you." Marines tugged roughly at the smugglers. "Git up...let's go." One by one, they resentfully got to their feet and moved a few grudging steps toward the path which led to the village and the authorities.

Halfway up the path, Dawes looked over his shoulder; down on the beach, flames still flickered at the shoreline from the dying embers of the smugglers' boats, casting faint fingers of light along the shingle. The small knot of Greyhound's men left behind were busily engaged in pulling the longboat from the scrub where it had been hidden. But Bush still stood immobile where they had left him; hands clasped behind his back, watching them go up the track...without him. Then the path turned sharply, and he was lost from sight.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Greyhound had scarcely dropped her anchor in Mount's Bay when Bush ordered his boat hoisted out; he seethed with impatience as the hastily-mustered crew rowed him ashore. He had spent the brief return passage in a tempest of anxiety and anticipation: eagerness to hear the account of the revenue service's reaction coupled with worry that Dawes and his men had successfully delivered both captives and goods without incident. The walk to the Two Brothers seemed interminable, though as he approached the inn, it was apparent from the quiet that his men had not yet arrived: while he waited for them, he had a duty to perform.

He entered the inn to find it nearly deserted; not surprising, given the lateness of the hour. Brendan, Mara Bryce's huge and silent brother, was bustling about, tidying the small parlour, readying it for the next day's business. He studied Bush for a moment, then wordlessly jabbed a thick thumb in the direction of the kitchen door. Bush nodded his thanks, and pushed through it into the still hot and smoky room.

She was seated at a well-worn table with a huge mountain of potatoes piled before her. A second, equally imposing mound resided in a cast-iron pot beside an ever-growing hillock of skins. She must have heard him enter; his step was loud and unmistakable on the scarred wooden floor. She ignored him completely, and continued to wield her paring knife with a single-minded determination.

Bush cleared his throat. "Madam...Miss Bryce. I...we...owe you our thanks."

She looked up at last, her face grim. "So I have heard."

"Miss Bryce...you have placed yourself at considerable risk by helping us. But.." Bush shook his head slowly, "I cannot understand why you would do so, as you obviously bear little love for the Navy."

She laid the knife aside and seemed to come to some sort of decision. She tiredly pushed a few damp strands of hair from her face with the back of one rough and bony hand, then sighed. "Did you never wonder about the name of this inn? I once had two brothers, not one. Our brother Francis was shot down in the street, and left there to die like a dog."

Bush studied her thoughtfully, considering for the first time that there might be good reason for her bitterness. He sat down beside her, and nodded. "Go on."

"There had been a run the night before-one that the revenue officers conveniently ignored-but they did not ignore information that Francis had smuggled goods in his possession. They were brave men indeed-as long as their quarry was alone, and defenseless, in the light of day. They approached him from behind and ordered him to halt. When he did not, they shot him."

She challenged him, her eyes snapping with anger. "Francis was in the wrong, I know; I warned him, but Harry Carson can be most persuasive. Still...is a man's life worth no more than a pound of tea, and a bit of lace?"

"I am truly sorry for your loss, madam. But..." It seemed to Bush that the obvious question must be asked. "Why did he not heed their warning? He may not have been killed had he obeyed them."

"He never heard them," she retorted. "Your precious damned Navy saw to that. He was left nearly deaf after Trafalgar."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "Your brother was at Trafalgar?"

"Aye," she answered; her pride was evident. "He was indeed. His ship fought alongside Victory, beside Nelson himself; and when Victory could fight no longer, his ship took her place."

He frowned, eyeing her narrowly. "And what ship was that?"

"Temeraire. " She smiled despite herself, despite the anger and the sorrow. "The news-sheets called her 'The Fighting Temeraire'."

The frown deepened. "Francis Bryce?"

"No...Harris. Bryce is..." she hesitated, "my husband's name."

Bush shook his head, smiling slightly at her, but his eyes were faraway: it was not her face he saw. "Harris...Francis Harris," he repeated softly. "Gun captain, number 8 larb'd. Good, steady man."

Mara was staring at him strangely. "Lieutenant Bush. My God. Francis often spoke of you. I...I would never have guessed that you were that same man."

Her artless words jerked Bush abruptly back to the present. His eyes blazed with fury, and he controlled his voice with an effort. "No madam, I am certain you would not," he snapped coldly. "I am merely...what remains of him."

The inn door slammed resoundingly behind him as he stormed through it. He took a deep breath of the clean air, and struggled to regain his composure. The damned woman was a witch, a viper, never missing an opportunity to remind him of his deficiencies...and, suddenly recalling her words...she had been married? The hapless soul must have been deaf and blind; or, at the very least, dead drunk. Though, he reflected, the man was obviously absent: he must have regained his senses and fled shrieking into the night.

The image, once conceived, cheered him considerably.

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

 

A quarter-hour later Bush was still staring into the night sky, though his wrath was slowly fading to be uncomfortably replaced by more than a twinge of shame at his most ungentlemanly behaviour, though by rights the woman in question could scarcely be deemed a lady. He turned at the sound of a heavy tread behind him; Brendan nodded a greeting and fished in the pocket of the innkeeper's apron tied about his thick waist. "This come for you this mornin', sir."

Bush accepted the packet and examined its contents closely in the light of the candle dwarfed by Brendan's massive fist. He smiled broadly, though the smile quickly gave way to the anger that lately seemed always to smolder just beneath the surface, threatening to ignite at the slightest provocation. "And she never mentioned it....that damned..." He bit off the expletive; the wretched creature was the man's sister, after all.

The big man considered him mildly. "You didn't give her much of a chance to tell you anythin', I'm thinkin'."

Bush stared at him for a long moment, then chuckled ruefully. "No...I suppose I did not."

Bush's quiet laughter died aborning as both men turned abruptly to stare down the narrow post-road where a few tiny spots of light bobbed, growing larger as they drew nearer to the inn. Torches, surely, but there was no way to tell as yet whether they belonged to friend or foe. An uneasy glance passed between the two men. Were they carried by Dawes, Fanshawe, and the loyal men of Greyhound? Or had the smugglers overpowered them, and-supported by the local populace, no doubt-now approached the Two Brothers to finish the job? Bush knew that in that event he would be taken, certain sure...and his death would not be an easy one. Brendan, and Mara too, if their role in this had been discovered: an informant's life was not worth a tallow dip as far as smugglers were concerned.

As the party drew nearer snatches of song carried by the night breeze reached Bush's ears. "'The Fireship', by God." He grinned at Brendan, visibly relieved. "Greyhounds."

By the time the raucous company reached the steps of the Two Brothers, however, Bush's grin had been immovably replaced by a stern glower. "Silence, there", he snapped. "You sound like a lot of chattering jackdaws, not proper King's men." From the shadows Brendan watched him, incredulous. It was nearly beyond imagining that this same man had been weak with relief only moments before.

"Sgt. Stokes, take these men back to Greyhound." At those words, Bush could see more than one of the hands glance longingly through the smudged panes of the inn's windows, perhaps dreaming of the forbidden delights-ale, and whisky-that lay within. "Extra rum ration when they are aboard."

The men erupted in a delighted cheer, which Bush immediately quelled with a dangerous glare. He motioned to the inn door. "Dawes, Fanshawe: come...I would hear your reports."

Once seated at a small table in the parlour, Dawes promptly launched into an energetic account of the night's events. Bush was gratified to learn that the passage from the beach to the inn had been singularly uneventful; no locals had lurked in the shadows to attack the party and free their fellows. "But sir," Dawes grinned. "You should have seen the face of the revenue officer at the Customs House when he caught sight of all those loaded ponies. Stunned, he was."

"And when we informed him that it was all from Carson's Bay..." interjected Fanshaw, with an amused chuckle. "Well...then he went white as a sheet, sir. Told us we'd best be measured for our coffins come morning. And that's when Dawes here told him... told him..." His mirth became too much to contain, and bubbled over into outright laughter. "He said... 'never mind that, we've already dug our graves!'"

Dawes was now laughing too, and the sound of the two young officers' merriment warmed the small room. Bush could not help but join in it, though he was well aware that there was more truth in the warning than the others needed to know.

The captured smugglers-after they had grudgingly unloaded their precious contraband into the hands of the revenue officer-had been deposited in the local gaol; the press would collect them on the morrow. Small wonder the men of Greyhound were in high spirits-each man pressed earned them a twenty pound bounty, a fraction of which would be shared equally amongst them. 'Blood money', the smugglers contemptuously called it; there would be many local families turned against them after this night.

"Well done, Mr. Dawes, Mr. Fanshawe. And there is more good news for you, Mr. Dawes....you shall be pleased to know that Greyhound is your domain once more. The Witch is due to arrive tomorrow forenoon, so we shall be doubled in strength, and you shall be rid of Mr. Fanshawe, and of me." He nodded to them, and pushed back his chair. "I shall bid you good night, gentlemen."

He left the two young men and began climbing the stairs; the sound of their companionable laughter followed behind him. He paused at the top and listened for a moment, and thought of those officers with whom he had shared laughter, or a pint, or a watch. Some were gone, now...and others had simply gone on without him.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Bush had lost track of how long he had been waiting; he had awakened at first light, and been awkwardly pacing the quay for longer than he could recall. But the first sight of the Witch as she tacked gracefully into the bay had wiped all the weariness of waiting from his mind. He knew it was foolishness-but his heart had swelled with pride as he watched her, nonetheless.

She was his. And he had taken her. He, and Hornblower, and Brown. It had been Hornblower's idea-it always was-but could Hornblower have done it, without him?

"God, sir..." a hushed voice breathed, interrupting his thoughts. "She's beautiful."

He turned, startled, to find Fanshawe at his side...perhaps the lad was not entirely hopeless, after all. "Aye. She is, at that."

She looked much the same; even the additional boats now hung about her could not conceal her beauty. Her new bowsprit was fully retracted, making it appear much like her original, though Bush's experienced eye could see that when run out to its full length it would be nearly as long as her hull, and capable of supporting a great spread of jibsails. Despite her grace, the Witch was stoutly constructed: clinker-built, with great depth of keel. Sturdy enough to grapple and board any smuggler's flimsy vessel-providing she could catch it. The additional jibs, coupled with the great gaff-mainsail, would grant her the extra speed she needed.

As they watched, the sails vanished neatly from the yards, and her anchor cable roared out the hawse-hole. Bush smiled and breathed an unconscious sigh of contentment: she was here.

Someone scanning the quay with a glass must have caught sight of his uniform, as she immediately dropped a boat which was already being rowed-smartly, too, he noted-toward him. He raised an eyebrow at his lieutenant. "So, Mr. Fanshawe....see to the shifting of our dunnage. Or do you wish to stand admiring her till sundown?"

Fanshawe smiled and touched his hat. "Aye, sir. Consider it done."

Later Bush would recall that the smile had seemed tainted with fear.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Bush heaved himself through the Witch's entry port to the trilling of calls, unfolded his orders, and, with little ceremony, briskly read himself in.

He could not help but recall the first time he had been piped aboard this vessel-not surprising, as it had been the first time he had been piped aboard any vessel. He looked back towards the entry port, at the bosun, half-expecting to find Styles there. Of course he was not; Bush had known it...yet somehow he still felt vaguely disappointed at his absence.

"Sir...there's a parcel come for you, just a'fore we left th' dockyard."

"A parcel? From the Admiralty?"

The master shook his shaggy head, and pursed his lips in disapproval. "Nossir. From a seaman. 'E were a rough lookin' cove, for all 'e were a bos'n."

Bush frowned slightly. Styles. It had to be.

He started down the companion ladder, noting that the hand-rope was still in place, a fact which prompted an odd twinge of both amusement and shame.

The cabin also looked much the same as it had, albeit considerably cleaner, and freshly painted. Bush smiled ruefully as he noted that the floorcloth was new, and no longer stained with the claret spilled from the goblet he had hurled with such violence. Ah yes...he thought. The parcel. There it was, on his desk. It was long and bulky, wrapped in oiled sailcloth and bound in twine, secured with a reef knot.

He sat down at the desk and carefully unwrapped it to reveal a blunderbuss. As he examined it, he came to realize that it was the blunderbuss. The one that had lain beside him on the deck as he steered the Witch out of the hands of the French to freedom. He held the flared muzzle to the light and found the inscription that had so appealed to his cockeyed sense of humour: "Unlucky is he who stands before me."

Styles had no doubt nicked it before he left the Witch, knowing full well that it would have vanished into the hands of some dockyard worker had he not. His conscience must have got the better of him. Bush shook his head...he would never fully understand the man.

He heard another boat bump alongside, and cast an eye out the larb'd window; as he expected, it was Fanshawe with their dunnage, and Poole, the 'manservant' whom Fanshawe had brought with him from Plymouth. To his relief, he had apparently been quite wrong in his hasty suspicions about the relationship between the two men. Poole must have been sent by Fanshawe's uncle simply to keep the lad out of trouble. A fine choice, it seemed. Poole was small, and colourless...he actually had a sort of unsettling invisibility about him. One never noticed his presence, yet somehow, when Fanshawe needed him, he was there at his elbow. But Poole was a proper seaman, could hand, reef, and steer-in fact, had proved a dab hand at the tiller-so any disquieting feelings he might engender could be readily overlooked.

A glance astern revealed Greyhound, snubbing at her anchor cable like a restive colt. He smiled...he felt rather the same way himself. All was aboard, there was no need for delay; they could resume their coastal patrols immediately-this time, in strength. "Unlucky is he who stands before me" indeed, he thought, and headed for the door...and the sea.

On deck, Bush turned to the master and called, "Take her out, Mr. Drummond. Signal Greyhound to weigh anchor and take station astern."

"Aye, aye, sir." The master nodded briskly, and turned, bellowing his orders. "Hands to the windless...lively there!"

The anchor began to rise from the depths as the dripping cable was hauled inward; Bush listened to the master's confident voice, and knew that the Witch was in good hands. He, however, had a significant problem in his own. The master was fully capable of handling the Witch under any circumstance, in any emergency. The first lieutenant, unfortunately, was not.

He forcibly pushed that predicament to the back of his mind; there would be time enough to deal with it later. At the moment, he had to concern himself with the behaviour of this cutter-an infinitely more pleasurable occupation, if the truth be told.

She handled as sweetly as he had remembered; it was all he could do to not take the tiller himself.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Their patrol well underway, Bush had reluctantly quit the deck; a packet of letters and dispatches had arrived with the Witch, along with the usual bundle of muster-books and purser's logs. He could no longer avoid giving them his proper attention, and was thus awash in the paperwork he loathed.

A tap at the cabin door provided welcome diversion; he looked up gratefully. "Come."

Fanshawe bustled into the cabin: clearly, a man with a mission. "Sir...I wish to report a seaman for punishment."

Bush stared at him in disbelief...they had scarcely cleared land. "And what did this man do?"

Fanshawe's handsome face radiated righteous indignation. "He was insolent, sir; he did not respect me."

Bush eyed him coldly. "You have not yet given him reason to do so."

"But sir...I am a lieutenant in the King's Service." He drew himself up importantly. "He must respect the uniform."

Bush slowly pushed the chair backwards and rose to his full height, then braced his hands on the desk and leaned across it. They were nearly nose to nose; Fanshawe shrank back a pace under the force of Bush's obvious rage.

"Damn you, Fanshawe..." he roared. "'Respect the uniform'? Yours is not a 'uniform'...on you, it is a...a..." Bush spluttered with fury, groping for words. "It is a... a......a costume." He took a deep breath, tried to master his wrath, and failed. "For God's sake, Fanshawe...how did you contrive to pass your lieutenant's examination?"

Fanshawe winced in the face of his captain's wrath, assuming an expression surprisingly reminiscent of that of a rabbit caught in a snare. "Well, sir...my uncle, my godfather, and his flag captain..."

"Dear God." Bush shook his head helplessly. "Say no more." He sighed and began to noisily pace the cabin. "So...it falls to me."

Fanshawe trailed behind him anxiously. "But sir, my uncle..."

Bush turned abruptly and rounded on the young man, who had to stop short to avoid colliding with his captain.

"Damn you, Fanshawe...what have you been playing at?" Bush snapped, viciously. "This is no yachting holiday. You have been at Dawes' and my elbow for weeks, yet have learned nothing from it and apparently see no need to do so. But you will learn, Fanshawe." Bush's tone was chilling as he repeated the words as if they were a verdict of doom. "You. Will. Learn."

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

 

By week's end, the pristine copy of Falconer's-of which Fanshawe had been so proud-was bent and crumpled, spotted with salt-stains and smudged with the occasional tarry thumbprint. In short, showing every sign of hard usage...a condition which was abundantly shared by its owner, who was currently seated at his miniscule desk, head pillowed uncomfortably on a grimy arm but snoring loudly nonetheless.

Bush, sleepless and pacing irritably in his own cabin, was scarcely less uncomfortable. He had known that Fanshawe was unprepared for his duties as first lieutenant from the moment he read the man's orders. He had hoped-vainly, it seemed-that Fanshawe would have been well aware of his deficiencies and would have sought to rectify them himself. Yet it appeared ludicrous now to have imagined that this pampered popinjay would have even considered such a thing. No, the failure had been his own. But what had he done to deserve such a useless first lieutenant?

Regardless, this paper-skulled first lieutenant presented a significant and delicate problem. Bush knew that he could put the young man ashore at the earliest opportunity and be done with it...yet his pride made him reject that possibility out of hand. A lieutenant's name was inextricably linked with that of his captains, and his abilities-or deficiencies-presumed to reflect the training he had received in their service. He himself was known as having served under Louis, and Harvey, and Sawyer, and...he stopped his relentless traverse back and forth across the cabin to close his eyes for a moment...and Hornblower. He would be damned if his name would be permanently bound to Fanshawe's without making at least an attempt to fashion the man into some vague semblance of a proper officer.

But how? Bush grimaced at the very thought, tiredly running a hand across his brow. Fanshawe was as ignorant as the greenest midshipman; unfortunately, he could not be treated as one. Bumbling midshipmen were common enough; the men expected it, accepted it, and listened to their dressings-down or the swish and crack of the bos'n's rattan across juvenile haunches with indulgent smiles, and knowing looks...knowing all the while that it was part and parcel of the moulding of a boy into an officer worthy of obedience and respect. But those methods, while effective, could hardly be applied to a commission officer. He had to publicly treat Fanshawe with the formality and regard expected of a captain to his first lieutenant-the latter's ignorance notwithstanding-and had to demand the appropriate level of respect from his men.

It still rankled that he was forced to support him as he had done a week past, after Fanshawe reported a seaman for insolence...the report that had brought this whole miserable situation to the fore. Fortunately, the seaman had indeed been insolent, though mildly so; it had been the sort of thing that an experienced officer would have dealt with swiftly and immediately with no more than a look and a word. Instead, the man had been called to the captain's cabin-doubtless a daunting experience for him, in and of itself-and Fanshawe had spoken to him. Bush himself had remained silent, though in glowering over Fanshawe's shoulder had informed the man that such behaviour would not be tolerated. No comment had been necessary.

That message had been relayed efficiently throughout the lower deck: he was certain of it. The men now gave Fanshawe every appearance of respect, though Bush knew full well that it was of a hollow sort. He could only hope that some measure of it might be earned, one day.

But today? Today, it simply made him angry. Angry, that such a useless coxcomb disgraced a lieutenant's uniform. He had earned his own through sweat and blood, back-breaking labour, and humiliation. It had been a long hard climb without interest or influence. He knew, of course, the considerable power of both, and had learnt to be tolerant. One had to be. What he found unendurable was Fanshawe's indifference; his unwillingness to earn the gift he had been given. And such a gift: he was young, and whole, with an ocean of opportunity laid before him.

But dammit, thought Bush grimly, he would learn.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

And thus Fanshawe's education began. Fueled both by Bush's indignation and acute sense of duty it proved neither easy nor pleasant. Bush kept him on the hop, engaged in every aspect of seamanship, from the intricacies of navigation to the handling of sail to the handling of men-all to be accomplished to his own exacting standards. And this? This was but the beginning.

Fortunately, there was much to do: a crop of a dozen brandy tubs, lashed together and weighted with stones, had been found washed up on the shore of Mount's Bay. A common enough practice, crop-sowing was-particularly when local preventive men were especially vigilant. Given their bulk, casks of spirits were among the most difficult-though lucrative-goods to smuggle. Typically, casks had to be unloaded onto shore and promptly collected by local men, or transferred offshore to waiting tub-boats. Both methods took far too much time and exact coordination and ran too great a risk of discovery when watchful patrols were about. When patrols were frequent, and revenue officers sufficiently determined, crop-sowing became the transfer method of choice.

Bush-being more than sufficiently determined-had set both Greyhound and the Witch to putting a rapid halt to it, particularly as Mara Bryce had offhandedly commented to Dawes that Harry Carson had recently 'taken an interest in farming'. They committed themselves to the interception and inspection of all local vessels, as smuggling craft engaged in this practice were fitted with a tell-tale wooden rail running inboard along the length of the hull, commonly known as a tub-rail. The tubs, lashed together and weighted with stones, were hung outside the hull below the waterline with the sinking-rope secured to the rail by small lashings. When the delivery vessel innocently sailed close inshore, the lashings were cut, the tubs promptly sinking to be discreetly recovered by local men at a later, more opportune time.

Thus Fanshawe's days were filled with patrols, endless tacking and wearing, heaving-to and cutting-out-all of which were done under Bush's critical and unforgiving eye, and unfailingly sharp tongue. And when not so occupied, he was given charge of one of the boats that rowed ceaselessly off-shore, towing a grapnel or 'creeping-iron' along the sea bed in hopes of snagging a sinking-rope. This fishing for half-ankers had proved surprisingly successful, so much so that both Greyhound and the Witch were now preparing to drop anchor in Mount's Bay to deposit their rapidly burgeoning cargo ashore at the Custom House.

Most of Bush's men grinned at the thought of the Custom Officer's horror and the smugglers' frustration when the size of their 'catch' became widely known. But to the Witch's harassed first lieutenant, the splash of the anchor meant a hoped-for moment of peace, and some rest-though he was fairly certain that Bush would bedevil him with some new and unpleasant task in short order.

"Mr. Fanshawe." Bush's sharp summons abruptly broke into his thoughts, confirming his fears. "Signal to Greyhound 'Captain repair on board'. I shall be in my cabin; inform me when Lieutenant Dawes arrives."

"Aye, sir," acknowledged Fanshawe, relieved that it had been no worse. He turned to the signalman. "Hoist the signal, if you please." He squinted up at the flags as they soared smoothly aloft; all was in order. He nodded to the seaman. "Well done."

Greyhound's boat was immediately dropped in response and rapidly traversed the short distance to the Witch of Endor's side; Dawes scrambled through the entry port, glancing about for his commander. Bush was not to be found, though there was Fanshawe-Dawes had not recognized him at first glance. Browned by the sun, and sporting a uniform in dire need of cleansing, he bore little resemblance to the immaculate model naval officer he had been when last seen.

Dawes brightened, pleased to see his friend; though, admittedly, his friend appeared somewhat the worse for wear. "So, Ev...how do you find the Witch?"

Fanshawe groaned. "A trial, indeed. And there is no cause to call me 'Ev'..." he sighed. "I do believe my given name is now 'damn you'." He wisely bit off his next comment, as a tell-tale regular thud betrayed his captain's approach.

Bush welcomed Dawes with a smile and nod, then turned a searching glare on his First. "Have you nothing to do, Mr. Fanshawe?"

Fanshawe took a deep breath and visibly braced himself. "No sir, not at present."

"Well, then," snapped Bush brusquely. "I shall remedy that directly. The casks must be unloaded and transferred ashore; rig a parbuckle..." Bush broke off as Fanshawe began to gnaw his lower lip in apparent consternation. He studied the young man's bewildered features for a moment. "You do not know how, I assume?"

Fanshawe barely suppressed a grimace. "No, sir...unfortunately I do not."

Bush heaved an exasperated sigh. "Very well. Take a seaman with you." He gestured to a small knot of offwatch seamen cheerfully engaged in mending whilst one of their number regaled them with tales of the delights of some foreign port. "Any one of those men can assist you."

Fanshawe studied the group, and pointed. "You there...that man..."

"'That man' has a name," Bush snapped, sotto voce. "I'll trouble you to learn it, and use it."

Thus chastened, Fanshawe hurried off, the still-nameless seaman in tow. Bush shook his head in disgust, but refrained from comment. He turned to Dawes, a proper lieutenant if ever there was, and mustered a half-smile. "Walk with me, Mr. Dawes..." They slowly paced the weather side, Bush peppering him all the while with questions. "Tell me...how does Greyhound serve? Does she still gripe a bit in stays? Perhaps if you were to shift..."

Bush had nearly forgotten how pleasant it was to discuss the finer points of seamanship with a like-minded colleague; Fanshawe would have goggled at him like a witless child had he so much as attempted to do so. The clang of the Witch's bell eventually recalled to Bush the passage of time-he would have been quite unaware of it otherwise-prompting him to extract his watch from a pocket. He scowled darkly at it. Fanshawe ought to have finished and reported back long ago.

"A moment, please, Mr. Dawes..." Impatience overcame him; he headed below to observe Fanshawe's progress, knowing full well that what he would find would not please him in the least. He ducked into the darkened hold; as his eyes adjusted to the reduced illumination he found Fanshawe, a smear of tar across one cheek, torn lace trailing from a cuff, his stockings laddered and sadly drooping. The young lieutenant never noticed his captain's arrival. His face was a study in concentration as he sawed busily at a rope with a ridiculously small-though highly ornamental-knife. Bush watched him, not knowing whether to burst into laughter or curses. The seaman, clearly, was enduring no such internal struggle: his mirth was evident, a thing which infuriated Bush beyond reason. His officers-deserving or not-were not to be laughed at.

He dismissed the seaman with a dangerous growl and turned on Fanshawe.

"Damn you, Fanshawe..." he snarled.

The deeply wounded expression on Fanshawe's face as he looked up at his captain left Bush entirely-and uncharacteristically-speechless. In an instant's unaccustomed clairvoyance, he realized that he knew that face. Not the expression, precisely-he had always managed to conceal that-but he knew the emotions that fostered it all too well. He had suffered under the stinging lash of Hornblower's casual and thoughtless derision for so many years: he had grown accustomed to it, and had accepted it as no less than he deserved. But...it had done him no good, after all.

He eyed Fanshawe sternly, but softened his tone. "For God's sake, Fanshawe...use a proper knife, and not that damned plaything." He withdrew an enormous, battered seaman's clasp-knife from a pocket and handed it to the astonished Fanshawe. "Keep this until you go ashore and find yourself a real knife." Bush glowered at him fiercely. "Lose it and I will have your liver, I swear it. Do you understand me?"

"Aye, sir," ventured Fanshawe, who had no doubt at all of his captain's sincerity. He braced himself for the dressing-down he had come to expect...to be delivered, no doubt, with Bush's full volume and seaman's vocabulary.

Bush nodded. "Very well. Carry on, then, Mr. Fanshawe."

Fanshawe gaped after Bush's retreating figure. He could think of no rational explanation for his captain's response, but he was grateful for it, all the same. Though the returning seaman...Parker, as he had discovered....looked somehow disappointed at the loss of his afternoon's entertainment, as his ear had been recently pressed to a seam in the bulkhead.

Bush emerged on deck to rejoin the waiting Dawes. "Mr. Fanshawe needed some..." he grimaced, "direction." A sigh escaped him; he knew it was improper, but try as he might, he could not stifle it. "What did I do to deserve this useless lubber? He shook his head. "Perhaps a better question might be "What did he do?"

Dawes stared at him incredulously. "You do not know, sir?"

"Know what?" Bush's eyebrows knit together darkly; it must have been a serious offense indeed. "What is it that he did?"

"He asked, sir." Dawes said, simply.

"What??" Bush squawked in disbelief. "He asked...for.." he spread his hands helplessly "...for this?"

Dawes nodded firmly. "For this. And...for you, sir."

The colour drained from Bush's face; he gripped the rail as if its support was the only thing keeping him upright. Perhaps it was.

He felt shaken, and sick. Heartsick at the extent of young Fanshawe's folly...and heartily sickened at his own.