by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Joanna Clayton is Captain of her own pirate ship the 'Amazon', accompanied by her sweetheart Sandy Parker. Time, 171—and something. Place, the Caribbean Sea. The Pirate Queen and her consort follow in the wake of a slave-ship.
Note 01:— 'The Typhon's coming. Before it sweeps your deck, throw overboard the dead and dying,—ne'er heed their chains.' J M W Turner, his own verses accompanying his oil painting 'The Slave Ship'. 1840.
Disclaimer 01:— Due to its content this story is far darker than most of my others. Details of the slave-ship; of the Bristol Company backing the concern; and the general health and position of the slaves en-route in the Middle Passage, are all based on verifiable historical fact. Therefore delicately minded readers might wish to abstain from subjecting themselves to the unavoidably sickening nature of this tale's aura.
Disclaimer 02:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some extensive swearing in this story.
"Ho, on deck there." The foremast topsail-top lookout proving he was awake. "Something in the water on the starboard bow, half a cable off."
"Have we time t'investigate, before the storm arrives?" Sandy Parker, companion to her Captain and lover, cocking an eye at the lady in question by her side on the barque's quarterdeck.
"Yeah, it ain't so far off." Joanna Clayton, one of the most famous Pirate Queens in the Caribbean, nodded with a sage air. "Won't take long t'find out what it is; probably jest driftwood."
The barque Amazon, latterly a heavily armed Pirate ship under Joanna Clayton's sole command, was just completing the transit of the St Vincent Passage in the Windward Islands, between the islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia. Ahead lay the open vast expanse of the central Caribbean Sea. The weather had been foreboding for the last day and now it was obvious that a storm, not of hurricane level, thankfully, but still of some strength was building up and was now almost upon the vessel. Everything moveable had long since been battened down; the gun ropes had been double-rigged, and handlines strung along the bulwarks to port and starboard for the safety of the seamen progressing along the decks while the storm raged. The square-rigged fore and main topsails and mainsails had been double–reefed, with nothing on the bare masts above. The fore and aft lateen sail on the mizzen had been hove-in to half its usual height in preparation.
As a result navigating the powerful vessel, at relatively low speed in a rapidly strengthening sea, was difficult though still not beyond the hardened sailors aboard the barque.
In less than five minutes they had crossed the intervening choppy seas to within twenty yards of the mysterious floating object.
"Can't make it out." Sandy, with hand over her brow, peering across the water. "Something dark, low in the water; piece of driftwood, likely, as you said, dear."
"Yeah, looks like it."
At this point the quartermaster, Thomson, usually on duty on the main-deck, took the ladder to the quarterdeck in two strides to stand by his superiors' sides.
"Aye, Thomson, what's up?"
"That—uhh, object over there, Cap'n."
"What of it?" Joanna was unconcerned, having more important things on her mind. "A piece of driftwood, teak by the dark look o'it; nuthin' o' interest."
"It ain't wood, nor drift o' any kind, beggin' yer pardon, ma'am."
Noting, for the first time, the unusual expression and curious light in the man's eyes, Joanna turned to face him with a keen look.
"You know what it is then, Thomson?"
"It's a body, ma'am, a human body." Thomson nodded confidently. "Seen the same thing before, some years since. It ain't teak, it's a black man or woman—a slave—been thrown overboard from a passing slaver; no doubt because of bein' already dead o' the filthy conditions, or still in the process o' dyin' when, er, disposed of. It's a usual trick o' the slavers', ma'am."
A quietness ensued, more especially apparent on Joanna's side; she herself having mixed parentage in her ancestry and showing a significantly darker tone of skin than her general confreres or Sandy, beside her.
"Get the longboat out, Thomson, I'm goin' over there."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
The longboat surged over the increasing waves light as a bird on the wing; cutting through the whitecaps, sending flashes of white cold spray in Joanna's face as she sat on the thwart looking ahead over the bow. The six-man crew, besides Thomson and Sandy, seated by her lover, hauled their oars with powerful strokes, quickly taking the boat to its floating destination. Finally it drew abreast the object, lying low in the water, and everyone on board could examine it from a distance of no more than three feet or so.
"God, it is a body, or the remains o' sich, anyhow." Sandy passed a gauntleted hand over her face, as if fearful of being sick.
"No arms, legs bitten off at the knees by sharks, no head. Black skin." Joanna's voice struggled to remain cold and calm. "Can't make out what sex he, she, was—is—was. Well, we can't help the poor thing; all we can do is leave her-him be. Turn us round, Thomson, let's get back t'the Amazon."
On board the barque again Joanna held a conference in the wide stern cabin; Thomson and Sandy being present.
"So, Thomson, you've had experience o' this sort'a thing before, eh?"
"Aye, Captain," The quartermaster nodded, with a glum frown. "I knew a man, years since, who regularly shipped as crew on slavers; he told me a might o' tales, some truly horrific—this lay o' gettin' rid o' the dead an' dyin' bein', as it were, a routine thing among slave Captains, apparently."
"Jeesus." Sandy sat at the central table, indicating Thomson to do the same. "Why? Is there a lot o' sickness aboard slavers, then?"
"A terrible lot, so I'm led t'believe, ma'am." Thomson nodding again. "The slaves are packed in like herring in a barrel, it seems. The more ye can hold, the bigger the profit. An', as sickness an' death is so common but slaves bein' so sought after an' thereby individually valuable, that means those left alive at the end o' the Middle Passage will still provide the owners with a sensible profit, y'see."
"Middle Passage?" Sandy raised an eyebrow, a nasty flickering light in her eye.
"The voyage across the Atlantic, ma'am, from Africa t'the Caribbean or coast o'Ameriky."
"God-a'Mighty." Sandy unable to take it all in.
"They're usually packed in on several decks, purposely built with low headroom so's they can fit in more levels o' slaves' bunks." The quartermaster appeared to have the entire history at his fingertips. "Fed on slops an' scraps, wi' very little water; all sort's of diseases takes hold; not enough water, dysentery, scurvy, o'course—an' sometimes regular epidemics o' typhoid fever, or cholera."
"God in Heaven." Joanna contributing to the general horror of the tale.
"So ye see, ma'am, when sich as that takes hold the slaver Captain jest hauls the individuals affected on deck, takin' precautions, in course, then summarily throws 'em overboard, anticipatin' gettin' the insurance value o' them, on arrival in Jamaica, or wherever."
"Insurance? On slaves? Slaves? The b-st-rd slavers' insure themselves against losses? An' some perverted company takes on the insurance?" This Sandy, judging by her horrified expression, seemingly couldn't credit under any circumstances.
"Oh aye, ma'am." Thomson nodded as if surprised at his superior's innocence. "Sich bein' a big business, I'm told. Everyone involved always comin' out ahead o' the game, so it seems. The percentage o' slaves makin' it alive an' well t'the various destinations, more'n makin' up fer the huge losses, apparently; because o' the high prices they can still command—sugar cane fields an' tobacco plantations needin' as many hands as they can possibly use, so it seems. So, insurance is easy t'get, so I'm told. An', thereby, when faced with the danger o' disease from dead or dyin' the Captain jest nat'rally disposes o'the seat o' the trouble overboard, without a second thought as it were, ma'am."
"Jeesus God a'Mighty." Sandy shaking her head in disbelief. "I never thought it was like that—as bad as that. God."
"Kerrist." From Joanna, wholly astonished and sickened by the quartermaster's tale.
Another silence pervaded the large well-lit cabin, while the women tried to come to terms with what they had been told.
"Are ye sayin', Thomson, that with this here body in the water, ye're sayin' we're sailin' in the wake o' a slaver who's—who's doin' what ye've jest described, this storm approachin' fast?" Joanna wanting to get the salient facts lined up.
"Jest that, ma'am." Thomson nodded, assured of his particulars. "Only one body so far, ma'am; but be assured I've seen this before—I know the way o't. Before long ye'll be seein' more floatin' past. First one or two more bodies; then maybe groups o'sich—the thing bein' t'tie 'em all t'gether with ropes an' throw them overboard so tied,—lessen the chance o'any swimmin' t'safety or climbin' back aboard, y'see. An' with this storm in the offing, he'll want t'clear his decks o'the detritus—beggin' yer pardon, ma'am, the sick or dead, as fast as possible."
A minute later, when Thomson had departed about his duties, Joanna and Sandy were left to contemplate this horrifying news. It was Sandy who rose to go over to a range of closed cupboards built against the port bulkhead, open one and take out a glass decanter and silver goblets. She set these on the table then poured them both full goblets of dark rum.
"Here, lover, take a swallow, it'll clear the taste out'ta yer mouth." Sandy taking her words at their face value by half emptying her own goblet in one gulp.
The Plantagenet was a slaver, deliberately built as such and operated from its home port of Bristol, England; where a medium-sized group of business-men overlooked its operations from a purely economic point of view—the profits in this trade being enormous. By Law the British Government publicly looked askance on the trade; any slave from foreign parts arriving on British soil automatically becoming immediately a free person—but through many legal contortions a properly set-up Company operating in England, as many such did in the port of Bristol, could cock their noses at the legalities; then sit back, revelling in the enormous profits to be had from the trade.
A three-master Guineaman of some 170 tons, the Plantagenet was heavy and comparatively slow, needing a large crew for its square-rigged masts. While the Captain's cabin, officer's gunroom, and crew's f'castle living-quarters were of the standard layout the ship's holds had been extensively re-designed in line with its intended cargo. The hold's were long, divided into several low storeys with little head-room, in order to carry as many slaves as possible, reclining flat on wooden boards and chained—their personal comfort and health being of no concern whatever in the equation.
At the present moment, as the sky in the east over the sultry Caribbean waves steadily darkened with the approaching storm, the ship was sailing in company with a much smaller, but far faster and more heavily armed barque; to wit, Captain Merry Aveling's Kraken. Meanwhile, on the quarter-deck of the slaver the Captain, Henry Bartock, was in conversation with the Pirate Queen.
"Heard ye was dead, up t'Mayaguana, ma'am; but seemingly not, eh?"
"Jest a little mis-understanding, Captain."
Merry was not such by nature, her name being simply a variation of her given name, Mary. In form she stood nearly six feet in height; was lithe slim and physically strong, and dressed in dark clothes. She affected a very large-brimmed low crowned hat, hiding her features till you were nearly face-to-face with her—not a position many people relished. Her nature, from the first inclined to the bloodier forms of entertainment—bear-baiting, pig-sticking, and suchlike—had, through years as a self-employed pirate, become as warped, cruel, and sadistic as could be hoped for in a pirate of parts and experience. She also apparently enjoying, like cats, a series of unnaturally extended lives; though significantly larger than the ordinary nine.
"That bitch Joanna Clayton, and her sickly companion, tried t'knock me on the head." Merry's brow grew gloomy at the memory. "A very nicely thought-out plan—cold, logical, an' all-consuming. But, it failed; so here I is, large as life an' seekin' profit at all costs. Mighty glad yer business partners, back in Blighty, thought fit ter employ my, er, professional abilities."
"Yer career seems t'have percolated t'Bristol, right enough." Bartock nodding agreement. "The East Bight and Cameroon Company holding ye in high esteem, apparently. Mr Josiah Stockwell, the Director of same, tellin' me in the letter he sent some weeks a'gone, ter give ye every assistance in piloting us over the Caribby t'Honduras. Was plannin' ter make haven there on my own account, t'tell ye true."
"Pirates, Captain." Merry grinning widely while Bartock, taken unawares, paled significantly at the sight. "With a slow tu—er, cargo ship such as this here Plantagenet any number o'pirates would run ye down in no time."
"A slaver, ma'am?" This being a question which had itched at Bartock's understanding for some while. "What'd they think we had fer such as they?"
"Oh, fer a pirate anythin's profit." Merry again showing, by the flickering light in her pale grey eyes, the ill-controlled nature of her underlying personality. "They'd impress most of the crew; givin' them the choice of life as a pirate, or the sharks. Ye'd be surprised how many, faced by such a choice, realises its their long-held wish ter sail under the skull an' crossbones—har-har! Then, with a prize crew on the slaver, they'd sail it to its destination—takin' all the profit of the sale of the slaves t'themselves, in course."
Though not precisely a man of any deeply held moral beliefs himself Bartock, nonetheless, was savvy enough to recognise severe mental issues when faced with such. He quickly changed the subject.
"Well, I'm glad ter have yer company fer the next day or so." He glanced eastward over the dark sea. "That there storm's working itself up in'ta a mighty fine specimen o'it's type. Ye won't be able ter row across the strengthenin' seas ter yer own ship this next two days or so, I'm thinkin'."
"Happy ter be here, Captain." Merry showing no sign of distress at the coming storm. "If worst comes ter worst, better t'be on a large stoutly built three-master like the Plantagenet here than my smaller Kraken—better chance o'survival, y'see."
Bartock, listening to the cold calm unworried woman by his side raised an eyebrow in unspoken question; before recovering his wits and again assuming the neutral countenance he had seen fit heretofore to offer as his natural expression to the dangerous pirate.
"Did ye manage t'offload all those dead, er, cargo units, by-the-by, Captain?" Merry bringing up a minor topic in order to continue the conversation, as between mature adults. "Several o'them appeared t'have gone off by ways o'the yellow fever, if'n I'm not mistaken. Hardly needs sayin' we doesn't want that spreadin' through the crew, an' us."
"Don't worry, ma'am." Bartock having this common problem of his trade under control. "I've thrown overboard those as perished of same; an' those who we can recognise as bein' infected—well, they has a near acquaintance with the briny fast approaching. Jest as fast in fact as my quartermaster, Taines, can organise a couple of search parties ter go through the holds, an' pick likely units out. Best ye stays below in my cabin fer the next couple o'hours, ma'am; keeps ye away from any chance o'infection."
Merry, uninterested in the coming lightening of the ship's cargo, nonetheless paused as she turned to leave the quarterdeck.
"How does ye figure out which's infected whole an' certain; an' who might be harbourin' the fever under their skin, as it were?"
Captain Bartock, long time slaver as he was, had this query well in hand.
"Oh, nuthin' to it, ma'am." He shrugged unconcernedly. "Them as ye can see's got the fever, over they goes; those whom ye might suspect o'same, over they goes too; they as may, jest may, be in the primary stages o'comin' down with the fever—well, over they goes too,—all covered by our insurance back in Bristol, ma'am—we not losing more'n a few guineas each by the loss, y'see's. Ye'll find some fine brandy in my cabin; drink as ye feels willin', ma'am.
"Dam' the coming storm! We'll follow in their wake—and, when we comes up with 'em, there'll be hell ter pay!"
Joanna stood firm on her quarterdeck, chin in air and an expression of ruthless determination lighting her face, Sandy by her side. Both women being dressed, as always, in male attire; silken shirts, waistcoats of coloured linen with silver buttons; trousers of broadcloth; and, finally, longcoats trimmed with silver ornament and again large silver buttons to the knees—all topped by wide-brimmed low-crowned hats, the whole ensemble making the women look, from any distance, like any other men going about their natural business. Thomson, the Amazon's quarter-master, having just expressed an opinion about running free when the inevitably approaching storm reached the barque, to which Joanna had given her answer.
"What with these heavy seas, we'll only be able t'use the main-deck eighteens." Sandy supplying some technical facts in time of need. "Means we'll need t'get up really close."
"Which same is my intention, baby." Joanna pausing to give her inamorata an encouraging grin. "My plan bein' ter run 'em down, a'fore engaging an' boardin' the slaver; then free the slaves an' bring 'em aboard the Amazon ter safety; after which we chains the Captain an' crew of the slaver in their places, stands-off gently some half a cable or so, presents our broadside, an' sends the evil b-gg-rs t'a well deserved damnation all right an' proper. Works fer me, sweetheart; does it work fer ye?"
Sandy paused for an instant; then came out on the side of her lover with all guns blazing.
"Works fer me, sure enough; I ain't got no complaints. Figure we could take out a reef on the main topsail, d'ye think, Captain?"
"Thomson, let sich be so, in yer own time."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
Just on a glass later the foretop lookout proved the usefulness of his position high on the foremast.
"Two sail, dead ahead, a touch on the port bow."
Joanna and Sandy, only just catching this shouted report above the rising wind, gazed for'rard towards the barque's bow, though being stymied of a view of the fore-top by the intervening mass of the mainmast and its spreading sails.
"Two sail? Thought slavers ran alone?"
"Seemingly not on this occasion." Joann frowning darkly as she took note of this unwanted addition to her worries. She cast an appraising glance around at the group of sailors going about their business on the quarterdeck. "You there, Talbot; run t'the f'cstle an' make a messenger a'tween you an' the foretop lookout. Shout t'me from the maindeck. Firstly, I wan'na know what size an' type those ships' is. Got that?"
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
"If one's the slaver, what's the other?"
"Who can say?" Joanna perplexed herself with this question. "Some sort'a extra defence, I suppose. Hopes ter God it ain't a bloody big two-decker or so."
Sandy meanwhile had been annoying the majority of her till now resting brain cells, and had come up with another possibility.
"Perhaps, the Navy?"
This made Joanna stop in her tracks, pacing the quarterdeck, and take full note of her companion.
"The Navy?" She frowned even more deeply, adjusting to this likelihood. "Nah, don't see it. They don't take slavers in hand an' keep company with 'em. Not their kettle o'fish, no-ways. If'n they spoke a slaver,—England bein', as we all knows, the Land o'the Free an' something down on slavery,—they'd jest take the b-st-rds prize an' make sure the slaves were set free some'ers safe fer 'em."
"Lookout reports one Guineaman, an' a small barque, smaller'n us." This shouted from far along the maindeck by Talbot.
"Where away?" Joanna impatient to know how distant the ships were at present.
"On the tip o'the horizon, ma'am." Talbot further passing along the foretop lookout's knowledge. "Meb'be some six leagues or so."
"Take us a couple of hours t'chase 'em down." Sandy making this remark out of simple experience through a hundred such chases.
"Yeah, yeah." Joanna now thinking hard on the likely outcome of running the slaver, and its companion, down. "We're on the edge of the central empty Sea; nowhere t'go, nobody t'come t'the slaver's rescue, if needed. If we catch 'em, they're ours fer the taking."
"Will we make it so, a'fore that dam' storm on the east horizon blows in?"
"Let's hope so, darlin', fer the slaves' sakes, if'n nuthin' else."
"Tie 'em t'that broken spar—that's it. Make sure they're all secure a'fore ye casts the spar overboard. An' take no note o'all their caterwauling's; they doesn't matter a dam'; gettin' rid o'them's the main thing."
Over the past hour Bartock and his crew had been busy beneath decks, seeking out the dead, and more especially the merely sick or dying. Having identified both the former, and many of the latter, they had laboriously hauled them on deck—taking care as much as possible not to touch parts in the process that might cause them, the crew, to become infected themselves. Bartock had set up a long piece of spare unwanted wood—in this case a section of an old spar—which had large iron rings driven into its surface; to these the long chains securing the individual members of the cargo, dead dying and merely unwell, had been attached so that, on casting the spar overboard, these unwanted items would necessarily be dragged into the sea, too. The fact that some of those destined for this watery grave were still active and vocal was of no concern whatever to Bartok or his crew; they only seeing the importance of getting rid of dangerous articles of no further use as cargo—their profit potential, through death and illness, being gone.
"That's it, boys! Up over the bulwark, now; Har, a nice splash, there. That's 'em gone ter Davy Jones, anyways, an' out'ta our hair, thanks be. Here, you there, away ter my cabin an' give Captain Aveling the good news as most o'the infected items o'cargo's bin safely disposed of overboard. Away with ye, now."
Another two glasses into the late morning and in the sky over the fast-moving Amazon the atmosphere was showing all the rudiments of an approaching large storm. In the east, on the horizon, a band of heavy cloud lay black as night; while all round the barque, as Joanna and Sandy took careful note of the rapidly deteriorating conditions, the seas were building up in long streams of high disjointed waves which were beginning to show spume sprays flying in the wind from their crests. The ropes, sheets, and general tackle all over the sailing ship were also starting to add eerie whistling cries to the increasing sound of a storm easing its muscles prior to the main theme.
"Thing's is lookin' bad." Sandy giving her expert opinion on the matter, after having studied the far east horizon through her spy-glass. "Comin' up fast."
"Not so fast but we'll overhaul that dam' slaver first, though." Joanna keeping her attention on the important point. "Grab Thomson's arm, will ye ducks, an' tell him t'get the maindeck eighteens ready fer action."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." Sandy turning and taking the ladder to the main deck in two strides.
Barely had she left Joanna alone than a cry came from the maintop lookout, clearly heard on the quarterdeck.
"Hoy there, on deck; somethin' in the sea, over ter port. Looks like a large piece o'driftwood; but somethin's not right about it—somethin' else's there, cain't make out what."
Sandy having delivered her message and swiftly returned to her lover's side, the two women leaned over the port bulwark, sharp eyes focusing on the just visible object floating in the rapidly increasing seas some cable's length off.
"Driftwood, as the lookout says?"
"Jeez, was that someone's arm waving, over there?"
Joanna, too, had seen the frightening movement. Now she leaned down to a locker under the bulwark and retrieved her spy-glass.
"Lem'me see—Jeez, bodies. Plain as day; they must be tied t'that dam' wood, somehow."
As the women watched through their respective spy-glasses one of the things so attached to the large driftwood seemed once again to hail the passing barque with an extended arm, waving for a short moment as if in life.
"It's the force of the waves, throwing the bodies around like—like—"
"Like they was all dead."
They watched the horrifying spectacle for another few seconds, before Joanna felt impelled to action.
"Thomson, where be ye—ah, right. Haul out the cutter, an' take it over there; some may still be alive."
The quartermaster did not even cast a glance outboard as he came up on the quarterdeck to face his Captain.
"Cain't be done, ma'am, not in this sea. Look, we're already past it; we'd need t'haul round, an' that'd be madness in this wind an' sea."
"He's right, lover; there ain't nuthin' t'be done—it's too late fer them." Sandy putting a gloved hand on the arm of the lady she loved most in all the world.
Joanna glanced down into her lover's face, her own a map of despondency and horror.
"What in hell's that slaver Captain think he's doin'? Throwing human beings overboard as if they was merely trash from the galley bins?"
"T'him that's all they is." Sandy's brow darkening in tune with her companion's. "He has no moral code at all, obviously. I know we're pirates an' all that; but we have a Code we live by, all the same; that slaver Captain is less'en us, by a long ways—barely what'd pass fer Human at all, really."
"We got'ta run up with him a'fore he throws any more innocent people in'ta the bloody sea."
Joanna's tone told her single listener that she spoke from her heart; the heart of a pirate, certainly; but one who still was a Human Being in all basic moral matters. And, as Sandy well knew, Joanna's own partial racial mix—from a black maternal grandmother—informed her deep-seated views on the matter of racial humiliation.
"We're comin' closer with every passin' glass." Sandy gripped her partner's arm more tightly. "An' we'll certain sure make it abeam o'him well a'fore the storm hits. We still got a good chance, yet."
"Dam'me, Sandy, when I has that b-st-rd standin' in front o'me, dam'me if I doesn't skin the f-cker alive, see if'n I don't."
Sandy, forbearing to reply, put her spy-glass to her eye once again; just in time to catch the last glimpse of the large spar as it disappeared beyond the intervening high seas—it's accompanying chained cargo still visibly jerking and rolling in the waves beating against the jagged piece of wood.
"They're gone now, dear, they're gone."
Captain Bartock's stern cabin on the Plantagenet, his private domain, was less than clean, reflecting the devil-may-care attitude to personal hygiene he had been accustomed to for years. On the starboard side was a partitioned nook where his bunk lay, now covered by smelly disheveled blankets. On the central table stood the usual ingredients of his daily meals, largely featuring a tall long-necked crystal and silver trimmed decanter of dark rum. On one of the two hard-backed wooden chairs sat another young woman, well-dressed and competent in manner; apparently deep in a couple of accounting books, with a bottle of ink close by and a large white quill in her hand. She looked up as Merry entered, raising a blonde eyebrow in question.
"Bartock's jest scourin' the holds fer the dead, is all, Clara; preparatory t'throwin' the results overboard."
Clara Stockwell, 27 years old, daughter of the Director of the East Bight and Cameroon Company, and supernumerary accountant on this voyage, showed her concern at this news by affecting a light sneer.
"The quicker the better, in my view." She paused, quill suspended in its duties over the account-book. "It's sad t'see so many units being disposed of, mind you; we only receiving back some eighty per cent in insurance value on each one, y'know. Hie-ho, but at least it takes care of the chance of infection spreading to the crew and I. I always applaud a Captain who has the health of the ship well in hand. Getting rid of, umm, distressed diseased dying or dead units of profit is always the best way forward. We lose around twenty per cent on each, but we can easily absorb the loss with the sale of the surviving units. Always look t'the four D's, my pa always instructed me, from an early age, and he was so right. Yes, overall we're still not doing too badly on this voyage, Captain Aveling."
It was not often Merry Aveling made friends with other women; she having a long-held suspicion of just about everyone she met; but Clara's cold efficient uncaring attitude to all around, and her simple straight-forward concern for her own comfort and standing alone, made Merry warm to her without effort.
"Bartock sez this present clear-out may account fer, oh, some thirty units—how's that gon'na affect yer profits in the Honduras slave-markets?"
This was a question which went right to the heart of Clara's interests, she examining the account-book before her with added enthusiasm.
"Let's see, at present, as full cargo on this voyage, we're carrying five hundred and twenty-seven units." She turned page after page almost in a nervous frenzy. "Three hundred and forty males; one hundred and twenty females; and forty units under the age of fourteen."
"Of which ye've already had some forfeiture." Merry recalling the several previous days she had been sailing in company with the slaver. "Units thrown overboard every day fer the last four days, at least."
"Yes, yes, rather a large loss over the last week, I'm sad to say." Clara nodding over her accounts, wholly immersed in the mathematical profit and loss aspect alone; coolly counting the figures laid out there without any other feeling at all. "Thirty-three males; they being the major source of the various infections aboard—scurvy, Blackwater fever, malaria, yellow fever; general apathy, these African units always having,—in what is seen to them, I suppose, as distressing circumstances,—an unhelpful tendency to just lay down and die, and so on. Seventeen females; no dead, but all diagnosed as either sickly or probably so; and nine young, three dead, one dying, and the other five thought to be unsafe fer further conducting on the voyage. Which leaves a total of, lem'me see, four hundred and sixty-eight."
"Ye'll have ter take account, now, o'those Bartock gets rid of in this here on-goin' sweep, mind yer."
"Yes, certainly; what did you say Bartock took as a likely mean number, thirty?" Clara nodded to herself, satisfied with her own assumption of the number of losses still to come. "Leaves a total of approximately four hundred and thirty-eight."
While Clara had been making her accounts Merry had sat beside her, pouring a glass of rum to wet her whistle.
"How's that gon'na show in the Honduras' slave-sheds?"
"Oh, not badly at all, in actual fact." Clara, Queen of her figures, allowed herself a sweet smile of satisfaction. ""In due course we'll receive eighty per cent on the eighty-nine profit losses; which will do well enough. Then for the units put up for sale there are several points to be taken into consideration."
"Them bein', what exactly?"
"First, the general health of the majority of the units." Clara having these facts well to the fore in her expectations of the near future. "The plantation owners not wishing to buy sick or weak units, in course. But, generally speaking, the majority of the males aboard are in good health enough, and should go for top prices on the block."
"And the females, and others?"
"Oh, females can do well, too." Clara here smirking genteelly. "Those that be not too old, are of good form and, er, energetic and biddable in certain respects—well, they might well sell at good prices. As for the young; for those unattached to a mature female—or, indeed, whether so or not—there are, umm, certain areas,—once they've been cleaned up an' made anyways presentable, in course—where there's quite an active market, in fact."
"Ah. And the prices, in figures?"
Once more Clara studied the account-book in front of her.
"Having taken a quick look, earlier in the voyage, at the state and nature of the general cargo, I should say we have every expectancy of gaining, what, eighty to one hundred and twenty guineas per male; perhaps thirty guineas per female; and, oh, some twenty guineas per each young."
Merry, herself no simpleton with figures, made a quick calculation in her head.
"Say, tops, meb'be forty an' a half thousand guineas?"
"That'd be about correct, yes." Clara nodding heartily, well pleased with this likely outcome to the voyage. "Of course, taking the general losses into consideration, and the fact that many units may sell below par price—the total might well struggle to overtop twenty-five and a half thousand guineas. But still, taking the insurance into account, that makes up for a lot. I think this voyage will still end successfully with a fair profit to the Company; and us individually, of course."
"Har, I'll drink ter that, leddy. Here, lem'me fill yer glass."
The hurried clatter of feet in the corridor outside heralded unwanted guests as Merry turned, frowning, to stare at the cabin door.
"Jeez, don't anyone jest say can I come in, anymore?"
She crossed to the door in two easy strides, flung it open and stared at the man in the corridor outside.
"Beggin' yer pardon, ma'am," The seaman knowing just what a dangerous character he faced. "Jones, quartermaster, sez will ye come on deck an' read off a message yer own vessel's set out on its mizzen?"
"Chr-st, does work never end?" Merry pushed past the man, with a backward glance to Clara still sitting over her accounts. "Back in two minutes, Clara; the call o'dam' duty, an' what-not."
Up on deck she did not need the added height of the quarterdeck but stood by the starboard bulwark of the main deck, reading the line of colourful flags now streaming from their sheet attached to the lower mizzen of the Kraken.
"Lem'me see, what's that one, red'n'blue? Vessel sighted irm irpph umm—Jeesus!"
She turned rapidly to a heavily built seaman by her side.
"Hey, you Jones?"
"Where's Captain Bartock?"
"Below, ma'am, seein' ter a second wave o'the four D's, ma'am."
"Well, get down there, wherever he is, an' tell him there's a three-master, probably a barque, on our tail, an' rapidly approachin'. Got that?"
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
Bartock, faced with a possible dangerous situation, came on deck in something less than one minute, to stand by Merry's side, glowering out across the heaving spray-lashed seas in hope of sighting the pursuer.
"Who be he, then?"
"How should I know? Could be anything from a local fishing-smack t'the latest Spanish galleon outward-bound."
Bartock did not find this remark in the least funny.
"Iirph, reckon he'll smoke the Plantagenet fer a Guineaman, an' so a slaver, right off; what he'll take yer barque fer is anyone's guess."
At this point Merry turned to gaze over the heightening seas, now probably too storm-lashed to attempt a crossing back to her ship. In particular she focused on the long pennon streaming in the strengthening breeze from the main topmast of the Kraken, it's orange and white bars now glaring brightly in the fading light.
"Chr-st, why'd I leave my personal pennon aloft? Must be losing my mind."
"Foremast-top lookout reports two vessels, one a definite Guineaman, dead ahead." The quartermaster paused for breath, having run from the f'cstle. "T'other, perhaps a barque; lookout sez it's flyin' a long pennon, red an' white bars, ma'am."
Both Joanna, and Sandy presently standing by her side, knew who this belonged to; but, nevertheless Joanna felt the need for further confirmation.
"Ye knows well enough who flies that dam' pennon, Thomson?"
"Dam' straight, ma'am—Captain Merry Aveling, dam' her eyes an' soul ter Perdition." He growled this encomium through set teeth. "Thought she was meat fer the sharks, up Mayaguana way, mind yer?"
"Apparently not." Sandy here joining the conversation, with an ugly scowl. "What does it take ter kill the b-tch? Thought we'd struck her off the pay-list two month an' more a'gone?"
"We appear t'have been somewhat hasty, not ter say lackadaisical, over that there decision." Joanna admitting her faults gracefully. "Question is, what in hell's she doin', presently?"
For Sandy this question needed no thought whatever.
"In cahoots with the slaver's Captain; takin' her cut of the comin' profits at the slave markets fer escorting him safely over the pirate-ridden Central Caribbean, is what."
"Yer don't say." Joanna lost in thought.
Sandy glanced at her paramour enquiringly, knowing somewhat of how her lover's mind worked in trying circumstances.
"Yer not thinkin' o'engaging the b-tch, are ye?" Sandy put a restraining gloved hand on her companion's wrist. "Think o'the slaves, chained below in the slaver; by the time we'd finished with Merry, the slaver'd've cast most o'their cargo in'ta the sea, an' with these seas heavin' as they is we'd never be able t'get close enough ter stop the b-st-rd. We got'ta get right up close t'the slaver right off; scare him in'ta doin' nuthin', whiles we train our grapeshot-loaded eighteen's on his quarterdeck; or so we lets him think."
Joanna, in her own right, could see where this argument led.
"Yer sayin', either the slaver or Merry—but not both?"
"Merry ain't gon'na be a threat, not with this up-comin' storm over t'port—dam', look how dark the horizon over there is now?" Sandy shook her head, she feeling her lover's pain as if it were her own. "These rollin' seas mean neither she nor we can fire our guns t'any useful effect—an' won't be so able fer God knows how many hours, once the storm hits."
"The which ain't gon'na be more'n six glasses off; three hours from now, leddies." Thomson putting in his expert opinion.
Joanna paused over her verdict another few seconds, letting the agony of losing out on finishing-off the other Pirate Queen sear her inner vitals before reaching a decision.
"Jeez, right Thomson, belay the eighteens, lash 'em down tight at their stations. We're goin' fer the slaver, come what dam' may."
"She can look t'her own, Sandy, fer the next few hours." Joanna turning purposefully from the bulwark. "We need ter stop that dam' slaver throwin' overboard any more o' the dead an' dyin'."
"T'do that we'd need ter put on more sail." Sandy here frowning over the dangers of doing so in an advancing storm. "Is that wise? How much more canvas can the Amazon take, without losin' it ter shreds right off?"
"What do ye think, Thomson?" Joanna now in complete control of her environment. "Upper tops'ls, an' outer jibs?"
"Aye, ma'am; if the storm don't hit hard in the next four glasses, thet'll work at a pinch."
"Make it so, Quartermaster."
The Plantagenet's mast lookouts having been given a thoroughly well-deserved bollocking for failing to sight the pursuing vessel before the Kraken, Bartock and Merry were now, as they stood on the latter's increasingly windswept quarterdeck, possessors of far more detailed information.
"Small, but fast—probably a barque." Bartock mused on this tidbit awhile. "Wonder who he is, an' what he wants in tryin' ter overtake us so imperiously?"
This question held no difficulties for Merry, however.
"It's another pirate, take my word, Captain."
"Ye thinks so?" Bartock frowned indecisively, casting glances from side to side of his quarterdeck as if in two minds as to his next move. "Well, well—"
Seeing his doubt Merry gave him no time to brood over it, worrying herself about his next orders to his crew.
"What d'ye have in mind, Captain? What's the usual ploy in sity-atin's sich as we has here?"
Invited to consider the matter so directly Bartock took a deep breath, looking hard at the woman by his side.
"Ah, what ter do, ye asks?" He raised his eyes to the curving canvas over his head, as if seeking divine guidance, then glanced down at Merry once more. "Well, in ideal circumstances—sayin' as we'd sighted the pursuer well distant, jest on the horizon, as it might be, on a clear calm day—then we'd have had all the time in the world ter do the usual."
"That bein' what, Captain?"
"Oh, jest unchainin' the cargo, bringin' it up in groups on deck, an' castin' them all overboard, still with their leg an' wrist irons attached—helps 'em in sinkin' fast, ye sees. Then when the pursuer comes abeam o'us an' asks perlitely what in hell we think we're at, why, they can search the ship from stem t'stern without findin' a livin' cargo item. No livin' cargo, an' we ain't a slaver by Law, ye sees, ma'am."
Even with Merry's antecedents,—she certainly being a case-hardened unfeeling, somewhat sadistic, woman, this horrific plan still struck her all a'quiver in her mental processes.
"Jesus, yer cain't mean it?" She stood, eyeing the middle-sized man with something like awe. "Ye has some'ers near t'five hundred down below. Five hundred!"
"Which is the whole o'the present problem, ma'am." Bartock, obviously somewhat shaken by his deteriorating position, seemed to be thinking wholly without any moral view whatever. "I've heerd o'sich bein' done; why, if the truth be told, I've done it too; once, in a three-day calm when faced with an advancin' Royal Navy frigate, who wouldn't have taken kindly t'my cargo, no-ways. Managed fine ter get rid o'all the evidence that time, thanks be ter God. So, the Navy Captain couldn't do nuthin' but final watch me sail off, after searchin' my ship somethin' awful. The Directors o'the Company, back in Bristol, weren't too happy at losing the whole cargo, an' profit attached ter same—but what else was ter be done, I asks yer. Anyways, the next v'yage made up fer it handsomely, thanks be."
Having done some awful deeds in her time, and being no spring chicken where violence was concerned, nevertheless Merry found herself speechless in the face of such cold unfeeling indifference to humanity.
"Gawd, ye thinkin' o'doin' sich right now?"
"No, ma'am, no; ain't'cher listenin' ter me?" Bartock sounding a touch mortified, before he remembered who his companion was. "That's ter say, there's no time fer sich perlite informalities now. Not takin' the state o'the present seas in'ta account, neither. Sich'd take my crew, oh, most o'a workin' day ter accomplish adequately. These here high seas, the rollin' ship, an' that dam' barque on our tail so close—we jest don't have the time. We'll have ter take our chances; both in this here comin' storm, an' with whatever an' whoever that pursuer turns out ter be. Jest hopes t'dam' he don't take in'ta his head ter rake us with a broadside, is all."
It was at just this precise moment Merry bewailed the minute she had signed the East Bight and Cameroon Company's contract to protect the slaver through the Caribbean to its destination.
Joanna's call to the mainmast-top lookout brought instant reply.
"Three points on the port quarter, some league an' a half off." The lookout being a young sharp-eyed individual. "The Guineaman's put on sail like as ter Billy-be-dammed; the barque's haulin' off away ter port, makin' room a'tween her an' the Guineaman."
"Another glass or so an' we'll be abreast o'her." Sandy grinning in anticipation. "At which point, lover, what exactly do we do?"
Joanna, in the interim of the chase, had been considering this very problem.
"We don't lay-out our broadside an' rake her deck's with grape, fer a start, leddy."
"But what we does do is, we runs out our port eighteens, lookin' menacing as all damnation; then we speaks 'em over the seas, always hopin' they hears us above this dam' wind, an' quietly asks 'em ter refrain from any more discarding of their cargo, or we'll make 'em regret the day they was all born." Joanna's tone here taking on a sombre darkness. "We stays with 'em till this here storm's blown itself out, or gone on about its business. Then we puts a prize crew aboard, does horrible things to those in command, an' takes the vessel to a neutral port in Nicaragua where the poor slaves can be off-loaded an' given space ter lead free lives o'their own."
"Sounds like a plan." Sandy nodding agreement. "What about the pirate barque? Merry's ship, if indeed she's still alive an' permeatin' the seas like a bad smell?"
"I don't take note o'her." Joanna raised her chin imperiously in the air. "Nearly done fer her once, can do better next time."
When the three ships came up on each other the unfolding situation played out like a vast game of chess, the vessels being appropriate pieces. The Kraken, still minus its captain, bore-away three or four cables distance; trying to look as if they weren't actually there, and had no idea of the other ships' presence; while the Plantagenet, under Bartock's orders, had put on heavy sail in hopes of out-running their pursuer—but with expectable results.
"Guineaman's jest lost its mizzen topmast complete—an' its main upper topsail, torn ter shreds an' flyin' in the wind like rope's-ends."
"Maintop lookout's somethin' of a poet, I finds." Sandy smiling as she spoke.
Joanna, under some strain, closed her eyes tightly for a moment then opened them fresh and ready for the game's climax.
"Which loss puts the slaver at our convenience, doll." She glanced down to the main-deck where Thomson was organising the port eighteens. "Everything seems t'be ready. Ho, Thomson, lay us alongside, as close as the yards allow."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." Thomson's reply almost lost in the ever–growing wind as the storm continued inexorably closing-in on them.
Another glass sped by, the sand trickling through from top container to bottom with nerve-aching slowness; but eventually the ships' were alongside each other, close enough for each to be heard even across the now raging seas between.
"Captain, ye'll not be thinkin' o'off-loadin' any other o'your cargo whiles I'm here t'see sich." Joanna's voice, always deep, now sounding like Poseidon himself. "Not so much as one person, mind ye. I've a mind, havin' nuthin' better t'take my attention this day, ter stay with ye till this storm passes—then we're gon'na have a conference, the two o'us. Any shenanigans an' I'll rake ye like to a chicken bein' plucked—my eighteens' havin' grape loaded all along the line. What d'ye say ter that, Captain?"
"F-ck this, I'm out'ta here."
"What, Captain Aveling, what in hell'r ye up to?" Bartock all at sea in more ways than one. "Are ye not stayin' by my side, ter sustain my efforts? An' what about the Company's contract ye signed?"
"I'm a f-ckin' pirate, ye id'yeet." Merry well ahead in organising her own escape plan. "F-ck the Company; I'm doin' what pirates' allus does, abandonin' ye ter yer well-deserved fate, ye fool. G'bye."
"Where're ye goin'? There's a dam tropical storm advancin' on our heels right now. Look at the seas, fer God's sake?"
"My pinnace is large enough t'take me across ter the Kraken, don't worry; an' when I reaches same don't harbour any thoughts o'my helpin' ye out after the storm, my firepower not bein' that big. Good luck t'ye, I says, an' dam'med if'n ye don't need sich."
With this parting shot Merry turned away from the appalled man, heading for the main-deck where a group of her own crew awaited her arrival to take her over the heaving seas to her vessel, on the far side of the Plantagenet from the Amazon. It was something of a dangerous choice, considering the tearing spray-capped waves and the now howling wind, but for Merry it seemed her only remaining one.
"Ye thinks we can still send a cutter across, baby?"
"Yeah, the seas are high, but still containable, I thinks." Joanna having advanced her plans in the intervening minutes. "I don't like the looks o'the activity we saw on the slaver's quarterdeck just now; something's up, I doesn't like the look of."
"She ain't goin' anywhere, in a hurry." Sandy taking another glance over the bulwark and intervening high seas. "Bits of her mizzen topmast all down on her quarterdeck, an' the main upper topsail in shreds; she's a sittin' duck."
"All the same, I'd feel better fer havin' some o'my own on her decks." Joanna cast a nervous smile at her lover. "Still thinkin' o'those slaves, chained down below in her—got'ta think o'them, y'knows."
"I know, dear, I knows." Sandy feeling her lover's worry like a physical ache. "Let's leave Thomson in charge over here, he's up ter it. We can cross in the cutter together; me not leavin' your side fer anythin', as it is."
Joanna gripped Sandy's gloved hand tightly for a few seconds, then they both turned to the main-deck and the waiting cutter.
Once on the slaver's main-deck, not without a deal of difficulty in climbing the ship's rocking sea-splashed tumblehome, Joanna lost no time in ordering the twenty or so of her crew who had accompanied her in the large cutter to take control of the already demoralized sailors they found there.
A few seconds later and they arrived on the quarterdeck alongside the nervously twitching medium-sized individual who was apparently the captain of the vessel.
"Who're you?" Sandy imbuing her words with all the sarcasm of an angry nature.
"Captain Henry Bartock, at your service, ladies." Bartock trying that old ploy, brazen indifference and ignorance to the all too obvious. "What may I do fer ye both?"
Not having the time or inclination for play Joanna got down to brass tacks with no further attempt at polite etiquette.
"Ye're a slaver, ye b-st-rd, ye sells human beings' fer profit, which is as low a business as can be imagined; ye've been fillin' the last few hours with castin' overboard y're dead an' dying, as I've seen with my own eyes; ye're place's in Hell, an' I means ter send ye hither with no further hindrance."
Seeing the light in Joanna's eyes, and those of her companion—and seeing how his own crew had folded like limp lettuce in the face of the pirates' around them—Bartock began to realise that his position had deteriorated to about its lowest ebb.
"Come, come, leddies; what say—"
At this juncture, like a Rhine-maiden in real life, Clara made her way on deck; coming out the door under the quarterdeck onto the main-deck, and making her swift way hence from there to the quarterdeck itself; she being, apparently, ignorant of the ongoing nature of the situation all round her.
"What is the meaning of this, may I ask? Who are you ladies,—and dressed so unwomanly, too,—and what business have you on the Plantagenet?"
Sandy turned to examine the young lady in front of her with interest. The new arrival wearing a dress of green taffeta, the wide skirts swaying round her ankles; the bodice tight, with a lace neckerchief at her bosom; long blonde tresses blowing freely in the increasing wind. Her expression one of high disregard for those she obviously thought beneath her dignity.
"We're here ter make sure yer cargo never reaches its destination, is what we're after, lady." Sandy curling her upper lip in disdain.
Appalled by this outright impoliteness Clara proceeded to dig her grave deeper, if only she had known.
"This is outrageous; this ship belongs to the East Bight and Cameroon Company, a fact of which you are both clearly unaware." Clara now beginning to get into her stride, having had a lifetime's experience in cowing underlings and servants. "Our cargo is, another fact of which you are both probably unaware, highly perishable. We must avoid wasting any time if we wish the cargo to arrive at the pens and auction blocks in Honduras in good enough condition to allow of fair profit on the Company's part. Business, you realise, ladies, business and profit. Kindly leave this vessel at once, and let us be on our way; our cargo being no concern of yours."
Joanna and Sandy had listened to this diatribe with astonishment, never having before met anyone so absolutely immune to the higher moral feelings. It was Joanna who first found her voice once more.
"Y'seem ter look on yer cargo as mere items in an account-book?"
"And so they are." Clara wholly clear on this matter. "Each item detailed and noted as to age, size, general form, and given a rating—A1 to B3—the latter being the first during the voyage to be, hum, dispensed with as having no further likelihood of profit at the destination, if they deteriorate in condition. It is all carefully and professionally organised, ladies, have no fear of that. Now, you are wasting our time; kindly make yourselves scarce. By the way, the point just occurs to me—you, madam, yes, you, who seem to have the false authority of a superior officer, your skin belies you; you may think on taking yourself off before I have a fancy to entail you here and now and add you to the Company's books. A specimen in your condition will be sure to bring a fine profit. What say you, Captain Bartock?"
But the Captain, faltering visibly as he realised just how he now stood, never had the time to give any answer; nor, for that matter, did Clara who, unknowingly to her, had already spoken her last word on this earth.
Having had a bad day; being tired and agitated by the whole dam' thing; and having been tormented to her face with her skin colour and racial antecedents, Joanna, here, made the only reply any honest pirate could offer in the trying circumstances.
With one stride Joanna stood beside the almost as tall Clara, gripping the young woman round her tightly corseted waist; Joanna then raised her high in the air as if her burden was a mere sack of feathers; turned to the bulwark and, with one swing, tossed Clara overboard—she, in the interim, never having had so much time as to shriek, complain, or make any sound whatever. Over the rising wind of the approaching storm even the splash as Clara hit the raging waves going unheard on deck.
"Well, that's her taken care of." Sandy shrugging uninterestedly, she having had some intuition in the last hour or so that such a climax was only to be expected. "Now, the only question Jo here, an' I, has ter ask ourselves is—what about you?"
Bartock looked from one woman to the other, before realising it had been a wholly rhetorical question—they both already knowing full-well what they had in mind for him; as, indeed, did he.
"In all this confusion I rather lost sight o'the other pirate vessel, over there, ducks." Sandy, half a glass later, speaking from the now much less crowded quarterdeck. "Is that a pinnace tryin' ter haul up ter the barque thereaways?"
"Looks so, darlin'." Joanna meanwhile having regained a good deal of her usual composure, what with one thing and another. "Wonder if Merry's actually aboard?"
"It's flyin' her pennant, at any rate." Sandy rapidly losing interest. "Let her sink or swim as the storm decides, I says. This storm means she won't have any opportunity of attacking us, anyway; if it is her. We'll have each been blown leagues apart by the time it's exhausted itself. What're we gon'na do about the poor people below decks then, lover? They'll need some looking after, I expects."
"This's a fine storm, but nuthin' sizeable t'worry about." Joanna's experience of a multitude of weather conditions coming to the fore. "It'll play itself out without troubling us overmuch. After which we brings a full prize-crew aboard this tub, sends the original crew below decks t'take the place o'the chained slaves; has the slaves up on deck, unchained an' given food an' water from our own supplies on the Amazon; then finds a nice comfortable spot on the coast of Nicaragua to send them ashore to work up their own settlement, free and safe."
"We bein' pirates, an' all," Sandy raising the point only out of token interest. "there's no long-term aspect of profit in all of this fer us, eh?"
But Joanna could, for once, answer this question from her heart.
"Only the good feelin' ye feels in yer own heart at knowin'—perhaps fer the one an' only time in yer life—you're doin' the right thing, lover."
"I'm with ye there, Jo, I'm with ye there. Come on, let's get t'work; the sooner those poor wretches below're unchained an' brought in'ta the light o'day—even sich a stormy one as this—the better."
"Right behind ye, lover, right behind ye."
The next Captain Clayton story will arrive shortly.