Archie Kennedy returned to consciousness like a diver returning to the surface of a sea churned to a maelstrom. The world around him seemed to buzz and bubble. His mind seemed hesitant to fully embrace wakefulness. He was assaulted by strange sounds and smells. His mouth was completely dry.
Pain throbbed through his head, through his body coalescing into sharp points at strategic locations, his shin, his ribs, all over his head. Slowly, impressions cascaded through his mind. The warm weight on his chest was his own right hand. He paused, suppressing the urge to move anything but his eyelids. He opened his eyes slowly and concentrated on pulling his focus to bear on his right hand. His fingers were swollen, reddened, the skin split over the knuckles. He'd been brawling, obviously. Obviously he'd come off worst.
Someone had stripped him of his shirt. He could feel nothing but skin under his hand and when he tilted his chin sideways to look down at his feet (he couldn't lift his head for any money) he felt his own breath unimpeded on his shoulder. He saw also that he was shoeless and appeared to be only wearing one stocking. He decided to let the significance of this wait until he had gleaned a little more information about his surroundings. Whitewashed plaster walls. Hard-packed dirt floor. There was an odd quality to the light. He turned his head ever so slightly even though it made his eyes screw shut with pain. Bars on the windows.
Something ..some quality of the air and the light told him that it was very early morning. Surely, one of the sounds that had woken him was a cock crowing.
He was slumped on a cot that appeared to be composed of canvas ticking stuffed with what he presumed was straw. However, it smelled strange and was lumpy in a way that even the most abused straw tick would not be. He had to make a physical effort to stay conscious while his brain pondered the nagging problem of the cot?s mattress. He noted that the cot had a twin that rested against the far wall. The sun slanted across the upper half leaving the lower in shadow.
If he squinted slightly, he could see that the other cot was also occupied. The occupant was tall, slender and pale where his uniform coat and waistcoat were also missing. His head was turned to face the wall, doubtless shielding his eyes from the piercing sun. Archie could see nothing but his dark curly hair, pulled back into a club that was slowly working its way loose.
When all these impressions came together in his mind, he sat up so violently that his brain seemed to vibrate in his skull and as he fainted again just the whisper of thought penetrated his panic.
God help me. I'm back in Ferrol.
“Archie wake up.” The words were accompanied by a gentle shake to his shoulder. Archie sat up and immediately began to retch, violently heaving the liquid contents of his stomach onto the floor beside the cot. The pain he felt as his head was rocked by spasms warred with the realisation that that was not the voice he had been expecting. Instead of Horatio’s exasperated pleading, he was hearing the calm, cool tones of Lieutenant Bush. Their manner was as different as their tones. Horatio would have infused his command with a sense of urgency; Bush seemed on the edge of indifferent. Had he been having one of his fits? He felt wary. Was he simply dreaming? It seemed his own mind was likely to betray him.
Bush was holding his shoulders in a manner that suggested he had done so many times before and Archie drew comfort from the fact that if Bush was perhaps slow to exhibit emotions like exuberance, camaraderie and sympathy, he was also slow to evince expressions of fear, anxiety and disgust. When he had stopped vomiting, Bush simply patted him, like he would a nervous horse and rose slowly to his feet. Archie fell back onto the cot, limp with reaction and relief.
“What happened?” he was too ill to feel ridiculous posing this ridiculous question.
Bush looked pained. “I was hoping that you could tell me.”
“Where are we?” Now that he had had a moment to pull himself together and really focus on Bush, he regretted his harsh tone. Bush’s face was pale under his tan and what Archie had taken to be shadows of exhaustion under his eyes turned out to be bruises upon closer examination. Bruises and healing scars coloured his pale chest and there appeared to be a line of dried blood running from his ear to his shoulder. He was bare-chested like Archie but he was still bandaged around the top of his ribcage and the wound appeared to be seeping blood. Archie recoiled a little from the extent of his superior’s injuries but Bush’s attention had strayed. He scratched lightly at one of the many cuts. His eyes belied the perpetual calm of his features, reddened and fever-bright they darted about the tiny cell.
“We appear to be imprisoned.” Bush said, looking out of the small window.
“What can you see from there?”
Bush moved from one side of the window to another. “It appears to be a small square with a fountain. There are palm trees.”
Well, that was descriptive without being particularly informative. Archie was facing away from the window and at that moment he noticed a curious thing. The door set in the middle of the far wall was the only door into the room and it seemed to gleam very dully. He sat up again slowly. It felt like his skull was filling up with blood behind his eyeballs, but after a moment he found he could bear it. He leaned down past the end of the cot and touched the surface of the door. It was made of iron, spidered over with rust and it was cool to the touch.
“How odd.” Archie turned to find Bush looking at him in an almost desperate fashion.
Bush was almost wringing his hands. “What do you remember?”
Archie paused, “The Renown?”
Bush relaxed a little, “Yes. The Renown. Sawyer.”
Archie shuddered. A moment of bowel-loosening fear came upon him as he flashed back to a memory of the captain’s mad eyes holding his and the fierce helplessness of being locked in a hold filling with water. He lay back against the cot. “So we must be in Jamaica.”
As if God wished to confirm this fact, at that moment they heard muffled footsteps shuffling toward them, echoing in what Archie presumed must be the hall outside. A small sliding wedge squeaked open three quarters up the length of the door. An impassive black face peered in. Then the door opened a slight margin and two buckets slid inside, shoved by a bare foot. Bush had started forward as the door opened but his weakened state was telling on him. By the time he had got to the door, commanding their captor to hold a moment in his severest tone, it was already closed. Bush cursed softly.
“Well?” Archie’s curiosity overrode his disappointment. “What have they sent us?”
Both buckets had clever little hinged tops, for some reason that provoked a twinge of memory from Archie, but he was as yet unable to place it.
Bush lifted one of the buckets, overcompensating a second when he realised that it was very full. He brought it to the window where the early beams of dawn sunshine had faded into a glow. There must be trees or a balcony above them, thought Archie. He raised the bucket almost to his face and flipped the lid upward. His expression underwent a series of changes which might have been comical if Archie had been feeling a bit more like himself. “What is it?”
“Stew. Some kind of fish stew.” said Bush weakly. Archie’s lip quirked involuntarily. The eternal paradox of strong drink. He was desperately hungry, but just the idea of a hearty stew with chunks of fish in it made his belly feel uneasy. At least, he hadn’t had to smell it. Poor Bush.
Bush was warily eyeing the other bucket. “It’s probably water.” said Archie, encouragingly. Bush glanced up at him and grinned ruefully. He tipped up the second lid and brought the bucket under the window.
“Is it?” asked Archie as Bush stood there, seemingly entranced by the mysteries of the bucket.
“It is.” Bush finally responded. He raised the bucket as if to drink abortively. “Do you mind if I…?”
“Go ahead.” Archie was not quite sure if he could tilt his head the requisite distance. Bush fell to with gusto. Archie became slightly mesmerised watching the long muscles of his pale throat roll as he gulped down the water. After a few moments, it occurred to him that this could be dangerous.
“Bush. Bush? Sir!” Bush seemed intoxicated by the water. Archie leaned over and swatted him on the side of his leg. “Bush!”
“What is it?” Bush seemed bemused as he offered the bucket to Archie.
“It’s not safe to have too much at once. You’ll get a cramp.” Bush shrugged mildly. Archie tried to support his head against the wall and drink. He could not seem to force the strength back into his muscles and he fumbled with the bucket clumsily. He felt like a child.
The second time that he splashed the chill water on his neck, Bush took pity on him. “Hold a moment, you’re making a mess.”
Damn! It was exasperating. Bush’s tone was so low and calm that it was almost impossible to tell if he was annoyed or affectionate. With an effort, Archie pulled himself upright. Bush had poured a minor amount of their water (less than Archie had spilled) into his hand and was rinsing his fingers of dust and blood absently. The dirt floor absorbed the drops almost instantly and Archie watched this process, fascinated, until he realised that Bush had settled himself on the right side of Archie’s cot.
He faced Archie, his left leg was drawn up and his left elbow supported the bucket. He gave Archie an encouraging look and slowly filled the hollow of his right hand with water. When Bush pressed the heel of his hand to Archie’s chin, Archie responded involuntarily, even though the situation had taken on the quality of a dream. He had a moment to wonder why he found Bush’s kindness so unexpected. In this unguarded moment, (God, he was so ill!) Archie could acknowledge to himself that his admiration and affection for Bush’s fine qualities extended in no small measure to the man himself.
After nine or ten draughts in this fashion, Archie felt a bit more human and waved Bush away. He leaned down and investigated the other bucket for himself. The stew seemed comprised of a few pieces of light fish and every spice known to man in these islands. Archie wasn’t quite sure if he would have been able to touch it if he had been in the peak of his health. It almost seemed like someone’s idea of a joke.
“I don’t suppose I need to tell you, Mr. Kennedy. We’re in a very bad way.”
Ah, there was that voice again. Bush was stepping back into First Lieutenant Bush. “What is the last thing you remember that is perfectly clear?”
Archie squared his shoulders and cast his thoughts back. “Samana. We fired the battery.”
Bush pressed his lips together in the way that Archie now knew was trying to stave off a smile. “I find it remarkable that the last thing you remember is pulling me off a cliff, but as you’ll be good enough to notice, we are not currently at the base of a cliff.”
“No, no of course, it is simply my last memory that is perfectly clear.” Archie did nothing to disguise the grin in his voice.
“Oh you go to the devil.” Bush said good-humouredly and flung himself down on his cot, pressing his palms into the hollows of his eyes, grimacing. Archie noted that his knuckles were also a bit the worse for wear. “Jamaica, I believe you mentioned?”
“The Jamaica station?” Archie mused, remembering facts but not events. “General Nugent, Admiral Lambert. You remember that Lt. Hornblower said that the blacks were in rebellion? We were all aflutter about Sawyer?”
“Yes. Sawyer,” said Bush, thickly. “Have we had this court of inquiry, then?”
Archie paused and wracked his brain. Looking at Bush dredged up another memory. He noticed abruptly that he had his own bandage low down around his waist. The memory of a screaming Spaniard and the chuff of a pistol came to him. It hadn’t even really hurt at the time. “We were in hospital, that last battle on the Renown. Buckland was…”
“Captured asleep,” finished Bush. “That’s when this,” he indicated his chest, “…happened. That hack, Clive, said I had been exsanguinated and I almost called him out.”
Archie chuckled and Bush retorted, “I don’t see why they can’t use plain language. Why could he have not simply said ‘drained of blood’ and have done with it?”
“He’s no better or worse than the rest of us. Clive was probably always a pompous bastard seduced by Sawyer’s name and glory.”
“And the truth of Sawyer drove him to drink,” finished Bush again. “Well now, having recalled our triumphant slog to Kingston, can you bring yourself from that moment to this one?”
Archie lay back and tried to collect his thoughts. Trying to pull tight the thread of memory was like looking at the wake from the poop deck. His mind churned with vague impressions, none of which would coalesce into a coherent episode.
“We were in hospital?”
“You said that.” Bush had grown testy. “We were in hospital and now we’re in prison but somewhere between there and here, the evidence suggests that they let us get roaring drunk and fight a squadron. That doesn’t make sense, Archie.” He finished fiercely.
It occurred to Archie that his voice was trembling a little. His pain and uncertainty was making him irritable. Archie elected to go on the offensive.
Archie sat up and gestured to Bush’s abused chest. “D’you want to have a look at that, then? It looks uncomfortable.”
Bush glanced back at him blankly, surprised by the quick subject change. “No that’s all right. We don’t have anything to dress it with and I’d rather not risk this air.”
Bush’s face was turned away from him. Almost too carefully it seemed. There was some tension around his eyes that Archie thought he could divine. Archie stood up, paused a moment for balance, then took the few steps necessary to kneel at Bush’s side. He reasoned that Bush had been very kind to him earlier and he should endeavour to return the courtesy. He placed his right hand on Bush’s shoulder and gently pushed him onto his back. After a moment of resistance, Bush went with it, his lips slightly twisted and his forehead furrowed with pain and annoyance.
“You drank that water too fast,” said Archie gently. “Paying for it now, are you?”
Bush cut a furious reply short when Archie casually began rubbing his belly with his slightly-less-battered left hand. Bush raised his chin defiantly but looking into his eyes Archie could see that Bush was making a conscious effort to relax under his ministrations. When Archie had assured himself that Bush was not going to take his gentle stroking amiss, he let his eyes wander up the plaster wall to where it joined the ceiling. The beams of the roof were of a dark wood that looked glossy with moisture, or perhaps, sap. Archie glanced back at Bush and was pleased to see that he had closed his eyes and his brow was smoothing apart from the slight V between his eyebrows that never really went away. His skin was warm under Archie’s damp palm. Archie wondered if they were both getting some tropical fever.
“Mr. Kennedy.” Bush sounded strangely choked. “Please?”
Archie stopped moving at once and Bush turned to his side facing the wall, closing his eyes. That’s good, thought Archie, rest. He got up and began to pace the floor.
He had a moment to wish that he was trapped here with Horatio and then dismissed that thought as completely unworthy and useless besides. But at the very least, he knew how deeply Horatio’s affections for him ran and their friendship had had the advantage of having seen one another at their absolute worst. He and Horatio could be boys together as easily as they could be officers in His Majesty’s Navy. Bush was a little bit older than the both of them and he had seen some pretty hard service, if the rumours were true. It was difficult to know what Bush was thinking at any given moment. On the Renown, Archie had found himself glad to rely on the fact that Bush would always respond in a textbook fashion. Once he realized that Bush’s devotion to duty did not mean he lacked a sense of imagination or humour, Archie had begun to observe him closely. Bush was not one to complain unless a situation truly was untenable, thus his unease at their present situation made Archie feel nervous and bemused at the same time.
Suddenly, a realisation flashed through Archie’s head as if a bell had been struck. Bush had plenty of experience with hardheaded captains, unfriendly seas and hostile forces. He had fought the Spaniards on the deck of the Renown until he had fallen unconscious from blood loss. Archie had no doubts about the depth and breadth of Bush’s sense of duty and physical courage. However, he had never been in prison before.
For some reason Archie found this thought cheering. Finally, it seemed there was a situation to which his talents and experience could rise. He never thought that he could ever look back on that time in Ferrol with anything resembling nostalgia, but he was filled with hope. He’d been in prison before. He’d woken up with no memories and gut wrenching pain before. Prison could not break him. He would impress Bush with his sympathy and aplomb while dealing with their current predicament. Archie broke out of his internal monologue as his thoughts circled back to an idea. He had wished he were trapped with Horatio again and that begged the question: where was Hornblower?
Archie turned to look at Bush, but the questions bubbling up in him died at the prospect of his superior officer. Bush was resting but looked to be in a bad way. Archie removed his singular stocking and took a moment to examine it. The foot was layered in filth. It looked as though, he had walked (or been dragged) across many varieties of terrain. Memory nagged at him and he tried to chase the fleeting impressions down. He remembered a rocking cart and the sound of a whip being snapped. And then, it was simply gone. He shrugged to himself, instinctively realising that trying too hard would get him nowhere. He ripped the relatively clean upper portion of the stocking free and grabbed the bucket of water. Tilting it slightly, he dampened the cloth. Then he addressed himself to wiping the dried blood that had trickled from Bush’s ear. Bush shuddered for a moment and rose on one elbow to look at Archie quizzically. Archie wordlessly showed him the stained cloth and continued. Bush let him. Archie gently turned Bush’s head to get the last of it and in doing so noticed the swelling knot just behind the ear he was wiping.
“Someone thumped you a good one,” Archie said softly.
“Archie,” If he had thought it possible, he would have said that Bush sounded… pleading? It was a testament to his state that he used Christian names. “What do you see when you look at me?”
Archie cocked his head as he considered that that was a surprisingly philosophical question coming from the often stern and dour Bush. Then Bush ran a finger lightly over some of the cuts on his ribs and Archie came back to himself. Ahhh. Bush wanted him to be the mirror.
He tried to answer precisely and without sentiment. “You’re very pale. You have two black eyes and a big bruise on your collarbone. As I said before, you’ve been hit on the head. You look like the very devil.”
Bush grimaced, “I was about to say the same thing about you. You have one black eye. The edge of your lip is cut. You have a bruise on your cheekbone.”
He touched the place on his own cheek and Archie mirrored the gesture. The pain did not go deep. Archie touched at his lip with his tongue.
“Bush,” said Archie tentatively, “Were we fighting each other?”
Bush looked at him as if he’d sprouted another head, “Mr. Kennedy, I trust you know me well enough by now to know that I would never willingly hurt a…brother officer.”
In that pause, Archie realised that Bush had actually meant to say something else. He apologised formally, “Forgive me, Mr. Bush. Our present circumstance has addled my brain.”
Bush nodded shortly. He was mollified but he still looked grave.
“I was wondering,” Archie continued, “What has become of our Mr Hornblower? We have been near inseparable these last few weeks. It surprises me that he is not here. Is he imprisoned near here somewhere, d’you think?”
Is he dead, d’you think? But he did not say that aloud.
Bush gave him that bland, blank look that cloaked his uncertainty. “Another mystery, Mr Kennedy. I expect Mr Hornblower will be rescuing us at any moment. That seems to be the way of things.”
Archie grinned and was just about to make a rejoinder, when soft footsteps in the hall brought them both to their feet. Archie thought wildly of Hornblower and making their escape. The door opened, revealing a tall black man armed with a pistol and a young boy bearing more buckets.
The boy grinned widely at the dishevelled white men, set his buckets down and went to pick up the others. He poured the remains of the water bucket on the evidence of Archie’s illness and the floor absorbed it all. Bush addressed himself to the older man but received nothing but a stony silence. Archie attempted some Spanish on their captor and his eyes flashed, but he said nothing. When Bush moved toward him, he dispassionately cocked the pistol. They withdrew, the silence broken by a laughing comment from the boy. Probably regarding the waste of a good stew.
"Well that certainly was informative,” Bush said ironically.
“At least they’re feeding us regularly,” consoled Archie. They lapsed into silence. Archie lay down on his cot, which he now discovered was stuffed with palm fronds.
“Those buckets with the lids remind me of something Hornblower said,” he said. “Hornblower said they were made like that to keep insects from flying in. And salt water from splashing in. The damned thing is that I can remember him saying this, but I can’t remember where or when. This memory loss is uncanny.”
“Little things are returning to me,” replied Bush. “For some reason, seeing that man made me wonder...You said that the blacks were in rebellion, did you not?”
“Hornblower said that, you remember, that night in the wardroom with Sawyer. Sawyer was quite sarcastic about it. And they attacked the Renown while we were storming the fort and setting the guns…I remember that. I remember Buckland telling me about it…” He trailed off.
“They were very organised. Not a mob.” Archie mused “That surprised Buckland, I shouldn’t wonder. Do you think that may have any bearing on our current situation?”
“We shouldn’t speculate without more evidence,” but Bush sounded uncertain.
Archie rested his head on his hands. Bush was eyeing both buckets as if they were full of snakes, so Archie sought a topic to take his mind from his nausea.
“What did you first think of when you met him? Hornblower, I mean.”
“Well...I thought he was too clever by half,” Bush confessed. Archie laughed.
“You were far closer to the mark than I. The first time I saw him, he was being seasick. That was six years ago on the Justinian. I was so grateful not to be the most junior, I would have liked him even had he not been…himself.”
“Yes, well, he’s not seasick much anymore,” Bush smiled wanly. “I almost wish he were here.”
Bush then said something completely unexpected. “Do you find yourself, how shall I say…resenting him? He is not only gifted, but has the devil’s own luck.”
Archie looked at Bush sharply. It was strange that he had uncovered Archie’s thoughts so easily. This present situation made Archie recall a similar time and undoubtedly his feelings surfaced on his face. It would feel so good to tell someone. Someone who could understand. Bush never seemed troubled by Hornblower’s talent, but he had posed the question.
“I’ve only resented him once,” said Archie slowly. He looked up at Bush’s clear eyes and remembered suddenly the moment that Bush had confronted the conspirators in the orlop. Archie could not engage in the verbal sparring with Buckland and Horatio because his fear had choked him. Then when he had realised that Bush was on their side, it was as if he had turned a corner and suddenly seen a familiar face far from home. “Did you know I was in prison once?”
“No,” Bush looked startled. “You were talking about that in the wardroom once, weren’t you? Of course, I did not mean to eavesdrop?”
Archie cut him short, “I was in prison in France and Spain after I was captured in a cutting-out expedition from the Indefatigable.”
“Why Spain?” queried Bush.
“I took my duty seriously. I tried to escape more than once and they responded by sending me further south each time. You have heard the expression, perhaps, better a Turkish prison, than a Spanish one?”
Bush pressed his lips together and bowed his head.
Archie went on, “At my lowest point, I landed in Ferrol on the coast. That was perhaps the worst. Smelling the sea every moment of the day and being trapped in a cell. The magistrate was fair enough but cruel in that Moorish way. My health was almost gone, when Horatio was captured with his prize crew just off the coast.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Bush. “Surely, that was a stroke of luck for you!”
Archie looked at him, his face blank, “Yes. I suppose you could say so. At the time, my mind was fevered, for days, I thought it was all a dream. I was so deeply ashamed of my condition that I despaired of ever returning to the Indefatigable. Hornblower was so keen on escape. He was going to wait until I had recovered, but at that point I was in such a bad way, I was not sure if I wanted to…Recover. Return.”
“That must have been bad, indeed,” murmured Bush. “I must say it is hard for me to imagine you thus. You are so...lively.” Bush’s eyes smiled and Archie found the strength to continue.
“There was a man, a senior midshipman, on the Indefatigable; he had been with us on the Justinian,” continued Archie slowly. “He was one who was adept at making other’s lives a burden to them.” He paused.
“I have known many like that,” Bush said, musing.
“No,” said Archie, surprising himself with his vehemence. “Not like him.”
Bush pursed his lips and Archie wondered for a moment if he was going to be rebuked for contradicting his senior officer. Looking into his eyes, Archie saw them flash with a sudden comprehension and then go hooded. Was that possible? Was his secret shame so apparent?
“Something about this made you resent Mr. Hornblower.” Bush said, speculatively. “Did he aid and abet this miscreant?”
“No, of course not,” whispered Archie miserably, “Hornblower was the only one of us who ever stood up to him. Simpson would beat him until he could barely stand straight and Hornblower ended by challenging him. A senior officer was shamed enough to take his place and Simpson killed him, but was wounded. Hornblower and I were transferred to Indefatigable and our spirits returned to us. When the Justinian was destroyed, Simpson survived and was transferred to Indefatigable.”
“He started tormenting you again, did he?” asked Bush.
“Well…” Archie had some difficulty finding words. “Pellew’s a grand captain and runs a tight ship. There was no time for idleness and that cut down his opportunity. Hornblower also seemed to have completely thrown off his yoke. But Simpson was the senior officer at that cutting-out expedition, where I fared so poorly.”
Bush’s eyes gleamed and he leaned in so Archie had no choice but to meet his gaze. “Was he responsible for your capture?”
“In a sense,” returned Archie. “I certainly felt he was; be that just or unjust.”
“Anyway,” Archie continued, “In the back of my mind, every time I thought of returning to the Indy, there was Simpson’s sneering face. It kept me from recovering. It made me want to die. It seemed as if I was between Scylla and Charybdis: hellish imprisonment in Spain or a different kind of prison on board. My hope was almost completely conquered by my fear.”
Archie closed his eyes; he could not bear to face Bush with this revelation. “After a few weeks, it came to a head. I almost died from a fever and star…well, I hadn’t been eating well. Hornblower forced me to eat and he finally cajoled me into trying again. He insisted that everything would be all right…and all I could think of was how Simpson exploited any weakness. I couldn’t humble myself further by telling Hornblower of my fear. And then one day, I was out in the compound and everything changed.”
He stopped for a moment lost in the memory, “Some of the seamen were playing a game in the courtyard. For the first time I really looked at them. I recognised that some of them had been in Simpson’s division and were now in Hornblower’s. I considered that I could casually ask about Simpson and if he had advanced like Hornblower.”
“One of them, Oldroyd it was, came over at my hail. He was kind to me, despite that, I think he was a little afraid. I looked like a walking corpse. He answered my questions without hesitation.”
Archie had to stop again and collect himself. “Anyway, I began to notice that he was referring to Simpson in the past tense.”
Archie could still hear the sing-song voice echoing in his head. He felt a wave of emotion, much the same as when those words had first penetrated the fog in his brain. “Coo, Mr. Simpson, ee’s dead, sir.”
When he came back to himself, Bush was looking at him intently.
“It turns out that Simpson and Hornblower had duelled again after the cutting-out expedition. Simpson had tried to kill Horatio outright there on deck and it was only by the loyalty of his erstwhile division that he was saved. When they duelled again, Simpson winged Horatio and then Horatio refused to kill him. Said he wasn’t worth the powder, supposedly.”
Bush’s lips quirked in a smile that was so fleeting Archie thought He’d imagined it. “That sounds like our Mr. Hornblower. How did Simpson meet his end?”
“Badly. Simpson was enraged and when Hornblower turned his back on him, Simpson tried to stab him. Captain Pellew stopped him with one shot.”
“Good on him,” exclaimed Bush.
“Yes, as I said before, he keeps a tight ship.” Archie leaned back exhausted from the tale. “So it turns out the demon that had tied me up in knots had been dead for over a year.”
“And Hornblower had not mentioned it?” Archie shook his head.
“I don’t blame him, really. He was completely focused on escape and it had happened so long before. He probably just assumed that somehow I knew. Or perhaps he did not want to talk about it with me…afraid perhaps that I might take it ill. But that was what saved me...knowing that he was gone. That bastard.”
Archie said the last dully. He noted that somewhere in the long story, Bush had moved to sit beside him. Now Bush softly squeezed his shoulder and gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry Archie, the service is…”
“Oh, hang the service,” Archie couldn’t help himself any longer. “Don’t spout platitudes at me.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Bush looked surprised. “I was going to say that I am very honoured to serve with such a…with you. You are to be commended, to have been through something like that and never let it show on your face. I must confess…” He trailed off and looked embarrassed.
“You thought I was a babe-in-arms?” Archie managed a grin. “That my father purchased my commission? I was rated lieutenant after I ‘returned from the dead’. Of course, they’d lost a lot of better men on the Indy…”
“Archie!” Bush interrupted. “Never doubt that you deserve your commission. I simply regret that you had to suffer so.”
“Worse things have happened to better men, I suppose,” Archie thought aloud.
“Certainly,” Bush replied, his voice sounding rough again. “Think on our Mr Wellard. Fate seems especially cruel when she looks down upon seamen.”
“Wellard,” Archie mused. “I had forgotten him. It is strange how the service changes you, is it not? Were I hearing about young Wellard’s fate in the gossip after church at my county parish, it would seem a great tragedy even had I not known him. He suffered a great deal on our behalf. But here, I can forget that I ever knew him.”
“I shall not,” Bush’s shoulders had stiffened and his voice seemed distant.
Archie carefully remained silent and tried to observe Bush from the corner of his eye. He had wondered sometimes how deeply Bush’s assumed detachment ran…was it possible that his superior’s vaunted control was simply a facade? Archie felt grief for Wellard as well, but obviously, Bush felt responsible.
“There was nothing you could have done.” Archie said firmly. He continued more gently, “Horatio told me that at the last, Sawyer told Wellard he was a brave boy…perhaps he was…clear…at the last.”
“Sawyer,” muttered Bush bitterly. “Now we can truly say that we’ve been forged in the fire.”
“Yes, but to whom?” Archie replied. “I remember now! The court of inquiry exonerated us but they were very anxious that Sawyer’s ‘legacy’ be preserved. They would not take kindly to our besmirching his memory with the truth.”
“Ye gods, save me from another mad captain,” Bush shuddered. “I thought I was made of stern stuff, but Sawyer truly laid me low. Trying to reason with him and finding no reason there?”
“Yes, it was awful,” Archie whispered “Worse for Horatio and yourself, I think.”
“Why do you say that?” Bush cocked his head.
“I was in prison for almost three years, remember? I’ve seen a bit of madness.”
“I was forgetting,” Bush smiled faintly. “It is you who is made of stern stuff. Sawyer will have to be our secret then…not that I mind. I never want to think on him again. Without yourself and Mr Hornblower, it would have been difficult to preserve my own sanity.” He rubbed Archie’s shoulder absently.
Unconsciously, Archie leaned into Bush’s comforting hand. “I don’t truly resent Mr Hornblower.” He continued slowly, thinking.
“He’s lucky in some things. He has many gifts but I can’t really envy him. Men like Horatio…well there is a hollowness to them. A hole inside them that all the praise, fame and accomplishment will never quite fill. He needs to be protected from his sense of his shortcomings. He gets so focused on duty that he neglects himself. For example, he’s a great sailor and navigator but have you ever seen how he behaves within a cable’s length of a woman?”
Archie paled and then stood up. One look in Bush’s face said that he remembered as well.
“Those…women.” Archie breathed.
“Whores.” said Bush, flatly. “They were whores.”
And then at that moment it came to him. He remembered in a flash the tavern that one of the regular station had said was frequented by officers. He remembered the smoke and the noise. He remembered the spicy scent of the woman he found next to him and her heavy-lidded brown eyes. He had found her so wonderfully exotic, a wonder heightened by the fact that they seemed not to need to share a word. She had been so heartrendingly beautiful that she seemed beyond the plane of man, touching her had felt slightly unreal.
Another woman who could have been her twin had commandeered Bush’s lap. He felt a stir of remembered arousal as the vision of her brown hands caressing Bush’s face came back to him. She had kissed him until his lips were gleaming red and swollen. Under a heavy haze of intoxication, he had felt as though watching Bush was like watching his reflection in a mirror. The reflection is unlikely to take offense, so he had looked his fill. Bush had seemed unconcerned by his scrutiny, in fact....Archie had to make an effort to not think on those lines.
“We were celebrating…” Bush continued on. “The court of inquiry had exonerated us. We had to go to that tiresome supper with Captain Cogshill. Buckland got all maudlin about the ruination of his career, so we excused ourselves to take him back to Renown.”
“I can’t remember that,” said Archie.
Bush’s light eyes assessed him, “Do you remember that it was you who pulled us out to Kingston? You had been chatting up some of the local station and you insisted that we explore. You told us that the native women were reckoned to be some of the loveliest on earth...which I suppose is true.” Bush sounded wryly amused.
Archie had a sudden memory of Bush shaking his head at his mulatto companion and he wondered then as he wondered now what he had been refusing. He decided he did not need to wonder any longer.
“That woman kept asking you something and you kept refusing. What did she want?” He asked boldly.
Bush paused for a second, remembering. “She kept wanting me to drink more. I wanted to stay alert naturally after Hornblower left…” his eyes flew open as another memory returned.
“What is it? Why did Hornblower leave?” Archie bounced up.
“There was a pub a little bit further up from where we were, don’t you remember? The men from my division and Hornblower’s were there...the bosun’s mate Stiles got into a right brouhaha…You remember, we went outside to watch it…and then Hornblower felt that he had to make sure that Stiles didn’t end in the brig and escorted him back to the hospital…That’s where he said he was going, anyway.”
“And we stayed,” breathed Archie.
“Yes, don’t you remember…You had just caught that lady’s eye.” The look Bush turned on him was heated but somehow Archie didn’t feel it was anger. They fell silent trying to find the thread.
“You were very drunk…” started Bush.
“I was,” whispered Archie. “She kept insisting that I toast with her.”
“We left to go upstairs with them...” Bush looked upward as if he expected to see the women beckoning to him.
Archie suddenly remembered how difficult it had been to step into the cobbled alley. He felt dizzy as snatches of memory surfaced and swirled in his head. He had needed to lean hard on his female companion and that had felt strange. The scent of her had seemed to heighten his drunkenness. It had seemed a long way from the door of the pub to the staircase in the back courtyard.
“Those men,” he said.
“Yes,” replied Bush, “I can’t remember much detail…It was so dark. Now, I remember the first knock I took was on my shoulder?” He ruefully tried to tilt his head sideways in a vain effort to see the mark.
“I remember how quiet they were. Like shadows,” volunteered Archie.
“Yes, for a moment I had thought they were angry,” mused Bush. “About the women, I mean. But they were like soldiers.”
Silence descended as each of them tried to recall the night.
“So we’ve been kidnapped,” hazarded Archie.
“It would seem so,” replied Bush. “It would seem that those women had a hand in it as well…Their intention from the first was to get us completely fuddled with drink.”
“Why on earth…” Archie couldn’t continue.
“I don’t know,” Bush said grimly. “But consider that they haven’t been mistreating us since and they went to some trouble to bring us here. They must have some plan. Ransom, perhaps.”
“What do we do?”
Bush squared his shoulders, “We can’t do anything if we can barely keep our legs under us. We need to eat something of whatever they’ve brought us…hopefully it won’t be worse than hunger.”
Archie could do nothing but nod his assent. They knelt on the floor and investigated the buckets. One of them contained another rich stew. Archie scooped some gingerly into his mouth and was surprised by the fact that it was sweeter than it was savoury.
“How is it?” Bush asked.
“Better than you’d think,” replied Archie.
Bush wrinkled his forehead after his first taste, but shrugged and fell to with little mouthfuls taken slowly.
They ate in silence, unspoken questions hanging in the air. Bush gazed at Archie as he finished the last bite he could manage and jerked his head toward his cot. Archie nodded and gripped the edge to pull himself up. He settled himself slowly on the creaky bed. When he was prone, he looked up to see that Bush had pulled himself to the window. Bush glanced at Archie and shook his head, then lay down on his own cot and flung his arm over his bruised eyes. Archie closed his eyes and tried to sort out the memories that seemed to be surging in from every corner.
“You know that I often envy you?” Bush whispered.
What in the world? “Why would you waste time in such a foolish pursuit?”
“Sometimes duty…can be a form of cowardice,” said Bush, as if he was speaking to himself. “To you it may seem...well, I’ve never seen you hesitate to say what you thought.”
“Often as not, that’s the worst thing to do,” retorted Archie. “I always admired the way that you and Hornblower spoke, as if you were playing chess with your words.”
“It’s not simply a question of words,” said Bush, obviously choosing his carefully. “It is that you allow yourself to think and feel things that I have been afraid to consider for some time.”
“I leap before I look,” grinned Archie. “That’s not usually reckoned a good quality. But sometimes the rewards are worth it.”
The silence stretched out after that remark like the wake on a clear day under full sail. When Archie finally turned to look at Bush, he found that his superior officer’s face had gone quite unreadable. Coming conscious of Archie’s eyes upon him, he stirred restlessly.
“I can’t quite bear this,” Bush low voice was almost a growl. “My thoughts keep going around in a circle.”
“I made some observations in the brigs of Brest and Merlon,” Archie said slowly. “Would you like my advice?”
Bush made an impatient gesture and then his shoulders slumped. “Please continue.”
“Don’t think on escape and don’t think about the future. Both will put you into a sweat. You must remember that time in prison is lost time…stolen time. You must think like you dream. Think on things that will never happen, but you wish they would. I kept myself alive by imagining myself an actor...foolish, no?” Archie smiled at his feet. “It is not like being on a long watch, the idea is to go deeper into yourself, not stay alert.”
Bush’s sharp gaze went unfocused again. Idly, Archie noted that Bush’s colour had improved immensely. He wondered what fantasy Bush’s mind would create to fill their ‘stolen’ time.
They were plucked from their reverie by the light tapping of footsteps. The light was beginning to fade from the window.
This time there was no hesitation as the handsome boy entered the room. He seemed barely able to restrain his mirth at the sight of their faces. He was careful to set his burdens down before he gave into laughter. As he picked up the remaining buckets, they noticed that he had a pistol casually stuffed into his waistband. He gestured at the three new buckets and the dipper and addressed himself to Archie, speaking in a cascade of sound. His lyrical tones sounded like poetry but he ended his recital with a laugh. It amused him immensely that the pale sailors seemed the more confused for his explanation and he left still chuckling.
“They seem to be becoming less wary of us,” said Archie, speculatively.
“Yes,” agreed Bush. “Or perhaps they simply realise that we are as weak as water. What did he say to you?”
“I could not understand every word,” said Archie. “He seemed to be speaking Spanish with a French accent. Or perhaps French with a Spanish accent. He said something about water and something about curing all ills.”
“Water curing all ills?” Bush responded dubiously.
“No you misunderstand me. I only caught a few words and phrases. Of all the things he told me that was all I could translate.”
Archie did not waste time being embarrassed because he assumed (quite rightly) that Bush as a true Brit had no special use for foreign tongues. Bush shrugged, confirming his assessment.
“I’ve just had a thought,” exclaimed Bush. “The last time they changed my linens was right before the dinner with Cogshill. Perhaps if we looked to see how the large wounds are healing that will give us some idea of what time has passed. I remember the look of it the last time they changed the dressings. And we will have some idea of how long has been spent here.”
“I thought you did not want to risk the air?” asked Archie.
“It would be valuable enough knowledge to risk it. Besides, they have brought us plenty of water so far; we should be able to stay somewhat clean. We’ll use one of those buckets to wash the linens? Bush replied. “I’ll go first, this is itching like mad, anyway.”
Archie shrugged and stood to help him unroll his bandage. Bush discovered that his hands were more hindrance than help, so he stood silent and placed his hands on the back of his head. Slowly and carefully, Archie paid out what seemed like yards of white linen, daubed and sticky with blood. The blood grew darker the closer he came to Bush’s pale flesh. The final inches of cloth had to be gently tugged free. His anxiety had been growing and he breathed a sigh of relief as the long cut was at last uncovered.
“How is it?” whispered Bush. Archie glanced into his face briefly and realised that Bush had closed his eyes.
“It’s much better than I thought. There’s no festering and the stitches have held…They seem a bit stressed but not overmuch because the skin is seaming. I’ll know better after we’ve rinsed some of the blood off.”
When Bush opened his eyes, his expression was as direct as a touch. Those pale eyes seemed to sear right through Archie and suddenly he found it hard to draw breath. Their eyes locked for a long moment. It seemed like the air had grown impossibly thick and Archie had to break the spell before he started gasping.
Without thinking, Archie grasped a pail and the dipper, scooping out a slopping handful. He placed the dipper into the curve of Bush’s sternum and let the liquid feather down Bush’s scored chest. Bush just had one brief moment to murmur, “Archie? What the…?” He was completely unprepared for the startled heave of Bush’s ribs and the pained yell that seemed to echo in his ear. Bush recoiled so fast that Archie felt a moment of breeze as his friend displaced the close air. The dipper was flung into the corner by the force of Bush’s escape.
“What the devil?” Archie could not help exclaiming. Showing a decided lack of foresight, he plunged his hand into the pail to bring the ‘water’ up for closer scrutiny and yelped himself as all of his cut fingers sung with agony. Mastering his pain and surprise, he managed to bring his cupped hand to his mouth to taste the offending brew and choke on it.
“It’s hardly rum.” sputtered Bush, “It’s liquid fire.”
Archie couldn’t help laughing, though his mouth felt full of flames. Bush looked so shocked. Bush cocked his head to the side as if deciding whether or not to be offended. The quizzical look on his face just made Archie howl louder until he had to squeeze his eyes shut to regain control.
“At least,” he gasped out, “It’s perfectly clean now.”
He heard Bush moving around and when he opened his eyes he was relieved to see that Bush’s lips had twisted in that familiar way again. Bush had retrieved the dipper and was sampling a few mouthfuls of the potent brew. The taste made him raise his eyebrows higher than Archie would have thought possible, then squint. He offered Archie a taste and Archie accepted. The slow burn that the rum seemed to etch down his throat gave way to a pleasant feeling of buoyancy.
“It’s your turn,” said Bush and gestured toward the bandage that circled his hips with the dipper. Archie raised his eyebrows and then loosened the edge of the bindings with the air of a man who takes dares lightly. Bush chuckled and set the dipper on the cot.
“Here, I’ll do it,” Bush stepped toward him and Archie was momentarily engulfed in a wave of some unnameable emotion. He cast his eyes upward as Bush stepped in close to unwind the bandage. The ceiling seemed oppressively close so he looked downward to Bush’s bare shoulder. He allowed the rhythm of the bandage unwinding to hypnotise him until he noticed that the smell in his nose was warm coppery blood. He was quite close to Bush’s wounded chest. Delicately, he raised his hand and traced it over the healing incision. The lowest edge had a slow beading drop of red welling up and Archie rubbed his fingers together. To believe that Bush could have died, that he could have died was still impossible, even with the evidence under his fingers.
“That’s the test of a true seaman, I suppose.” Archie said airily, covering his tracks.
Bush’s eyes widened and he drew his eyes away in an almost guilty fashion. “I’m not sure I understand you.”
“Rum in a half-measure and I feel almost human again.”
Bush swallowed visibly and a hint of a smile ghosted his face. “Cures all ills.”
Archie twisted his lips and then scratched at the edge of his bandage. It did itch horribly; now that his mind was clear enough to notice, the urge to scratch was almost unbearable.
“It would be easier?” said Bush and tilted his hand upward in a careless way. His hands were shaking, belying his indifferent manner. Archie watched those long fingers, wholly insensible to the message they were trying to impart. Bush looked pained and tapped at his waist briefly. Archie looked into his face and was struck by the way the fading light made Bush’s eyes glow. He finally ducked his head and in a flash understood what was desired. He felt the heat in his face and mentally begged Bush to look away while he undid the top three buttons of his breeches and rolled them down. Bush quickly looked back to the task at hand and Archie winced as the last of the bandage ripped away. Bush got down on one knee to get a good look at the angry flesh.
“How is it?” hopefully Bush wouldn’t hear the catch in his voice and put two and two together. He considered briefly why Bush had kept his own eyes closed while he…
“It is deeper than mine, a puncture wound, not a slash…It’s hard to tell. How does it feel?”
Archie stretched his left hand up to the ceiling cautiously. “It’s not bad, though I’m afraid to push too hard.”
“You shouldn’t,” interjected Bush
“…But does it smell, umm, healthy?” Archie finished.
Bush leaned in and inhaled. The bullet had pierced the flesh above the curve of Archie’s pelvis narrowly missing his lung and became lodged in the long muscle of his abdomen. Archie remembered greying out while Clive had dug his fingers inside the well of blood. His head felt fragile as though it might shatter if he moved it. Bush’s breath on him made his thoughts whirl. He must have made a sound because Bush looked up at him.
Bush stood up slowly as if his knees pained him. When he stood straight before Archie, he considered the floor for a long moment before he spoke. “It angers me to a degree I would not have thought possible.”
“What is that, Mr Bush?” said Archie softly.
He told himself that the queer hollow feeling at the base of his stomach was simple hunger, lust, not fear.
Bush exhaled, “The idea of someone hurting you.”
As if he had been weakened by the effort it took to speak those words, Bush leaned into the wall and rested his head on his forearm.
Archie froze as the words echoed in his head. Twice, three times Bush had been human here with him, was there a larger picture here that he was failing to see? A fierce feeling of joy welled up in him. Did he dare to take those few steps that would bring him to Bush? Before he could compass the thought he was standing inches away from Bush’s back.
Archie brought his hand up slowly and placed it on the very back of Bush’s neck, curving his arm around those squared shoulders. He leaned in to whisper in Bush’s ear
“William,” he said with only the slightest quaver.
Bush shuddered underneath his touch. Archie pressed his lips to the top of Bush’s shoulder on the edge of the bruise. Bush tilted his head back and exhaled hard.
“I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Archie.” He whispered, “You do know that?”
In reply, Archie leaned over and kissed Bush’s shoulder and wrapped his left arm around that trim waist. He ran his right hand from the edge of the abused collarbone, down the ridges of muscle, bone and scar and cupped his hand over the swelling at Bush’s crotch.
“Please,” he replied, not knowing if it were question or assent. Bush turned around so quickly that Archie was thrown off balance. He stumbled for one dizzy moment but then felt Bush’s arms lock around him like hot iron bands. His wound pained him for one brief second before Bush’s lips brushed his and the pain was dragged down under a current of warmth. Bush’s mouth was hungry against him and his hands trailed down over Archie’s back exploring every inch ending over the curve of his bottom, pulling him forward to press them together.
Archie moaned and employed his hands similarly. He opened his mouth wide welcoming the onslaught and Bush bit his lips and tongue with light nips that expressed his hunger unself-consciously. Archie had one moment to wonder who this passionate stranger was and then he looked up into Bush’s eyes and had no doubt of his identity.
In the moonlight, Bush’s face had lightened to alabaster against the stark white of the plaster walls. The bruises highlighted the planes of his face and as he looked up to the stars, Archie was reminded of a painting by Raphael that he had seen in London once. He wondered idly if that was why Bush carefully schooled his features to be so stern and far-seeing. To draw attention from the fact that his upper lip was a perfect cupid’s bow.
He leaned forward and quickly ran his tongue over the delicate curves. “Please indulge me.”
Bush nodded at him slowly. Archie put a bare inch of distance between them and smiled to feel Bush’s hands clench in the fabric of his breeches. Archie leaned back curving at the waist to run his fingers over Bush’s battered chest. He slowly bent in and pressed his lips to the top of the long cut that had just stopped welling blood. Bush seemed entranced and shivered while Archie gently ran his tongue around the edges of the angry red slash. Archie licked the taste from his lips and met Bush’s eyes.
“I would do anything for you,” he murmured.
He drew his fingers in intense caresses over every healing welt as if he were blind. Bush raised his hands to cup Archie’s jaw and smiled slowly before helping himself to a slow deep kiss. Bush ran his thumb gently over Archie’s bruised cheekbone making it tingle from the inside out. Bush licked inside Archie’s mouth tasting the blood and rum and the sweetness at the very bottom. He drew back and licked at the small cut that seamed the edge of Archie’s lip.
Archie tilted his head down to suck on the edge of the collarbone and licked into the hollow of Bush’s throat. He worked his way slowly downward and ran the edge of his teeth over Bush’s taut nipple. The hands gripping his hips tightened convulsively and Archie smiled inwardly. He unclenched his own hands and began unbuttoning Bush’s breeches alternating each buttonhole with a kiss or slight suction on a different spot.
Bush growled and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of Archie’s breeches and pulled and pushed until he freed his friend to the air. Nothing dissuaded Archie from his mission which he accomplished with considerably more finesse, but the results were the same. When they were both naked, Bush suddenly turned shy and tried to turn away. Archie firmly drew him over to the cot sitting down, leaving Bush standing in front of him. He tightened his fingers around the curve of Bush’s arse and pressed his face into the curly hair at the base of his cock. He stopped for a moment to let Bush get his breath back and then turned his head slightly and licked a line from the base to the crown.
His mouth was awash in the coppery taste of blood and the flesh under his lips was so warm and alive that he felt like he was feeling Bush’s heart pumping unguarded under his hand. He curled his fingers around the base and stroked slowly with his lips and tongue. Bush’s hands were flailing gently around his head and shoulders and Archie stopped to guide one of them to the wall behind. Bush relaxed gratefully, leaning his weight into the plaster and stroking Archie’s hair with the other hand.
When Bush opened his eyes it was to see Archie stroking himself and his eyes blazed. Archie had to grip him tightly to retain some semblance of control. Bush’s face grew red then pale as Archie held his eyes, circled his cock with his tongue and slowly brought himself release. When Archie released Bush’s cock, still swollen and leaking, Bush tottered and ended on his knees before the cot. Archie slumped back wantonly, drawing his fingers through the essence on his stomach. He drew his feet up to the edge of the groaning cot and looked at Bush from half-lidded eyes.
“You are so beautiful,” Bush breathed.
“Indulge me,” Archie whispered again.
He spread his bent knees apart and pressed his coated fingers into the opening of his body. He could see the muscles of Bush’s jaw clearly as they clenched and he lifted his free hand to caress the long vein in the side of his neck. Bush was just barely under control.
Archie slowly undulated as he stretched himself and stirred as Bush leaned in and kissed both of his raised knees. Archie had worked his bottom to the edge of the cot and lay back almost prone under his friend’s gaze. As he snaked his hand through the sticky wetness on his belly he felt Bush’s breath on the inside of his thigh. Bush’s fingers stroked the inside curve of his hip and Archie felt his arousal renewing. Bush kept his eyes on Archie’s face; it was obvious that he found the sight of Archie preparing himself far too stimulating.
Archie finally curved his uninjured side and wrapped his fingers around Bush’s cock. As he pulled it toward himself, Bush whispered, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t,” Archie reassured him.
When Bush was flush with the tender flesh of his opening, Archie rocked his hips suddenly forward. Bush eyes widened as he felt himself slip inside his beautiful friend. He braced himself with all his fingertips on the wall and gasped. Archie raised one foot, pushed back hard and wrapped his leg around the small of Bush’s back.
When Bush felt like he could move without exploding, he looked down at Archie and kissed his brow ridge above the hollow of his eye. He drew a few inches back and seemed satisfied to see Archie’s erection return.
“Do what you were doing earlier,” he panted.
“What, this?” grinned Archie gripping himself loosely. Bush nodded frantically and at the sight he curved his hand up and under Archie’s shoulder and drove into him savagely.
Archie moaned and arched his back and stroked himself in the rhythm of Bush’s thrusts until they grew erratic and as he felt the first pulse of his friend’s release, his own fierce lust bubbled up in him and he came shouting, “William!”
After a few long moments to recover, Bush carefully extracted himself and crawled over Archie, pulling him up on the narrow cot and wrapping his arms around him. They dozed in the fading light and heavy air of the tropical evening. Archie woke as the sky was darkening to find his mouth full of William’s hair. He tightened his arms reflexively around William’s shoulders and was gratified when his friend pressed back into the warm hollow between them. Then Bush’s mind caught up with his body and he stiffened, pulling himself upright. His expression was carefully blank but the look he shot Archie was pure terror. Archie sighed and arched into a seat beside Bush.
Archie brushed Bush’s shoulder with his own and boldly (as was his nature) put his hand on Bush’s knee. “Are you afraid?”
“Me, afraid?” Bush looked at Archie as if he’d begun speaking Portuguese. Then he relaxed and smiled a little. “I suppose I am. Damn it all.”
“Remember what I told you,” Archie said gently.
“You’ve told me much,” Bush returned.
“Remember that this is stolen time,” Archie said evenly. “Remember that we’re already sharing a secret.”
Bush suddenly, blindingly, smiled. “Let’s not tell Mr Hornblower, shall we?
He grabbed Archie’s shoulder and pulled him into the circle of his arms. Archie’s low laugh was smothered by myriad rough kisses. Bush pulled him gently into a hug. After a dizzy moment, Archie realised that Bush was whispering between his kisses.
“What we did earlier, can you do that to me?”
Archie involuntarily pressed his groin into the hot pressure of Bush’s thigh. Bush forestalled him with a look, “Don’t make me say it again.”
Archie never made Bush say a word as he licked him all over and then penetrated him as the sun was just setting. Bush found himself incapable of speech for a long time thereafter. They slept for hours undisturbed by the orchestra of jungle night creatures.
When Archie woke up the next morning, he found Bush looking at him with a pensive expression. Archie leaned in for a kiss and was thrilled when Bush not only kissed him but stroked his hair off his face affectionately.
“What are you thinking?” said Archie trying to sound insouciant.
“I was thinking that you looked like a painting and I was remembering,” replied Bush.
“What were you remembering?” said Archie, guardedly.
Bush straightened up slowly and went to the window.
“Archie, what was the name of the Spanish prize we took?”
Archie replied without a moment’s pause. “The Gaditana. Why do you ask?”
Bush spoke, measuring his words. “That one was too large to be a despatch vessel. They would have rated it a sloop of war.”
“What is your…” and then he saw it all. What fools they had been! A sloop of war would have meant untold prize money.
“The lieutenant’s share of a prize sloop would have been one hundred pounds,” said Bush tonelessly.
“Oh God,” breathed Archie.
“Listen,” Bush cocked his head “Somehow, I think this will see an end to it.”
Archie became aware of the familiar tramp of feet in the outer rooms of the prison. This time there was a distinct difference in the quality of sound that brought both of them to their feet. It was definitely a group moving toward them. The voices were pitched low but there were many different tones and some of the crowd was definitely shod.
The door swung open and despite the fact that they had joked about it, Archie was still astonished to see Hornblower standing in the doorway flanked by black men. He looked like he’d had a sleepless night but was otherwise none the worse for wear. To the casual observer, Hornblower’s expression would have seemed granite, but Archie was attuned to his friend and well aware that his expression hovered somewhere between horror and amusement and he was suddenly painfully aware of his and Bush’s dishabille.
Hornblower spoke urgently in his cautious French to the man at his side. Archie listened trying to gather hints as to what he should be doing. Hornblower’s tone had something in it of an aggrieved request with a hint of command. The leader of the group appraised him silently for a long moment before nodding slightly to one of his subordinates. That one disappeared at once and returned scant moments later bearing a bundle that turned out to be their coats, shoes, vests and dirty shirts. Hornblower indicated with his raised eyebrows that they should get dressed. The leader spoke and most of the troop turned to leave, Hornblower and the leader chatted quietly in the doorway. Archie and Bush wasted no time in jerking on their uniforms. Archie spared a moment to feel ridiculous putting his bare feet into shoes but discarded the feeling at once.
Hornblower’s tone when he spoke was formal. “I trust you gentlemen have no objection to a speedy return to Kingston?”
“Mr Hornblower, what is the meaning of all this?” Bush could no longer restrain himself.
“Later, Mr Bush, now let’s get under weigh.” Hornblower seemed anxious to usher them out of the cell.
They were escorted down a short hallway into a foyer that opened up onto a very large courtyard. There were three horses tethered there and the leader gestured toward them and spoke magnanimously to Hornblower. Hornblower made what sounded like grateful noises and then farewell noises. Hornblower seemed calm but at the same time anxious to be off. He indicated that they should mount up and he seemed inordinately relieved when the prison leader held his horse’s bridle while he mounted. The leader kept up a constant monologue peppered with names like Lambert and Galbraith that Hornblower nodded along with until he waved his adieu.
Hornblower gestured for Archie and Bush to follow him. He led them silently through the square and onto the large road that lead out of town. Looking around at the village, or perhaps a town, (it was much larger than he expected) Archie noticed that they were at a significantly higher altitude than previously and he could see a long slope of jungle that led down to the harbour. From the high perch of his mount he could see the harbour but the ships were indistinguishable in the bright light.
“Are you going to keep us in suspense much longer, Mr Hornblower?” Bush growled.
“Really Horatio, where are we? What’s happened?” Archie interjected.
“For God’s sake you have some cheek, asking me that!” Hornblower was suddenly almost sputtering with emotion. Archie and Bush exchanged a glance.
“How do you think that I felt? Coming back to find no trace of you? No one who would acknowledge that you ever existed? It was only the luckiest of circumstances that allowed me to find you. One of those...ladies…had kept your handkerchief, Archie and, thank God, Matthews noticed it! After confronting her with it and plying her with rum, I had the story out of her. She said you had made trouble and had been taken off by the militia. Then I wasted two hours slinking around the brig only to discover that they’d seen nothing of you either.”
“Where are we right now, Mr Hornblower? Please be good enough to enlighten us.”
“Spanish Town,” Hornblower replied shortly, “Twelve miles from Kingston and the old seat of government.” He seemed to have reined in his strong feelings. “The men who picked you up are operating under some…civilian authority.”
“They comported themselves like soldiers, but a black militia?”
“They are soldiers, after a fashion. They call themselves the Trelawney militia, they are the civilian security force for this parish.” Hornblower spoke abstractedly as if he were reading aloud from a newspaper. Archie narrowed his eyes. Hornblower was pointedly neglecting to mention something. His sudden rage had vanished.
“How did you convince them to free us?” Archie asked innocently.
“Well I simply...” those were the only words that Hornblower spoke audibly. The rest were addressed to the horse.
“What was that?” Archie had a feeling that somehow anything Horatio was not anxious for them to know would be very interesting indeed.
“I paid the fine to release you,” Hornblower was looking abstracted again.
“What in God’s name?” roared Bush. “Do you mean to tell me that you have paid what is at base a ransom to those criminals? They kidnapped us! I’d bet money that they also robbed us! Why didn’t you call Cogshill and have him send the dogs after these ruffians?”
“Mr Bush,” Hornblower was speaking in that tone that let the listener know that he was about to feel very stupid. “The admiral is aware of this ‘civilian militia’ and undoubtedly has his own reasons for allowing it to exist. How do you think the captain or, perchance, the admiral would have reacted to the news that two of their lieutenants (just recently exonerated by a rather vicious court of inquiry, mind you) had come to grief after a debauch in one of the most infamous brothels in Kingston? Would you have found the whispers that followed you ever after pleasant, I wonder? Are you so anxious to share in Mr Buckland’s fate?”
Bush looked decidedly nonplussed. He responded slowly, “I see…as usual, you have the right of it, Mr Hornblower.” He glanced at Archie and rolled his eyes. “My anger had affected my reason. I should have known that you had our best interests at heart.”
Hornblower replied earnestly, “This way no-one will ever have to know about this but we three and the militia men. And somehow I think that they will remain discreet. Think of it as a hard lesson, well learned.”
Archie couldn’t help but chuckle at this. Of course, Hornblower was the only man among them that could negotiate under such serendipitous circumstances. Hornblower had thought of everything and he had effectively cut off further questioning.
Bush was quite abashed. “I apologise and I thank you, Mr Hornblower. Mr Kennedy and I are of course very indebted to you. I anticipate that the ‘fine’ comprised most of your prize money?”
Unexpectedly, Hornblower grinned. “Well, it’s not so bad now is it? We’re back where we started from, older and wiser. My credit’s so good that I have the use of these horses for the evening and they haven’t ripped the buttons off your coats.”
“Yes, may we show you the extent of our gratitude by perhaps allowing you to buy us a drink?” Archie winked and then snorted at the looks on those dear faces. He dug his heels in and his horse made to canter.
“May I remind you gentlemen that our leave is over in exactly six hours.” Hornblower said primly.
“Well, let’s make the most of it then,” said Bush and Archie laughed as the bell tolled in the square.