Martín drummed his fingers on the gleaming wooden railing and stared at the Dutch ship. The vessel was upwind and too far away to smell the stench, but Martín could imagine it. The pitiful cries of the slaves were another matter. Those he could hear even from this distance. The dirty business of slaving was more lucrative than ever since the British and Americans had banned the importation of slaves in 1808. The American South paid well for smuggled slaves, as it could not function without their labor, a fact Martín knew all too well. He turned to his first mate. “How many crew, Beauville?” he asked in English, rather than his native French. He’d begun speaking English after the British granted him his letter of marque, the document that made his profitable life as a privateer possible. Beauville lowered his spyglass. “No more than forty, Captain, and most of those appear to be either drunk or incompetent.” Martín laughed at the man’s dry assessment and strode to where his second mate held the wheel. “Ready the men, Daniels, and then prepare to make the offer.” Although the Dutch ship had suffered some damage to its mast, it appeared to be a well-maintained ship and far cleaner than the usual run of slavers. Martín’s own ship, the Golden Scythe, had been a slave ship before he’d captured her, but she’d cleaned up nicely.
He regarded the immaculate deck with pride. With a crew of seventy men and fourteen cannon, the Scythe greatly outmatched the Dutch ship and was a force to be reckoned with. Still, it was never wise to be too cocky. If the Blue Bird carried to capacity—five hundred souls— the money involved was great. Things would become ugly if the ship’s captain was determined to fight for his cargo. Martín was confident he would triumph in such a struggle, but he knew it would not be without cost. A flurry of activity broke out as he watched the other ship; the crew was flapping about like a flock of frightened hens. A dozen men stood near the main mast and gestured wildly to one another—a few with machetes. Martín shook his head; something odd was going on. Daniels appeared beside him.
“Everything is prepared, Captain, and we await your command.” Martín turned to Jenkins, his man of all work, who held out two pistols for his inspection. He checked the guns carefully before inserting them into a holster that kept both guns resting on his right hip while his rapier lay on his left. The holster was of Martín’s design and allowed him to draw any of the three weapons quickly. He glanced into the large mirror Jenkins held up before him and flicked an imaginary piece of lint from his immaculate coat. He took his time and made a minute adjustment to his cravat, careful to keep his movements languid and his expression bored. His crew was watching, their battered faces amused, yet proud. Martín knew they drew strength from his reputation as a cold, hard killer who was more concerned with his cravat than his life. To be honest, Martín’s stomach churned just as much, if not more, than that of any other man on the ship. If anyone died today, he would be to blame.
While that might not bother his conscience—a hardened, shriveled thing—his pride was fat and healthy, and he could not bear to have poor decisions attributed to him. Martín flicked his hand, and Jenkins took away the mirror. Daniels’s mouth was pursed with disapproval. He knew the younger man still found his behavior shocking, even though he’d been Martín’s second for over a year. Martín found his irritation amusing. “Make the offer, Mr. Daniels.” “Aye, Captain!” Daniels turned and gave the midshipman a hand signal. A second later a loud crack issued from one of the Scythe’s cannons. The smoke had barely cleared before a black flag crept up the Dutch ship’s pole.
Martín exhaled; they would parley. “Excellent shot, gentlemen, and very persuasive. Beauville, please escort their captain to the wardroom when he arrives.” Martín unfastened his weapon belt and handed it to Jenkins. “Don’t unload these just yet,” he advised before going below deck. Once inside his cabin, he cast his hat onto the desk and collapsed in a high-backed chair, careful not to crush the tails of his coat. His excessive concern for his appearance was only partly feigned. He loved fine clothing. As a young slave in New Orleans he’d envied the wealthy, well-dressed men who’d frequented Madam Sonia’s establishment, vowing he would dress even better one day. Now he was rich enough to dress however he pleased, and what pleased him was the best.
He idly studied his reflection in the glass that hung over his desk, frowning at the man who looked back. Nobody would ever mistake him for a European, no matter the color of his eyes, skin, and hair. Even though his skin was lighter than that of anyone imprisoned on the Dutch ship, Martín could be bought and sold just as readily were he to step foot on American soil. Actually, he would face death if he returned home, death being the punishment for a runaway slave. Martín pushed the thought away and absently picked up a book and opened it. He immediately wished he hadn’t. The black marks danced on the pages before him, inscrutable and taunting. It was a criminal offense to teach a slave to read in America, and Martín had been far too old to learn after he’d escaped. The only three words he could read or write were those that comprised his name: Martín Etienne Bouchard—a name that wasn’t even his, but one he’d cobbled together for himself. The name Martín he had taken from a story an old woman had once told him: the tale of Martín Garatuza, the legendary Mexican trickster.
And Etienne Bouchard he’d added some time later, taking it from the old man who’d taught him everything he knew about horses. And why not? Old Bouchard had been dead by then; he no longer needed the name. Martín shut the book with a snap and replaced it on the shelf. Most of the books had been on the Scythe when he’d taken her, but his friend and mentor One-Eyed Standish had given him some of the others, mercifully unaware his protégé did not know how to read. Martín frowned. Thoughts of his humiliating past only came to him when he was too tired to control his memories. Or too restless. And he was always restless when it came to seizing another man’s ship. But soon it would be over. He stood and unfastened the gold buttons of his navy wool coat before draping it over the back of the chair.
Once he was finished with the parley he would return to Freetown, set the captives free, turn the offenders over to His Majesty’s government, and collect his reward. In other words: he’d do the same thing he always did, and there was no reason to feel restless. Martín looked at the ornate gold clock that sat on his desk; there was at least an hour before the other captain would arrive to parley. He could rest and catch up on the sleep he had missed while they’d followed the slaver. Calmed by his comfortable vision of the future, Martín stretched out on his luxurious bed, closed his eyes, and imagined amusing ways in which to spend the money he would get from capturing this ship. Meanwhile, on the Blue Bird . Sarah was finishing setting a little boy’s broken arm using a filthy strip of skirt and a stiff piece of leather from her battered medical bag when the hatch to the slave hold opened and a ladder was lowered into the gloom. “Woman!” The guttural voice came from the narrow opening high above. Sarah squinted up, but the light was too bright to see the speaker’s face. “Captain want, now,” the man ordered in English so guttural she could barely understand him.
“There is a woman in need of burying,” Sarah called back in French, glancing at the new mother she had been unable to save, who now lay packed between two of the ship’s ribs in the bilge and waste. “Come now!” Sarah shut her mouth, said a silent prayer, and crawled across the splintered wood and over the tightly packed bodies toward the ladder. What was left of her wet skirts dragged behind her, snagging and tearing, making the short journey twice as long. Just before she made it to the swaying ladder a hand caught her arm; it was Femi, a captive she had met on the hellish three-week journey from the inland to the coastal settlement of Ouidah. Sarah paused, and Femi leaned close and whispered in Yoruba, “If there is some way for you to get the doors open, even for only a few moments, we will be waiting.” He looked up at the opening— squinting against the light. “Maybe at night you will be able to sneak away—after.” He gave her a grim, humorless smile and shrugged his massive shoulders. They both knew what he meant. Why else would these monsters take a woman from the hold? He gave her arm a brief squeeze.
“But if not . ” They stared at each other in the gloom, more words unnecessary. Two other women had disappeared in the days they’d spent in this hell; neither woman had returned. She gave him an abrupt nod and commenced the torturous climb. The muscles in her shoulders and wrists burned hotter with each rung. She’d begun to think she wouldn’t make it to the top when rough hands closed around her arms. The men cursed her smell and grunted under the weight of her soaking clothing as they lifted her into the blazing sunshine. A scarred, unshaven face was pushed up against hers. “You fix captain.” Sarah reeled back from the alcohol fumes and stench of rotting teeth, noticeable even after the horrid smell of the hold.
She would have fallen had he not given her arm a vicious yank and dragged her down a short flight of steps into a dim, narrow corridor. They led her to the last door, and the leader rapped. “Kapiten!” A much softer answer came from behind the handsome mahogany and brass door, and her captor wrenched it open. He muttered something in Dutch before thrusting Sarah inside and slamming the door behind her. Sarah’s first glimpse of the captain was both a shock and a relief. He was young, perhaps five-andtwenty. His build was slight—almost delicate—and he was very fair, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the angels in her father’s religious books. But the thing that left her weak with relief was the fact he was ill—far too ill to have even the slightest amorous glint in his watery blue eyes. He stood and gestured to a chair across from him. “Please have a seat,” he said in almost unaccented English.
Sarah moved past him, and he covered his mouth, his nostrils quivering as the smell hit him. She dropped into the chair and crossed her arms. “Thank you so much for joining me.” Sarah snorted. His smile wavered at the rude noise. “I am Mies Graaf; my family owns the Blue Bird. My men tell me you are a medical person and—” A ferocious bout of coughing doubled him over. Grim satisfaction trickled through Sarah as she watched his suffering; it was only fair that this architect of human misery should receive his own share of pain. An image of her father’s kind, worn face appeared in Sarah’s mind and froze her smile. Reverend Michael Fisher would have argued that a man depraved enough to deal in human flesh deserved her pity rather than scorn.
Always remember we are not on Earth to judge, Sarah. The memory of her father’s words drove the vengeful thoughts from her head and left shame in their wake. She was behaving like a fool. Instead of letting rage consume her, she needed to harness her anger and use it to figure out a way to get the doors to the hold open. She eyed the sick man. He was all she had to work with, and there was no point antagonizing him. The Dutchman’s coughing diminished, and he straightened in his chair, his movements slow and deliberate, like those of a very old man. “I apologize, Miss, er—” “Fisher. Sarah Fisher.” He frowned at whatever he saw on her face.
“I was not aware of your presence in the hold until a short time ago. I am sorry you have been subjected to such indignity. You will be given a cabin and treated as my guest.” “What of the others?” His handsome brow wrinkled. “Excuse me?” “The other people in your hold—what about them?” He flinched back from the violence in her tone, his eyes flickering about the room, as if searching for answers, a dark red stain creeping over his already flushed cheeks. “Ah . that. Buying these people was not my doing—nor was it my intention to—” His voice broke, and, when he drew in a ragged breath to speak, he was wracked by more coughing. Sarah made an irritated noise and stood. “Give me your wrist.
” Still coughing, he regarded her grimy hand with apprehension. “Do you wish for my help or not?” He held out one pale, slim, clean hand. Sarah snatched up the proffered limb. His pulse was irregular and fast, and his skin hot and damp. She dropped his arm. “I will need to look in your ears and mouth.” He leaned forward, and she took his angelic, clean face with her filthy hands and tilted him toward the light streaming through the porthole window. “Open your mouth and depress your tongue with your finger.” He did so, and Sarah looked her fill before resuming her seat and meeting his frightened gaze. “You have the choking fever,” she lied, adding a silent prayer.
“The choking fever,” he repeated, as if in a trance. “And the cure?” The hope in his eyes was painful to witness, no matter how much he deserved his suffering. “Only the thorn of Christ will cure it.” Sarah offered more prayers for forgiveness of the lies pouring from her mouth. Surely the dire circumstances would excuse her dishonesty? “Thorn of Christ?” he repeated. “Yes, a rare herb.” So rare as to be nonexistent. “Where can we procure this herb?” It was the question Sarah had been hoping for. “It only grows near coastal marshes.” It was imperative she convince him to take the ship back to shore.
It was the only chance for her and the people in the hold—if she could get the door open. Sarah pushed the thought away. First things first. She examined the room while the captain pondered her words. A pair of dueling pistols hung over the desk, the guns so ornate Sarah could hardly believe they were real. She was imagining ways to get her hands on one when a deafening crack shook the room. She jumped to her feet. “What was that?” The Dutch captain gave her a grim look. “That, Miss Fisher, was the sound of cannon fire.