Fitzjames was on watch atop a low ridge just north of their camp when he saw them; a group of people, trekking with a sledge in their direction. However, even with a spyglass, he was unable to make out the figures properly. His left eye was all but useless, and while his right was better, it still wasn’t much help trying to distinguish details at a distance. He thought the approaching group looked like Navy men, but he couldn’t quite tell and, in truth, rescue seemed almost too hopeful now.
If he fired his gun to rouse the camp and the group were Inuit who might be able to help them the sound would scare them off certainly. Not to mention that firing a gun would likely lead the men to thinking that the Tuunbaq had returned; but they hadn’t seen Mr. Teeth and Claws since Mr. Hickey and Sgt. Tozer had been hung. Instead, Fitzjames decided the best way to make himself known to the approaching party was to move towards them. Once he had properly discerned who they were, then he could report back to camp.
As soon as Fitzjames reached the bottom of the ridge several men broke from the group and began running towards him, and Christ in heaven, they were Navy men. Fitzjames could have broken down crying right there. He forced himself to keep walking towards the men, not having the energy to run, and then he recognized the man leading them and stopped dead in his tracks.
Sir James Clark Ross. Fitzjames had only met the man on a handful of occasions, brief meetings at events immediately prior to the expedition setting out, but he recognized him well enough, both from his own memories and the daguerrotype that Francis had of the man.
“Commander Fitzjames,” Ross greeted as he and the men accompanying him drew to a halt.
There was a hesitance to the way Ross said his name that almost sounded like a question, so Fitzjames gave a quickly nod of acknowledgment. “Sir James.”
Ross sagged in open relief. “I cannot tell you how good it is to see you.”
“And I, you,” James forced out. “I must say, I hope you’ve brought plenty of food with you.”
Ross frowned, but didn’t press further at the moment, instead signaling for his men to hurry forward. “Where are you camped?”
“Just beyond the ridge,” Fitzjames said. “I was on watch.”
“Lead on then.”
Fitzjames nodded stiffly, half wondering if this was just a mirage and he would come back to the men thinking him quite mad.
“We found the note you left at Victory Point,” Ross said, “What on earth happened?”
“More than I can tell you now,” Fitzjames replied as they began walking. “I’ll have Commander Little convene an officers meeting for the lieutenants.”
“Commander Little? I suppose this is to do with your loss of officers,” Ross said and James nodded.
“We have two new lieutenants as well,” James said. “Though I imagine only one will be lasting promotion.”
“There are a number of your men who have received promotion in absentia,” Ross said. “So perhaps not.”
A smile grin flickered across James’ face. “As true as that may be, I doubt Thomas Jopson ranks in that number.”
“Jopson? Frank’s steward?”
Fitzjames made to reply, but as they began their way up the ridge, his foot slid on a loose piece of shale and he would have fallen if Ross had not caught his arm. Though that also saw him nearly buckle as pain shot down his arm and up his shoulder from the reopening injury there.
He heard Ross call for a halt, but Fitzjames shook his head, breathing heavily. “We need to keep moving.”
“Are you sure?” Ross asked. “You shouted like I’d struck you.”
Had he? Fitzjames straightened up carefully. “It’s an old injury. It won’t keep me from walking.”
Ross hesitated a moment before signally everyone to start forward again.
“Were you going to say why Jopson of all people was promoted?” Ross asked after several moments of them walking in silence.
“Yes, there were… several incidents that left us both short on officers and in desperate need of people we could trust,” Fitzjames explained. “Lt. Jopson could be trusted and the work he did on a slave busting ship prior to his becoming a steward was in his favor.”
“Incidents?” Ross asked, but Fitzjames shook his head.
“The details will have to come later,” he said, having to stop speaking for several moments to catch his breath. Talking while walking was becoming increasingly strenuous. “Once we’ve had a proper meeting.”
Ross nodded and then he paused, frowning. “And where is Francis in all this?”
The worry was evident in Ross’s voice and Fitzjames had to make an effort to not grimace. “Ill,” he said at last. “Too ill to command. It was his decision to promote Little.”
It had been his last act before he formally handed over command to Fitzjames. The acknowledgment that Francis was no longer healthy enough to command had been horrible enough, but watching him continue to fade while hiding the full extent of his grief was almost to much to bear. With Ross arrived, the burden of command at least would be further eased.
Ross had fallen silent, his face drawn and pensive, and Fitzjames knew that had likely been the last thing Ross had wanted to hear.
“When we arrive have your men prioritize distributing food,” Fitzjames said, steering their conversation back to a topic where they’d have more stable footing. “Our supplies are tainted. The less we have to eat them the better.”
Ross nodded, maintaining his silence, though Fitzjames could see there was something he wanted to say.
Fitzjames leaned in so he could lower his voice, “Once you’ve given your men their orders, I’ll take you to see Francis.”
Ross swallowed and nodded. “Thank you.”
Ross felt the knot of fear building in his chest with every step they made towards the survivors’ camp. Already there were shouts and men staggering out to meet them, and as they got closer they got he could see just how needed rescue truly was. He instructed his men to follow Commander Fitzjames’ orders, to give out food and medical attention to those needed.
“Dr. Goodsir will be in the large tent right that way,” Fitzjames said, gesturing to a small cluster of tents at the far edge of the camp.
Ross waited for the last of his men to leave to see to their duties before he turned to Fitzjames. “Is Francis in the medical tent?”
Fitzjames shook his head. “He was given his own tent, for privacy. He’s being seen to by Mr. Bridgens.”
Ross frowned. “Not one of the other doctors?”
“Goodsir is the closest thing to a doctor we have anymore,” Fitzjames said, leading Ross to a small tent a few paces away from the large tent he had indicated before. “We lost doctors Peddie, MacDonald and Stanley before we even started walking.”
“Christ,” Ross muttered. He had read the note left at Victory Point, had it with him, in fact, and so was well aware of their loss of nine officers, but there was something particularly severe in losing all but one of their doctors.
Fitzjames let out a long breath and drew to a halt several feet away from the tent. “May I be honest with you, Sir James?”
Ross nodded, though the look on Fitzjames’ face made his worry mount considerably.
“The reason…” Fitzjames swallowed. “The reason we’d stopped was because he was in too much pain being jostled in a sledge. We’d hoped that stopping would allow him a chance to recover, if game could be found…”
‘If game could be found…’
The words wound the knot of fear it Ross’s gut even tighter. “I can have my men aid in hunting game.” The words sounded weak even as he said them.
“I appreciate the offer,” Fitzjames said, “and… not to say it isn’t needed, but I’m not sure…” He paused, worrying his lip for several moments before speaking again, his voice choked. “I fear that Francis may be past the point of help now. His condition has worsened considerably and…”
Fitzjames trailed off, breath hitching. “I’m sorry.”
Ross felt like the ground had dropped out from beneath him. He couldn’t let himself believe that he’d arrived too late to help Francis. The aid they’d brought had to be enough. It had to.
He wiped at his eyes, attempting to keep his tears from spilling over to moderate success. Francis was still alive now… he had to focus on that. As long as he lived there was a chance for recovery, no matter how small.
The stood in silence for a moment more, before Fitzjames gestured Ross toward the tent. “Go sit with him, I should go help with getting the men fed.”
Ross didn’t know what to say. There was something… tacit and almost knowing about the way Fitzjames’ spoke, but there was also no way Fitzjames would know of his feelings for Francis. Particularly considering Francis himself had never known. There was no time to dwell on that thought, however, and Ross ducked inside of the tent to leave Fitzjames to his intended duties.
Despite the cold, the air inside the tent felt stifling, though perhaps the horrid feeling that rushed through Ross upon entering the tent had more to do with the sight that greeted him. Francis, lying bundled in blankets on a cot, looking more dead than alive. He was so pale and gaunt that if Fitzjames hadn’t told Ross that Francis was still alive, he wouldn’t have known.
There was a man tending to Francis, who, from Fitzjames’ explanation, Ross could only assume to be Bridgens. The man looked up as Ross entered, the only evidence of surprise being the widening of his eyes.
“How is he?” Ross asked softly. Francis seemed asleep and Ross was loath to wake him from his clearly much needed rest.
Bridgens looked pained by the question. “Not well, sir, but we’re doing everything we can for him.”
“I’m sure you are,” Ross said, finally moving further into the tent and crouching down by Francis’ bedside. “My men have brought further aid, the medical supplies were brought to Dr. Goodsir.”
His mind was fishing for an excuse, anything that might see Bridgens leave so he could have a few moments alone with Francis, but Bridgens beat him to it. “I’ll go see to that then, sir.” And he got up and left without another word.
Ross settled himself into as comfortable a position as sitting upon the hard, rocky ground of King William Land would allow. It pained him that there was nothing he could do until Francis woke and the thought of “what if he didn’t wake?” plagued him like nothing else. “Not well” Bridgens had said, but surely… they’d brought good medicine with them, and whatever ascorbic food could be preserved and transported. Ross had insured that they had prepared for finding the worst, carrying extra medical supplies, food, blankets and warm clothes.
While Ross knew it wasn’t all for naught—men would be helped, men would be saved—a traitorous part of his mind said that all his efforts would be worth nothing if Francis died. He reached out to brush some errant strands of hair from Francis’ forehead and froze when Francis shifted under his touch.
His voice was quiet and choked and it pained Ross to hear. “Yes, though likely not the James you’re expecting.”
Francis’ eyes cracked open at that. “James?”
Ross reached over to take Francis’ hand, squeezing it gently. It was utterly freezing. “I’m here, Francis.”
“You can’t be.”
Ross choked back tears. “I am. I brought rescue, we’re going to get you home.”
“I don’t think there’ll be any going home for me, my boy.”
Ross choked on a sob, squeezing Francis’ hand tighter until Francis winced and he relaxed his grip.
A beat of silence passed before Francis spoke again. “You’re really here. You’re not just some wishful figment of a dying man’s imagination.”
“I’m here,” Ross repeated. “And none of this talk of dying, you will get home. I’ll make sure of that.” Although as soon as Ross said it, he realized how hollow that sounded against Francis’ apparent easy acceptance of his death.
Francis shook his head, coughing slightly, and Ross could see the blood on his lips from bleeding gums. “I’ve made my peace, James.”
The words he wanted to say were caught in his chest. If he spoke them, Ross was certain the dam of tears would burst.
“I’m glad to see you here, please don’t think I’m not,” Francis continued. “I love you dearly, and I do not speak of my own death to hurt you.”
Francis’ words were slow and halting, but Ross waited to be sure Francis had finished speaking, rubbing soothing circles into the back of his hand. When he responded, his voice thick with tears. “I know, Frank, I know.”
To hear Francis speak of love was painful, and while Ross had not intended to confess to Francis the realization he’d come to about his feelings for him, there was a part of him now that desperately wanted to and now would likely be the only chance he had, repercussions be damned.
Ross was startled from those thoughts when he realized that Francis had made no response and he immediately feared the worst. But no, Francis still lived, though his eyes had fallen shut again. Ross could hear his shaky, rattling breaths, accompanied by the slight rise and fall of his chest. It was barely a relief to hear Francis struggling for breath, but it was enough, for now, to know he was still alive.
“You are so dear to me Frank,” Ross said eventually, and was met with Francis squeezing his hand ever so lightly. His eyelids fluttered but remained closed.
There was no way of telling what sort of reaction that was, so Ross let himself continue. “I couldn’t say when it started, you’ve been my dearest friend for so many years. It could have been any time, really. Ann thinks…”
He trailed off for a moment, eyes drifting to the medicine chest at the foot of Francis’ cot. “Ann thinks it’s easy to fall in love with more than one person. I think she might have seen my love for you before I did. I was so distraught at the thought I’d never see you again… I didn’t… It never crossed my mind that love, of all things, could factor into it.”
Ross sighed, shutting his eyes briefly and then returning his gaze to Francis. He knew hearing the same from Francis was excessively hopeful, but there was a small part of him that desperately wanted that. What he saw made his stomach drop instead. Francis was still and his face was slack. There was no longer any movement; the rise and fall of his chest, that Ross had seen earlier, had ceased. He’d looked away for only a few short moments.
His breath hitched. Had Francis even heard his confession? Tears started falling quickly and Ross was barely able to keep his composure long enough to lean in and press a kiss to Francis’s forehead, before his sobs started in earnest.
Outside, Fitzjames squeezed his eyes shut when he heard the first heart wrenching sob from inside the tent. He didn’t need to step inside to know what it meant, and he certainly wouldn’t worsen things by making Ross fear he’d been overheard. Not that he, or Bridgens for that matter, would act upon such information, but if he walked in now…
He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, truly, he’d just been accosted by Bridgens as he passed the rest of the medical tents to ask that he bring food to Francis, while Bridgens helped Goodsir. It had been easy to say yes, he hated straying far from Francis, even for necessary things. Wiping roughly at his eyes with his sleeve, Fitzjames looked down at the plate of food in his hand, useless now.
He doubled back, heading to the medical tent to relay the news to Goodsir and Bridgens. He’d have to call a proper command meeting now, inform the officers first and then the others… They’d all known this was coming, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Fitzjames could only console himself with the knowledge that even though he had not been at Francis’ side, Ross had been and Francis would have died knowing how dearly he was loved. Fitzjames’ cheeks were wet with tears before he’d made it three paces. They’d had so little time.