Still laughing inwardly at Horatio's discomfiture, Archie breathed a sigh of relief as the current of the Loire took them. Pleasant as Graçay had been, it had been a cage, and ever since Ferrol Archie had not liked cages, gilded or no. The three of them were believed to be dead, and had been for some months (Archie still remembered the oddly detached and contemplative voice in which Horatio had told him that he had just had the "dubious pleasure of reading my own obituary" after the Comte showed him that issue of the Moniteur); the search for them, never keenly carried on in the first place in the wet and cold and misery of the blizzard into which they had escaped, must have lapsed entirely. They were as safe as they could be in the circumstances, and they were free again. The horizon would not be the same every morning as when they went to sleep the day before, and he would not look out at it through bars, either of iron or of gold.
He knew that Horatio had felt the same about their interminable stay in the Chateau, if not worse. More than once, watching Horatio speaking to the Comte or to Marie, he had caught the wild, desperate gleam in his friend's eyes that had heralded his desperate challenge to Jack Simpson, so long ago on the Justinian. It had been a balm to his own unhappiness to know himself able to draw Horatio out of his whirling thoughts and into the simple business of the day, and to watch the strain fade from his face as he worked at smoothing planks for the boat, or reshaping Bush's wooden leg yet again.
Once, in El Ferrol, Archie had believed, despairing, that the great Horatio Hornblower, brilliant and confident in his own powers, would never be imprisoned and in need of aid from his shipmates. Many times over the course of this strange, unreal winter, he had laughed a little at his old foolishness. Horatio's iron facade had fooled him then, as it had fooled so many others, though even then he had been one of the few allowed to see the man beneath. But Horatio was as human as any man, with his weaknesses and his fears, and as his friend Archie had long since made it his occupation to know those weaknesses and to give the aid that Horatio would never ask.
Bush was not a man who was meant to be caged any more than Archie and Horatio were, but neither did he have a mind that would tear itself to pieces for want of activity, or the oppressive memory of a months-long imprisonment in Spain to gnaw at him. Ordinarily he would have been the most comfortable of the three of them, or at least the best at resigning himself to the temporary discomfort of their stay. In Bush's stern philosophy, mankind, at least naval mankind, was born to sorrow and difficulty and danger, and though any respites from this state were to be enjoyed, it was possible that the universe might choose to exact its reckoning for those moments of happiness at any time. Bush faced battle with a ferocity that Archie had never seen matched, and endured those dangers that he could not change with a set jaw and a wry smile.
That had remained true at Graçay in large part, but here Bush had been faced with a new enemy: his own weakness. It had frightened him, Archie knew, to find his body failing him where it never had before; to have to learn to walk again, leaning on Horatio's shoulder; to realise that even after he had healed, he might well be a liability in their efforts to escape. Bush had always been able to rely upon his own strength in even the fiercest of storms or battles, and had always known to the hour how far he could drive himself. Now he had to relearn his own limits, and accept that they were not what they had been, and the process had sometimes left him very much downcast.
Fortunately for Archie, if he could hint to Horatio that Bush was feeling rather down, or the other way 'round, either of them would at once be all solicitude for the other's needs. It was rather entertaining to watch, actually, in addition to making his self-imposed mission of keeping Horatio sane much easier. But now Horatio was looking out over the misty river with evident relief and satisfaction, and Bush, as comfortable on his jury-rigged leg as he could possibly be, was inspecting their boat with pleasure, and a good number of the unpleasant memories that Archie had been holding at bay for the past three months decided to come crashing down on him all at once. To his detached annoyance, he saw that his hands were shaking. He leaned his head on his hands and focussed on his breathing. The last thing he needed was to panic now, of all times, when everything was going perfectly.
Horatio's hand landed on his shoulder, awkwardly but firmly, and to his great surprise he heard his friend say, "What, no teasing about Marie?"
Archie laughed shakily, the spell beginning to lift. "Oh, I thought I would let you stew over it for a while. Maria Mason would be envious to no end."
"Maria and Marie," Horatio laughed. "You and I, Archie, should always be wary of women with names beginning in M. Or perhaps William should. It's his turn after all."
"My turn for what?" William asked, looking back at them from the bows.
"To have a woman named Marie or Maria throw herself at your feet in adoration, of course," Archie said. "Horatio and I have each had it happen at least once and now it's your turn."
"Not much chance of that now, I should think," Bush said wryly, with a quick glance at his wooden leg.
"Nonsense," Archie retorted. "Women swooned at Lord Nelson's feet in droves and I've never heard that the missing arm caused him any trouble. If anything, they'll be begging for tales of your heroism."
Horatio stifled a laugh hastily. "Perhaps, Mr. Kennedy," he said, "we should defer the topic of marriage until we have returned safely to England."
Bush looked relieved.
"We may defer the topic of marriage, Captain Hornblower," Archie said magnanimously, "but I fear that the topic of Marie is a topic of France. Mr. Bush, I do not think that I have ever seen the captain's ears so red in all his life."
"I would not venture to speculate on that matter, Mr. Kennedy," Bush said reprovingly, but there was a merry light in his blue eyes again and Archie grinned conspiratorially at him, feeling the last of the old panic drain out of him again.
Some officers the three of us make, he thought wryly. A captain who can't stop thinking until he drives himself mad, a lieutenant who panics at nothing, and the one sane man is short a leg. But between the three of us we make up a decent enough man, as long as we can lean on each other. Literally or otherwise.
"Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said, breaking in on his silence and handing him a fishing rod, "I will trouble you to make an appearance of fishing. You too, Mr. Bush. Brown, keep us to the middle of the river if you please. I shall take the tiller."
The Loire was a much friendlier river in the springtime, they found. In fact it was actually beautiful, and the shallows and rocks that had made rapids in the winter were now no more than inconveniences, which at the worst meant getting out of the boat to drag it for a little way through water that was now quite warm and clear. Once or twice, though, Bush had to get out too, and limp along the sand until they reached a point where they could all climb in again, and once his wooden leg sank so far into the sand that they had to unstrap him from it, help him into the boat, and then drag the leg out of the sand before they could get underway again. Archie had not known whether to laugh or grieve at that, so he had said nothing.
They saw the one dam long before they came to it, and though carrying the boat after a winter of idleness was hard work, Archie's arm was long since healed and between the three of them it was manageable. Bush could only just manage to cross the uneven ground without help, and so the three of them were obliged to carry the supplies down as well, but the only person who minded that in the least was Bush himself, and when he began to apologise for not being more use, Horatio glowered horribly at him and he shut his mouth with a snap.
Archie was amused to see Horatio, though thoroughly winded by helping to carry the boat, insist on taking the sculls himself instead of sending Brown back to them, but a busy Horatio was, generally speaking, a happy one, and so he said nothing, though he and Bush exchanged smiles over their fishing rods.
The weeks they spent travelling down the Loire were some of the most peaceful times that any of them had known for years. There were plenty of minor problems to keep them all busy, but nothing serious enough to warrant worrying. The worst that could happen was that they needed to drag the boat for a few yards through the shallows, or that perhaps they landed on an island where nettles were more common than grass (which happened more than once, to Horatio's mild discomfiture). Between Archie's restored cheerfulness and the accompanying teasing, and the softening influence that their winter in close company had already had on him, Horatio gave up entirely on his stern captain's demeanour, and joined in with the others on even the most menial of tasks. Archie had laughed aloud at Bush's spluttering when Horatio insisted on helping him to peel potatoes on the first night that they camped out on an island, but after that it was generally accepted that for now at least there was no point in the officers keeping themselves aloof from the single seaman. Brown remained deferential to them, but all of them shared in the work, turn and turn about, as they were able.
In addition to the camaraderie that was swiftly growing up between them, the weather and the river were simply glorious. The sun was bright but not too hot, and the ever-varying scenery in its many shades of green never ceased to delight the eye. Even Bush, who, Archie suspected, was probably the least susceptible of the three of them to such influences, could be caught gazing about happily from time to time as his fishing rod trailed in the water. The food was better than what they had known in most of their time in the service, there was an abundance of clean water for bathing and drinking, and they soon found out that their disguise as a fishing boat was sufficient to divert any suspicions from them. They still preferred, when possible, to pass by towns in the dark, but it was more from a habit of abundant caution than from any real fear.
All in all, Archie put it down as one of the happiest times in his life so far. Even when it rained their spirits remained undampened, and plenty of merry jests had gone back and forth between the three officers, and occasionally Brown, as they huddled together under an improvised tent to escape the damp. It was quite pleasant, too, to wake up in the mornings and find that Bush had put an arm over him in his sleep, or that Horatio had rolled in close, seeking warmth, and was curled up against his back.
Bush might have had difficulty in admitting to it, but he, too, was happier than he had been in a long time. Though the thought and feel of his missing leg were never far from his mind, in their small boat the leg was hardly a disadvantage, and much of the work that had to be done wanted only two strong hands. Horatio's insistence on joining in with the rest of them in that work put him a little out of countenance at first, but slowly he grew accustomed to it, for Bush, though not perhaps the most imaginative of men, was nothing if not adaptable, and he had spent much of his life dealing with Hornblower's queer moods in one way or another. It was ridiculously pleasant, he found, to sit companionably with Horatio and Archie in the stern of the boat, dangling an ornamental fishing rod over the side when he was not taking his turn with the tiller, sometimes speaking and sometimes silent, but always comfortable.
Such an occupation was suited to introspection, however, and once or twice over the course of their voyage Horatio allowed himself to mention, obliquely, his worries for the court-martial that awaited him owing to the loss of the Sutherland. It brought back uncomfortable memories of Kingston, but all the same Bush could not help saying, "Nonsense, Horatio, any court-martial would be able to see that you did the best you could, and better than anyone else could have done."
"I hope so."
"I shouldn't be surprised if the outcome were a new command for you," Bush continued sturdily. "And I wish you and Archie joy of it."
"Me and Horatio? Whatever are you on about now, William?"
Bush shrugged. "I won't be going to sea again with the Navy, not with this," he said, and indicated the wooden leg wryly. "There's little place for a one-legged lieutenant on a ship of the line."
"Now who's talking stuff and nonsense?" Archie asked. "Lord Nelson did it, and he wasn't the only one either."
"Bush," Horatio said, turning to him with an uncharacteristically open and earnest expression on his face, setting a hand on his shoulder, "I shall see you posted as captain if it's my last act on this earth, do you hear? And you're to look after Archie if...if I'm not there, or I can't -- take him as lieutenant if you can. I know of one or two men who would rate Brown as midshipman if I asked them -- you've more than earned that, Brown, God knows. If nothing else Barbara won't abandon me, and she'll see that you're all taken care of if the worst comes to the worst."
Bush found himself left quite speechless. Archie came to his rescue. "Horatio, you're leaving out something rather important there. Barbara won't abandon you. You're in the Wellesley family by marriage now. Do you really think that she'd leave you to a court martial any more than us?"
"Ha-hm. I suppose not. But should it come…"
"Hang the worst, Horatio. We've faced it before and we'll face it again. Aye, and we've mutinied before. If they condemn you we'll have you out of the brig and off to America like you did with Doughty, and you can bet half the men in the fleet will help us too. William and I won't abandon you any more than you and I would abandon him."
"Or we you," Bush put in, and Archie smiled at him.
"Of course not," he said. "You didn't leave me to the gallows, and we came through that all right in the end. If that couldn't stop us, what could?"
"Perhaps it's better not to tempt fate by asking that, Archie," Horatio said reprovingly, but Bush could see that the tense lines in his face had relaxed again.
Then the boat ran aground and Horatio swore volubly at his distraction, and fondly at his friends for distracting him, as they all scrambled out to set it afloat again.
The holiday mood lasted until one day, moored by a little island below the confluence of the Loire and the Maine, Brown mentioned that he smelled salt, and Horatio noticed that the river's level rose and fell very subtly over the hours, without there having been any rain nearby at all. They were in tidal waters again, and a lifetime's habits of naval discipline began to return to them. But one thing did not change -- the intimacy of their friendship was not lessened by this transition. If anything the shared excitement drew them closer together. That night Hornblower -- so near to action, it did not come easily to Bush to call him by his Christian name -- called a council of war, and they spent some time thinking on how best to enter Nantes. In the end it was concluded that they should appear in uniform: four civilians in a fishing boat might be questioned, but a Dutch colonel of douaniers would not be, and even if he were then a haughty attitude might carry him through.
The next morning they changed into their uniforms, their last gift from the women of the Comte's household. There was a curious ceremony in it, though these were not the British uniforms to which they were accustomed. The rather rakish kepis caused them some trouble, and in the end Kennedy had to help Hornblower, and Hornblower Bush, before the odd headgear would sit properly. Then all that was left was the star of the Legion of Honour, and for all that it was a French order, the ribbon and star were near enough to looking like the Order of the Bath that there was a certain reverence in the way that Kennedy arranged the ribbon and pinned on the accompanying star to Hornblower's coat.
Then all was in readiness. Brown took the sculls, and Hornblower the tiller, and Bush and Kennedy flanked him in the stern. Bush could see the white tension of Hornblower's knuckles on the tiller, and looking past him saw that Archie's face was set and grim in a way that it rarely was. He knew that he himself was braced as though for the impact of a shot to their tiny boat, and forced his face to remain blank. The cannonball that had taken his foot had not taught him to fear battle, but this sitting and waiting under what felt like thousands of French eyes was something quite different.
They remained unchallenged, however, as they rowed in a leisurely fashion down to the river-mouth in the evening sun, and shot the bridges one after another. At last they came out to the bay itself. There were fishing-boats moored all about them, and Hornblower was eyeing them with evident intent, for their plan at the moment was to steal one of these in which to make the trip into the Channel proper, when Bush saw something that temporarily took his mind off of fishing-boats entirely and put a decidedly impossible idea into it. "Witch of Endor, ten-gun cutter," he said hoarsely, indicating the little vessel with a jerk of his head. "A French frigate caught her on a lee shore off Noirmoutier last year. By God, isn't it what you'd expect of the French? It's eleven months ago and they're still wearing French colours over British."
Bush was generally thought, by himself as well as others, to be a man of little imagination, but it seemed to him that the lovely little ship, her deck in heartbreaking disorder, masts nodding slightly as the seas rolled her back and forth almost imperceptibly, looked like a bound prisoner asking them for aid. Hornblower must have felt the same, for he put the helm hard over and ordered Brown to lay them alongside the quay. The impossible idea came back into his head as he scrambled awkwardly out of the boat, helped by Hornblower. Could they take her? On the face of it the idea was absurd; four men, even had all of them been whole in body, could never sail a large cutter all the way out of the bay through unknown waters. The Witch had rated a crew of sixty, and laying aside gun crews that meant that she could not be comfortably sailed by less than fifteen men. But he was stumping along the quay by Hornblower's side, and Hornblower was a man with a way of making the impossible into the merely difficult. "Anchor watch," he muttered to his captain. "Two hands and a master's mate."
It would be possible to overcome the anchor watch, certainly. That would be easy. They would probably not even raise the alarm. But what then? Where were they to find a crew? "Everyone else on shore, the lubbers," he went on, suppressing his wrath that the Witch should be so close within their grasp and yet so far out of reach.
Hornblower nodded slightly, and Bush followed his gaze to the chained gangs of prisoners, unloading wheat from two American ships only a little way away. A third ship was coming in, flying American colours too, and Bush spared a thought from his preoccupation with the Witch of Endor to curse the damn fool Yankees for making the whole blockade a mockery. For a country that claimed to fight against tyranny, Bush thought it very odd that the Americans should trade so happily with Bonaparte. But the chain gangs were being urged closer to unload this newest arrival, and the pilot was coming ashore, and Hornblower was striding forward with an air of haughty unconcern which Bush envied. There was a conversation in French, then, of which Bush understood more than he expected: Hornblower was bluffing the pilot into following him, and uncontrollable excitement took hold of Bush, which was all that made it possible for him to keep pace with Hornblower's quick, excited strides as they made their way towards the Witch.
In less than five minutes the pilot, the master's mate, and the two crewmen were tied up tightly and gagged in the tiny closet that passed for a cabin. Bush and Brown waited impatiently with their prisoners as Hornblower and Kennedy went back on deck and returned followed by a sergeant, who soon joined his compatriots bound and gagged under the table, and, as they found out when they followed Hornblower back on deck, two chained groups of slaves. Hornblower unlocked their chains, promising them freedom if they kept quiet, and then turned to Brown and asked, to Bush's confusion, for his clothes out of their little boat.
Hornblower met Kennedy's questioning eyes and explained, in a low voice, "If I am wearing my uniform I cannot be accused of spying. And if we steal this cutter then too many people will notice for us to be murdered in secret."
The possibility of recapture had been a very distant concern to them all on the journey down the Loire, but Bush had not ever thought that secret murder might be the result of it if things did come to that, and shook his head in admiration for Hornblower's ability to think of twenty things at once and do it well.
In the time it took for Brown to return with the clothes and Hornblower to change into his crumpled uniform coat, the tide had reached the flood, and darkness had fallen. At Hornblower's directions, Kennedy and Brown put the ropes into the hands of their crew of freed slaves, and cast off the cutter's moorings, first the stern and then the bow. Bush took up his place by the tiller in answer to a brief gesture, and so was privy to the spectacle of Hornblower threatening the pilot into submission.
Bush was, for the first time in his life, pleased to have been the recipient of French lessons, for he could understand a fair amount of what the pilot said without translation, though some of the quicker and more desperate sentences eluded him. The man was terrified out of his wits, as anyone might have been -- Hornblower in the moonlight, wearing his battered uniform, moving with a dangerous grace that came to him only in moments where he utterly forgot to be conscious of his own limbs, was a tall and menacing figure, and his features were taut with excitement that anyone who knew him less well might easily have mistaken for ferocity.
The pilot was saying something about leads, and Bush thought that it might be wise, but also that they had no men to spare for it who knew their business. Hornblower laughed aloud, his face a mask of savage determination, and repeated his threats to the pilot. Bush wondered how seriously he meant them. Quite possibly Hornblower himself did not know what he would do if it became necessary. The important part, however, was that the pilot believed him to be in earnest, and he clearly did.
Then they had to cross over the bay, and Bush forgot all about nervous French pilots in the sheer joy of feeling the Witch of Endor answer sweetly to her tiller and glide along through the channel, of the clean smell of the sea and the cool breeze at his back, of the feel of a deck under his feet...his foot, but even that thought could not dampen his spirits now. He was at sea again, and free. The French might still catch them, but the Witch had guns. They would be able to put up a fight, and it would be a damn good one with Hornblower and Kennedy beside him. He grinned widely, and the pilot quivered in terror, for the smile had coincided with a meaning word from Hornblower and he was quite convinced that these two Englishmen were all but ghouls in human form.
By dawn, they were off Noirmoutier, and the wind was dying. The freed slaves had gone to sleep once they were no longer needed to man the sails, huddled together on the foredeck for warmth, and Brown was sitting beside them with his chin in his hands. Archie had gone below to see that the prisoners did not suffocate, though they could not and would not be released until the Witch had reached the Channel Fleet. He had returned, unexpectedly and most delightfully, with coffee and biscuit, which he insisted on handing out to all three of the others, and a blunderbuss, which he handed to Bush, who had the best shot at the deck and the hatchway should the crew cause trouble or the prisoners escape.
The fugitives had eaten and drunk nothing since noon of the preceding day, and Bush found that he was both hungry and thirsty. He ate and drank by the taffrail, his wooden leg wedged securely against a ring-bolt to keep him from losing his balance, but before he had finished his breakfast, Kennedy, who had relieved him at the tiller to allow him to eat more conveniently, could no longer hold their present course.
They were not quite within range of the battery at Noirmoutier, but they were close enough in that the tide might drift them in range if the wind did not rise, and it showed no signs of doing so at present. Bush took back the tiller again, and Brown and Kennedy set to work rousing the slaves and setting them to work on the oars. Even as they did so the semaphores on the coast sprang into motion, and the upshot of that was that the battery began to fire on them. They were comfortably out of range, but of course gunboats would be sent out after them as soon as the battery's commander realised this, which would not take long. Hornblower had evidently anticipated this, as, with Kennedy's help, he was already beginning to train one of the six-pounders round as far as it would go, ready to fire on the gunboats as soon as they were in range.
Kennedy disappeared belowdecks and reappeared with an armful of cartridges. Two men were the smallest possible crew for a six-pounder, but the pilot took very little convincing to make himself the third -- a single savage scowl from Hornblower did the trick. They ran the gun out in leisurely fashion, and Bush waited the order to yaw in order to give them a clear shot at the gunboats which had just appeared.
It did not come. They waited in silence as the gunboats drew slowly closer and the exhausted men at the oars pulled on under Brown's supervision. They changed the men at the oars, and Brown brought up the prisoners from the cabin, their feet bound, to join in with the others. Still the slow, slow chase went on, and still there was no wind, but Bush felt none of the apprehension that might have been expected from a man so near to battle and death or recapture. He was on the deck of a ship once more, waiting for Hornblower's orders with Kennedy at his side. There was nothing more that he wanted in all the world.
At Hornblower's order, he changed course so that the gun could be trained on the boats that followed them, and watched the shooting eagerly. They were at so long a range that a hit would be sheer chance, but if anyone could pull off such a shot, it would be Horatio.
As the boats came closer, Hornblower's shooting came nearer and nearer to the mark. "Beautiful, sir!" Bush could not help exclaiming, as one shot nearly smashed the oars of the nearest boat.
Hornblower paused to remove his coat -- the sun was up, and crewing a gun was warm work -- and offered his pistols to Bush, but Bush shook his head with a grin and jerked his head towards the blunderbuss Archie had found, which lay on the deck by his feet. Better that Hornblower keep his pistols to hand in case he should need a weapon himself.
Hornblower turned his attention back to the gun again. Shot after shot was fired without scoring a hit, though the nearest boat's crew must have been well soaked with the spray thrown up around them. The aim was clearly correct, but no gun was accurate to more than fifty yards at this range, and chance was, for once, not with Hornblower.
Then Bush saw one of the boats waver, and half her oars stop moving. "You've hit her, sir!" he called out jubilantly.
There was a doubtful moment when it looked as though the boat might keep going regardless, but soon she swung about, the officer in her stern waving frantically to the other two boats, and it became clear that she was taking on water rapidly. Bush restrained a cheer. One boat down already, and the range closing with every minute -- it would be a wonder if either of the two remaining boats managed to come near enough to board them, though his present mood he would not have feared to take on all the hundred and fifty men in one of those boats single-handedly.
"Port a point!" Hornblower called, and resumed his bombardment almost before Bush could obey him.
One of the boat's guns was firing now, but the boats only carried little three-pounders and at this range Bush could hardly have cared less for those. Hornblower and Kennedy, with the pilot's reluctant help, had fallen into a rapid rhythm of firing, sponging out, reloading, and running out their little gun, and Bush watched them in admiration as they flung their weight onto the gun tackles in perfect synchronisation again and again, as fast as any crew in the Navy could have done it. A shot skidded over the deck of the Witch and scared the oarsmen, but Brown had them back at it again in an instant, and there were no casualties. Then he saw the boat which had fired on them pause in her way, and then resume with much greater speed. Her commander must have double-banked the oars in hope of closing the last distance with a rush.
Kennedy and Hornblower hurled themselves onto the gun's tackles like madmen. Their first shot ricocheted off the water right before the boat's bows and flew right over her. Bush braced himself and checked that the blunderbuss was still in easy reach. He was gladder than ever that he had not taken Hornblower's pistols. The captain might need them soon.
Before they could have seen what had become of their shot, Hornblower and Kennedy had the gun run out again, and fired. Then they turned to reload even as Bush saw the bow of the boat open up like a fan. Brown paused in his tireless pacing beside the oarsmen to raise a hearty cheer. Bush found that he was cheering too, and leaping up and down in his exultation, though he was careful not to let go of the tiller.
The third boat was turning back to the aid of its companions now. They had done it. Horatio and Archie were grinning and shaking hands, soaked in sweat and dizzy with relief, and Archie was laughing. Bush was reminded of nothing so much as the long afternoons of gun practice in the Carribean, when they had all been lieutenants together on the Renown.
Kennedy made the gun secure again and Hornblower walked astern to join Bush at the taffrail. "Damn fine shooting, sir," Bush said, knowing that he was still grinning like a fool.
"Thank you, Mr. Bush," Hornblower said equably, leaning back on the taffrail and shutting his eyes for a moment.
Bush was tempted to suggest that he go below for an hour or so to rest, but knew that Hornblower would never hear of it until they were safely away from the French coast, and probably not even then.
There were no further attacks from the coast that day, and the afternoon went on peacefully, with the clear sky and the deep blue sea and the golden sun looking down on them as they inched slowly further away from Noirmoutier under the sweeps. As the sun began to go down Kennedy disappeared belowdecks again and returned with wine and water and biscuit for supper, which they ate on deck, as Brown changed out the men at the sweeps and gave them their rations in turn.
At midnight, the breeze came up again, and the exhausted prisoners and oarsmen could finally rest. The wind was so faint that the cutter moved forward with hardly a sound, but her graceful sails were full, and Bush could feel in the tiller's resistance that they were underway. He had not slept for over twenty-four hours now, but he hardly noticed it. Whenever he might have had leisure to think about his fatigue, his mind was instead absorbed by the thousand little smells and sounds and sensations of standing on a ship's deck at sea again, and if he should tire of that there was England to think of: England, and promotion, and prize money, for his captain and his second lieutenant and himself.
Hornblower wandered back to the taffrail again, looking lost and strained, and Bush remembered that losing sleep for two nights running would always take a toll on his captain. "Tired, William?" Horatio asked, with an appeal for something -- Bush was not quite sure what -- in his brown eyes.
"No, sir, of course not. But how is it with you?"
Horatio sighed and ran a hand over his face. "This all feels...like a dream, I suppose. Like I'm still in that damn tower at Graçay, and I've fallen asleep with the Comte's spyglass to my eye and dreamed of an escape, and I'll wake up there again in the morning and this will all be to do over again."
Bush took one hand off the tiller to set it firmly on his captain's shoulder. "You can rule that out, sir," he said. "Archie and I would never leave you to sleep the night up in that tower with a spyglass in your eye."
Horatio chuckled wearily. "No, I suppose you would not, at that, William," he said, briefly grasping Bush's hand with his own before letting it fall. "But if this is all real, and I do know that it is, then we'll be in England soon, and then there's the court-martial, and…"
"They'll acquit you, sir. Horatio," Bush said. "You know they will."
"But if they don't?" Horatio said, turning to Bush, the light of the binnacle lamp only just illuminating his wide, haunted brown eyes. He looked very young, Bush thought, and felt a sudden swell of affection for his captain. It was easy to forget that Hornblower was younger than he was, sometimes. Kennedy looked and acted his age, if not younger, but Horatio often affected the manners of an admiral several times his age, and even Bush could not always easily see past the mask. "They shot Byng for not doing his utmost in the presence of the enemy," Horatio went on, sounding at once detached and horrified. "Or it could be a lesser charge. An error in judgement, say. Dismissal from the Service. Or just a broken career. What would Barbara think?"
Bush tightened his grip on Horatio's shoulder, and felt him lean into the steadying touch. "They won't, Horatio. Nobody could doubt that you did your utmost. Any other captain would have surrendered far sooner than you did. I'll speak for you at the court martial, and so will Archie. And," he added with a wry smile, "if worst comes to worst we'll do what Archie said on the Loire and sneak you off to America like Doughty. And Lady Barbara knows you. She'd never believe you didn't do your duty as you saw it. She'd follow you back to America if that was what it took, and so would Archie and me. We won't leave you alone, sir, any more than you'd leave us alone."
Horatio gave him a wan smile. "I know. If I can trust no-one else in the world I can at least trust the three of you. And the three-fold cord is not easily broken. Thank you, William."
Bush let his hand fall and turned back to the business of steering, but Horatio stayed beside him, leaning against the taffrail, until the very beginnings of dawn began to soften the eastern horizon, and Brown came aft to report that he saw something through the mist. They had no spyglass, and Hornblower peered keenly into the darkness as Bush braced his leg against the ring-bolt and waited for orders. "It's a ship all right, Bush," Horatio said in the end. "Put the cutter before the wind and run down to her, but be ready to go about if I give the order -- there's the tiniest chance she might be French. Jibsheet, Brown."
For a few minutes there was a tense silence. Then a clear voice rang out through the dark and the mist, scarcely distorted by the speaking-trumpet: "Cutter ahoy! What cutter's that?"
Horatio flashed a conspiratorial and relieved grin at Bush before answering, "His Britannic Majesty's armed cutter Witch of Endor, Captain Horatio Hornblower. What ship's that?"
"Triumph, Captain Sir Thomas Hardy," the voice said in return, then, "What did you say that cutter was?"
Bush threw back his head and laughed, and heard Brown and Kennedy doing the same from further for'ard. The officer of the watch on board the Triumph had made his reply by habit before it had occurred to him that the Witch of Endor had been a prize of war for nearly a year and Captain Horatio Hornblower had been dead six months.
"Armed cutter Witch of Endor, Captain Horatio Hornblower," Horatio repeated, still grinning.
"With the Flying Dutchman, Captain Simon St. Peter, not far behind," Bush said cheerfully, though not so loud that the Triumph's officer of the watch should hear him, and was rewarded with a snort from Horatio.
"Come under my lee, and no tricks, or I'll sink you," said the voice, and Bush hurried to obey.
They were back with the Channel Fleet again, after six months. They were home.