Title: Save Who Can
Word Count 702
Save Who Can
The wet pigtail snaked down past Archie's shoulders, tied tight, braided tight.
It had not come loose in the rescue. Now it was icy and dripping, Horatio used his free hand lift it and get the blanket tucked under underneath. Archie was sticky with salt, but his shudders were fining down now to shivers. Horatio pressed Archie close to his own naked skin, taking the cold, giving his heat as best he could.
It was a sigh as much as a word. Archie's mouth was soft where it moved against Horatio's collar bone. His cheek was soft too. They had both shaved with Sunday care before the morning watch. It seemed a lifetime ago.
Archie's heart was close against his own, he felt it slowing now with the onset of sleep. Horatio's mind supplied the image, the red heft of a heart, the muscular mechanics, the center of living mystery. The other man had seemed beyond help, crumpled on the deck. The doctor had been struggling to start him up again, kneeling on the wet deck, striking his chest, rolling him to drain the water out. Maybe it would work, sometimes it worked. More likely the fellow would stay dead.
Archie woke alone. He was warm, torpid, naked. He rolled a little, feeling his muscles protest. Some sound had brought him from sleep, a benign sound he need not trouble about.
He could feel where his skin had scraped, where his legs had strained to kick himself forward. How frightfully heavy the man had been, and unable to help himself. The man had been alive when Archie went over the rail. Archie was sure of that. He had seen the hand flex, as if beckoning for help. And after that there had been no time for thought. These things were past thought, a kind of flying, justified, or not, after. The lifeline had drawn them back. Archie had tried only to keep both their heads above water. Still he had swallowed a quantity of it, puked it back up onto the deck too. Now his throat was raw.
Some terrible thing had befallen that stranger, adrift on a scrap of canvas, in a shirt and one shoe. Archie could make little sense of it. There had been debris in the water, so he had not simply fallen overboard. He had appeared, stripped of nation, of rank, as nameless as naked Adam. (Although, Archie thought, Moses might be a better comparison.)
Archie did not remember, in his waking hours, much about the days he himself had drifted alone in the jolly boat. He had had horrible dreams then, he had been weak. Finally he had heard the sound of surf on the lee shore. And he had come at last to the shores of hell. He would not chase those memories down. He remembered sometimes, the frigid slurry, the roaring surf, water on his face.
It was best not to think of jolly boats, of scraps of sail. Best not to think of the pale body, exposed so pitifully in the useless linen shirt. He would turn his mind from the bare foot, pale as marble.
And now the step on the passageway outside. Horatio pushed the door open.
“What is it?” Archie was on his feet now. “Horatio, what is wrong?”
He heard Horatio swallow with a dry click.
“The man is awake. His name is Bush. He's one of ours. I thought his ship had been taken as a prize, but--”
“He is a lieutenant, like us. His ship-- there was a mutiny, Archie. He was attacked in the night, that is why he has no clothes. He was knocked senseless, thrown overboard with the dead. Some of the mutineers got away in a boat, they left him to die. ”
Horatio was shaking, his eyes black and wide with horror.
“What ship was it?”
“ The Renown.”
“Where is she--” Even as he said it, he knew. “She sank?”
Horatio nodded mechanically. “Aye she sank, after they burned her to the waterline.”