Run Aground
by Idler

Chapter 17

 

Bush awoke from dreamless sleep to a dawn that proved cold yet calm, the rising sun bleakly shrouded by sullen grey clouds. As he dressed he turned an assessing, professional eye to the scrap of melancholy sky visible from the window of his room at the Two Brothers and, surprisingly, he smiled. Tonight, he thought. It will be tonight; the perfect dark and moonless night for Carson to attempt to land his valuable - and illicit - cargo.

He made his way down the narrow stairs and entered the inn's common room, already crowded and bustling with the morning's trade. Brendan brought him a steaming cup of strong coffee; as he gingerly sipped at it he studied the crowd, unobtrusively listening to the scraps of conversation that swirled about him. He at last caught a brief glimpse of Mara as she turned from one table to another. She seemed to sense his presence and looked up, her eyes meeting his from across the room. She scarcely smiled, yet the understanding in the glance they shared warmed his heart.

As Bush left the inn behind him, his mind was busy turning over the day's plans, though some small part of it was pleasantly occupied with thoughts of the evening before. Despite all their earlier exchanging of broadsides, he had engaged Mara Bryce on an equal footing: not as a man meets a woman, but as a man greets a friend. It felt exceedingly strange, yet at the same time curiously familiar. He had nearly forgotten how much he had missed an easy friendship, one untainted by the rigid distinctions of status and rank. He had briefly experienced such a thing in France: in his virtual captivity he had found the freedom to express - and accept - a genuine and equitable comradeship. It had been a precious though short-lived thing, very nearly able to temper his own feelings of anger, helplessness, and loss and render them somehow tolerable. It had been almost worth the price.

Preoccupied with his thoughts, Bush was but barely aware of his surroundings until he rounded a corner and found himself directly in the midst of a stately and slow-moving funeral procession. He studied the tableau before him in surprise. A fine hearse drawn by a sable mare regally plumed in black - the deceased must have been someone of considerable importance. Odd, it was, that he had heard no mention of it at the inn.

A group of townspeople followed in the hearse's wake; an older woman looking up from dabbing at her red-rimmed eyes was the first to notice his presence. Her expression immediately transfigured from sorrow to venomous rage. "You." she hissed. "You did this."

"I, madam?" Bush stared, incredulous. "I think not. You are quite mistaken."

"You, or your men." The trailing crowd stopped and ranged supportively behind her back as she glared at him, her eyes now flashing murderously, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "Two nights past. He thought he saw a light in Prussia Cove, and believed it to be some lost soul in trouble in the gale." Her voice faltered for a moment, and caught in a desolate sob. "He never returned. His brothers went seeking him only to find him dead on the path with a bullet in his belly...he had tried, somehow, to drag himself home. But he could not. Instead he died there, alone, in the cold. For nothing." She took a step toward him. "You were there. I know. You killed my son as he tried to help another. My elder son..." she broke down completely. "My...my Harry."

A younger woman stepped from the crowd, flashing Bush a poisonous glare as she took the older woman's arm in a consoling gesture. "Mother Carson..." she murmured softly.

"Harry?" Bush blinked. "Harry Carson?" Dear God, that single random shot in the darkness had struck down the very man he had sought. What were the odds? He was not a gambling man...but the odds against such a thing had to be astronomical. Almost...unbelievable. He frowned. Quite unbelievable. The women's emotion seemed real enough, but...

"Open it." he snapped harshly, gesturing to the hearse's shining ebony doors.

The younger woman gasped, and stepped protectively in front of the latch. "Please God, sir, have some respect for the dead...and the living. We have suffered enough at your filthy hands."

"Open it. Now."

Bush's many years at sea, expecting - and receiving - immediate, unquestioning obedience must have been apparent in his voice; it had a markedly similar effect on land. One of the townsmen drew the brass bolt, and grudgingly opened the hearse's rear doors; Bush stepped closer and leaned far into the grim vehicle, his eyes unaccustomed to the thick darkness. Steely hands from within gripped his collar and arms, and dragged him unceremoniously inside. Stout rope was passed round his wrists, then his body, pinioning his limbs, a gag forced into his mouth, and his eyes bound tightly with a cloth. In an instant he was helpless, incapable of movement, speech or sight...but fully able to hear the slam of the doors, the crack of a whip, and the laughter that followed in the hearse's wake.

Bush lay helplessly on the wooden floor of the hearse, reciting a silent litany of vile invective, cursing both his idiocy and his naïveté. The vehicle was jolting along at a breakneck pace; whatever his fate might be, he would no doubt meet it soon enough. His mind relentlessly brooded over the destiny of revenue officers foolish enough to blunder into the hands of those whom they pursued. He had always expected to fall in action: in battle one moment, gone to glory the next. In fact he thought he had, more than once. But that was not to be. His end, when it came - today, were he fortunate - would be ugly, and painful, and prolonged. He would assuredly spend his time in Hell this day.

After what seemed like hours - though surely it could not have been that long - Bush heard the driver call out, and the hearse slewed to an abrupt and bone-jarring halt. He felt the floor shift beneath him as the driver clambered down from his perch, heard the metallic scrape of the bolt as it was drawn open and was dimly aware of light filtering through the blindfold. He steeled himself for whatever would come. Hands pulled at him, roughly dragged him from the hearse, and tossed him to the ground like so much baggage. A coarse, drink-raddled laugh echoed in his ears. " 'at'll learn ye," a man's voice slurred.

There was a creak of hinges, then silence.

Surprised at being alive and for the most part undamaged, Bush began to assess his surroundings. His cheek scraped on hard-packed earth, and the rich scent of horses filled his nose. He was in a barn, seemingly alone but for the animals that shifted in their stalls. He could hear them as they stirred, nosing aimlessly in the fragrant hay. He began to systematically test his bonds, hoping to find some weakness, unwilling to simply lie patiently awaiting his own end.

"That will gain you nothing."

The voice, when it came, was startling...and then again, it was not. Bush recognized it immediately. He growled deep in his throat, unable to speak, but equally incapable of controlling his fury.

"Am I to fear you, Bush?" Carson chuckled heartlessly. "I think not. You look most foolish, trussed as you are. Without your ship and your officers and your men at your back you are but half a man." He paused for a moment, considering; Bush heard him tread closer, felt him rudely nudge the wooden limb with a booted foot. "No...come to think on it, Bush...you are somewhat less than half."

If you do not fear me, thought Bush grimly, then why am I bound hand and foot? He growled again, viciously, vainly attempting to give voice to the contempt that overwhelmed him.

He never heard it coming. A heavy boot connected solidly - and precisely - with the vulnerable spot just under his breastbone. The sudden explosion of white light behind his eyes and the sudden, blazing agony drove all conscious thought from his brain and breath from his body. He curled convulsively inward, consumed with the desperate struggle to breathe. He heard Carson's silky voice, as if from a great distance, barely audible over the roaring in his ears.

"I have been told I ought to kill you outright...but frankly, Bush, you are far too diverting." Carson laughed quietly. "I expect you to amuse me further, and for some time to come. As you did two nights past, Bush. I trust you passed a pleasant evening in Prussia Cove? I thought of you often as I sat by the fire...an evil night, was it not?"

Bush groaned inwardly, recognizing the truth. Of course it had been a set-up. Not a trap to lure him and his men to their deaths but merely a game, carefully calculated to make him look the fool. Carson could have ended it that night as they crept unsuspecting into the marsh. But he had not, preferring instead to taunt him. Carson enjoyed this, it was obvious. Bush had known many a lower deck bully much like him, men who took delight in manipulating others, and lorded over their messmates by instilling fear and weakness instead of relying on leadership and shared respect.

Carson clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. "You ought to have gone to Sheerness, you know. You are a fool, Bush...even one as slow as you must see that now. In a battle of wits, you are quite unarmed: outclassed and outgunned at every turn. How did you manage to rise to commander's rank, Bush? Surely on Hornblower's coattails, I should think. You are a truly dreadful judge of men...you misplace your confidence, and back the wrong horse. And of those whom you do rightly trust? The Lord may deal bitterly - but you shall find that I bring far, far more calamity than He."

He laughed derisively, as if appreciating a private jest. "Should you live that long. I have not yet decided. I have matters awaiting me this night, so you shall have a little longer. You shall remain here, cooling your heels - one, at least - whilst I conduct my business. Your men will not dare venture from the harbour without you, their leader - I find that a sad thought indeed. Rather like the blind leading the blind..." Carson paused, meaningfully. "Hmmmm...now, there's a thought."

His soft chuckle was deceptively chilling, and made Bush's blood run cold; he had not forgotten the horrifying tales of captured Revenue Officers found cowering and helpless, eyes torn from their skulls or burned beyond use. He forced himself to stillness as he heard Carson's footsteps draw closer: he would not give the man the satisfaction of revealing even the merest trace of fear, though he knew full well that by doing so he condemned himself to an unspeakable fate. But he would meet it with what was left of his pride. He had already lost too much.

Bush tensed, anticipating another blow. With hands pinioned behind him he could not fight back or even attempt to protect himself, but this time, he would be prepared for it. Instead, he heard the soft tread of booted feet on the earthen floor, and the creak of hinges, and felt a soft gust of air as the door swung shut, leaving him alone once more.

He lay still for a moment, chest heaving in impotent fury, then brutally thrust his damaged pride aside and forced his hands to resume their meticulous study of the knots that held him fast. Blindfolded, unable to see, he turned his full attention to the visualization of the information his fingers provided. The bonds were tight, and he could feel the skin of his wrists chafe cruelly as his hands twisted within the rough cordage. He would have the marks to show for it.

As Captain Turpin had, he recalled abruptly. Also overpowered by Carson's men, Turpin had not managed to free himself, and had been brutally beaten and forced to lie ignominiously until he was eventually found. But for Turpin there had been a tomorrow. For himself, he was certain that if he did not get free this day would be his last. Though, he reflected grimly, if he were found like this - helpless, a failure - there would be no more days in the King's Service in any case. Not at sea: perhaps an indulgent admiralty would relegate him to some God-damned dockyard to spend his days forgotten, a broken figure of pity - or worse, amusement. This command had been his only opportunity to prove himself able: of that, he was certain. If he failed, he might as well die here and now.

But as Bush's mind had strayed into this treacherous ground his hands had remained diligently occupied, and abruptly intruded upon his dismal thoughts with equally unwelcome information. The knot that pinioned his wrists was a simple one, a Tom Fool's knot - through the ages countless children inflicted it upon unsuspecting playmates. Simple, yes...but tied in the bight as it was, it tightened with every effort to remove it, and was quite impossible to escape unless one had access to the free ends - ends which were, at the moment, firmly secured round his legs.

He sighed mentally, and shifted his attention to the second set of knots. Tying his legs at the ankles had been out of the question; thus the bonds were affixed just above his knees. He bent awkwardly backwards until his fingers located the knots and, blessedly, the free ends of the rope. Any seaman worth his salt was accustomed to loosing the most intricate of knots despite pitch darkness, spray-swollen cordage, sickening motion and dizzying heights. He explored the knots, mentally constructing their image. Had it not been for the gag, he might have smiled. 'Child's play' indeed.

Bush worked methodically, feeling the knots loosening one by one under his benumbed fingers. After the last fell away, he was able to slowly unwind the numerous turns that encircled his body until at last only the handcuff knot remained. He carefully selected the proper turn of the knot, and began to work the free end through, inch by painstaking inch. At last it loosened, and he roughly pulled his hands free. He stripped off the gag and blindfold, and gingerly hauled himself upright. As sensation gradually returned to his limbs he leaned heavily against a post and surveyed his surroundings, eyes slitted against the unaccustomed light, half expecting Harry Carson to be blandly watching him, lying in wait, ready to toy with him further.

But no, he was alone. His initial impression had been correct: he was in a small stable, with two of the four loose-boxes occupied by obviously well-kept horses. He unsteadily made his way to first one window, then the others. It seemed that his captors had indeed left him alone and unguarded, apparently not anticipating his ability to free himself. But, Bush reflected dourly, what did freedom avail him? He had no idea of precisely where he was, and it would take far too long for him to make his ungainly way back to Mount's Bay on foot. He would surely be discovered - and even if not, Carson would have ample opportunity to make his run and be gone by the time he could put to sea. The thought infuriated him and he mentally railed against his limitations, regarding the wooden limb with renewed loathing. 'If only...' he thought.

And why not? he wondered. What had he to lose? His pride was already in shreds; he could do it little more damage by trying. He still had hands and head, knees and thighs...could he, still?

He approached the closest animal, a robust, well-made chestnut...and drew back a step as the mare laid her ears flat and whirled to deliver a violent and well-aimed kick at the side of the loose-box, her iron-shod hooves drumming an evil tattoo on the wooden floor. He spoke quietly to her: she responded with a second and even more lusty blow that rattled the door upon its hinges.

Bush abandoned the chestnut, looking past her to his only hope. The smaller red bay stood quietly, eyeing her stablemate's antics with a frank curiosity. He approached her - now fully understanding the necessity of the empty stalls that separated them - and she pricked her ears as he stretched out a hand to stroke her neck. "So, lass..." he said softly, unconsciously reverting to the accent of his youth, the accent of the blacksmith's nephew and valued right hand. "Shall we try?"

He had her saddled in a moment; some things were never forgotten. Mounting would be a challenge indeed, he realized. Once up, he had damned well better stay on. Bush led the mare to the side of a grain bin, where she stood patiently waiting as he clambered ungracefully upon it. He took a deep breath, and eased himself carefully into the saddle. It felt odd indeed - his balance was clearly awry, and muscles still weakened from long convalescence and enforced idleness were hesitant, unused to this activity - but it felt... He grinned. It felt... marvellous. He looped the useless stirrup and its leather over the pommel, gathered the reins...and they were off, slipping quietly out the stable door.

After they had cleared the stable unchallenged, he reined in and took his bearings. His seaman's sure sense of direction quickly informed him that the stable lay northwest of Mount's Bay. A single track led back towards the village; clearly the hearse in which he had been imprisoned had kept to that primitive road, though he dared not. But he also needed to make all haste, so he skirted the edge of the woods that lined the track, ready to duck into the thick bracken to avoid the watchful eye of any who sought him.

He touched his heel to the mare's side, and quickly discovered that a sitting trot was a most uncomfortable affair on this close-coupled creature; with some trepidation he eased her into a slow canter. Realization hit him in a mad rush of emotion: it was like coming home. There were things - unimagined, precious things - still left to him after all.

The joy of it was fleeting, however, and could not succeed in overshadowing Bush's fury at what Carson had done to him. And what he, in his own plodding stupidity, had done to himself. He had allowed himself to be so easily duped, and looked a blundering fool. Despite his successful escape, he had lost. Carson had won this round. He found his wrath mounting uncontrollably; by the time he reached the quayside he was shaking violently, and could barely see for the red rage that gnawed at his soul.

He slid from the mare's back, catching himself on his sound leg, though even it nearly buckled weakly under him from the unaccustomed strain. Despite his anger, he could not bear the thought of this willing creature coming to harm, so he began to rapidly undo the buckles of the girth. As he did so, however, inspiration struck, staying his hand in mid-action. He fastened it securely once more, and slapped the mare soundly on a sweaty haunch. She trotted off a few paces, then stopped to pull a few mouthfuls of grass from the quayside green. The fire in his eyes flickered and died for a moment. "I thank you, lass" he said, softly.

He turned, and made his way to the water's edge, calling sharply for a waterman's boat. "Witch of Endor", he snapped to the boatman, and coldly watched the frantic activity erupt on the Witch's ordered deck as his approach was suddenly recognized.

Evelyn Fanshawe watched with mounting concern as Bush carefully made his way up the side. Something had happened...his captain was moving gingerly, almost as if in pain. He was unaccountably filthy, bore a smear of dirt high on one cheekbone and a murderous glint in his eye. As the piping of the hastily-assembled side party at last fell silent, Fanshawe peered earnestly at his disheveled captain. "Captain Bush? Are you well? I was most concerned when you did not return this morning..." He subsided into silence under the force of Bush's icy glower.

"It was nothing," Bush grated harshly. "I was...detained."

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

 

 

Bush stepped through the narrow doorway into his cabin, closing the door firmly behind him. His anger was rapidly giving way to a profound relief, though it was a relief much disturbed by the sick realization of just how slim the margin between life and death had been. His own impulsive, ill-considered actions had rendered him utterly helpless, wholly at Carson's mercy...and, perversely, only Carson's arrogant and sadistic nature had given him reprieve. He needed a bit of time alone to come to grips with it, away from prying eyes and probing questions. Just a bit of time here, in this familiar place where he belonged. He had, frankly, despaired of ever seeing it - and, perhaps, anything else - again. He sighed and moved, almost unconsciously, to the sideboard.

Glass clinked upon glass. Bush looked down, astonished and dismayed by the tremor in his hands. He had always held nothing but contempt for those who found their courage in a bottle, and would not join them; thus he obstinately left the filled glass to repose abandoned on the polished wood, and began to pace the floor. The memory of Harry Carson's words still chilled him. He could not help but hear them echoing in his mind, taunting him. It was made all the worse by his increasing suspicion that Carson had been entirely correct in his assessments.

"...half a man..."

"...you are a fool, Bush... a truly dreadful judge of men...you misplace your confidence..."

".....the blind leading the blind..."

"...you ought to have gone to Sheerness..."

This last thought brought him up short, and stopped him abruptly in mid-step. He stood stockstill in the cabin, wholly aghast. "Ought to have gone to Sheerness?" How on God's earth did Carson know that he had ever been offered a post in the dockyard at Sheerness? Only a few at the Admiralty were aware of it. The Admiralty. Bush paled as the realization hit him like a physical blow - one far more damaging than anything Harry Carson had delivered. Dear God, the Admiralty. Shaken, incredulous, he closed his eyes against the sudden dizziness that threatened. He had always been a King's man, fiercely loyal to the crown, willing to lay down his life in its service. And now? Now, he had to somehow accept that the loyalty he offered was not always deserved. This was a betrayal, and a transgression so much more repugnant than the smuggling of a few casks of spirits, or even the clandestine transfer of men or information. And here he stood...a fool, half a man, in the midst of it all

In his arrogance, Harry Carson had told him too much...and had pushed him too far. Perhaps the blind could indeed lead the blind, Bush resolved grimly, and half a man might sometimes prove to be more than enough.

He resumed his pacing, though he had taken barely a dozen steps before his thoughts were interrupted by a respectful tap on the door. He groaned inwardly. Fanshawe, no doubt. He had to relate the whole miserable, humiliating incident to Fanshawe - there was no avoiding it. But he surely did not relish the thought.

"Enter," he acknowledged, with a deep and profound reluctance.

As predicted, it was Fanshawe who bustled through the cabin door. Bush could see that the young man was near to bursting, consumed with questions - though to his credit, he stood quietly at attention, awaiting the invitation to speak.

Bush was not yet prepared to indulge his first lieutenant; instead, he eyed him sternly. "Are we ready to put to sea, Mr. Fanshawe?"

Fanshawe reddened. "No. No, sir...not quite. You see, sir...we...I...still have some men ashore..."

"WHAT?" Bush thundered, immediately furious at the young man's effrontery. "You gave them leave?" The thought of his men skylarking in the town while he lay helpless, at Carson's mercy, was simply too much to bear.

Fanshawe's color deepened further, yet his brown eyes met Bush's own without flinching, and he shook his head firmly. "No, sir. Not leave. I sent parties ashore to search for you, sir."

Speechless, Bush stared incredulously at this young man who had, somehow, suddenly grown into the uniform he wore.

Fanshawe studied his captain uneasily, discomfited by his silence. "I was that worried, you see, sir. Mrs. Bryce had seen you leave the inn ...but then, sir, you seemingly vanished into thin air. I...I became most concerned, and felt compelled to act."

Bush found that he could no longer meet Fanshawe's eyes. He turned away toward the stern windows, hands locked in the small of his back in rigidly enforced stillness, his gaze faraway. "And you had reason to be." He briefly related the bald facts of the shameful affair to the young man standing attentively behind him. It was a most difficult thing to admit one's abject failure to a junior officer, yet it had to be done. His second-in-command deserved to know.

He was rescued from that humiliating task - though not before he had relayed the worst of it - by the clatter of feet on the companionway. He had been vaguely aware of the sound of a boat bumping alongside some moments before; apparently one of the returning men had something pressing to report.

"Lt. Fanshawe!" an urgent voice called, as knuckles rapped wildly on the cabin door. Fanshawe opened it to admit Poole, red-faced and gasping.

"Lt. Fanshawe! I've heard, sir, that the captain may well be d..." Poole's face went white as he recognized his captain's profile against the hard glare from the windows.

Bush studied the man calmly. "Go on, Poole."

The man stammered momentarily, as if now suddenly reluctant to speak. He looked helplessly from Bush to Fanshawe and back again.

"Yes, Poole?" Fanshawe prompted. "Do go on."

Poole considered his feet for a space, then looked up imploringly at his captain. "I don't wish t' shame you, sir, but they was braggin' about it at Mother Redcap's..."

Moved by the man's simple loyalty, Bush came away from the windows to drop a hand on his shoulder. "Good man," he said, kindly. "But no need. Mr. Fanshawe knows."

Poole flushed self-consciously at the gesture, then smiled with obvious relief. "Thank 'ee, sir."

Fanshawe nodded briskly to his captain. "I shall recall the rest of the men, sir. Discreetly." He turned to Poole. "Find them, and be quiet about it."

"A moment, Poole." Bush held up a hand and frowned, slowly turning the possibilities over in his mind. Fanshawe had unwittingly given him the germ of an idea. He stood silent for several long minutes, then began to work through his thoughts aloud. "No," he mused, and shook his head. "No. Do not keep it quiet. Take more men with you, Poole, and go to every public house in search of your shipmates. Tell them - loudly - that you have heard rumour that I am being held in..." He went to his desk and unrolled the chart, running a battered finger northward along the coast, considering it carefully. "In...in Newlyn. Make it known that Lt. Dawes is taking Greyhound there to mount a rescue. But do not breathe a word of the truth, not even to our own men until they are aboard. I do not want some damned fool with a loose tongue to put paid to our plans." He looked up from the chart. "And Poole, send any men you find to Greyhound."

As the door banged shut behind Poole's hurrying figure, Bush turned back to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, go find the waterman who ferried me to the Witch, bring him aboard, and hold him here. An elderly man, black boat, red strake. His absence may be remarked upon, but at least he will not tell anyone that I am here."

"I will get him, sir." Fanshawe smiled. "And I shall leave a few empty gin bottles in his boat. That may provide explanation enough for his disappearance. Anyone looking for him would expect to find him insensible in a hedgerow."

"Very good, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush nodded, meaning it, pleased by the young man's quick imagination though finding it disconcertingly familiar. "Do so, without delay."

Fanshawe headed for the cabin door but hesitated, incapable of mere departure. He felt compelled to ask, to know; he had glimpsed raw red marks on Bush's wrists as he had unrolled the chart. Obviously far more had happened to his captain than he had been told. "Sir, you never finished...how did you get free, and make your way back here?"

'Damnation,' Bush sighed privately. Was there no escaping it? "It took no more than time and patience, Mr. Fanshawe. Carson eventually left me alone, and in due course I worked the knots free. There was a horse available, so I took her..."

"You rode, sir?" Fanshawe interrupted incredulously. "A...a horse?"

Bush regarded his lieutenant with a stony glare. "A horse, Mr. Fanshawe. Does this surprise you?"

Fanshawe blinked, flustered. "Yes, sir...er...no, sir...I..."

Bush allowed the young man to writhe under his stern scrutiny for a few moments more, then relented, and smiled. "It surprised me, too, Mr. Fanshawe," he said quietly.

Fanshawe was staring at him with an odd mixture of awe and admiration, a thing which Bush found quite impossible to endure. There were a few men who deserved such regard - in fact he had served one, gladly. But he himself was no hero, no hand at tactics. He was merely feeling his way in the dark: the blind leading the blind. "Off with you, Mr. Fanshawe," he snapped crossly. "We do not have all day."

Fanshawe was not deceived in the least but successfully hid his smile, schooling his face to bland innocence. "Aye, sir. And Captain...shall I send a message to Mrs. Bryce, to tell her that you are safe? She would be..." he hesitated delicately, "...most obliged."

Bush was silent, hearing Carson's words in his mind, reluctant to believe them...yet it was a possibility he must entertain. 'You misplace your confidence...' Carson had said. "No," he said firmly. "There will be time enough later."

**********

Lieutenant James Dawes sat stiffly in his cabin aboard Greyhound, exceedingly perplexed. His captain had appeared unannounced, hatless, clad in a sweeping boat-cloak and boarding from larboard, disdaining the customary ceremony. Fanshawe had accompanied him, and both had wordlessly quit the deck and led the way to Dawes' own cabin without a backward glance, expecting him to follow.

Fanshawe had indicated a chair, and had taken a seat beside him. The two lieutenants now watched in silence as Bush shed his boat cloak to reveal the full uniform beneath - including the fighting sword at his hip. This was a departure from the more casual order Bush usually maintained at sea: a faded, tar-stained coat, its epaulette tarnished from the past months' exposure to the elements. It had made him one of them.

This uniform suddenly set him apart, created a distance where there had essentially been none. Bush looked down, across the widening gulf between them, and at last began to speak. "As far as I am aware, gentlemen, Harry Carson still believes that I am firmly bound and gagged and lying helplessly in his stable."

Dawes shot a startled glance at Fanshawe, who nodded imperceptively. 'Later,' he mouthed.

Bush continued, unaware of the exchange. "While I was there, he told me a great deal. More than he should have, he will find - in fact, he has told me precisely what I must do. He plans to make his run tonight, as he seemed convinced that you and Mr. Fanshawe will remain at anchor without me to lead you. Carson was most...vocal." Bush grimaced involuntarily, prompting Dawes and Fanshawe to share a fleeting look, both wondering what, precisely, had been said.

"Knowing that, we may have the opportunity to stop Carson here and now - but I was unsure how to send the cutters to intercept the run and yet have it appear that I was still held captive. But by acting on his own initiative and sending men ashore, Mr. Fanshawe has given us an opening that may prove useful. We have made it known ashore that Greyhound will depart to search for me elsewhere under your command, Mr. Dawes, and the Witch will remain safely in harbour, with a few small search parties sent ashore. Mr. Fanshawe will remain aboard her."

"Sir!" objected Fanshawe explosively. "With all due respect, sir, I must protest. You cannot leave me here, doing nothing, while my men are in danger."

"Indeed I can, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush snapped sharply. "And you will not be 'doing nothing', as you so insubordinately suggest. You will be most visible." His momentary irritation subsiding, he offered the ghost of a smile to the young man's enthusiasm. "But our Witch will fly false colours. Give a uniform coat and hat to the carpenter, Oldham - he is about your size, and his hair is as fair as yours. From shore, no one will know the difference."

He studied his two young lieutenants gravely, well aware that both drew much of their assurance from his. He dared not allow them to sense his fear that Carson's derisive dismissal of his ability was well founded. He had had time to further scrutinize his plans, and still, they made sense. They were simple enough, and perhaps the element of surprise would serve him well. "I doubt Carson will return for me before morning...though if he does, he will find me and the mare long gone. But Mr. Fanshawe here was most astonished that I could ride, and perhaps Carson will share his disbelief. I released the mare still saddled and bridled - should she find her way home it may appear that I fell or was thrown, so they may waste their time searching for me in a ditch, instead. Mr. Fanshawe has located the waterman who delivered me to the Witch, and is holding him aboard, so there will be no one ashore with sure knowledge of my return."

Bush shifted his full attention to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, go - very visibly - back to the Witch, and get Oldham fully rigged in your stead. Return as quickly as you can. We must weigh anchor before the tide changes, and I would regret leaving you behind," he smiled faintly, "doing nothing."

"Aye aye, sir," Fanshawe grinned, and left them, eager to put his part of the plan into motion.

As the sound of his hurried step on the companion ladder faded, Bush turned back to Dawes, his face deeply lined with concern. He looked suddenly old, tired. "I dared not hold Mr. Fanshawe longer...but there is more, Mr. Dawes."

He held Dawes' eye, and did not flinch from brutal honesty. This much, at least, he had to share...it was his lieutenants' right to know - particularly if things went against him, and they were forced to carry on alone. "Carson also called me a poor judge of men, that I have misplaced my trust. He flaunted knowledge that he should not have had, so I must believe that he spoke the truth. Much as I wish it were not so, it appears that someone amongst us is not entirely what he - or she - may seem."

Chapter 19

 

 

Dawes stared in shocked disbelief, his captain's words still hanging in the air like some oracular pronouncement of doom. "Someone amongst us is not entirely what he - or she - may seem."

"Are you certain, sir?"

Bush sighed, shook his head, and sat down heavily in the chair behind the desk. Dawes winced as it creaked in protest. "I can come to no other conclusion, Mr. Dawes. Carson as much as told me so."

Watching him, Dawes could easily recall the expression of disgust that had crossed Bush's face as he had spoken of that interview. Clearly, some most unpleasant things had been said. "Sir..." Dawes ventured softly, "sir, if I may ask...what exactly did Harry Carson tell you?"

Bush grunted noncommittally, buying time, unwilling to reveal too much. But perhaps it might be better shared, unaccustomed as he was to doing so. Dawes might have some insights, and he knew somehow that he could safely discuss it with this young man without dangerously imperiling proper order and discipline.

He swallowed his pride, and reluctantly replaced it with practicality. "Well, Mr. Dawes, Carson made his low opinion of me quite clear. He suggested, in fact, that I ought to have accepted the position I was offered in Sheerness, at the dockyard."

Dawes frowned. "But...even I did not know of that, sir."

"Yes." Bush nodded, pleased at the young officer's quick appreciation. "And Harry Carson certainly should not have known of it. But he was most eager to display the fact that he did. I believe that he did not expect me to escape, and took great pleasure in telling me that I had been..." he smiled humourlessly "...a fool, and had misplaced my trust. He offered a few threats, then left me alone to fully enjoy that knowledge, and consider my failure...and my eventual fate at his hands."

"I have known a few men like him, lower-deck lords who abused their power over weaker shipmates, ruling by reminding others of their limitations." Bush shook his head. "But those men were no better than petty tyrants, and had no real capacity to lead. They could command nothing larger than a bread barge. Carson is a bully, no doubt, but he does have both ability and power."

"And something more, sir." Dawes interjected flatly, his level grey eyes uncharacteristically troubled. "There is something truly foul and frightening that lurks within the man, not far beneath the surface. I had several opportunities to observe him before you arrived on this station. Harry Carson cares for no one, and will stop at nothing...and the stories men tell of him suggest that his cruelty is boundless. And it has often been said that no one who bests him lives long thereafter." Dawes took a deep breath, digesting the implications. " I have seen enough of him to believe it, and have watched him take great enjoyment from others' pain and misery. He...he makes my flesh creep, sir."

A surprising admission from a naval officer; however, Bush was inclined to agree. He may not have been able to see the perverse pleasure on Harry Carson's face, but he had heard it clearly in his voice. And had felt it...felt both the boot in his gut and the chill in his soul. "As well it should, Dawes," he affirmed stoutly, to reassure the young man, knowing that such a confession of fear had taken considerable courage. "As well it should. The man has the support of someone with real authority, and he holds considerable power over any number of people here in Mount's Bay who can keep him informed of our actions."

"And did he suggest who any of these people might be, sir?"

"No." Bush thought for a moment. "No, he said nothing specific. It may be anyone." He fell silent, brooding. Anyone...perhaps even someone he had begun to think of as a friend. "But there was one thing I did not understand..." his voice trailed off, as he groped to recall Carson's exact words. "He mentioned 'one whom I do rightly trust...the Almighty may have dealt bitterly with them, but that he would do far worse...' " He shrugged. "It makes little sense to me."

"Sir... " Dawes was staring at him, wide eyed. "Sir, that would be Mara."

"Mara?" Bush frowned skeptically. "But how... Are you certain?"

"I am. It's scripture, sir...from the book of Ruth." Dawes smiled slightly at Bush's apparent disbelief. "My father is a parson, sir. I have read it many times."

He turned to his bookshelf, and pulled down a battered Bible. As he laid it on the desk and began to smoothly flip through the pages, Bush watched him, suddenly struck anew by the realization that the young man's movements were entirely one-handed. And he, he of all people, had barely noticed. He had nearly forgotten it, simply because Dawes had allowed it. Dawes was doing his best, and making do with what he had left without apology or complaint.

It was what he - and, indeed, all of them - must do. Now. Forever.

"Here, sir." Dawes' voice broke into his thoughts. "I was struck by the aptness of her name from the first, sir, which is why I remembered it."

Bush read aloud a portion of the passage his lieutenant had indicated. "Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty..." He looked up from the pages. "Dear God. I believe you may be right." He was not certain which was worse: the sick fear that she may prove to have been an informant, or the near certainty that she was now in great danger.

The sudden bereft look on Bush's face was not lost on Dawes. "Shall I send someone ashore to look after her, sir?"

"No." Bush could scarcely believe he had been able to speak the word so normally. "No. I dare not risk anyone going ashore and revealing our plans. For once we have the element of surprise in our favour, and we dare not lose it." He pulled out his watch, and flicked open the guard. "And time is short. We shall miss the tide if we delay much longer."

He scowled at it, mentally cursing both time and tide. "Though once we are at sea there will be plenty of time to reach Prussia Cove. You and your men know the coast thereabouts, do you not?"

"Yes, sir," nodded Dawes, following the direction of Bush's thoughts. "We do. With only one cutter at my disposal, I often sent a party ashore to attack from overland. Even if the smugglers' vessel managed to elude Greyhound, we could at least recover the goods, and our efforts would not go entirely for naught."

Bush very nearly smiled, the thought of action shouldering personal concerns to the margins of his thoughts for the moment. "Very good, Mr. Dawes. You shall lead a similar party again tonight. Pick your men, and be ready. We shall land you well clear of the cove; work your party inland and take up your positions as quickly as you can, and wait. With luck, we shall catch Carson between us, and end this."

He made to rise, though the effort was strangely awkward. Dawes heard a sharp intake of breath, and noticed that Bush checked his hand as it moved involuntarily to his body. It seemed, Dawes concluded, that not all of Carson's assaults had been verbal. But his captain made no mention of it, so Dawes too remained silent as he watched him shrug gingerly back into the boat-cloak and make his careful way up the companion ladder.

As they emerged into the late afternoon's sullen light, Bush looked about him at the orderly deck, and the panorama of seamen busily preparing to get under way. He could scarcely believe that it had been only this very morning that he had lain humiliated, kicked like a beaten dog, helpless at Carson's feet. Now he was restored, returned aboard Greyhound, where he had begun when he came to this place. He studied her men, seeing them with fresh eyes as he had seen them for the first time that day. Munro, the one-eyed bos'n. The master, Jameson, with one sleeve of his faded blue coat flapping emptily in the freshening breeze. Stokes, the hideously scarred marine. All the others. And he knew with the strength of conviction that there were no other men on earth he would rather have beside him this day.

And Fanshawe. Bush watched as the young man strode aft toward him. Even without uniform coat or hat, he looked a proper officer now, and very nearly was. He had come far since that first day...as they all had. Bush regarded his lieutenant sternly, thoroughly concealing his approval. "So, Mr. Fanshawe. Have all the men returned?"

"For the most part, sir. Only a few have not."

Bush cast an eye at the shore, then narrowly studied the leaden sky. "We can wait no longer," he snapped. "The stragglers will have to board the Witch instead, and await our return." He smiled slightly, suddenly aware that many of the men were covertly watching him. "A great pity they will miss this."

He turned to his lieutenants. "Get us underway, Mr. Dawes." Bush's smile widened to a broad - and now, surprisingly genuine - grin. "We have a smuggler to catch."

 

************

 

Bush stood at the entry port as the last of the boats idled below, awaiting its officer. The balance of Dawes' chosen men were already pulling strongly through the gathering dusk towards the shore, faces blackened, ready to conceal their boats and disappear soundlessly into the forest. "Good luck, Mr. Dawes."

Dawes smiled, teeth startlingly white in his cork-smeared face, and shook hands with his captain. "Thank you, sir. And to you as well." He turned, and grasped Fanshawe's hand. The two friends studied each other gravely for a long moment, each knowing that it might be the last.

"Ev."

"James."

They merely spoke each other's names; more was unnecessary. And even Fanshawe knew how unlucky farewells often proved to be.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20

 

 

 

Bush sat at the small desk in Dawes' cabin, poring over his charts in the fading light and thinking of Dawes and his men as they were even now concealing themselves in the rushes of Prussia Cove. He straightened, rubbed his weary eyes for a moment, and had to smile in self-conscious amusement as the awareness of his own position struck home. He had often reported to Hornblower just before action to find his captain similarly engrossed. It was difficult to fully accept that this was now his own true and rightful place.

He could, however, appreciate that he was not the only one aboard navigating unfamiliar waters. He knew, deep in his bones, what this night would bring. If his instincts held true, this would be Fanshawe's first foray into close action. It would be far different for the young man than anything he had experienced before - it was hardly the deliberate and controlled contest of the fencing sallee or the touching off of gleaming Mantons on the lawn at a distant and unmoving target. His own first experience had come early - he must have been all of fourteen. At that age one felt invincible, and the excitement and anticipation did much to overcome one's dread. The shaking terror came later, after all was done.

But Fanshawe was older, and inexperienced, and must certainly - and wisely - be suffering considerable trepidation. Bush pondered this uncomfortable state of affairs for a moment, knowing that something must be done to put the young man at ease, as his men deserved better than a fearful commander. Perhaps a quiet word with him might be advisable. "Hughes!" he called sharply.

"Yes, sir?" The marine dozing on his feet outside the cabin door came instantly alert, opening the door to stiffly address his captain.

Bush looked up impassively from the welter of papers. "Hughes, find Lt. Fanshawe and bring him to me."

"Aye, sir." Hughes touched his hat and - now wide-awake - scrambled quickly up the companion ladder.

Bush had barely returned his attention to the charts when knuckles rapped smartly on the doorframe. He stifled a quiet chuckle. Trust Hughes to act with his usual efficiency, he thought, regardless of the nature of his assignment...or recent somnolence. "Come," he called.

Bush regarded his lieutenant closely as he entered the cabin, recognizing the faint lines of strain sketched on the young man's features. He knew that it would not do to immediately imply that Fanshawe might be nervous about the night's upcoming action. Though true enough, it would be seen as a criticism, a lack of trust, and would do far more harm than good. "So, Mr. Fanshawe..." he began, by means of justifying the summons. "You reported that a small number of our men did not return. Have you spoken with Poole? Could he not locate them, or did they merely fall behind? He seems an observant man...did he hear anything of interest while he was ashore?"

"If he did, I do not know of it, sir." Fanshawe shook his head. "Nor can I answer any other of your questions. Poole was one of those men who did not return in time for our departure." He shrugged, unconcerned. "But no matter. Poole is intelligent enough to board the Witch or to conceal himself ashore until our return."

"I sincerely hope so. But..." Bush frowned. "But he is the one man ashore fully aware of our plans. If Carson got to him..." He indulged in a moment of worried silence. "Mr. Fanshawe, ask amongst the men to determine who may have seen Poole last. Bring him to me."

This time, it seemed an eternity before Fanshawe knocked on Bush's door once more. Bush was gratified to observe that as Fanshawe entered, he was followed closely by a squat, muscular seaman, a reliable man he knew well as gunner's mate from Witch of Endor.

"Ah, Fitzgerald," Bush smiled slightly, attempting to put the man at ease as well as to conceal his own anxiety. "So...it seems that you were ashore with Poole this morning. Tell me as best you can about the time you spent with him."

"Aye, sir." Fitzgerald knuckled his forehead, and launched into a long-winded description of the morning's activities. "We went to th' Fox n' Hounds first, sir, an' found some o'our lads there, an' then more - Thomas an' Jenks it was, sir - at th' Dolphin, an' sent 'em all off t'Greyhound. We was movin' on t' th' Mermaid, but Poole - beggin' yer pardon, sir - ee' needed th' privy..." Fitzgerald blushed furiously, nearly overcome with the embarrassment of discussing such an unseemly matter with his captain. "An' sir...that's when I lost 'im."

Bush nodded, studiously ignoring the man's discomfiture. "Not surprising, under the circumstances."

"Er...yes, I s'pose so, sir. I...I waited, sir, but I couldn't wait for 'im any longer an' get 'ere in time. So I fetched th' men from th' Mermaid, an' off we went."

"You did well, Fitzgerald, to alert the others and return when you did." Whether that would prove to be so was anyone's guess, Bush knew, but there was no changing it now. He rose from his chair behind the desk and stepped around it to study the stocky Irishman intently. "So all was quite ordinary? None of the townspeople attempted to delay you, or interfere in any way?"

"No, sir. No problems a' tall. An'...fact is, we saw Cap'n Turpin, too, when we left th' Dolphin; 'e wished us a good day. Poole spoke pleasant to 'im."

"Indeed?" Bush frowned; it seemed to be somewhat forward behaviour for the quiet and unassuming Poole. "And what did he say?"

"Somethin' 'bout th' weather...an'...right odd, it was, sir...somethin' 'bout a button."

Bush blanched, and unexpectedly grasped the seaman's arms; his blue eyes stared into the man's with a peculiar intensity. "Try to remember, man. Exactly."

Fitzgerald looked back in momentary fear; his captain's grip was painfully strong. "Oh." He brightened. "Now I remember, sir. 'E said 'Sir, yer pocket's unbuttoned.' An' Cap'n Turpin says 'So it is. Thank you.' Funny thing, though, sir...it weren't, not that I could see."

Bush released the man from his suddenly nerveless hands and stared, stricken. "Oh my God."

Perplexed, both men gaped at their captain as if he had abruptly taken leave of his senses.

"The gauger's pocket," Bush breathed. "Dear God...I had nearly forgotten it. We played at smugglers, as all children do..." He roughly checked his mounting alarm and forced himself to impassive stillness. "The gauger's pocket was a hiding-place where money or information was exchanged. And..." He closed his eyes in helpless frustration. "And the signal that something was there to be collected was the mention of an unbuttoned pocket."

Eyes still closed, Bush stood immobile, desperately sorting out his disordered thoughts, unwilling to face the appalling truth. When he opened them again, the truth had been confronted, and the blue eyes seethed with a firestorm of fury. "Poole was passing information. They know," he snarled bitterly. "Everyone knows." He turned to stare out the stern windows, mentally cursing Poole for his duplicity and deceit. How had Carson managed to ensnare him, to influence him sufficiently to betray his own shipmates, his Navy...

Or... The thought struck Bush like an icy hand that clenched his heart. Or had he been placed here from the start? Placed here by someone in the Admiralty with ties to Carson? But how...

He knew. With a frightening, chilling clarity, he knew.

He turned on Fanshawe, the heated ferocity now gone cold: icy and remote, and somehow far more terrifying. "And you..." he stated flatly, emotionlessly staring at the young man as if seeing a stranger in his place. "You brought him."

Fanshawe stood silent, grey-faced and miserable, and Bush watched him, disbelief at once both tempering rage and feeding it. Dear God, no. Not you, Bush pleaded soundlessly. Resist. Protest your innocence. Say...something. Anything. But please God, let it not have been you.

Fanshawe opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. He swayed and staggered back a pace, knees nearly buckling.

And he does not deny it. "Get out of my sight." Bush hissed, now white with rage. "I have no further use for the likes of you." He regarded the marine coldly. "Take him to his quarters, Hughes, and keep him under guard until he is called for."

Hughes roughly grasped the ashen lieutenant by the arm and propelled him toward the door, determined to get him out of the cabin before his captain committed the act of violence that lurked so closely behind those frigid blue eyes.