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You Belong to Me cover2

 

ONE
Out at Sea

“Get a pretty penny for that one, I will.”

“Ye will if he don’t die, ye mean.”

“Ah, he won’t die. He’s just a landlubber is all. When we get to moving up them rivers and things calms down, he’ll quit hurling.”

Gabriel had expected adventure, danger even, with some hardships mixed in. He had not expected to be looking down the barrel of a pistol while heaving up the nonexistent contents of his stomach. At least the burly pirates had enough decency to wait until he was finished before throwing him over their shoulders and hauling him from the Gloriana to their ship.

Preach the Word, indeed. Was he still hearing that still small voice?

Are you serious, Lord? Preach? Here? Now?

But Heaven kept quiet, and Gabriel Mackenzie closed his eyes in defeat and curled onto his side. What kind of man allows himself to be taken prisoner without putting up some kind of fight?

The hatch above him banged shut, plunging him and the others into total darkness. From somewhere to his right, there came a low moan. Another man sniffed and tried to choke back a sob.

“What will they do with us?”

At first, no one answered the whispered question. Then, taking a deep breath, Gabriel propped himself on his elbow and rubbed a hand over his face. “Sell us, they said.”

“What will we do?”

The frantic tone in the unseen speaker’s voice made his own heart stutter, but he forced a note of reassurance in his reply. “We will wait and pray. Surely, there is a way out of this.”

“How?” another voice whimpered.

Closing his eyes, he dragged in a breath and braced against the increasing waves buffeting the ship. The lads were young, after all, no more than eighteen, fresh from the farm or schoolyard, and they had no one to look to, save him. “We will not give up hope. God…” He clenched his jaw against the gagging sensation and shoved a fist into his middle. “God will not forsake us.”

A moment passed in quiet. Then, they scrabbled around him. One lay a hand on his shoulder, another on his head. For the time being, they had freedom of movement. He would be thankful for that.

“We will pray,” said Roberts, the eldest of them. “Pray and you rest, Preacher.”

Tears pooled in his eyes as each man in his own way called on God for help, strength and healing for him. Glad for the dark, he blinked and whispered his own Amen. They thought he was mad for going to the New World to evangelize, but they weren’t letting their opinion get in the way of showing him kindness. He would take solace in that.

“Roberts, is that you?” he asked, reaching up an exploratory hand to his shoulder.

His hand was grasped and Roberts gave it a squeeze. “Aye, Preacher. ’Tis I.”

“Who else is here?”

“I am, Preacher. Gregory Ramsey and my brother, Gordon.”

“Did Jameson make it?”

“Right here, Preacher.”

“What about Lyndingham?”

The silence spoke for itself.

“Lord Lyndingham?” Roberts called out, but there was no reply.

“God help him,” one of the Ramsey brothers murmured.

Gabriel echoed the sentiment. If Lord Lyndingham was not with them in the hold of the pirate ship, he was most likely dead along with the others who were missing.

As the gravity of their situation dawned, the men around him fell silent. Then, the hatchway above them banged open.

“Here now! What do ye think you are about?”

Lifting his head, Gabriel blinked in the sudden light. Two forms were descending into the hold. Once their feet touched the deck, they held up a lamp and looked around.

“What’s this?” One of them sneered. “Think ye can huddle up like a bunch of women?”

“Mayhap they’s planning something,” the other said. He let go a stream of tobacco juice and struck out with the toe of his boot. “Get on with ye now! Move!”

There were exclamations of pain, as the men…his men scattered.

“Cap’n says we’re to feed ye. Line up along that wall. Not on your knees like a gaggle of mollies. Sit up on your bums like the king’s men.”

Rolling to his knees, Gabriel judged the distance between himself and the wall the sailors indicated to be about five feet. It might as well be a mile. Placing one foot onto the deck, he ignored the whirling in his head and stood. He did not know if they hit him or if he just fell, but when he came to, they were holding him upright, yelling into his face.

“Ye hear me, choir boy? If Cap’n says ye are to eat, then ye will eat. If anybody’s getting a thrashing, it ain’t gonna be ole Murphy here!” The man yelling had small, mean eyes, and as he finished his rant, he jabbed a finger in his own chest.

A spark of defiance reared its head, and Murphy must have seen it in his eyes, for an instant later, a knife blade flashed and was pressed against his throat. Gabriel blinked and whatever the man saw in his expression seemed to mollify him. Tucking the knife back into his belt, he nodded. “Aye, I see ye understand then.”

Wooden bowls of gruel were shoved into his and his comrades’ hands and the sailors stood back to watch. Closing his eyes, he hoped if he did not have to look at the substance in the vessel, it might go down and stay down. Ought he to say grace?

Without a doubt, Lord, I am not thankful for it, but, if you could make it stay down, I’d be grateful. Anything to make the men leave them as they had before.

The consistency of paste, the mixture in the bowl reminded him of the glop he and his sister had used the day they attempted to glue his mother’s favorite vase back together. He was eight. At twelve, Katrina had been horrified and blamed him for the entire thing. Yet, she had been just as eager to play ball as he had, and in the end, both had received Papa John’s harsh punishment. Throat aching at the memory, he dipped his fingers into the bowl and scooped up a bite. There was no hope for it, though; the second it touched his tongue, its flavor reminiscent of dirt, he leaned forward and gave in to the heaves.

They clobbered him over the head for that. Grateful for the reprieve, he sank into the quiet blackness and let it all melt away; the sickness, the filth, the captivity. Perhaps it was only a dream after all. He would awaken in his own berth aboard the Gloriana, and it would be a horrible nightmare brought on by the tossing waves.

If only it would stop. Rolling and pitching to and fro, first this way then that, one moment rising up, the next dropping down, the ship was bent on killing him. Then, a hammering in his head, and a groan escaped before he could stop it.

“Easy there, Preacher,” a voice soothed. “You’re not alone. We’re still here.”

Eyes flying open, he started in reflex, but there was nowhere to go. Something bit into his wrists; they had bound him. “Roberts, is that you?”

“Aye, it is.”

“What time is it?”

“Don’t know, Preacher, but I am that certain it is night. When they brought us food last, I saw the moon and stars through the hatchway.”

His relief spilled out onto his face and dripped hot onto the deck. Thank you, Lord. He was not blind after all. The thought made him ashamed, for Katrina bore her affliction like a soldier. He, on the other hand was horrified at the mere suggestion.

“Here, Preacher,” Roberts said, holding something to his lips. “They left us some water. I saved a drop for you. Drink up now.”

Unable to do more than part his lips, he allowed the other man to dribble the tepid liquid onto his tongue, but precious little made it down his throat. Probably for the best; his body couldn’t stand another convulsion.

“What did they do to me?” he croaked.

“Tied your hands behind you with a rope. Me and Jameson been taking turns holding you so you would not roll about the deck like a loose cannon. Just after the last time they fed us, they dropped in several more of the passengers. Poor fellows. If they ain’t injured, they’re bad sick. One of them died a while ago. Thought you was a goner, too, what with the way they hit you over the head like that.”

“Unfortunately, I am still alive.”

“Still sick?”

“Yes.”

“Heard them say they plan to sell us as indentures when we get to Virginia.”

“There has to be a way out of this, Roberts. We mustn’t give up hope.”

“Can’t see how, Preacher.”

Neither could he, but hopelessness was not an option. “Roberts, will you pray with me?”

“Aye, Preacher.”

Even after Roberts’ voice faded with an Amen, he hung onto the knowledge that he was not alone. Not only was God here, but God had sent a Christian man to be a comfort. “The LORD is my portion, saith my soul,” he whispered, remembering the verse from Lamentations. “Therefore will I hope in Him.”

“The LORD is good unto them that wait on Him,” Roberts quoted, “to the soul that seeketh Him.”

“It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD,” he finished.

“Amen, Preacher. Take your rest, now.”

Helpless to do anything else, he curled into himself and forced his breathing to slow. His head ached abominably, but the rough deck beneath him was his only pillow. All sense of time slid away; the appearance of either daylight or darkness through the hatchway when they came to feed them was his only indication of time passing. At least once every period of daylight they crammed a mouthful of the paste into his mouth, and he attempted to swallow it, but his gorge rejected it every time. On the fourth day, a third man came down through the hatch and helped the first two lift him from his place near the wall.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To the ship’s surgeon. Cap’n says we can’t let ye die.”

They hauled him up and out of the darkness. Why was he not allowed to die? Others had been. Surely, his life mattered little in the great scheme of things. Whatever the reason, they carried him to a table, dumped him like a sack of potatoes and scurried away while a grizzled old man leaned over him, the smell of herbs and alcohol thick in the air.

“Feeling peely-wally, are ye? Have a touch of the water sickness? Well, first things first, then.” Muttering in the Gaelic about fools who did not have the sense to stay on land, the old man whom he assumed to be the surgeon, untied the rope from around his wrists and flipped him over onto his back. Taking his hand, he wrapped it around the edge of the table and squeezed. “Hold on, cause I ain’t picking you up if you fall onto the floor.”

He gripped the edge of the table, pressed his head into its bracing surface, squeezed his eyes shut and waited. There was a conversation between the old man and a youth, then running feet. A few minutes later, the youth returned, and he heard pouring water and stirring.

“Right then, Laddie, can ye lift ye own head?” the surgeon asked.

“No, I can’t, and I’d prefer it if you left me to die.”

The surgeon sighed. “Claude! Get over here and lift the patient’s head for me while I pour this tea down his throat.”

“Aye, Sir. Are we to keep this one alive, then?”

“Aye, we are.”

Their hands were quick but gentle as they lifted his head and tipped a concoction into his mouth. He wanted to protest but was no match for them. The tea was warm and only a little dripped out to wet his chin.

“That’s it, Laddie,” the surgeon coaxed. “A little at a time. Swallow it down. It won’t come back up. I promise.”

And, oddly enough, the old man was right. He was slow and steady but insistent, allowing him a breath between sips. The youth, Claude, held his head firmly. When the liquid was gone, they let him lie back down and left the room.

Two full days went by with him lying prone on the surgeon’s table and the surgeon and Claude pouring the tea down his throat. It was some herbal concoction that did not make his stomach want to rebel. On the third day, they sat him in a chair, and he managed to stay upright without the whirling in his head. No pain, either, and he thought he might not mind living after all.

“Well, ye ain’t looking like ye’re going to die,” the surgeon grinned. “Let me take a look at your eyes. Aye, bonny they are. And, now stick out your tongue. Mh-hm, ye will do.” Turning toward the surgery’s door, he yelled, “Claude!”

“Aye, Doctor?”

“Run and tell Cap’n Harty, the prisoner’s going to live.”

“Aye, Doctor!”

“Sir,” Gabriel began, “surely you can understand I am here against my will.”

“None of my concern, Lad. I just gets ’em well again.” The hard look in the old man’s eyes told him he could expect no sympathy. His whole being ached with the urge to beg, but he would not disgrace himself. Back straight, he hardened his resolve and managed a short nod. When the two thugs who fed the prisoners came and pointed their weapons at him, he stood tall but would not move until ordered to do so.

“Start walking,” the one said, waving his pistol toward the open hatchway.

“And don’t try anything,” barked the other, “or we’ll shoot.”

He was almost to the hatchway, when he caught sight of the ship. Headed straight for them, it was huge and flying the Union Jack. There was scurrying in the lines above him, some shouting, and then from high up in the crow’s nest, “Man of War off the starboard bow!”

He knew not where the impulse came from. All he knew was one moment he was resigned to his fate, guns trained on him, and the next he was standing on the rail, sucking in a lungful of air before diving toward the waves below. The pistol shot rang out just as his body sliced through the chilly waters of the Atlantic.

TWO
Virginia, 1748

Mercy Wakefield stared across the table at her round-cheeked neighbor and let her fork clatter to her plate.

“Surely, Mr. Murphy, you jest?” Lord, let him be jesting. Marriage?

“Why, no, Lass,” Hiram Murphy said. “I am quite serious. I know ye have not had enough time to mourn your father…God rest his soul, but there is a church down the way with a proper minister in residence. It could be spring before we come this way again, and no telling how long before we get another minister. Seems the right thing, Lass, is to make it all legal while we can.”

She lowered her gaze to her plate and dug deep for calm. But the congealing grease surrounding her breakfast of hashed potatoes made her gorge rise instead. Under no circumstances would she become this man’s wife. Yet, how to refuse him without offending him? Arrogant he may be, but it was because of him that she had been able to bring her wares down out of the mountains to trade for the supplies needed for the coming winter. If she angered him, no telling what would happen.

“Mr. Murphy, I am certain your judgment is sound. However, as you are aware, marriage is a sacred institution, and if I decide to enter into it, I want plenty of time for contemplation and prayer before doing so.” Not that she would choose to enter into it again, but the less he knew about her past, the better.

“Aye, of course, Lassie, ye are right,” he nodded, crunching down on a huge mouthful of bacon without bothering to close his mouth. “I would not have asked in such a crude manner if we weren’t so close to winter and ye weren’t in great need of a man at your place.”

Mercy wanted to tell him she did not need a man, but, for once, he was right. A husband, on the other hand, she did not need. A slave would be perfect; someone who would do as he was told, someone who would not try to flatter her in order to gain her farm or her heart. It was a shame she was against slavery, having been subjected to its cruelty once before. The best she could do was offer to pay folks for the help she needed. Surely, apple puddings and cakes, woolen blankets, shawls and rugs, perhaps even some furs come next spring might be good enough payment for the work she needed done.

“Are ye well, Lass? Ye have not eaten much of your breakfast.”

“Yes, Mr. Murphy. It is just that I am ready to be on my way home. I believe I shall go make sure my things are packed for the journey.”

“Ye can run, Lass, but ye know ye will have to make a decision. A woman can’t manage that farm all by herself.”

His words followed her as she left the dining room, but she did not turn back. Up the stairs she went, swallowing back bile all the way. She would not marry him, but would her offer to pay someone work out? What would she do if she could not find anyone willing? Her father would not have wanted her to spend the winter alone with no one to help with the chores, the gathering in of the rest of the crops, the hauling, splitting and chopping of wood, the hunting, the preparing of hides to sell next spring, the cooking and cleaning, the weaving and the never ending spinning so they would have wool for stockings, mittens and scarves. It had been all she and her parents and sister could do just to make it.

“What would you tell me to do, Papa?” With a rueful laugh, she topped the last step. She knew what her father would say. “Pray, daughter. Seek the Lord’s will. He will never let you down.”

The Lord would not let her down. She had let Him down, though.

“Pardon me, Missus, but Massa wanting to know if you want him to come haul anything down?”

Pausing by a window, she shifted her attention to the little slave girl bouncing from foot to foot. “Is Mr. Murphy ready so soon, Pansy?”

“No, Missus, he still eating. But he say he want to get on the road as soon as he done.”

“The only thing that needs carried down is my trunk.”

“I tell my pappy, and he come and bring it down.”

“That will be fine, Pansy. Thank you.”

“Yes, Missus.”

Turning back to the window, she caught sight of the river down below and allowed a sigh.

“Missus,” Pansy hesitated, “is there something wrong?”

“No, Pansy. I just realized how pretty the river is.”

“Prettier when the sun is shining.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I like to watch the men come and go on that ship.”

Following the young girl’s pointing finger, she spied the crowd of men. The ship was not a large one, but it was a sea fairing vessel.

“I reckon they are selling them men,” Pansy said, her voice small. “Looks like a few of them is in chains.”

Ignoring the sudden pang in her chest, she stepped away from the scene below. “Best get on back downstairs, Pansy.”

Then, without waiting for an answer, she went into her room and closed the door. Rather a shame she did not agree with owning folks; one of those strong backs would be just what she needed. And, further her heathenish reputation to boot. If she were looking to ruin herself even more, she would go down there, use her money from her honey and wool and purchase one of them. Indentures, from the look of them, not a one of them dark skinned, a man looking to pay off his passage to the New World who would be glad for the chance to earn some land of his own. She could set him to do the hauling and chopping and hunting this winter, and she would even make him do a fair share of the spinning.

At that thought, a grown man bending to turn the spinning wheel round and round, she grinned. Then, she shook her head and called herself every kind of fool. Sweeping her gaze around the room to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind, she told herself to get it together. She was mad for sure, and she could hear her father’s voice now. “If you want folks to believe you have changed, then act like it.”

Touching a hand to her head, she tucked a stray strand of hair back beneath her kerchief, hoisted her bag upon her shoulder and opened the bedroom door. “That advice might have worked if you had not left me here alone with no choices, Papa.”

“Why, Miss Mercy, how you know I was coming?” Big Jim, Mr. Murphy’s head slave topped the last stair and grinned down at her.

“Just good timing,” she shrugged, moving out of his way. Then, at a shout from outside, she cocked her head and listened.

“That just Massa Hiram,” Big Jim told her, hoisting her trunk onto his back. “He in a temper on account of the livery man ain’t finished putting shoes on his favorite mount. The livery man say Massa say he come fetch him tomorrow, but Massa say he told that swindler he want him ready this morning.”

Falling in behind, she followed him down into the front room of the inn. As they neared the door, she heard the livery man’s raised voice. “I got orders coming out my ears, Murphy! You want me to do the job right now, it is going to cost you!”

Emerging out into the overcast morning, she was in time to see Hiram Murphy hand over a leather pouch that clinked when the aproned livery man shoved it into an inner pocket.

“Is there trouble, Mr. Murphy?”

“Nothing a few more minutes won’t take care of, Lass. Why don’t ye go ask that nice Mrs. Baldwin for a cup of tea while ye wait?”

“There isn’t anything holding me up. I shall just go on ahead.”

“Now, Lass, it ain’t right for a lone woman to be traveling by herself, and ye know it. The livery man won’t be long, I am sure.”

Biting her tongue, she swallowed her sigh of impatience and nodded. He was right, yet again. However, she had no intention of having tea with Mrs. Baldwin any time soon. The woman enjoyed hair-raising tales…rumors, mostly about Indian raids and supposed scalpings and kidnappings. What would the owner of the inn do, if she knew just how friendly her latest customer had been with said Indians?

“Mr. Murphy, may I take one of your boys with me as an escort to have a walk around the village?”

“Certainly, Lass! Big Jim,” he said to that man, “tell your boy Boaz and his sister Pansy to go with Miss Mercy and keep her safe. Now, be sure and come back shortly, Lassie.”

“Yes, Sir. I will, and thank you.”

“Which way you want to go, Miss Mercy?” Pansy asked at her elbow.

“It look rough down there by the dock,” Boaz said from her other side. He was tall and strong like his father and shuffled his feet in the dirt when she turned that way.

“We will just walk part way to the river. I heard there is a woman down there selling late season fruits.”

Boaz shook his head and rolled his eyes, but Pansy perked right up. Nothing wrong in looking at fruit, and it would give her a better view of the ship. Not that she was really going to buy one of the indentures, but there was little else to do while she waited.

Apples, pears, pumpkins, squashes, and gourds of every size, shape and color were on display. Pansy’s grin was infectious, and even Boaz left off looking bored and joined her at the table of gourds. They knew better than to touch them, but she was glad to see them enjoying themselves. Window shopping, her mother would have called it, even though there were no shops with windows around.

Remembering Mama hurt, so she stepped away from the displays of autumn treats, leaned a shoulder against the post that held up the awning over the fruit seller and allowed her eyes to scan the deck of the ship. A fight had broken out, and for a few minutes all she saw were arms and legs flailing every which way. Then, a short, rotund man put his fingers in his mouth and let go a shrill whistle. In seconds, the men separated into several groups; sailors, indentures in chains, and roughly dressed frontiersmen.

As she watched, order returned with men signing papers and walking off with one or two indentures. The only one who stood still among those on deck was a tall man fastened to the mainmast, his blonde hair streaming out in the sudden breeze that picked up.

She could not see his eyes from this distance, but unlike the others, he stood still and silent, back straight and chin lifted. There were lengths of iron around his neck and wrists. From his stillness, his feet must be in irons, as well. What horrible thing had the man done to warrant such restraint?

“Heard the captain is selling them mighty cheap. Mayhap, it is worth a look see, what with the long winter nights coming.”

She gasped and turned to stare at the old woman who, upon catching her eye, nodded toward the tall man on the ship. “I was not…”

“’Course not, Missus. I am just saying.”

Cheeks burning, she glanced back toward the ship. The crowd was thinning, but the man still stood chained to the mainmast.

“A man came by here a few minutes ago,” the fruit seller went on in her cracked voice. “Said a lot of those men had been seasick and not well cared for. I wish I had a need for one of them. Know what it is like being carted across the sea against my wishes, I do. Mayhap, your husband needs an extra pair of hands ’round the farm?”

Imagining what her former husband’s reaction would be to what she was considering, she coughed. “Mayhap, you are right, Madam.” Turning to Pansy and Boaz, she said, “Stay here and wait on me. I shall only be a few minutes. Madam, when I return, I would like a bag of those apples, if it is no trouble.”

The older woman named her price, she paid, then stepped away from the tent.

She was mad, truly mad. But there was no other recourse. Clenching her jaw, she forced her eyes not to look down at the choppy Potomac river and marched up the gangplank toward the captain of the ship.

****

Gabriel’s stomach was growling…not that anyone could hear it over the din…and the sharp corner of the mainmast was biting into the stripes on his back. It was not as if he could step away, though; the irons saw to that. There was one good thing about the collar and shackles; they kept him upright. Left to his own strength, he would have gladly settled into a heap on the deck.

Clenching his jaw, he dragged in a breath and shifted so that he had more of a clear view of the gangplank. A bookish man was waving a piece of paper and motioning toward Roberts. Would Gabriel be as fortunate as he, sold to a bespeckled city dweller, one who might not be able to give chase if he should run?

Lord, let it be so.

He would have liked to say a proper goodbye. He owed the man a great deal. Staying by him during the worst of times, Roberts would have made a good minister, better than himself could ever be.

Catching his friend’s eye as he walked away with the man who had purchased his indenture, he forced a smile. “God’s speed, brother,” he mouthed.

Roberts nodded then stepped passed a tight-lipped woman marching toward Captain Harty.

Out of place in the crowd of rough men, she wore a blue and white checked kerchief over her hair, but dark red wisps had escaped and were feathering at her ears in the stiff, rain scented breeze. The breeze had also grabbed hold of her skirts and was whirling them around her feet. Fisting them down at her sides, she raised her chin and squared her shoulders. Was she here alone to conduct business on her husband’s behalf?

“I am here to buy a man.”

At her pronouncement, the men milling about the ship laughed. Her face went red as an apple, and if possible, her back stiffened further. A storm would soon erupt, if she was anything like his sisters.

“Well, Lassie,” Captain Harty drawled, pulling his pipe from between his teeth, “ye can save your coin. I am willing for free.”

“Th-that is… I mean, I am interested in obtaining an indentured servant.”

“Ah, what a shame, Lassie. Well, have a look ’round. I ain’t got many left, but they’re all hearty men, great editions to your staff. When you are ready to make an offer, send your man to see me.”

The woman turned her face first this way then that, but when she faced Gabriel, she met his gaze head on. Her eyes were green with gold flecks and filled with such desperation that he caught his breath and made to reach out to her. She was afraid and fiercely determined to hide it. When the irons about his wrists clinked together, preventing him from further movement, he dropped his hands and looked away. He had not been able to help Katrina, either. What made him think he could do anything for this stranger? Bound as he was, he couldn’t even help himself.

“Unless your husband’s bigger than he is, that one’s not a good choice, Lass,” Harty shouted, as the woman stepped closer to him. “He’s a runner. Liable to leave you as soon as you get them irons off him.”

“Why are you holding him so fast? What has he done?”

“Attempted to kill himself,” Harty spat. “Knocked out one of my men’s teeth, when he tried to stop him. Almost drowned by the time we pulled him out of the water. Mouthy, too. No, Lassie, if you are looking for an obedient servant, best look over here at these two. They’re brothers and come from a farm back in England.”

The woman turned her head and studied the Ramsey brothers. Under her perusal, they straightened and tried to look lively, but the woman soon turned back and cocked an eyebrow at him. “What was this one’s trade?”

“Rich boy,” Harty scoffed. “Blamed landlubber is all I know. If he wasn’t chucking up his daily portion, he was praying for Jesus to save him.”

He bit back the urge to defend himself and waited. Now was not the time. Wait. With so much land and forest beyond the river, no matter who bought him, he would have plenty of time and space to run.

The woman’s eyes narrowed as she studied him from head to foot. When she stepped behind him, she lifted a handful of his hair then dropped it again.

“It appears,” she began, moving to stand before him once more, “that he has been injured at some point. I saw a trace of dried blood on the back of his shirt.”

“Ah, nothing time with the captain’s daughter didn’t cure, Lassie.”

Her eyes went round and her mouth formed a silent “oh.”

“Harty, you are in the presence of a lady. Show some courtesy. He means I was flogged with the cat-o-nine tails, Ma’am.”

Harty backhanded him across the face, making his head bang against the wooden mast. “You watch your mouth, choir boy, or I’ll have you keelhauled.”

“Captain, please,” the woman said. “I am sure there is no need for such violence.”

“Your pardon, Lass,” Harty smirked.

“How much does this man owe for his passage?” the woman asked.

“Ten pounds.”

For a moment she just looked stunned. Then, she shook her head and laughed. “He is liable to run, he is injured from a flogging, he could not keep down his daily portion of food, he is a fighter and suicidal. That is what you just told me. Is it not, Sir? Ten pounds? I think not.”

“Well, Lassie,” Harty growled, “what would ye be offering for the man, then?”

The woman appeared to be thinking about it, but there was a gleam in her eyes. She had a plan before ever coming on board; she was only playing the captain. He admired a woman with pluck and smiled. Serve the old pirate right, if he were beaten at his own game.

“Have you a sweet tooth, Captain? How does a quart of pure, fresh, Virginia honey straight from my beehives sound? And, what about those cold nights at sea? Woolen blankets would be just the cure, no?”

“Now, Lass, I hafta make a living just like the next man! What kind of man do you take me for?”

“A smart one, Captain.”

“The honey, the blankets, and five pounds.”

“The honey, the blankets, and two pounds,” the woman countered.

“Ye are trying to rob me blind, Lassie! This man is big and strong. Worth more than two pounds, blankets, and honey.”

“The blankets, the honey, and two pounds…two pounds in gold,” she finished, lowering her voice.

“Let me see.”

“I will have them delivered to you within the hour, Sir.”

“And, if I don’t receive them within the hour?”

“Then the man will remain in your possession. Now, I assume there are papers to sign?”

Captured by pirates, held in chains, and now sold to a woman for two pounds in gold, a couple of blankets and a jar of honey. At least it would be easier to make his escape. That is, if she saw fit to have his chains removed. Closing his eyes, he sent up a silent plea. One thing was certain: he would never take his freedom for granted, not ever again.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and at a cold drop of rain on his forehead, he opened his eyes. Lightning streaked across the sky, the wind picked up, and thunder boomed even closer. Was God trying to tell him something?

“I will guide your hand so you can make your mark. Here, take the quill.”

At the low voice, he glanced down to where the woman stood, quill and paper in her hand. “I can write my own name.”

She said nothing; just assisted him when the manacles impaired the movement of his hand.

“May I read this? I would like to know what I am agreeing to.”

“Later,” she said, blowing on the ink to dry it. “For now, we have to hurry back to the inn before that storm hits. Captain! Come release this man.”

He had become accustomed to the pitch and roll of the ship’s deck beneath him after weeks at sea. The moment his bare feet touched solid ground, he stumbled to his knees.

“What you going to do with him now, Lassie?” Harty boomed over the laughter erupting around them.

Could this get any worse? Pushing aside the hand the woman reached down to him, he braced a palm against the pebbled ground and tried to get his feet beneath him. Manacled as his ankles were though…Harty had only removed the thick chain about his waist…he was helpless to rise on his own.

“Here, allow me,” the woman said.

Yes, it most certainly could get worse. Without giving him a choice, the woman who had bought him slid her hands under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Squeezing his eyes shut, he dragged in lungfuls of air in spite of the tightness in his chest.

“How long since you have had anything to eat, Gabriel?”

Blinking open his eyes, he stared down into her concerned face. There was such kindness in her voice as she spoke his name, that he had to swallow back the lump gathering in his throat before answering.

“Your name is Gabriel, is it not?”

“Aye, My Lady. Gabriel Mackenzie. Your servant, Ma’am.”

The bow he attempted fell far from perfect, as she was still holding him steady, but it eased the worry in her expression and helped him center himself once more.

“Well, Gabriel, I am Mercy Wakefield, and I will see that you have something to eat as soon as possible. First things first though, we will stop and collect Boaz and Pansy, and then I shall take you to the blacksmith’s to get those irons removed. Come now,” she finished, wrapping an arm around his waist, “one step at a time.”

The going was slow due to the short length of chain between his ankles, but she did not hurry him. When they reached a woman selling fruit, she paused and called out to a couple of black children standing about. “Boaz, Pansy, bring the apples I bought and come. We must get back to the inn.”

Seeing him, the youths stared bug-eyed, but the fruit seller gave his mistress a wink, slapped her knee and guffawed. “Heehee! Winter won’t be so long now, will it, Missus?”

With the boy, Boaz, on one side and his mistress on the other, he struggled forward and fought to keep from passing out. The storm grew closer, and the crowd around them thinned, but it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. When they reached a blacksmith’s shed, they guided him onto a bench and handed him an apple.

“Here is something to tide you over. Wait here with Boaz and Pansy while I make some arrangements.”

He gripped the apple with both hands and, mouthwatering, bit into its crisp tartness. Juice splattered his face, but he didn’t care; it was heaven after weeks of pasty gruel and weavely hardtack.

 

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