The Price of Steel
Part Three
by Lady Atropos

 

"Sir! Look at what we've found in the cable tier!"

Horatio was utterly perplexed. Between the two old salts, the young boy
whipped and thrashed, trying to get away. If he was stowing away, why didn't
he choose one of the merchant men? Or the lad could have gone on the Cascade,
not a Company ship, but a independent one that was herded along with the
rest. The crew would have been more lenient, and he would have been closer to
a land-bound destination. Why a King's ship?

"Leggo a' may! Leggo!" Barbara smiled inwardly. Her ruse was working. Her
clothes were dry; she had taken that risk with the potential results in mind,
and it had paid off. She had swum to one of the gun-ports, which, sensibly
enough, were open in the roaring heat anytime the ship was stationary and
there was no threat of desertion posed by a nearby land mass. Climbing into
the deserted wardroom, she had slunk down to the cable tier, the best, and
most believable, place to be discovered.

"Ah say'd, leggo a' may!" She could have laughed aloud at the expression on
the bewildered commander's face. Horatio pulled himself together.

"I don't believe you are in a position to give orders. What are you doing on
my ship, sir?" It was indeed very strange that Horatio should call that
scalawag boy 'sir,' but he took after Pellew's lessons; a man was more likely
to respond to respect than indignity.

"Ah wanna join th' Navey, sah - " Barbara tried hard to make her voice as low
and as sonorous as possible. She was a soprano, so 'as low and as sonorous'
for her was just exactly like a fifteen-year-old boy. "Ah jus' wanna join th'
Navey - " She imitated the accents she heard on the streets of Kingston,
slurring and leaving out as many consonants as she could and still be
understandable, like the way she heard the escaped slaves and the street
peddlers talk.

"And at what point were you planning to come out and do it?"

"Ah wuz a'fayd, sah, ah dinna wanna - " The fun drained out of the game as she
had to sink deeper into character; she saw the look of disgust cross Bush's
face, as the lieutenant contemplated the possibilities of cowardice among his
crew, and the commander - it was not as bad as she had feared with him. He
looked disappointed, like she had spilled a secret that they were supposed to
have kept between themselves. It hit her then that he was scared sometimes,
too, and that his objection lay in letting it show, openly admitting it. Now
was the time for the boy to cry; she played the part to perfection, and she
was surprised at how easily the tears came. She thought that maybe it was on
disgust for herself, for her awful trickery.

"Ah dinna wanna, wanna ge' caugh' li' tha', sah! Ah wuz gonna cum ou' soon,
reallay!" Barbara played her part admirably; no one seemed to be catching on.

"Mr. Bush, you will kindly release that boy. I don't think he is a threat to
us." Bush eyed him strangely, and then called off the two crew members. "I
should like to have him alone a moment, if you please." Bush retreated
obediently, if not necessarily comprehending his captain's strange request.

With the cabin emptied of all except Barbara and Horatio, the commander had
an opportunity to digest the situation. The sun was just barely casting a
pale pink sheen on the edge of the horizon. He walked up to the stern window,
and opened it a little wider, letting the cool pre-dawn air caress his face
as he closed his eyes. In a brief second he had a flash of memory back to the
most unusual dream he had had not too long ago - He turned back to Barbara,
recognition flashing in his melancholy brown eyes, to be extinguished by his
own self-reproach. 'He is but a boy! A very confused boy - '

"Mr. - what is your name?"

"Willem, sah - "

"William what?"

"Willem Wellesl - Willem Wells!"

"Oh, by the way, Mr. Wells, you may stop using that ridiculously assumed
accent now."

"Yes, sir," and, as an afterthought, "Aye, aye, sir."

"Who are you really? Why are you on my ship? And I'll tell you now, if you
try and put the lie to me, I could have you taken out and hanged as a spy
with the snap of my fingers." Horatio knew that he would never be able to
impose an order like that; it was completely within his authority to do it,
but as a person he could not see this stupid young boy hanged for a folly of
youth. He thought of youth, yet he possessed it himself; it was a folly of
irresponsibility.

Now, Barbara realized, was the time when she could admit to whom she really
was; she saw the open look on Horatio's face, and she wished she could trust
him with her secret. But that would put her in the debt of a man, and she
didn't know for sure, after all, if she could truly trust him. Sir
Callowright had taken in her mother with false pretenses of honesty. Could
this man be capable of such trickery? She needed to stay away from her mother
and the Callowrights at all costs, as much for her own comfort as for Lady
Callowright's safe escape. "Sir, I - "

He leaned in, so close to her that she could snatch him up in her arms, and
thus give herself away - but that was so unrealistic! How would he respond to
that? She would not trust this man for no more reason than a pretty face.

"You can tell me, I'll protect you from any business that ensues." He
couldn't help standing so close; there was simply no more room, but what room
there was suddenly got warmer to Barbara's frantic mind. She looked up into
his soft brown eyes - how was it that they were soft? She wanted passionately
to finish the task that she had begun; she must not give in to mere
femininity. She must retain her independence at all costs.

"I am William Wells, sir." He seemed to comprehend her stubbornness, and
nodded gently.

"You are to report to Boson Cramil to perform your watch duties."

"Yes, sir, thank you sir - aye, aye, sir."

"Dismissed. Report to Lt. Bush now, as a matter of fact, and he will see you
know your duty." She had entered the room as Lady Barbara, and now she exited
as William Wells. What a strange turn of events.

The youth had barely quitted the cabin when Horatio leaned pensively against
the window casement again. "Good luck, ma'am," he muttered under his breath
at the retreating figure behind him. Elusive, gray-blue eyes, and a mist of
pale golden hair - fine, high, aristocratic cheeks-there was no disguising her
distinct features from him! She had been in his cabin that night - even his
self-reproach was defeated in the materialization of that conclusion. That
was the face in his dream, in his cabin, and that night, the face had been
definitely female! His mind was spinning so fast in his search for an
explanation that he overlooked the personal intrusion that had occurred.

Yes, he had seen her in her true light just as he leaned in for a closer look
into her eyes, to see her thoughts, but he didn't want to reveal her just yet
if she refused to reveal her self. He knew that Bush would be put to infinite
trouble to fit her into the watch bill; the way he had passed her off to him
so cavalierly may not have been very considerate, but he had other mysteries
to chase. Why was she doing it? Who was she really? He would give her another
chance, and he would wait carefully, watching and absorbing, until he knew.
He would see how long she lasted, first. Horatio didn't know many women; in
the navy, who would? But from what he had heard and seen, they were a strange
race, and he didn't know if this one could stand a day or two months under
the grueling physical labor. It was her fault for shoving herself into this
situation, he thought to himself peevishly, and so she deserves all that
she'll get. But at the same time, he found himself wondering if he could have
endured, either -

And here was another problem: how would he be in the crew's eyes, if she
exposed herself and they thought he was taken in? He couldn't come out then
and say "You see, I knew all along." Then again, they would have been fooled,
too. Still, it would be demoralizing if they all should be tricked.

And her personal safety! Well, she was safe under the pretence that she was
a man. He would do his utmost to ensure that this odd creature reached her
destination; he would have tried to help her if she had come to him in
Kingston, as a woman seeing refuge, and now he will help her, whether she
wanted to be helped or not. Would he have helped her in Kingston, after all?
He spiraled down another avenue of self-analysis, trying to discover his
motives for aiding his eccentric quarry.

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

The 'Cascade' continued on with the rest of the convoy, even going out of her
way and passing the normal point of departure for New Orleans to leach all
the protection she could from the Company ships' departure. She was a British
ship, but not with the Company; independently owned, she was constantly under
the threat of bankruptcy from the Company monopoly. Legally, because she was
not in the Company, the King's ships need not offer her protection, but by
travelling alongside the convoy, she was playing a very carefully planned
bluff, challenging any ruffians to try and take her with that sleek sloop
sailing by her side. It was a cowardly bluff, but a safer one than travelling
alone, pretending to be armed - what a ridiculous idea!

'Cascade' rarely had passengers anymore. Most travelers chose to go in a
Company ship, not one that could be taken so easily just by the calling of
her elaborate bluff. She would follow the convoy through the Windward
Passage, past the greatest threat from coastal ship-snatchers, and then run
back to New Orleans by the route to the North and West, paying port calls to
the northern Bahamas islands and Florida on the way.

There were two passengers on board now; most unusual. One of them was waking
up in the captain's forfeited cabin at that moment, with the waking of the
sun.

Lady Callowright opened her eyes only to little slits, her head throbbing
even in the meager light. She cast a searching look about the place she was
in. She was definitely in a ship: she could feel the swaying beneath her, and
her head throbbed a little bit more with the realization. The cabin that she
was in was quite a bit smaller that the one that she had seen on the
'Moonlight', the Company ship she was due to be on. Was she on it? Had her
husband have her moved to a different cabin? There were no furnishings in
this one, except the lamp swinging from the deck beams above and a gnarled
desk in the corner.

She swung up onto the side of the cot that she was on, and then fell back
onto it again as her head, and her stomach, protested. Where was she? She was
perplexed by the vague memories of two, or was it three? days ago - there was
a small boat, shouting, before that, pain -

A head peeked around the cabin door, a very young, low head, and then it
disappeared. Some period of time lapsed, she could not tell if it was minutes
or hours in her state, and then a young boy entered the cabin, ushering in
with him a tallish, thinner man. "Sir, she's waking up - "

"Thank you, Doyle. You may leave us now, and inform the captain."

Lady Callowright raised her head a little. "Who are you?" She hadn't
recognized his accent when he had spoken to the boy. It wasn't British, nor
was it a Kingston accent. It had a strange lilt to it, but very comforting.

"I'm a passenger here too, but don't worry," he said as she looked up at him
incredulously, "I'm a doctor. I've been taking care of you. You were pretty
beaten up, you know. You've been on this ship for three days, and this is the
first time I've seen you wake up." He placed a cool hand on her forehead, and
gently pushed her head back onto the thin pillow that lay beneath it.

"Where are you from?" she asked in a muffled kind of whisper. Talking was
painful, now that she was waking up.

"Well, I could ask you the same question," he said with a smile, as he backed
away to the door. "Rest some more" His back disappeared around the bulkhead
as he shut the door behind him. Lady Callowright drooped back onto her side,
very confused. She was overwhelmingly tired, and she was aware that she ached
all over. A glance at her wrist revealed bruises, and she fell asleep again,
contemplating the tiny memories that were creeping their way back into her
consciousness.

Some hours passed in that manner, Lady Callowright being nursed back into her
element, aided by frequent visits from the man with the accent. She
discovered who he was: Dr. Carroll, an American. He was infinitely kind to
her; he offered bandages and a gentle touch when she was in pain, his
shoulder and a wrinkled handkerchief when her tears came with her recovering
memory.

By noon, Lady Callowright was on deck above, breathing the air of freedom and
enjoying every bit of it. She had heard the story of how she came to the
ship, and she was afraid to think about the results of Lady Barbara's
actions; the youngster must be out there somewhere, and she hoped that she
was safe. She was angry at her at the same time, too. How could she be so
thoughtless? They were both women of title, and couldn't just throw their
reputations to the wind like that. But what was a name? She could cast it off
easily, and Lady Callowright found herself thinking wild thoughts about
desertion, about staying in America, about leaving the nightmare of her
married life behind her. But then she would never see her family again, or
her friends, the ones that she had looked to for so long when things got out
of hand; she owed them so much for that, so that she could not abandon them
so quickly. Still, the temptation to run away and cast off all of her
responsibilities was growing as the force of her situation's strange, removed
sense of freedom from civilization asserted itself. It would all be so easy.

Over to the starboard side, she saw a large row launch, with a lugsail set,
full of people. That was peculiar. They were coming off Navassa Island - quite
peculiar indeed. She waved cheerily at them; they must be boaters or coastal
fisherman. They did not wave back, but the Master standing at the helm fell
to the deck, a bullet in his head. To her spinning mind, all she could
register was that the situation was becoming more peculiar by the minute. The
launch was at the side, and, still dazed, she was swept aside as a wave of
tanned faces coursed by, pistols waving and swords bristling. The 'Cascade's'
bluff was up; the ship was taken.

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

Horatio looked on, for the moment, helpless. It was not within his authority
to risk his ship and his men to save that brig, but he couldn't stand by and
watch the crew being slaughtered by pirates, either. He made his decision
within a few moments of screams and shots, and he informed Bush of his
intentions.

"They don't think that we'll try to take the brig back, because it is not our
duty. We can't fire into her, or we'll probably kill her crew as well as the
criminals. I'll take twenty men, and board her." It was a simple plan, and it
bluntly forced his men against theirs in a show of brazen man power.
Horatio's head swam with heat and excitement. He couldn't send Bush to do it
himself; he was torn between whether that was because of his restlessness or
his commitment to do his duty alone. It was to no avail on Bush's part
anyway-he was the commander now! He needed to board that ship, and he needed
to leave an officer with his ship; there was no time to discuss the nuances
of rank and command. Bush looked crestfallen at the passed opportunity to
dive into action.

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Be prepared to shoot our cannon if we are unable to recapture her; better
that she should sink than terrorize others."

"Aye, aye sir."

"Very good. Beat to quarters, and clear for action." Horatio ordered off the
divisions that were to accompany him on the boarding, and Barbara felt a
rough hand at her elbow.

"Come on, boy! You're goin' to battle!" She was dragged off, and found
herself in the 'Retribution's' boat, with a cutlass in her shaking hand. 'I
didn't think it would come to this - ' she thought desperately, 'We weren't to
go into battle.' It wasn't cowardice that distracted her thoughts; she didn't
fear for her own life in that hectic moment, but she dwelled on the thought
that she had never taken anybody else's. The cutlass slipped in her sweaty
palms, and she strove desperately to gain a hold on herself once more as the
boat approached the 'Cascade.' The 'Cascade!' The name hit Barbara in the
face, and her resolve hardened to do her utmost to save the brig.

The boat pulled away, fully of twenty spirited bodies, grasping weapons and
snarling like animals. She had read no account that gave full justice to the
heated passion of battle that she was surrounded by. They were leaving, to
take other people's lives back as a prize when they return! It was completely
unique, the way the pulse raced and the breathing quickened at the thought of
mortal danger.

On the 'Cascade,' the decks ran red with blood. The crew were holding up
against the pirates from Navassa valiantly, but they could not hold back the
swarming, bloodthirsty rogues. Barbara swung herself up onto the main deck
shouting like a demon, but her yells died in her throat as she looked up and
saw the cut throat of the helmsman, his nearly severed head lolling with the
sway of the ship. She stood there, transfixed, until a screaming ruffian
threw himself at her, fortunately missing her bound bosom.

He wanted to kill her! In all her life, nobody had tried to kill Barbara, and
here she was among men who fought against murderous adversaries for the work!
She grappled with him, and having dropped her cutlass, she tried to pry from
his grip the dagger that he wanted to plunge into her breast. She was falling
under the force of his thrashes, but her tenacity paid off - she had the
dagger in her hands, and he dove after it again. As he lunged forward, she
held it before her to ward him off, and she felt it rip through his skin.
Warm, sticky blood dribbled over her hands as the deck seemed to fall silent
but for the sounds right next to her ears: tearing flesh, a suffocated gasp,
and then the man's head was on her shoulder. He leaned forward, the dead
weight of his body slumping against her chest. She had no idea what to do,
but after standing that way for what seemed like ages, she stepped aside,
pulling the dagger from his heart and letting his body fall to the deck with
a thud that echoed in her ears. She killed him, and here was his heart's
blood still warm on her hands. On her hands. Did he have a wife somewhere who
was waiting for him? Or children, or other family? Her own blood turned to
ice beneath her skin, making her feel faint and sick.

The deck was indeed silent. The last of the pirates were dead, none of them
having given up during the desperate fight. Someone raised a cheer. Barbara
felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see two soft, comforting
brown eyes. If only she could lean into his arms, and find pity and comfort
in that action of weakness! But that was impossible. She looked at her body,
and saw that her shirtfront was covered in blood.

'I'm sorry. I didn't think it would come to this - ' thought Horatio.

to be continued -