DR. CULLEN MACCLOUD, assistant surgeon on the HMS Leander, curled the sleeping baby closer to his chest and calculated the best moment to run for the shore boat waiting at the quay to evacuate English dependents. The oppressive heat made the night feel like he was slogging through tepid bath water. For every few steps he advanced closer to the harbor, he stopped and listened for sounds of being followed, an exercise made almost impossible by the loud buzzing of clouds of insects near the ocean. There was no wind, not a breath of air, which accounted for the insects. Every few minutes he would lift the baby’s face level with his ear to make sure he was still breathing evenly, but not rousing to wakefulness. There was a fine line between how much laudanum an infant could be given to keep the child from crying, but not endanger its life. When the crackling of a branch betrayed someone walking toward him, he froze and ducked behind a huge, flowering bush of wild roses. Then he relaxed and stepped back out. “Oh, it’s you…” CHAPTER ONE 50º47’56.36”N, 1º5’28.5”W Portsmouth, England August 1820 DR. CULLEN MACCLOUD tipped back the too-dainty chair in the small Portsmouth tea shop and threw a stern look at the sullen young man across from him. He hated having to make do with furniture not built to accommodate his broad shoulders and bulk. He pushed his feet flat onto the floor and leaned forward to better intimidate William Morton, the most impertinent excuse for a physician’s assistant he’d ever encountered.
He could not for the life of him fathom why his predecessor, the recently deceased ship’s surgeon, had importuned the captain to make sure (in writing) the young man would be able to continue to work alongside him in the ship’s surgery. Cullen had hoped getting away from the ship to a different setting might soften the slight young man’s demeanor. Instead, the damned cod lifted his chin, still belligerent, as if he could challenge Cullen’s words. Christ, but he’d had a hell of a week. First, he’d had a hopeless argument with his father. The bastard had used his court influence to get Cullen assigned away from his former Captain Arnaud Bellingham to the current posting. Arnaud was still awaiting final overhaul and crewing of his prize ship, the Black Condor, to return to the West African Squadron, and had moved to Portsmouth with his new wife, Sophie. Cullen had hoped until the very last moment he could somehow thwart his father’s ambitions, but he’d lost the battle. No one in the Royal Navy fought the Admiralty once a decision had been made. He’d been aboard the HMS Arethusa for a full week, and sharing quarters with the former surgeon’s peevish offspring.
He’d been pleasantly surprised at how well organized and kept the surgery had been on his arrival. Most of the time, he and William had inventoried medical supplies. Cullen had gone over Dr. Andrew Morton’s logs for the last two years to get an idea of the state of the health of the officers and crew. Young Morton had been very thorough in his accounting of the surgery, and helpful in explaining the ship’s shifts and routines. Cullen had not been surprised at the daily line of crewmen seeking medical assistance. When a ship was in port for provisioning, or re-fit, the men tended toward boredom, which in turn produced a steady stream of “ailments.” Once they were back at sea, and in action, the medical complaints would slow to a trickle. He leaned closer to the argumentative young man. “Why can ye not see the wisdom in leaving the ship to continue yer studies in Edinburgh? Surely yer late father would want ye to follow in his profession.
” “I’ve been trained thoroughly by my father. Why, I know more than most of the second-year students at Edinburgh Medical School.” Cullen sat up, re-assessing the rude young twig. “Then why not get at least yer first year so ye can set up a proper practice? What’s keeping ye here?” He couldn’t see the young man’s neck for the voluminous wrapped neckcloth he affected, but he imagined that part of his anatomy burned as brightly as his boyish face. However, something about the long, sooty lashes framing cool gray eyes nagged and buzzed like an obnoxious fly at the back of Cullen’s brain. “How old are you? Ye’ve not even the beginnings of a beard. Who are you to tell me ye know so much? I’ve been to Edinburgh. I completed my studies there, and I’ve been serving the King’s Navy ever since.” William snapped his face away from Cullen’s inspection and stood, staring a long time out a window near their table. He turned suddenly, his face still a shade of scarlet.
“I can see you resent my presence in the surgery, Dr. MacCloud. I won’t impose upon you any longer. I’m sure one of my father’s associates would be glad to have my assistance.” With that, he turned on his heel and headed for the door only to be intercepted by the one of the Arethusa’s marines. Cullen rose from the table at the look on the marine lieutenant’s face. “Dr. MacCloud, Mr. Morton. We need you.
There’s been an accident. Two men were fighting and fell from the tops.” Cullen turned to hasten out the door in the wake of the marine and was a little surprised to see young William fall in behind without a sound. The boy’s usually dour face transformed into one of concern, and intent. It was only then he realized the insolent cub hadn’t revealed his age. What was he trying to hide? Cullen raced across the deck of the Arethusa and slid down the steps accessing the surgery below decks. The two sailors had already been laid out on the wide operating table in the center of the sick bay. One of them still shrieked in agony while the second man was eerily silent. A great deal of blood pooled beneath the surgery slab. After stopping to shed his uniform jacket, Cullen moved quickly to the side of the quiet patient whose eyes stared vacantly toward the bulkhead separating the surgery from the gun room.
He pressed his fingers to the side of the man’s neck, feeling for a pulse. Since the man had not appeared to have fallen into the water, and the day was mild, Cullen carefully closed the man’s eyes after a few minutes of no life signs. He moved to the other man, determined to save him if he could. Young Morton was already there and had ripped the man’s trousers up to mid-thigh. At a nod from Cullen, one of the marines who had hauled the men into the surgery fetched a short piece of wood for the patient to bite down on. The long bone supporting the thigh was cracked in two. Without petitioning Cullen for guidance, William had re-positioned the bone while fetching a screw tourniquet from the storage cabinet and putting pressure on the blood spurting from the nearby artery with a wadded length of linen. Cullen took over the pressure, and after only a slight nod toward the young man, William tied off the spurting artery with an expert knot. The gaze he turned on Cullen was unmistakable. The young man’s gray eyes darted toward the chest where long lengths of linen were stored.
Cullen filled his arms with the folded strips and returned to the table where they worked together silently. Although his time at sea with the African Squadron had never lacked for violence and gore, he was used to pulling a surgeon’s mate or whatever crewman was available into duty to help with serious injuries. He’d never had an assistant like William who was not afraid to take the initiative to do the right thing before Cullen thought to order something done. But then this was a forty-gun frigate, much larger than the ships allotted the squadron, with a crew more extensive than those previously entrusted to his care. Later, when they’d done as much as they could to keep the man from bleeding to death and had splinted the leg with a long board from the ship’s carpenter, Cullen sagged onto a chair bolted to the surgery floor and stared at the young man who just an hour or two ago had been a thorn in his side. He saw him in a new light. Although Cullen would never admit it to Morton, the young man probably did indeed know as much as any second-year student at Edinburgh. But Cullen was convinced he should get his education and then return to the service, or at the very least set up his own practice. The insolent cub was beyond talented. He was gifted.
When they returned to their shared cabin to rinse the blood from their skin and clothing, young Morton seemed to have lost the practiced confidence he’d shown in the surgery. After rinsing off his hands and arms in their basin, William removed his boots and stockings and settled on a bench on the darkened side of their crowded cabin. “Here, you fool. Come over here by the cannon port where there’s a little more light, so you can see what you’re doing. Morton said nothing, but continued the methodical cleaning of his boots. He half hid his feet beneath the bench as if he were embarrassed to have Cullen see his toes. Good, God. What was wrong with the man? Cullen’s mind flashed to images of the way Morton had walked on their passage to the harbor tea room, and the delicate look of his long fingers. Uneasiness buzzed again at the back of Cullen’s skull. Wills stared at the new surgeon’s back while he meticulously set down all the details of the sailor’s injuries into the same log the elder Morton had kept for all of the ten years Wills had sailed with him as his assistant on the Arethusa.
Wills clenched a fist, wishing for a world in which it would be perfectly acceptable to plant a facer on MacCloud’s smug jaw. Instead, Wills turned back to the surgery medicine cabinet with a sigh and stayed busy taking another precise inventory of the bottles lining the neatly organized shelves. The patient in the bunk was still sleeping deeply under the influence of opium and rum, unaware of the pain. The next day or so he would have to be watched closely for any signs of fever or pus in the fractured leg. What would probably follow was never easy on the patient, or the surgeon. Wills would not mention the dangers to the new surgeon, because with all his years in the Royal Navy in stations where he’d no doubt seen heavy fighting, he was of course accustomed to severing limbs which could not be saved. Cullen’s mood sank lower the more he read from the letter his Aunt Elspeth’s retainer had sent. Between dealing with a moody young assistant and keeping constant watch on the injured sailor in the surgery, he did not need this latest headache. His aunt had been his only family since his mother had died when he was three or four. His father, a prominent London physician, had rarely returned to the Highlands to tend to his lonely son.
And so, Cullen had grown up on his mother’s family estate on the wild northwest shore of Scotland, running free with the other children of the Clan MacKenzie. And now it appeared his aunt needed him. He wished the letter had arrived sooner. His aged aunt had already left Edinburgh for the clan townhouse in London. Her retainer’s carefully written letter made the seriousness of her illness clear. She wanted to see Cullen before he left for extended service aboard the Arethusa. He was sorry now for having sent her a series of letters of complaint after he’d first arrived at his assignment. He’d been peeved over not being able to stay with his friends in the African Squadron. And maybe he’d complained a little too much about Morton’s mulish son. He would have to hire a horse at the public mews in Portsmouth and then change mounts at inns throughout the nine to ten hours of hard travel along the Portsmouth-toLondon Road.
Riding astride a horse was not his favorite mode of transportation. However, at least it was August, not the rainy season. Cullen speared his fingers through his unruly ginger hair and leaned his head back to stare up at the timbers lining the bottom side of the top deck. Why was nothing ever easy in his mother’s clan? What a stubborn lot of men…and women. He straightened and stretched his arms above his head. The first step would be to ask the captain for leave to spend a few days ashore. But he couldn’t leave until the patient in the surgery made it through at least the next seventy-two hours. That would be time enough to see if fever and putrefaction would mean they would have to amputate the man’s leg. He hated to have to resort to that alternative, but with his experience through all the action he’d endured in the Royal Navy, he knew the man had perhaps less than one chance in three to keep his leg. With the fracture’s nearness to the femoral artery, they were lucky he hadn’t bled to death.
Captain Walter Still was a reasonable man by reputation and probably a good master to serve under. But Cullen was still puzzled by how willing he’d been to accommodate his unexpected request for shore leave. When he’d forwarded the unusual request so close after having reported aboard, he was sure the captain would balk. But instead, his superior leaned forward, a twinkle in his eyes. “Family business, eh? Best to deal with whatever land-bound concerns you have before we leave the dock. We will continue to provision and take on crew for at least another three weeks before we leave for the St. Helena station.” Not only was the captain in agreement with his plans to leave the ship, but seemed urging him to take whatever time he needed. “Once we leave, we’ll be gone for a year or two. We’ll be a long way from old England, the comforts of home.
” He paused and then added, “And family.” Cullen cocked his head for a moment trying to decipher whatever message the captain meant to relay, but finally shrugged it off. Maybe he imagined meaning where there was none. When he made his way back below to the surgery, he nodded to young Morton before pulling a stool over to sit near him. His assistant continued to fill bottles with the essential compounds they would need over the months ahead to treat the diverse conditions the crew might suffer during the voyage, such as olive oil for burns and cinchona bark for fevers. Morton gave Cullen a quizzical look, but continued with his work. “Has our patient had any signs of fever?” “An hour ago, his brow was still cool to the touch.” Morton turned his head toward Cullen who noticed the young man had nary a sign of a beard even though it was late in the day. His hair, tied in a neat queue, was the deep black of a starless night, like a raven’s wings. “How old are you, lad?” “Old enough to serve on this ship.
” He whipped his head away from Cullen in a signal clearly meant to end their conversation. Cullen’s temper flared, but just as quickly he tamped it down. They had too much work ahead of them in the coming weeks of preparation for sailing all the way to St. Helena. There was no time to argue, or hash out any of Morton’s secrets. “I’ll not check you on your impudent answer, because I know ye still grieve for yer da, but my patience will come to an end eventually.” Cullen clapped on his spectacles and moved beside Wills to help put together the medicines. “I’ll not tolerate a swab with secrets, Mr. Morton.”