Run Aground
by Idler

Chapter 9

 

 

"...sir? Sir?" A voice dimly penetrated the mists that had closed in upon him; he felt a hand cautiously touch his arm. "Are you unwell, sir?"

Bush blinked; Dawes was staring at him, his face screwed up in anxious concern. 'Yes' he thought, vaguely. "No." He shook his head as if to clear it. "No, Dawes, I am quite well. It was nothing." He managed a thin smile. "Nothing at all."

He lifted his chin and his face settled into its usual stern expression; it was as if the incident had never transpired. "Mr. Dawes, see to the landing of your seized goods, and arrange for transport inland to the Customs House. Mr. Fanshawe will be supervising the landing of our own."

"Aye, aye, sir." Dawes nodded, and touched his hat. As Bush made his way to the companion hatch, Dawes took a moment to glance about him; Fanshawe was nowhere in sight. Still belowdecks, no doubt tremulously awaiting a further visitation from his captainand the wrath that invariably trailed him like some truculent shadow. 'Poor Ev' he thought, sadly. He had come aboard with such romantic notions about the sea and the Service, only to have them so thoroughly dashed to flinders and replaced by a harsh and most unforgiving reality. But, Dawes reflected, that was the way of the Service - and more common than not. He grinned, and headed for the entry port.

This time, Fanshawe heard the distinctive sound of his captain's approach and stood aside, ready and waiting - and full of apprehension.

Bush barely spared a glance at Fanshawe or at the parbuckle he had rigged; it was a simple thing, really, once one understood the principle. The casks stood ready to be hauled up the inclined rails, the lines were decently in place. All that he had ordered had been done, no doubt under able seaman Parker's watchful eye. But, unaccountably, a tackle hung directly over him; it had been rigged from the masthead, apparently while he had been deep in discussion with Dawes. He turned his full attention to it, carefully examining the butt-slings, his callused, competent hands testing each knot.

"You did this, Fanshawe?" he demanded harshly.

Fanshawe barely checked a sigh before it escaped. "Yes, sir." He stood at rigid attention, prepared for the worst. He had followed his ordersbut he had gone beyond them. "I feared the largest casks were too heavy, and rigged the tackle and slings as a precaution. Parker instructed me, sir."

Bush harrumphed, and studied him for a long moment. "Well done. Though you might use a cat's-paw in place of a buntline next time. Begin transferring the casks topside; a boat is alongside to receive them." He turned away, leaving Fanshawe to the task.

Fanshawe was, of course, left entirely speechless.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Two loaded carter's wagons rattled to a stop in front of the low stone building that served as the Customs House. As Bush and his lieutenants disembarked, the half-dozen seamen perched on the casks grinned to each other, thinking of the small share of the reward that would eventually make its way into their pockets.

Bush stepped through the door to find himself standing before a round-faced man seated at a substantial desk. He was dressed in a dark blue and vaguely naval uniform, though to Bush's eye he was clearly no seaman.

The man regarded them imperiously, as though much impressed with his own importance. "You againFanshawe and Dawes, was it not? And this must be Commander Bush." He rose, and thrust out his hand; it was pale and soft, instantly confirming Bush's initial impression of a man who loved the trappings of service but not the doing of it. "Captain Richard Turpin, Board of Customs. Pleased to meet you at last, sir."

"Thank you, Captain," replied Bush evenly, though somehow managing to subtly convey his opinion of the man's title. "I have some seized goods that require storage."

Turpin peered out the window at the heavily laden wagons. When he turned back to Bush his face was pale. "Good God, sir."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "I am but performing my duty."

"No, Commander Bush...you are playing a most dangerous game, interfering in the Trade."

"And you would not."

"No, sir. I would not." Turpin heaved a disconsolate sigh. "I do not. I deplore the Trade as much as you, but I live here, amongst these people, with my wife and my family. If I lifted a hand against them, none of us would live out the week." The portly customs officer studied Bush for a long moment. "As I fear you will not, sir. Harry Carson is a treacherous man to cross."

"And that is my concern, not yours." Bush curtly responded. "Perhaps I have less to lose."

Turpin shook his head sorrowfully. "I would not be in your shoes, sir."

Bush replied with a scathing glare and filthy oath, and started for the door. "Dawes, Fanshawethe bos'n will see to the wagons," he snapped, over his shoulder. "Our business here is finished."

Dawes, however, did not immediately join them; instead, he towered over the pallid little man, looking down at him with a frigid disdain. "Shoe, sir," he said sharply. "Singular. And you would be hard-pressed to fill even the one."

The words had not been meant for Bush's ears, but he had heard them nonetheless. As they walked in silence along the cobbled street, he covertly studied his two young officers, both clearly curbing their usual exuberant stride to accommodate his graceless one. The surprising fact that he had somehow earned Dawes' regard did much to dispel his ill humour, and he could not help but smile.

"Dawes, Fanshawe...I must visit the Two Brothers to collect what posts or dispatches might await me there. You will join me for dinner?"

It had been only half a question; there was only one possible answer. "Eryes, sir," chorused his lieutenants, glancing from him to each other in surprise. "Thank you, sir."

Mara Bryce regarded the three naval officers coldly as they entered her inn, and wordlessly relegated them to a small table in a darkened corner. Bush, facing the door, idly watched the human traffic of local men and travelers as they came and went, each enjoying the comfort of a hot meal or pot of ale in the cheerful companionship of others.

The door opened to admit a newcomer, seemingly blown in on a wind of good will. He was an uncommonly handsome man, a bluff and jovial auburn-haired giant. His entrance caused an immediate commotion; he was promptly surrounded by a throng of companions. He greeted each with a slap on the back, or a hearty handclasp, or - in the case of the women - a playful squeeze. Bush found himself grinning as well as he watched; the man fairly exuded an aura of good fellowship and humour.

He watched with growing amusement as the man caught sight of Mara Bryce, and attempted to slip a hand round her waist to draw her close. Bush could not hear her response, though he did not need to: she regarded the newcomer with plain disgust, and shot back some comment with her usual derision. Unaccountably, the man persevered; Bush shook his head in wonder.

Dawes noted the gesture. "What is it, sir?"

Bush chuckled. "I am watching the lovely Mrs. Bryce put some unfortunate soul in his placethough why he persists, I cannot begin to imagine."

Dawes turned to look over his shoulder at the scene; when he turned back his face was grim. "That is no 'unfortunate soul', sirfar from it. I had quite forgotten; you have never laid eyes on the man. That, sir, is Harry Carson."

My God, Bush thought, feeling his blood run cold. He now watched the tableau with a different eye. Carson's wheedling, ingratiating smile hardened; it took on a different, more sinister character as his hands slid gently down Mara's shoulders to rest lightly on her upper arms. As Bush looked on in mounting apprehension, he saw Carson's knuckles whiten as his grip tightened; Mara tried ineffectually to twist out of his grasp. Her face was contorted with anger; her struggles merely made Carson's smile more venomous.

"If he suspects that she has passed information" Bush began to rise from his chair

Fanshawe reached across the table to firmly grasp his captain's forearm. "And if he does, sir, it is only a suspicion. But if you go to her aid, it will be a certaintyand you will have placed her in grave danger."

Bush glared at him in impotent fury, but reluctantly settled back into his chair, knowing that his young officer was correct. "Damn. I had not considered that, Fanshawe...thank you."

Fanshawe smiled tightly. "I did learn a few things at Whitehall, sir...and intrigue was chief amongst them."

"Still...if he attempts to harm her on our account"

Dawes eased his sword in its scabbard. "If he does, sir, he will have to deal with all three of us."

Bush anxiously watched the scene unfold before him; despite Carson's vise-like grip on her arms, Mara did not shrink from his grasp or accept defeat. She faced him, toe to toe, her eyes blazing, apparently giving as good as she got.

He shook his head in disbelief. "The wretched woman has grit, I will give her that." He forced himself to remain in his chair, fighting the temptation to intervene that was almost too powerful to conquer. No man had the right to abuse a woman so...no matter how miserable a termagant she might be.

Carson snarled at her; she staggered back a pace as he abruptly thrust her from him. He spun on his heel, and strode out with a sizeable portion of her patrons following closely in his wake.

Mara stood glaring at the door, rubbing her arms absently. She turned and caught sight of the three naval officers watching her; the fire roared up in her eyes once more as she regarded Bush with obvious contempt. She marched angrily across the room to confront them.

"Did it please you to watch as I was manhandled by that ignorant lout? Though it's a fat lot of good you'd have been in a fight, in any case."

Bush could barely contain his fury. Dry biscuit alone in the Witch's cabin would be a more pleasant supper than he would find in this accursed woman's presence. He rose, wordlessly tossed a few coins on the table, and abandoned them.

Mara sniffed, and watched him as he left, her eyes glittering angrily and with a sort of triumph.

"Mrs. Bryceplease," Fanshawe implored quietly. "Do not rush to judgment. Captain Bush was fully prepared to come to your aid. It was I who prevented him from doing so."

She studied the young man's handsome face, and found only truth in it; still, she was reluctant to accept it. "He was, you say?"

"Yes, ma'am." Fanshawe declared, with a half-smile. "We very nearly had to hold him down. But you seemed in no real danger, and our coming to your defense may have placed you in greater peril. We eventually...convinced him."

Mara folded her arms. "Hmph. So he takes orders from his lieutenants." She tossed her head in disdain. "And I have the bruises to show for it." She stalked off to tend to her patrons - though now, unfortunately, they were far fewer in number.

Fanshawe sighed sorrowfully. "I suppose we cannot dine here either, given her treatment of our captain." He eyed Dawes as though hoping he might demur.

"Hardly," Dawes snapped, and began to gather his possessions. As they pushed their chairs from the table, Mara returned and mutely placed a tankard before Fanshawe. He frowned, perplexed. "But I did not ask for"

She interrupted his protest. "Perhaps not, Lieutenant; but you may find that your captain wants it, nonetheless."

Curious, Fanshawe picked it up and peered into its depths. There was no liquid of any sort in the vessel - but there was a note.

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"There she is, sir!"

Bush peered up through the early morning mist to where Fanshawe was clinging to the shrouds, telescope trained on the horizon. At first glance he looked every inch the seasoned officer, with his tar-stained jacket and wind-tossed queue, though Bush had to hide an amused smile as he observed the fingers of Fanshawe's free hand entwined in a death-grip on the lines. "Where away?"

"Two points t'starb'd, sir!"

"Very good, Mr. Fanshawe; you may come down." Fanshawe hid his relief manfully, Bush thought. Perhaps those years spent at Whitehall had taught him something useful after all.

The past fortnight's patrol had been a humbling one, though not for Fanshawe; rather, it had proved so for his captain. Bush had not been a whit less demanding - perhaps even more so, if anything - but the astonishing revelation that his first lieutenant was aboard of his own volition had taken the edge from his anger. The young man had responded, expanding under Bush's attention like a plant emerging from a long drought...and it shamed him to learn that Fanshawe had a lively intelligence and willingness to please that went far to compensate for his lack of experience.

The young man arrived on deck at Bush's side with an audible thump. "She is just as Mrs. Bryce's note described her, sir; there cannot be two with that patched lugs'l."

Bush nodded, satisfied. "Signal Greyhound, Mr. Fanshawe, that the lugger is in sight."

It was not long until the vessel was in view from the deck; both cutters quickly bore down on her in the freshening breeze. The lugger's crew soon found themselves facing five cannon on each beam; they gaped mutely from one cutter to the other.

Bush snatched up the speaking trumpet and roared "Heave to! Heave toor I'll sink you!"

Dawes turned calmly for'r'd to the seaman standing attentively at Greyhound's bow-chaser. "Fire a shot across her bows, gunner."

Bush's voice from starb'd, amplified as it was and accompanied by the splash of a nine-pound ball landing just off the lugger's larb'd bow left no doubt as to the likelihood of the outcome were they to disobey. The lugger abandoned any attempt at escape and lay hove to, dispiritedly awaiting them.

Greyhound had immediately dropped her quarter-boat; Dawes, followed closely by a small complement of marines, was already scrambling up the lugger's dingy, flaking side. He exchanged a few words with the civilians awaiting him then went below, leaving two of the marines standing watchfully on deck.

Bush stood impassively studying the lugger, though his thoughts belied his calm demeanour. The vessel had not attempted to flee, though such a maneuver would have been folly, given the presence of not one but two armed cutters. Her business this day may be entirely innocent, and his information in error. Butthat also suggested that if it was not, any evidence of unlawful activity would be carefully concealed.

As if to confirm his thoughts, a blue-jacketed figure appeared on the lugger's forepeak. "Cap'n Bush, sir?" Dawes called, shaking his head in disgust. "I am sorry, sir...but there's nothing here. Nothing."

"Nothing?" Bush repeated. "Have a boat swayed out; I am going aboard her." He stepped aft and drew the master aside, passing a few quiet words before heading for the entry port. As the boat splashed gently into the water, he turned to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, the Witch is yours until my return."

Fanshawe's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, though it took but a moment for his face to split into a broad grin. "Aye aye, sir. Thank you, sir."

Bush hauled himself aboard the lugger, and looked about the littered deck. It was an ill-kept craft; a Navy bos'n would find himself at the gratings had he permitted such gross neglect. "Nothing here, eh, Dawes?" He raised an eyebrow, then stumped aft to the companion. "Perhaps. But I shall go below to see for myself. Comeand bring your marines."

As Bush gingerly descended the narrow ladder, he blinked and grimaced involuntarily as the heavy stench of rotting fish assaulted his senses. His brow furrowed. This was not right. No one whose livelihood depended on his catch would permit such waste in fair weather, within sight of shoreno matter how slovenly their habits.

The stench grew even more intense as he made his way aft. The captain, a greasy, swarthy man, tried his best. "We...we ran short of salt, sir. We was turnin' backbutbut we..." As he spoke, he sidled protectively against the door of the aft-most compartment.

Bush shouldered the man aside and pulled open the compartment door, and barely fought down the nearly uncontrollable urge to cast up his accounts right there on the filthy decking. A mound of fish covered half the compartment - but that mound had been left there for far too long. It was barely recognizable as having once been fish - it was now little more than a reeking, putrefying mass.

The captain tried to maneuver himself between Bush and the door, gabbling, nearly incoherent in his haste. "I'm so sorry sirwe was goin' to shovel th' mess over th' sidesoon as we're on our way again I'll set th' men to itthere's no need for ye to stay 'ere"

Bush brushed the feeble apologies aside, snatched up a shovel that stood propped against a bulkhead, and thrust it into the nervous, fluttering hands of the captain. "Dig. Dig, damn you."

The man gaped at him in horror. "But sir, surelythere's no need"

Bush stepped a pace closer. "Dig."

The man shrank back, retreating from the sheer intensity of Bush's glare. He reluctantly poked the shovel into the slimy mass, gagging from the fresh wave of an almost palpable stench that arose to engulf them all.

It was not long - though it seemed an eternity - until the shovel clinked against a metallic object. The lugger's captain hesitated, and looked about him, as if hoping that the sound had gone unnoticed. It had not.

"Keep digging," growled Bush.

The man turned miserably back to his task. In a few short moments, he uncovered the hasp to a trapdoor, and - with the encouragement provided by Dawes' drawn pistol - scraped the door clear of its slimy filth. Bush gestured to a marine, who gingerly levered it open to reveal that the deck was in truth a false floor, creating a space 'tween decks - a space that was, at this moment, crammed with a multitude of green-painted casks, stout cable, and a single large stone.

"I have seen all I require." He gestured to the marine now restraining the ship's captain. "Bind his hands and feet. And" he smiled coldly as inspiration struck him. "leave him in here."

As they gratefully emerged into the sunlight and fresh air, Bush turned to Dawes. " Send a prize crew aboard her; I shall return with you to Greyhound." He cupped his hands around his mouth; he had no real need for a speaking trumpet at this distance. "Mr. Fanshawe...escort us in."

Fanshawe's astonishment was visible even without a glass. Bush raised an eyebrow at Dawes, who appeared nearly equally astounded. "The master will keep him out of trouble. And it may do the lad some good."

The three small vessels were soon well underway, sailing easily with the wind and heading for Mount's Bay. Bush had watched the Witch narrowly as her sails were unfurled. It had not been done smoothly - but it had been done. The sea was fine, the wind fair; he nodded, smiling slightly as he watched her, recalling with unexpected clarity the heady mix of terror and exhilaration that had marked his own first time. Satisfied - far more so than he would have believed possible a mere fortnight ago - he went below.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

They had stripped off the worst of their stinking clothing in Greyhound's cramped cabin. Dawes had stepped aside: Bush was washing the stench from his face and arms as best he could using the tiny basin. Dawes watched his captain silently in the filtered early-morning light, seeing for the first time the scars, now faded silver, which crisscrossed his back and sides. Bush reached for the coarse towel, and turned to face him. As he did so, Dawes could see yet another long and savage scar bisecting his midsection, just under the ribs, as though someone had endeavoured to cut him in two. Apparently the loss of a leg had not been his captain's first dance with death.

Dawes stood, self-consciously watching him; painfully aware of his own damaged arm, which hung at an unnatural angle from a drooping shoulder, the wrist flexed, fingers curled uselessly toward the palm.

They studied each other for a long moment; it was Dawes who first broke the silence. "She's a hard mistress, the sea."

Bush grinned, an act that took years from his face. "Aye. But I'd not take another."

Dawes chuckled. "Nor I. Though I doubt another would have us." He prodded the reeking pile of cloth that had just that morning been his best working uniform. "I ought to pitch this lot overboard, I suppose. There'll be no salvaging it."

Bush eyed him blandly. "Mrs. Bryce sees to my linen as part of my board. I will present her with yours as well."

Dawes stared at him incredulously. "You're joking, sirshe'll hand you your head."

"Perhaps she will try." He shrugged. "She loathes us so desperately - and me, particularly, it seems - but her love of the admiralty's coin is far stronger. I cannot help but pull her nose now and again."

"Hmm." Dawes pulled on a clean shirt, slipped into his waistcoat, and began to do up the buttons; a challenge indeed, with one hand, though he seemed to take no notice of it. "But you should watch your step with that one." As soon as the words had left his mouth he wished he could somehow retrieve them. He looked up, aghast, expecting to find himself once more on the receiving end of Bush's volatile anger; instead, he was greeted with a wry smile.

"Sound advice for me at any time, I should think."

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

 

Bush felt unusually pleased with himself as he and his lieutenants stood on the quay watching the bustle of activity surrounding the lugger now securely moored at the dockside. The taking of another smuggling vessel and her cargo had been a victorybut had not been the most important one this day. Fanshawe's grin as he had disembarked from the Witch had been clearly visible from shore, and had more than repaid the cost of Bush's anxiety. The master had come ashore as well, and had quietly confided to Bush that "th' young 'un 'ad need of a little 'elp, but 'e done all right...all right indeed." Bush smiled as he watched Fanshawe eagerly recount every detail of the experience to Dawes; he vividly remembered that excitement, and was surprised to discover that a measure of it had been reawakened in himself.

Bush's indulgent smile faded as he caught sight of a familiar portly figure hurrying toward him. Turpin, he sighed inwardly. For a revenue officer, the man seemed most unwilling to discharge his duties. Bush frowned, thinking carefully. 'Unwilling'. That was precisely the word Chadwick had used back at the admiralty, months ago. So he should not find the man's lack of enthusiasm surprising, after allindeed, he had been forwarned of it.

Bush blandly nodded a greeting. "Captain Turpin."

Turpin gazed from the lugger to Bush, a horrified expression crumpling his pink features. "Do you desire an early death, sir...for yourself, and for your men?" He shook his head incredulously. "I am frankly surprised you have been permitted to live this long. I have warned you, and I shall warn you again: Harry Carson is king herenot me, not you." He dusted his chubby palms together. "I wash my hands of it. I may regret your deaths....but they will not surprise me"

Bush shrugged, turning his attention from the useless Turpin to watch his men as they worked. "Perhaps not. But at least I shall have no regrets; I will have done my..." his voice trailed off as he watched a seaman come ashore, several thick packets tucked under an arm. "You there, Hoxby" he called, his voice carrying easily to the shoreline.

The man stopped in his tracks and looked up at his captain. "Yessir?"

"What have you there?"

Hoxby started toward him, shaking his head. "Dunno, sir. I was told to put 'em with the rest of th' raffle."

Bush frowned. "Bring them here." He carefully opened the first, shook out the pages, and studied the florid script. "French," he mused. "French documentsaboard a British fishing lugger."

Turpin was eyeing him carefully. "And do you read French, Commander Bush?"

The question was met with a stony silence as he continued to page through the document, though Bush's native honesty, as usual, got the better of him. "Nono, I do not," he eventually admitted, reluctant to reveal the shortcoming that had bedeviled him so often under Hornblower's command.

"I do, Commander, most fluently." Turpin reached for the papers. "May I?"

Bush knew it was merely foolish pride, yet he could not bring himself to turn the missives over to the ineffectual Turpin. He deftly extracted the papers from the man's soft, grasping hands and quickly refolded them, tucking them safely into their scuffed leather packet. "Lieutenant Fanshawe will translate them. But thank you." He had no idea whether Fanshawe could actually do so...though he realized suddenly that he would be astonished if the young man could not.

"You will excuse me, Captain Turpin, but I have work to do. I assume you will accept these goods at the Customs House?"

Turpin sighed. "Have I any choice?"

"No." Bush snapped, though privately relishing the man's evident distress. "None at all."

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The Two Brothers was strangely deserted but for the three naval officers who sat quietly but steadily devouring an immense breakfast, consuming vast quantities of coffee as rapidly as the serving-girl could refill their cups. Dawes wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh. "I feel almost human again, though I fear I still must reek of rotten fish" He grinned, and shook his head. "How did you know to look under that wretched mass? You seemed so certain."

Bush looked up from his plate; his answering smile was almost sheepish. "Certain?" He shook his head reflectively. "Nofar from it. But it seemed right. Its presence made no senseand it was the last place anyone would have cared to look."

"That's true enough, sir." Dawes studied his captain thoughtfully. Most captains went far to convince others of their infallibility...but this man was clearly not most captains. He had not known what to make of Bush, at first; the man had been so bitterly angry, uncertain, difficult to approach because of it, yet not properly setting himself above his officers as a captain ought. But now? Dawes smiled inwardly as he watched the older man tucking into his meal with all the enthusiasm of any foremast jack. Now, he was certain that he would not change him if he could.

His comfortable reflections were, however, abruptly interrupted as Mara Bryce stormed out of the inn's back rooms, her face contorted with fury. Bush shot a brief conspiratorial glance in his direction; Dawes could only shake his head as if to absolve himself from guilt. She planted herself squarely before Bush, her chin jutting defiantly. "Burned your damned stinking uniforms."

Bush continued to consume his breakfast undeterred; in fact, he did not even look up. "Thought you might," he remarked.

Her eyes blazed. "You.you...you dared give me those filthy, stinking rags...they reek as if you'd lain with every foul trollop in Portsmouth. Though I doubt the likes of you would have the coin for it..nor would you find even one willing, for any price."

An almost invisible smile quirked the edge of Bush's mouth. "Sadly, 'twas was not trollops, madam....merely pilchards."

Outraged at his cavalier dismissal of her anger, she opened her mouth to respond but was too furious to even find the words. She spun on her heel and strode indignantly off to tend to the fire, which she poked vigorously as if Bush himself were roasting upon it.

Fanshawe had braced himself for Bush's sharp reply, and had been astonished to see his captain respond instead with this grave amusement. He followed Mara's enraged departure with his eyes then, greatly daring, grinned knowingly. "Reminds you of your wife, does she, sir?"

Bush shook his head with vehemence, all traces of humour wiped away. "God no, there is no wife at home." He frowned, thinking of his mother and sisters; he knew too much of women left alone, fending for themselves, despairing over absent men. "I could never bring myself to marry a woman only to leave her alone for months, even years at a time. Then come home old, used up, missing a spar or two" he sighed ruefully, "or never come home at all. If I loved her enough to marry herhow could I?"

None of them noticed as Mara blanched, dropped the poker and fled, nor would they have recognized her as the woman now slumped against the wall of the kitchen, her face in her hands, quietly sobbing as if her heart would break.

Fanshawe studied Bush carefully; his heartfelt words had come as something of a surprise. This was an aspect of his captain that he had never seen, and certainly not anticipatedan unselfish concern for the needs of a wife was not typical, at least amongst the officers he had known at the admiralty. One took a wife and left her to manage on her ownand that was that.

Bush scowled, as if impatient with his own thoughts. "Enough of that maundering; it is hardly likely now..." He thrust his plate away, drained the tepid dregs of his coffee and looked about the room in hopes of more. Finding no one in sight to provide it, he reluctantly pushed the chair from the table and made to rise.

The scrape of the chair summoned Brendan who emerged from the kitchen, coffee pot in hand. "Leaving, sir? More, sir, afore y'go?"

"Yes, thank you." Bush nudged the mug in his direction. Coffee - real coffee, and not that concocted from burnt crumbs - was not to be declined. He regarded the big man calmly, though with an evident twinkle in his blue eyes. "What has become of your lovely sister, Brendan? Was it something I said?"

Brendan regarded him soberly. "T'was somethin' like that, sir."

"H'm. I shall have to curb my tongue in future, then," he replied, though the lightness of his tone implied quite the opposite. Bush turned to the fair-haired lieutenant seated at his side. "Fanshawe, arrange to have two casks of ale sent to the cutters; the men have more than earned a small reward for their efforts." He smiled. "I suspect you will have more success with Mrs. Bryce than I."

Fanshawe nodded; he had no doubt of that, though he could hardly say so. "Aye sir; I'll be just a moment."

He rose and stepped quietly into the kitchen to find Mara bending over the waist-high chopping block, efficiently transforming a handful of carrots into neat and uniform bits.

"Mrs. Bryce?"

Mara brusquely scrubbed a forearm across her eyes and looked up from her work; the young man was astonished to find her usual dour expression absent, her eyes red and swollen. She looked suddenly very small and improbably forlorn.

Fanshawe hurried to her side, and touched her arm. "Ma'am?" He stared down at her, his eyes full of concern. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

She dropped her eyes and briskly resumed her work. "Onions," she replied shortly. "Been chopping onions."

Frowning, Fanshawe surveyed the tidy piles before her; there was not an onion among them. "But ma'am"

"You need ale. Heard you." She raised her head, her severe mask in place once more. "Brendan!" she called sharply.

She regarded Fanshawe steadily as her brother appeared in the doorway. "Two casks of ale to the cutters, Brendan."

"Aye, Mara," he nodded, and headed down the narrow stairs to the storeroom.

"He will see to itthough I suggest that you not broach them tonight." Her gaze did not leave his. "Your time would be better spent in Carson's cove."

Fanshawe raised an eyebrow. "Tonight, you say?"

"So I hear."

"Mrs. Bryce, I cannot thank you enough; Captain Bush will be most grateful to you as well." He studied her speculatively. "Thoughfor the life of me, ma'am, I cannot imagine why"

"I do not do it for him," she snapped, and turned her attention back to the task at hand, ignoring him entirely.

He had been dismissed.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

 

 

Dawes and Bush abruptly broke off their discussion, turning in response to the sound of rapid and purposeful footsteps ringing on the worn cobbles of the quay.

"Mr. Fanshawe," Bush nodded to his young lieutenant as the man hurried to his side. He turned to study him more closely; Fanshawe appeared somewhat disheveled, as if he had nearly run all the way from the inn. "Is all arranged to your satisfaction?"

"Aye, sir, it is indeed," answered Fanshawe breathlessly. "The casks should arrive forthwith. But sirwe were given far more than ale."

Bush scowled impatiently, as he posessed little flair for the dramatic. "Do go on, Fanshawe."

"Aye, sir," he replied quickly, chastened. "I spoke with her regarding the ale, and she sent her brother off to see to it. But she also passed along some information for you, sir. Mrs. Bryce told me that we ought to be waiting in Carson's Cove tonight, as there is a run" Fanshawe's voice trailed off as he heard some small noise behind them; he turned to find Poole at his elbow. "Ah, Poole," he smiled. "There you are."

Poole bobbed, knuckling his forehead. "You sent for me, sir?"

"Indeed I did, Poole." Fanshawe turned apologetically to Bush. "A moment, please, sir."

Fanshawe stepped a pace away to speak softly to the seaman, handing him a packet. Poole tucked it into his jacket, knuckled his forehead again, and hurried up the path toward the town.

Fanshawe watched him for a space, then turned back to Bush and Dawes. "An errand, sir; I beg your pardon. Now...as I was saying, Mrs. Bryce assured me of a run tonight, to be landed in Carson's Cove."

"Hm." Bush's brows knit in thought; her willingness to share this knowledge was a perplexing thing indeed, though he had to admit that her information had been wholly accurate thus far. He forced a smile despite his concerns, as he had no wish to share them at present. Certainly he, as a first lieutenant, had never been privy to his captain's doubts and uncertainties - If, indeed, his captain would have ever dared admit to the possession of such a thing. "And we can hardly disregard an opportunity to annoy and harass the Trade, gentlemen. Ready your ship, Mr. Dawes, and rejoin us aboard the Witch at the first bell of the second dog. Come, Mr. Fanshawewe have work to do."

 

***********

 

"No." Bush shook his head adamantly.

Two expectant faces studied his: Bush's lieutenants had learned the meaning of his tone and expression well enough, and waited in silence for him to continue.

"This time, we shall attack from the cutters. There is little to be gained by lying in wait for the local men; there will always be more to replace them. Only Carson himself dares land goods in Carson's Cove - and it is Carson himself whom I want. Stop him, and we shall stop this wretched business. Allow him to escape, and we accomplish nothing at all."

"Mr. Dawes, when you leave here, you will ready your ship and begin your south'd patrol. We shall do likewise, but to the north'd. After full dark, we will return and lie to, cleared for action with all lights doused and in silence, and allow him to enter the bay - then pin him against the shoreline like a bloody great bug." Bush grinned maliciously. "His own domain shall work against him - and then we will squash him."

Both lieutenants chuckled, appreciating the coarse image. "And so we shall, sir," agreed Dawes, draining his small glass of port, and replacing it on the chart table.

"So let's be about it, gentlemen: you are dismissed." Bush nodded. "Good hunting, Mr. Dawes."

"Oh, sir, that reminds me...I sent Poole into town to make a purchase for me" Fanshawe dug into his pocket and produced Bush's battered clasp-knife.

Dawes' eyes widened. "For God's sake, Evwhere on earth did Poole find that great monstrosity?"

Fanshawe coughed a warning. "This one belongs to the captain. He lent it to me until I could acquire my own."

Dawes smiled apologetically in Bush's direction. "Forgive me, sir; I meant no offense. It simply looks like something that ought to have come from a topman's pocket."

Under Hornblower's command, Bush would no doubt have ignored the comment entirely. Hornblower himself had been loath to indulge in casual conversation; it was entirely natural that Bush had adapted to his ways. Away from Hornblower's restraining influence, however, Bush's open and unpretentious temperament was beginning to reassert itself. He had always kept his own council, but he sensed somehow that exceptions must, occasionally, be made.

He eyed Dawes seriously. "It did."

"It did, sir?" Dawes repeated, obviously burning with curiosity. "Whose was it?"

Bush relented, and smiled. "Mine."

Fanshawe frowned. "Yours, sir? Butyou began belowdecks, as a seaman?"

"Oh no; I came aboard as a midshipmite, all of fourteen years old. I had had little, as a childthen suddenly I had fine new uniforms, and grown men hurrying to obey my smallest order"

Dawes nodded slowly, though not entirely following this seemingly new tack. "I do understand that, sir. It would be difficult not to take advantage"

Bush laughed aloud, a most unexpected sound. "Take advantage? No, it was far more than thatI was a wretched little git. Stubborn, as well; the first lieutenant could not even have it beaten out of me, though he tried often enough - the gunner's daughter and I became well acquainted in short order. But my captain was a wise man, though I damned his eyes at the time. He summoned me to the quarterdeck, handed me a bundle of slops and sent me for'rdafter he had assigned me to my own division, the very men I had abused for so long. I messed with them, stood watch with them, slung my hammock with theirsit was a sort of hell, for a while, as they gladly repaid me in kind." He grimaced, recalling the sheer humiliation of it.

"But one of the men - the captain of the foretop - understood. I was young, and agile, and" his mouth lifted ironically "...invincible, so he took me in hand and trained me as a topman. Not surprising, as I had already spent much of my career at the masthead. It was hard workaloft in any weather, pitch-darkness, or cold, and subject to the whims of my officers, whether sensible or not. But I learned...and learned far more than I had expected."

"God knows how long I might have served there: it had been nearly a year when we lost two midshipmen and a lieutenant at the Saintes and I was needed aft again. But before I left, the seaman who trained me gave me his knife." He turned it over in his hands. "This knife. 'So I'd not forget,' he told me." Bush looked up to study the two young officers gravely. "I have not forgotten. Though I do, upon occasion, need reminding."

"Dodo the men know of this, sir?" asked Fanshawe, clearly horrified by the very notion that his captain's disgrace might be common knowledge among the crew.

"I expect they do," Bush shrugged nonchalantly, "as the navy is far too small for secrets. There is always someone who knowsand gossip spreads faster than the pox, belowdecks."

Dawes studied his captain, trying to reconcile the officer who now stood before him with the officious midshipman he claimed to have once been. He would never have guessed it...and yet, it explained much. He had known other senior officers equally skilled at seamanship, but few who possessed the same aura of unquestionable certainty that he was fully capable - or, rather, had once been capable - of performing any shipboard task with the same competence he demanded of any of his men. And he could think of fewer still - none, perhaps - who commanded without the subtle hint of condescension that tainted most captains' dealings with their men. Bush had no need for it. His men knew that for a time he had been one of them, amongst them, and that men like themselves had earned his respect. And that, Dawes realized, was the differencea difference which Fanshawe, as yet, did not understand. But perhaps he would, given time.

He smiled at Bush, as he now fully appreciated the knife's importance. "It is fortunate that you did not have it when you were taken prisoner in France."

"Ah, but I did. I have been rarely without it."

"But it must have been taken from you then, sir." Dawes regarded him curiously. "How is it that you still possess it?"

"The surgeon who..." Bush hesitated a moment, an unconscious grimace flitting across his face. "finished the job the French began sent it to the admiralty for me after he learned of our escape and return to England. He had kept it, for some reason."

"You had become friends, sir?"

"Noit was hardly that. In truth I remember little enough; they say I was dragging my anchor for the next world a good part of the time. And even when I was aware, we had little to say - he was Italian and spoke poor French, and I spoke neither. So I held my tongue." Had bitten clean through it, more than once, though he considered the mention of that particular detail most uncalled for.

He raised an eyebrow, changing the subject. "But surely there are other matters requiring your attention at present, gentlemen?"

"Aye, sir," they chorused, and headed for the door.

Fanshawe, frowning, walked with Dawes toward the Witch's entry port. "But I still do not understand. I wonder why the surgeon kept it, and why he sent it back?"

Dawes stopped, and studied Fanshawe solemnly. "If Captain Bush does know, you can be certain that he will not tell us. But frankly, EvI think the why of it is unnecessary. The important thing is that he did." He shook hands with Fanshawe. "Good luck, my friend."

"And to you." Fanshawe smiled, and watched him until he had vanished aboard Greyhound once more.

Alone in his cabin, Bush absently rubbed the knife with a callused thumb before replacing it into a pocket. He was much relieved at the opportunity to do so, as he had lately questioned the wisdom of lending it to Fanshawe, half-expecting the young man to lose it overboard. He grinned to himself. No doubt he would have sent Fanshawe over the side after it if he had.

He recalled the surgeon taking it from him as though it had been yesterday. Even below on the orlop he had been aware that Sutherland had struck and had been boarded. He had ordered the surgeon to the quarterdeck, to locate Hornblower if indeed he still lived...for instructions, and the man had not yet returned. Alone but for the groaning wounded, he had somehow managed to push the shrieking agony to a distant corner of his mind, walling it off to be dealt with at some later, better time. Despite the heat of the airless cockpit he had been so very cold and was shaking violently, his muscles rigid with the effort of endurancebut he raised himself on an elbow to greet the stranger who entered the cabin with a clenched jaw and defiant glare nonetheless.

The man had approached the makeshift table, studying him carefully, obviously noting his uniform and the gold lace of an officer. He slid an arm beneath Bush's shoulders, gently easing him out of his bloodied uniform coat. He must have felt the weight of the knife; he removed it and slipped it into his own pocket.

Bush had objected; the man had misunderstood, and spoke for the first time. "Non temete, faro' tutto il possibile per voi. Non siamo più in guerra, non qui, non ora."*

He had not understood the man's words, though he had grasped their import clearly enough. He had watched the surgeon impassively as he rolled up his sleeves, tied on a bloodstained apron that had been lying forgotten on the deck and turned up the lantern, illuminating the blood, and the damage, and the blade in his hand.

Bush took a deep breath and headed for the companion, as he did not care to relive the moment further.

 

 

******

 

 

Night deepened; it was a perfect night, a 'smugglers' moon' - almost no moon at all, a thick layer of clouds obscuring the feeble crescent more often than not. The Witch of Endor heaved gently in the swells near the mouth of Carson's Cove, her brailed-up sails and the silence of her crew as they sat quietly on deck belying her otherwise warlike appearance. All her guns were run out, her deck sanded, and slow-match smoldering, though its glow was carefully concealed. She was nearly invisible in the darkness, yet ready to spring into action as could ever be, Bush thought approvingly, casting a critical eye along her shadowed deck. Greyhound had briefly signalled her postion with an infinitesimal flash of blue light; he could trust Dawes to have her equally well-prepared.

Fanshawe stood tensely at his elbow, scanning the horizon with the night-glass, though there had been little enough to see in the dragging hours since nightfall. The clouds parted fleetingly, allowing a stray shaft of moonlight to weakly illuminate the water's surface. Bush felt Fanshawe's body suddenly stiffen.

"Sir..." he whispered urgently, handing the glass to his captain.

Bush followed the young officer's pointing hand, his experienced eye quickly locating a darker smudge against the horizon. He strained to pick out the details of it; what he saw made his expectant face darken with fury. "God damn them!" he thundered.

Fanshawe jumped as the curse pierced the silence.

"There is no longer a need for quiet, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush snarled, his face clearly revealing his wrath even in the darkness. "That is no smuggler's vesselit is a revenue cutter." He studied the cutter through the glass, though its image juddered as his hands shook with the effort of mastering his rage. A long red commissioning pendant streamed from her mizzen, adding fuel to the fire already threatening to consume the remnants of his self-control. "And she dares to fly a pendant. God damned useless fools and their playacting"

Fanshawe frowned in puzzlement, though not venturing to speak in the face of his captain's anger.

Bush noted the gesture; he snapped the glass closed and stumped up and down the decking for a few paces until he had regained some semblance of composure. "I am sorely tempted to board her and haul the damned thing down myself. Only a King's ship in commission merits a pendant, though revenue vessels are permitted to fly them during a chase." He glared at the cutter as it made its leisurely way southr'd. "She is clearly pursuing nothing - though our chance of success this night has fled, nonetheless."

He heaved an exasperated sigh, and raised his voice. "Look alive, you men; staying here is pointless now. Mr. Fanshawe, signal Greyhound; we shall take up our usual patrol."

The Witch was beating north'rd as Bush sat dispiritedly at his desk, doggedly resigned to the completion of the report documenting the night's failed mission. He had allowed himself grand visions of his two cutters boldly swooping into the bay, seizing Carson and his elusive sloop, thus putting a dramatic end to Carson's illicit activities once and for all. But those visions had been turned to dust. At least this night's failure had been no fault of his own; it was merely infernal bad luck that brought the revenue service on one of its rare ventures from port, blundering blindly into the cove and doubtless frightening off every smuggling craft in the vicinity.

Sighing, Bush replaced the pen in its stand and looked up from the log, then leaned back in his desk chair and massaged his aching temples with a hand. It was full dark, and the cutter was still, subdued. He could hear the faint sweet tone of a fiddle from somewhere for'rd, playing counterpoint to the music of the water gurgling about the rudder below.

He rose and stretched, smiling now as he recognized the tune.

Fanshawe had the watch; he had best take a turn on deck to assure the lad that he was not alone, though he needed reassurance less and less these days. He shrugged into his jacket, settled his hat upon his head, and carefully mounted the companion ladder.

He became aware of a rough texture in his grasp and looked down, suddenly surprised by it. He could not recall when it was that he had begun to use the hand rope, though upon reflection he could recall being grateful for its presence on more than one occasion. He was astonished to realize that he had simply become used to it, accepted it. He had become used to and accepted much, it seemed.

Thoughts of the hand rope recalled the image of the man who had placed it there for him. At the time he had been deeply moved by the man's simple compassion - and blindly enraged by his need for it. Styles, of all people... Aboard both Renown and Hotspur he had badgered and driven the man unmercifully, though not out of cruelty or spite. Indeed he had initially labeled the man as a troublemaker, and yet...an understanding had grown between them. He had sensed something worthy in that rough, crude man, and would not allow it to be lost. And Styles had - eventually - proved him right.

Bush emerged into the quiet darkness, savouring the clean salt air after the closeness of his cabin. He walked to the rail and leaned on it, staring into the night sky; felt the familiar weight of the knife in his pocket. Even in France he had missed it when he had thought it gone forever - like so much else - and still remained profoundly glad of its surprising return. He ran his hand gently over the polished oak of the rail. The movement was somehow familiar: he recalled with a start that it was here, months ago, that he had stood desolate, certain that all was lost. But this Witch of Endor... his Witch...had sustained him after all, and much had been returned.

"Sir?"

Bush looked up. Deep in thought, he had not heard Fanshawe's step on the planking. The young lieutenant touched his hat, decorum maintained....but was studying him, the worry evident in his brown eyes even in the faint moonlight.

"Is all well, sir?"

"Yes, Mr. Fanshawe, it is." Bush paused for a moment as the honest truth of his words struck home, and his taciturn face slowly relaxed into a heartfelt, satisfied smile. "It is indeed."

 

*********

*"Do not fear me, I will do what I can for you. We are not at war, not here, not now."