Philadelphia, 1825.


"Tobias Russell." The voice was thin, soft, hovering on the edge of breaking.

"Where you from?"

"Here in Philadelphia."



The dark, rangy man behind the table stared the slender figure before him up and down. "You sure about that, son?"

The boy nodded, his grey eyes solemn and frank. "Yes sir."

Robert Thomas noted the boy's information in the logbook spread open on the table. Fifteen or not, the boy was small and light enough to scale a ship's rigging. If the captain rated him able. He eyed the boy, taking in the narrow shoulders, dark ruddy hair and pale skin. The boy's clothes were neat and clean, but much mended and somewhat too large. The dark gray trousers were patched at the knee, while his linen shirt and wool jacket showed signs of wear and less-than-skilled repairs. Even the black felt hat looked like a hand-me-down from an older sibling; the brim was rolled up over springy curls that were almost too delicate to be a boy's.

In fact, Thomas thought, most of the boy looked too delicate. His hands were thin, with long fingers unmarked by callouses, and his skin was too white to have been too often outside. He was short, shorter than most boys that age; Thomas guessed that the boy could be no more than two or three inches above five feet, even in his boots. Pampered, probably a mama's boy run away from home. Thomas laid down the pen and tented his fingers under his chin.

"Ever been on a ship before, boy? A real one, I mean."

The boy shook his head, curls dancing slightly. "No sir. My brother taught me to sail, but nothing this big."

"Your brother's a seaman?"

"Yes sir. Lieutenant James Russell of the Sparrowhawk."

Thomas stared at the boy, one bushy eyebrow quirking toward his hairline. "You're Russell's brother? I served with him on his first hitch, when he was still a midshipman. I don't recall him ever mentioning a brother."

"No sir. He wouldn't have." The boy fidgeted, looking away quickly. "We've not been on good terms since our mother died."

"Not meaning to pry, son." Thomas pushed the logbook across the table. "Sign here, if you're able. The cap'n will want to see you before you go aboard. You'll need rating, though it's likely you'll be cabined or idling."

Noticing the slight furrow between the boy's thin brows, Thomas expanded. "Tain't common for a boy your age to come aboard with no sailing experience. Boys like you usually start younger. You'll either be a cap'n's servant or 'prenticed to one of the craftsmen, but likely not an able seaman just yet."

He clapped the thick leather book closed. "You're the last on the logs. Come on, son. Let's go."

The boy hurried after him, dodging through the crowd of stevedores and sailors swarming the dock. He was hard put to follow the older man, even at a modest trot. Several times the older man glanced back impatiently as the boy struggled to keep up and still keep a grip on both his hat and his bundle. He paused briefly to watch an enormous load of cotton and rice being loaded off a waiting sloop by a team of African sailors; the first mate's voice roared over the side of the ship in a stream of invectives that blistered the ears. A quick jerk on his arm pulled him away from the spectacle and further away from the waterside.

The pair halted abruptly before a wooden structure. The boy peered over the larger man's shoulder, craning to see the writing that scrolled across the plate glass windows, but was ushered inside before he caught the name of the public house. As they entered, Thomas dropped a heavy hand on the boy's slim shoulder.

"Listen to me, boy. The Captain, he's a navy man. British. Sailed under Nelson at Trafalgar. He don't have time for those what don't care to work, and he'd sooner drown you than put up with idlers or shirkers. If you think you can't do the work, for whatever reason, you say so now and I'll scratch you off the books, no harm done."

The boy's cloudy eyes met his. "I can do whatever I have to, sir. I'm not afraid of work."

Thomas nodded one last time. He pushed the boy ahead of him through the crowded public room, then through a double door at the back.

The rear of the room was taken up by a massive brick and plaster fireplace, in full blaze to ward off the chill of early spring. Beside the fireplace, in a cracked leather chair, a lean figure in a trim blue uniform lounged behind a newspaper, a glass of wine close to hand on a small mahogany table.

Thomas palmed off his black knitted cap and cleared his throat politely before addressing the figure in blue. "Begging your pardon, sir."

The man looked up from his paper. "What is it, Mr. Thomas? I trust the hiring has met with some amount of success." The words were spoken in a soft, clipped Scottish brogue at odds with the boy's expectations of a British officer. A pair of sharp eyes swept lightly over the slender boy at Thomas' side before returning to Thomas.

Thomas bowed slightly. "Aye, Cap'n. We're taking on near to thirty new hands and two new carpenters."

"Very good." The man folded his paper precisely into quarters and laid it on the side table, squaring it neatly with the half-empty glass. "And who is this?"

Thomas nudged the boy forward. "New boy, sir. Green."

"I can see that, Mr. Thomas." He rose from the chair to tower over the boy. He was not as tall as the boy expected, just under six feet, broad shouldered and deep chested from years before the sail. His sandy hair fell across his forehead almost into the piercing eyes; he pushed the locks back with a tightly controlled gesture that wasted no motion.

The boy remembered to palm off his own cap and stood twisting it in his hands. The captain studied him closely, appraisingly. After making a slow circuit of the boy, he stood before him, hands folded behind your back.

"What's your name, lad?"

He was surprised by the softness of the voice that replied. "Tobias Russell, sir."

"Mr. Russell. I am Captain Matthew Walker, of the Bonnie Jean Cameron. It is always a pleasure to have eager young men aboard. How old are you, Russell?"

"I'm fifteen, sir. Just this last month, sir."

"And you're not a sailor, by the looks of those hands. So the question is, what are we to do with you?" He waited patiently.

The boy shifted nervously. "I can do whatever needs to be done, sir. I'm a quick learner, and I'm not afraid to work, really I'm not."

Walker put his head to one side. "Why are you so anxious to go to sea, lad? You don't look the likely sort. I trust there will be no indignant relatives or irate creditors to disturb the workings of my ship?"

"No sir. I'm in no trouble sir."

"His brother's an officer on the Sparrowhawk, Cap'n" Thomas interjected.

Walker's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Russell? Jack Russell? Is he your brother?"

The boy nodded. "Yes sir."

"He's a fine sailor. I have had the pleasure of his company on several occasions. A good man. If you're a quarter the sailor he is, we might make something of you yet, young Russell."

The boy let out a slight breath, relieved. Walker rounded on him suddenly, eyes narrowed. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Russell. I don't believe you're any sort of sailor at all. That presents me with a very great problem. Do you understand what that is?"

The boy shook his head, eyes wide. "No sir." The soft voice was barely a whisper, choked in the boy's throat.

"You're on the books now, boy. If I dismiss you, I'll most likely have to deal with your brother, and I won't enjoy that. On the other hand, if I keep you on and you're worse than useless, it will cause havoc on my ship. I won't have that, Russell. So again, the question of what to do with you arises."

Walker strode across the room to a long table beneath the tiny window, boots echoing precisely on the polished wood floor. He opened a leather satchel that lay on the table and pulled out a sheaf of paper. He gestured curtly, pointing the boy toward a chair. When the boy was seated, Walker handed him a sheet of paper closely covered with printed words.

"Can you read?"

"Yes sir." The boy sounded slightly insulted. Walker pointed to a line.

"Read that."

The boy cleared his throat and began to read. "'Purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver..'" his voice trailed away, perplexed.

The captain leaned over him. "Do you recognize it?"

The boy nodded again. "Yes sir. It's Shakespeare, sir. Antony and Cleopatra, I think, sir."

Walker nodded once. "Well done. Can you write?"

"Yes sir."


"Yes sir, some."

"You've been schooled, then? Where? What else do you know?"

The boy glanced at him from the corners of his eyes. "I was tutored, sir. I can read a little Latin and Greek. I have some French and Italian—I'm better at those than the others. My brother taught me a little navigation, but I've never put it into practice. I've had some drawing and some music as well." He stopped as the captain turned away. Walker stood for some moments, lost in thought. When he turned back, his face was open and friendly. He clapped the boy on the back, grinning at Thomas.

"Mr. Thomas, it looks like you've found me my new clerk. Very good work, sir, very good indeed."

He grinned at the confusion on the boy's face. "Not to worry, Russell. I've had need of a new clerk for some time. Welcome aboard. Mr. Thomas, will you see the boy to the ship and settled in his quarters? Expect me before sunset, and prepare all hands to sail with the morning tide. Dismissed, gentlemen."