Bush held himself in rigid, iron-fisted command until the cabin door clicked closed, and the sound of footfalls faded. He stumbled blindly to the chair and collapsed into it, as if no longer able to bear the crushing weight of the defeat and loss that now oppressed him.
He felt chilled and sick, barely able to draw his breath. Dear God, how stupid and deluded he had been. Poole was the very last person he should have sent ashore to pass the news. Past images crowded close, barely considered at the time, yet now fraught with meaning. It had all been a puzzle, with pieces only now recognizable and falling inexorably into place. Poole, and Turpin, and....he hesitated, nearly choking on the thought. And Fanshawe.
Poole. Colourless, innocuous Poole. Nearly unnoticeable, yet somehow always there. There at Fanshawe's elbow, trusted to carry messages to town and always return. Trusted to deliver Mara's hastily scrawled communications from Fanshawe's hands into his own. And, dear Lord, trusted with the damning knowledge of his escape, and the plans to catch Carson tonight, unawares.
"You have misplaced your trust..."
Carson's words: they viciously mocked him now. Bush's hands tightened convulsively on the arms of the chair, maintaining a grip on something - anything - solid and immoveable. He should have known; indeed, Poole had unsettled him from the first, though he had dismissed his fears as his initial suspicions regarding the nature of Poole's 'service' to Fanshawe proved unfounded. And just this very morning Poole had stared at him in shocked surprise, clearly not expecting to find him alive and well and standing in his cabin. Poole had gone there seeking Fanshawe, and had been at a loss for words...and would have no doubt remained so had it not been for Fanshawe's timely prompting. Fanshawe had averted suspicion, and even made it possible for Poole to pass vital information ashore. To Turpin.
And Turpin. Turpin had not been nearly the officious, ineffectual minor bureaucrat he had seemed. What better way to conceal one's collusion with the smugglers than to ostensibly work against them? No doubt he had been in league with Carson all along...small wonder he had been more angry than frightened after the beating he had received at the hands of Carson's men. Men who, it seemed, remained unaware of Turpin's involvement. Or...perhaps not. Turpin had protected himself, even ruthlessly apprehending the occasional crew and leaving them to cool their heels, isolated in gaol until they could be collected by the Press. He gladly accepted the blood money, and perhaps at the same time removed any who knew - or suspected - too much.
All Turpin's dire predictions took on an even darker and more sinister complexion as Bush viewed them in such a light. Turpin had clearly warned him off, but he had been too blinded by the desperate need to prove himself to have seen it. He made to rest his head in his hands, but they cramped as he opened them, and he blankly realized his death grip on the wood for the first time. He stared into his palms, now marked deeply with the imprint of the carved wood. Seaman's hands, they were, scarred and calloused. And as out of place as he was: far out of his depth, naively allowing the truth to slip through his fingers like dry sand.
He shook his head helplessly. The truth. He had no idea, now, what was truth and what was falsehood. He would have staked his life on Fanshawe's loyalty. He had permitted himself to take an unexpected pleasure in watching the young man blossom from worthless aristocrat to worthy man, and had found a strange satisfaction in knowing that he had played his part in bringing it about. But he had been wrong. Dangerously wrong.
Or so it seemed. Bush sighed, and closed his eyes, seeing Fanshawe as he had been in those first exasperating weeks. The young man had been immaculate, too pretty by half, awkward and wholly unskilled, enduring the brunt of his captain's ill-tempered frustration in wounded silence. He could easily recall the hurt on young man's face in response to the words he had heard almost daily from his captain: 'Damn you, Fanshawe'.
Fanshawe's captain repeated them again, now, aloud. "Damn you." Months ago, when he had at last ceased deriding the young man and began to teach him instead, he had assumed that Fanshawe's burning desire to learn had been genuine. Fanshawe had seemed so consumed by it, so eager. He thought back to their visit to the admiralty, as Fanshawe had prattled on about his meeting with his uncle, Admiral Summerscales. The young man had been so delighted to prove his rapidly burgeoning abilities to his uncle. And, Bush considered, what had he said? 'And of course, sir...I told him everything. ' Then, those words had made him cringe.
Now, they nearly stopped his heart.
'I told him everything.' And thus was the information delivered to the Admiralty: through Fanshawe's visit, and within the vast number of letters the young man had posted to his uncle since that meeting.
It all seemed so simple, and so painfully, brutally obvious. But... Bush sighed, it was still difficult to accept despite the evidence. He still could not grasp that he had been so wrong about a man he believed to have come to know so well. He had not truly known Poole, or Turpin; thus mistaken assumptions were not wholly surprising. It took time to sound a man's depths, and he took his time in doing so, but his judgments once formed had always proved most reliable.
He had certainly come to understand Hornblower well enough, he reflected; perhaps better even than the man had understood himself. Certainly better than Hornblower ever knew. At times Fanshawe had even vaguely reminded him of the young Hornblower, and perhaps, he thought contemptuously, that was responsible for blinding him to the truth. But the resemblance was there, without doubt: once encouraged, the young man exhibited both the same thirst for knowledge and a similar tendency to hold himself accountable...
Bush's thoughts ground to a halt and he looked up, light and hope dawning. Hold himself accountable....could it be? Fanshawe had never admitted guilt; in fact, he had appeared as shocked at Poole's treachery as one might expect. Earlier that same day he had been worried enough to send search parties to look for his missing captain, and had been visibly shaken by Bush's account of his narrow escape. But Fanshawe - again, echoing Hornblower - was possessed of great mental agility, and no doubt recognized the likelihood of his uncle's involvement, and his own unwitting part in it, far ahead of his captain. He would have adjudged himself guilty, and may have been reluctant to divert the blame by pointing accusingly at his uncle.
Blood, it seemed, was always thicker even than sea water.
But though it was pleasant to contemplate the possibility that Fanshawe was entirely innocent, it was not enough. Bush glanced through the stern windows, casting an eye at the sky, and consulted his watch. In little more than an hour, they would reach the spot where Carson and his men awaited them. Before then, he had to know for certain. He was taking his ship and his men into battle - for battle it was, even though his enemies were, this time, his own countrymen. And the outcome was as uncertain as if he were facing the French. If he were to die betrayed by one of his own, he would not die in ignorance - nor did he wish to die with the condemnation of an innocent man on his lips.
"Hughes!" Bush called abruptly. "I am now ready for Lt. Fanshawe. Bring him to me."
Hughes' acknowledgment was immediate; it was glaringly obvious to Bush that he had been awaiting the command. The marine corporal had seen and heard all that had transpired, and knew full well that Bush would wish to confront Fanshaw in short order, though God only knew what his thoughts were regarding Fanshawe's innocence or guilt. And only God would know. Neither the marine's face nor his demeanour would dare give anything away.
As Hughes' crisp footfalls faded, Bush sighed, and doggedly considered the sorry predicament in which he now found himself. Carson knew far too much. Knew that he was free and aboard Greyhound, and knew that he planned to attack tonight. Another man might very well call off the run....though Bush knew beyond doubt that Harry Carson would not. He had bested Carson by escaping, and he knew with a cold certainty that the man would be consumed with rage, and was even now lying in wait for the opportunity to settle the score.
But...there was some faint hope. Though Carson knew much, he did not know everything. He had no way of knowing that Bush was aware of Poole's treachery, and thus would not be walking blindly into the jaws of a trap. And even Poole did not know that Dawes and his men would already be in place when Carson arrived. Some small element of surprise was still his, he reflected. He merely had to take it, and use it. Merely. He sighed again.
But oh, God....Mara. There had been plans to be made, and action for which to prepare. He had done his best to not dwell upon what Carson might have done to her - he could not allow it - but now in this lull, in the quiet of his cabin, all those thoughts came roaring back with a vengeance. She may very well be dead by now; and, given what he now knew of Carson, her death would have been neither quick nor easy: Carson would have taken a monstrous pleasure in dealing with her himself, and would no doubt wish to prolong the enjoyment of it for as long as possible. Bush could only hope that Carson in his arrogance would have seen no need for haste, and thus put off his grotesque entertainment until after the night's work was ended. He shuddered. God willing, Carson would never have that opportunity - unless it were already done.
His thoughts were interrupted by Hughes' brisk rap on the door. "Mr. Fanshawe is here, sir."
Bush watched expressionlessly as Fanshawe was led in: the young man was pale, eyes rigidly downcast. "Thank you, Hughes. Now leave us." He fixed Fanshawe with a frigid glare. "Well, Mr. Fanshawe? Explain yourself."
"Sir..." Fanshawe's voice was almost inaudible, and he did not look up. "Sir, I....I must inform you that I am guilty, sir. I...." He swallowed hard. "I told them." Fanshawe held out a sheaf of papers; they rustled with the sound of dry leaves in time with the tremor of his hand. "My confession, sir."
Bush accepted the papers, and somehow kept his face impassive as all hope shriveled and died a painful death, with a fierce anger resurrected in its place. "I wish to hear it from you directly, Mr. Fanshawe."
"Please, sir, no..."
"So you are a coward as well as a traitor, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush spat. His anger began to escape his tight grip, and threatened to overwhelm his rigid reserve. "Damn you, Fanshawe."
At this pointed reminder of his early days under Bush's command the young man looked up, anger flaring bright in his brown eyes, though it was just as quickly replaced by a profound grief. "I have failed you, sir...you were right about me from the start."
Bush raised an eyebrow, and glared coldly at him. "So it seems."
"I am a fool. An idiot. I stupidly believed that..." Fanshawe hesitated, as if reluctant to continue. "that...others....were at last beginning to see me as a man, and not a worthless wastrel. He was suddenly so interested in my progress, in you, sir, and in our mission....and I gladly told him everything he wished to know, like some deluded child."
Fanshawe sighed heavily, but Bush offered neither comment nor change of expression. Best to allow the young man to speak without prompting, he knew. Thus he waited.
"I ought to have known, sir. He never took much interest in me before, sir....if anything, I believe I merely amused him. He was mightily amused by my wish to serve with you, sir. He sent Poole to me. As a...a nursemaid to look after me, he said."
"Chadwick." Bush said flatly. Perhaps he could, indeed, force the truth of it.
Fanshawe looked up at that, his eyes wild. "Oh, dear God, no, sir. My uncle, Admiral Summerscales."
His initial suspicions confirmed, Bush frowned in an effort to conceal his relief. He would hear this story out before he dared come to final judgment. "But why?"
"I have asked myself that very question, sir, and I am not entirely certain. Uncle Douglas was always fortunate in battle, but markedly unlucky in the matters of prize money and influence. It galled him, sir, to find himself yellowed, with only his pay to support him, while others with lesser ability and nerve remain at sea, gaining both undeserved glory and a substantial share of the squadron's prizes. He has become a bitter and unpleasant man, now that Aunt Vivienne is gone. He had nothing left.....until...." Fanshawe grimaced. "Until I believed he had taken an interest in me. He was suddenly much as he was again, sir, almost as I remembered him. And I, naively, never once questioned his motives. He used me, sir, and I allowed it. I ought to have known...but I was too eager for his approval, and too great a fool."
Perhaps we are fools together, Bush thought, as he narrowly studied the young officer, wanting with all his heart to believe him, though grimly resisting the impulse. If it were all a pack of lies, the young man's time ought to have been better spent on the stages of Drury Lane. But he had been wide of the mark too often to be caught out again. Time and deeds would have to prove him right or wrong.
"Trust me, sir, I..." Fanshawe faltered
"Trust you, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush snapped. "I think not. I am not yet fully convinced of your innocence. But you will not remain here in safety. You will be at my side, and will face whatever danger you have brought us. With me, and with your men." Bush regarded him coldly. "And I swear to you, Mr. Fanshawe....if you dare play me false, I will shoot you myself."
It was time.
Greyhound eased quietly into Prussia Cove, and there she was. Not Carson's robust vessel this time, but a fragile, trim sloop, her lines clearly French and designed for speed. Even as Bush watched, the welcoming beacon that shone from the cliff-top was extinguished, giving the Frenchman fair warning to flee. Her captain must have seen it, though the sporadic twinkle of muzzle-flashes that were now visible on the beach were no doubt signal enough. Bush's heart sank: Dawes had been discovered, it seemed, and he could do nothing about it. Not yet.
Not yet, but soon. Bush glanced about his cutter's narrow deck and felt a surge of pride. His men were at quarters and ready for anything, yet those who met his gaze found a moment to nod or grin at their captain, even as they tied strips of white cloth securely round each other's arms to distinguish friend from foe. They anticipated a fight, and were seemingly as eager as he was to begin it.
The Frenchman put his helm down, and the sloop began to go about in flight, tacking gracefully even closer inshore. Bush swore viciously. He knew from the charts that he could not follow; given Greyhound's deeper draught he would surely run them aground were he to attempt it. If he took the time to wear, he would be too late. The lighter sloop would be gone, flitting quickly for safety - and France - and his sturdy cutter could never hope to catch her.
Bush began to pace the small scrap of deck, his face darkening with frustration as he grimly considered the very real prospect of the sloop slipping through his fingers as he watched. He snarled another oath under his breath. It would not, could not happen again. Not this time.
The anger welled up, blackly blotting out all coherent thought. Anger at Carson, at Poole, at Fanshawe, at the admiralty, at himself, the fate that put him here, and not in the open sea where he belonged...God damn them! Damn the bounty, the sloop, and whatever secrets she carried... "Damn them all!" he roared aloud, his wrath overtaking him. "Sink her!"
Shocked, the gunners looked back at him, this raging figure, fury embodied, and grinned horribly as they were swept up in his powerful riptide of emotion. They sighted their guns with more than the usual care, no longer aiming to merely disable, to board and take her. They held up their hands, ready. Ready, and fully prepared to kill.
"FIRE!" Bush's leather-lunged command split the night and all six cannon spoke as one.
The graceful sloop had been built for speed and not for broadsides. Even the weight of iron thrown by Greyhound's 10-pounders was too much for her lithe elegance. The frail hull crumpled, and the men cheered, for now not caring that their portion of whatever bounty she carried was headed to the bottom of the bay. They had won, and that was enough.
Shrieking, terrified men bobbed in the dark water, flailing wildly, and Bush ignored them. 'Now...' he thought bitterly '...now we will end this.'
"Well done!" he cried, over the din, which quieted immediately at his voice. "Take us in, Mr. Jameson. You men, prepare to man the boats."
The men hastily retrieved cutlasses and pistols, and stood ready, their white armbands gleaming faintly in the darkness. At Bush's steady encouragement, Jameson worked her in as close as he dared, though he allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief at Bush's order to heave to.
As the sails were backed, and the cutter lost way, Fanshawe obediently took his place at Bush's elbow. Bush turned, and studied him carefully. "Your sword is in my cabin, Mr. Fanshawe." he said quietly. "I suggest you retrieve it."
Fanshawe's eyes met his, and Bush would forever remember his look of gratitude. The young man nodded. "Aye, sir." He smiled. "You'll not regret it."
"See that I do not, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush snapped, though the emotion visible in his eyes belied the sharpness of his words.
The boats were dropped, and the men clambered into them, each man carefully watching his captain as he took his place in the sternsheets of the longboat. Bush was quiet, now, though a fierce and pent-up fury still radiated palpably through his stillness. The men caught his intensity and rowed powerfully, quickly traversing the distance to the shore. Their momentum carried them far up the shingle, well onto dry sand.
The moon was breaking fitfully through the clouds; its feeble illumination crept over the high wooded bluffs that flanked the beach and revealed, to Bush's extreme satisfaction, that this narrow strip of sand and shingle lay empty. He could now discern that the musketry fire visible from the bay actually came from within the rushes at the fringe of the sand, and even further back into the dense underbrush at the edge of the woods. Dawes and his men were performing admirably, Bush reckoned, keeping Carson's men occupied and thus allowing the main force to come ashore in strength.
Men leapt from the boats, and pulled them securely ashore. "Steady, men..." Bush whispered quietly, allowing them time to draw their weapons and begin the attack with clear heads. He nodded to Fanshawe who had taken his place at his left, his unsheathed blade already gleaming in the filtered moonlight. Bush drew his own sword, and held it high. "Greyhounds...."
His ringing bellow was abruptly drowned by the far louder roar of guns - heavier guns, not muskets. Bush looked wildly about him as the marine at his elbow clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground. Confused, men scattered, some staggering, falling, all seeking cover that was not there as the full-throated report came again, shot spattering into the sand. This time, Bush's eye caught the muzzle flash, and he realized with horror that it had come from above them, from the bluffs that loomed high above the shore. Dear God, it had still been a trap, designed to lure them in. His blood ran cold as he knew that he had missed it, never expecting a mere smuggler's cove to be so expertly defended. The guns spoke again, and Carson's men burst from the darkness, suddenly upon them.
Fanshawe remained solidly at his side as they came. God, they were everywhere. Bush slammed the guard of his sword hard into the face of one; as the man went down he plunged the blade deep into the smuggler's body, pinning him, writhing, to the sand. Bush shut his ears to the sound of the man's agonized screams and viciously jerked the sword free. He sensed a presence behind him, and whirled in time to block the upraised arm brandishing a cutless, felt his steel bite through the flesh and thud solidly into bone - months of anger and frustration freely lent their power to his arm.
He felt Fanshawe beside him, heard his ragged breath as his sword clashed violently against another, then the young man was forgotten. It was a matter of survival: there were two more, now, each with faces grimacing with strain as their steel rang against his own. They pressed closer, and Bush did his best to stand his ground but found he could not hold it: he was forced inexorably backwards, feeling his way uncertainly over the treacherously soft sand. He caught his breath in alarm as his shoulder abruptly collided with something solid, bringing an end to his reluctant retreat. Just as quickly, he recognized the strakes of the longboat as they pressed into his back. He stepped forward a pace into his attackers, driving a fist into the midsection of one, and caught the other's sword with his own, thrusting the man backwards with a desperate heave.
In the moment's reprieve, Bush flung himself over the gunwale of the longboat, landing heavily across the thwarts. He snatched a marine's emptied and abandoned musket from the bottom of the boat and swung it like a club, smashing the stock into the faces that now peered over the edge. As they fell away, he dropped the weapon, and lunged awkwardly into the bows. He quickly trained the longboat's swivel at the muzzle-flash from the nearest bluff; but the puff of flung rock splinters well below quickly informed him that even at maximum elevation, there was no hope of taking it out of action. He reloaded the swivel, ignoring the musket ball that thudded into the planking only inches from his thigh, and trained it on more men as they emerged from the trees. He dragged the lanyard, and a few dropped in their tracks, but the rest were suddenly amongst them.
Bush snatched up his sword and took stock of the confused situation as best he could. Several of his men were down, but the others were fighting bravely, and a satisfying number of the smugglers already lay prostrate in the bloody sand. He was astonished to find Turpin standing amongst them with pistol in hand, calmly taking aim at a marine who struggled with one of Carson's men. Bush cursed, and dragged the Service pistol from his belt, but even as he cocked it a large, somehow familiar dark shape detached itself from the shadows, knelt, and shouldered a weapon. It roared once, and Turpin dropped like a stone.
But oh God...Fanshawe was staggering, clutching his side as dark blood seeped from between his fingers to stain the white fabric of his breeches with a spreading smear that shone blackly in the filtered moonlight. Dawes was surrounded, struggling with three of them - impossible odds for a man with but one useful arm. The longboat's swivel was useless in this melee: were he to fire, he would kill his own men just as surely as Carson's men could.
Bush's blood was up and pounding in his ears; it was not humanly possible for him to wait and watch from this comparative safety while his men were being slaughtered before his eyes. He raised his sword and leapt from the bow of the longboat, roaring at the top of his lungs. The smugglers turned and gaped at the sudden emergence of this fearsome apparition, giving Dawes time to dispatch one with a violent slash.
A lifetime at sea and his own fighting instincts goaded Bush to hit the beach at a dead run; harsh reality intervened when smooth wood met soft sand. The abrupt landing threw him sprawling hard and rewarded him with a revolting mouthful of the salty sand; he came up spitting, and cursing obscenely in rage and frustration. He was on his knees, struggling to rise and shaking his head to clear it when something hard and unyielding struck him solidly in the temple, and the world went black around him.
Mist. Dark grey mist. He could see nothing else. The panic rose uncontrollably, gibbering in his throat...God, what had happened? Bush lay motionless, attempting to breathe, to gain control of the terror. Snatches of memory began to return; with them, wildly disordered sensations of fear, of shame, of rage. He abruptly raised himself to his elbows, and felt a firm hand pressing him back. The sudden wave of overwhelming nausea and dizziness he experienced was sufficient to convince him to comply without a fight.
"Not so fast, Captain. You've had a right nasty knock on the head."
Bush recognized the voice immediately, and turned his face toward it. "Dawes?" he croaked. "What...what happened?"
Bush felt something heavy and damp being lifted from his forehead. He reached up and rubbed his eyes: to his profound relief, they had simply been covered by a cloth, though they still felt strangely gritty. Even the low light dazzled him for a moment, but he was able to blearily make out Dawes returning a length of flannel to a basin.
Dawes turned down the lamp still further, pulled up a stool, and sat down. "You are back aboard Greyhound, sir." He smiled slightly, but even in the semi-darkness Bush recognized the gesture as hollow, perhaps merely intended to put the worst of his fears to rest. "We have your prisoners below - what's left of them, at any rate - and the wind is fair for Mount's Bay. We shall drop anchor there presently, sir."
"Mr. Dawes," Bush began severely, mustering a composure that belied his internal disarray. "Do not attempt to indulge me." His eyes narrowed, fighting the sick giddiness that threatened as he studied Dawes' wavering and still-indistinct features. "Report, Mr. Dawes. And leave nothing out."
"Aye, sir." Dawes nodded awkwardly, guilty as charged. He had to admit that the order was not unexpected. He knew perfectly well that his captain would demand a full report as soon as he was even remotely capable of hearing it, and any effort to mollify him would be fruitless. Thus he took a deep breath, marshaled his thoughts, and began.
"We crossed overland without incident or challenge, and took our places in the rushes and in the edge of the woods. And so we waited. Eventually the sloop showed herself, and began to approach the shore. I had directed my men to remain hidden until she had landed her cargo, and only then begin the attack, but one of Carson's men blundered upon Stokes in the darkness, and we were discovered. We managed to hold them in the woods, away from the beach. I did not know how many there were, sir, but I feared we were badly outnumbered. But Carson would not know that, provided we did not venture onto open ground."
"And we held them, sir, even after you..." Dawes regarded Bush with ill-concealed curiosity "....you sunk the sloop." He fell silent, awaiting an explanation, but as none was immediately forthcoming, he pressed on. "When your boats were landed, sir, we attempted to drive Carson's men toward the beach, to trap them between us." He shook his head in well-remembered astonishment. "We had never anticipated that Carson would have mounted guns above us on the bluffs. His men knew, of course, and held their ground, giving the gunners a fair shot at you as you came ashore."
"We did our best to come to your aid, sir, and I believe Carson's men broke from their cover too soon. I would have held them back and continued to fire upon you from the bluffs." Dawes grinned, more genuinely this time. "Fortunately, Carson's rabble was far less disciplined. We followed them, and joined the engagement on the beach."
"It was chaos, sir, for a time. Then you...er...fell, and Carson saw his opportunity. He clubbed you on the head with a musket-butt before he could be stopped. But your men fought like demons, after that, and turned the tide. They did you proud, sir."
Bush could not bring himself to share in Dawes' smile. "And the bill, Mr. Dawes? What of that?"
Dawes' smile vanished, and he shook his head sadly. "We lost some good men, sir. Seven dead - Stokes, MacCallops, Martin, Davis, Andrews, Kittridge, and Hughes. And nine more wounded, some severely."
"God." Bush fell silent for a moment, thinking of those men. Seamen and marines both. Stokes, his twisted, hideously scarred face finally at peace. And Hughes, the sentry asleep on his feet at his cabin door, never to be there again. Disjointed images from the battle suddenly resurfaced: Hughes had been at his side, and had fallen at the first blast of those mounted guns.
And another image, painful, and unwelcome. Dark blood welling between clenched fingers, white breeches suddenly slick with gore. " Fanshawe?" Bush asked quietly, dreading the answer.
"He is..." Dawes grimaced and looked away, unable to meet Bush's eye. "Still alive, sir. He is on deck ....I feared moving him much further. His wounds are deep, and he has lost a considerable amount of blood."
Bush closed his eyes helplessly, and heaved a great sigh of regret. "I ought to have left him aboard the Witch...or sent him packing long ago. He was no fighting sailor....he did not belong here." And Dawes, he considered, did not yet know the half of it.
"Had you done so, sir..." there was a peculiar edge to Dawes' voice, a note which made Bush uneasy. "Had you done so...you would not be here. It would be you, sir, on deck, sewn up in sailcloth - if you were a fortunate man. Fanshawe had been wounded, badly enough for any 'fighting sailor'. But he saw you fall..." Dawes' voice trailed off, his eyes distant, as though in the dimmed lamplight he could see the scene before him. He had seen it, over and over, since that awful moment. It had seemed to unfold slowly with a crystal clarity, though he knew full well it had truly taken only a heartbeat to transpire. And he had been too far away, his pistol emptied...he had seen and heard all of it, and could do nothing at all to stop it.
He told the story in a voice flat and detached, as if it had happened to someone else...the only way he could. Carson had rolled the senseless Bush onto his back, withdrawing a knife from a sheath at his waist as he did so. He bent over Bush's still, motionless face, considered it for a moment, then straightened, and smiled a cold and menacing smile. "No," he had mused. "I want you to see what you have become...and what I have made you."
He shifted the knife to his left hand, unhooked the unfired Service pistol from Bush's waist, and lowered the weapon to press the muzzle firmly just below the knee of Bush's sound leg. The sharp click of the lock as he cocked it seemed deafening even amidst the din of the struggle that swirled around them; the memory of it still sent cold fingers up Dawes' spine. Carson had laughed with a perverse, chilling delight, and hissed "You've been plenty of trouble with one...but you'll be far less with none at all." He smiled with genuine regret. "It's such a pity, though, that you are not awake to appreciate this. I would have so enjoyed hearing your screams, both before.... and after."
Dawes paused for a moment, as if to steady himself, though his words still came in the short disjointed phrases of a man attempting to come to grips with heartbreak. "Fanshawe somehow found the strength...he leapt at Carson. He managed to deflect the weapon away...the shot went wild, sir....but Carson still held the knife. They struggled, and Fanshawe tried his best, but he was weakening fast and his hands were slick..." Dawes winced at the memory of bloody hands desperately grappling for the knife, sliding.... "He lost his grip, sir, and Carson took full advantage...an abdominal wound, sir, deep and deadly."
Bush sharply sucked in a horrified breath. "Oh, dear God." For once, he meant it. "How wrong I was about him." He closed his eyes tightly, and was quiet for a space. When he opened them again, they were steady, and ice-cold. "And Carson?"
And Carson. Dawes could recall that moment as well, with equal clarity. Carson had released Fanshawe's body, and the young man dropped to the ground like a rag doll. He bent and wiped the knife blade carelessly on Fanshawe's white breeches, leaving an obscene red smear, and smiled down at the two officers now motionless at his feet. It had been a loathsome smile of arrogance and triumph, and Dawes had wanted nothing more than to extinguish it forever.
And he had done it. His hand had been mechanically reloading the pistol even as he watched, training surpassing horror. He brought the weapon to bear, and aimed it steadily at Carson's broad chest. He cocked it, and Carson looked up at the sound. Their eyes locked, and it was Dawes' turn to smile as he squeezed the trigger.
But that was a tale he could not trust himself to tell. Not now. Now, he merely smiled tightly in a vague echo of the memory. "By then I had reloaded, sir, and I shot him. With a most inappropriate amount of pleasure." He chuckled, though there was no humour in the sound. "The fight went right out of his men, after that."
"Seven good men dead, and perhaps more to follow." Bush shook his head in dismay, wincing slightly at the pain the movement caused. "All because I lacked the wit to realize the vastness of the plan."
Dawes shrugged, a vastly eloquent - albeit one-sided - gesture. "It is often difficult for an honest man to recognize the treachery of others, sir."
"Even so...I could have been the death of you all."
Dawes eyed him seriously. The articulation of such harsh self-reproach was unsettling, and unusual for his captain - in fact, was unusual for most captains he had known. Perhaps it was merely a natural reaction to exhaustion and injury. Or, he realized, with a sudden flash of insight, perhaps instead it was in response to the impending loss of a valued officer and friend. He studied Bush carefully, now realizing that his captain felt as bereft as he, and it pained him.
He tried to offer what solace he could. "Aye, sir, you might well have been, as any captain might. As it happened, though, your...er...unconventional appearance provided the distraction we needed to take them." He laughed hollowly. "So perhaps you saved us all instead, sir....and their treachery got them nowhere, in the end. Carson is gone. Turpin, too....we found him amongst the dead. We also found Poole at the edge of the wood, his throat cut. I cannot say whether it was done by one of our men or by Carson himself. We'll get no information from him, in any case."
"A pity...I would have liked to stretch his neck myself...." Bush's voice faltered, causing Dawes to consider his captain closely. His face was pale, the blue eyes vague and unfocussed.
Dawes placed a hand on his shoulder. "Rest, sir...your men are safe, and Greyhound is in good hands."
"I know, Dawes." His eyes closed despite his best efforts, though he managed a faint smile. "I know."
Bush returned to full awareness to find himself propped in a chair at the Two Brothers; he remembered little of how he had arrived there. He recalled having insisted upon walking, but also dimly recalled Dawes half-carrying him at times. He needed to see to his men...and...oh, dear God....to Mara.
He struggled to rise, but a bulky figure loomed over him. A vague image nagged at his memory, telling him that he had seen this figure before. Tonight. On the beach, perhaps...shouldering a musket...Turpin falling...
"Stay, Captain." A deep voice intruded upon the half-formed thoughts, and drove them back into the shadows. Mara's brother Brendan looked down at him, concern etched on his heavy features. "Stay. Your wounded men are here an' being cared for. Lieutenant Dawes has seen to your prisoners, and is even now writing his report. Yours can wait a little longer, sir," Brendan added kindly, at Bush's vain attempt to speak. "We'll get a bit of brandy in you first, now that you're awake."
As Brendan turned away, Bush reached out to seize his arm. The big man turned back in surprise; given Bush's weakened state, his grip was unexpectedly strong, the fingers digging into his arm with surprising force.
"Mara, Brendan..." Bush was clearly fighting to stay conscious. "Is she..." Words failed him, though the distress on his face spoke volumes.
Brendan smiled down at him, and stooped to place one beefy hand on his shoulder. "Never fear, sir, she's safe an' well. I knew what was to happen tonight - the reasons can wait 'till tomorrow - and I knew Carson would come for her." His grin widened. "So I took her first. I put her the one place Harry would never think to look: where he would have put her himself. She's in the stable, sir, where you were held this morning. But well hidden. There's a trap door in the floor under the stall where Harry keeps his brown mare. An evil creature, that one...she'd sooner kick or bite as look at you, and keeps the curious away."
"An' that's where Mara is, sir. I sent a man to fetch her home. Safe enough, though I expect she's madder than a wet hen at being left there." He chuckled. "Though I should think she and that mare ought to get on famously."
Bush blinked as Dawes' face suddenly appeared over Brendan's shoulder. Alarmed, he looked up at his lieutenant, fearing the worst. "Fanshawe?"
Dawes forced a smile. "The doctor's with him now, sir."
Bush had time for one last thought before the encroaching darkness claimed him again: 'Alive...both of them...'.
Hours later, as dawn was breaking, Mara Bryce slipped quietly down the inn's narrow hallway. She was relieved to be free from the dank darkness beneath the stable; she had crouched there for what had seemed like hours unending, unable to act, and beset by all consuming worry, not knowing what she would find when - and indeed, if - she was finally set free.
She had emerged to find injury, and death, and salvation. Brendan still lived, unharmed, and Carson was no more. But the cost had been high. Thus she silently made her pilgrimage, keeping vigil with those who had paid the price. She paused in the hallway, her hand on the latch, sighed sadly, and eased open the door.
And stopped short, astonished to find William Bush asleep in the chair beside Fanshawe's bed. His face was drawn, the livid bruise on his temple standing out sharply against his greyish pallor. One of his trouser legs hung empty, and the wooden limb lay abandoned in a tangle of wood and leather in a corner, out of reach, almost as if it had been hurled there in a fit of anger, or disgust.
She hastily made to leave, not wishing to disturb either man, but a slight movement caught her eye as she began to turn. Bush had straightened and was eyeing her defiantly as if daring her to offer some objection, or to even consider the notion of sending him away. But Mara merely nodded, and wordlessly approached the bedside. She placed a hand on Fanshawe's forehead, her own brow creasing with concern as she detected its mounting warmth. As she turned away, her eyes met Bush's in sympathy and she moved to gently examine his bruised temple, though her hand lingered there as he closed his eyes and leaned wearily into her touch.
Both remained motionless, neither wanting the brief moment to end, each quietly grateful for the other's safety. Mara bent quickly and lightly brushed her lips to his hair, then left him, closing the door behind her.
Bush shifted uncomfortably in the hard chair, though still retaining his firm grip on Fanshawe's hand, glad that she had come, yet relieved that she had gone without asking him to explain. He was not entirely certain that he could have done so. But someone had done the same for him, though he had little more than a vague memory of it. Vague enough that he had no notion of whose hand it had been - the surgeon, one of Sutherland's men, even Hornblower himself. Or perhaps it had been no more than his own fevered imagination conjuring some wished-for comfort. But he had felt a hand in his during the darkest hours of each night, during those hours when the soul was most likely to slip its moorings. That unknown hand had kept him securely anchored in safe waters, and prevented him from drifting silently away.
This, he considered, was the very least he could do in return.
He looked up as the door creaked open once more. Mara had returned: she unfolded the blanket she carried and spread it over him, tucking it securely about his shoulders. She blew out all but one of the candles and left the two men alone in the quiet darkness. Perhaps she had somehow understood that this was a service performed gladly, and one equally important to them both.