The Price of Steel
Part Five
by Lady Atropos

 

The Price of Steel, Part V
by Lady Atropos
same disclaimers, synopsis, and rating as previous parts
Archive: yes
Feedback: yes, please, whatever ya want to say-HindyVt@aol.com or whatever's convenient for you TY ;-D

*Part 5*

"Northin' good can come ourt o' it."

"A stowaway getting' in our way, cap'n's taken a likin' for all sorts o' queer folk"

"What'll ya say now, that we can go 'bout doin' what we pleases, and he won't move an inch ta stop us? We're home free, boys!"

"I 'ear high 'n mighty commander's afraid o' floggin's!"

"Shut up, you know nothin' about it at all, any of you. You shoulda seen 'im wid me on the ol' 'Renown!' Not a muscle, not a muscle on 'is face moves, lads, as he slices through this ol' bugger Dago whose tryin' to take our ship, while the first Leftie is asleep! I wouldn't be here if it weren't for our cap'n, and he'll give you a right floggin' if he sees the reckonin's true, so you keep your lips tight with your talk of cavortin' about like he's not seein' you!"

"Fine, fine, but this newie lad we should, er, get ta know him better, lads, eh?"

"Ha, I catch yer drift, heh"

"You see that you give him no trouble, lads. Cap'n said"

"Aw, don't worry, he's safe wid us, we just want to *talk* a little, you see, discuss some of the happenin's what brought 'im into our grateful presence we allus knew you was a softie, anyway. You wouldn't dare spoil our fun, now, would you?"

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

Dressing is a complication in itself that is peculiar to ships in general. There's little space, of either length, breadth, or height in most typical compartments or enclosures below decks; then the singular occupation of pulling on a pair of trousers while the platform on which you stand is continually trying to shake you off your feet brings to mind bizarre forms of medieval torture by humiliation. Not to mention that even the most fool-proof method designed by the minds of geniuses to tackle these difficulties falls to pieces when the executor is trying to conceal her sex at the same time.

Barbara crawled at last into her hammock slung in the eighteen inches of space between two other men that she had a feeling she would get to know well soon. She bore a few more bruises than she had at the start of the day, and a couple in addition to the ones she had before she came down to her hammock for her off-watch. She had four hours of sleep to look forward to, and she savored the thought, after intervals throughout the day of four hours of intense work on watch, seceded by four hours of trying to process what she had just learned. She had washed her old beggar's shirt at the beginning of the two hour, first dogwatch at the ever gentle urgings of Cramil ("Clean that up and be decent, you dirty shirker! Twpsyn, these news ones, hurtyn pawb) She could never understand the bosun's demands on her-he told her to do one thing, and she did it, and he reprimanded her for completing that task when she should be starting another! This all led to a well of frustration directed at the chain of Navy discipline in general, and at Cramil specifically. Her anger was finally unlashed when she tried to peel the soiled slop-chest shirt off her back and climb into the hammock unnoticed-she need not worry too much about being seen, in the half light of the hammock banks, but she didn't want to draw too much attention to herself, either. The problem here was that the two men on either side of her were already snoring, or were snoring before she fell against them as she crashed to the deck following her first attempt at mounting a swinging hammock. Those two angry old salts glaring at her made her feel awkward, not to mention that she was shirtless, with one thin petticoat covering the secret that could ruin her. It was the greatest state of undress that she had been in, in public. Her "hammock partners" were the sole observers of this fantastic epiphany. Baggy trousers, petticoat, and all, Barbara meekly grasped the edge of her hammock again, and prepared herself for another attempt. She couldn't go all night without sleeping, after all-though the idea did cross her mind.

However, she never got as far as lifting her feet off the deck. A tough hand grasped her ankle.

"Come on boy, too early fer bed, ain't it? Yer comin' ter meet me lads"

She looked at the leering face of her captor. He was bent in two, stooping under the hammocks, and he crawled thus to the companionway, dragging Barbara in his wake. He unbent at the hatchway, and Barbara made to dash out on deck, even despite her lack of clothes, rather than be taken to God knows where by this sinister-looking trouble maker. He seemed to have other plans, though.

"Come on, me boys won't bite well, maybe just nibble a little, heh"

She was harshly shoved in the direction of the hatchway, where two other grizzled men awaited to toss her down into the murky isolation of the hold. No one could find them there. Barbara was fortunate enough to land in a crouching position on her feet, otherwise, had she been knocked out, God knows what would have been done to her then, or what they would have found out about her.

Two more toadies were ready to twist her arms behind her back, and held her that way until the other three had a chance to leap down and join them. The original one that pulled her from her hammock seemed to be their ringleader; he bossed the others around, with an evil grin plastered on his face. Barbara recognized him in the light that filtered down from the hatchway as Lawnes, a man who, reputedly, had plotted in his previous ship to overthrow the officers, though he was never caught. Those were just stories told to her by the more kindly of the men on her watches, though.

"Now you relax," he said, his voice dripping with oiliness and mock politeness, "and we're just gonna ask you a few questions about yereself."

Barbara thrashed against her constraints, bringing chuckles to the throats of the men who held her arms against her feeble writhing.

"First o' all, we'd like ta know just how ya got yerself in among us, lad. I wanna hear you life's story, and you're gonna give it to us, ya understand?" He leered in a little closer, peering into her panic-filled eyes. "But o' course, me an' me boys are only interested in certain details" He looked down. "Ah, let's start wid yer apparel" His grimy, black-scarred hand strayed dangerously close to her torso. "An' what would this be, eh?"

Barbara's heart was hammering, her senses whirling in the unfamiliar surroundings, and she dug her nails into the hands of the men who held her wrists, in a desperate attempt to maintain her mind. "It's a shawl. From my Mam." Better to give an answer now than to find out what would happen if she didn't. After all, it didn't need to be truthful.

The men around her burst out in hysterics, blown away by her abrupt, simple, humiliating response. The men holding her arms loosened up, and she dragged her wrists free from their weakened grip. Leaning backwards against a cask of salted meat, she threw her head back and laughed with them. Out of the corner of her eye, Barbara saw the man Lawnes approach, his narrow, pitted rat face red and the grin still spelled out all over his features.

"So, you think you can make a laughing stock o' me, eh, you little maggot, I ought to have asked a fine upstanding kiss-ass like you a better question, eh?" Lawnes asked this with a chuckle in his voice, like he was carrying on the joke; he had an interesting punch line in mind, indeed. Barbara gasped as his elbow came into swift, hard contact with her stomach. She dropped to her knees, the breath knocked out of her lungs.

"Com'n, get up an' fight like a man, ya little girly!" She thought in one brief, ironic moment that the word "girly" wasn't really an insult to her considering that she really was one. Well, not that girly. She curled her fingers around the rim of a nearby cask, and drew herself up slowly. Lawnes watched with a sneer on his visage, and knocked her down again just as soon as she was on a level with him. The rest of his cronies were gathered in a circle around him, and an eerie silence fell over they who had just been laughing. Barbara got up once more, letting out a ragged gasp at the pain in the middle that it caused her.

This time, however, she swerved to the side when Lawnes swung at her. Bringing her own fist up, she knocked him one on the jaw, that made the joint crackle and his head swing wildly in the other direction. Her face lengthening, she shook out her hand; that had hurt her, too!

Lawnes turned and gazed stupidly at her for a second as he realized that his victim had hit back. Barbara shuffled a little nervously. "Ha-h'm, well, you see, my brother Richard taught me that one summer. This is the beginning of my life's story, by the way." She ducked none too gracefully as the gnarled fist of Lawnes flew by, barely brushing her cheek. She scrambled up again, caught up in her own insolence and an adrenaline rush. "I grew up in London, where he taught me this as well." She dug her sharp fist into his other cheek, wincing at the contact with the hard bone as she did so. She turned briefly and rested her head on a barrel, nursing her aching knuckles. Lawnes grabbed her from behind, and pulled back his arm, winding up for the killer punch as his eyes glinted with revenge.

"However, this is one that I taught to my brother." Lawnes doubled up on the deck with a grunt as Barbara brought her knee down. Dashing hurriedly while the gang were watching in awe, she got away from them and out of the hold.

She and Richard had had some good times.

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

Lady Callowright could not sleep that night. The groans of the pitiful remains of men in the orlop were enough to disturb even the most stolid of personalities. Callowright was separated from them by a mere canvas curtain, and with every sense alert, she had a lot to disturb her. That infernal pin! It would not leave her mind.

She was half mad with this delirious dream that her life had become. A nightmare was what it really was. Barbara! She had put her into this mess! Where was her cunning, conniving Barbara to get her out again?! Stupid, stupid girl!

Lady Callowright rose. Her bravery had long left her. When she had made her desperate plea to Carroll to rid herself of the pin, her strength to hold back her fear dissolved. She was no more than a trembling, raving distraction to any who wished to work on the ship. Soon she would be just as bad a distraction on the 'Retribution,' where she was to go tomorrow. She wanted to rejoin the convoy that had sailed away from them, she wanted to be with Lady Wellesley and submit humbly to her cruel husband again. It would have been easier than this hell on her own here.

Damn Wellesley!

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

Hornblower sat at his desk, secure in his cabin all alone. No one could see his face; no one could read his thoughts. He was completely unaware of the scuffle his masquerading girl had just participated in; he was not completely unaware of the late hour, but he disregarded any ideas of turning in as weakness. He must find a solution to the problem on the 'Cascade.'

If too few of the men had survived, 'Cascade' would not be able to sail. It was his duty to do everything in his power to aid them at least in attempting to reach their destination. He must let some of his own men go; or otherwise, he would have to take the remaining crew of the 'Cascade' on as passengers. He vaguely disliked both alternatives.

He rose, not for the first time that night, and paced his cabin again in that curious circular way that the size of it permitted. He paced, his head bent low and his tousled curly hair hanging over his eyes and high forehead, pacing until the night was through and dark stains had formed underneath his eyes, not thinking of anything in general but trying to rid his mind of the awful cobwebs that he vehemently hated. By the time the low grey clouds became stained with a definite smatter of pink, he had still reached no conclusions. His brain hammered in his skull, and he tore his heart out reprimanding himself cruelly for not being able to focus. It was as if an unknown demon plagued him, completely outside of his control, and it tickled his raw nerves until his thoughts broke down under the pain. Damn the heat! He wished to God he could rip his eyes out if it would only relieve the frustration of fruitless searching for a solution.

His cheeks were hollow with care, and his eyes were bloodshot. His head was uncombed, and his brown curls danced in the wind. Large, dark, melancholy eyes gazed half despairingly at the ocean over the weather side. His cheeks were unshaven, and bore last night's stubble to deepen the shadows under his high cheek bones. This was the face that he presented on appearing on deck. He pulled the mask over his face once more, though his features still betrayed a lack of sleep, and his eyes retained a half wild look.

"Good morning, Mr. Bush," he said steadily.

"Good morning, sir." Bush cast Hornblower a sidelong glance. He had come to know that look of concealment, but he had never seen it so grotesquely disfigured by this lurking uneasiness beneath his commander's eyes. Bush was concerned for his commander, and he did not know it, but he was uneasy too. Something had to be done. Today. The dark cloud of the slaughter of the pirates hung over the place, and the longer they stayed, the closer the ghosts of the dead men seemed to be gliding towards the surface of the sea. It is a sailor's horror to be kept in a haunted sea. Something must be done before they become restless.

"Sir?"

Horatio saw finally the total lack of hope for salvaging the 'Cascade' with no men to sail her. "Mr. Bush, we shall send a boat over to the 'Cascade.' Pick up any and all survivors to be brought back on board the 'Retribution.' We shall sail them back to England ourselves." Damn this heat! He felt unsteady on his feet. "Ha-h'm. I shall retreat below." He did just that, leaving Bush to stare, puzzled and worried, at his friend's back.

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

Barbara had not slept that night, after all. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her sunburned cheeks were pale underneath their tan, and hollow with a hidden care. Her stomach hurt with a gut-wrenching, steady ache, and not from the motion of the waves; the pain was concentrated on two swollen, lividly greenish grey bruises just above her waist. Cramil, not being as entirely heartless as he tried to lead Barbara to believe, saw her usually erect figure hunched over a bit, and made the perfectly natural assumption that she was sick.

"Here, lad, fake out these lines so they're ready for heaving the launch back in." And then, sotto voce, "It'll be good for yew; just work through it, we all get it a' one point or another, even if we all don' fess up to it." Barbara was taken aback by his sudden friendliness, and was about to make the stupid mistake of pretending that nothing was wrong when she was saved by the sight of the launch pulling back from the 'Cascade.' Carrying Lady Callowright.
"Well, get to it then" Barbara paused too long, and Cramil's friendly patience was waning. Barbara could not let herself be seen by Callowright; all of her plans would be flown to pieces if the Lady saw her and called her bluff. She must remain hidden from the noblewoman as long as Callowright was on board, and being seen hoisting in the launch with the men would not be the ideal time to get caught. An idea hit her then, with Cramil's less congenial prompting. She bent over agonizingly for one more second, then darted to the larboard side, where she leaned over and squealed out dramatic retching noises.

Cramil shook his head resignedly. "Alright, get ye below then; off to the sickbay fer yew, an' the surgeon'll give yew something to make yew right again" Cramil was uncomfortable at seeing his little protégé, scrawny as the lad was, sick, and waved Barbara away with a sideways flap of his large hand. "Com'n, get ye down below" Barbara looked her gratitude at him, and then fled below.

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

Bush watched as Horatio's fledgling crewmember dashed away from sight. "Well, there's one thing the two of them have in common," thought the lieutenant, though he held no hard feelings against either for getting sick, or for concealing their motives. Actually, he did feel a whisper of resentment in the back of his mind telling him, "You could have been on the 'Cascade' too, you could have fought and killed, but he didn't let you come. It's his fault." Bush mistrusted that whispering demon. He thought back to the morning when the affair with the pirates had started; the rush of blood pounding in his ears, the orders rasping in his throat, his excited report to his commander that there was trouble on one of the other ships. Navy life had taught him to be patient, and had taught him not to get his hopes up. Still, he could not help but feel disappointed when Horatio had told him he needed to stay on the ship. He could hear the cries of battle as he stood on the quarterdeckwhy didn't he let him come, too? Bush had felt like a child that morning who was told that he was not allowed to come to the park one day as punishment for some unidentifiable crime. What had he done that warranted this punishment? "You could have been there"

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

Barbara stumbled through the murky darkness of the 'tween decks, unsure of what to do. She clattered up against the surgeon's door, but could not bring herself to enter. That was a place for people who were really sick; she could neither bring herself to stay there, nor imbibe any foul potion the surgeon had concocted for the weak-stomached person she pretended to be. She had done a horrible thing, playing off Cramil's kindliness towards her to get out of a tough situation free. She could not enter the sickbay, but she knew that somehow Cramil would eventually find out that she had not reported there. She wandered through the gloom a little farther, and found herself, to her dull surprise, stooping in front of the captain's door. There was one way out of her trouble now. She knocked, timidly at first, but with a rising intention behind her motions.

"Come."

Barbara panicked, the bulkhead spinning in front of her puzzled eyes, before she steadied herself and entered. Now was the time to swallow her pride, and try desperately to straighten the mess that she had created with her own foolhardy decisions. She swayed a little with the passing of a wave under the ship; there was a drawn-out silence between them. She looked up at her commander, or rather, the commander; she was drawn up as tall and rigidly as she could be with the low deck beams, and her growing panic caused a slight, lingering feeling of genuine sickness.

The commander was hunched over his desk, more bedraggle-looking than Barbara had expected. He certainly didn't look like that man that could make everything right again; however, it was in his power to do so. Or, at least, Barbara clung to the hope that maybe he could salvage order from this circus she had created. Her voice was husky, and she paused often, as she asked for the one thing she thought she would never need in her grand scheme of things.

"Sir, I am in trouble, and and I need your assistance."

He rose with a slow, agonizing motion.

"Who are you?"

"I am a woman. Let's start there."

"I know that already." It was Barbara who was shocked by this simple statement, rather than the commander, whom she had assumed would have been in the dark.

"Was was I that transparent?"

"Probably not. Most of the other men on this ship would not have considered the possibility simply because it was so ridiculous. You are right-you do need my help." He looked right into her eyes, frankness blazing like a solid thing from his face onto hers. His mind's clarity seemed heightened, oddly enough. It was not a pleasant sensation, though.

Barbara did not feel uncomfortable under his steady stare. She returned it with a fiery will to sort things out once more. Her sharp independent spirit was riled up again with the necessity to ask a favor. She defied her very own action with the angst that she felt at being forced to carry it out.

"The people from the 'Cascade,' how long are they staying?" Her blue eyes flashed out at his deep brown ones; he did not seem impressed, yet at the same time she could see he lacked the fire that she held. He looked lack-luster, like a person on the verge of a great illness, or one just emerging from one.

"You are not in a position to ask questions. Who are you?"

"I am Barbara" The blocks clattered topsides; the launch was being hauled in; the 'Cascade' passengers must be on board by now. Hornblower would be expected to receive them soon, or risk being impolite.

"Barbara what?"

"Barbara Wells. Sir."

Half-formed thoughts, the ones that disturbed Horatio the most, played a game of cat and mouse in his muggy mind. A snippet of a rumor he had heard before leaving port; his strange dream of the pale girl leaning over his face; a familiar name that he could not place Bush was calling from the quarterdeck, orders to finish the securing of the launch. His absence on deck must be felt by now in this, the awkward abandonment of all hope for the 'Cascade.' In a moment, Bush would be concerned and send down a messenger to request his presence. The mists before his eyes closed in at last, leaving nothing but as lingering glimpse of the passionate youth standing in front of him, a decidedly feminine face indeed. It was a wonder no one saw it in her. He crumpled to the deck, unconscious.

"Sentry, sentry!" Barbara called, her once clear and forceful voice now cracking in a new surge of panic as she struggled with the prone figure of the commander, an arm under his shoulders, trying to pull him into an upright position. "Sentry!" Finally, the puzzled marine peeked around the door. "Sentry, fetch the surgeon. There's something wrong with the captain"

to be cont'd