Throughout the night, a wind blew that was determined to have them all in fear of it. They did fear it and the timbers feared it, the rigging feared it, and even the ship’s cat, fat on the enumerable rats that had come aboard at the Cape, feared it. It blew in all directions with no sense of a normal wind that appeared to be going somewhere. This wind merely darted this way and that; blew viciously against one quarter and then turned sharply to lash out at another.
Any man unlucky enough to have cause to venture on deck was at the mercy of this wind, which for most relieved the tension immensely. Knowing that one cannot control something allows you to give yourself to its mercy willingly. Surprisingly, we did not lose one man, though as Jack Burnwright, able seaman, came on deck to relieve another man at the wheel, a rope parted at one end and slashed across his face with a fury that blinded him instantly. Burnwright righted himself, looked about with his one remaining eye for the rope – which had immediately parted at the other end and flown off to larboard – shrugged his shoulders and went below to look for the doctor.
The doctor did what he could by Burnwright – a stitch and a bandage, no more – and dosed the man with a small amount of laudanum. Burnwright knuckled his forehead and went back on deck, his sense of duty compelling him to do so.
Alec looked around his cabin for an ink bottle, but everything that was not fastened tight had been tossed into one corner or another long ago. He smiled, seeing his trunk lift from the deck, pause for what seemed like several seconds, and then slam into place. Why it had not been held fast was beyond him and he made a mental note to address it with his steward as soon as the storm ended.
A knock on the door was barely audible over the roar outside, and thinking he was not heard, Murdock entered. Murdock looked unusually and uncharacteristically gloomy, which made Alec wonder if the storm was even worse than he had imagined, and what he had imagined seemed already unimaginable.
“Yes!” yelled Alec into Murdock’s ear as they met by Alec’s captain’s desk.
“I found Burnwright lashed to the wheel and he refuses come below,” bellowed Murdock.
“I will be up directly,” said Alec turning to look for his hat, which was no where to be found and would have not helped much with the wind and spray coming at the ship at all angles.
The scene at the wheel was truly desperate. Burnwright, his senses seemingly gone, had lashed himself to the wheel, the scrap of a rag the doctor had fashioned barely clinging to his head and doing nothing to cover his damaged eye. Blood still streamed from the wound and only the rope Burnwright had used to tie himself to the wheel prevented him from falling to the deck and being washed away. His strength was gone and before it his hope and love of life. Not many of the men aboard a man o’ war showed a great deal of love for life unless they had gold in their pockets, an enemy to fight, or a woman to lie with.
At the sight of his Captain, Burnwright stiffened slightly as if to attention and then released the wheel allowing his messmates to cut him loose and carry him below. His body was limp, but his grip iron and it occurred to all that he had focused all of his force into holding on to the wheel no matter what the cost.
Alec knew there was nothing he could do that he had not already called for the crew to do, but he stayed on deck for a respectable length of time. On his right crouching beneath a gun was a petrel. How long it had been there Alec could not tell, but he stared into the bird’s eye for a considerable time and had a distinct feeling that the bird understood his anxiety.
Murdock appeared again and motioned for Alec to follow him below. Below deck the noise seemed less than before, but that was merely a confused sensation by having been exposed to the full force of the wind first hand. Two feet of oak can dampen some of the noise but not all and it could not prevent the sea from coming in from all quarters.
The doctor leaned close to Alec. Alec asked him how Burnwright did and the doctor simply waggled his head as if to say, who can tell. The doctor was resigned to the fact that Burnwright’s fate was in the hands of Burnwright and his creator.
“I have eased his pain and he sleeps, but I cannot say how he will be when he comes out of this,” yelled the doctor, his high pitched voice cutting through the noise to pierce Alec’s ear.
Alec turned to go, but was blocked by Smith, a messmate of Burnwright.
“Burnwright is sleeping for the time being Smith, and the doctor will know no more until he wakes and the ship is more conducive to a thorough examination.”
“Aye, Sir, Mr. Murdock told me as much Sir,” said Smith. He obviously had more to say so Alec motioned for him to follow him into his cabin.
The two stood almost toe to toe, the noise outside making it a necessity for conversation, and Smith was hesitant to begin, but eventually started into an account of Burnwright’s odd behavior the day before.
After several minutes it was becoming clear to Alec what had occurred; unrequited love. It was not unheard of in the service, but Alec was truly surprised that Burnwright’s tastes leaned that way. Smith was embarrassed to be the object of his messmates affection, and angry at himself for telling the Captain. Smith, Alec could tell, was worried for his friend’s well being, sodomite or no.
“I’ll send for you when this blows over,” yelled Alec.
“Aye, aye, Sir,” replied Smith and then turned and left the cabin.
Alec wanted very much to talk to Lasby about this latest problem, but felt he must not overburden the Admiral. Lasby would gladly help him, but Alec felt that he needed to solve some things on his own. He wanted to please the Admiral and prove his worth.
Eight hours later Alec stood on the quarterdeck with an evening sun gently warming his face. It seemed impossible that this same stretch of ocean could have changed so much in so short a time. Alec had spent most of the last eight hours thinking about what he could do about Burnwright, and believed he had a resolution. As he turned to call for Smith the lookout hailed the deck and reported two ships three points off the starboard bow.
Alec raced up the rigging to sit beside the lookout. “G’day Sir,” said Franklin.
“Good day, Yank,” replied Alec with a smile. The lookout had been unfortunately named Benjamin Franklin, by pure coincidence, and his shipmates had seized the opportunity to make game of him for it. His senior messmate had nicknamed him Yank, and it had stuck. Even the officers called him Yank, and Yank, to his credit, had embraced the name in the friendly spirit in which it was bestowed.
Yank pointed to starboard and after a few seconds Alec focused his eye onto smudges on the horizon. Alec looked at Yank and Yank knew his Captain’s next question.
“A sloop and a small frigate, is what I make of them Sir.”
“Very good. Perhaps we should run down and take a look. A day’s pay if you’re spot on, eh?” said Alec descending to the deck.
Yank smiled and watched his Captain descend.
Alec was met on the quarterdeck by Murdock who had already learned of the two ships and their suspected ratings. During his descent Yank had obviously signaled down to messmates and Murdock had intercepted the signals himself.
If nothing changed, their present course would enable them to intercept these ships in a few hours time so no orders were needed at present.
“What of Burnwright, Sir?” said Murdock.
‘What indeed,’ thought Alec.
“For now he sleeps and we have more pressing matters to attend to.” Alec’s words were true enough, but what they told Murdock was that Alec had no idea what to do.
“Beg you pardon Sir” said a high pitched voice, that of the Doctor.
Alec and Murdock turned to face the doctor.
“Burnwright is gone Sir, and I believe he may have been helped on his way to the great beyond.”
Alec and Murdock looked at each other. Alec’s first thought at hearing that Burnwright was dead was a regrettable relief, but now he had even bigger problems.
“Thank you Hegl, that will be all,” he said to the Doctor.
Alec looked across the water at the ships now visible from the quarterdeck and hoped that the impending fight would solve this problem one way or the other.
© 2006 Dmitri Reavis