Chapter 1: New Orders
It has been a long ten months of duty with the blockade fleet off the Mediterranean French ports for the Hotspur and her crew. Ten months without putting into any port for more than a few hours to pick up much needed water or other supplies. But finally Hotspur is due for an overhaul at Gibraltar. As she sails into port under tops'l's there's an air of joy and expectancy among her crew, for the overhaul will also mean shore leave for everyone aboard.
The moment the last boom of salute has ended, Midshipman Cheeseman's shout of “Flagship's signalling, Sir,” makes heads turn aboard the sloop. “2-3-1 – that's 'Captain report aboard flagship'.”
“Must be urgent if he's in such a hurry; we've not even dropped anchor,” William Bush, Hotspur's First Lieutenant, comments.
“I shall find out promptly,” Commander Horatio Hornblower replies to his friend.
Bush's voice doesn't require a speaking trumpet to be heard over the noise of a ship under way. “Matthews! Prepare the gig!”
And indeed, the moment the sloop's second anchor has dropped to secure Hotspur in the position assigned by the guard boat, the gig is lowered, ready to take her captain across the harbour to the flagship.
~ * ~
A knock sounds on the door of Admiral Pellew's cabin aboard the flagship. Without looking up from his desk he calls, “Enter!”.
In steps Horatio Hornblower, his hat tucked under his arm.
At the sound of someone entering, Pellew turns and a brief smile of recognition crosses his face. He stands to greet his visitor.
“Admiral Pellew, Sir. You wished to see me?”
“Indeed. A glass of claret?” Without waiting for a reply, the admiral reaches for a decanter and pours them both a glass. He hands one to his protégé, who accepts it with a small incline of his head.
“So, blockade duty. How long has it been?”
“Ten months, Sir.”
“Ah, yes. Not exactly challenging work. You must be glad for the break, I presume?”
Hornblower's response is guarded. “It's an important task to keep the French fleet under control.”
“Come, come now. It's about the most dreaded order any young commander can receive; and certainly below your true capabilities.”
Hornblower gives the admiral a slightly puzzled yet curious look. “Sir?”
Pellew puts his glass down on the nearby table and straightens out a chart. “Look at this.”
Hornblower steps closer and looks at the nautical chart; it depicts the north-western coast of Africa, extending westwards to the Madeira archipelago .
“With a great number of our ships employed in blockade duty, we were forced to cut back in other aspects, like escorts for merchant ships. Our focus was on the big Indiamen as, in the past, they have proved to be the enemy's preferred prey.
"Lately, however, three small merchant vessels have gone missing in these waters. All were last seen in the port of Funchal, taking on stores or goods for their home-bound journey. They have not put into any port since, yet our contacts have not heard of any ships being taken by the French.”
“One, maybe. Two would be a bloody great coincidence. Three? Come now, Mr. Hornblower.”
“So what happened to them?”
“That is exactly what both the Admiralty and the owners of the missing ships want to know. And quite frankly, so do I.”
He looks at Hornblower and sees on the young man's face that he has guessed where this is going. “In what state is your Hotspur?”
“No major damage, but she has become slow with growth on her hull. We are also in need of spare parts to repair some storm damage we've only been able to patch up. The local yard is supposed to deal with it during Hotspur's overhaul.”
“I see. Any repairs you couldn't make at sea, providing you had the material?”
Hornblower mentally goes over the list of necessary repairs. “Apart from scraping her hull, no.”
“Then that will have to wait. Put together a list of your most needed supplies and spare parts; provisions, too. I'll make sure you will be given everything you need. But don't bother with a full stock now. You can increase your stores when you put into Funchal.”
“The capital of Madeira.”
“Indeed. You're to sail to Madeira, and from there discover the fate of the missing merchantmen. I'll have your written orders sent across to your ship. Now, drink up, man.”
Chapter 2: Preparations
Back aboard Hotspur, Hornblower heads straight for his cabin, calling to his first lieutenant in passing. “A word please, Mr. Bush.”
Bush closes the cabin door behind them, and when he looks up, Hornblower is already at his desk.
“All leave is cancelled, William; we just got new orders. Put together a list of all spare parts we need and provisions for – let's say a month.”
“Aye aye. May I ask what our orders are?”
“The written orders have not yet arrived. Have dinner with me tonight and I shall update you then. For now, we need to make haste. Admiral Pellew wants us to sail in two days.”
“Thank you. I'll have the list drawn up within the hour.” Bush hesitates in the cabin for long enough to prompt Hornblower to look up.
“I fear what the cancelled leave will mean for the morale on board. The men have been talking about nothing else for days.”
“We're at war, it can't be helped. We all have to do our duty.”
“Of course. I'll make sure to keep the hands busy. It will keep their minds off it for a while at least.”
~ * ~
Groans can be heard all over the ship as word of the cancelled leave spreads like a wildfire. But as a freshwater lighter comes alongside even before Bush has had the chance to go ashore with his list of required stores, the crew is soon too busy to give much thought to the joys and pleasures that might have awaited them ashore.
Some supplies, especially provisions, come aboard already that day, and both midshipmen, master, and bosun are busy organizing their stowage. Bush is kept so busy ashore, he only returns to Hotspur in time for his dinner with Hornblower.
They've come to dine together fairly often and both men enjoy the precious moments when they can be just friends.
When Bush sits down at Hornblower's table that evening, he notices a stack of mail, most of it as of yet unopened.
“I see the mail has come. Do you have news from home?”
“There are several letters from Maria, yes. I must find the time to write to her before we sail.”
Bush waits for Hornblower to tell him more about the letters, but as his friend is not forthcoming on the matter, Bush decides to probe a little. “I hope you don't mind my asking, there's no bad news, is there?”
Hornblower clears his throat uncomfortably. “I – haven't had a chance to read the letters yet. You know how it is, William, our duty must come first.”
“Of course.” Bush studies his friend's guarded face across the table. His marriage clearly hasn't made Hornblower a happier man. Sometimes Bush wonders how long Maria's happiness will last with a man who married her out of some sense of duty rather than love. A man who puts everything else first. He hides his worry about his friend's marriage by taking a bite of his food.
After a long moment of silence, Hornblower changes the topic. “Well, you had asked about our orders.”
Bush, his mouth full, gestures for Hornblower to explain, and listens to his friend's summary of the story while he chews.
“We're to investigate the missing ships' fate, and, if possible, stop what is going on in those waters,” Hornblower finishes.
“What do you think is going on?”
Hornblower takes a sip of his wine. “I don't know. Pirates maybe? Or it might just be a very unlucky coincidence, and they've been lost at sea in bad weather. They were small ships, schooners all of them. We've ourselves experienced just recently what damage a severe storm can do. And 'tis the season.”
“Indeed, but three ships! Were they sailing together?”
“No, according to the report I received, they passed through Madeira at different times during the last two months.”
“So it's very unlikely that all were lost in storms.”
“It is indeed.”
~ * ~
The next day, Bush enters the stern cabin to report on their progress.
“We're still waiting for some spars and cordage to come aboard, but I've been assured we can load them today.”
“Thank you, William, that is good news.”
Bush's eyes take in the scene before him: Hornblower sits at his desk and has started writing a letter. What looks like a couple of false starts have been crumpled up and pushed aside. The stack of Maria's letters seems untouched.
Hornblower notices Bush's look. “Tell the men to hurry if they want to send any letters. We'll sail on the morning tide with the first of the ebb, there'll be no time for a boat to carry mail ashore before.”
“Aye aye. I'll leave you to finish your letter as well, Sir.”
Bush is a little worried about his friend's obvious anguish to find the right words to write to his wife – at least he assumes that is what Hornblower is trying to do. He would like to cheer his friend up, for Hornblower's smile can warm Bush's heart like not much else, but he knows it's a difficult task, and he's uncertain how to go about it at that moment and there's still a lot of work to be done before they sail anyway.
~ * ~
The next morning, Hotspur's headsails are readied, the anchor hove short, and the ship prepares to leave the safety of the harbour. Bush, as so often, takes her out while Hornblower paces along the weather side of the quarterdeck, lost in thought, his chin tucked into his collar.
Once they're out on the open seas, the hands are assembled and sectioned off to start work on the necessary repairs.
That work, interspersed with sail and gun exercises, keeps everyone busy during their voyage to Madeira; not even Hornblower and Bush find the time to talk privately.
Hornblower keeps to himself in his cabin most of the time anyway – apart from when he takes his morning showers or occasionally paces along the quarterdeck.
Bush usually makes certain to be on deck for Hornblower's showers. His initial amusement by the sight has slowly turned into fascination. Hornblower seems innocent and happy when he enjoys the spray of the water-pump, and Bush likes to see his friend so happy. But lately his focus has changed yet again. He now pays attention to the way Hornblower's wet hair clings to his head, and the way the water trickles down his friend's skinny body.
Chapter 3: Madeira
A week later, at high water in the afternoon, Hotspur drops her anchor in Funchal, which has become home to several English wine merchants. Hornblower goes ashore to make enquiries while Bush is sent to look into replenishing their stores.
Hornblower is accompanied by Midshipman Orrock as he visits the local governor, a tall man called Valdez, who welcomes them in a sunlit room with mosaics covering two of the walls, and big windows along the southern wall.
“Capitão Hornblower, it is a pleasure to meet you and the young gentleman.” Valdez' English is accented, though not too strongly, just enough to identify him as Portugese.
“Senhor Valdez, thank you for taking the time to see us.”
“Not at all. Please, take a seat. What can I do for my English friends?”
Hornblower takes a seat opposite Valdez' desk while Orrock stays behind, lingering close to the door. “Thank you. I have been sent to investigate the disappearance of merchant vessels bound for Europe after they departed from Funchal.”
He resists the urge to run a finger under his collar. The room is stifling hot from the sun shining in through the big windows, and Hornblower is sweating profusely in his uniform. He shifts, trying to find a more comfortable position.
“Ah yes, it is most unfortunate business.”
Valdez proves to be an observant man, picking up on his guest's discomfort. “But where are my manners? Something to drink? You must try our local speciality, Poncha.” Valdez claps his hands twice, and a servant bows into the room. “Felipe, Poncha for three.” The servant bows again and retreats.
“I don't think I've heard of this drink.”
“It is most pleasant, I assure you. Mixed of water, tea, lemon, sugar, and a little alcohol. I think you will find it very refreshing.”
Some amounts of it must be stored somewhere close by as Felipe already returns, carrying a tray with three glasses. He serves first Hornblower, then his master, and, on his way out, Orrock.
Hornblower takes a careful sip of his drink. Surprised by the pleasant taste, he smiles and nods to Valdez. “You are absolutely right, Senhor, it is refreshing indeed.”
Valdez leans back in his chair, looking pleased.
After another sip, Hornblower directs their conversation back to his reason for coming to Madeira. “Now, I need to learn as much as possible about the missing ships. Senhor Valdez, as governor of the island, certainly you have heard something?”
“Yes, yes I have. There is much talk about it. Alas, it is only speculation. We have no, how do you say? Definite knowledge?”
Hornblower nods and Valdez continues. “I know not how familiar you are with the history of the island, Capitão Hornblower. Madeira has been plagued by pirates and slavers in the past.”
“The Barbary corsairs. Surely they are a thing of the past?”
“Indeed they are. But their ill deeds have not been forgotten. Many families have lost mothers, fathers and even children to them. And mind you, Capitão Hornblower, it might not be the Barbary corsairs. They operated differently, abducted people from shore. But what if others have taken up a similar trade? A combination of piracy and slavery?”
“It is a possibility. But is there any proof? Anything substantial?”
Valdez' reply comes after a moment of hesitation. “You might want to talk to Capitão Willows. I believe his ship, the White Swan is still in port.”
“She is, I saw her on our way in,” Orrock supplies from his post close to the door. “A barquentine, Sir.”
“Thank you, Mr. Orrock. And thank you again for your time, Senhor Valdez. I shall do as you suggest.” Hornblower empties his glass and rises from his seat.
Valdez stands as well and walks Hornblower to the door where he reaches to shake his hand. “I wish you the best of luck, Capitão. This situation is bad for Madeira. Some merchants already consider taking their trade to other ports because of these disappearances. If there is anything I can do to help, you must let me know.”
“We will do whatever we can to resolve this situation, Senhor Valdez. It is in England's interest as much as in yours to ensure that no more ships are lost.”
~ * ~
At Funchal's pier, Bush oversees the loading of some casks when the two men return. “These are the last stores, we're just about to make for the ship, Sir.”
“Very well, Mr. Bush. We shall accompany you and then I would like you to join me. We shall pay a visit to the White Swan yonder. The governor hinted at her captain having more than local gossip to offer on the matter of the missing merchantmen. I want to talk to him before he sails.”
“I was about to come to that. We have been invited to dine on board of the White Swan. It seemed to me that her captain was equally interested in talking to us. I took the liberty of accepting the invitation on your behalf.”
One look into Bush's blue eyes tells Hornblower that the possibility of gaining information wasn't his only reason to accept. He might ask his friend about it later – if they can find a moment alone.
The moment presents itself just before they leave for the merchant ship. Hornblower doesn't even need to ask, Bush volunteers his ulterior motive while they're out of earshot of others. “I know Style's cooking has improved to the level of edibility, but I thought you might enjoy a good meal for a change. So I accepted the invitation before I knew we might gain vital information.”
“I'm glad you did, William.” Hornblower uses his friend's first name on purpose, to let him know his concern is noted – and appreciated – yet still be able to maintain a straight face. It wouldn't do for Hotspur's captain to grin as he walks past the side party and climbs down the tumblehome to his gig.
The barquentine turns out to be a strange mix of minimalism, to allow for maximum cargo space, and luxury in her captain's cabin. It is in striking contrast to Hornblower's own cabin aboard Hotspur. No gun can be seen in here. Instead, pictures have been hung on the walls, rugs lie on the floor, and plush chairs are arranged around a table that has been polished to the extent of light reflecting off its surface. Even Hornblower's and Bush's uniforms seem dull in comparison to those of the White Swan's captain and officers.
“Commander Hornblower, Lieutenant Bush, I'm glad you accepted my invitation. May I introduce Mr. Grimsby, my second officer? I'm sorry your counterpart, Mr. Bush, is not with us tonight. He asked to visit a relative on the island before we sail tomorrow. His uncle works at our company's local office.”
The four men settle down at the table. Wine is poured and ideas about ships, sailing, and the war are discussed over an excellent soup, followed by Feijoada, a stew of beans with beef and pork. It isn't until Bolo de Mel, honey cake, is served for dessert, that Hornblower gets a chance to bring up the missing merchantmen.
“Captain Willows, Mr. Bush was under the impression you had information to share with us. Might this pertain to the missing merchant vessels?”
“Yes, I had intended to talk to you about that.” Willows, who has so far proved to be a very jovial man, turns serious. “Word quickly reached me that you are here to investigate what fate has befallen my brethren in trade. I'm not sure how helpful this information will be to you, but we met a sister ship on our way here. Her officers told us about the sighting of a schooner. Thinking it to be another merchant, they tried to make contact, but the signals the schooner hoisted in reply made no sense at all – they were just random flags.”
“Do you know which flags they hoisted?”
“Unfortunately, no. They didn't note them down. But they also reported that the schooner's sails seemed very untidily set, not up to an English ships' standard at all. It made them suspicious, and they concluded it was safer to continue on their way, rather than try to close with the other ship.”
Hornblower exchanges a brief look with Bush, finding his own concern mirrored in his friend's blue eyes.
“They did not recognise the ship?” Bush asks.
“No. It was none of our fleet's ships. But many merchant ships pass through these waters. The schooner did not have her colours hoisted, I've been told. But our brethren in trade did think her to be English, because of her build.”
“Where was this sighting?”
“That I can show you. They noted the encounter in their logbook and passed the information on to me. So you think this incident might be related?”
“It might be. We will certainly look into it.”
“Very well, I hope it will help you to deal with this threat. I shall show you the position on the chart before you return to your ship, Mr. Hornblower. But now let us talk of happier topics! Say, Sir, are you married?”
Hornblower's reply is not as cheerful as Captain Willow's question is phrased. “I am. Yes.”
“Good, good. A man needs a wife and home to return to!”
Bush's face remains blank, but if Hornblower looked at him now, he could see the doubt in his friend's eyes.
“Children?” Willows continues. “I have two myself, feisty boys. I have high hopes for them.”
“I haven't been able to spend much time at home since I got married.” Hornblower hates himself for feeling the need to find an excuse for not being a father yet, even though he must be about fifteen years younger than Willows.
Bush, picking up on Hornblower's tone, tries to come to his friend's rescue by a slight shift of their topic. “We've been with the blockading fleet in the Mediterranean for ten months before being sent on this mission.”
“Pardon my asking, but isn't that rather dull?” Grimsby enquires, to Bush's relief helping to return their discussion to areas Hornblower should be more comfortable with.
Hornblower leaves it to Bush to recount some of the more interesting events during those months, few as they were.
Later, after Mr. Grimsby has gone to signal for Hornblower's gig to be brought alongside, the remaining men assemble around the chart table.
“We met with our sister ship here,” Willows explains. “They had spotted the schooner about four hours earlier, having run a course of sou'-by-sou'west.” His finger trails over the chart, reversing the mentioned course. “That, combined with their shooting of the sun at noon, puts the encounter about here.”
The two Naval officers study the chart closely.
“That's very much in the middle of nowhere.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Bush, it is right along a route frequented by many merchant ships. It leaves us with plenty of sea room to escape to if we encounter an enemy.”
“Which doesn't necessarily work if a ship is heavily laden,” Hornblower muses.
“Unfortunately not always, no. It very much depends on both the ship, and the seamanship of the enemy.”
“I think your sister ship did right not to investigate, Captain Willows. But – which is the route you referred to?”
“For merchant traffic? We sail east-nor'-east from Madeira, turn north around here,” he indicates the spot on the chart, “and from there run up towards Europe.”
A knock sounds and a young face peeks into the cabin. “Pardon, Sir, but Hotspur's boat is alongside.” The youngster's eyes roam around the room before he retreats.
“Just like our midshipmen! They never let a chance to get a glimpse of the captain's cabin pass them by, either.” Bush sounds a little amused now, but he'd never show his amusement to any midshipman he might catch doing it on their ship.
“Oh, let them, I say. If it makes them hungry for promotion, I find it also makes them willing to work hard for it.” Willows chuckles. “And let's face it, gentleman, keeping anything secret is near impossible on a ship anyway.”
“Indeed. But I think it's time for us to leave. Captain Willows, thank you for your hospitality.”
Chapter 4: Deck There!
Hotspur sets sail the next morning, following the White Swan out of the anchorage. Bush is just about to hand over the watch to Midshipman Orrock when young Cheeseman appears at the top of the companionway.
“Captain Hornblower wishes to see you, Mr. Bush!”
“I'm on my way. You have the watch, Mr. Orrock.”
Bush's knock on Hornblower's door is answered with a court “Come!” He enters and finds his friend studying a nautical chart.
Hornblower briefly looks up to see Bush tucking his hat under his arm. “Ah, William. That was quick.” He drops his dividers and straightens. “We need to turn Hotspur into a merchant vessel.”
Bush seems surprised. “May I ask why?”
“If there truly are ships out there, attacking defenceless merchantmen, they are going to run the moment they spot a man of war. But if we can deceive them long enough to lure them into the range of our guns, we'll have the element of surprise on our side when we open fire.”
“You think it really is pirates or slavers who have taken the ships, then?”
Hornblower turns to the stern windows, studying the play of the sunlight on the water. “I don't have a better theory as to why or how those ships vanished. Add the sighting of the strange English ship...”
“I've given that some thought, too. One of the captured merchantmen maybe? A schooner would fit.”
“Exactly. So -” Hornblower turns back towards Bush and starts to give his orders. “I want to see no uniforms on deck, get someone to rig a tarpaulin so it looks like we carry stores on deck, and we need a false merchant's flag to hoist.”
“That should do the trick, at least from a distance.”
“Which is all we need. Also, though they won't like it much, tell the marines to stay out of sight.”
“I'll see to it.”
It takes Bush no more than two hours to make the sloop resemble a merchant vessel in appearance as much as possible. In the meantime, Madeira has vanished beyond the horizon. As the sun beats down relentlessly on the lonely man-of-war, it's an actual pleasure for her crew to be rid of their heavy uniform jackets.
“Weather's going to turn before dusk,” Prowse, Hotspur's master, predicts at the next change of the watch – and his prediction stands true. A strong wind kicks up by the first dog watch, clouds move in, and, with dusk, rain starts to pour down on them. It's an uncomfortable night for all on board, but it also means the weather is all they need to worry about; visibility has reduced too much for any hunter to be on the prowl.
By morning, the weather has calmed again. Low clouds still hide the sun, but the rain is gone and the wind is filling Hotspur's sails just the right way to make them draw at maximum effect.
Hornblower is already up and bent over a chart when Styles enters the stern cabin to wake him.
“Breakfast, Sir?” he asks instead.
“Just coffee, Styles.” Hornblower sounds absent-minded.
“Yes, Sir.” Styles retreats – but not to immediately see to making the requested coffee. Instead he goes to find Mr. Bush, who gave him standing orders to inform him if their captain is skipping meals. It's something Hornblower has done several times before; and to Bush's mind, his friend is too skinny already to go without food.
So Styles lingers in the wardroom-door until Bush notices him. “Styles? What's up, man?”
“Beg yer pardon, Sir, but 'tis one of them days.”
He needn't say more, Bush understands him perfectly. “Thank you, Styles.” He briefly addresses his mess-mates. “I need to speak to the captain. If you'll excuse me.”
Once out of earshot of his fellow officers, he orders Styles to bring breakfast for two to Hornblower's cabin and sets off to see what is bothering his friend.
He finds Hornblower in the same position Styles encountered him in mere minutes earlier.
“Good morning, Horatio. I hope you don't mind my intrusion this early, but I hoped we might have breakfast together.”
“I'm not really hungry.” Hornblower's reply doesn't sound like a rebuke, just a statement.
“What are you studying?” Bush joins his friend, dropping the topic for now.
“The African coast. If there are pirates or slavers out here, they must have a base nearby.”
“It would make sense.”
“The question is, are they sailing out of a port or some bay? There are so many options.”
Standing quietly side by side, they study the chart until Styles pushes through the cabin door with breakfast and coffee.
“Ah, maybe food will help us to come up with an idea.” Bush walks to the table where Styles is setting down two plates of food. It actually is recognisable as eggs and sausages.
Hornblower lingers over the chart a moment longer, which means he misses the brief glance Bush and Styles exchange.
Bush tucks into his food before it goes cold, which prompts Hornblower to at least make an attempt at eating a little. It would be rude not to, but he is spared from having to force down too much when a call from the lookout makes both men look up at the skylight.
“Deck there! Sail-ho! Spied on the starboard bow!”
Having to stay seated pains both men, but it wouldn't do not to wait for the messenger who will be sent to officially inform them of the sighting. When the youngest of the midshipmen finally knocks on the door, it's a relief.
“Mr. Prowse's respects, Sir. We've sighted a vessel and would you please come on deck?”
“Thank you, Mr. Cheeseman, we will be up presently.”
“Yes, Sir.” The youth turns to run back, but a shout from Bush makes him stop in his tracks.
“Mr. Cheeseman! Walk, if you please.”
The youngster blushes profusely, muttering, “Sorry, Sir. Of course, Sir,” and escapes up the companionway as slowly as he can will himself to walk in his state of excitement.
It's not as if the two officers aren't equally excited, they're more used to keeping up appearances, though, and thus they seem rather unconcerned when they emerge on deck a moment later.
“Sail sighted on the starboard bow, Sir,” Prowse reports.
“Thank you, Mr. Prowse. What ship is she?” Hornblower calls up to the lookout in the masthead.
“Schooner, I think, but she's still very far out!”
“Mr. Orrock, take a glass and go up,” Bush orders when he sees the midshipman emerge from a companionway.
“Yes, Sir!” Orrock accepts the glass Prowse holds out to him and nimbly starts climbing. Everyone on deck observes his progress up the ratlines, and an air of expectancy spreads across the ship.
Once he has studied the distant ship though the glass, Orrock calls down from his lofty perch, “Definitely a schooner, Sir! Could be English!”
“So it could be the one we're looking for,” Bush quietly comments to Hornblower. “Clear for action, Sir?”
“Patience, Mr. Bush.” Hornblower is not yet convinced. “Anything special about her, Mr. Orrock? How do her sails look?”
The youth studies the ship again. “A little untidy! And she has no flags up! I think they've spotted us, Sir, there's activity on her decks! Looks like they're about to alter course!”
“Mr. Cheeseman, hoist some flags. Any random flags.”
“Sir?” The small midshipman croaks in surprise, never has he been ordered to do anything randomly.
“You've been given an order, Mr. Cheeseman, jump to it or I'll make you jump,” Bush admonishes him. Cheeseman grabs the first flags within reach and they soar aloft.
“B-R-3-T-N,” Bush reads out. “Random indeed.”
Hornblower stands next to him at the railing, hands clasped firmly behind his back. A gesture that calms him enough to stay still and set a good example of quiet and patience to his crew.
It's not long before Orrock makes his next report from above. “They're signalling as well, Sir! It's... it's pure gibberish?!”
It may be gibberish, but it's enough for Hornblower to decide. “Mr. Bush, now is the time to clear for action. Unobtrusively, if you please, and don't run out the guns yet.” He turns his face upward. “And you had better come down again, Mr. Orrock!”
Chapter 5: Into Battle
Bush checks his watch. “Eleven minutes; not so bad when you consider we had to be careful about it.”
“Indeed. I think in these circumstances it's an acceptable time, Mr. Bush.”
“She'll be within reach soon, Sir,” Matthews calls up from the gun deck below, his voice hushed.
“We'll let her come closer.”
“But pass word along to load the larboard guns. Don't run them out yet, only have the men stand by!”
The command is whispered from gun to gun, and the men lie in wait, unable to see the enemy they're about to fight.
“Mr. Bush, have men stand by at the braces.”
“Aye aye, Sir. Man the braces!” he hollers across the deck.
“We'll wear ship before she can get her guns to bear and run under her stern.”
Bush once again is impressed by Hornblower's strategic planning. But now is not the time to marvel at it, he has to focus on his own work. His eyes roam over the gun deck below where the gun crews are huddled around their weapons, waiting for the command to run out. But their men are well trained and he finds no fault with them.
The ships are now about three cables apart, the distance falling away at tremendous speed as neither ship has shortened sail yet. By now they can make out the activity on the schooner's decks without the need of a glass.
“Looks like they're preparing to grapple!”
“I'm sure they have their guns lying in wait, Mr. Bush, just like we do. But if they're slavers indeed, they'll want to get as many of us alive as they can.”
“Prepare to put the helm down,” Bush shouts in Prowse's direction.
Hornblower leaves it until the last second to give the actual command. “Put the helm down, Mr. Prowse.”
“Helm alee, Sir!”
“Lee braces, hands wear ship!” Bush hollers the command across the deck and the sloop obediently changes her tack, coming onto her starboard bow as her sails lift again and fill to the wind's thrust. “Run out the larboard guns!”
The tracks squeal under the weight of the heavy guns as their muzzles rumble to the sunlight.
Above the noise, Hornblower shouts, “Run up the colours, let's show them whom they're facing!”
As the flag unfolds to the wind, there's a cheer on the gun deck, coming from the idle starboard gun crews.
“Quiet down there!” Bush calls them to order.
“Fire as you bear, make every ball strike home, boys! Marines, we'll be closing with the schooner soon, prepare to open fire!”
The red-coated men emerge from their hiding places, running to spread themselves out along the free stretches of the larboard railing.
Meanwhile, a lot of shouts sound across the water from the schooner. She's been taken by surprise both by Hotspur's sudden manoeuvre and by her showing her true colours. Some men rush to a stern-chaser, trying to get it to bear on the sloop, others climb up onto a platform at the mainmast to man a swivel gun. But they're not fast enough, the first dull crack of Hotspur's guns already sounds across the water.
On the Hotspur's gun deck, Orrock runs from gun to gun, making sure every crew takes good aim before firing. His dirk rises as he approaches each gun, then falls as he shouts “Fire!”.
Hotspur's third ball clips the schooner's mainmast, bringing wood, canvas, and rigging down onto the deck but also over the side, foiling her attempts to adjust to Hotspur's altered course. It also causes the swivel's platform to first tremble, then break away under the gun's weight. The gun crashes down hard onto the deck below, and wooden splinters of the demolished platform are hurled in all directions.
“We'll come around on her starboard side and close with her, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower shouts above the din of the guns, knowing he can rely on the volume of Bush's voice to give the necessary commands.
“Aye, Sir!” Bush's reply comes loud and clear above the next crack of gunfire.
As Hotspur changes tack yet again to close with the schooner, the enemy finally gets his stern-chaser to bear. Bush only becomes aware of it when he hears the sound of something ripping above. He looks up just in time to see a block swinging down on a split brace – right towards Hornblower, who's looking the other way, unaware of the danger.
Without further thought, Bush lunges at Hornblower, tackling his surprised friend and ending up sprawled half on top of him on the deck. Bush has the dignity to roll off immediately, which allows Hornblower to see the swaying block that would have hit him hard on the back of his head if it hadn't been for Bush's quick reaction.
Bush scrambles to his feet and offers Hornblower his hand to help him up, which is accepted. The moment he's certain Hotspur's captain is well, Bush turns away and focuses back on his duty. Someone has already caught the swinging block and cut it clear so it won't cause any further danger. “Matthews! Send someone aloft to repair the split braces!”
Hornblower steps to his friend's side, “Thank you, William.” The words are spoken just loud enough to reach Bush's ears, who nods but doesn't reply, shouting more orders across the deck instead.
Hornblower accepts his sword from Styles, who has fetched it from the captain's cabin. “Close with her, prepare to board!”
Hotspur nears the schooner, and the marines finally get their muskets to bear, the sharp crack of their weapons adding to the din.
As soon as they are close enough to the schooner, grapples fly, and the first men clamber onto the other ship's deck. They are greeted by pistol fire, forcing them to duck, which on the other hand allows the marines to fire another volley onto the enemy ship without the risk of hitting their own comrades.
As the oncoming fire reduces, the English sailors surge across onto the schooner in earnest, Bush and Hornblower among them. “Hotspurs! With me! Charge!” Hornblower's voice can be heard from the stern while Bush races to the fore to lead the attack there.
What Bush did not expect is finding several men of the schooner's crew huddled together around the foremast. Hands high in the air, they shout at the boarders in various English accents. Ordering some marines, who have followed him across, to guard the sailors, he hurries after his men as the fighting spreads across the schooner's foredeck. Aside from making sure he doesn't slip in the blood, he ignores the red rivulets that run across the deck to the scuppers.
By the time Bush reaches the quarterdeck, Hornblower is engaged in a duel of swords with the schooner's captain. Bush watches them circle each other like jungle cats, uncertain how to help.
Hornblower parries a blow, sidesteps another, looking for an opening for a counter-attack. Then, suddenly, a single shot sounds, and the enemy captain falls over backwards, a red patch rapidly spreading on his chest.
Hornblower stops dead in his tracks, turns slowly, and finds himself face to face with an unfamiliar man. A gun dangles from his hand, and a satisfied expression is on the stranger's face.
The man meets Hornblower's gaze head on, his expression changing to a grin. “York, Sir. Second Officer of the English Maid. We are mighty glad to see you.”
“We?” Hornblower asks.
“That would probably be the English sailors we encountered at the foremast, Sir,” Bush clarifies.
“Indeed. Are my men well? When you hoisted your colours we did everything we could to obstruct things on board. Even more so than we'd attempted to spoil their efforts before.”
“Where are those men now?” Hornblower enquires of Bush.
Bush points towards the foredeck with his sword. “The marines are watching them.”
“Good. Is there anyone else of your crew on board, Mr. York?”
The young officer shakes his head. “No, Sir. We volunteered to work for these men, hoping for a chance to escape. But the rest of our crew was taken captive, and I fear they are to be sold into slavery.”
“It is as we thought, then – slavers. Mr. Bush, lock the prisoners up somewhere, have Wallis look at the wounded, then put someone onto the repairs. Mr. York, you'll accompany me below decks.”
Bush signals for two marines to follow them, not willing to trust the English Maid's original crew as easily as Hornblower seems to do. If this Mr. York decided to work for the slavers, what's to say he won't turn against Hornblower, given the chance? Bush doesn't wish to find out if his mistrust is justified or not, he'll rather take precautions than give Hornblower a burial at sea. Nodding grimly to himself, he heads off to deal with the captain's orders.
Chapter 6: Orders
Bush oversees the ongoing repairs to the English Maid from Hotspur's deck. What little damage the sloop took has quickly been repaired. Only one slightly tattered sail will have to be taken down for patching, but currently there's too much activity on deck to spread it out, so he has postponed the task.
Wiping his blood-stained hands on a cloth that seems already too soaked with the red liquid to help much, Wallis, Hotspur's surgeon, returns from the schooner. “I'm doubtful of the chances of two of the prisoners, Mr. Bush. The others will recover over time.”
“One dead, crushed by the fallen swivel. The others are in fairly good condition. Some took severe beatings, but not recently. They have managed to stay out of the worst today. A few scratches from splinters, that's all.”
Their own crew has, of course, been seen to first, so Bush already knows that they lost one seaman who had been among the first boarders. A shot to his forehead killed the man instantly. Other than that, Hotspur's crew got away with minor cuts and bruises.
“I'll report to the captain,” Bush says, dismissing the surgeon. “Mr. Orrock, you're in charge of repairs while I'm below decks!” The senior midshipman shouts a confirmation back from the Maid's deck where he's overseeing the preparation of a new topmast.
Hotspur's stern cabin is guarded by a marine sentry at Bush's orders. The redcoat announces him as he approaches. “First Lieutenant, Sir!”
“Come in, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower calls and the sentry opens the door.
Bush walks in, glad to find the cabin as before. He passes Wallis' report on to the captain, who smiles grimly when he hears about the beatings. Hornblower's expression quickly softens again, though, as the report is mainly positive.
“That is good news. We'll need the English sailors yet. You'll need them, William. I want you to take command of the English Maid.” He looks at his friend, expecting to find joy at the prospect of his own command there. Yet, what he sees in Bush's eyes is worry.
“With all respect, Sir, my place is aboard Hotspur. It'd be a good chance for Mr. Orrock to prove what he's learned. He is due to sit his lieutenant's exam soon.”
Hornblower's face and voice harden. “I may not have made myself clear. I order you to take command of the schooner, Mr. Bush.”
Bush takes a deep breath. Hornblower has warned him before not to disobey him again, but the thought of leaving his friend's side is unbearable to him. The earlier incident with the swaying block made it painfully clear to Bush how much more than just friendship he actually feels for Hornblower. But how can he tell that to his captain? He can't – but maybe to his friend. “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
Hornblower studies him. “Permission granted.”
Bush's voice has a soft undertone as he speaks again. “I may not have made myself clear, either. My place is at your side, Horatio. It has been since we met aboard Renown and is now more so than ever.”
Hornblower audibly clears his throat as words fail him. He is embarrassed by Bush's words, and his reply comes after a longer pause. “Your loyalty belongs to your ship, not to me, William.”
“Then let me serve my ship by staying at her captain's side.” Bush takes a step towards his friend, putting his hat down on the table as he approaches.
But Hornblower turns away to face the stern windows. “You will do your duty, Mr. Bush.”
Bush is not willing to give in so easily, though. “I've made it my duty to keep you out of harm's way, Horatio. For the ship's sake as much as my own.”
“What are you saying?” Hornblower turns to inquisitively look at the man now standing next to him.
Bush, not being a man of fancy words, decides it might be time to let actions speak for themselves. He reaches for Horatio's shoulders, leans forward, tilts his own face upwards, and places a chaste kiss on the taller man's lips.
Hornblower goes rigid under his hands and lips, staring at Bush in shock when he releases him and takes a step back.
“If this means nothing to you, Horatio, I will take command of the Maid. But you will need to say to my face that it means nothing.”
But Hornblower can't say it – only partially because of the shock that is slowly turning into a mix of fear and anger.
“I could have you hanged for this, Mr. Bush,” he says through clenched teeth.
“You wouldn't.” Bush actually is as certain of it as he sounds. He knows his friend that well. So he waits for Hornblower's next words.
“You quite possibly saved my life earlier today, so I will overlook this. But I warn you: Never do anything like it again.”
Bush's voice is formal again when he next speaks. “I'll put Mr. Orrock in charge of the English Maid, Sir. He's already on board anyway, overseeing the repairs.”
Hornblower turns away sharply to stare out of the stern windows again. He clasps his hands behind his back with such force that his fingers turn white.
“Tell him to let me know when she'll be ready to set sail. And send Matthews across to him. He'll most likely need him to turn those merchant sailors into useful hands once they see action. Dismissed.”
So Bush seems to be getting away with disobeying orders for the second time. It makes Hornblower's warning seem less dangerous.
“Aye aye, Sir.” Bush heads for the door, picking up his hat as he passes the table. He knows he took his friend by surprise with his action, so he's willing to step back, to wait and see what will come of it.
Bush stops in his tracks and turns slowly; Hornblower is still facing the windows.
“One more thing, Mr. Bush. I believe I have told you before, but it would seem I need to remind you: I command the Hotspur; that is all that matters to me.” He finally turns to face Bush. “And you and I both have a duty to do and not to spare a thought for anything else. I advise you to remember it this time.”
Bush doesn't reply, just turns and heads out the door. It seems best to focus on his duty while he leaves Hornblower to mull over the kiss.
Chapter 7: Africa
Time passes while repairs to the English Maid are made. Orrock, with Matthew's help, has put together a crew made up of both the merchant sailors, and some of their own men. Mr. York has seemingly accepted the midshipman's superiority and, since he returned from a long debriefing with Hornblower, has done his best to assist him. Meanwhile, the prisoners have been transferred onto Hotspur where they are guarded by marines, but also looked after by the ship's surgeon. Hornblower has tried and failed to gain information from them. Most don't seem to speak any language he knows, and those that do, refuse to talk. It makes the information York was able to provide the more valuable.
By afternoon on the next day, the schooner is in a fit state to set sail, and at the start of the first dog watch, Orrock is called into Hornblower's cabin to receive his final instructions.
“You'll stay in close company to Hotspur. We'll need every man jack to free the rest of the English Maid's crew,” Hornblower explains to a surprised Orrock, who had expected to take the prize to Gibraltar.
“If we encounter any more of the slavers' ships, you will pretend to bring Hotspur in as a prize.”
“Aye Sir!” Orrock seems equally excited and terrified at the prospect of having to lead a ship into battle under his own command.
“Of course Hotspur will undertake any actually attack. The Maid may have been outfitted with additional guns, but Hotspur obviously is better equipped for the task.”
“Yes, Sir. Of course.” Relief swings in Orrock's voice as some responsibility is taken off his shoulders again.
Hornblower smiles at the young man. “There is one more thing, Mr. Orrock. I cannot put a prize in the hands of a mere midshipman.” He could, but as he is asking a lot more of the young man than to just take the ship to the next safe port, he wants to both show his faith in him and give him more authority.
“This is a great chance for you, Mr. Orrock. I'm sure a good outcome of this mission will prove favourable for our upcoming exam, when you will be given the chance to step up from acting lieutenant to commissioned lieutenant.” Hornblower doesn't really have the authority to decide on this promotion himself, but hopes that Admiral Pellew will back his decision, given the circumstances.
A wide smile spreads on Orrock's face. Acting Lieutenant! “I will not disappoint you, Sir. Thank you!”
Hornblower hands him a sealed envelope, addressed to 'Acting Lieutenant Orrock'. “These are your written orders. Read them carefully and do your duty. And now get on board of your command and prepare to set sail.”
The young man eyes the envelope as if it were the greatest treasure, then collects himself and snaps to attention. “Aye, Sir. We'll be ready to sail presently.” He hurries out of the stern cabin, obviously in haste. But at least he's not running, Hornblower notices. Maybe Bush was right, Orrock does seem ready for this task.
Over the next days, Orrock and York prove to be a good team when it comes to sailing, for the schooner keeps station on Hotspur perfectly as they approach the African coast. That the two young officers are also quickly becoming friends, helps to merge the men into one crew.
Hornblower leaves it as late as possible to call Bush to his cabin. He has avoided being alone with him since the incident the day they took the English Maid. But as he told Bush then, they have to do their duty. And his duty requires Hornblower to include Bush in his plans. He won't allow his feelings, whatever they actually are, to distract him from his duty. Yet, at the last moment, he decides to send for Prowse, too. It does make sense to include the master in this discussion, and it will force Bush not to mention the incident.
The two summoned men arrive together as both had been on deck when Hornblower's messenger found them.
“Gentlemen, we should be within sight of the African coast by first light tomorrow. Our true task will begin then. We need to find the slavers' hideout! Mr. York could not provide an accurate position for it, he only knows it is somewhere along the coast south of Casablanca.”
“That's a mighty vague thing to say.” Prowse stoops to study the chart spread out on Hornblower's table.
“We have some further information, Mr. Prowse. Apparently they keep their prisoners on a small island inside the anchorage. They transferred the prisoners across in boats, so Mr. York couldn't guess at the actual size of either anchorage or island. But the information helps us to narrow down our search. We're looking for bays big enough to allow for a small island inside, but I'm afraid our charts of the region aren't always as detailed as I would like.”
“Still, there can't be that many bays matching that description.” Bush leans forward to look at the chart, first searching for Casablanca, then studying the coast south from there.
“Indeed there aren't. I've made out five I consider big enough.” Hornblower puts his finger on the map at the same moment as Bush, who had just identified the first of Hornblower's possible candidates himself. Bush quickly withdraws his finger, but the captain still stiffens from the brief touch and the memory it brings to his mind.
“Sorry, Sir. I didn't mean to...”
“No harm done, Mr. Bush.” Hornblower audibly clears his throat. “The possible bays are here, here, here, here and here.” He points them out. “We're approaching from the south, and we will run up the coast, looking at each bay in turn and also keep an eye out for any bays that might not be accurately depicted on the chart.”
“Aye, Sir. What if we run into any more slavers? We've only found the one prize so far, not even their actual ship or ships,” Prowse puts in.
“In that case, Mr. Prowse, we'll have to employ another ruse: We'll pretend that Hotspur is the English Maid's prize. I've instructed Mr. Orrock accordingly.”
“So that's why we haven't taken down the merchant's disguise yet.” Hornblower's plan becomes clearer to Bush.
“Indeed it is. However, I want our best eyes aloft from first light. We'll explore the bays while the Maid stands out towards sea, watching for other sails and seemingly ensuring Hotspur doesn't attempt an escape. Any questions?”
There are none.
“Very well, gentleman, dismissed.”
Prowse is the first to leave, Bush takes his time as he heads towards the door. He even casts a backwards glance towards Hornblower, but only finds him busy studying the chart.
Actually, Hornblower is very pointedly forcing himself not to look at Bush and breathes a sigh of relief as the door closes behind the lieutenant. He hasn't quite managed to push what happened between them from his mind, and it sneaks up on him at the most unwelcome moments; like the previous night, when he barely found any sleep because of it. He tries hard not to let it distract him, and his failure to do so angers him.
But many small things of the past have become clearer to Hornblower. For example Bush's inviting himself to breakfast not long ago, which has taken on a new meaning. 'Damn his eyes', Hornblower thinks and only just stops himself from banging a fist on the table. He really doesn't want or need a nanny, most certainly not in the form of his first lieutenant. He tries to fuel his anger to distract himself from the even less welcome emotions that threaten to overtake his thinking. Emotions Hornblower has never felt for Maria, which makes him feel even more guilty towards her than he already does. She is his wife and deserves his love, and yet he has never been able to truly give it to her.
Without being aware of it, he has started to pace the length of his cabin. Love! Hornblower huffs at himself. What a ridiculous notion. He has a war to think of, currently also the lives of good men under threat of a different enemy, and yet here he is, unable to focus on any of it because of one foolish act by William Bush!
But truly, Hornblower is just as angry at himself; for reacting the way he did, and still does, and because he can't seem to shake himself out of it.
~ * ~
Another near sleepless night later, Hornblower is on deck at first light, even before a shout comes from the lookout in the masthead.
“Deck there! Land in sight, fine on the starboard bow!”
“Africa,” Prowse chimes in.
“Let us find the first bay, Mr. Prowse.”
“Aye, Sir. As soon as it gets lighter I'll try to determine our exact position along the coast.”
“Signal to the Maid as soon as it is light enough: Land in sight, remain on station to west'rd.”
Hornblower starts to pace up and down the weather side of the deck, not even looking up when Bush comes on deck to take the forenoon watch. Bush leaves him to it. Thankfully the crew is used to Hornblower's pacing, so no one picks up on the tension between their officers.
By noon they have looked into the first bay. It was a disappointment, barren rock all around and only reefs in the bay itself.
With Orrock off the ship, Hornblower has decided to stand the afternoon watch himself, but they don't reach the next bay until the start of the dog watches. Originally Prowse was supposed to take the watch, but now both captain and first lieutenant are on deck as well – only to yet again be disappointed. They colour of the water indicates a sandy bottom close to the surface, so the bay seems too shallow to serve as an anchorage to any ship bigger than one of their own cutters.
“Signal from the Maid, Sir!” Midshipman Cheeseman suddenly pipes up. “Sail in sight, permission to investigate?”
“Ask her for more details.”
Flag signals are exchanged between the two ships. “Small craft, likely fishermen.”
“Tell her to stay on station. We'll not give ourselves away unless we have to. I'll be below. Inform me if we encounter any further vessels, Mr. Prowse.”
But no further ships are sighted, and, as day turns into night, the wind changes direction as the temperature falls. It forces them to either tack all night or lie to and wait for the wind to change again come morning. Hornblower decides on the former course of action.
“Time may be of the essence. We're of no use to anyone if we arrive after the captives have been sold on. I know it means a lot of work for everyone, especially as we're spread thin with some of our men aboard the Maid, but we can't afford the delay.”
So the night is a busy one, with either Bush or Hornblower on deck at all times to oversee the re-trimming of the sails whenever they need to change tack. Their signals to the English Maid are sparse, and the signal lamp is shaded in all directions but to westward, so as not to be seen from shore.
By morning Hornblower is pleased to find the English Maid exactly on station. Orrock and York have made a good job of it over night despite the frequent changes of tack.
Not long after sunrise they approach the third bay, and though it does hold a small harbour, it doesn't have an island, just a wide anchorage filled with fishing boats unloading their catch from the previous night.
The next bay they intend to investigate is just a short distance further along the coast, and they approach it before noon.
“Deck there! Masts behind the headland!”
“Come on man, how many ships? What type?” Bush, who is still on watch, shouts up to their lookout.
“Two ships! Schooner rigs.”
When he heard the words 'deck there', Hornblower has not been able to make himself wait until Bush sends for him. He emerges from the companionway. “Which direction?” He reaches for a glass and walks to the shrouds.
“Nor-nor-east, just beyond the headland, Sir.”
Hornblower studies the masts for a moment before he turns to face the quarterdeck. “We'll lie to, Mr. Bush. Make signal to the Maid to run past the bay and then return further out to sea to report.”
Bush gives the command to lie to while Midshipman Cheeseman and his party send up the signal for the English Maid.
“Is it wise, sending the schooner to investigate, Sir?” Bush asks so quietly no one can overhear.
“Damn you, Mr. Bush, are you questioning my orders yet again?” Hornblower immediately regrets his outburst, though. “If it is the slavers, they have no reason to suspect the Maid isn't still under their control. So her passing will be less suspicious than ours would be.”
Bush has forced himself to stay rooted to the spot in spite of Hornblower's verbal attack. He nods but also feels the need to give a reply. “Of course, that seems very sensible. And I apologize if my question sounded offensive, Sir, I was merely thinking aloud. Hotspur is the better armed ship after all, but I understand your reasoning.”
“I hope so, Mr. Bush.”
Chapter 8: The Rescue
The English Maid doesn't return until two bells into the first dog watch. Hornblower immediately orders Orrock to report on board, and the acting lieutenant feels very important, being summoned with the signal 'Captain report on board'.
“You sent for me, Sir,” he says when he enters Hornblower's cabin.
“Indeed, Mr. Orrock. Report what you found in that bay, please.”
Orrock goes into as much detail as possible. “We passed as close by as we dared but stayed out of the anchorage. It seems oval, longer from north to south than east to west. Two ships were anchored in the bay off the southern headland, both schooners. One is a two-master, obviously a merchant vessel, one a three-master. The two-master looked English built. We couldn't make out her name but she might well be one of the missing ships. Mr. York thinks she might be the Greenwich, but he couldn't be certain. The three-master was armed, we counted eight gun ports along her side and she has a heavy swivel on her deck as well as a stern-chaser, much like the one installed on the Maid.
“In the centre of the bay is a low island with some huts set back from the beach that stretches along the visible shoreline. Trees beyond the huts blocked our view, so we couldn't make out how far the island stretches inward. Mr. York is certain it is an island, though, having overheard an exchange among the slavers.”
“Armaments on the island?”
“Only guards, as far as we could make out, and there were two guard boats patrolling the anchorage; each had a swivel mounted in the bows. The waters north from the island seemed unguarded.”
“Very well, Mr. Orrock. Now show me the lie of everything on the chart, as exactly as you can.”
Beaming at his captain's approval, Orrock leans over the chart.
~ * ~
An hour later, Hornblower has worked out an attack plan. He calls all officers and the sergeant of the marines to a strategic meeting. Details are discussed and Orrock and York have to answer many further questions of their fellow officers before the order to prepare is finally given. Their rescue mission will be carried out under cover of darkness – and sunset isn't far off.
The men on both ships are fed, then sectioned off into teams. Weapons are distributed and checked. The tension rises until it is finally dark enough to begin their operation.
“You're in charge, Mr. Prowse. If you haven't received the signal from us by the first watch, take the ships back to Admiral Pellew in Gibraltar and report to him. Understood?”
“Aye, Sir.” Prowse is uncomfortable with the orders, yet aware of their importance.
“Lower the boats!”
Orrock and York command the English Maid's two boats that approach the outer side of the southern headland, under orders to make their way to the anchorage inside the bay on foot, and then mount a distraction. Hotspur's boats, commanded by Hornblower and Bush, lie in wait close to the point of the headland, remaining out of sight from the bay.
As York and his men are barely more familiar with the area than Orrock and Hotspur's men, it takes them a while to make their way across land without being seen by the slavers. Still, everyone's determination to rescue the abducted sailors makes the men work together much better than expected, leaving Matthews with little work to keep them in check. When they finally reach the anchorage, Matthews stays behind with the sailors, hiding among the trees, while the two officers lie low in a spot that allows them a good overview of the anchorage. A small jetty is in front of them, too small for the schooners that are anchored further away from the shore, but big enough for their boats to make fast. To their right, a beach stretches off in a curve and vanishes into darkness. A path leads away from the beach, but they can't see where to. To their left, the land rises and trees block their view of the southern headland's point. The island is barely visible in the darkness, only some campfires give them an idea of its position. The northern headland is invisible.
“We'll never make it onto their ship,” Orrock whispers. “She's too far out to swim there.”
“We won't need to. Look yonder, Charles!” York points at a stack of boxes and casks sitting on the beach at some distance from the jetty. “Those should burn well, don't you think?”
“By God, they should! Well spotted, Andrew! Let's get the others.”
With York in the lead and Orrock at the rear, the group makes its way towards the storage area. Apparently no one expects any thieving or attacks as only a solitary guard has been posted – and he's sound asleep. Orrock motions for one of his men to deal with him while York oversees the positioning of the two small barrels of gunpowder they've brought. He returns to Orrock's side a few minutes later, grinning. “All set.”
“Then get everyone back to the jetty. I'll meet you there.”
York puts a hand on his new found friend's arm. Orrock understands the message and mirrors York's gesture for a brief moment. Then York withdraws, quietly calling the men to follow him. Only Marsden, one of Hotspur's men, stays behind with the acting lieutenant. Orrock checks his watch several times until he decides it has been long enough for York to lead their men to safety. “Light the slow match, Marsden, then run like the devil himself is on your heels!”
“Aye, Sir.” Marsden lights the fuse by firing an unloaded gun, then they speed off. The pressure wave of the explosion soon catches up with them, though. It nearly knocks the breath out of them as they fight to remain on their feet, staggering forward.
Back at the jetty, Orrock drops down beside York, trying to catch his breath. “Damn, Andrew, what was in those boxes? The explosion was much greater than I expected!”
York only shrugs but grins. Then he points to the jetty and the anchorage beyond, where more and more men are appearing, staring towards the fire. “Look, they're ruining their night vision!”
“Indeed. And look yonder, both guard boats are at the pier, do you think...?”
The two friends look at each other for a moment. “I certainly do!”
~ * ~
Once the explosion has ripped through the still of the night, Hornblower and Bush lead their boats around the point of the southern headland and into the bay. The light of a large fire brightens the sky above the southern shore as they get a first glimpse of the anchorage.
“Don't look into the flames,” Hornblower instructs the men in his boat. “Keep to larboard, we want to stay clear of that havoc as much as possible.”
Bush is to make a direct approach on the western beach of the island. His two boats follow Hornblower's into the bay at a safe distance, to give Hornblower enough time to reach the island's more distant northern shore. As Bush's cutter approaches the beach, a guard boat closes up rapidly from the south and Bush orders the marines to take aim when the boat suddenly signals. “By god,” he gasps. “It's young Orrock! Hold your fire! Styles, signal them to follow!”
They beach the boats and stagger ashore in darkness, the light of the fires closer to the huts doesn't reach them. It does give them a sense of direction, though.
“Marines, spread out,” their sergeant orders much too loudly for Bush's liking, but now is not the time to argue.
He waves to the sailors that have assembled on the beach. “Forward!”
~ * ~
Meanwhile, Hornblower's boats have beached on the island's northern shore and he leads his men towards the line of trees. No one seems to expect any danger from behind the huts as all guards have been placed out front.
“Follow me. And keep quiet!”
They sneak towards the huts in a long line, the fires burning on the beach in front of the buildings offering them some light as they approach.
They reach the first hut and Hornblower signals to some of his men to inspect it. The sailors sneak off into its shadow, and the procedure is repeated at the second hut. Hornblower himself heads on to the biggest building.
~ * ~
On the beach, the marines have closed the distance to the guards enough for their sergeant to shout out the order to take aim. The noise brings the slavers' guards, who had been sitting around one of the fires, to their feet. They reach for their weapons, but having sat by the light of the fire for so long, they are unable to make out the approaching marines in the darkness until the muzzle fire gives away their positions – at which point it is too late for them.
With those guards out of the way, Bush leads his men towards the huts, leaving the marines to deal with the remaining guards further along the beach.
In front of the biggest hut, a nervous slaver waves his gun about wildly, trying to gather what is going on. Being far enough away from the fire, he has not ruined his night vision, and he makes out the shapes approaching from the beach - shapes that don't look like his friends. He fires blindly towards them and shouts something Bush doesn't understand, but is probably a call for backup. Bush flinches as he feels the heat of the ball passing close to his face.
The guard's shouting comes to a very abrupt end, and a thud sounds as someone drops to the floor before silence once again returns.
Bush slowly moves on, unable able to tell what exactly is happening further ahead.
~ * ~
Hornblower waits around the side of the biggest building for the return of one of his men who had been sent to scout ahead at the sound of the shot being fired. “All clear now, Sir,” the man reports a moment later.
Another round of volley fire and some screams reach their ears from the beach, where the marines have encountered some more of the slavers' guards.
In the following silence, Hornblower makes out the sound of footsteps from around the hut. He pushes himself against the corner of the building, his pistol raised, then peeks around it. He nearly collides with Bush who is doing the same from the front of the building.
“Good heavens, William!” Hornblower exclaims, lowering his gun again.
“Good to see you, Sir!”
“Indeed. Let's check what's inside this hut.”
They approach the barred door. “Get that thing off,” Bush orders the nearest sailors who drop their cutlasses to remove the heavy piece of wood blocking the door. Hornblower steps forward, and his men spread out behind him, ready to charge into the hut the moment the door is opened. Bush has turned away from the hut to scan their surroundings, the earlier shout of the now dead guard on the floor not forgotten. So far no one seems to want to investigate, though.
The hinges of the door squeal in protest as the sailors open it and then – nothing happens. Hornblower motions for someone to shine a light inside the hut. At the back of its solitary room, huddled into a corner, a group of men sit and stare at the door.
Hornblower steps into the room. “Are you the crew of the English Maid?”
At the now clear sound of his English voice, a man rouses himself from the group. “I'm her purser, Sir. And these men are some of our sailors indeed.”
“Very well. Is anyone hurt? Unable to walk?”
A murmur of denials reaches his ears.
Someone pushes past Hornblower into the room. “Hollister! By God! Is that you?”
“By God! Mr. York! 'pon my soul, it is you!” The men shake hands excitedly while Hornblower gets impatient.
“I must ask you to save your celebration for later, we need to get off this island before anyone ashore notices what's happening.”
“Where's Captain Fynmore?” York asks.
“Dead, I'm afraid. I think they wanted to set an example to us by … beheading him.” The purser had to swallow hard before being able to complete the sentence.
“There are others here as well, I think. Some prisoners have been taken away only yesterday, but I believe some are still in one of the smaller huts.” Hollister turns to Hornblower. “I beg you, Sir, free them as well for 'tis a bad fate that awaits them.”
“Fear not, Mr. Hollister, my men are checking the other huts as we speak. Now follow me, if you please. And be quiet about it.”
Outside they meet Bush. “It's gone quiet on the beach, I think the marines have dealt with all the guards they could find.”
“Let's be careful none the less. Mr. Bush, take these men with you, they're off the Maid. They'll be more comfortable among some of their own. I'll check whom else we've found in the other huts. It's possible there were more captives from other ships.”
Bush nods grimly, then motions for Orrock to step forward. “Take the lead, Mr. Orrock, we'll guard your retreat.” He'd rather follow Hornblower, but there's no time to challenge his orders now, so he forces himself to focus on bringing the rescued men to their boats.
The marines have already arrived back at the cutters with two prisoners. “We have no room for them. Leave 'em here,” Bush orders as Orrock and York hurry the freed men into the boats.
At the island's northern beach, Hornblower has caught up with his sailors who freed fifteen other men as well as two women who are close to tears, so great is their relief.
As Orrock and York stole one of the guard boats and sank the other at the jetty, all boats escape the bay unnoticed.
However, first watch began fifteen minutes ago. And yet, south of the bay, Hotspur and the English Maid still lie anchored within shouting distance of each other.
Matthews, who has long since returned to the Maid with her two boats, is engaged in a heated discussion from deck to deck with Prowse, about whether to sail for Gibraltar or not.
“The signal! 'tis the captain! They're returning, Mr. Prowse!” Hotspur's lookout interrupts them.
“See? I told you he'd make it!” Matthews throws Prowse a triumphant look. The old master never doubted it and was actually quite thankful for Matthew's challenge of his order to sail. It bought their captain the time he needed.
It feels like forever until everyone has been brought aboard the ships, the boats hoisted in and the stolen guard-boat sunk. With her captain dead, Orrock remains in charge of the English Maid, though she is now nearly exclusively manned with her own crew and the other rescued sailors; most of Hotspur's men have returned to their own ship. Making use of the still blowing land breeze, both ships put out to sea.
As Prowse has insisted on being fully able to keep them on a course for Gibraltar, promising his captain to send for him the moment anything out of the ordinary should happen, Hornblower has relented and gone to his cabin. But, feeling the need to talk to someone, he has asked Bush to join him. There is no one better than Bush for him to talk to, no matter what happened between them before. He needs his friend with him tonight.
In his cabin, Hornblower drops onto the bench seat under the stern windows, tired with exhaustion, yet still too full of adrenaline to even attempt to get any sleep.
Styles has brought some wine, then withdrawn to turn in himself.
“It's a pity we had to leave the other merchantman behind.” Bush takes a seat next to his friend, glad about the invitation to join him. It's the first time since he kissed Hornblower that he has been asked to spend time with him alone and it comes as a relief to Bush. He had started to worry that the kiss had been a costly mistake, that it had destroyed their friendship.
“It couldn't be helped. We couldn't deal with both the captives and the ship.”
Bush nods solemnly. “It would have been nice, though.”
“It would. But I think we can be content with the work we've done. Don't forget it's likely we'll return with reinforcements to deal with the slavers once and for all.”
“I hope it will come to that. I hate slavers.”
“As do I.” Hornblower stands, unable to sit still any longer despite his exhaustion. “I will ask the admiral to let us deal with them. We know the lie of the anchorage now, it would make sense to let us return.”
Bush watches his friend's pacing with amusement. Obviously Hornblower is already plotting for their return. “Let's leave the speculation until we know what company we'll find ourselves in when the time to return comes.”
Hornblower stops to look at him. “You're right. And it is of course possible that Admiral Pellew will send a bigger ship under command of a post captain. It might not be us who need to do the planning.”
“It is possible.” Though the look in Bush's eyes says he doubts it. It has not escaped his attention just how fondly the admiral seems to look upon Hornblower. “So will you please sit down now and stop worrying about the future?”
Hornblower takes a deep breath, then a sip of his wine before he returns to Bush's side. But he cannot stop himself from worrying. Doubt is too much in his nature, though it is probably only the exhaustion that makes him discuss it this freely.
“You do think we have done our duty? It feels …”
“Yes. I think we have, Horatio,” Bush interjects before Hornblower can talk himself into even greater worry. “We're bringing one of the lost schooners back, most of her crew, and some men of another ship's company. And let us not forget about the two women. We did our duty indeed.”
Hornblower swallows drily before looking at his friend. And there's something in Hornblower's eyes that makes Bush reach for his hand to squeeze it. Hornblower looks at their hands, then tentatively squeezes Bush's rough hand back. “William, I...”
Bush waits patiently.
“I'm a married man. And I'm a horrible husband. Look there, I still haven't read Maria's letters. Instead...” He falls silent but still holds on to Bush's hand.
“Instead I have been unable to … forget what you did the other day. No matter how hard I try.” He finally pulls his hand away, puts his glass down on his other side, and buries his face in his hands.
Bush is uncertain how to react. The admission makes his heart jump, but he can clearly see how torn his friend is. He reaches out a hand to Horatio's shoulder, trying to offer comfort.
“You said we mustn't let ourselves be distracted from our duty. We have done our duty for now, Horatio.”
“That doesn't make it any better. You know the Articles of War as well as anyone on board.”
“No one needs to know. And even if someone noticed a change in our behaviour, show me the one man on board who is not loyal to you, no matter what. You're a good man, and an even better leader of men.”
“But what if the admiral hears of it?”
“Pellew? Do you really think you have anything to fear from him? Hasn't he backed you before? Why would he suddenly turn against you?”
“Because … it's unnatural.”
“Is it? Who has decided that? I know we're both not very religious men, but doesn't the Bible say 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'? How can you love anyone better like yourself than another man? Any man is more like yourself than any woman can ever be.”
Horatio looks up at William's words, seemingly considering them. “But it also says 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'. I am married, William.”
“By law, but not by heart, I believe?”
Hornblower sighs. “'tis true.” He throws up his hands in despair. “It would still be breaking the Articles of War, William. They count for more to us than the words of the Bible.”
“Again – who would know? Look where we are. The only one allowed to enter your cabin without knocking is Styles. And he has turned in for the night.”
Hornblower still doesn't seem convinced, but he falls silent, and they sit side by side without talking.
“William?” Hornblower finally asks quietly, turning his head just enough to look at his friend.
Bush studies him expectantly.
“I... “ Hornblower clears his throat. “Would you...?” Again he trails off, too embarrassed to finish the question.
But Bush guesses the unspoken words from the look in his friend's eyes. His hand slowly moves from its perch on Hornblower's shoulder to the back of his head, gently pulling him closer until their lips meet.
Hornblower finally manages to push the worries to the back of his head - right to the spot where Bush's fingers have come to rest in his hair. As Bush seems willing to take this burden upon himself, Hornblower feels as if he can rid himself of his worries through this connection; or at least have them contained by Bush's hand that is supporting and guiding his head. He wraps his arms around his friend's strong body, afraid he'll be too weak to do as his heart commands without the physical support.
The embrace takes Bush by surprise, but it's a pleasant surprise for him and he moves his free arm to hold Hornblower close, not breaking, but rather deepening their kiss.
The sensation of Bush licking across his lips finally makes Hornblower's instinct win the upper hand over his mind. He realises he has opened his lips when he senses Bush's tongue licking along the roof of his mouth.
Hornblower has never been kissed like this before, but it's exciting, and he finds himself mirroring Bush's exploration of his mouth; first very carefully, then more daringly. Bush's lips are rough and taste of salt, his mouth is hot.
Heat and taste, combined with the wine Hornblower has already drunk, and the little sleep he got over the last couple of days, are quickly threatening to overwhelm him. But Bush pulls back from Hornblower's mouth before it comes to that and instead cradles him in his arms. It gives Hornblower a chance to calm his nerves a little. But now that he has given in to the temptation that is this strong man, that is Bush, his best friend, Hornblower doesn't want it to stop.
They had discarded their uniform jackets and neckerchiefs when they first retreated to the stern cabin, so Hornblower is able to nuzzle his friend's neck without any clothing getting in the way. The action elicits a small growl from his friend. Hornblower takes it as a sign that he must be doing something right and he intensifies his attention to Bush's neck.
“Horatio.” Bush's voice is no more than a hoarse whisper. Hornblower has never heard his friend sound like this before.
“William,” Hornblower replies between licking and sucking, astonished to find his voice sounding just as hoarse.
When Bush reaches for the buttons on Hornblower's waistcoat and starts clumsily undoing them with one hand, Hornblower stops his sucking and sits up, allowing his friend to unbutton the piece of clothing. Once it has slid off his arms, he reaches for Bush's shirt and tugs it out of his uniform trousers so he can touch the skin underneath. Hornblower finds it hot to the touch and so very different from Maria's. It's exciting, and he explores his friend's back as high up as waistcoat and shirt allow.
He doesn't get very far, so Bush decides to help things along. He swiftly unbuttons his own waistcoat and shirt, letting both fall open, and allows Hornblower's hands to move over his body for a long moment. His breath quickens, and soon Bush's own need to touch becomes too strong to bear, so he pushes his friend's hands off his chest, pleased to find Hornblower doesn't pull away but simply shifts his hands to his back. It gives Bush the needed room to reach for the buttons of Hornblower's shirt, and this time, with both of his hands free, the garment quickly falls open from the waist up.
Bush takes in his friend's lean body for a moment, so familiar to look at and yet so unfamiliar in all other ways. He leans forward and places a kiss on Hornblower's chest where the open shirt, still stuck in his uniform trousers, allows his lips to reach the bared skin.
Hornblower moans at the kiss, and one of his hands moves from Bush's back to his wavy hair, pulling at the ribbon that is holding it together at the nape of his neck.
The tugging sensation makes Bush looks up into Hornblower's brown eyes, and his heart jumps in joy when he finds no more trace of doubt in them.
Hornblower pulls at the ribbon until it comes loose, allowing him to run his fingers through the brown waves. He watches in fascination as they spread along Bush's neck, hiding the red spot where he nuzzled it before. It's a beautiful sight to him and his breath catches in his throat.
He reaches for Bush's face, and pulls him up for another long kiss. Hornblower feels like he could get lost in Bush's kisses, there's so much emotion in them. He never knew kisses could feel this way, both soft and tender, yet at the same time demanding and even a little possessive.
While they kiss, Bush tugs the shirt free of Hornblower's trousers and pushes at his friend's arms until he lets them fall down, allowing the shirt to slide off. Hornblower shivers a little, both from the sudden exposure to the cool air, and his growing excitement. Then Bush pushes his friend down onto his back. One arm reaches past Hornblower, Bush has not forgotten the glass discarded there; he still is in control of his actions, feels he needs to be as Hornblower seems to rely on his guidance to some extent. Placing one hand on Hornblower's chest to keep him in position, Bush leans down to set the glass on the floor, then returns his attention to his friend.
Bush trails kisses down Hornblower's body; the body he has so often observed on deck when his friend took one of his showers. Finally he is allowed to touch, to taste. Briefly he wonders if he isn't too tired and exhausted for this tonight, but the sensation of his trousers seeming very tight indeed make Bush discard the thought. He wants Hornblower, has wanted him for a long time now. He doesn't want to wait any longer.
Hornblower's hands move to Bush's hair again, burying themselves in the waves, yet allowing Bush to move as he pleases.
As Bush's focus shifts further down Hornblower's body, he's satisfied to find that he's not the only one who wants this. He runs his hand over the bulge in his friend's trousers, which elicits a gasp from Hornblower. Bush's usually so controlled friend has truly let his guard down – for him. So maybe Bush doesn't need to take things as slowly as he thought after all, can allow himself to let go of some of his control which is becoming harder to hold onto with every passing minute anyway.
Hornblower wants to keep his eyes open, to observe every movement, but he finds his eyes don't obey him. So instead he focuses on the sensation of Bush undressing him, on the gentle touch of those strong hands.
Bush unbuttons Hornblower's trousers in haste, tugging at them impatiently, then remembers the boots and makes a quick job of getting them off. By now he's in a hurry to expose every last bit of pale skin. Finally the trousers come off, and he quickly deals with the undergarments in the same fashion.
Another more urgent kiss placed on his stomach makes Hornblower moan out load.
At the sound, Bush casts another glance at Hornblower's face: eyes closed, mouth slightly open; Hornblower seems very young and vulnerable like this. But he is safe. Bush will keep him safe, would give his life for him if need be.
Right now, both men need something completely different, though, and Bush is determined to deal with this need.
Hornblower's eyes jerk wide open again when Bush takes a hold of his member and starts stroking it. To Hornblower, his friend's hand feels sure in its actions, and rightfully so. His member grows harder and swells in Bush's hand. Hornblower lifts his head to watch in fascination.
At the motion Bush, looks up again. The expression of wonder and pleasure on Hornblower's face makes him want to kiss him again; and again. But they're both exhausted, and Bush knows his own body well enough. If he doesn't take this further quickly, he'll be too tired to deal with his own needs, let alone Hornblower's. So he leans forward without releasing his friend's member and starts to kiss his way down Hornblower's stomach once more, and then further down this time. He briefly nuzzles the dark curls between Hornblower's legs before withdrawing his hand from his friend's rock-hard member to lick along its length.
Hornblower gasps at the hot and wet sensation, then the chill of Bush's breath on the wet trail. But it is nothing compared to the feeling that rushes through him when Bush takes his member into his mouth. Heat and wetness encompass it.
Bush's tongue swirls around Hornblower's member, his lips move up and down its length. Hornblower can't fight the sensations any longer and lets his head fall back, his eyes closing again. Nothing seems to exist any longer for him but Bush's mouth on his member.
The sensation becomes too intense very quickly, and his orgasm takes Hornblower completely by surprise. “Will,” he gasps, not even managing the full name.
Bush swallows as much of Hornblower's ejaculate as he can manage, then licks him clean.
He will never forget this moment, nor this taste. But the last days are taking their toll on Bush, and he realises he doesn't have the energy to do anything about his own needs any more. Any other night, the sight of Hornblower coming undone like this would have been enough to push Bush over the edge as well.
But tonight he just sits back and enjoys the sight of Hornblower's seemingly boneless body sprawled out on the bench seat. He gently rubs a hand over Hornblower's leg and soon finds his friend has fallen asleep. Hornblower must have been just as tired as Bush himself, or maybe even more so, the skinny body unable to store as much energy as Bush's more muscled body.
After a couple of minutes, a very different thought intrudes on Bush's mind: It wouldn't do for Styles to find his captain like this in the morning. So Bush pushes himself off the seat and gently lifts his friend up. He carries him around the screen to his cot and lies him down in it.
Hornblower wakes again as Bush pulls a blanket over his naked body. He opens his eyes sleepily and looks up into Bush's face. The loose hair is falling around his friend's head, and Hornblower reaches up to brush a strand of it back, exposing the red spot he left on Bush's neck.
“I'm sorry,” he mumbles.
It's not until Bush notices the direction of Hornblower's gaze, that he remembers the earlier ministrations to his neck and understands the meaning of the apology. He reaches for Hornblower's hand. “No need for that, it will be well hidden underneath my collar.”
“Our secret,” Hornblower murmurs and smiles up at Bush before his eyes close again. He wants to hold on to this moment for as long as possible but is too tired to stay awake much longer.
Bush tries to pull his hand away, but Hornblower holds on to it. “Don't leave yet, stay a while longer.” He shifts in his cot, turning onto his side, thus creating space.
Bush hesitates only for a brief moment. He quickly strips down and slides into the cot next to his friend. “A while.”
Hornblower entwines the fingers of his right hand with Bush's left, his other hand idly plays with a strand of wavy brown hair.
“William,” he murmurs sleepily, “whoever wrote Article 28 has no idea what he's missing out on.”
Hownblower falls asleep to Bush's quiet laughter, and a gentle kiss to his lips is the last thing that registers on his mind as he drifts off into peaceful slumber.
Article 28 of the Navy's Articles of War: "If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery or sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial."