Title: 2005 Gift for GWT
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Disclaimer: These characters and their world are not mine. I've no rights and no money.
Summary: A bit of Horatio-torture... though some of it is self-inflicted because Horatio is a bit hard on himself as he tries to make things right for his men after an incident.
Notes: Written as a gift fic for girlwithtulips during the 2005 holiday season.
2005 Gift for GWT
Completely drenched and chilled to the bone, Horatio had no time to dwell on his own status. The good of the ship and his men demanded every bit of his attention now. "Pull!" he shouted from his gut, willing the men to pull harder, work faster. If they didn't get the snapped timber and rigging under control and the sail pulled in they were surely done for. It seemed a simple enough action in theory, but with the wind and rain of the almost sudden storm, and the waves sloshing over the sides of the ship the task was formidable in reality.
"Come on men! P--" he shouted again, just as the ship tipped. He lost his voice as well as his footing on the slippery deck and scrambled to hold onto something to keep from falling. He meant to hold onto the bulwarks or one of the cabin walls. What he managed to grab onto this time, however, was Archie Kennedy. At the same moment, a large wave came at them, slapping the side of the ship and tumbling over onto the deck. But, with arms entangled and four legs instead of two, both men managed to keep their balance and then straighten up.
There was no time for a thank you-- that could come later when the storm and danger had passed. Horatio shivered at the lovely thought of being below decks and in dry clothes again. It was so rare to be completely dry on a ship, especially if one took into account the light salt spray upon one's face as the ship moved through even the most gentle of seas.
But right now, the sea was far from gentle. "We've got to secure that section!" Archie shouted to Horatio, even though Horatio was right beside him. "We're off balance as it is!"
Horatio could see that all too well. As though able to envision several moves into the future, he could see the mast cracking under the weight and going down. Its weight would pull the ship and, if the keep would not be able to compensate, the whole thing would potentially capsize. Unless they could get what was swinging loosely tied up.
With the rain coming down over them in buckets, Horatio adjusted his hat and Archie cleared his voice. Together they shouted at the top of their lungs, "Pull!"
The snapped timber moved under their command at last. "Splice the Main Brace!" Horatio called out. Ropes were used to lash it into place. The free rigging was bound up with a preventer and the ship was given a moment to find its balance again naturally. She did so within a minute's time, much to everyone's relief. The sail was then tacked up properly and safely, out of the wind. "Anchor?!" Horatio bellowed as he spun in place so his voice would travel towards the stern of the ship.
"Tight!" replied the man who'd been put on anchor watch at the stern, to be sure it was holding the boat in place and not free or dragging.
Another wave crashed into the side where they stood, and Horatio spat out the salty water that had been washed into his mouth. "All right then, Heave-to!" he shouted.
"Heave-to!" Archie echoed just as loudly.
With the rudder and sail balanced, preventing any forward movement of the ship, the wind would hit squarely on the weather bow and the ship would hold its position to ride out the rest of the storm. Horatio nodded at the condition of the vessel, then headed straight to the captain's cabin.
Dripping water as though he were a rain cloud, he stood just inside the cabin where Captain Pellew stood brooding over a map and compass on his table. Captain Pellew heard him and looked up. "Yes?"
"She's lying to, Sir," Horatio said. "There was a bit of damage by the main topsail but she'll hold well enough to weather the storm."
"Very good," the captain said, nodding, and looked back at his maps. He muttered automatically, "Very good indeed."
It was strange that Captain Pellew would stay below during something like this, no matter how much confidence he had in his senior officers. Horatio had heard tales of British Navy captains who would go mad with rage at any scratch of his ship which happened out of his sight. But he also knew Captain Pellew and knew that whatever had a hold of his mind must be of the utmost importance. "Are you quite finished with your report, then?" He asked this without looking up, and Horatio also knew better than to press him on the matter.
Horatio shivered and cleared his throat. "Yes, Sir." He was dismissed at once.
Horatio did not mind heading back on deck, even with the wind and the rain. The storm was still terrible. But the thunder was low and the lightening was far off. The Indy would make it through safely, without a doubt. Feeling drenched and shivery now was almost like a badge of honor. And even though Archie suggested he go below and dry off, Horatio insisted on staying put a little while longer, somehow feeling bound to the watch to make up for the captain's absence.
Encountering an island so soon after a storm was cause for celebration, especially one upon which needed resources seemed abundant. The captain, therefore, had at once dropped anchor and called upon his officers.
"Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hornblower, you will take a crew to shore to replenish our fresh water supply."
"Yes, Sir," Horatio said, nodding and tipping his hat towards the captain.
The manpower was meager, but not much skill was required when it came to rowing to shore, filling up barrels, and rowing back. Horatio took three men in his rowboat, including Matthews and Styles, and as many barrels. Faced with the decision of staying on the ship and supervising ship repairs and going to land to stretch his legs, Archie had chosen the latter. His rowboat had three more men and three more barrels. With any luck, they'd be done within the span of an hour, two at the most.
Horatio stood atop a small sand dune, watching the men tying the boats up and then unloading the empty barrels and supplies. Beyond that, from his vantage point, he could see the Indefatigable anchored in the deep water, waiting patiently for them to return. He'd climbed up there to signal the ship that they had arrived and been met with no opposition. In fact, there seemed to be no signs life on the island at all, apart from a trees and birds. Just a stretch of sand and, hopefully, a stream somewhere inland.
Horatio shivered, despite the bright sun, as a cold breeze came at him from the ocean. After being soaked to the skins all night and having very little time to sleep today, he had not really felt proper yet. He had almost voiced this when Captain Pellew ordered him to lead the team to the island, but there was no time for complaints in Her Majesty's Navy and a mental state of chilly and damp and an actual one of slightly fatigued were not enough to make him decline an order. So here he was, ready to do his duty.
Archie watched the men as well, but from the ground. Then he made his way up the dune, feet sinking into the deep sand which made it difficult. He quickened his pace and finally made it up. "A word, Horatio?" Archie requested, face shining and golden as the sun caught it. He squinted but tried to keep eye contact with Horatio.
Horatio paused a moment. Then, deciding the men did not need supervision in order to move empty barrels from a rowboat to the ground, he nodded. "Yes, all right." They walked over a little, clearly out of hearing range of the men. "What is it, Archie?"
"Well..." Archie started. His voice faded away as he stalled hesitantly. After a moment during which his face was full of doubt, Archie apparently decided to just come right out with it. "You've looked a bit under the weather since the storm," said he. "You aren't feverish, are you? Because, if you are, I would be happy to lead the party inland and let you hang back to rest a bit. This is a deserted island, Horatio. There's no need to push yourself if you are ill."
The accusation made him take a step back, out of reach should Archie become too forward and check his skin for heat. Archie looked as though he really needed assurance on the matter, but Horatio had no intention of letting that pass. "Of course I am not ill," Horatio insisted. "I am here, am I not?"
Archie looked confused. "What has that to do with it?"
"As an officer, I would never endanger my men or a mission by allowing myself to work when my health is compromised," Horatio replied.
From his many experiences with Horatio, Archie knew as much. And it was good indeed to hear Horatio felt well, even if he looked pale and tired. But, then, who among them did not? Archie clapped Horatio on the back in appreciation of the answer. Though, as they headed back, Archie could not help but smile with a, "But you would tell me if you were ill, right, Horatio?"
Horatio gave him a friendly shove which sent Archie forward a few steps in the sand, laughing. The two started down the sandy slope slowly, but picked up speed as the pull of gravity took over. By the time they reached the bottom, they were sprinting in the soft, deep sand. They walked it out as they headed back to the men, still laughing a little under their heavy breaths.
"All right here?" Horatio asked, surveying the expedition which seemed ready to move out. They brought with them only three of the six barrels, meaning to come back for a second trip with the water source was located. Carrying empty barrels was easy, with them strapped to backs or overhead. So the men all nodded in agreement and Horatio and Archie led them on.
There was surely a stream somewhere on the island. From the water, they could see the groups of trees in the center, and trees could not exist without fresh water. So they headed towards the trees, at one moment they were trudging up sand dunes and the next they were navigating through thick vegetation.
Horatio heard the rush of water before he saw it, and directed them east a bit. Ten minutes later they found not a stream but a small river snaking its way through the dense forest. The banks were slippery and, from the look of the white rapids. One wrong step was all it would take to lose both man and barrel. There must surely be safer places to fill barrels of water. So they followed it downstream, keeping track of their bearings so they could find their way back to the anchored ship more easily than walking around the coast of the island, which might be impossible in any case because of tides.
After two quarters of an hour, they found a spot where the river widened and the waves were slower. "This looks like as good a spot as any, Men," Horatio said, gesturing. "Fill 'em up."
"Aye-aye Sir," said Matthews as he and the others dropped the barrels and began to fill them up. By lying a barrel down in the waterway, only about a third of it could be filled. So they would have to fill barrels partially and then transfer water from one to the other until barrels were full. They could use canteens to top them off. Then they would lug the heavy things out and nail the tops down into place.
The progress was slow but steady, though Horatio grew increasingly uncomfortable as he stood and watched. It gave him time to survey the area, which did not seem as good a spot as he'd originally thought. The foliage was less dense here and the banks of the river large and difficult to secure. Just beyond the far bank was a large hill at least twice as high as the sand dunes earlier but covered in tall trees and rocks. There was no knowing what lay on its other side. Horatio was all for believing this was a deserted island, but he didn't like to make unfounded assumptions, especially when the safety of his party was at stake.
Instead of just standing about or sitting and resting as some of the men were while taking turns at the task, Horatio took to pacing up and down, feeling nervous fluttering in his chest, the likes of which he did not wish to admit to the others. "I think I will go check that out," Horatio announced finally, nodding towards the hill.
"Are you mad?" Archie asked quietly, beyond the hearing of the men. "The stream water's freezing. And that isn't a simple climb, Horatio."
"I know," Horatio said, nodding. "But I would feel better for it in the end." He looked hopefully back at Archie. "Would you like to come with?"
Archie laughed at the absurdity of it but threw up his hands and decided to play along. "Lead the way."
The river was, just as Archie had warned, shockingly cold. It came up past their boots, quite up to their knees in fact. Flashing back to the severely waterlogged adventures of the previous night, Horatio was halfway regretting the journey when only halfway across. By the time he was all of the way across, he was wet, cold, and shivering. His teeth chattered and extremities shook as he trekked up the hill. The climb did as much to warm him as the passage of time did, and he was only wet and somewhat chilly when he reached the top of the hill.
From a brief glance around from the top, Horatio presumed this was the highest spot on the island. The high vantage point granted them with a view of nearly the entire North coastline of the island, once you looked around the trees. But the coastline itself was not what Horatio noticed first, and certainly not what Archie noticed once they were there. The two officers took one look and then dropped down to their knees and then their bellies. They slid back against the ground until they hit the slope they'd climbed up on, using the hill itself as a shield.
The hills must have acted as a barrier to the sound as well as the sight. "That's half the French Navy right there!" Archie whispered, his eyes wide with worry.
Horatio nodded. He should have known. He should have checked the area to be sure it was secure first. How could he have missed so many frogs? Speaking quickly. "Due to their close docking and the brief look of what they were carrying on and off the ships, this must be where they stockpile supplies and reserves."
"Do you think they spotted us?" They had only been up and visible for a few moments, at best. But atop a high hill, with uniforms that certainly stood out against the green and brown of trees and shrubbery.
There was a far off sound of a gun firing and Horatio caught a shout or two carried over on the wind. "Yes," he said seriously. "I believe they did."
Together they scrambled quickly back down the hill and across the river. They knew it would take some time for the French troops to get to them, but that would certainly happen before they could get back to the ship with the water, or back to the ship even without the water for that matter.
Still, they really should try to salvage the task and get a few barrels. He'd spent the whole trip down the hill weighing the possibility of getting the much-needed water back to the ship. Much as he hated the idea of returning with the job undone, the safety of the men was more important and he could not work out how to achieve both.
And, most important, was the fact that at least eight ships of the French fleet lay on the opposite side of the island from the spot where the Indefatigable sat anchored and waiting. It seemed highly improbable for the Indy to be missed for long by ships coming and going for supplies. As tough as the Indy was, she would surely not withstand bombardment from a half dozen or more French frigates all at once, especially if forced into shallow waters.
Horatio was shivering twice as much when crossing the river the second time around, but things were perfectly clear to him. However, at the moment, he was more concerned with what needed to be done than his footing. The sole of his boot slipped against a wet stone and threw his balance out completely. He went down, face first. With his hands thrown forward to break his fall, he nonetheless ended up completely drenched to the bone again.
Archie helped pick him up, and Horatio scrambled to regain his footing and get to the riverside. He hugged his arms over his chest as he shook with shivers. And he clenched his teeth as he silently berated himself for the fall. This was the absolute last thing he needed at the moment. "W-we need to be g-going n-now," he said as soon as he was back on land and able to pull himself together. "S-French supply stores... at least f-five hundred soldiers--"
"A thousand, more like," Archie said.
Horatio nodded in agreement. "They'll b-be on us in minutes."
"The water?" asked Styles, gesturing at the three filled barrels.
"We'll have to leave it," Archie declared, shooting Horatio a look. Horatio nodded and shuddered, feeling cold from head to toe. However, he was sure a good run would warm him right up.
"I fear we m-m-must alert the Indy, if... we can," Horatio said, just as another shot was heard. Horatio glanced back, seeing a small party on the top of the hill already. They were still out of range, but would be closing in fast now and the French had not only a familiarity with the geography but also the high ground right now.
Everyone seemed to be of one mind as they scrambled back into the forest straight in the direction of their rowboats, but knowing they had no hope of reaching the boats before the French reached them. Pistols were being drawn and loaded as needed as they ran, but they fired few shots among them. They could not risk wasting the ammunition in case it came down to a closer battle. Nor could they risk expending unnecessary energy.
So they moved along as swiftly as they could in the dense forest which felt more like a jungle. Foliage whipped them as they ran, leaves hitting their faces, light branches lashing their sides. The terrain made their retreat much more difficult than Horatio would have liked. It slowed down their pursuers as well, but not as much as Horatio's men had a path partially broken in by the time the French soldiers made their ways through. So when the bullets started getting dangerously close, Horatio started getting very worried.
Pausing a moment, he turned and fired a pistol back towards the enemy. But, as he did so, the last few members of his party were in his line of sight. Johnson, Styles and Matthews had all been behind him as they were running. And, when Horatio turned to take down one of the French soldiers, he saw one of his go down as well.
"Styles!" he shouted, fighting against Johnson to get past the man and back to where Styles lay. But he was going in the wrong direction and they'd all be dead if they wasted any time. And Matthews was already collecting Styles who was still able to open his eyes and sort of move his feet enough to stumble forward.
Horatio knew it was only a matter of time now before the French would be right on top of them. And then they'd be captured or killed for knowing the location of a supply station. He had to think of something and he had to think of it now.
He wheeled back around, studying the forest for a brief moment. He needed somewhere for them to hide, and spotted a dense grove of bushes not too far off that might do the trick well enough. They were large enough for all eight of them to fit behind and not be seen unless the soldiers came around on the other side. Now the only question was how to take cover there.
There wasn't anything Horatio could see that they could use for a distraction and they did not have any means of setting up an explosion with a smoke cloud to cover their direction of escape. They would have to settle with good old firepower and hope the rather evenly matched numbers came out on their side because of skill and maybe a bit of luck. Horatio was not altogether at ease with the idea, as he could only see two possible outcomes from this and neither got them back to the ship. But it was the only thing he could think of to give them a chance.
"Find cover!" he ordered, quickly ducking behind a tree. The firefight which followed was lengthy but effective. After the pursuit, the French were impatient and made mistakes, and were picked off one by one. But that did not mean the bullets missed Horatio and his men entirely.
When it was all over, Horatio ordered several men behind the bushes he'd spotted. The rest of them, Horatio included, moved the bodies of the French soldiers away from where they'd fallen, so they would not be immediately spotted when more passed by.
"We should be all right for a little while," Horatio said, once they were all safe and hidden. Then he looked around and his eyes fell almost immediately on Styles. The man was lying on his back, bleeding quite badly from his leg. It did not look good, but Horatio had seen the good doctor aboard the Indy fix worse without amputation assuming they weren't engaged and he wasn't rushed. "You'll be all right, Man," he said, trying to sound sure of that himself.
Styles nodded. "M'certain I will, Sir," he said, wincing at the energy it took for him to speak. "You've gotten us outa worse before."
At the moment, Horatio wasn't too sure about that, but he nodded reassuringly. Truth was, he had not worked out how they were to proceed from this point onward. He did not like thinking only a few steps ahead for this very reason. What he needed was time to formulate a proper plan.
Their ultimate goal, of course, would be to get back to the ship. Preferably no worse off than they were now. He took a quick inventory. Eight men altogether. Styles injured so that he was unable to walk, obviously. But Handle seemed to have hit something during the skirmish. His shirt at the shoulder was torn open, revealing a minor abrasion. In addition, a large portion of the flesh there was already a sickening yellow and brown color, indicating the presence of a bad bruise and, therefore, an inability to use a pistol properly with that arm. Every man jack of them looked a bit tired and winded, and Horatio felt it, too.
But now that they were safe, at least for the time being, Horatio had a few moments to consider his own situation. Thoughts of Styles' condition were at the forefront of his mind, followed by the rest of the group. He felt sick to his stomach and quite angry at himself for what he had let transpire. But a stinging pain in his side convinced him to take just a few moments for himself, not that he deserved it. Horatio rose, fighting against the urge to wince. "I shall return in a moment," he informed the whole group. He was not a step away and already he felt guilty.
As he turned, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He glanced back to see Archie there, looking concerned. "You cannot fight them yourself," he said. "It will only be worse if they see you or follow you. This hiding place will last a while."
Horatio nodded. "Yes, I agree." The pain continued, and Horatio worried about what might happen if he were to stand there talking further. Surely Archie and the others would notice him double over or pass out. "I am only going to relieve myself, Archie." That was not a complete fabrication.
Archie's cheeks suddenly flushed. Living on a ship in tight quarters was not the place for modesty. With only a few heads on board, men were used to doing their business in front of others. It was one thing to do it, however, and quite another to speak of it out loud. "Ah, all right," Archie said, nodding. "Of course. Have at it but be safe. Do not stray."
Horatio promised he would be watch out for danger. He headed out of the grove and around the bluff. Once he was out of sight, with his fingers trembling, he pulled back his waistcoat and pulled up his shirt. There was a gash upon his side, bleeding freely and deeply. Hastily, Horatio took out his pocket square and refolded it to cover the length of the wound. He pressed it to the area. The cloth was thick and the injury not too deep. It looked as though the bullet had just grazed him. Lucky, indeed, if one considered being injured in the first place lucky.
Still, it certainly could have been worse. He felt ill again as the image of Styles' pale face came to mind. The man had been counting on him, depending on him. And he had failed to protect them. They all depended on him now, and he could not let them down. If that meant enduring a small injury, so be it. He could stand this form of punishment. He wanted to get back to the ship, naturally, but, more importantly, wanted to get the men back to the ship.
As he headed back to the group, he decided it was best not to let anyone else know about his injury. He did not want to complicate matters and complaining had no place aboard a ship or off on a mission. He glanced down at it, satisfied that it could be hidden for long enough... just as soon as he could determine how long long enough would be.
"All right," Horatio whispered, dropping carefully to his knees in the brush and dirt behind the bushes. He looked over his shoulder but dropped the volume of his voice just in case. "Here's how I see it. It will take them time before they realize their people are not coming back. We can make a mad dash for the beach and the boats."
"Dash bein' a bit difficult to under the circumstances, Sir?" Matthews asked, his eyes darting towards Styles. "Or--"
"Right," Horatio said, looking at Styles. He would absolutely not leave Styles behind, and it would take time to carry him. They were on the defensive now-- be captured or flee. Horatio did not like either option, and one glance at Styles told him he was running out of time. Worst yet was the fact that they could not count on reinforcements. For all Horatio knew, the ship had already been captured or sunk. "Change of plans. And change of outfits."
"Horatio..." Archie said, shaking his head.
It wasn't as though they hadn't tried this sort of maneuver before a half dozen times. But trying it on this sort of scale, in these circumstances, was something else. "Mason," Horatio whispered, pointing to one of the men. "You come with me. Everyone else, start taking off your clothes.
"Goodness, Horatio," Archie said with a chuckle as he began unbuttoning his shirt. "All you had to do was ask."
Horatio chuckled as well, then led Mason out to where they'd left the bodies. There were uniforms for them all, thankfully, and they all changed quickly, then Horatio and Matthews helped Styles on with his.
When it came to the pants, Styles gave a grunt and gritted his teeth. "I am sorry," Horatio said, not at all apologizing for the uncomfortable movements concerning the change. It also gave him a chance to inspect the wound more closely, without drawing attention to the action. It looked far worse than his own, but he should pull through fine assuming infection did not set in.
"You'll get us back to the ship, aye?" Styles asked weakly. "I'd hate to die in this bloody uniform." He lifted his hand and, though he wore no hat, gave Hornblower a salute like the one given after their first battle together and the death of Davy Williams.
Feeling overwhelmed with guilt, Horatio nonetheless smiled for Styles' sake. Then he took a deep breath and nodded resolutely. "I will get us back," he promised. "Just thank your stars they're not Spaniards." He knew the men trusted him, whether it was his fault for leading them into this or not, and he was determined not to lose it.
He very much would have liked to have taken Styles on his back, himself. But he knew he could not manage it, with his own wound as it was, his reasoning won out. He had Johnson and Matthews take him between them. For their new clothes and for the injured among them, they managed to make their way straight towards the French port. Straight into the lion's den, dressed up as lions.
Once again they found the stream. But instead of crossing, to Horatio's great relief, they followed it along its banks in the direction they had not before been. There was a close call once as they spotted a few other French soldiers through the trees. But Horatio said something aloud in French, as though talking to a companion, and the soldiers did not come their way.
If he had stopped to think about it then, as he had thought about it later, he might have realized how good it was that he had taken them along that course of action. The party of soldiers they missed were heading straight for the spot in the stream where Horatio and men had left the barrels. Naturally, the soldiers would then find the path taken to that spot from the boats, which would lead to almost certain confrontation and capture. They had been lucky to avoid that this time around.
There would likely be a half-dozen more encounters before the hour was through, and Horatio only hoped that they were all so easily dealt with. The stream went shallow and slender, meandering towards the coast, and they with it. Horatio had seen, from his brief look at the Frenchmen's base, that the larger ships stuck to the middle. Scooners flanked those on both sides, and then smaller boats were here and there. It was one of those Horatio planned to commandeer. By his calculations and the direction of the wind, rowing around the small island would be faster than walking or even running on foot across it.
They followed the rocky coast until it became sandy and smooth. As their pace was mandated by Styles, it only made sense he and those helping him along should go first until they got closer to the danger and firepower might be required.
By this time, Horatio was moving slowly, himself. He brought up the rear more than not, and Archie did not fail to notice this. He hung back for a word wearing an expression of worry. And then something more crossed his face.
"Horatio?" Archie asked, looking suspicious and confused. "What is that?" He craned his neck, trying to get a better view of Horatio's side.
Horatio tried to look clueless and calm as he followed Archie's gaze, but the sight shocked him into giving away the fact that he knew precisely what was there. There was a dark patch upon the grey and brown French outfit. It was hardly noticeable, however, and Horatio considered claiming it was a trick of the light or holding his arm over it to cover it and dismissing the whole thing.
But Archie had already reached out and was pawing at Horatio's clothes, stripping them away to reveal the wound. Archie's jaw dropped. "Horatio!" he exclaimed in a whisper, so the others would not hear. "This looks awful. You've got to--"
Horatio shook his head, adamant about his position. "Archie, I cannot. I owe it to the men to get us out of this mess. And I will not rest until that man," and he pointed towards Styles, "is back on board the ship and being seen to by the doctor."
"And then you will have the doctor see to you?" Archie pressed him.
Horatio nodded, if only to appease the man. As they hurried to catch up with the others, Horatio held his hand to the spot, through the clothes. Applying pressure there took off some of the edge, dulling the sharp pain there he felt every time he breathed or took a step.
They slowed considerably as they approached, then came to a dead stop. Observation had to be quick, and their actions had to be quicker. But they spotted an abandoned boat, with a sail down and oars on board for certain. She was tied up to a dock not fifty paces from them. But there were French soldiers not twenty paces beyond it. If the soldiers even got a hint that something was amiss, they would be able to reach Hornblower and the men before Hornblower and company could reach the boat.
Therefore, it was imperative not to give them any reason to suspect. He just hoped the true owners of the boat were not nearby. Luckily, with so many ships coming and going, no one could recognize anyone else by sight. As the majority of the people were past the curve of the island where a section was cut away and hidden by a jagged section of rock jutting out again, which was where it seemed the supplies were kept safe, the odds were slightly in favor of the boat's true owners not noticing until it was too late.
Horatio instructed the men to have their pistols at the ready, though not in hand as such, but he very much hoped there was no cause to use them. With the pain in his side increasing, walking was beginning to get difficult. Rowing, sitting down, he thought he might be able to manage. But he doubted he could hold his own if it came to an all-out fight.
Everyone, including Archie, understood the basics of the plan, of course. Steal a boat. Row it to the other side of the island. Rejoin the Indy. Warn the captain. Make a hasty escape. And it seemed simple enough, to be sure. But in the back of his mind, Horatio had accounted for the worst of all possibilities, as well. It was not being killed or even captured by the French. The worst, as he saw it, would be to think they were making a getaway only to find they'd been followed. To lead the French ships straight to the Indefatigable, unwarned and certainly unprepared, was something Horatio dreaded to fathom.
The greatest benefit of having all possible, hideous eventualities playing out in his head was that it distracted him somewhat from his wound.
As he saw it, if they drew suspicion and attracted followers, those followers would be noticed if they stuck close. The French would naturally think likewise and hang back, predicting Horatio's course would be to follow the shoreline around the island. Then the boat, with whatever reinforcements it brought, would strike and sink them and the Indy as well. Horatio could not blame the French for that, as a boat heading from the docks in that direction would look awfully suspicious. So the only reasonable alternative, as Horatio saw it, would be to sail straight out, away from the island, as though going to rejoin a French ship lying off the coast in deeper water. Not only would it detract attention but, if someone were following them, it would make the followers known and come down to a one-on-one fight- the sort of fight the English nearly always won out in. However, if it came to blows and Horatio's party were killed or captured, the Indy's position would not be immediately revealed, and that was something. Horatio considered rowing out to an actual French ship, capturing it, and sailing it casually around the island. But they had so little at their disposal and if anyone on the island or a nearby ship saw the scuffle, they would be outnumbered and outclassed greatly, even if they won out on board.
With this in mind, when they reached the boat they'd been eyeing, Horatio took up the rear to steer, and directed them straight away from the island. Too busy rowing, and trying to make it look casual, no one said anything about it. A group of frogs passed by the bank just as they were leaving, and Horatio saw a smaller group look in their direction. He smiled pleasantly and tipped his awful and stolen hat to both parties. Neither group seemed interested in taking a boat and coming after them.
Horatio waited until they were a safe distance away to explain, in part, his reasoning. He promised they would correct their course as soon as it was safe to do so, his thoughts still fixed on Styles' condition. The man was sitting on the bottom of the boat, head ducked down so he wouldn't be seen. His face was pale and he was bleeding through the makeshift bandage.
When Horatio and men were far enough out that the men on the island turned to blurs and the blurs turned to just one large mound of rock in the ocean, they changed direction and made for the Indy.
Horatio felt the desire to slump over and collect himself, with a sigh of relief. But he sat straight and resolute, not giving into anything and not counting his victories before they were realized. He would never forgive himself if he dropped his guard now and it lead to their detriment. Still, a smile crossed his face and he relaxed slightly when he saw the familiar sails and ship waiting to take them in.
They shed their coats and hats so as not to be spotted and shot at; the last thing that was needed was canon fire to draw the frogs' attention. Horatio went to take out his white handkerchief to raise it atop the mast, but remembered he was already using it. Archie took his own out for that purpose, and their approach was a safe one. Though the crew did seem surprised at the manner and direction of the party's arrival.
Horatio made sure the others went on board first, which was easy to dictate given his position in the small boat. Archie took care to help Horatio up the ropes and onto the deck, sticking by him as the Captain approached them. "Take Styles straight down," Horatio instructed, though that instruction was obvious.
Despite the intense pain and the heat rising through him, Horatio stood strait and tall as the Captain squared off in front of him. "Mister Hornblower?"
"Before I report on our considerable failures, Sir, I must first explain that on the other side of this very island lies a store of French supplies. It is heavily utilized and just as heavily guarded though hidden well by the geography. Currently there are eight vessels there, easily, though likely more."
Horatio paused, not needing to advise a retreat. The captain was already making such orders to pull in the anchor and go back the way they had come.
Continuing, "I take full responsibility for the failure of the mission and the losses of the two boats and six barrels."
Captain Pellew smirked at this briefly. "I do believe this bit of intelligence was worth a rowboat and a few empty barrels. The Navy has, of late, noticed the increased presence of French ships in these waters. The presumption was that they had set up a stronghold nearby, but now we discover it is merely a point for collecting food."
"There may still be something elsewhere," Horatio said. "We can only attest to the food and supply stores."
"That is enough," the captain said with a nod. "Excellent work, Mister Hornblower, Mister Kennedy. I commend you once again on your quick thinking which has saved many lives."
"Yes Sir," said Horatio, feeling his legs wobble. Though he appreciated the compliment, he was not the least bit vain and replied with a single, "Thank you, Sir." His composure was faltering, his stature fading, his shoulders sagging. Everything went dark, and he felt hands reach out to grab him by the shirt, but did could not guess whose and did not care for all that.
Horatio Hornblower woke in his hammock. The box, sized to him, was stiff and wooden but familiar. Though padded this time with additional blankets, it was much more comfortable than usual.
"Well, it looks like he's himself again. Finally."
Horatio looked over to see Archie one hammock over. The man had a tankard in hand, from which he took a gulp. When he lowered it, Horatio could see a smile on the man's face, which put him at ease. "Styles?" Horatio asked at once, surprised at how weak his voice sounded.
"He is fine," Archie said. "He'll be out of commission for a few more days, and might be limping for a week or two, but he is fine for all that. In the end, he came out of it better than you did, I think it is safe to say."
Horatio almost did not want to ask, but his curiosity got the better of him.
"You've been feverish for three days now. It broke just a few hours ago, in fact. Before then, you were raving like a madman. We had to bring you down here so you would not disturb the other patients." It sounded worse, probably, than it had really been. And Archie's smile gave that away.
Horatio put his hand to his forehead. He felt well enough. A bit tired, perhaps, but glad he had won out over the fever. "What was I saying?"
"Oh, going on and on about Boney or barking out ship's orders. It must have been one Hell of a fight." He turned a little, looking at Horatio more closely. "You are remarkable, Horatio. Even injured, ill, and unconscious your mind is on your work."
Joining Archie in laughter, Horatio pulled one of the blankets up and hugged it to his chest. The words had a bit of truth to them, however. He had been awake only minutes, and he was already thinking about the next mission and the next battle. If not for the pain still shooting through his side and the fatigue weighting his body down, he might have climbed out and found his place back on deck. For now, though, he would let himself rest and enjoy being warm and dry for a change.