Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter 19 : Hospital Ship

When the guns fell silent Thorton dared stick his head out of his cabin. There were wounded men in the coach. "What happened?"

"We won!" exulted a short man with blood running down his face into his white collar. Several other sailors were carefully lowering a stretcher down the companionway to the lower deck. Thorton spotted blond hair.

"Oh no! Maynard! Archie, my lad! What happened?" He ran out of the cabin and met the stretcher at the companionhead. Maynard's left leg was a bloody ruin from the knee down. Blood stained the thighs of his blue breeches and his blond hair was plastered to his face in wet ringlets. A piece of rope was between his teeth and he bit it hard to keep from crying out as they jostled him getting him down the ladder. 

"Careful with him!" Thorton cried.

Somebody else replied, "They got us good in the bow, sir. The foredeck's all tore up. The gammon knee is shot, and poor Maynard, too."

Thorton gave Maynard's disappearing stretcher a last agonized look. "The boy's only fourteen!" The men murmured agreement. But what of it? Most of them had gone to sea at an equal age, if not younger.

Thorton hurried out onto the deck. He saw the damage in the waist and the dismounted gun on the foredeck. A stretcher was going up to the poop. He ran up after it. To his relief Tangle was still standing. He had shed his red coat and cut a long strip from it that he was tying about his thigh for a bandage. The tillerman was carried away in the stretcher. Looking around, Thorton saw four galleys in the possession of the Sallee rovers. He was amazed.

Tangle spotted him. "Mr. Thorton. Good of you to come on deck. I have something to ask of you." 

"What is it, Captain?"

"I would count it a very great favor if you were to go over to the San Antonio and take possession of her." 

Thorton stiffened. 

Tangle raised his hand. "I know your English scruples prevent you from serving as a prize-master. My favor is something different. I would like you to make a hospital ship of her. She has a great number of wounded on board and stinks abominably. We will load all of the casualties into her where they can be tended together. You will fly a white flag in token of your status as a noncombatant. Will you do it?" He tightened the bandage on his thigh, tied it off and straightened up.

"It will be my privilege, sir."

"Take twenty men over. Don't beach her, but draw in close enough that the able-bodied men can jump over and swim ashore. I promised Captain Ximénes water if they surrendered and they shall have it." He grinned with wolfish humor. "Then pick up the wounded from the Bart, Maria, and Terry. They managed to get some water into the Maria before we swept down on her, so get as much as you need from them. Be quick about it; we aren't going to linger here."

Thorton ordered a boat and his dunnage along with the requisite sailors and marines. He transfered to the Antonio. Her surviving officers did not pipe him aboard; in their eyes he came as a conqueror. He sent the man he'd selected as boatswain to inspect, sent the marines to secure the powder room, spirits, bread, armory, chartroom, and captain's cabin. Then he mounted to the poop deck with Midshipman Kaashifa in tow. A pair of swarthy marines came along as bodyguards.

The Spanish captain received them with a morose face and his arm in a sling. He was sitting on the deck with both of his bloody legs stretched out before him as a loblolly boy tied bandages around them. The first lieutenant was dead on deck. All the other men on the poop were dead or wounded, including several rovers from the boarding party. 

Thorton addressed him in Spanish, "I am Lt. Peter Thorton of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax. As a neutral, I have been asked to take charge of this vessel and turn it into a hospital ship. Your able-bodied men will be allowed to go ashore. You may carry your wounded with you, or your wounded may stay here where they will be treated with kindness."

The captain's eyebrows shot up, but he handed over his sword and said, "I'm Captain Alfredo Guerrero y Alvarado, master of the San Antonio de Padua. I accept your terms."

Thorton said, "If you will be so kind as to direct your men to bring the galley close to shore but not beach her, I would be obliged."

That was done. The Spaniards leaped into the sea and swam or waded ashore that could. The Spanish captain elected to remain aboard along with the rest of his wounded. He did not fancy being stranded on a French shore without supplies and he himself unable to walk. Thorton issued orders. The wounded to the cockpit, marines to their posts, the officers' cabins searched, the slaves freed and put to work. Thorton wished he had a good lieutenant. Kaashifa was willing but didn't know the job. He had to tell him everything. He decided to leave him in charge of ship operations; he knew how to make the galley move at least. Thorton started making a tour of the vessel. He assigned freed slaves to various tasks as their chains were removed. Unfortunately, many of them were ill with the bloody flux. He held a handkerchief over his face with one hand on account of the stench. 

So much work! So many ill and injured! The Teresa was requesting permission to come along side and discharge her wounded into the Antonio, but he not ready to receive them. He needed six of himself to do everything that needed doing. Now that he needed a good lieutenant of his own, he realized how valuable an able officer was. No wonder Tangle tolerated his stiff-necked English pride. If only he had had an officer like himself, he would have indulged his every whim in order to keep him working.

At last his tour brought him below. He found the Spanish surgeon at work sewing up gashes in the chest of a wounded man. The doctor looked up as Thorton came through the canvas screen that separated the operating area from the sickbay.

Thorton introduced himself. "I'm Lt. Peter Thorton, master of this vessel. We are now a hospital ship."

The doctor nodded. "Dr. Álvaro Menéndez y Delgado. Who is my replacement?" He kept sewing but glanced at the aides Thorton had with him. The doctor had curly black hair, sideburns, mustache and goatee. His coat was off and a blood-stained leather apron covered his white shirt. His sleeves were rolled up above his elbows. His mates were at work on their own patients—broken bones and stitches and other easy cases.

Thorton looked chagrined. "We have no surgeon. We have only loblolly boys."

"What about surgeon's mates?"

"None, I'm afraid. The San Bartolomeo is manned by her freed slaves. There is no doctor among them. There is a tailor though. He can cut and stitch. I'll send him to you."

Dr. Menéndez shuddered. "If the muscles are cut the wrong way the man will be crippled for life. No, this is no game, Lt. Thorton. Send me a qualified replacement. I will not go until he comes."

"You will wait a long time because there is no one."

Dr. Menéndez gave him a level look. "You'd best move aside then. I have a lot of work to do."

Thorton stepped back and let the curtain fall. Menéndez called out sharply, "Lieutenant!"

He lifted the curtain. "Yes?"

"You will find eight water casks that have been marked with charcoal. They are foul and have been condemned. The slaves, ordinary sailors and marines have been drinking it for several days. Most of them are ill with dysentery as a result. Some of them have died of it. Do not let them get into it. They are desperate for water."

"Thank you, doctor. I'll attend to it." He called his sergeant of marines and had a guard put on it.

Thorton climbed out of the hold with heavy steps. He called up to Kaashifa, "Let the Teresa come alongside. We will accept her casualties." 

Next Thorton collected a party of slaves and assigned them to man the pumps and start scrubbing out the galley. They were not pleased to do it, but he snapped at them, "Do it, or I'll whip you as hard as any Spaniard! I will have a clean ship!"

The Terry was safely under a prize crew and her Spaniards ashore. She reported three tons of water, which was enough for her diminished complement for three days. The Maria had enough for one day on three-quarter rations. The Antonio was dry. The officers had drunk up all the cider, spirits, and vinegar to avoid drinking the fouled water. The sick and wounded suffered terribly because of thirst. The Terry transferred one ton of water to the Antonio along with her wounded. 

Thorton spoke across the poop deck rail to Tangle. "We need to take on water. These men are desperate, sir!"

"No. If we send a party ashore, the Spaniards will capture them. We make sail now."


"I understand, Thorton. But to have our shore detail captured will not provide water to the men. We must find another watering place. The coast is green here, it can't be far." 

"Aye aye, sir." He wasn't happy, but he obeyed. 

Tangle stayed with the Bart in spite of her damage. He knew her and it would only cause confusion to transfer the crew that was used to her and her ways to another vessel. She nosed her way carefully out of the cove with her consorts following in a line. Tangle feared an ambush (that is what he would have done), but all they saw was the Spanish galley at a great distance, flying as fast as she could go away from there. For a moment he had the urge to leap after her—had he been alone, he would have, and damn the water. 

The escapee had a terrible tale to tell: Sallee rovers loose in the Bay of Biscay! It would take several days for her to make the nearest friendly port, but after that, the sea would swarm with vengeful Spaniards searching for him. Tangle needed to repair his bow and re-rig the Terry's halyards. He needed water. He needed rest—his own strength was giving out. He couldn't fly after the Santiago even if he wanted to. He looked back at the squadron following him. Maybe if he took the Maria . . . . He would have left Thorton to shepherd the prizes to port, but Thorton would not. Damn him for a righteous man.

Tangle ordered Sallee colors for all the galleys. The men who could sew stitched them up. Thorton had one made but did not display it; the Antonio kept her white flag. The Bart lurched along, her bow patched again and her forward hold pumped out repeatedly. The carpenter jury-rigged the gammon knee and rebuilt the carriage for the dismounted gun. Tangle had to do the work of three officers, and him with his wounded leg still untreated. He missed Thorton and Maynard.

As for Thorton, he found himself in possession of a captain's cabin. He politely provided the first lieutenant's cabin to the wounded captain and sent his personal things to it. He kept the captain's furniture for himself because he had none of his own. Everything in the Antonio's stateroom was neat, orderly, well made, of plain but of pleasant design. The carpet on the floor was a sturdy canvas painted in a checkerboard pattern of navy blue and beige. The other furnishings were similar. Thorton thought he might have liked Captain Guerrero had they met under other circumstances. 

For a few minutes he stood by the window and looked around the room. It was his first command. His heart could not help but thrill to that. Then the burdens of the position weighed on him. He took a deep breath, gathered his composure, and went back out on deck. This time when the call "Captain on deck!" rang through the ship, it rang for him. That was the moment at which he knew he would never give up his naval career, no matter what it cost him.

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