The Price of Steel
Part Six
by Lady Atropos

 

The Price of Steel, Part 6

DISCLAIMER: mostly CSF's, besides a few characters I made up, and some gimmicks I stole from Indiana Jones, some wooden spoons I stole from "The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood," and some Christmas cookies I stole from the kitchen. There are also some bits from "Beat to Quarters" that I twisted up a bit. Bit, bit, bit, bit, bit

"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"

The sentry, after his one curious glance, dashed off to the sickbay. In a brief pang, Barbara remembered the footman at the inn at Kingston; his rigid blindness, followed by his dutiful obedience. Were their equivalent responses due to her birth really, or simply her composure? She disregarded the thought as she fought to support the captain, who was awakening.

When Horatio opened his eyes, he saw that same female face above his. This was all a rather strange position. He wondered what it was doing there; then he felt the arms underneath his back, and the deck underneath his bottom, and realized that he must have fainted. From what? The sort of draining illness that he was particularly prone to-he knew that overworking himself only made him ill, but instead of using that knowledge to prevent the sickness, he merely chastised himself for not being stronger. He tried to get up on his own. He could not. Barbara placed a slender hand on his forehead, pressing him back onto her knee. The pillow of her lap was soft and warm, and he let himself slip away again into exhaustion for one moment before attempting to rise again. She would not let him.

"Sir, you should wait 'til the surgeon gets here. I cannot lift you and you can't get up, so we will wait here. Don't strain yourself any further." Her tone was gentle but firm. She was nervous with him in this condition, but she would be damned before she let anyone see it, much less this Hornblower fellow.

"I will get up! I don't need you hereand don't call me 'sir,' you fool!" He was piqued at her obvious supposition that he had strained to get up, though he knew it was true. He immediately regretted calling her a fool. It was not her fault-hell, it *was* her fault, but she didn't deserve that name. He should have exposed her earlier on, and given her the help that she obviously needed. Instead he let her fend for herself, and now he knew nothing about her and probably had lost her trust already.

"II apologizeMiss, hm, Wells," he offered pathetically.

"Not at all." Not at all Wells? Or no apology needed? Instinctively she brushed one of his locks of brown hair off his forehead. She brought her hand back as the surgeon entered at last. Honer, the sawbones, found the captain and crewmember's attitude slightly puzzling, but his confusion was pushed aside as he began to make ready to lift the man into his cot.

"Steady, there, on the count of three, we'll swing 'im up" Honer brushed Barbara aside as he took position with his arms under Hornblower's armpits. Another loblolly boy resumed at Horatio's legs, grasping the ankles firmly. Horatio yelped at that contact, and the loblolly boy shifted concernedly to Horatio's knees instead. The sentry lay down his cumbersome rifle and made ready to support his captain's back. "One, twothree, steady, boys!" With a humph, Hornblower was swung up and over onto the cot. He gazed up at the three men who had done him this service, a look of regret in his eyes. It did absolutely nothing to better his mental state to know that he had needed the help of three other crewmembers simply to get into bed. He tried to raise himself once more, but this time he had Barbara, the sentry, Honer and his loblolly boy to push him back into the pillows. To any outsider, it would have been most comical to see the way all four of them dashed at him collectively to restrain him from such a simple effort.

"Ithank you, um, ha-h'm," was all he could offer. The sentry tried to fight back a silly grin. The loblolly boy didn't even make that attempthe hadn't learned discretion yet.

"Aw, 'twas no problem, sah, youm be a featherweight!" The pipsqueak yelped out excitedly. The sentry broke down, but fought valiantly to suppress his giggles in front of his captain. Honer gave the boy, Jenson, a smart box on the ears, and Jenson yelped once again. The company fell into an awkward silence, despite the still giggling sentry, who strode out to his post at the door soon. Barbara looked expectantly at Honer. He was the surgeonhe should be able to do something for the captain, shouldn't he?

"ErmI'll go back to the dispensary to see what I can hunt up. Uhin the meantime, I think we should keep this closed" He walked swiftly, for his gelatinous bulk, to the casement, and shut it. "I allus knew that sea air would do him in summat bad one daynot healthy, 'tis." With that he made his exit, followed in his train by the subdued Jenson, still sorrowfully rubbing his ears. Barbara watched them go, good-natured smile fading from her lips.

"Um, sir, if you will excuse me" She leaned over him and opened the window once more. Both of them took a moment to inhale the warm Caribbean sea air.

"Thank you kindly." His brown eyes glittered up mischievously at her uncomprehending visage.

"That man, the surgeon"

"Honer. Has no idea what he's doing. I knowmost of them don't. Anyone can be a surgeon in the royal navybe they really a carpenter or a butcher. Or a clever alcoholic. The loblolly boys are generally likewiseonly, they are here to learn carpentry, or how to butcher, or how to steal booze."

"Who takes care of the men, then?"

"The men take care of the men. They just need a man who can saw off limbs and occasionally procure laudanum and a quiet hammock."

"What if they get sick?"

"The biggest threat of sickness actually comes from shore leave. The ship alone is shaded by a comfortable immunity. Shore-leave brings about all manner of contagious diseases from bad food, dirty streets and loose women. Ha-h'm." Strange how this specter had drawn him out of his melancholy with such a mundane conversation. Horatio was glad he had caught himself in time, lest he get carried away with talk. He always regretted the way he allowed himself to get lost in conversing so easily; he found himself continually losing the constant struggle to keep his own mouth shut.

Honer re-entered, his boy Jenson laden with a corrupt-looking bottle. The label had long faded, and the glass was cloudy and crusted on the inside.

"Sir, I believe it may be prudent if you were to take some o' this." Jenson proffered a miniscule horn cup that he hastily filled with the vile liquid. Just as the ship pitched, Jenson slopped a considerable dose onto the deck, releasing a bitter, putrid smell into the cabin.

"Do you even know what it is, Mr. Honer?" Hornblower reproached acidly.

"Well, sir, I think it was a, um, a tincture of, or that mixture ofum"

" 'Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,' Mr. Honer?"*

"Sir?" Honer failed to recognize the Shakespearean allusion. Hornblower had guessed as much would be his response.

"Leave it for me, man, I'll see to taking it presently. That's an order."

"Aye, aye, sir." Honer gratefully fled the scene. After he and Jenson had comfortably rounded the corner, Barbara reached across Horatio once more, grabbed the horn cup from his hand and chucked the contents out the conveniently open window.

"Well, Hornblower, that open window just seems to be getting better and better for your health," she remarked playfully, amiably clapping her hand on his nearby ankle.

Down one deck and halfway across the ship, in the dispensary, Honer sprayed an entire mouthful of "medicinal-purposes only" brandy onto his boy Jenson upon hearing a low, harsh scream of pain. The two looked slowly at each other, the inebriated sawbones and the soaking apprentice, and then simultaneously at the dispensary door.

"Sir, um, perhaps we should check on the captain"

"Jenson, my *dear* boy, one of the things you learn in the naval medicinacle busy-nessss, when you've been around just about as long as meself," drawled Honer, "is that in sitchi-ations such as the like o' this one, you pertend it never happened. We ain't hearin' nothin down here, me boy."

Back in the stern cabin, however, Barbara was gingerly lifting the edge of Hornblower's trouser cuff.

"It's merely a bruise, I implore you" Hornblower knew that he probable hurt his ankle in his awkward tumble to the deck, but admitting it would only compound the proof that he saw plainly telling him that he was totally unfit to lead the 'Retribution.' He didn't need this woman, especially, to know just how weak he really was.

"It is not 'merely a bruise,' Captain Hornblower, and I suggest you let me take a closer look at it before you exacerbate it by pacing around on it. Don't think I don't know you will." It did look serious indeed; the entire ankle was swollen and a nasty purple color all around. "This will need a splint. Stay right there, I'll be right back." Barbara dashed out of the cabin, following her own initiative dutifully, leaving Horatio before he could retort that he hadn't been planning on going anywhere.

When Barbara appeared, like a wraith, at the dispensary door, Jenson was in the process of wiping alcohol off his features. Barbara gave him a disapproving look.

"You know, you really shouldn't, that stuff is for the sick." She pushed aside Honer, who was leaning on the supply cabinet, and threw the doors open wide. All she found were some more tiny horn cups, rolling freely on the third shelf, a couple more unlabeled medicine bottles fitted into a rickety wooden case without a top, a heap of rags, some rolled and others not, and an opened bottle of brandy. 'Strange,' she thought, 'that we have barely been on this vessel for a few weeks, and though I don't recall any serious sickness, the bottle of brandy is over half consumed' She glanced again at the rags.

"What are these for?"

"Bandages, Wells, and you will address me as 'sir.'" With a jolt, Barbara realized that none of the other men knew who she really was yet. She had to act fast to reassert her guise.

"Aye, sir, sorry, sir. I shall be needing some of these."

"Take them, then, Wells, but quickly if you must. Go ahead." Barbara selected four long, hardy canvas strips and rolled them up carefully before tucking them under her arm, saluting, and exiting.

"Sir, shouldn't we be taking care of that?" inquired an anxious Jenson.

"Jenson, have I not taught you anything? If there's someone else what'll do yer job for you, and's better at it, and won't take yer credit away, you let 'em do it for you."

While in the dispensary, Barbara had also cast about for any material for a splint, but unfortunately, though not surprisingly, found them wanting in that respect. She stood for a moment pondering in the passageway, when suddenly the idea hit her. She turned her steps toward the galley.

"I understand, but it is important that I have these. It is in consideration for our Captain. Sir, please, you must"

"Alright, fine, but you make sure they make it to the Captain. I'll have no mucking about with my stores." Finally, the purser handed the items over to Barbara. She carried them under her arm, alongside the bandages, back to the stern cabin.

"What are *those* for?" Inquired Hornblower incredulously, indicating with a shake of his head the trophies under Barbara's arm. In particular, he puzzled over the meaning of the two objects she had procured from the purser.

"I'm going to make you a splint. You still shouldn't put all your weight on this foot, but at least by the time you regain your strength you be able to walk about a bit. Here, stay still." With that, she whipped the four bandages and two wooden spoons out from under her arm. She laid the wooden spoons along each side of the injured calf, with the wide side pointed down towards the heel, and then unrolled one of the canvas rags.

"Ready, now this may hurt a little" Laying the loose end of a rag along the middle of his calf, she grasped his leg and gently lifted it to pass the bandage under the whole package. Hornblower suppressed another cry, though the strangled bit of it that escaped was a little higher in pitch than he would have been comfortable with. He cleared his throat. Barbara paused with the bandage hanging from her hand.

"Sir, if you feel any discomfort at all, feel free to simply 'ha-h'm,' and help will be on it's way." Hornblower turned his head away from her towards the bulkhead; he knew she was jesting, but her words pointed out to him that he was acting faintly ridiculous. Barbara realized the import of what she had said.

"Captain, I beg your forgiveness"

"There is none that needs to be granted, Miss Wells." Although he turned his head to face her once more, neither of them made another sound until the splint was completed. Barbara stepped back to admire her work.

"I have to admit, I do think it is unique," she remarked, trying to re-establish the previous light tone. "I've read many an account of explorers and adventurers abroad, and I've certainly heard of splints being made out of hewn branches, or broken tent poles, or even animal bones, but I've *never* heard of one being made out of wooden spoons."

"I'm sure it is entirely particular to you, Miss Wells," he replied, just a little dismally. He was sinking fast into the quagmire of one of his black moods again, and he ate at himself when he realized that Barbara was trying to cheer him up. She leaned a little further back, to get a different angle at her handiwork, when an unexpected pitch of the ship sent her, gasping, in a heap on top of him. She lifted her face off from on his chest, one arm on either side of his torso, her visage hanging above his.

Without being aware at first, he kissed her.

Neither of them could close their eyes. They were too close, and it surprised them. All that Barbara was aware of was his enlarged brown eyes filling hers so beautifully, encircling her vision. Then she felt his breath escaping past her cheek, and then his lips caressing hers softly, gently. No, his lips were on her neck, and she felt, with a shiver, his long-fingered hand sliding up over her back. Here were his curls in her hands; how was this happening? She trembled a bit, and felt a limp inability to push him away spread through her limbs; her weakness sent her cascading easily from the grasp of his long fingers with the next heave of the "Retribution's' stern.

She thumped onto the deck hard on her arse.

She couldn't tear her eyes from his, though. They remained, separated but for a glance, for an endless moment, their eyes wide and unblinking. With no idea what was to be done next.

to be continued

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* Quote from Hamlet, III, ii, 269