Ship of the Damned, part twelve
by Sue N.
Archie stood on the quarter-deck near Thorne and
watched as the ratings, dismissed from their muster,
headed for their various stations. Instinctively, he
found himself searching the crew for the familiar
faces brought over from Indefatigable, wanting --
needing -- to see how they were settling in. Though
Thorne had all but relieved him of his responsibility
for those men, they had been given into his care by
Captain Pellew, and he would answer to that man alone
for whatever befell them. And, in his mind, his
obligation to Captain Pellew ranked far above his
obligation to Thorne.
On the deck below, he recognized Styles, saw him
exchange words -- obviously not pleasant words -- with
another crewman, and tensed as anxiety bit into him.
He briefly considered going down, but had no wish to
draw Thorne's attention to the situation. Then, to his
great relief, he saw Brown, one of the Indefatigables,
go over and break up the exchange, clapping one hand
to Styles' shoulder and the other to his arm and
leading him away with a smile. Archie exhaled deeply
and promised himself to thank Brown later.
"A problem, Mr. Kennedy?" Thorne asked suddenly, his
cold gaze intent upon the younger man. He had seen
Kennedy stiffen, had heard his sharp intake of breath,
and wondered what had caused such concern.
Startled, Archie turned to the senior lieutenant and
forced himself to relax. "No, sir," he lied, praying
the man had not seen. "It looked as if one of the men
was near having a slight mishap, but all is well now."
Thorne continued to stare at him, thoroughly
unconvinced. "Very well, then," he said at last. "I
shall have the log hove, if you please."
Archie saluted. "Aye aye, sir." He turned and caught
the eye of the midshipman on watch. "Mr. Adams, we
shall heave the log."
"Aye aye, sir."
Together they walked aft, where two crewmen already
stood waiting, one holding the log. This was a wooden
apparatus in the shape of a piece of pie and attached
to a line one-hundred fathoms long with knots tied at
regular intervals. Also at hand was the log-glass, a
30-second sandglass; when the glass was turned, the
log would be heaved overboard. As the sand ran out,
the knots in the line would be counted, and the ship's
speed would be calculated by comparing the amount of
time passed to the number of knots released.
"Make ready," Archie ordered, sending Adams to the
glass and the crewmen to the taffrail. "Turn!"
At his sharp command, Adams turned the glass and the
log was thrown over. Once in the water, the lead
weighting its arc caused it to float point-up. Archie
clasped his hands loosely behind his back and watched
the sands running through the glass, then the knotted
line playing out behind the log. All the while, he
counted the seconds off in his head. Twelve...
"Stop!" he called sharply as the last grains slipped
through. Immediately a clamp was placed on the line to
mark it, and the men began hauling the log back in. As
it was brought aboard, Adams went over to study it.
"Well, Mr. Adams," Archie asked, "what speed have
Adams counted, did the rapid calculations in his head,
and turned to the lieutenant. "Sir, she's making four
knots and three fathom."
"Very good." Archie turned to the crewmen and smiled.
"Thank you." He turned and, with Adams, went back to
Thorne, leaving in his wake two men too startled even
An officer... thanking them?
Archie went to Thorne, who was standing with the
master at the log-book, entering Resolute's course
under the binnacle light. "Sir," he said,
straightening and saluting. "She is making four knots
and three fathom."
Thorne glanced briefly at him and nodded tersely, then
gestured for the master to enter the reported speed in
the log. Archie lingered hesitantly a few moments
longer, waiting for some word. When none was
forthcoming, he sighed softly and turned away,
rejoining Adams on the leeward side of the
Unlike Stewart, however, Adams was proving to be a
taciturn, cheerless fellow, not given to conversation.
He was taller than Archie by several inches and
solidly built, dark-haired, dark-eyed and
dark-natured, the corners of his mouth turned down in
a seemingly perpetual frown, his entire demeanor one
of remote indifference. Studying him surreptitiously,
Archie was taken aback by the sudden realization that
Adams was clearly several years older than himself,
and knew no midshipman could look with anything but
resentment upon the presence of an officer who was
senior to him in rank, but junior to him in years.
God, how he missed Horatio...
He sighed softly and glanced over the railing, able
now to make out Indefatigable's lights against the
still-dark horizon. The sight of her, the knowledge
that she was so near, comforted him, yet also sent a
pang of longing through him. He did not want to be
near her; he wanted to be IN her. He wanted to be
greeting the dawn at his station with her guns; he
wanted to be trading quiet quips with Horatio; he
wanted to hear Pellew's voice, and Bowles', and know
in his heart of hearts that, despite whatever lurked
out there in the darkness, all was right with his
He wanted to be home...
The first blush of dawn began to colour the sky, and
look-outs stared from every point, searching the sea
for any hint of danger. It was a tense period of
waiting to see if any Don had taken advantage of the
cover of darkness to creep unawares upon two British
frigates, and one that no captain or crew ever took
lightly. Archie found himself pacing the leeward
length of the quarter-deck, moving slowly about and
sweeping his gaze across the horizon for the first
glimmer of a foreign sail. As ever at this time, his
mouth was dry and his stomach tight, and he found
himself clenching and unclenching the hands clasped at
By ten minutes after five the entire sky was alight,
and the look-outs reported all clear on every point.
For all they could see, Resolute and Indefatigable
were alone upon the ocean. A palpable feeling of
relief swept through the ship, and only as Archie felt
himself relaxing did he realize how deeply he had
dreaded the prospect of facing an enemy in this ship.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had absolutely no
notion of the condition of her guns or the skill of
their crews, and the knowledge sent a hard twinge of
guilt through him.
Well, he would have to see to that...
Satisfied that there would be no engagement this
morning, Thorne nodded tightly and peered over the
railing at the bosun. "Mr. Hale, pipe the off watch
below and have the cooks light the galley fire. Mr.
Trent, note the time and conditions in the log.
Midshipmen, take charge of your divisions. I shall be
in the day cabin; should conditions change, notify me.
Mr. Kennedy, you may retire, as well."
"If I may, sir," Archie said hurriedly, stepping
forward before Thorne could depart the deck, "I should
like to have a look at the guns. I've not had a chance
yet--" As Thorne's chill grey eyes flickered over him
and registered both surprise and suspicion, Archie
swallowed hard and had to force himself not to recoil.
"It is my customary duty station, sir," he explained,
trying not to stammer despite the unnerving effect of
that pale, disapproving gaze. "And I--" What? Don't
trust that the guns have been any better maintained
than the rest of this run-down ship? Well, wouldn't
THAT just raise his stock with Thorne? "I should like
to familiarize myself with Resolute's guns, sir, in
the event we should have need of them." Surely that
sounded harmless enough, even to Thorne?
He stared for long, long moments at Kennedy in
silence, studying him intently, searching for any hint
of insult behind the words, in the dark blue eyes.
Yet, though he disliked the young man intensely, he
had to admit -- if only to himself -- that having a
gunnery officer aboard would certainly be useful. And
God knew the gun crews had not distinguished
themselves in their last engagement...
"Very well, Mr. Kennedy," he granted quietly,
grudgingly. "Mr. Hale, pass the word for the gunner
and his mates to meet Mr. Kennedy at the guns for an
inspection. And, Mr. Kennedy," he smiled thinly,
icily, "I am certain that should you find anything
amiss, anything at all, you will not hesitate to bring
it to my attention."
Archie stiffened and went cold inside. On
Indefatigable, only major problems were reported to
the captain. Anything less, he was accustomed to
handling between himself and Wells, the gunner. But he
very much doubted there was such a thing as a lesser
problem in Resolute.
"Aye aye, sir," he assented softly, knowing Thorne was
waiting for his answer. "I will-- make a full report
to you, of course. Sir." Merciful God, please let
those guns be in perfect order!
Thorne's smile broadened, but grew no warmer, no less
threatening. "I look forward to it. Good morning, Mr.
Archie swallowed again, and saluted. "Good morning,
Mr. Thorne." When Thorne returned the salute, he
turned and went with leaden steps and sinking stomach
down the ladder, wondering what ill would come of
And all he had wanted was a look at the guns...
Styles' division was stationed on the foc'sle,
beginning much-needed repairs there under the less
than inspiring command of Midshipman George. He had
promised Matthews yet again to stay clear of trouble,
and was determined to keep his word; or, at least, to
try. But not all the best intentions in the world
could lessen the contempt he felt for the sorry lot
about him. Still, he kept his thoughts to himself and
worked diligently at his tasks, wanting to draw as
little attention to himself as possible.
Ironically, however, it was that very attitude that
got him noticed. The foresail had been brought down
for patching, and while three men worked at that,
Styles tended the sail's rigging, which was badly
frayed. Indeed, upon inspecting some of the lines, he
was surprised they had not snapped already and sent
the sail plunging to the deck. Shaking his shaggy head
and muttering darkly over the condition of the lines,
he set about splicing them with a careful skill, his
long, strong fingers working with a practiced but
unhurried ease. Fixing his whole attention upon the
familiar chore, he managed to lose himself, forgetting
the men about him, his surroundings, forgetting
everything except the work at hand.
Until he was brought back by the thin, reedy voice of
Midshipman George. "You, there," the boy called
sharply, stalking forward to where Styles sat and
scowling down at him. "Can you work no faster? I will
have this sail up before breakfast, or I shall know
the reason why!"
Styles looked up, squinting in the bright morning
glare. He had quickly taken George's measure, and
considered him as worthless a midshipman as ever he
had seen. And he had seen more than his share. But
this boy -- Styles guessed he could be no more than
sixteen -- was all spit and polish and no sense. He
rode the men mercilessly, lashed them frequently with
his tongue, took no pains at all to conceal his
contempt for them. At the same time, he had not the
smallest notion of basic seamanship, knew no more of
what the men under him were about than might any
lubber. In an attempt to hide his ignorance, though,
he attempted to mimic the imperious stance, manner and
tone of the older officers, but managed to appear only
Nonetheless, Styles adopted a calm, respectful
attitude toward the ridiculous child glaring down at
him. "Beggin' yer pardon, sir," he said evenly, "but I
don't like rushin' this. These lines are awful frayed,
and if they're not spliced just so, we could lose that
sail. It's a true wonder it 'asn't come down already."
George's scowl deepened; he thoroughly misliked having
a common sailor insinuate he had no idea what he was
doing. "Do you think I do not know what you are
doing?" he asked gratingly, his entire body rigid with
offense. "If you hope to avoid being given other tasks
by lingering over this one, you are mistaken! Oh,
yes," he said with a thin smile at Styles' startled
look, "I have seen that tactic before, and I assure
you it will not work! This is not a complicated task;
you merely put two ropes together and splice them into
one. So hurry up with it. We've more work to do, and
I'll not see it delayed by your laggardly efforts!"
Anger flooded Styles at the undeserved rebuke and his
long fingers closed tightly about the line, his
knuckles showing white. But he swallowed hard against
the first rash words that leapt to his tongue,
counting slowly to ten as Matthews had once suggested
he try and giving the heat of his anger a few moments
"Sir," he said slowly when at last he could think
calmly, "I know there's a lot to be done, but I still
say this cannot be rushed. There's more to it than--"
"Is there?" George spat. "Is there, indeed? And by
what right do you say anything at all?" He kicked
furiously at the ropes, a child throwing a tantrum.
"So, you know more of this than I, do you? You, a mere
"Able seaman, sir," Styles corrected stiffly, unable
to help himself. He had been disrated too many times
in the past not to have the distinction mean something
"Oh, able seaman, is it?" George jeered, his face
twisted with malice. "Well, if your insolence
continues, THAT will be changing! I will not abide
insubordination, man, do you hear me? Well, do you?"
Styles clenched his teeth tightly and inhaled slowly,
holding the breath for long moments before releasing
it. "Aye aye, sir," he rasped at last.
George smiled thinly. "Good. Now, hurry this up. If I
have to tell you again, you'll be at the gratings for
shirking!" He gave a last, leering smile, then turned
and stalked off, confident he had awakened the proper
respect for authority in the man.
"Little shit," Styles muttered under his breath,
careful that no one should hear his words.
But, heard or not, the thoughts behind them were
shared. "They shoulda left 'im in the riggin',"
murmured the big blond seaman working on the tattered
sail near Styles. "'E's useless, an' worse'n 'at, 'e's
just plain mean." He turned sullen blue eyes upon
Styles, his face as hard as his voice. "'E likes
seein' us at the gratings, likes 'avin' us under his
thumb. Worships Mr. Thorne, 'e does, wants to be just
like 'im." He spat contemptuously on the deck. "Oy,
'e's gettin' a good start, I'd say." He lifted his
chin belligerently, studying Styles closely, then held
out a large, scarred hand. "Name's Finney." He grinned
crookedly. "Can't rightly remember if it's Able or
Ordinary Seaman Finney. Been rated and disrated too
many times to recall."
Styles answered the grin with one of his own and took
the hand, shaking it firmly. "Styles. And I can
recall. I've been an able seaman long enough now to
get used to it, and I don't plan to lose it again." He
jerked his head toward the distant and smugly
satisfied George. "And certainly not to the likes of
"Watch 'im," Finney warned in a low, harsh voice.
"Like I said, 'e's a mean 'un. 'e's the youngest of
the mids and likes to play at bein' a man. Only 'e
don't know 'ow. 'E ain't got any sea-sense at all, an'
'e 'ates us for knowin' it. Takes out 'is ignorance on
us, makes us pay for 'is mistakes." He spat again.
"Well, 'e'll pay for it, you mark my words." His eyes
took on an ugly gleam. "Aye, 'e'll pay, an' soon. 'Im
an' that bastard Thorne will know what it's like to
scream for mercy an' find there's none to be 'ad!"
Styles slowly withdrew his hand and only barely
resisted the urge to wipe it against his trouser leg
as a dark chill took root in his belly. He had heard
such words too many times not to know their meaning,
and knew Finney did not utter them lightly.
No man in the King's Navy ever spoke lightly of
Archie made his way slowly down the line of great
guns, examining each massive piece with pain-staking
thoroughness, overlooking nothing. He knelt on the
deck and studied the breeching tackle, carriage and
truck upon which each gun was mounted, inspected the
wood for weakness, warping or cracks and the cables
for any sign of fraying. On the body of the gun
itself, he scrutinized the reinforcing rings,
flintlock and touchhole, and ran a swab down each
enormous barrel to check for cleanliness. And now and
again he ordered a port opened and the gun run out to
look for any balkiness in the process. He checked also
the condition of powder and shot, and made sure each
gun had its full complement of equipment.
As he watched the young lieutenant at work, Rogers,
the ship's gunner, found himself repeatedly mopping
his face and the back of his neck with his
handkerchief, more nervous than he had been in years.
This was not, he knew, some shiny new lieutenant
seeking to impress; this was an officer who knew and
loved guns, who knew what the business of gunnery was
about. And to his everlasting shame, Rogers knew these
guns were not what they should have been.
When he had done inspecting the last gun, Archie
straightened and turned, staring down the double row
of cannon and chewing his lower lip as he thought.
Unconsciously, he dropped a hand to the piece and
drummed his fingers lightly against the cold iron.
Rogers and the four gunner's mates waiting in an
anxious, uneasy silence, shifting their gazes from the
lieutenant's narrowed blue eyes to the guns and back
again, very much afraid. They were painfully aware of
the condistion of the guns, and knew how any of the
other officers would have reacted. But this one was an
unknown, and that made him all the more terrifying.
And he would be making his report to Mr. Thorne...
"Mr. Rogers," Archie asked softly, "how are the guns
Rogers frowned deeply and stared at the young amn in
Archie straightened and settled his blue gaze upon the
man. "How are they crewed?" He raised a hand to wave
down the line. "These are eighteen-pounders. They
require a crew of nine each. Yet I know Resolute has
not the men for such. How were the guns crewed in your
Rogers grimaced and very nearly spat. "Barely, sir!"
he rasped in disgust. "Mr. North -- 'e was the
leftenant in charge o' the guns, before 'e was killed
-- 'e 'ad the crews down to six men, and manned only
alternating guns. Cor, sir, it's no wonder the Dons
mauled us as they did! Well, you can see the condition
of the guns, and you knows they been let go far too
long." He reached out absently to caress the massive
barrel nearest him, his expression one of depest
sorrow. "These beauties deserve better care than they
get, sir, but when ye get an officer who don't know or
care nothin' about 'em--"
"Mr. North was not a gunnery officer, then?" Archie
asked quietly, staring intently at Rogers and studying
him closely. As ship's gunner, he was responsible for
maintenance and stores, and not even an inept
lieutenant should have interfered with those
Rogers scowled. "Last real gunnery officer we 'ad in
resolute was Leftenant Kelly, nigh on a year ago. Oy,
'e could make these beauties sing, let me tell you,
sir! But--" He shrugged and scowled down at the deck,
a shadow crossing his blunt features. "Well, sir, 'e--
'e ran afoul of Mr. Th--" he broke off abruptly and
raised his head sharply, alarmed at having said too
much. "'E's in the Channel Fleet now, sir, servin' in
a ship of the line." He glanced down and again patted
the cold iron barrel with an oddly tender gesture.
"An' me beauties been wantin' 'im ever since."
Archie sighed and shook his head, feeling suddenly
tired. "These guns cannot be permitted to remain in
this condition," he said softly. "You know that as
well as I." He pointed down the line. "Number six has
a powder residue so thick inside that she may well
blow the next time she is fired. Number eight's
touchhole is packed, and number three can barely be
run out. She needs a new carriage altogether, or will
soon collapse under her own weight. And number two's
ring-bolts have near pulled completely from the side;
if she's fired again, she'll pull loose and roll over
her crew. There are four powderhorns missing, there
are not near enough linstocks or wadding, and the
stores of shot are disgracefully low!" He stepped
closer to Rogers and sighed sharply, appalled at such
conditions. "My God, man, what happens if we meet up
with the Dons before Gibraltar? For all the good these
guns would do us, we might as well start throwing
Rogers bowed his head and turned away, his face
aflame, his soul seething. "Sir," he rasped, "I
"And well you should!" Archie said sharply, his eyes
ablaze with anger. "Yet if you know, then how has
this-- this disgrace been allowed to happen?" Again,
he waved a hand to take in the gundeck. "Look at these
guns, Mr. Rogers! They need cleaning, oiling-- Good
God, they are more of threat to Resolute than to any
enemy vessel! Half of them could blow with their next
firing! And it cannot all be blamed on an officer who
has been gone more than a year! The maintenance of
these guns is your responsibility, Mr. Rogers," he
said coldly. "I expect to see you engaged now in
carrying out that responsibility."
Rogers stiffened and scowled, his eyes narrowing, his
hands clenching tightly into fists at his sides. He
stared angrily at the lieutenant, but knew he dared
not speak for fear of putting his head into a noose.
Seeing the man's anger, and knowing it would do none
of them any good, Archie exhaled slowly and willed his
own outrage to subside, forcing himself to think
calmly. "I shall speak with Mr. Thorne," he said
quietly, "and see if we cannot have a few hands to
help us. God knows where we will find them, but the
repair of these guns must be seen to at once, or
nothing else shall matter. All the shining brass in
the world will not save us if we should encounter a
Spanish ship without all our teeth." He frowned and
bit his lower lip, thinking. "I shall need you, your
mates and all quarter-gunners, as well as what few
hands I shall be able to beg from Mr. Thorne. And we
shall simply start at the top of the line and work our
way down. Well," he smiled slightly, wryly, "so much
for my time off watch!"
Rogers blinked and gaped, stupefied. "Sir, you-- you
ain't--" As that bright blue gaze turned back upon
him, he swallowed hard and frowned. "You mean to tell
me," he said rasped in shock, "that you, an officer,
will be workin' with us on these guns? That you're
gonna spend your hours off watch down 'ere, in all
"Of course," Archie answered, unable to understand the
man's surprise. "I cannot very well order such
undertakings without giving my time to them as well,
can I?" He nodded. "Gather your crew and start at
number one." He grimaced slightly. "I shall go make my
report to Mr. Thorne, then join you when I can." He
smiled at Rogers. "Well, get to it. We have a lot of
work to do."
Rogers stiffened and nodded, still stunned at the
thought of an officer involving himself in such dirty
work. "Aye aye, sir," he murmured dazedly. "I-- Right
away, sir." He knuckled his forehead dazedly, then
turned and led his equally astonished mates away,
shaking his head and muttering under his breath the
This couldn't be...