Note: This is the first part of a yarn for an LJ friend who is currently on the binnacle list. Thanks to annmarwalk for her helpful and patient comments!
The HMS Pickle was an historical ship. It was at the battle of Trafalgar but was so dinky that they didn't let it anywhere near the fighting. Some pictures of a replica ship can be found at the website HMSPickle-org-uk
His Majesty's sloop of war Pickle--a vessel known by other, far less polite names by her crew--bobbed like a seabird on the glassy water. Archie had set the hands to wetting the canvas to catch any breath of air, but so far it was to no avail. The sails hung lifelessly from the two masts. They were becalmed off the coast of Brittany, the ship swaying gently on the low swells. Two miles distant, a great headland jutted out into the sea, hiding the open water beyond, and Archie felt strangely hemmed in. So far, their luck had held, and the men aloft had seen no sign of other craft.
A sailor trotted up to him and raised a tattooed hand to his brow in salute.
Archie looked away from the threatening smudge of land. "Jenkins, did you relay my message to the captain?"
"Yes, Mr. Kennedy, I did. He said he would be up shortly, sir."
Archie thought this more than a little strange. The bell had rung for the second watch, and Horatio was never one to be late on deck. Especially not when his ship was dead in the water within sight of the coast of France.
"Very good, Jenkins. Keep those men working until every inch of canvas is wet."
"Aye, sir." The sailor saluted again but did not move. Instead, he shifted his weight uneasily from one bare foot to the other.
"Jenkins, is there something else you wish to tell me?" Archie asked, a little more sharply than was his wont.
"Sir, the captain—" The sailor chewed on his lower lip.
"What about the captain, Jenkins?"
"Well, he looks a mite peaked, sir. But please don't say as I told you, sir."
Archie nodded. "Carry on then." The men were watching so he forced himself to walk at a deliberate pace across the deck. But once he had slid down the ladder, he ran aft to the cubbyhole that served as the captain's cabin. He rapped lightly on the door; then after a moment of silence, he pressed his face against the wood and called, "Sir?"
From behind the door came the unmistakable sound of Horatio heaving up his breakfast ration of coffee and biscuit. Ah, it was as Archie had guessed. He found his friend huddled on the narrow bunk, one hand dangling over the edge. A wooden bucket sat within arm's reach.
"What are you doing here? Go above deck where you belong; I'll be up in a moment," Horatio gasped; then he rolled on his side and leaned over the bucket. When the fit had passed, he laid his head down and closed his eyes. His white face gleamed with sweat as he struggled to catch his breathe. Horatio was cursed with seasickness, and these gentle, rolling waves afflicted him far worse than the rise and fall of a raging sea. Once he had even been ill while their ship was still anchored in the harbor at Portsmouth.
"There's not a sail in sight, and Jenkins will send word if anything is amiss," Archie said as he poured clean water in the wash basin. He had to move carefully, for the small cabin was crowded with the grog barrel and a chest holding the firearms. On this small, ten-gun sloop, there was no other place to serve as a locked storeroom.
"Leave me alone, damn you. I am fine," Horatio choked out as Archie sponged the filth from his face and eased him into a clean shirt. He worked quickly, biting back any kind words of reassurance, for he could see that this physical weakness filled Horatio with shame and revulsion. The man scarcely had the strength to hold his head up.
With a crew of two junior officers and twenty men, the Pickle did not rate a surgeon or even a medical orderly. However, in lieu of a qualified person, the Admiralty had supplied them with "The Compleat Practical Guide to Modern Physik" and a small chest full of glass bottles. Archie studied "The Compleat Practical Guide to Modern Physik" for a few moments, but the book was of little use unless he needed to amputate Horatio's foot or treat him for malaria. Next he rummaged through the contents of the medicine chest. Quinine—no. Syrup of Ipecac—no, no, no. Epsom salts—no. Laudanum-- He picked up the last bottle. Folk took this for all manner of ills, including vomiting and stomach pains.
"I am going to mix a weak dose of laudanum; it will help with the nausea, sir," Archie told him, doing his best to sound both practical and modern, but he was not surprised when his friend shook his head, unwilling to take a drug that would dull his mind and senses when France lay only two miles off starboard.
They had made no error in navigation; instead, a midnight storm had blown them off course, leaving the sloop stranded in the following calm. The two officers were in agreement that the wind would pick up by nightfall, but in the meantime, they must wait, the ship bobbing like a piece of flotsam off the jagged coast. Archie could feel how his own nerves were strung as tight as a bowline, and now Horatio had to endure this landsman's malady along with the strain of waiting.
Archie searched the medicine chest until he found a small vial. "Oil of peppermint should settle your stomach." The other man did not protest, so Archie mixed a few drops of the fragrant oil in a cup of water. Sitting propped against the bulkhead, Horatio sipped the draft cautiously. Archie sat on the grog barrel and watched him drink. Soon his face looked a trifle less pale, and he managed to go for several minutes without reaching for the bucket.
Suddenly, Horatio stared at him, eyes wide. Trained by years at sea, they both had sensed the subtle change in the movement of the ship--the wind had begun to freshen, however slightly. A moment later, Jenkins' gravely voice was calling down the companionway. Hoping against hope that his words would be heeded, Archie warned his friend, "You are ill and should stay in your bunk."
"I am needed on deck," Horatio said shortly as he hauled himself to his feet and wobbled across the cabin to get his coat and sword. After one last fit of heaves, he staggered down the passageway then crawled up the ladder. Most of the sailors were wise enough to keep their eyes on their work, though young Scully stood, brush in hand, gawking at the captain until Jenkins soundly cuffed his ear.
The sails flapped slowly, beginning to strain against the lines. The wind was from the wrong quarter and they would have to tack against it to get around the headland, but at least they would be under way again. Yet Archie's relief at this news was short-lived.
"Look windward, sirs." Jenkins pointed to where a tiny, white square of sail rose above the sea. "She's running before the wind; she'll catch us before we can work our way to the open water."
"So it seems," Horatio said absently, scowling as raised the brass spyglass to his eye.
The little sloop would soon be trapped between the bluffs and the oncoming ship. Even with the spyglass, Archie could not discern her colors, but no doubt she was a Frenchman sent to patrol the coast. A frigate, from the shape and size of the sails, her guns would blow the Pickle to splinters with the very first volley. Around him, the sailors went about their work with stolid good cheer. Still they sang as they hauled at the lines, though every last man knew the danger they faced.
"If we cannot outrun this Frenchman and we cannot win a fight, we must scuttle the ship to keep her from the enemy," Horatio said. His voice was weak and he leaned unsteadily against the rail, but his eyes seemed unnaturally bright in his white face.
"Perhaps if we could bring her closer to shore, sir." Archie shook his head. "But the ship's boats are too small to hold the entire crew and we wouldn't survive a swim through those breakers." A white line of surf curled along the rocky shore. Though neither of them spoke of it, they both knew that they might well be forced to strike the colors.
"Go aloft with the spyglass and take a good look at her. And order the crew to throw the cargo overboard." The hold was packed with small barrels of limes destined for ships of the Channel Fleet. Tainted provisions had recently caused an outbreak of scurvy among the sailors.
"Aye, sir," Archie said with a wry smile, "Though I doubt that one frigate would have much use for six tons of limes."
"The French must not learn that the fleet is weakened by scurvy. We must destroy all evidence of our mission."
Archie nodded. "Besides, the Pickle will make better headway if we lighten the load."
Though Horatio was still weak, the fits of nausea seemed to have passed. Whether his recovery was due to the change in weather or due to the tonic effect of adversity, Archie could not say, but Horatio called for a plate of biscuit and warily started eating.
The sailors were soon passing the cargo up from the hold and pitching it over the railing, until a trail of barrels bobbed in the sloop's wake. Archie climbed aloft and, straddling a yardarm, peered through the spyglass. When he had seen enough, he went to report to the captain.
"Two decks, forty guns, and she's flying the tricolor, sir," Archie said. "We are well within the range of her guns." The Pickle's little twelve-pounders were sadly outclassed.
"They'll give us some time to declare ourselves," Horatio muttered under his breath. The sloop was sailing with no colors; from a distance, she could easily be mistaken for a coastal trading ship, especially when her gun ports were not open. However, once the Frenchman drew near, their ruse would be revealed. "Have the men load the guns, but keep the ports closed until we are in range," he ordered. "Target the mainsail. Raise the colors then have the guns fire when ready."
"Aye, sir," Archie replied. With a great deal of luck, a volley at the rigging and sails might do enough damage to cripple the frigate, allowing the Pickle to slip past her to the open water, but they both knew better than to rely on such good fortune.
"Take command here, Mr. Kennedy. I must dispose of the documents." The ship's cargo manifest and the wooden box of dispatches could not fall into enemy hands. "And I will need the carpenter's help. Send him below." Then Horatio climbed down the companionway ladder, clenching the rails with white hands.
Archie handed out the cutlasses and pistols, while Jenkins saw that the guns were loaded and ready. When Horatio appeared on deck again, he had armed himself with his sword and a brace of pistols. Archie thought uneasily that his friend was hardly fit to walk, let alone defend himself, though he knew it would be pointless to try to persuade him to stay below.
"She's coming about, sir!" the lookout shouted from the bow. "And they're opening their gun ports!"
"Raise the colors!" Archie shouted. The wind was now at twenty knots, and the brilliant red and blue cloth snapped at the halyard as the men hauled it aloft. When it reached the top, it rippled and streamed before the mast. Shading his eyes against the sun, Archie watched the ensign for a brief moment, long enough that the French were sure to have seen it in the clear afternoon. Then he called down the deck, "Fire when ready!"
The gun ports clattered open; then tons of metal rolled across the deck as the starboard guns were run out. The gunners had to sight quickly, no easy feat on a rolling ship. Archie jumped in spite of himself when the cannon slammed back with a roar. Two shots fell short with a splash, but one cut a swath through the Frenchman's canvas and the fourth sheared the running rigging.
If they had just a few more seconds, time to fire a second volley, they might yet escape. Horatio and Archie worked with the crew, hurrying to reload the four twelve-pounders.
Archie looked up from the gun and shouted at young Scully, "Hand me the bucket!"; then a low roar shook the air, followed by a great, splintering crack. Thrown to the deck, he lay buried under a half ton of canvas. He crawled free and lurched to his feet. The mainmast was down, the top trailing over the side in a tangle of rigging and sailcloth. The volley had missed the foremast, and the colors were still aloft. "Clear the guns!" he ordered. "Jenkins, Watson, get over here!"
Young Scully sat on the deck, his face cradled in his hands. "Get up and lend a hand!" Archie shouted. The lad raised his head, staring dully through a veil of blood. Of the twenty crewmen, less than a dozen were left on their feet. Horatio lay facedown, stunned or dead, between two guns.
With a low rumble of wheels, the frigate rolled her loaded guns out. Archie knew that this second broadside would put a bloody end to the fight. The decision to surrender fell to him, and he alone would answer for the capture of the sloop. For an unknown officer without powerful friends in the Admiralty, this would likely mean the end of his career. He called to Jenkins. "Strike the colors, and quickly."
"Aye, sir." The sailor clambered over the wreckage toward the foremast.
Horatio lifted his head and stared at them unsteadily. "Belay that order until I give the word," he croaked.
Jenkins halted. "Aye, sir."
"Now strike the colors!" Horatio ordered; then he sank back on the planking and lay still.
As the blue and red ensign came fluttering down, Archie knelt beside Horatio. "Jenkins, get the deck cleared," he called over his shoulder. "Have Watson see to the wounded." He started unbuttoning the front of Horatio's coat. The wool was dark blue and would hide any sign of bleeding.
"My arm," Horatio whispered; his eyes were open, but he seemed to stare past Archie into the distance. A thick sliver of wood had sliced open his upper arm, the jagged end still jutting from the wound. Archie drew a knife and cut away the torn coat. Naught would be gained by waiting, so he ordered a sailor to hold the captain still. The man kept Horatio's shoulders pinned to the deck, while Archie grasped the sliver and drew it out in a stream of blood. The wounded man gave a strangled cry and tried to pull away.
"Steady, sir, it's over; we're done," Archie said as he bound up the gash with his linen neckcloth. Unable to speak, Horatio nodded slightly in reply. "Now I must go greet our guests," Archie told him with a grin that was far braver than he felt. He rose to his feet and stared across the water toward the frigate. Two of her boats were rowing toward the sloop.
"We are in a right pickle, sir," Jenkins told him with a shake of his head.
Though Archie agreed, he said only, "Assemble the ship's company, Jenkins."
When the crew was gathered in the waist of the ship, Archie ordered them to surrender themselves and then to obey any lawful requests by the French. "Give them no reason for violence, and they will do you no harm. Do you understand?"
"Aye, sir," the men replied, plainly relieved that their two young lieutenants had enough sense to end this hopeless fight. Though they now looked forward to imprisonment in France, land of unspeakable language and food, that was still far preferable to a trip to Davy Jones' locker.
The captain of the frigate did not deign to board such a little prize; instead, he had dispatched a junior officer to accept the surrender. The crew of the Pickle had put up a good fight, and they bridled at this insult to their ship and their captain. A lieutenant climbed aboard, followed by two dozen heavily-armed sailors. They looked much like the crew of the Pickle, down to the baggy trousers and braids; though one sallow-faced Chinaman stood out from their sunburned ranks.
The officer's command of English equaled Archie's almost nonexistent knowledge of French, yet both knew the time-honored steps of this dance. Indeed, they understood each other perfectly. The French lieutenant bowed gracefully, the opening move of the set. A liberty bonnet crowned his curly hair; the floppy, red cap of the Revolution contrasted strangely with his officer's sword and the gold braid on his coat.
"I am Lieutenant Jean-Marc—"Archie could not decipher the string of words that followed until the officer said, "…de la frégate Justice de la République Française." After a short speech in garbled English which could just as well have been in Greek, the red-capped lieutenant stared at Archie in expectant silence. The French and English sailors watched with equal curiosity.
Returning the bow, Archie replied, "I am honored to make your acquaintance, Monsieur Lieutenant. I am Lieutenant Archibald Kennedy of His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Pickle."
The lieutenant gave him an incredulous look. "Pickle? Le Cornichon?" The French sailors started laughing.
Archie ignored them and continued. He could scarcely blame them when the ship's own crew laughed at the name. "La capitaine est malade," Archie said, gesturing toward where Horatio lay on the deck and hoping that what he had just said actually meant what he thought it did. "So I offer our surrender at his command and on his behalf." He unfastened his sword and, with a short bow, handed it to the officer.
"Merci, Mr. Lieutenant Ken-ne-dee," the other man replied as he took the weapon; then he turned to Horatio. "You are the captain?"
"Lieutenant in Command Horatio Hornblower a votre service," Horatio whispered.
"A brave fight, Mr. Lieutenant Or…Ornbl….Sir, but with this ship….impossible." He made a final bow, the closing courtesy of the set. Then he strode away, shouting orders in French. In a few short moments, the enemy had taken possession of the sloop.
To be continued…