Later, no one would be able to agree as to exactly
what happened on the HMS Reliance that night.
The witnesses were too many and the action too
sudden to gain a coherent story.
What everyone did agree on was that about two
hours after dusk, the Duke of Wellington came
up on the deck of the ship, a fast brig that was
carrying him home from France. Surrounded by several
of his staff, the very recent hero of Waterloo
and Military Governor of France was in an excellent
mood, the distinctive bray of his laugh carrying
out over the choppy water as he cupped his hands
to light a cigarillo. The waxing moon slung a
thin necklace of diamonds across the water, and
the wind was freshening. Off to port, the coast
of Dorset appeared a black void against the diamond-rich
sky, which put them two days out of the port of
The second fact no one could dispute was that
when the group came up on deck, one man could
easily be distinguished among them. Standing well
over six feet, Colonel Ian Ferguson of the Black
Watch towered over his commander. It wasn't only
his height which made him memorable. Even in the
uncertain light of the night-running lanterns,
his hair shone like fire, and his shoulders were
as wide as a Yule log.
In the few days he'd been with the Duke, Ferguson
had proved himself to be loud, funny, fierce and
uncompromising. And even though he proclaimed
himself a loyal Scot, he swore he was Wellington's
man. Which was why it was so puzzling that he
would pull out a gun and point it right at the
"A gun!" someone yelled. “To the
Chaos erupted on the deck. Men scattered, shouting
warnings and commands. Others threw themselves
in front of the great man. Swords were drawn.
Several men must have had guns, because suddenly
there was a staccato pop-pop-popping. Acrid puffs
of smoke cut visibility, and the ship heeled a
bit as the steersman ran to help. Some men prayed,
one wept, and the Duke of Wellington, much as
he had on innumerable battlefields, stood his
ground, a cigarillo in hand and a bemused expression
on his face.
"What the devil?" he demanded, looking
down to where a man lay still on the deck at his
The deck stilled suddenly, the smoke writhing
about the men and sharpening the air as the sails
flapped uselessly above them. Bare feet thundered
below as the crew roused to the alarm.
"He tried to shoot you!" one of his
aides accused, already on the run to the railings.
“What?” Wellington barked, his focus
still down. “Simmons here? Don't be ridiculous.
Get more lamps lit. Let's see what's going on
There was no question but that Simmons was dead.
A sluggish pool of black blood spread out from
behind his head, and his eyes stared open and
fixed on the heavens. One of the crew retrieved
the man's pistol from his outstretched hand and
"No, sir,” he said. “The villain
went over the side!"
"Who?" Wellington demanded, finally
turning to look.
"That Scotsman. The one who tried to shoot
“Ferguson?” Wellington stopped on
the spot. "Bollocks."
One of his newer aides, the Honorable Eldon Stricker,
stepped out of the shadows, holding onto a bleeding
arm. “Saw him myself, Your Grace. Pointed
that popper right at you."
Wellington pointed at the body on the deck. “And
Everyone looked around, as if seeking someone
"He must have gotten in the way of Ferguson's
bullet," Stricker said. "I shot the
Scot. Where is he?"
Two people pointed over the side of the ship.
One of Wellington's staff pocketed Simmon's pistol.
The bo'sun ran up with several lighted lanterns,
which cast an eerie, wavering light over the scene.
"Well, find him," Wellington demanded.
"I'll be in my cabin."
All came to attention as he passed, but Wellington
didn't seem to notice. He seemed preoccupied,
shaking his head slightly, as if wiping something
away. More than one sailor commented that he looked
sadder at the news of who his attacker was than
the fact that he'd been attacked at all.
“Hard aport!” the captain bellowed,
and men scrambled into the rigging. The ship heeled
again, more sharply. “Man the halyards!
Prepare to shorten sail!”
Beneath the quick little ship, the water of the
channel passed in choppy, frothed waves. The wind
was stiff this night, ten knots from the northeast.
Any man out in that water would be sorry.
* * *
Ian Ferguson was damn sorry. Bobbing up like a
punctured cork, he shook the water from his eyes
and looked up at the slowing ship, a hand pressed
to the sharp ache in his chest. He couldn't figure
out what had just happened. He'd come up on deck
to share a cigar with Wellington. The next thing
he knew, that little riathache Stricker
was pointing a gun at the general.
Ian had reacted instinctively, pulling his own
gun and firing at Stricker. There were immediately
guns everywhere, a succession of shots, and suddenly
he'd been knocked hard in the chest and catapulted
right over the railings. He'd hit the cold channel
water with barely a splash.
Did he save Wellington? Had he hit Stricker? God
and the Bruce, he hoped so.
Come to think of it, what about that hit to his
chest? Kicking hard to stay above the swells,
he took a second to look down. He wasn't sure
what he expected to see in the dark water. Blood,
maybe. There was a hole in his jacket; he put
his finger through it. No injury, though, except
for a tender spot over his ribs. He was breathing
well and didn't feel that awful disintegration
that came with real injury.
“There he is!” somebody shouted above
Ian looked up to see the lighter being hoist out.
A bouquet of heads appeared at the rail, haloed
by the thin light of the lanterns. Ian lifted
a hand to wave. He heard a sharp snapping sound,
and the water near him leapt. Ian froze. Hell
and damnation, they were firing at him!
He opened his mouth to shout. Another
“Shouldn't we get him on board?” Ian
heard from the first officer.
“And waste time with a court martial?”
came the furious answer.
Ian cursed. He hadn't killed Stricker after all.
Now he had to find a way to prove that it was
Stricker who had fired the first shot. That Stricker's
cabin was where he'd found the flask. The flask
that should have been back at Horse Guards. The
flask that he'd...
Ian laid his hand back against his chest. He smiled.
No wonder he hadn't been hurt. The silver flask
wouldn't hold a dram anymore, but sure, he bet
it held a flattened bullet.
So, Stricker wanted him dead. He'd just see about
“Reloaded, sir,” came the faint call.
“Get him before the moon disappears.”
Ian saw the muzzle lowered over the side. A Brown
Bess. He sucked in a lungful of air and dove.
The pain and the crack came at the same moment.
Blast. The bastard had hit him. The air whooshed
out of his lung and Ian sank.
This time he didn't come up.