Dusk fell over the brilliant tropical sea, dying the crystal blue waters a deep indigo, mixed with frothy white waves. Upon one of these waves, the Hotspur rode like a prince on a beautiful and noble steed. Its flag flew proudly, its sails filled with wind, and its bow pointed upward in victory – for it was returning home from a victorious campaign against the French.
“To our successful campaign.” Horatio smiled, lifting his wineglass. Around the table, his fellow officers – William, Archie, and the new midshipman, Henry Thompson – raised their glasses as well. “And a speedy journey home for Christmas!”
“Here, here,” William said as he downed his wine.
“Don’t forget the ham we managed to part from the frogs.” Archie grinned boyishly, recalling how they’d ambushed the French guards right as they were about to dig in. “I just hope Styles managed to cook it properly.”
“Where is Styles, anyway?” Henry asked, his brow furrowing. “It’s past time for dinner.”
At that moment, the door to the officer’s cabin swung open, and Matthews and Styles came in with a sheepish expression.
“Ah, there you are. When can we expect dinner?” Horatio inquired.
“Um, in… in a minute. Ham’s a little – ” Styles stuttered.
“First, we’d like to present you with a gift from the crew,” Matthews cut in. He handed Horatio a brightly wrapped package, tied up with a red ribbon. Horatio looked at it quizzically.
“Yeah, a gift.” Styles tried for a smile. “For our favorite captain.”
“I’m your only captain.”
Nevertheless, Horatio tore open the package to reveal a red-and-green striped Christmas scarf, lovingly knitted from soft yarn, albeit a little damp.
“Thank you, Matthews, Styles.” He dipped his head formally to each.
“Here, let me help you put it on…” Styles began.
“Styles, did you burn the ham?” William growled, as he fixed Styles with his laser sharp gaze. It was clear from Styles’s flinch that he had. “What did I say about learning to cook?”
“It’s just that, you know… the oven is – ”
“Sir!” Suddenly, the door banged open and Robert Shaw, another midshipman, rushed in. “There’s another ship approaching! I-I think they’re French.”
All at once, the officers sprang into action. Grabbing his pistol, Horatio raced onto the main deck with Archie and William close on his heels. He didn’t take long to spot the ship. It was French alright, a 20-gun sloop, fully manned and ready for battle – heading straight their way!
“BEAT TO QUARTERS!!”
The cry echoed through the ship just as the first volley of cannonballs hit. A powerful blast sent the Hotspur reeling to one side, slabs of wood and crewmen alike flying across the deck. Horatio threw himself to the ground just in time to avoid a piece of metal shrapnel.
“Damn it, turn us around to starboard!” he yelled at the helmsman, as he took the stairs up two at a time. The helmsman spun the wheel, and the Hotspur lurched, nearly causing Horatio to topple back down to the main deck.
“We’re headed straight for them!” Archie cried.
“Give me that.” Grabbing the wheel, Horatio pulled the Hotspur into a narrow turn, so it was angled toward the stern of the French ship – and away from the broadside cannons – providing the crew a moment’s relief.
“Mr. Bush, Mr. Thompson, I need my cannons.”
“Aye, sir!” William hurried below decks to corral the gun crew, while Henry shouted for the powder monkeys before disappearing after him.
Meanwhile, Horatio tried to evade the enemy ship. He caught a favorable wind, pushing ahead a few knots, only for the breeze to change direction, allowing the French to gain again. Their gun ports lowered, as they tried to pull up for another broadside.
“Sir, they’re about to fire!” Robert called anxiously.
Horatio cranked the wheel hard, turning the Hotspur into the wind so it would fall behind the French ship, just as the enemy loosed another round.
“Take cover!” he yelled, flattening himself as cannonballs flew overhead. One struck the bow just above the water line, while a second clipped the mast, tearing a hole through the main sail, but luckily, the rest missed as the wind pushed the two ships away from each other.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Horatio stood up and gestured for crewmen to patch up the sail. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Henry, face and hands smudged with gunpowder.
“Mr. Thompson, where are my cannons?”
“Lads are still working on them, sir!”
“Well, get down there and help them.” Horatio ground his teeth in frustration. “Alright, Archie, I need you to man the swivel gun.”
“You don’t mean – ”
“We’re gonna execute the Whipshot Maneuver.”
Archie groaned. “That only worked one time during practice.”
“Do you have any better ideas for a distraction?”
Archie looked from the French ship with its rows of cannons, loaded and almost ready to fire, back to the Hotspur’s crew, still scrambling to clear up the debris-filled deck, and nodded reluctantly. “Alright.” He stuffed round shot into the swivel gun, then gripped the handles with both hands. “Give me the signal when you’re ready.”
“One…” Horatio eased the Hotspur alongside the enemy ship’s stern, facing in the opposite direction. “Two…” He brought the Hotspur close enough to the helm that they could see the decorations on the French officers’ uniforms. “Three!”
With a twist of his wrist, Horatio executed a sharp turn, putting the Hotspur perpendicular to the other ship – and providing Archie a perfect shot at its flank. Archie aimed and fired right into the center of the helm. The shot flew true, taking out the enemy helmsman, crashing through the rigging, before it finally lodged in one of the masts.
Chaos erupted throughout the French ship’s deck.
“Yes! Did you see that, Horatio? Perfect shot!” Giddily, Archie pumped his fist in the air, as Horatio flashed him a brilliant smile.
“Sir, cannons are ready, just say the word,” William shouted from the stairs.
“Excellent. Tell the men to fire at will.”
Horatio steered the Hotspur around to the port side of the enemy ship, lining up for the broadside.
The Hotspur’s cannons roared like tigers. When the smoke cleared, it revealed the splintered hull of the French ship, reeling back from the force of ten 9-pound long guns. Blood and chaos erupted across deck. It was clear that the French had not expected their target to rally so soon, or to bear down with so much firepower. Horatio and Archie exchanged a grim smile. Before the enemy could recover, the Hotspur had already sailed away, narrowly dodging a half-hearted hail of shot.
So the battle raged on, the Hotspur darting in and out, taking shots where it could, while the French ship tried to keep up. It soon became clear that the tide was turning in Horatio’s favor. Without the element of surprise, the Frenchmen could not match the speed or discipline of the Hotspur’s well-trained crew, nor the experience of her captain.
“They’re pulling back,” Archie exclaimed. “Horatio, we did it!”
Horatio nodded. “Go and help the injured. I’ll keep an eye on them.”
As Archie descended the stairs, he brushed past a sweat-soaked but exuberant William, who had just come up from the gun deck.
“Mr. Shaw’s watching the guns,” William said as he joined Horatio at the helm. He nodded at the enemy ship, which was currently just out of range. “Looks like the frogs are hesitating. Think they’ve had enough?”
“I don’t want to speculate, but…” Horatio watched as the French tried to sidle close, only to jerk back at a warning shot from the Hotspur’s swivel gun. “I think they’ve had enough.”
“Then, let me take over the wheel. The men need you on the main deck.”
Indeed, now that the battle had died down, the cries of the injured echoed plainly amidst the wreckage. Horatio hopped down and picked his way through the debris toward Archie, who was currently tending to a wounded gunner.
“Here, let me help.”
“This man needs a surgeon. Can you clear a path?” Archie pointed at the broken wood planks and snapped rigging, which were blocking his way to the stairs.
Nodding, Horatio set to work. As captain, he could delegate such tasks to his subordinates, but he rarely did when he could help it. He had a responsibility to his crew. They had saved his life several times through the years, and he regarded some of them as friends… almost family, although their respective ranks meant he could never admit it in public.
Distracted by his thoughts, Horatio saw the parting shot from the French ship too late. It barreled across the Hotspur’s deck, sending shrapnel flying everywhere before careening into the ocean with a huge splash. The ship listed sharply to starboard side. Throwing out a hand, Horatio managed to grab hold of the railing, but Archie and the gunner were not so lucky.
“Horatio!” Archie screamed.
He dangled precariously over the side, held up by only a few feet of rope. The waves rolled and roared beneath him as they consumed the dead gunner.
Leaning over, Horatio grabbed onto Archie’s hand, but the poor leverage and blood-slick deck only caused him to slip down further. He struggled to find purchase on the rope. Instead, he found himself tangled by the waist, and when the next wave hit, he and Archie both toppled over into the deep, dark sea. The last words to echo in his mind were:
“Horatio! Archie! NO!!”
Darkness and cold and the bitter taste of saltwater.
The sea rolled like an enormous black monster, writhing and thrashing against the craggy islands that formed its cage. On one of its frothy waves, a shivering figure clung for dear life. He tossed, turned, and nearly sank into the depths, before the sea took pity and disgorged him upon a nearby beach, just another piece of detritus from the belly of the beast.
Horatio coughed and sputtered, as he gulped in huge breaths of air. Gingerly, he pushed himself to his knees. No bleeding. No injuries. That much was a relief. He felt for his sword at his belt and immediately winced. Definitely bruises, though. The rope around his waist had dug in painfully due to Archie’s weight, but at least that meant his friend was –
Horrified, Horatio leaped up. “Archie!” The other end of the rope had snapped.
He scanned the beach frantically, praying that his friend was alive. “Archie, where are you?”
Thankfully, by the grace of the Divine, Horatio didn’t have to go far to find his friend. Archie lay in a limp puddle only a few meters away, his uniform torn, his mud-stained face almost unrecognizable. Horatio sprinted over, heart in his throat.
“Archie, Archie, wake up!” He fumbled open Archie’s collar and felt for a pulse.
Thud. Pause. Thud. Pause.
It was sluggish and weak, but there. Horatio sighed in relief. He patted Archie’s cheek and found the skin pale, almost blue-tinged, and cold to the touch. Remembering his training, Horatio unbuttoned Archie’s jacket and undershirt and began pumping his friend’s chest.
“Come on…” Horatio leaned in and pressed his lips to Archie’s. The first rescue breath did nothing. Another two compressions, another bigger breath. Still nothing. Then, on the third attempt, Horatio took hold of Archie’s jaw and pushed their lips together as deeply and as fervently as one would a lover. “Please, please, wake up,” he thought as he exhaled mightily.
Archie’s eyelids fluttered open. For a second, he met Horatio’s gaze with a warm desire that Horatio had never seen before. One hand lifted, stroking Horatio’s wrist.
But then, Archie convulsed and heaved a gush of saltwater. Between wet coughs and gasps, he managed to croak, “Horatio.”
“Well, it’s about time you woke up,” Horatio said cheerily, as he pounded his friend’s back like nothing had happened. “It’s your turn at the watch.”
“What?” Archie glanced around, still dazed from his ordeal.
“Joke. My apologies.” Horatio wrapped an arm around Archie’s back. “For a second, I thought you were lost.”
Archie smiled weakly. “Me? Never. I’m as strong as they – oh…” As he tried to sit up, Archie groaned in pain, both hands clutching his side.
Concerned, Horatio pulled back to examine the wound. A long, thin piece of wooden shrapnel had pierced Archie’s side, just above the hip, and blood oozed from the jagged edges, flowing down Archie’s thigh to stain the tails of his jacket dark red. Salt and sand dirtied the wound, along with splinters embedded in the skin. Lightly, Horatio prodded the tip of the wood. Archie gave a pained gasp, his face white as a sheet. His body shivered from the cold.
It was clear that now was not the time for surgery. Horatio shivered too, his sodden uniform reminding him that evening was approaching, and they had no shelter.
“Sorry, I must sacrifice your shirt,” Horatio said, as he pulled out the knife at his belt. He cut up Archie’s undershirt into strips and wound them around Archie’s side in a makeshift bandage.
“You should’ve – ah! – should’ve let go of the rope…” Archie mumbled.
“Nonsense. Hold still, this may hurt a bit.” Horatio tugged at the ends of the strips.
“You have your ship. You have – ahh, God!”
“All done.” Horatio tied the bandage neatly, the pressure of the cloth stemming the flow of blood.
Archie breathed heavily, sweat trickling down his pale forehead. “You have… your duty, Horatio. To them.” He gestured wildly at the shape of the Hotspur on the horizon.
“I have a duty to you, my comrade, my friend.” Horatio patted Archie’s hand. “Now, lie still while I find a way to signal our crewmates.”
Glancing around, Horatio spotted a steep hill that overlooked the waters. A rocky path snaked up from the beach to the top. Perhaps it once served as a sentry point? But for whom, and did they still inhabit this island? Swallowing his misgivings, Horatio climbed up the hill as rapidly as possible. To his relief, he found no one at the summit, not even a sign of human passage. He turned in the direction of the Hotspur.
How was he going to signal his ship? Horatio patted his belt. A pistol, bullets, wet gunpowder. Perhaps he could use his sword like a mirror to catch the light – but no, the sun was already dipping below the horizon. That left… oh. Oh! Horatio pulled out the ridiculously bright, shiny, festive red and green sash, which his crew had presented to him as an early Christmas present. Somehow, it had managed to survive the battle intact, clinging stubbornly to his belt. He waved it back and forth in the air.
“William! Matthews!” Horatio hollered as loud as he could, praying that someone had a spyglass pointed his way. “Over here!!”
At first, the Hotspur’s bow turned toward him. The sails billowed wide as if it were heading his way. But then, it kept turning… and turning… until it was pointed to the other side of the island. The ship glided obliviously past Horatio as he howled in frustration, watching helplessly as the Hotspur disappeared behind one of the craggy cliffs that dotted the archipelago.
“Bloody hell!” Defeated, Horatio collapsed to the ground, head in his hands. He was cold, drenched, and utterly exhausted – his whole body felt like it had been pummeled by a battering ram. He had not an ounce of energy left in him, and night was rapidly approaching. How were he and Archie supposed to survive alone on this island?
The thought of Archie, unconscious and bleeding, knotted Horatio’s throat. No, no, he couldn’t give up now. His friend was depending on him. During their campaign, Archie had saved his life countless times, leaping fearlessly to his defense with sword and pistol. It was Horatio’s duty to return that favor so long as he had breath in his lungs.
Slowly, Horatio pushed himself up from the ground, legs still a little wobbly. As he turned in a circle to get his bearings, a flutter of red and blue caught his sight. A British flag! But not on a ship. The flag waved proudly from its position atop a watchtower about a mile or so inland. It must be an outpost. One of the Royal Navy’s old outposts, which William and the midshipmen were discussing at dinner.
Elated by his good fortune, Horatio bounded down the hill to find Archie. They’d be safe for tonight. And then, tomorrow… tomorrow, surely, the Hotspur would return to search for them. Horatio was certain that his shipmates would not abandon him.
“All the more reason to keep looking while there’s still light left,” Robert interjected.
Henry’s lips pursed, as he glared at his junior colleague. “And how long do you suppose that is? Another hour at best?” Turning back, he addressed William. “The ship has suffered hull damage, there’s a leak in the stern, and the rear sail is all but in tatters. We need to head to port for repairs.”
“We can’t abandon the Captain!”
“By all signs, Mr. Bush is now the Captain,” Henry responded grimly.
“Sir!” Robert protested to William. “Captain Hornblower is still alive, I know it. I saw him grab hold of a barrel and swim for that island yonder. If we just circle again – ”
William’s face was stone as he interrupted, “How severe is the damage to the hull?”
“Five small bore holes through the first layer, two through the second. The force of the last cannonball caused a three-feet crack just at the waterline,” Henry responded in the crisp voice. “I have my men pumping it now.”
“Can the carpenter patch it up?”
“But it’s possible,” Robert argued. “We have the supplies, and both Edwin and Walter are working on it now.” Seeing William raise his eyebrows, Robert pressed on. “There’s nothing a port will offer us.”
“Except safety!” Henry countered. “Sir, this isn’t just about repairs. What if the French return? If there’s one of them, there’s a dozen lurking these waters – and next time, we’ll be sitting ducks.”
“We can’t put our fears above our duty to the Captain, Henry.”
“Our duty is to the Hotspur and its crew,” Henry said coldly. “If Mr. Hornblower were here, he’d say the same. Isn’t that right, sir?” he asked William.
Before William could reply, Matthews bounded up excited as a jackrabbit.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir.” He touched his forehead in salute. “But I just saw Mr. Hornblower’s scarf waving over there!” Matthews pointed to the island they’d just passed a minute ago.
“Where?” Instantly, William grabbed his spyglass.
“There. Up on that bluff, about north-northeast.”
William scanned the forest of palm trees dotted with rolling, sandy hills. There was the beach, and there the inlet, and on the very farthest end, an outcropping of weather-beaten rocks that gave way to a grassy bluff. Yet the bluff was thick with brush, and no matter how William squinted, he could not make out any sign of Horatio’s red-and-green scarf.
“I don’t see it, Matthews.”
“It was there, sir, I swear!”
Pursing his lips, William was about to reprimand his subordinate when suddenly, a shadow – a streak of navy and gold? – caught his gaze. He swiveled his spyglass sharply. Was it Horatio? His heart leaped with excitement. But an instant later, it was gone, leaving William to wonder if it had been a figment of his imagination.
Minutes passed before he reluctantly lowered his spyglass to face his expectant crew – the doubtful Henry, the worried Robert, and the hopeful Matthews. Opening his mouth, William announced his decision.
“Our priority is to repair the ship. Steer us to one of the nearby bays. We’ll drop anchor, patch up the hull and sails, and then tomorrow…” He looked each of his men in the eye. “…we organize a shore party to search that island.”
“Archie!” Horatio barely managed to catch his friend by the shoulders. However, spent from his own exertions, he ended up falling to the ground beside Archie.
“Can’t… I can’t go another step.” Agony was etched on every inch of Archie’s pale features.
“We’re almost there. See?” Horatio pointed at the tall wooden gate. “The outpost’s just around this bend.”
Archie shook his head, his hair half-obscuring his eyes. “I know. But… I can’t.” With tremendous effort, he tried to push himself up, but his legs collapsed like jelly. “You’ll have to go on without me.” He gave Horatio a wry smile.
Concerned, Horatio checked his friend’s injury again. The makeshift bandage had come loose, and during their climb, the large splinter had wedged itself deeper in Archie’s side, causing sharp pain with each stride. It was clear that Archie should not be walking in his condition.
“Nonsense,” Horatio said. “If you can’t walk, then I’ll carry you.”
The promise was easier made than done. Horatio himself was tired beyond belief, and his muscles burned furiously when he attempted to lift Archie up. Yet he persisted, and finally – through sheer strength of will – managed to carry his friend to the front of the gate, draped against his chest bridal style.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Horatio shouted. “My name is Horatio Hornblower. I’m a captain in the British Royal Navy. My comrade is injured and needs help!”
All that greeted him was silence.
Bracing himself, Horatio knocked on the gate with his toe, only for it to swing open at the first nudge. Unlocked… and apparently, unguarded. In fact, a quick glance around the main square revealed that the entire outpost was unguarded. The cabin windows were shuttered, the exercise yard covered in leaves and dust, and not a single light shone in the guard towers. Abandoned, then. By the looks of things, it had been for over a month. Horatio’s spirits plummeted straight to the bottom of his boots.
“Nnnh…” Archie groaned, semi-conscious.
Tightening his grip, Horatio made soothing sounds in Archie’s ear. His eyes darted around the complex again. Even if it was abandoned, there still had to be a place here they could spend the night. He scanned the squat buildings, the rows of equipment, and finally lit upon a sturdy cabin with a chimney situated by the barracks. That had to be the officer’s cabin. Praying it was also unlocked, Horatio staggered over with Archie still in his arms and pushed on the door…
Oh, thank merciful God!
The cabin was indeed unlocked. Moreover, it was furnished with a large quilted bed and a fireplace stacked high with wood. Heaving a sigh of relief, Horatio lay his friend down on the blankets before collapsing in a chair. They had found shelter – for the time being.
“Ah, ah, not yet.” Horatio appeared at his bedside, a smile on his face. He’d shed his soaked uniform so only his white undershirt covered his lean frame. “Not before I patch up that injury.”
“I shall perish without dinner,” Archie groaned dramatically.
“You’ll perish if that wound gets infected. Now come on, let me take a look.”
Reluctantly, Archie pushed back the covers, wincing. Blood soaked the makeshift bandage a deep, rusty red. The strips of cloth had slipped down to his hip, revealing the head of the wooden fragment, which was buried in his side. All around it were cuts and abrasions, peppered with bits of dirt, splinters, and small pebbles. Horatio furrowed his brow. Opening up a black medical bag, he took out a roll of fresh gauze, a bottle of disinfectant, and an array of tweezers of varying size, laying them out one by one on the bedside table.
“Where’d you find all… this?” Archie gestured.
“In the storeroom. Lucky for us, the previous occupants were in a hurry to leave, so they abandoned most of their supplies.”
“Do you know why?”
Horatio shrugged. “No idea. Probably an attack – these waters, as we’ve seen, are contested by the French.”
“Then the frogs might come back.” Archie chewed on his lip, agitated.
“I didn’t detect any signs when I walked the perimeter, and either way, there’s no point in worrying about it tonight.” Horatio patted his friend’s arm soothingly. Reaching over, he poured disinfectant on a pad of gauze and picked up the largest tweezers. “Hold still. This may hurt.”
“Damn frogs. They caught us when we were – AAHH!!”
With a swift movement, Horatio pulled out the wooden fragment, then quickly slapped the gauze pad on top of the hole to stem the bleeding.
“There, that’s the worst of it.”
“Liar,” Archie huffed. He stiffened and gasped again when Horatio yanked out another piece of shrapnel.
“Sorry,” Horatio said sheepishly. “This one is the worst of it.”
His claim was soon proved wrong by Archie’s colorful curses, as Horatio pulled splinter after splinter from his friend’s pale flesh.
“You know, Horatio, it’s a good thing you – ouch! – never tried for surgeon. Your bedside manner’s worse than old Curly ‘Stache.”
Horatio couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory of the old surgeon on the Justinian, whose chief duties involved dousing drunkards and treating Captain Keene’s heartburn – and who did indeed sport a very long, very curly mustache.
“Hey, do you remember that time I got seasick on top of the rigging, and you had to divert Keene away by dancing a jig with…”
Archie’s blue eyes lit up mirthfully. He smiled at Horatio’s retelling of their escapades, momentarily distracted from the pain, as Horatio gently cleaned and patched up each cut. Yes, they’d got up into all kinds of trouble back then. Although usually, it was Archie who was saving a green Horatio from some harebrained scheme. How circumstances had changed in the intervening years.
“I’m sorry for dragging you into this mess,” Archie said softly once Horatio had finished bandaging his injury.
“What do you mean?”
“The attack, the rope. You wouldn’t be here without me.”
“Oh nonsense, Archie, it was in the thick of battle. You’d have done the same for me. Now, forget about all that and eat.” Horatio offered his friend a toasted biscuit, but Archie turned away.
“I’m always burdening you with my troubles… my, my fits…” Archie shook his head, ashamed. “That time in the Spaniard’s fortress, you and the crew could have escaped ages ago if I hadn’t been weighing you down.”
“Archie, you know that’s patently untrue.”
“You should have left me behind.”
“Archie!” Horatio snapped, grabbing Archie by the shoulders. Immediately, Archie winced. His lip trembled as if he expected to be harshly rebuked. “Stop. Just… stop this. Please.” With a conscious effort, Horatio loosened his grip into a soft caress. His eyes met Archie’s then, and both dark brown and sky blue glistened with emotion. Gradually, Archie relaxed, leaning into Horatio’s calloused fingers.
“It’s simply that I never know how to return the favor,” Archie mumbled almost imperceptibly.
Horatio sighed. “Remember the explosion at the tower? And the Sawyer trial? How you stood up for me in that courtroom, putting your reputation on the line?” He clasped Archie’s hands. “That’s how. You’ve been doing it again and again from the day we met – by being my loyal friend.”
A shaky huff of breath whistled past Archie’s lips, and he looked away, trying to hide the emotion in his eyes.
“Poor Archie. So quick to give, so slow to accept the simplest gift.” Gently, Horatio cupped his friend’s cheek. “Would that he’d accept my gift now.”
For a minute, all was silent, then their gaze met once more, followed by their lips in a long, sweet, and tender kiss.
It felt like an eternity before Archie finally broke for breath. “Oh Horatio, if only…” If only we could be together like this all the time, every Christmas and holiday, without a care for what society thinks. That’s what Archie wanted to say. But instead, he flashed a crooked smile and joked, “If only you’d hand over that biscuit.”
Laughing, Horatio teased his friend with a tug-of-war over the sweet treat, and soon, they were tucking into the meal laid out on the dinner table.
Later at night, after the fire had died down, Horatio curled up in bed beside his friend, bodies pressed together for warmth beneath the blankets. With Archie’s steady breathing as a lullaby, he could almost forget they were marooned on a deserted island. Those worries were for the morning. Tonight, right here, in this moment, he was simply grateful that they were safe and unharmed, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Horatio jolted up from the bed, one arm still splayed across the empty spot beside him. “Archie?” He blinked bleary eyes, trying to adjust to the sunlight. “Archie, where are you?”
The room looked untouched, the fireplace dimmed to ashes, the plates of half-eaten food sitting on the table as they’d been last night. But Archie’s uniform and boots were gone. And the door latch…
Swiftly, Horatio pulled on his jacket and ran outside.
It didn’t take him long to find his friend. Archie had just descended from a guard tower, his hair flying wildly, a wide grin spread across his boyish face.
“Horatio, I’ve got great news!”
“There you are.” Horatio heaved a sigh of relief, as he clapped a hand on his friend’s back. “I thought for a second I’d lost you. What were you doing up in that tower?” Shielding his face, he looked up the ladder. “You shouldn’t be climbing with your injury.”
“Never mind that,” Archie brushed him off impatiently. “I saw the Hotspur, Horatio! Just a little ways north beside a bay. I think it’s headed toward us!”
Instantly, Horatio was up the ladder, taking the steps two at a time.
“Do you see it?” Archie called.
Indeed, he did. There was the familiar yellow-striped hull and flapping white sails, the proud bow pointed toward them like the nose of a hunting dog. Pulling out his spyglass, Horatio studied the small figures scurrying about the deck. There was a man in a bicorn hat (probably William?) and three or four other crewmates clustered around a… yes, that was definitely a boat. The kind used for ferrying passengers aboard – or sending exploratory parties ashore!
Whooping, Horatio slid back down and grabbed Archie by the arm. “Archie, they’re looking for us. We’ve got to signal them somehow.”
“I think I passed an armory on my way here. It should have – ”
And with that, the two took off at a loping run.
William examined the torn and muddy strip, clearly ripped from a men’s undershirt. The white cotton had been stained almost completely copper by blood.
“Where did the footprints lead?” he asked, stuffing the cloth in his pocket.
“Up a dirt path to the interior of the island. We tracked them about half a mile before losing them in the underbrush, so we returned according to your instructions.” Robert furrowed his brow, clearly unhappy about having to break off the search. But orders were orders.
“I see.” Whipping out his spyglass, William surveyed the island again. “Southwest, you said? By the tall crag of rock?”
Robert nodded. “Yes, sir. Where the sand meets the heart-shaped cluster of palm trees.” He shifted nervously from one foot to the other, shooting a glance at Michaels, who was the first to discover the boot tracks. “Do you think they made it to that outpost we spotted earlier?”
“You haven’t yet established that it is an outpost,” Henry remonstrated.
“Peaked towers, palisade walls, a convenient footpath from the dock…”
“It could just be a local village.”
“Yeah, lots of those hereabouts flying a British flag,” Michaels muttered under his breath.
“What was that?” Henry said sharply.
“Gentlemen!” William interrupted, glaring at his subordinates until they all subsided into silence. He trained his spyglass back on the island. From the craggy rock, he traced the twists and turns of the path through the forest, up to a hill where the supposed outpost stood. Squinting, he tried to make out the colors of the flag. It was blue… but were those red stripes? Or some other symbol? Both Robert and Michaels reported that it was a British flag, but they too had only seen it from a distance, and William wasn’t sure…
Suddenly, two figures came briefly into view among the trees. William’s eyes widened. That was unmistakably Horatio and Archie! He’d recognize the cocked hat and blond hair anywhere.
Whipping around, he addressed his crew. “Prepare the boat. You’re going back in.” William’s normally stern face split in an uncharacteristic grin. “I just spotted them about the meter from the outpost.”
Henry opened his mouth, but Robert beat him to a reply. “Sir, yes, sir!” He saluted smartly, a broad smile on his lips. “Alright you men, you heard the orders. Get to it!”
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but whereabouts will we be aiming to land?” Styles asked.
“Right by the docks like before. Unless…” Hesitating, Robert turned to look at William. “…you see a shorter path, sir.”
William was still scanning the treetops, hoping to catch another glimpse of Horatio. “No, Mr. Shaw, you may proceed to the – ”
All at once, his blood turned to ice.
There, at the edge of the dock, stood a pair of French soldiers with rifles over their shoulders. They were guarding a boatful of crates, which were being unloaded by four crewmen, armed with pistols. A fifth man – the commanding officer, by the colors of his uniform – barked orders and gestured up the path… that led straight to Horatio and Archie! With the brush this thick, they’d never stand a chance of spotting the French before it was too late.
“What’s wrong?” Robert asked, brow knitting in concern.
“Grab your weapons.” William was at the ladder in an instant. “Mr. Thompson! You’re in charge of the ship while I’m gone.” The midshipmen exchanged a look of confusion, one which quickly turned to horror at William’s next words.
“The French are on that island – and they’re headed straight for Horatio!”
“Are you sure this will work?” he asked again, chewing his lip.
“Oh, stop worrying, Archie.”
“Maybe we should shoot a test flare before we hike all the way up the hill.”
“We’re almost at the top.” Pausing, Horatio turned to offer Archie his arm, as they approached a steep portion of the path. Archie took an awkward step up, doing his best not to put pressure on his wound. “Besides, if the flares don’t work, we still have our pistols. The Hotspur should be close enough for them to hear the gunshots.”
“Yeah, but…” We should really save those bullets, Archie thought. He’d been the one to insist they clean and reload their pistols with the ammunition they’d found in the armory, despite Horatio’s insistence they hurry to the signaling point. Something about the eerie silence in the forest didn’t sit right with him.
Oblivious to Archie’s concerns, Horatio joked, “It’s a good thing you found the box of gunpowder. Otherwise, we’d be back to waving my Christmas scarf!” He rounded the final bend and halted. “Ah, here we are.”
They were standing in a small clearing atop a hill, surrounded by tropical brush and palm trees. The trees parted to the northeast, offering a clear view of the sparkling blue ocean, along with the proud fluttering sails and sharp bow of the Hotspur. Squinting, Horatio could make out a figure standing at the wheel. Was it William? No, the hat didn’t look right…. But there, just a few knots away from the Hotspur, floated a boat – a shore party! And at its helm stood William.
“Quick, Archie, hand me the flare gun!” Horatio cried excitedly. “William’s got a shore party headed our way.”
Archie’s heart leaped with joy. As Horatio loaded the first flare, he scanned the horizon, looking for the boat with their comrades. Yes, there it was, clear as day and headed for the beach just east of their hill. “They’re so close, we might not even need the flares.”
“I’ll shoot one just as a signal.”
“Or we could climb down to that – ” Suddenly, the words died in Archie’s throat.
There, right at the bottom of the hill, was a group of French soldiers armed to the teeth!
“Wait!” Archie tried to grab Horatio’s arm, but it was too late. The first flare whistled through the air, bright as a shooting star. All at once, the French turned to look in their direction.
A buzz of commotion exploded, followed by a single command from their lieutenant, and then, several soldiers started running their way.
“Oh, curses!” Horatio’s eyes widened in surprise.
Looking around quickly, Archie spotted a rocky narrow trail through the brush. “This way!” he shouted, as he pulled Horatio toward the tree line.
The two raced down the trail at top speed, ducking under branches and hopping over rocks, barely avoiding a collision with a boulder at one sharp bend. In the distance, voices shouted in French. The sound of boots (and the occasional “Merde!”) echoed through the forest, gaining slowly.
“We’ve got to head to the boat,” Horatio hissed.
“The frogs are in the way!”
“It’s our only chance!”
With a sharp pivot, Horatio dove off the trail toward the east, praying that his sense of direction had not failed him. His crewmates must be close. If the French saw the flare, then surely William had as well – and was pulling at this moment for shore. Horatio only hoped they were ready for a fight. He could hear the soldiers closing in.
Abandoning the flare gun, Horatio pulled out and cocked his pistol. He gestured for Archie to do the same. Together, they swerved around a large tree, plastering themselves against the trunk.
The first soldier tramped through a moment later, his rifle at the ready. He looked down, studied the crushed leaves, and squinted at the row of bushes and palm trees. Horatio held his breath. His eyes went back and forth between the Frenchman and Archie, who was clutching his wounded side, pain etched across his face. For a second, it seemed like the soldier was going to move on. But then, something caught his gaze. Horatio looked down and realized it was his Christmas scarf! Instinctively, he raised his pistol and –
The Frenchman fell down dead, his finger just a hairsbreadth from the trigger.
“Shit,” Archie cursed, as shouts filled the forest. The other soldiers now knew their exact location. “Run!”
And with that, Horatio and Archie made a mad dash through the forest, the French hot on their heels. Rifle shots cracked overhead, sending smoke into the air. Archie ducked, then turned and fired back. He was rewarded with a cry of pain as one of their pursuers fell to his knees. Got the bastard, he thought grimly. That’ll teach the frogs a lesson.
Unfortunately, Archie’s celebration was short-lived. As he neared the edge of the beach, his foot caught on a protruding root and he toppled onto the ground, landing squarely on his injured side.
“Archie!” Horatio skidded to a halt.
Archie was curled up in a ball of pain, breathing raggedly. Blood seeped from beneath the bandages.
“Archie, get up!” Horatio shook his friend desperately, as he shot a glance behind them.
“Can’t…” Groaning, Archie tried to get up, but ended up collapsing against Horatio. “You… go on ahead. I’ll hold… them off.” He tried to steady his pistol in his shaking hand.
“Nonsense. Either we go on together, or not at all.”
“Damn it… Horatio. You have… a duty – a duty to your ship!” But Archie’s protests fell on deaf ears.
Looping Archie’s arm over his shoulder, Horatio half-carried, half-dragged his friend behind a huge fallen log, just as a French soldier burst onto the scene. The soldier raised his rifle. Bullets flew, thunking into the gnarled wood right above Horatio’s head. Horatio fired back blindly over the log. Gunfire roared back and forth, neither giving an inch until… click.
Horatio’s pistol was out of ammo.
“I’ve only got three more bullets,” Archie gasped. Nevertheless, Horatio scrambled to exchange his pistol for his friend’s. “You’ve gotta make a run for the beach, else we’ll both die, you fool.” He tried to shove Horatio away, but Horatio would have none of it.
“Then we do so side by side as friends. And… and lovers.”
Archie’s eyes widened as he met Horatio’s gaze, filled with earnest affection. Their kiss the previous night… he thought he’d dreamed it. His fingers closed around Horatio’s hand, and rather than pushing away, he held on tightly, as tight as Horatio had held onto him when they were tossed into the sea.
Just then, a dark figure loomed overhead. Instinctively, Horatio threw himself on top of Archie. He rolled over to find himself staring down a rifle barrel.
“Gentlemen. It looks like you could use some help.”
William stepped out coolly from behind the fallen Frenchman, his pistol smoking and a broad grin on his face.
“William!” Horatio heaved an immense sigh of relief. “Oh sweet Jesus, am I glad to see you.”
“You too, my friend.” Laughing, William pulled Horatio up and clapped him on the back. “Archie.” He nodded and extended a hand.
“Thanks. Ow!” Archie winced as Horatio and William each took him by the arm, supporting him with their bodies. “Took you long enough.” He smiled weakly at William.
“We ran into a few frogs on the way. Luckily, Mr. Shaw and the crew squashed them.”
Nearby, on the beach, they could hear Matthews crowing in triumph, as the Hotspur’s crew rounded up the remaining Frenchmen, who were cursing loudly and colorfully at their ill fortune.
Despite the close call, Horatio had to chuckle. “I suppose we’ll all be having frog pie for Christmas dinner, then?”
Archie made a face and pretended to retch.
“Not all of us.” William gave a sly smirk. “Styles managed to save a burnt piece of ham – just for you.”