YOU BELONG TO ME Published by Pen It Publications LLC, March 9, 2019
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.”
“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?”
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!”
“Run and tell Cap’n Harty, the prisoner’s going to live.”
“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.
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