The Union Delegate
From PENDRAGON The Montenegran Plot by Robert Trevelyan
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are not mine, nor is Pendragon; he belongs to Robert Trevelyan.
Rating: PG13 for Violence and valid reference to adult themes.
Authors Note: This fic was written in response to a challenge to place the seven in a favourite book.
The Pendragon books by Robert Trevelyan hold a special place in my heart, the second book - His Highness Commands Pendragon, was the very first 'grown up' book I read - for a chronic dyslexic that is one big land mark! This is taken from book 3 of 4. Of the Americans, only the marine commander is named, I have renamed him. On a point of M7 interest Mr Trevelyan describes the captain as - tall, slim, elegant and blond and although I changed him from a marine to a navy officer, one of the Americans is described as wearing buckskins and clearly being from the West.
My Thanks as ever to the wonderful Helen for proof reading this for me.
Commander Christopher Larabee strode up to Admiral Travis' office through a light snowfall. It was going to be a cold winter; he could just feel it in his bones. Travis said he had a special mission for Chris and his ship, he could only hope it was in the Caribbean. The large office was furnished with imposing mahogany furniture. Even though he was facing an admiral Chris was at ease, he walked in briskly and smartly came to a halt before delivering a text-book salute. Travis looked on from his desk.
"Chris my boy, good to see you, take a seat." He waved at the deep-buttoned leather chair in front of the desk.
"Sir," Chris acknowledged.
"I have a mission for you. One that I trust very few with." He looked up and over his spectacles at Chris. "An officer´s loyalty to his country should be taken as absolute - you agree?"
"Of course sir," Chris agreed unsure where the conversation was going.
"Well it would be nice to think so, but even the most loyal can be tempted, especially when his ship is carrying ten million in gold coins!"
Chris opened his mouth to respond and couldn't; he just sat there and tried to comprehend that much money. Travis smiled; he had to admit it had taken him some time to come to terms with it. He explained that the money was a payment made from the British government to the American in respect of a trade agreement.
"Mighty tempting cargo, man could buy himself a whole country for that kinda money," Chris observed.
"Indeed, like I said even loyal officers can be tempted."
"I'd say so."
"But not you."
Chris eyed him; never one to be intimidated he just held the senior officer's gaze. Finally he smiled. "No sir, not me."
"Your crew will, of course, not know what you carry, and your officers only when you get to London. Naturally you will be carrying a detachment of marines, a major, a lieutenant, twenty-five men. Just who commands them you and I will have to discuss. I have several "
"I want Buck Wilmington, I know him, he's honest, and he's damn good at his job."
"Yes I know of him, he's only a captain."
"Chris, you say you know him?"
"Than you know he isn't exactly senior officer material, man's lucky to be an officer at all," Travis commented.
"Buck Wilmington is the best damn marine in this man's navy and you know it. So he don't have the manners for polite society, and he likes the ladies, so what?"
"Chris, he had an affair with his C.O.'s wife! The man caught him in bed with her!"
"So? They were both adults, I want Buck and he deserves the promotion, he's paid long enough."
Travis looked at the still-young officer in front of him; there was that look in Larabee's eyes, the one he was relying on, the one that was never going to be tempted by the money.
"Very well, I guess I can manage that, besides Mac Rudkin is a horses ass, can't blame his wife for looking at something a little more charming."
"Well Buck is definitely that, when he chooses to be," Chris added with a chuckle. "And he gets to know what the mission is right from the start," the earlier mirth absent from his voice.
Travis considered arguing but changed his mind.
+ + + + + + +
"How much?" Buck asked again.
"You heard me, that's the mission, oh, and one more thing."
Buck frowned at him. "What."
"Congratulations Major Wilmington."
"Major? You're kidding me right? Me a major?"
"Don't sound so surprised, you earned it, many times over - just "
"Try to keep your britches on."
Buck threw his head back and laughed. "I'll try, but a man has urges; you know? And talking of that, my lieutenant, we well, we need to keep this cargo secret from him."
+ + + + + + +
"Son, why do you do this?" Maude Standish stood on the dock as the marines assembled to board the USS Union Delegate.
"Mother we have been over this, a uniform gives me a certain standing, it opens doors, people don't look at me like I'm a snake!" Ezra Standish pulled away from his mother.
For all of his twenty-two years, Ezra P. Standish had been running, or so it felt. His mother, when she wasn´t leaving him behind with relatives and friends´, had dragged him from town to town, husband to husband, from one con to another. He got so used to being scorned, pitied and ignored he thought of it as normal. Then one day he saw a military parade, Marines in bright red uniforms, marching down Main Street. They were given instant respect, no one asked where they came from, who there father was, or for that matter their mother. And he wanted it, he wanted the respect, he wanted to belong. So one day he joined up, and that was that, there was nothing his mother could do about it. Recruits who could read were rare, recruits who were well educated even rarer, so Ezra P. Standish found himself being trained to be an officer, which in his quest for acceptance and respect was even better.
Try as he might though, the years of training he had put in could not be suppressed, he couldn't stop gambling, running scams and small cons. It got him in a lot of trouble, so much trouble his military career looked like it might be over before it even began. Until another rogue and misfit from the wrong side of society saw his potential and took him on. Under Buck Wilmington's command Ezra had blossomed in to a promising officer - if a little unorthodox, but then Buck wasn't exactly conventional officer material either.
Next to Ezra and his mother another farewell was taking place. The Union Delegate had a new ensign. Ensign John Daniel Dunne, known to one and all as JD. His mother had wanted him to go to college but there hadn't been enough money, so she settled for the navy, it gave him prospects, a standing in society, a chance to get out of the stables. She had been sick a long time, by the time she attended his graduation she could barely stand, but she was determined to be there. Eileen Dunne died of cancer the day after the graduation. Now just one week later the parish priest, Fr Lacy, was seeing JD off.
"Be brave son, pray for guidance, and for your mother. Do as you are told and for the love of God be careful."
"I will Father, thank you for everything."
Buck Wilmington hung over the rail and watched the boy. He had watched the little pantomime Maude put on for Ezra more than once, and a show was all it ever was. Buck had seen her walk away - seemingly distressed - only to recover her composure totally once she thought her son could no longer see her. It sickened Buck and he had no desire to see it again so turned away to watch the other farewell. He was amazed the boy was coming on the trip - this trip - at all, surely his first voyage could have been something a little less hush- hush! The young ensign was very young, his record said he was sixteen, but Buck reckoned he looked like twelve. His chin was smooth and unblemished and he was very short. Lord! Buck thought, why do they have to be so young. He himself had gone to sea at fourteen, but where JD looked younger, he had looked older, already six foot, and well on the way to his current six foot four he had had an advantage. Better, he had been raised on the same back streets and in the same brothels the crew knew so well. He could talk to the men in their language. Like Ezra, Buck had been picked to be an officer on the strength that he could read and write and hold a moderately intelligent conversation. Well at least young Dunne wasn't his problem; Chris would have to keep the boy alive.
Buck and Chris had know each other since they had served together on the same ship as very young lieutenants, they had managed to stay together until Chris got married, even then, serving on different ships they had kept in touch. But when Chris returned from sea one day two years ago to find no home only scorched timber and two graves he had cut himself off from everything and everyone who reminded him of his beloved Sarah and his four year old son Adam, and that included Buck. Needless to say Wilmington was a little surprised to find Larabee seeking him out for a special assignment, and had been interested to find out just what or who had brought Larabee back from self-imposed exile. As it turned out, it was a who.
+ + + + + + +
Lieutenant Michael Vincent Tanner, sat cross-legged on the crow´s nest platform watching the preparations for departure. He wasn't on duty, having just stood the night watch. He had grabbed a few hours sleep but was now up to watch the ship leave. He was always happiest once they were at sea. Vin Tanner was a land lover by birth - or at least he thought he was, but since he didn't know where he was born who was to say? He had been in Kansas with his mother when she took sick and died. Who his father was, whether Tanner was his name or hers, whether they were married or not, whether his father was alive or not, little five year old Vin didn't know. He was sent to a mission orphanage, there he was relatively happy, then at ten he was sent to a kind of boarding school run by a different order of monks. This was not like the little mission he had called home for five years, this was big and faceless and brutal, his education stalled and life became more and more miserable until one day thirteen year old Vin ran away. After an adventurous few years living with Indians, scouting and hunting, Vin, aged just seventeen, killed a man in self-defence. The trouble was he couldn't prove it, it was his word against a dead man, who it turned out was a respected member of his community, while Vin was just a homeless boy wandering the frontier. So once again young Vin ran, he ran all the way to the sea, and joined the navy.
Two years later he was posted to the Union Delegate and met her young and formidable captain, Chris Larabee. Vin had his own natural authority, it was different to Chris', quieter, stiller, but effective. The paper work Chris received told him young Vin would make a fine officer if his education was better, but as it was he was on his way to making chief mate in record time. Bad luck dogged his first voyage on the Union Delegate. First her doctor had fallen down a companionway and hit his head. He had seemed to be all right, but collapsed a few hours later and died the next day without regaining consciousness. That left the ship´s medical care in the hands of the surgeon's mate Nathan Jackson. They were on their way to the Far East, a long trip. On the return voyage home Chris and Vin had contracted a fever, no one else got sick and Nathan insisted they be isolated, so Vin moved into the captain's day cabin. It was a long, boring six weeks. They got to know each other and Chris took it upon himself to get Vin's reading up to a level where if he was offered a commission he could take it - if he wanted to. For the rest of the voyage Vin visited the captain every day for a lesson, not just in reading, but also navigation. By the time Washington was on the horizon Chris reckoned he was ready.
+ + + + + + +
During the long voyage to London, Larabee and Wilmington caught up on old times and the years they had not kept in touch. Chris introduced Buck to Nathan, the man who had saved both his and Vin's life on that long voyage, when the fever got them. The ship had been assigned a new doctor when they got back to the navy yards, but this one proved to be a drunk. Chris had finally insisted he be replaced. Unfortunately no doctor was available so Nathan was once again in sole charge of the ship´s medical care. He had been slave to a doctor in Norfolk since he was seven, the doctor was a lonely old widower and took an almost parental interest in young Nathan. He educated him using his medical textbooks and encouraged his interest. As he got older and arthritis crippled his hands, it was who Nathan took over more and more of the physical work, making up prescriptions, dressing wounds - when the patients would accept it. When Nathan was twenty, the old man fell ill, and it was Nathan who nursed him until he died. In his will the doctor granted Nathan his freedom. Going to sea was one of the few jobs an ex-slave could get, and be treated and paid decently. It had taken a while for some of the white crewmen, and the Union Delegate had her fair share of Negro sailors, to accept Nathan as a substitute doctor. But now there were few dissenters and none would voice their prejudice where it might get back to their notoriously stern but fair captain; the majority of the crew were more than happy to have their health in Nathan´s care, they trusted him.
In return Buck introduced Chris to his right hand man, the mercurial Ezra Standish and left hand man, Master Sergeant Josiah Sanchez.
"He´s a rare one, is old Josiah. You must have seen him, big as an ox, good fifteen years or more older than me or you." Chris nodded over the rim of his coffee mug. "Rumour has it he used to be a priest. Don´t know if that´s true, there´s nothing on his record, but he´s got more book learning than you and me put together, even more than young Ezra, and he´s one smart kid!"
"So why is he just a master sergeant, if he´s so smart and educated?" Chris asked.
"Man´s got himself a temper, been busted down more times than I can count, twice by me, and you know me Chris, I always give a man an even break, if I can."
Chris knew this to be true, if Buck had a fault as an officer other than a tendency to be distracted by a pretty face it was that he was too lenient on his men when it came to some kinds of discipline. In matters of combat and safety there was no leeway, you did it the Wilmington way or else, day to day, the barracks or ships quarters were spotless, drill and guard duty, all by the book, it was things like going AWOL, coming back from leave drunk, fighting, these Buck tended to be lenient about, to a point. Larabee knew for Buck to bust a good sergeant once let alone twice, there must have been a very good reason. Equally for him to have kept the man, even after all that, spoke volumes for the man´s value as a soldier.
"He´s got demons, has ol´ Josiah, damned if I can figure them out, but when it counts, he´s there. And the men, they need him, he´s the best chaplain´ I ever knew."
That led on to young Ezra. Good officer as he was, Buck didn´t trust him around so much money.
"Buck, he´s an officer in the US Marines, surely he knows his duty, I know you like to take on the misfits, but he can´t be that bad?"
"Standish is good like I told you he talks funny, and he ain´t none too keen on getting his hands dirty, but in a fight? Well the boy´s got grit, and stamina and brains. He takes his responsibilities to his men seriously and they like him, even protect him. Me? See I´m not a real officer, I´m one of them in disguise, but Ezra´s like you, a proper officer, they like that, even kinda proud of him, with his fancy manners and long $20 words," Wilmington looked up at his old friend. "It´s like this, would you trust me if it was beautiful women we were carrying?" Chris shrugged. "Chris?"
"Alright, no, I wouldn´t trust you."
"Fair enough, don´t reckon I would either. Well, see, that´s why you can´t trust young Ezra with that gold, it isn´t fair to him, not yet anyways, he needs more time away from temptation."
+ + + + + + +
The first week of the voyage out was plagued by bad whether, a near continuous storm that seemed to move east with them. Ezra muttered and grumbled and complained about life's iniquities. The men smiled behind his back, brought him hot coffee, cookies and biscuits, and generally protected their 'proper' officer from the privations of shipboard life. Much to the amusement of Buck and Josiah.
JD suffered. He was so sea sick he thought he was going to die, he did indeed want to die. Nathan gave him some herbal tea that eased the cramps, but nothing could keep food in him. After three days he was so weak, cold and miserable he didn't think he could stand it anymore.
It was the small hours of the morning, the wind howled, rain and spray lashed the decks. The ship sped along, even with minimal sail, pitching wildly up and down as she crested one mountainous wave after another. JD had fumbled his way to the stern, where he had enough sense to stand with his back to the wind as he clutched the rail, though in truth it wasn't necessary, all he had were dry heaves, his chest and stomach muscles ached so much it hurt to breath. The rain and spray found its way under and around his oilskin coat. He had made a terrible mistake joining the navy, he knew that now, he did it to please him Mom, now he was stuck with it for ten years. Tears ran down his cheeks, mingling with the rain and spray, for which he was grateful, no one would see him cry tonight.
"You're up late, kid." The deep voice behind him observed.
JD stiffened. "Um yeah, got watch duty."
"No you don't - you're excused watch, till you're stronger, till you can keep a meal down."
JD looked over his shoulder. In the limited light of the swinging stern lantern, he could make out the tall frame of the marine commander, Major Wilmington.
"Oh Sir, um yes, that is I er I had to get some fresh air, it smells, down there... Sir." JD was struggling to keep the crack out of his voice.
"I ain't your commander, kid." Buck moved up closer to the boy, he had seen young JD suffering for days, and his heart went out to him. Buck just hated to see people suffer, but he wasn't, as he said, the boy's commander. Chris had given his training over to his first officer, Lieutenant Commander Colter. But he had a ship to keep running smoothly, and until JD over came his sea sickness or the weather got better, there was little he could teach the boy.
JD couldn't help it, the more he tried to stifle his tears the worse it got. But he was getting to the to point where he just didn't care, he was cold, wet, sick and lonely and he wanted to go home, he wanted his mother.
"Please sir, I just need to be near the rail, so I can you know?"
"Yeah I know, 'sept you ain't got nothing to hurl on."
JD felt himself begin to shake, he knew he was about to sob, but he just couldn't stop it, and just as he did he felt himself enveloped in a warm darkness. It took him a second to realise it was Major Wilmington's cloak that had captured him, as the tell officer drew him in close.
"It's alright boy, you go ahead and cry, from what I seen and what the Captain told me, you got good reason." And he did, he gave way to his sorrow and grief, his loneliness, and his physical misery. "That's right lad, cry it out, no one will know from me." Buck pulled the miserable boy closer and turned his back, in the poor light his larger frame would easily hide the slight lad from prying eyes, until he was more composed.
As he stood there, Buck wondered how he got himself into these situations, first Ezra now this lad. He just couldn't help it, he couldn't see a soul in distress and not try to help. Deep down he knew why he did it, becaues that was what his mom had done all her life, it was what made her so good at her 'job' and why all the other girls went to her for help. She taught him to always help if he could, to use his strength for good, to protect the week, and Buck Wilmington would do anything to please his mother, even after she died - in fact then even more. But he didn't just do it to please her, he hurt when others hurt, he couldn't help it, so it was in his own interests to ease their hurt. His men called him a 'mother-hen', and joked about their big tough officer and his tendency to pick up strays, though not one of them ever thought less of him or doubted him. Buck Wilmington's men would have followed him to haydees and back without a second thought.
Eventually he felt the youth huddling in front of him still. He looked down and by the light of the paling dawn sky into huge hazel eyes, 'puppy dog eyes'.
"Better?" he asked.
JD pulled away a little more and nodded. The rain stopped, and it seemed the wind eased of a little.
"It gets better," Buck assured softly, as JD wiped his eyes and prepared to face another day.
+ + + + + + +
Buck might have thought he was the only one who saw young JD's distress, but little when on abroad the Union Delegate that Vin Tanner didn't know about. He was sharing a cabin with JD, and had head the quiet sobs in the small hours, had wanted to do more, but JD stubbornly refused to let him close enough to help. And in truth it was hard for him to empathise with the boy. True he had only been a year older when JD was now when he joined his first ship, but he had been independent, alone in the world most of his life, he hadn't just lost his mother, or left his home. And he didn't come aboard as an officer, expected to give orders to seasoned sailors twice his age and size, he had learned the job before he had to do it, not the other way around. So Vin was happy young JD had found someone to confide in, someone who seemed to understand. He dropped back into the shadows as the tall major and the small ensign walked back toward the lit companionway that lead to the mess, the warm inviting smell of breakfast was calling to them and it looked as though Wilmington had persuaded JD to try eating something.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin?" Chris looked up at his young officer from behind his desk in the big day cabin.
"How is everyone?" Theoretically it was the first officer's job to tell the captain about the state of the crew, but good as he was, Vin was better, so Chris was in the habit of checking with him as well. Larabee was sure one day Vin would be a fine captain in his own right, always assuming no one worked out that Vin Tanner and Michael Tanner - wanted for murder in the state of Kansas - were one and the same person.
Vin told him the gossip, that was his job, not the stiff formal report, all the nice juicy gossip. Finally he came to JD, he had been debating about weather or not to tell him about Buck and the kid, and in truth he still wasn't sure.
"Young JD seems better, he had some food this mornin' an' seemed t' be alright - so far. Looks like he may finally have found a friend too."
Chris looked up. "Really, good, who?"
"Ain't rightly sure, sir."
Chris glared at Tanner. "Vin you are one lousy liar, you only call me sir when we're alone if you're lying. Who is it?"
"Chris I can't, but he's in good hands, the best."
Larabee lent back in his chair, and lit a cigar. "Buck, has to be, man picks up strays like a dog picks up flees." He looked into Tanners clear blue eyes, eyes that couldn't lie to him and knew he was right. "Yup it's Buck alright. You're right, he couldn't be in better hands. What do you make of Standish?" Chris changed the subject suddenly.
Vin shrugged. "Can't rightly say, my instinct says don't trust him, but Major Wilmington does and so do his men, darned if I know why, but they like him."
"I know, that's what Buck said too. What about the Sargent - Sanchez."
"Good man, but I wouldn't want to cross him. He likes Standish as well." Vin shook his head, clearly mystified by the whiny young officers popularity.
Chris smiled to himself. Just as the marines liked Ezra, his men liked Vin, even though he was raised from the ranks, even though he was a 'land lover', even though they knew he was the captain's favourite, they still liked him and would follow him.
"Chris just what are we doing, in London? Why so many marines?"
"Can't tell you, would if I could, but I can't - orders. I will say this, it's important."
Vin nodded, he wouldn´t ask again, it was frustrating and the curiosity was driving him crazy but he wouldn't press it.
+ + + + + + +
After his talk with Buck, JD's stomach began to improve, as did the weather, within a week he was fine, had colour in his cheeks and was beginning to find his feet, literally and figuratively. The voyage was uneventful, after the first week of storms the seas were gentle the wind favourable and steady. They made good time. JD still went to Buck when there was something he didn't understand and was too embarrassed to ask Mr Colter, and sometimes just to talk. He and Vin finally struck up some kind of relationship. Ezra too was drawn into their circle, he and Vin were of an age and on the Union Delegate, among the officers at least, the three of them were the youngest.
They slipped into the English Channel right on time and made their way up to the Thames estuary. The weather was noticeably colder now, ice formed readily on the rigging as soon as the sun went down, and in the short winter days that was very early in the evening. According to his orders Chris told the pilot to take them to Packet Wharf, where they tied up.
"Set a guard Buck, at least three fully armed, warn them, you know what it´s like here, I don´t want anyone getting on board."
Buck didn´t know whether to be amused or insulted, that Chris thought he had to tell him how to do his job. The guards were all assigned, all armed - a rifle, a pistol and a bayonet each. He had personally drilled them on who could and could not come on board without his or the captains personal say so. There was no doubt in any of the marines´ minds as to the likely consequence if they failed to keep undesirables off the ship. Major Wilmington might well be easy going and relaxed about some things, but he made it very clear when he expected total obedience and God help you if you failed.
"Ay, ay Captain," Wilmington drawled out, then snapped to a pristine attention and saluted.
"You already did all that, didn´t you?"
Buck just grinned and turning on his heels marched out.
"Best damn marine in the Navy," Chris commented to no one but himself, as his cabin door closed.
Since the minting of the coins would take some time, the Union Delegate had a week-long wait. Chris granted his crew shore-leave in small groups for limited times, one afternoon and an evening per man, Buck did likewise with his Marines, but everyone would be on board the night before the final minting, he wanted no sore heads or missing crew when the gold came aboard. Those crew not on shore-leave were set to cleaning the ship, re-supplying her, and making sure the hold was empty and ready for use.
The night before they were due to receive their precious cargo was bitterly cold, frost edged the rigging and superstructure, and there was only a hint of wind. The three marines on duty had been checked by Lieutenant Standish and were on full alert.
"Lieutenant Standish, sir?" Walker asked as he stamped his feet once more in a vain effort to keep warm.
"You got any idea what in the he.. what we doin' here, sir?" Walker asked in his New England accent.
"I have not been made privy as to the specifics of Captain Larabee's orders, though I believe our fearless leader, Major Wilmington, has been advised as to the exact nature of our mission." Ezra drawled.
"So they don't tell you jack shit neither?" Harris observed; then realised who he was speaking to. "Sorry, sir."
"That is quite alright, Private Harris, and a very astute observation I might add."
Harris grinned at the small officer who seemed to disappear inside his huge dark cloak.
"Well, we best keep a good eye out, the way the Major was going on you'd think Queen Victoria herself was coming back with us t'morrow. You get below where it's warm sir, we're alright," Walker suggested.
Ezra ducked his head once in acknowledgement and headed back below.
It was long gone midnight when Walker was alerted to the sound of a carriage drawing up on the wharf below the ship. He came to the gunwales and with a deft move of his shoulder the rifle fell down into his hands. He challenged the three men who alighted from the carriage. The tallest one, whom he reckoned was also the youngest, called back that he needed to see the captain and it was urgent government business. By now Harris and Van-Neilson had joined Walker at the gunwales. It was a very odd time of night for a business talk, but the man's accent sounded educated, like a gentleman, such as Lieutenant Standish. Finally Harris suggested they fetch Sergeant Sanchez.
Josiah took in the men below him. The tall young one was definitely an officer he concluded, then there was a more roughly dressed man, possibly older, possibly not, and a middle-aged gent, who looked decidedly out of place on a London dockside.
"Well, what kind of business is it?" he asked.
"The kind we can only discuss with your commander," the tall man replied.
"Why can't you discuss it with me?" Josiah knew he was being difficult, but he didn't like being roused from a nice warm berth, no matter how urgent.
"Look man, this is secret government business, just go and rouse the captain so we can come on board and talk to him." This time it was the older man who spoke.
"Mister, if you knew our Captain, you wouldn't be so all-fired quick t' wake him up - believe me, I'll talk to the Major. Stay there." He turned to the marines. "If they move, kill them," he instructed.
+ + + + + + +
Eventually, after Buck had - under his men's protective guns - walked down the gangplank and spoken with the men privately, they found themselves in Larabee's day cabin. Chris was wrapped in a huge black cloak and seated behind his desk from where he glared at the three men. It took a little while for the men to establish their identity and credibility. The older man was Page Cloverly, some kind of civil servant, the scruffy one was De Bouvier, a Belgian spy as far as Chris could work out, and the tall one was a man named John Pendragon, a spy catcher, holder of the Queen's Warrant, which gave him the authority to do almost anything, including killing, if need be. Chris listened to their incredible story, while Buck stood and listened from in front of the closed door. When the telling of the tale was done Chris looked at Buck and asked him what he thought. Buck wanted to help; if the positions were reversed, he hoped some Britisher would help him, even when Chris pointed out that if it went wrong, they would most likely both be court marshalled and even if it went right, no one would be getting any medals out of it. At one point Cloverly tried to pressure Chris into helping, a bad move he instantly regretted.
Finally Chris decided, much as he wanted to help he couldn't order Buck or his men to do it.
"Turn your men out Buck, I wanna talk to them first."
It took five minutes, that was all, from hammocks to standing on deck, in full uniform, with rifles, in three straight ranks; the last man on deck was Standish, still buttoning his jacket as he came. Buck hoped the visitors were impressed - he sure was. The ship´s crew was curious, the marines didn't normally fall in before dawn, so many of them had come up on deck to listen in and find out what was going on. Wilmington spotted both young JD and Tanner watching the proceedings.
Larabee stood before the assembled marines, Buck one pace back to his right, the three Europeans watched from the quarterdeck.
"Men," he stared, standing stock still facing them, "a situation has arisen, one we have been asked to help with. Some of you have been wondering what we are doing here in London. Tomorrow we take delivery of a large shipment of gold, and transport it safely back to Washington. This ship and you men were chosen because you are loyal Americans and can be trusted " Buck couldn´t help glancing at Standish, you could almost see a light come on behind his eyes at the mention of the gold. " Now it seems a madman has plans to steal the gold and use it to start bloody war here in Europe. To this end he has kidnapped the regiment of British lancers due to escort the gold, and replaced them with impostors loyal to him. The officers he has captive in their own barracks, but the men are imprisoned on a ship just across the river." Chris waved in the general direction of the Madagascar Queen, where Pendragon assured him he had seen the missing men. "The ship is rigged with explosives and can be blown with only a few seconds warning. If he gets away with this, he threatens to have the men castrated and sold as slaves in Africa though in truth he may just have them killed and thrown overboard as soon as he is at sea."
As Chris explained that he would not order them to help, Buck looked at his men. He knew what the reaction would be, any man who didn´t want to help fellow 'brothers in arms' when they needed it didn´t belong in his squad. Then he looked across at Vin and JD. The boy looked excited, too damn excited, it was a good thing he wouldn´t be coming with them. And Tanner? Well he just looked horrified, even pale. What was all that about? Buck wondered as Chris came to an end. Finally he asked the men to take one pace forward if they wanted to help. Twenty-five men and one officer moved as one as they took one pace to the front.
+ + + + + + +
Once the men were sent below and the cook told to rustle up breakfast, a council of war was held in Larabee's day cabin. Cloverly, De Bouvier, and Pendragon marvelled at the change in attitude in the formally cold and fierce young commander. Now the men had volunteered, he was every inch the captain, taking over the planning of the operation, Pendragon had to admit, Larabee was born to lead. With them and the Captain were Wilmington, Standish and Tanner. Pendragon had drawn a rough sketch of the interior of the ship, based on what he could remember from his brief reconnaissance trip, a trip that had nearly cost him his life after he was forced to swim to safety in the freezing and filthy waters of the river.
"We need surprise and then confusion," Chris stated. "They may not be many, but they know the ship and have that damn powder." He looked up at the tall former cavalry officer, who was younger than both himself and Buck, though older than Ezra or Vin. "You are sure these men would sacrifice their own lives for this man?" he asked.
Pendragon nodded. "They are fanatics; fanatics are dangerous and unpredictable."
"Agreed." Chris went back to looking at the plans. He pointed to the stern. "Here, a small party will board here during the confusion, one man can get on board with a grappling iron, and let down the gangplank. Once on board this party - including yourself Mr Pendragon, must make the gunpowder your priority."
"Sir, what will distract them?" De Bouvier asked.
"Well, having your ship rammed is generally fairly distracting don't you think?" Chris asked, with the kind of devilish grin Buck hadn't seen since Sarah and Adam died.
"Rammed!" Cloverly spluttered.
"Yup, rammed, don't worry the Union Delegate is strong, she can take it. We won't aim to hole her, just scrape down the side, rip up some rigging, scare them a bit; with any luck they'll think we broke loose and drifted into them - for a while at least, and by the time they realise it will be too late."
He turned to Buck. "Who do you want to send in the long boat?"
"You," he pointed at Pendragon "and you sir." This time he indicated the Belgian, "Ezra and Josiah Sanchez, Harris, Walker, Van- Neilson and "
"Me." It was Vin who spoke.
"You?" Buck looked up at Chris' young prodigy.
"I can get you on that ship and I'm a better damn shot than any of your marines!"
Buck was about to protest, but Chris stopped him. "He is, you know," he confirmed.
Buck looked into his old friend's eyes, saw there was no room to manoeuvre and conceded gracefully.
+ + + + + + +
The marine's uniforms would not do for this stealth mission so the men who were going to infiltrate the ship from the stern were sent to change. As the war council left the day cabin, Buck hung back so he had a moment alone with his old friend.
"What of him?"
"What's the story? 'Cause there is more going on that just wanting to help."
Chris looked at his friend. Vin's past was private, but he was expecting Buck to trust the man on just his say-so. Buck was remarkably astute about people, he always picked up on the undercurrents and unspoken subtexts that surround them.
"You remember I told you he's wanted, back in the West some place?"
"Yup, you said it was self defence but he can't prove it, so he had to run, if you believe him that's good enough for me - what of it?"
"Well it wasn't exactly his life he was defending " Chris waited for Buck to understand, which didn't take long. " so when I mentioned what was in store for those men I guess he takes that kind of thing very personally."
"That I can understand can he really shoot?"
"Oh yeah, like you wouldn't believe."
+ + + + + + +
The long boat slipped all but silently across the freezing river. Ezra scowled at the two foreigners sitting in the prow. He blamed them for his present discomfort. Beside him Lieutenant Tanner held the tiller, and occasionally whispered commands to the six crewmen rowing. He was wearing buckskins and moccasins, and with his over- long hair freed from the tight ponytail he wore with his uniform, a rifle over his shoulder, and in his belt a pistol and a truly huge knife, Ezra thought he looked just like the pictures he had seen of trackers and hunters in the West. Ezra himself was none too keen on risking his own expensive clothing, but had pulled on a dark plum- coloured jacket over dark pants and turned up the collar as much against the bitter cold as to camouflage his white shirt. Van-Neilson had offered him a dark knitted top, which he assured the young officer was clean had had been knitted by his mother, but Ezra had politely refused. Ahead of Ezra, Sergeant Sanchez sat, a huge coil of rope over his powerful shoulders.
While the long boat made its silent way to the far bank, the Union Delegate, with just one sail hoisted, slipped her moorings and struck out across the river. Larabee himself was at the wheel, almost all of the crew and all the marines were below decks. There was just too great a risk of someone getting hurt when the two ships came together. The marines were just below the main companionways, ready to rush out and board the Madagascar Queen. JD was standing behind the wheel, watching Chris. He had been told by everyone, including Captain Larabee and Buck - twice - that he was not involved in what was about to happen, he was to stay on the ship at all times. Nevertheless he had scurried below and buckled on his cutlass and pushed a pistol into his belt. They were hidden under his cloak now, he liked the feel of them. He watched the Captain deftly handle the ship. Manoeuvring the 44-gun frigate in the close confines of the crowded river was going to be an unrivalled act of seamanship. If the ship went too wide of the mark she would miss the Madagascar Queen and probably hit some innocent ship further down the wharf. If he brought her in too short he would slam his ship into the wharf itself. If the angle was too tight he wouldn't scrape her side but ram head on, making it more likely he would seriously damage his ship and make it more difficult for the marines to board safely.
Crouching on the freezing dock, the shore party strained to see the ship as she moved ghost-like over the almost still waters. Closer and closer she mover, it really was eerie to see the ship closing on her target with no discernible sound audible over the ever constant creak of rigging from the ships around them and the odd sound from the city. The American ship struck her target just behind her bow, the force of the impact severed one of the mooring lines, and as it snaked back over the dark deck, a man - presumably a deck guard - cried out on alarm.
This was the signal. Josiah ran forward with the rope, at the end a heavy grappling hook. Opening his huge shoulders he began to swing the rope, with one mighty heave he sent the hook whistling up onto the ship. It wrapped itself around the mizzenmast boom, just below the rope holding the gangplank up. Sanchez hauled it in. Even before he had it tied off Vin was moving, he moved up the rope, hand over hand with amazing agility and speed. In no time he was on the boom and with his knife sliced the gangplank securing line. It crashed to the ground, its end splintering as it landed. By the time the shore party were charging up the gangplank, Vin was shinning toward them along the boom, his knife in his mouth, like some sort of pirate.
Without waiting to see if he was being followed, Pendragon ran forward towards the companionways that led below decks. Confronted by a tall man swinging an axe he instantly shot him and continued on. A second man suddenly appeared, running forward swinging a cutlass. Vin, who was running at the Englishman's shoulder, darted forward, and grabbing the blade, swung the man bodily out of the way, toppling him over the side and into the river. It took Pendragon a moment to register what had happened. Lieutenant Tanner wasn't that big, compared to the Sergeant he was small! Yet he seemed possessed by a demon fury that gave him strength and courage beyond reason.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was up and running as soon as he felt the two ships touch, his men close behind him. Dark figures were now spilling out on to the deck as the Madagascar Queen's crew and guards turned out to find out what was happening. Discharging their guns the Marines quickly accounted for a good number, but more came, as the marines drew their cutlasses. Buck had already shot one man and cut down another by the time he reached the forward companionway, and began to descend in to the ship´s dark interior.
Pendragon had told them the men were in the hold and the explosives he had seen were near the stern, but he hadn't had time to search the whole ship, it was possible there were other charges. Dispatching men as they came at him Buck worked his way down, if he was going to set a second charge it would be forward and deep, but not central; ships´ keels are remarkably strong so he would set a second charge close to the ship´s side.
JD was watching everything, he itched to follow the big marine commander, he was a good shot and had been top of his class at cutlass drill. But he had been ordered not to leave the ship - and Larabee was not a man whose orders you disobeyed lightly! Still he ran to the side of the ship, form there he could fire into the enemy if needs be. Larabee handed over active control of the ship to Mr Colter and with his own pistol and a sword headed into the fray. JD jumped when he felt a presence beside him, he had been so engrossed in what was going on he hadn't noticed Nathan Jackson come up beside him.
"Reckon we're gonna be needing your services soon Mr Jackson," he commented.
"Yes sir, I reckon so," Nathan agreed.
JD still had trouble with the concept of men who were older and much wiser than him calling him 'sir' and taking his orders. Calling them 'Mr' somehow made it easier.
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