A Most Unusual Mission
by Archer's Aim
  (August, off the coast of Gibraltar)

"Remind me again why we said we'd do this?" Archie Kennedy wondered aloud.

"I don't believe we said we'd do anything," Horatio Hornblower responded wearily. "In fact, I'm not even sure we really said much of anything in that meeting." Hearing Archie snort, he added patiently, "It's just a mission, Mr. Kennedy. We're undertaking a ­ most unusual -- mission for the Service."

Archie turned and stared at him in disbelief, then sputtered, "A mission? We're delivering a miniature MacDonald's Farm!"

Looking down into the open hold, filled with tiny, milling animals, Horatio sighed in agreement.

Sometimes he just didn't understand the way the world worked.(one month earlier)

Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower approached the Admiralty, trying to appear nonchalant, despite his inner excitement. Besides him, newly commissioned Lieutenant Archie Kennedy made no such attempt, but simply stared at the building looming before him. They had only just arrived in London, making a hasty trip in response to a summons from their captain, which read only, 'Meet me at Admiralty. Tuesday. Noon. Now move.'

"Archie, try not to gawk like a tourist, please," Horatio whispered out of the side of his mouth, "You're a lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy, now."

A quick smile flitted across Archie's face, then vanished. "I am," he happily agreed. "Well, let's see what Captain Pellew wants with us."

Entering the building, they politely asked a passing clerk where to find their captain.

"He's in that small meeting room just down from Admiral Hood's chambers," the clerk said brusquely, "now, I'm very busy so . . ." And off the clerk sped, leaving two confused lieutenants standing in the hallway.

"Been to Hood's office, lately, eh, Lieutenant Hornblower?" asked Archie, quirking an eyebrow at his friend.

"No, Lieutenant Kennedy, I have not," replied Horatio, adding in what he hoped was a confident tone of voice, "but how hard can it be to find Admiral Hood?"

An hour later, they were still wandering through the Admiralty's halls.

"We're lost ­ and late," announced Archie. Horatio thought it unfair that Archie sounded so cheerful. 'Really,' he thought, 'you'd think Hood was trying to hide.' Everyone they'd asked for directions sent them a different way. Horatio was fairly sure they'd already been down this particular corridor ­ twice.

"Well, you are late, gentlemen," a stern voice came from a nearby door, just barely ajar. "However, I believe you may count yourselves as finally found ­ now get in here!"

Horatio and Archie looked at each other, gulped and stepped inside.

To find their captain, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, seated across a narrow table, loaded with papers, from ­ Tapling?

No, Horatio saw, not Tapling ­ but someone of the same type. 'Stout, stubborn and full of his own importance,' Horatio mused, as he was introduced to Sir James William Hubert, a representative of the Foreign Secretary's Office.

"Gentlemen," he said in a hearty tone, as he eased his bulk back into the somewhat confining chair, "in view of the lateness of the hour, let me explain quickly the reason for meeting with you."

It seemed the Admiralty and the Army intended some type of action ­ Hubert was vague about the details ­ early next year against the French. In connection with the preparations, it had become important to learn certain details about the activities of the French in Spain. However, the British had a blind spot for which they had no clear information ­ "to be honest, we're a bit light on what we call assets in that region" ­ and needed to obtain information from someone living there. Someone above suspicion.

Which brought them to Don Ignacio de Montego. A very elderly gentleman living in that region, to whom everyone was devoted ­ "I've heard every villager calls him grandfather, can you believe that?"

A fine upstanding member of the Spanish aristocracy, who loathed the French, and would be happy to provide information, if suitably sweetened toward the British ­ "at some point in the past, someone in the diplomat core apparently ­ insulted ­ the gentleman's daughter."

And Hubert and his colleagues believed they had found the way. Montego was a collector of natural oddities ­ albino animals, rare plants ­ and had recently read a report about the Shetland Islands. And become fascinated by them.

"So, we're going to give him a gift from there," Hubert said cheerfully. "We went to Lord Morden, a former member of the diplomatic service, and requested his assistance. He now lives in the Shetlands."

Archie and Horatio looked at each other blankly. 'Where do we come in?' wondered Horatio.

Lord Morden, who had ties to Spain ­ "although we're fairly sure he's not the one who insulted the daughter" ­ was agreeable to providing anything his country needed. "Ninety if he's a day, and quite the storyteller, too!" Hubert whooped, clapping Pellew, seated next to him, on the back. "You should hear the tales he has about his son's best friend, this fellow here's father."

"Why, did you know that the senior Pellew once gathered up every rose around and gave them to the oldest spinster in the village for her birthday? Of course, she thought they came from the widowed squire . . ." And Hubert began laughing.

"Yes, well," Pellew said quickly, glaring at his lieutenants, who were trying to appear solemn, "I'm sure that's beside the point. Why don't you provide the details of this mission to my men."

"Yes, of course," chuckled Hubert, beginning to rummage through the pile of papers before him, pulling two items from the mess. "Gentlemen, your orders. Lieutenant Hornblower, I am assured you are just the man for this job. You are to take command of the Isabella, and deliver her cargo to my counterpart in Gibraltar. He will then transfer it to Don Ignacio. Lieutenant Kennedy, you will assist him in any way needed."

Horatio puffed with pride. A command! Even if temporary, still a command! Isabella. She sounded graceful, speedy ­ quite a ship. "Yes, sir. Uh, sir, may I ask the nature of her cargo?" Beside him, Kennedy, who had broken out into a huge smile, nodded as well.

Hubert looked a bit ­ peculiar. Almost embarrassed. "Why don't I let your captain explain further, back in Portsmouth. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting at the office . . .""It's another goddamned run-down cattle barge," Horatio said in disgust.

"Mr. Hornblower!" Captain Pellew roared. "It is a cattle barge, it definitely is a bit run-down, but NO SHIP in His Majesty's Navy is EVER damned by God!"

"Yes, Sir!" Both Horatio and Archie replied enthusiastically, with false smiles plastered on their faces.

Pellew sighed.

"I'm sorry gentlemen," he said unexpectedly. "This really wasn't my idea. Apparently, Sir James broached this plan in a meeting with Admiral Hood and several captains including, I regret to say, Captain Hammond. Who, hearing we were in harbor, was only too happy to recommend you, Mr. Hornblower, for this mission. As I understand it, Captain Foster was also present, and forced to admit that you had handled a cattle barge before, although he apparently was torn about recommending you for this mission. It is important, but I believe Foster protested that they could have found a better ship for the job." He sighed, then added, "I recommended you, Mr. Kennedy, once informed of the plan. At least that way, Mr. Hornblower will not be without friendly company in this mess." And, gesturing for the lieutenants to join him, he headed across the deck, where the three men peered into the open hold.

"What the hell!" yelped Archie.

"MR. KENNEDY!"

"Sorry, Sir. It's just ­ there's something wrong with these animals. They're . . . they've . . ."

"They've been shrunken," Horatio said disbelievingly, as he watched three-foot-tall horses and cows and two-foot-tall sheep wandering across the hold.

"Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said in the most sarcastic tone of voice Horatio had ever heard him use. "I can assure you, they've been no where near any 'headhunters' or anything else remotely close to the stories ignorant seamen tell impressionable young midshipman." Horatio blushed, and Pellew relented ­ a bit. "They're small because they've been bred to be small over several centuries. And that, apparently, is what fascinated the Don. The idea of perfectly normal ­ except for their size ­ animals. And we're sending him an entire boatload. Come, let's adjourn to the captain's cabin, where I believe your dunnage already awaits."

Once in the cabin, where Horatio had been touched to note Pellew had sent over some of his own stores, they reviewed the ship's 'cargo' manifest

1 bull, six cows, 1 stallion, 6 mares, 1 ram, 6 ewes, 2 roosters, 12 hens ­ and 2 sheepdogs.

"Enthusiastic, aren't they?" murmured Archie, listening to the dogs ­ who had not stopped barking the entire time since they'd come aboard.

"Quite," Pellew remarked. "I've seen these types of dog before ­ and I assure you, they rarely are quiet." Seeing Horatio wince, he questioned, "A problem, Mr. Hornblower?"

"No, Sir," Horatio replied, then added, "I just ­ don't like dogs."

"Ah," both Pellew and Archie said.

"Well," Pellew resumed his briefing, "I've transferred men from the Indy to Isabella, including your division, Mr. Hornblower. The Indy is also headed to Gibralter, where you will rejoin us after delivering your cargo. As your vessel is somewhat ­ slower ­ than the Indy, we may be on patrol when you reach port. So I anticipate that you will have to wait for us there for several weeks. I've arranged for what will undoubtedly be some well-earned shore leave during that time. Have a good trip, gentlemen." And turning, he headed back above deck ­ and back to the Indy, where both lieutenants would much rather have been. 

Archie and Horatio spent the next hour reviewing the ship. All in all, Isabella wasn't in bad shape ­ it was just that she was a cattle barge. She was in relatively good repair, her sails and lines were new, and her crew quarters had recently been cleaned. She was riding low in the water, because she was crammed to the top with feed, straw and water for the animals, but that situation would change, over time.

On a final point, Horatio saw that, because of the need for the cargo to arrive in perfect condition, the entire hold had been left open, so the animals could wander about and get some exercise. Which meant the Admiralty was sending Isabella to sea with no fresh food ­ no livestock for the men to butcher and eat. They would be dependent on preserved beef and biscuits the entire trip.

Horatio made a mental note to keep an eye on Styles and the chickens.(3 days out)

Things got interesting almost at once.

They'd maneuvered their way out of the harbor, not an easy thing to do, given that the Isabella handled like a sailor on a three-day drunk. Add to that the fact that they'd almost hit the Cormorant, a sloop that looked as if it had been pummeled in a storm, at the harbor entrance, when the Isabella suddenly decided to make an ungainly lurch to port. It hadn't been an auspicious start to the trip.

Then, their first full day out, they ran headlong into the storm, and it had poured rain all day and night. Horatio promptly got a cold. That was good in one respect ­ he could no longer smell the beasts in the hold ­ but bad in another ­ he was prone to headaches caused by excessive noise ­- and the dogs were still barking.

After another day, Horatio, who had never owned a dog, and frankly was a bit nervous around them, mentioned to Archie that something needed to be done about that part of the cargo. Archie placed the problem before Matthews.

And Matthews had the answer. Seemed he came from a shepherding family ­ "which seemed borin' ta me, sir, so I went ta sea at 16 and've ne'er looked back" ­ and had taken an immediate liking to the dogs, who began following him around the hold. He'd just spend some time with them, and they'd not be a problem, right?

But then the dogs ­ "herders are ver' clever animals, ya see, sir?" ­ figured out how to climb the short ladder out of the hold, and began following him on deck. Which led to . . .

"Dog overboard!"

"That's the third time today," Archie observed.

"Same one?" asked Horatio in a resigned tone.

"Yep," Archie said happily, "which means you owe me a pound."

And they both watched as Oldroyd took a spar, hooked it into the rope harness wound along the dog's body, and lifted him back on board, where he promptly splattered cold seawater on the crew, while his mate continued barking loudly.(9 days out)

Oldroyd had created the next problem.

The past few days, the crew had learned a few things about the animals. The chickens laid lots of eggs, which meant the hands at least got fresh eggs for breakfast. The cows tended to cluster in one spot and stare at you while they chewed. The sheep were dumber than dirt ­ 'or the Admiralty', Horatio thought ­ and would walk into you, knock you over, then try to walk over you.

But the horses held everyone's attention, especially Oldroyd's. He was amused by the tiny animals, each only three feet tall, and was happy to spend much of his time off duty grooming them. Horatio allowed him do so, since it kept the horses quiet.

But Oldroyd also was astonished by the amount of food those horses ate. Only half the size of a normal horse, they could ­ and did ­ eat twice as much as their larger cousins. Every day. And then would beg for snacks.

And Oldroyd wanted to know just how much food one of them could handle . . .

Horatio had been woken up late that night by the sound of running feet, headed for the hold.

"Sir!" Matthews said urgently, banging on his door, "Come quick, sir! One o' them horses is down!"

Horatio raced to the hold, where he joined Archie and half the crew in looking at a piebald mare lying on the straw and groaning.

"Colic," Archie said nervously.

"Huh?"

"Colic. She's eaten too much."

"And this is bad?" Horatio demanded, glaring at Oldroyd, who was close to tears.

"Very bad. She could die." Seeing the incomprehension on Horatio's face, and recalling that he knew next-to-nothing about horses, Archie explained, "Her intestines have stopped working. We need to get them going again, and the only way to do that is to ­ flush her out."

Horatio blanched at the thought of what that would mean, then said, "Archie, you grew up around horses, right?"

"Uh, right," Archie responded suspiciously.

"Good, then you're in charge," Horatio said, "I'll be on watch." And he hastily retreated from the hold. He stood on deck for the next half hour, listening while the men got the mare back on her feet, rigged a hose to one of the pumps ­ 'I'll not be using that one for any showers!' ­ and ­ administered the treatment.

He assumed it had been successful, and returned to studying the stars, trying to ignore the sounds from the hold ­ and the condition of the men returning to the deck.(15 days out)

The horse had recovered in the fullness of time, but Archie, covered in the mess made by the whole incident, had retreated to his cabin, changed, come back above deck, thrown his other uniform overboard ­ and stopped speaking to Horatio, except when on duty.

Meanwhile, the food had now reached the usual point of disgusting inedibleness. Horatio had been keeping a close eye on Styles for the last three days ­ and Styles had been keeping a closer eye on the chickens.

Things came to a head that afternoon.

"Styles!"

"Sir?"

"What's under your shirt, Styles?"

"Um, I've put on a bit o' weight, sir."

"Styles.'

"Sir?"

"Put the chicken back, Styles," Horatio ordered, wondering why he seemed to always be having this particular conversation.

"What chicken, sir?"

"The chicken under your shirt, man."

"I told ya, sir . . ."

"Styles, your stomach doesn't have flapping wings!"

Grumbling, Styles reached under his shirt, and pulled out a rumpled hen, much to the laughing delight of his shipmates.

"But sir," he began, as Horatio waited patiently, "it's just one bird, they'll never know . . ."

"Styles."

"It could'a flown away."

"Its wings are clipped."

"It could'a fallen o'erboard like those blasted dogs."

"Hey!" Matthews yelled.

"Styles . . ."

"Yes, sir, putting the chicken back . . ." and Styles went off clutching the chicken and grumbling about dagoes.(19 days out)

"Ya wanted ta see me, sir?" asked Matthews.

Horatio sighed. This whole voyage was not going according to plan. Archie was still not speaking to him, and after the chicken matter, Styles had taken to glaring at him.

"Yes, Matthews. The men seem to be getting a bit bored."

"Aye, sir, well, by no' we'd a'seen a bit o' action."

"And we're not likely to ­ I sincerely hope!" Horatio responded, then shook his head and continued, "We need something to entertain the men, to break up the boredom. I was wondering ­ do you think you could demonstrate how shepherding works?"

Matthews scratched his head in puzzlement. "Sir?"

"Maybe you could show us how the dogs would herd sheep, put them through their paces. It'd be something different to watch, and the animals would also get a bit of exercise."

The confusion on Matthews faced cleared. "Aye, sir, I can do that!"

And he had, the next day. Using the entire hold, he'd worked the dogs herding not only the sheep but all the animals (except the chickens, who sat in their pens and stared at Styles, who stared back).

The demonstration had been a great success. The dogs and animals got lots of exercise that day.

And the seamen got even more exercise the rest of the voyage, as the dogs, reminded of their purpose in life, continued trying to herd everything in sight ­ including the hands.

"Man ­ and dog ­ overboard!"

The hands had begun jumping overboard to avoid their heels being nipped. The dogs followed ­ presumably to continue herding the men in the right direction.

More than one hand had suggested to Mr. Hornblower that the dog ­ or dogs -- be left overboard. Matthews now kept the dogs with him constantly.(21 days out)

Styles' day had just gotten worse. "Hot, lousy food, no chickin', stinkin' ship" ­ and a lovesick bull that had pegged him as a rival ­ "ouch, damnit!" ­ for the herd's affections.

The bull ­ for reasons known only to bovine males ­ had identified Styles as a threat to his position, and decided he needed to be driven off. Equipped with a set of horns that would have done justice to an animal three times its size, the bull began using them on Styles every chance he got.

The hands got used to hearing the bull bellow a challenge, followed by Styles yelling in pain. Fortunately, the bull seemed content with one hit at a time ­ on Styles' backside. He'd already gone through five pairs of pants. The ones he currently had on seemed to have a bulge in the rear. After staring for a moment, Horatio realized that Styles had stuffed a second shirt into the pants ­ obviously trying to lessen the damage being inflicted on him.

Styles now headed below, where he was scheduled to help in the noon feeding.

A few moments later, the bull bellowed, and so did Styles.

"Goddamn it!"

Glancing below, Horatio saw the bull pawing at the straw and snorting ­ while Styles lay on his stomach, pants speckled with blood. As he watched, the bull snorted once more in amusement, turned and headed back to his adoring cows.

Styles climbed to his feet, rubbed his ­ ah, injury ­ and headed back up the ladder, undoubtedly heading for the surgeon's mate. As he passed Horatio, he was muttering about steaks . . . 

Horatio wondered if he should ask Matthews to have the dogs keep tabs on Styles.(25 days out)

Horatio stood on deck, enjoying the warmth of the sun after the storm that had soaked him during the previous watch, his drenched boat cloak draped over a nearly line.

His stubborn cold still refused to yield, so he couldn't be sure, but he had been told that morning, by Archie, Matthews, and at least half the hands, that the ship smelled worse than London's streets. Which meant, he knew, that it must really be bad.

Although the hands had regularly been pitching the manure overboard, some of it still remained in piles below deck. After more than three weeks, well . . . Horatio shuddered. He'd given orders to the men to thoroughly clean the hold and dump everything overboard.

"Everything, sir?"

"Styles, the bull stays."

Sigh. "Aye, aye, sir."

Horatio, standing on deck, watched as a young seamen took a pitchfork full of wet, steaming manure, and tossed it over the side. He pulled the pitchfork back toward him ­

And the drops of manure clinging to the tines blew up with a shower of sparks.

"Shit!" the seaman yelled as he landed on his back on the deck. And Horatio, realizing that he must be carrying a time bomb of fermenting manure in his hold, sprang into action. Within thirty minutes, the hands had erected temporary fenced-in pens on the deck, the animals had been hoisted up and placed in the pens ­ and the hands had begun, very carefully, to scrape together every drop of manure and gently lift it to the deck and over the side, under the supervision of Archie and Matthews.

Still, there had been a further series of explosions, as the oldest piles of manure reached the sea and went up in spectacular fireworks.

"If we could bottle that, we'd make a fortune," Horatio mused, picturing gaily-colored lights going off at celebrations.

"Really?" a dry voice said, as Archie walked up to him. "I realize you might not be able to smell right now, Lieutenant Hornblower, but trust me, you do not want that stuff exploding at the family picnic!"

Horatio looked at Archie, and despite himself, began grinning. "Can you see it being used at ­ say, Hammond's family picnic?"

Both men smirked at the thought.

Just then, chaos erupted on deck. As the last load of manure was sent overboard, to the accompaniment of a loud explosion, the sheep, which had been nervously trotting around in their pen, managed to knock one wall over ­ and took off toward the side of the ship, and the sea.

Matthews yelled a command, and both dogs, once again barking at full volume, ran after them, herding the sheep ­ and three seamen unfortunately standing nearby ­ toward Matthews.

The bull, observing the sheep ­ and more importantly, Styles standing inattentively next to his pen ­ backed up, charged the fence, and smashed it down. He promptly ran at Styles, bellowing loudly. Styles bolted past Horatio, and grabbed the cloak off the line. Turning, Styles began waving it at the bull, yelling for it to "back off, ya amblin' piece of roast!" as the bull steadily backed him toward the center of the ship.

As Horatio stared in shock, the sheep ­ and seamen ­ were driven between the two combatants by the yelping dogs, followed by the herd of horses, who had also gotten loose. Seeing a nearby opening (actually, the passageway leading toward the captain's cabin), the herd swerved and headed below deck.

Lowering his head, the bull charged Styles, who dropped Horatio's cloak to be trampled by the bull and shimmied up the mast.

And Archie lost it. He'd fallen over, and was now rolling around on the deck, laughing hysterically as Styles climbed the mast to escape the bull ­ who tried to gore the mast, then turned and left ­ after depositing a large present for Styles at the base. Meanwhile, the sheep and seamen had been returned to the pen by the barking dogs, hoof-beats and neighs sounded below deck, and 12 hens cackled at the tops of their formidable lungs while both roosters crowed wildly

And Horatio stood at attention on deck, desperately trying to appear in command.

Sitting up, Archie looked at the mast, then at Styles perched on the yard, and choked out, "I'm not volunteering to clean that up, sir!"

Then got up and staggered below deck, still giggling.

Seeing that several of his mates had managed to re-pen the bull, Styles clambered down. "Sir," he said weakly to Horatio.

"Styles, clean up that mess," Horatio ordered, then turned as Archie began yelling from below deck. "Help! Horatio! They're eating your log!"(30 days out, now safely in Gibraltar harbor)

"Thank you God, we're here!" Horatio breathed out.

"I thought you didn't believe in God?" Archie said, startled.

"I'll believe in anything if I never have to do this again," replied Horatio. "Well, let's report, turn over the ship and cargo, and get this whole ­ mission ­ over with."

Which was where the last problem arose.

No one they talked to ­ at the Admiralty's offices, at the Embassy, anywhere, knew about their cargo. The Indy was not in port. Both lieutenants were getting frantic at the thought they'd never be free of the Isabella. Finally, they were referred to the office of a Sir Rodney Armington, who listened to their story, then swore furiously.

"Didn't the Admiralty get my letter?"

"Letter, Sir?" asked Archie faintly.

"Yes, lieutenant, letter. I sent the Admiralty and the Foreign Office letters five weeks ago on the Cormorant, telling them we didn't need the damned animals anymore." 

Cormorant. The ship that entered the harbor at Portsmouth ­ as Horatio, Archie, the Isabella and her damned cargo left port.

"Oh, well, if they didn't get the letter, they wouldn't have known. Don Ignacio de Montego died a few weeks before you left Portsmouth. That's why we sent the letters. His son was educated at Cambridge, and he hates his sister, so he's only too happy to supply us with any information we want. So we don't need the animals, now."

"Sir," Horatio said desperately, while Archie tried ­ and failed ­ to suppress a moan, "what am I supposed to do with them?"

Looking at the two lieutenants sitting forlornly before him, Sir Rodney took pity on them.

"Well, ma' wife likes dogs, so we'll take them off your hands. And the horses as well . . . don't know if you've noticed, but we've had rather an explosion of families with small children in the area, and I'm certain they'd love to ride them."

"As for the rest of 'em, well, Mr. Hornblower, I rather think you and your crew deserve a bit of a feast, after hauling them all this way. Don't you?"

Horatio stared at Sir Rodney numbly, aware that, next to him, Archie was undoubtedly smirking.

"Yes, sir," he managed at last, thinking, 'Styles is just going to love this . . .'

End.

A/N ­ I have no idea how big (or small) animals are in the Shetland Islands, beyond the pony that stepped on my foot when I was six and the neighbor's Shelties (who really do bark a lot, but may not be typical of their breed). So I apologize for any factual errors. And, yes, the line about little horses eating twice as much as big ones is a nod to Seabiscuit ­ I love that horse, and the movie. Forgive me ­ I've spent two weeks listening to a neighbor's granddaughter trying to learn to sing Old MacDonald's Farm, and got it mixed up with Horatio and exploding manure and it's all the plot bunny's fault!