Note: William Bush belongs to the Forester Estate.
At first, he could not remember what had happened. Fog pressed around him, dense and cold, and he could hear, a few feet away, the rhythmic murmur of water. Then he remembered the night raid on the shore defenses at Caudebec. A careless shot by one of his men, and a single keg of powder had exploded. A moment later—it had seemed unbearably long as he watched the fire spreading--a thousand tons had ignited with a glare as blinding as the sun. He had a final glimpse of the river gleaming like molten lead, before he was struck down. How could it be that he still was alive and breathing? He rolled onto his side and slowly sat up, shaking his head to dispel the sense of heaviness. He must been thrown clear by the force of the explosion and landed on a stone pier. To his surprise, he was unhurt except for the stiffness in his back. No doubt he had lain insensible for hours.
He stumbled to the edge of the pier. There was no sign of the British boats, not even any wreckage, but a tiny skiff bobbed alone on the black water. A cloaked man stood in the stern sheets with a long pole, pushing it away from the shore with a steady, practiced stroke. Wisps of fog swirled about him and veiled his dark figure. Bush debated whether to hail him, but then he decided that the oarsman was most likely one of the enemy. So far, he had not been discovered, yet the French would eventually search for survivors, and even without his British service dress, the wooden leg would make him conspicuous. He dared not search for the others in the fog, so there was nothing for it but to follow the shore to Le Havre and the sea. A narrow, hard-packed path ran along the water's edge. He hurried along it as fast as he could, the thump of his wooden leg unnaturally loud in the fog.
He had gone no more than a hundred yards when the path was blocked by a tall gate surmounted by an arch. Peeling paint fell in curls from the ironwork, and the gate sagged on its rusty hinges. In elaborate Gothic letters, the words "Side-Kick Heaven" were written on the high arch.
I don't remember that from the charts, but it must be some damned French name, Bush thought as he shoved the gate aside and entered.
A dark line of cypress trees, their tops rising out of the fog like buoys, marked the landward side of the path. The flow of the black river had undercut the bank, until in places the path hung precariously over the water. One slip or short misstep would swiftly end his journey. Like many seamen, he had never mastered the art of swimming, and now that he was short one leg, he could do little more than dog-paddle against the strong current.
He had a vague sense that something was very wrong, and he scowled for a moment as he stumped along until it struck him that this river was strangely silent. Even in early March, he still should have heard the cry of water birds and the occasional splash of a fish breaking the surface. Yet there was no sound except for the rush of the water.
The cypress trees ended abruptly at the edge of an open meadow. The path led to the front steps of a stone building that was two stories tall. Muffled laughter and the lilting of a fiddle pierced the shuttered windows, and the sign above the door read "The Second Banana." From his travels, Bush recognized the bunches of fruit that were painted in a lurid yellow. It seemed odd that a French tavern would have an English name, but at the moment he had greater concerns and could spare little thought on the matter. His officer's clothes would betray him on sight to the enemy, yet the weather was too cold to go without a coat, and he had neither food nor weapons for his cutlass and pistols had been missing when he awoke.
The company of Frenchmen shouted out a song, hammering the tables in time with the beat. The words could have been Greek for all that Bush could tell. Hunted and alone, he listened a little wistfully to the sounds of their drunken revelry. He remembered wild nights in port when he and Hornblower had emptied bottle after bottle of bad rum or wine that was even worse, until they could barely stagger from the table. He remembered their long-ago drinking bouts, and then he had a sudden idea. Bush stumped back to the cypress trees and tore off a heavy branch, then he hobbled quietly around the building. Near the backdoor, he found what he was looking for. Holding the makeship club, he crouched behind the privy and waited for a likely victim.
As he had guessed, he did not have long to wait. After a few moments, a man dressed in a peasant's smock stumbled out of the inn. He was broad-bellied and short, and his face was hidden by the shapeless straw hat that was pulled low over his ears.
Bush rushed forward, the club raised in his hand, but the peasant must have heard his approach. With surprising speed for such a portly man, he dropped to his knees, shrieking, "No, Senor! Aiiieeee!" as the club swung harmlessly over his head. Cursing his wooden leg, Bush struggled not to overbalance. While he was still staggering about like a landsman on his first cruise, the peasant sprang to his feet and ran away.
"What the deuce is going on out there?" someone bellowed from the inn. The shadow of a broad-shouldered man appeared in the bright square of the open doorway. "Sancho, is that you?"
In the most unlikely place, Bush had found a fellow Englishman. He did not recognize the voice, but several boat crews had rowed up the Seine as part of the expedition. "Over here," he called as loudly as he dared.
The man peered into the fog then descended the steps and hurried across the grass. Grey-haired and heavy-set, he wore a high-crowned hat and a somber, long-skirted coat.
"Get over here! They can see you from the door," Bush said, gesturing frantically.
The man gave him a surprised glance then crouched beside him in the shelter of the backhouse.
"What ship are you with?" Bush whispered.
The man replied in a low voice, "I am not in the Navy, sir, though I was a surgeon with the 66th Foot. Dr. John Watson at your service." Despite being hunched over, he managed a slight bow.
"What are you doing behind enemy lines?" Bush asked with a wary glance. There were British subjects, Irishmen and traitors, who served in the ranks of Bonaparte's army.
Stroking his grey moustache, the surgeon said, "Do you have any idea where we are, sir?"
"A mile west of Caudebec."
The surgeon shook his head. "Captain, what do you last remember before you awoke on the landing? For whatever it was that happened, you didn't live to survive it."
Bush's first thought was that he was dealing with a madman, and yet… And yet he could not deny that, at such a close range, the explosion should have killed him. They were fighting on the barges when some fool had panicked and fired a pistol, setting off enough powder to demolish the walls of a fort. He had played a game of hazard for years, setting his life at chance in the service of his country; the odds had always been that he would lose it in the end. "Well, I'll be damned," Bush managed to say at last.
"There's a different place for that," the surgeon replied with a wry chuckle. "You are taking this far more calmly than most new arrivals, but no doubt you are already on familiar terms with death. That is a given for men in your sanguine occupation."
Bush had only a vague idea what this statement meant, but it did convince him that John Watson was indeed a military surgeon, for they all spoke in that strange lingo.
Offering a hand, Dr. Watson continued, "I haven't had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, sir."
Bush shook the surgeon's hand. "Captain William Bush, Royal Navy." Formerly of the Nonsuch, he thought, and it gave him an odd turn as if he had just read his own death notice in The Times.
The surgeon gave him a kindly glance. "This all must come as a shock. That is most understandable, sir. If you wish, I can show you your quarters, or perhaps you would care to join the others for some brandy?"
"The others?" Bush asked as he hauled himself to his feet.
"We are quite a large contingent. All loyal friends of great men. Patroclus, Aaron, Oliver—they all are here."
"I'll think I'll take that brandy," Bush replied.
He followed the surgeon into the common room of the inn. The lamps burned like the glare of white magnesium, and for a long moment he stood blinking in the sudden brightness.
"Fluorescent lights, they take some getting used to," the surgeon told him.
At the nearest table, three card players were huddled over the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. One of them, a silver-haired man with spectacles, looked up at Dr. Watson and called out, "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" His voice boomed like a 32-pounder, and every head in the room swiveled about to stare.
Across the table, a red-skinned man rolled his eyes and said, "Me think that funny the first ten thousand times you say." He wore a fringed leather shirt and a strange headdress of long feathers.
Doctor Watson cleared his throat loudly. "Gentlemen, I have the honor of introducing Captain William Bush, late of the Royal Navy."
The crowd raised a good-natured cheer. Bush caught a few shouts of "Huzzah!" and "God Save the Queen!"
"Captain Bush, may I present to you Mr. Edward McMahon." The surgeon nodded toward the white-haired man and muttered under his breath "You'll get used to him. He's an American" as if that were all the explanation required.
McMahon grabbed onto Bush's hand like a lamprey and shook it up and down. "Great to meet you, great to meet you. Just call me Ed."
Dr. Watson saved him from having to reply by pointing toward the red-skinned man. "And this gentleman is Tonto."
The red-skinned man rose from his seat and bowed low from the waist, his feathered headdress fluttering about his shoulders. "Tonto happy to meet Captain Bush."
Astonished, Bush blurted out, "You're one of the red Indians!" He had seen engravings of the savages who lived in the American grasslands.
"That right, Kemo Sabe," the red man replied. "Though me prefer the term 'Native Americans,' 'First Peoples,' or 'Amerindians.'"
"I'm sure that the captain will do his best to remember," Dr. Watson said, and then he gestured toward a slight, dark-haired man. "And this is Monsieur Passepartout, a native of France but a citizen of the world." With cheerful grin, the Frenchman rose from his chair and held out a hand.
"A Frenchman?" What in the hell were the Frogs doing in Heaven? Bush drew back a step and his hand fell to his hip, reaching for the missing cutlass. Dead or not, he had been a fool to venture into this place unarmed. For a man with a wooden leg, flight was hardly an option, so he seized a wine bottle from the table. Startled, the Frenchman cast about for a weapon and, seizing a long loaf of bread, brandished it like a sword.
"Easy, sir," the surgeon said quickly. "The war against France is over for you. Here we must put aside the enmities of the past." When Bush did not move, he added, "Passepartout is already dead. If you struck him unconscious, he would wake up with a headache, but you could not kill him if you tried. You no longer have any reason to fight."
And to Bush, this seemed even stranger than the notion of being dead. For twenty years, the business of war had been his sole occupation. Slowly, carefully, he set the bottle down.
"Me get you glass," Tonto said.