We are three days out of the Bight of Biafra headed west. The trade winds favor Lady of Mercy and push us along at an easy 12 knots cutting a sharp wake through calm seas. I spend most of my time above decks as the autumn air retains a temperate nature infinitely preferable to the suffocating heat in the crew quarters and hold. I am not the only one, the crew, all 15 of them, are loathe to descend the ladders into the hold unless so ordered, and even then they grouse. Captain Machado runs the ship well, and though this is only my second trip as a First Mate, he conveys an air of authority below his otherwise easy manner. He’s pounded some brute of a deckhand into sniveling and bleeding more than once, but his violence is never excessive or gratuitous. I’ve shipped on other vessels where men were nailed to the deck or thrown to the sharks for the slightest infraction, though this brutality is generally reserved for Dutch traders and French privateers.
Lady of Mercy was an old Dutch freighter now dwarfed by the massive whaling barks from where she drew her lines.
We carry sugar cane, destined for a rum distillery in Cape Verde, spices, Cedar from Libya, and two hundred and ten slaves chained together just below the main deck. We pay in gold for the sugar and spices, and muskets and powder for the savages. What better way to keep the balance of power with the Ijo than to give them the means to crush the Bantu to the north and east of the Niger Delta?
Tales of brutality float down the Niger like so much driftwood, missionaries eaten, Belgian gold mining settlements overrun and burned, the miners slaughtered like cattle. I’ve never seen such, but then my travels have been limited to the Dutch and Portuguese ports on the coast, or the few trade-friendly villages of mud huts and thatched roofs carved into the ever-darkening jungle.
Captain Machado studied the charts, and though he’d traversed the Middle Passage no less than two dozen times he refused to trust instinct when plotting the dangerous waters from Biafra to Cape Verde or Cape Verde to Port Au Prince, or Charlestown. He pulled the spyglass up and surveyed the featureless horizon then rechecked his calculations against the compass and sextant readings. “At this speed we’ll reach Praia two days early.” Machado smiled. He then genuflected and kissed a gold crucifix strung around his thick neck, “God willing.”
Priai, the largest city in Cape Verde where we’d trade the sugar cane and spices and Negroes among the various merchant collectives and trading companies.
I placed the duty roster and log on the table beside the map. “With your approval sir.”
He mouthed the words on both documents silently. “Approved. Check on our passenger then have a look at the negroes before you post it. A pair of French ships were overrun last month; all hands slaughtered. Check their chains and locks, make sure they have water, separate any sick ones.”
“Aye.” I hurried down to the main deck where the crew tended sail and kept watch for pirates or Privateers. Britain had declared all slavers as pirates two years ago and there was always the chance of a boarding and seizure. Lady of Mercy, though old, ran fast under full sail so that only the largest ships of the line could give worrisome chase but most of them were busy scrapping with the French in the Indian Ocean.
I dropped into the main hold where a hundreds of wide eyes blinked at me from the stultifying moist heat and overpowering smell of feces. Not a single negro spoke as I threaded through their cramped ranks, tugged at ankle chains and poked at thick cast iron locks. Reverend Tipton, a missionary on his way from deep in Bantu country to Haiti, knelt at the far end of the hold. He’d draped a white handkerchief over the bare breasts of a silent negro woman and balanced an open bible on his squat knees.
“You’re wasting your time Reverend.” I shuffled past him, past the rows of pink bottomed black feet interlocked in the narrow passage. “Those Bantu don’t speak English.”
“The word of God transcends language. Tell me, isn’t there something you can do about the heat and smell, a hatch to open or something? This is unbearable for even the strongest men.”
I shrugged. The heat and stink was the same on every slaver. Reverend Tipton should have waited for a proper passenger ship if he was concerned, but as is the case with virtually all of Europe’s Christian Soldiers, they can’t get off the continent fast enough. If Malaria doesn’t grind them down, if the constant tribal warring doesn’t get them killed, if the culture of uncivilized beasts doesn’t sap their faith, then the relentless oppression of the colonials shatters their humanity, and they finally flee.
His booming voice echoed back towards the forecastle. “It’s inhuman. It’s un-Christian!”
“Then go above decks like a civilized man.”
Sweat soaked through his white linen suit and showed his pink flesh beneath the cloth. “I am pleased to suffer with the cargo.” His voice dripped with derision.
“I’m sure Captain Machado will be pleased to hear that.” I shoved back into the corridor and threaded back through the dank towards the steps to the main deck. The cooler sea air refreshed me and in three deep breaths cleared the miasma from my lungs. Perhaps Tipton was right about the quality of air below. Only the bow-hatch was open enough to let the fetid air and heat escape. “Sanders, Wright, open the main, starboard, and port hatches.”
Sanders, an older man with a wisp of gray hair and fingers gnarled and bony from a career whaler, hammered the hatch-pin loose and swung the starboard hatch open. “By god the stink,” he said as a wave of hot putrid air surged up from below.
Wright, a boy really, on his first voyage yet blessed with the barrel chest and arms of a childhood of farm labor, still wide-eyed and enthusiastic with adventure. That would change soon enough, the flesh-trade sucked the soul from a man. He too grimaced as the hatch peeled back and thumped to the planking.
Kabunta, a tall Ijo, his chest crisscrossed with raised scars, stirred a cast iron cauldron of beans out of the way of the rigging. He’d bought his freedom with the tale of a native city so far up the Niger that no white man had ever set foot; a city that traded solely in Bantu flesh and acted as a holding pen for the savages before they were walked to the European markets on the Delta.
“Beans good,” he said. Kabunta’s limited command of English rendered his short bursts of talk with a queer childlike quality though his voice was deeper than even Captain Machado’s.
I motioned to the hatch. “Feed crew. Feed guest. Feed cargo.” I nodded and he mimicked me before ladling out beans into one of the tin plates stacked beside the cauldron.
The crew lined up quickly and took their meal, beans and salt pork, hard tack, and water. They ate standing. I took a plate down into the hold, now less horrific in heat and smell, to Tipton. He received the food without a word and instead grunted and turned back to his study of Revelations.
Wright and Sanders had begun feeding the negroes. Each man held a wooden bucket of beans and ladel. Kabunta followed them with two buckets of water. Wright ladled beans into a tin pan and handed it down. “Eat and pass,” he said motioning first towards his mouth then sideways to show how to hand the plate to the left. Sanders did the same. The feeding would take two or three hours and multiple trips to the bean pot and water cask.
Kabunta handed a tin cup half filled with water to the first slave and the two began chattering in the language of the continent.
I silenced them with a glance. Kabunta should know better than to talk in the native tongue, especially with tales of revolt filling the minds of captains and crew throughout the triangle.
I left them to the feeding and returned to the top deck. We still cruised at 12 knots though the sea took on a distinctly green color as we navigated through a bloom of Sargasso, not uncommon in the autumn off the Slave Coast. I took my space at the wheel to relieve Captain Machado but he was reluctant to depart the wheelhouse and stayed instead to study his charts and maps. “We are not long for this work,” he said.
I didn’t answer and for a moment poured over our recently established status as pirates rather than merchants based solely on the cargo we carried, a cargo that only three years ago was the lifeblood of both British and American commerce. “We can still trade in sugar and Cedar or spices and leave this devil’s work to less civilized men.”
“Or we could apply for a Privateer license.” Machado stood beside the wheel.
“This will be our last trip to Cape Verde. The world has changed and now empires and not men drive the scramble for Africa.”
“As long as the Americans buy them, then the trade will flourish.”
“And at greater risk. Some Captains are already selling their larger boats for smaller, faster vessels in fear of blockade.”
We drifted in silence for a moment. “Tell me Fredricksen if our trade doesn’t sicken you?”
“Men or sugar, women or spices, I don’t discriminate between one or the other. I long ago accepted that the world worked in ways I could not comprehend. I am merely fulfilling the role that God has intended.”
Machado laughed. “As God intended indeed. Why then would God make you a strong white Dutchman and not a poor chained negro? Why has God bestowed you with civilization and them with none? I fear that if God has not turned a blind eye to the workings of men, then we have driven him away with our relentless cruelty. No Fredricksen, I no longer have a taste for this dreadful vocation and the sins it has heaped upon my soul. Once we reach port I will depart with my share and leave the investors to find a new captain for Lady of Mercy and her devil’s work. If you wish, I will put in a word or two for you.”
I bristled at the thought of the ship without Captain Machado at the helm, but then like any man presented with such an opportunity, I imagined how I would carry on as his successor. These thoughts soothed me as we tacked westward for the final four days sail to Cape Verde and home.
The next day our cargo began to die.
Reverend Tipton brought the condition of the negroes to our attention, at first complaining that the smell and heat below decks was responsible and that their souls were a black mark on our heavenly ledger. Captain Machado waved the reverend away and turned to me, “separate out the dead, and the sick.”
I scavenged the hard faces of the crew, some of which I knew only by feature, and ordered four below to check the condition of the negroes there. Tipton was right, some had died, but no more than could be expected on such a journey. I pulled the key ring to their shackles from my belt and began to unlock ankle, wrist, and neck irons from the corpses. The slaves were nervous and chattered away until the sound grew maddening and one of the crew shouted for them to shut up or be cast overboard to the sharks. They could not have understood his words, but their intention was clear and the noise dropped to a murmur of savage grunts and clicks.
Five in all had died, all men, we found each ones head lolling and a pool of bean vomit in their laps.
“He’s poisoned them, he has,” Wright said.
“We all ate from the same beans.”
“Aye, and maybe his negro poison doesn’t work on white men. Maybe he’s trying to ruin us by turning our cargo to worthless corpses!” Morell barked.
Captain Machado warned me of Morell’s tendency to rabble rousing.
“Stop that talk!” I shouted and shoved the man backwards until he tripped over the outstretched legs of a slave. “Do your work or I’ll have you whipped.”
The men hauled out the dead in silence and laid them upon the deck. Reverend Tipton insisted on giving last rights to the deceased, a sight that the crew found amusing considering that no empire thought of the negroes as men in God’s image. But what harm would ten minutes of prayer be? Captain Machado gave permission and offered to sit with the reverend as he administered the prayers. This act was not so much one of piety, but Machado’s presence would keep the regular crew from catcalling or otherwise disturbing the ritual.
Reverend Tipton knelt before the bodies and read the Lord’s Prayer. Captain Machado joined him, and as I spied the men on the deck, each one silently mouthed the last words, Deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Machado ordered that groups of no more than twenty at a time were to be taken above decks to clear their lungs of any sickness that might travel through the hold otherwise so long as the weather remained pleasant and the men on their guard. We could not bury the dead in the customary manner, though they were appropriately blessed, as we would need proof of transit to collect the 10 per cent owed on slaves who failed to survive the voyage.
Kabunta prepared the evening meal again in the huge iron cauldron and again it was beans and salt pork with hardtack. The Captain and crew ate first, but of poisoning had already spread through the ranks and all of us were anxious.
Finally, as if to absolve the Ijo cook from suspicious, Reverend Tipton began to eat. We noticed that he suffered no ill affects and within a few minutes each man had swallowed their fill and prepared the buckets for delivery to the cargo.
I led two men and Kabunta below decks, and gasped. Another ten negroes lay dead, and twenty moaned and writhed in their chains. “Good god it’s an epidemic!” I shoved Kabunta back up the steps and called for all available deckhands to help me in separating the still healthy negroes from the dead and dying.
Captain Machado turned the wheel over to me and supervised the evacuation of the hold. From my position I could watch as row upon row of slave were brought out and chained along the rail. The crew worked for three hours and yet another four had died and twenty had taken sick in that time. The crew cried out to throw the whole load of them overboard lest whatever affliction struck them should also take to white Christian flesh.
Captain Machado refused and ordered three men down to clean the hold and move the corpses up. They refused, and in rare show of capitulation to the mob, the Captain asked for suggestions from the men. It was decided that five negroes would be led down to clean the refuse and vomit from hold while Reverend Tipton tended to the sick and dying.
Tipton offered to perform any more services as needed and took to asking each healthy negro to accept Jesus before they too were stricken. But the Bantu mostly ignored his increasingly anxious ranting, and we could see how Africa would strip a man, missionary, or otherwise, of his senses. Tipton seemed no longer to be on safe passage away from the continent, but still embroiled in the soul saving he’d abandoned only two weeks ago when his mission was sacked and burned.
The men have spooked such that even the most routine work aboard ship is a battle to accomplish. I’d ordered the sails lowered to make better use of the prevailing winds and was met with outright refusal as the negroes were chained among the rigging pegs. I again ordered it, but neither Morell or his compatriots would bend. In frustration I grabbed a rigging peg and clouted the rabble rouser across the ear. He dropped to the deck unconscious. “Let every man aboard know, he was treated mercifully. Now heed my orders or suffer a worse fate!” My breath came in great angry huffs. One of the tricks in dealing with men as such is to maintain your position with as much forceful bluster as possible, and as much true force as necessary. I’d had done both and now the crew complied, albeit more slowly than any normal day at sea aboard Lady of Mercy.
The negroes took great pleasure in our fighting amongst ourselves.
Morell rose slowly, head shaking as if to chase away the lump that sprouted below his ear.
The negroes chanted and sang. Their singing was not wholly unpleasant, a mix of strange rythms and deep gutteral cries that fell in with their footsteps and claps. The racket made the men even more anxious, but I was happy to have the sound as it masked the perpetual wrenching cough of the sick negroes chained at the bow.
Sanders relieved me of deck watch as the sun began to wane and the afternoon winds picked up slightly and with them the seas also rose but not enough to be problematic. I checked the two deckhands, supervising the five negroes who scrubbed at the cargo deck with thick brushes and salt water.
Tipton held a dying woman’s head in his lap and pushed a cup to her lips. “I’ve never seen anything move this fast,” he said, “they’ll all be dead by dawn if we can’t stop it.”
“Is the sickness something you’ve seen before?”
Tipton didn’t answer immediately. “No — and yes. Well, I’ve seen Malaria, the river fevers too, and cholera, but this has the marks of all! It defies explanation.” The woman moaned and convulsed, a thick blob of brownish red blood burped out through her lips and down her chin.
“By dawn you say?” I touched the woman’s head. The intensity of her fever was as if I had touched a recently used cooking stove.
“If we are lucky.” Tipton moved to the next sick negro. His face was gaunt and yellowish, his eyes a mix of black and pink, as if he were about to cry tears of blood. The negro moaned and he too coughed great quantities of thick sanguine mucus. “This ship is cursed,” he said softly, “it won’t be long and the crew will succumb as well.”
I pondered his words for only a second before the big slave convulsed. There intermingled with half digested beans and fetid blood was a little white object. I noticed it only as it shone out in such contrast against the dark maroon vomit. I reached down and retrieved it. The thing was a figure, carved of some white wood or bone, clearly in the shape of a human, though barely the size of two beans.
I stopped negroes cleaning the deck and showed them the thing. They seemed greatly agitated at the sight of it. I crawled around amid the wash of sewage and retrieved a dozen more of the things. Tipton joined me under the light filtering in through the starboard hatch as I studied the little charms. “Have you seen these before?”
His face suddenly went ghostly white and gray. “I have, but, but they shouldn’t be here, no tribe would sell a Botonto— I have to speak with the Captain immediately!”
“Wait,” I cried but the Reverend ignored me and hurried out of the hold. I waved to the deckhands to start the negroes working again and instructed them to collect any of the charms they might find. The woman and the man, still chained, convulsed and died at my feet.
Kabunta worked in the galley sifting dry white beans before dropping them into the soak for tomorrows meal.
I was not afraid of the big Ijo as many of the others were, and his understanding of Bantu would be beneficial if we were stem this growing plague among the slaves. “What do you know of these?” I tried to keep my voice from carrying an accusatory tone, but fear had gripped me finally, and such control was impossible.
He stared at the charms for a moment then looked deep into my eyes. “Batobato majimbi ”
“Poison?” I kicked at the beans.
“Magic.” He took one of the charms and studied it in the lamplight. “Strong.” he said. His eyes pleaded with me for the right words, but I knew only wives tales of witch doctors and magic.
“What can we do?”
“Throw all Bantu overboard.”
“Madness!” I turned to leave but Kabunta seized my arm in his steely black fingers.
“Throw them overboard!”
I tore my arm free and raced to the topdeck. More negroes were sick and the deckhands were separating them from the decreasing groups of healthy cargo. Reverend Tipton stood in the wheelhouse and ranted about the strange fever. I shoved him aside. “What does Batobato majimbi mean?”
“Why, I don’t speak very much Swahili sir, but —”
“Tell me! You know what these are!” I thrust the charms under his nose.
Captain Machado pushed me backwards. “Do not treat our passenger like that!”
“He knows. He knows what’s killing them, and what will kill us! Don’t you Reverend!”
“I — I know what it means.” Tipton leaned against the wall. “Roughly translated, dancing rooster.”
Both the captain and I stared at Tipton, our minds both obviously trying to unravel the meaning of such a phrase.
“Dancing Rooster is a group, a guild, if you will, of shamans spread across Central Africa.”
“Stone age foolishness,” Machado grunted.
“The men, the negroes, aboard your ship have been cursed, they believe in the powers of a magic man, a witch doctor. Those things, those charms, they swallowed them as part of a ritual to transfer their souls to him. When they die the bodies will return to life and do his bidding.”
Captain Machado balked. “No dead men walk.”
“This is no joke Captain,” Tipton continued, “Faith allows men to do many miraculous things.”
“Kabunto said to throw them all overboard.” I dropped the charms on the map table. “I am not a superstitious man Captain, but this is —”
“At the rate they die we won’t have a single one left alive when we reach port. Dispose of the corpses, and any who appear too sick to complete the journey with a breath left in their lungs.”
“Aye!” I ran from the wheelhouse and gathered Sanders and several other men. “Throw the dead to the sharks. Hurry!” We sprinted for the bow. The still-healthy negroes chanted and cheered Batobato majimbi! Jimbi lavanca! Batobato majimbi! Jimbi Lavanca! They drummed with their feet and clapped, singing louder and deeper.
“I wish they’d shut up,” I said and turned back briefly to watch as the Bantu frenzy grew louder and more ferocious.
Sanders pulled the canvas back and froze. “My god they move!”
The bloated bodies twitched and wriggled as if slowly returning to life.
“Don’t be daft. Come on, take his shoulders.” I grabbed the corpses ankles and we lifted him to the rail before tumbling the body over into the sea. The other men joined in and we made short work of the disposal.
Sanders was injured as we dropped the last corpse over the rail. “Unholy bastards!” he cried. Blood drizzled down from a curved line of deep tooth marks just above his right elbow.
The sun had only just dipped below the horizon when we forced the negroes back below decks. Though they were now too unruly to chain, we bolted the galley hatch after retrieving Reverend Tipton, Kabunta, three casks of water, firewood, and two barrels of dry beans.
The negroes began to howl and scream from below decks.
“You see sir? You see the consequences of your barbarism!” Tipton waved his bible at Captain Machado. “The Lord has turned his eye from us, and now, as you further blaspheme our situation grows more desperate!”
“We are only three days from port Reverend. The negroes can suffer for three days. Once they calm down, we will again open the hatches and restore order. Until then, they stay locked below.”
Kabunta cocked his head and listened to their cries. “They cry out words,” he said.
“There are women down there, Sir! And the disease is spreading! As God is my witness, this pagan magic is meaningless. Stow me with them, I will shepherd them, minister to them —”
“— Not words for saving.”
“That is out of the question!” Machado fumed.
“Ma — Mtu? Ffua mtu? Ffua mtu!” Kabunta’s face grew pale and cold. He whispered, “bring them back from the dead.”
More cries echoed up, louder from the slave deck, Mfufuaji! Mfuuaji! Mfufuaji
Lady of Mercy began to rock as the cargo worked together to tear their chains free.
Reverent Tipton, his pink face swollen with rage, stormed across the deck towards the hatch. “Do not try and stop me! I have the light and the strength of the Lord to protect me!”
No crewman on the deck moved.
The ship shivered as the negroes fury welled up through the sealed hatches and they began drumming and pounding on the hull and support beams. Their strange language grew louder, shriller, then an eruption of terrified screams.
“I demand you open this door immediately!” Tipton tugged on the handle but the galley hatch was locked tight. “This is an outrage and I will see to it that this vessel and all aboard who deny treatment to these poor men and women shall feel the wrath of all Christendom! Open this door now!”
Silence fell so rapidly it was as if a cold pillar of air crashed down across the deck. Even Reverend Tipton ceased his tantrum as we adjusted to the quiet from the cargo hold.
A tapping, light at first, as if a child’s hands punching a garden fence, reverberated through the deck planks.
Kabunta eyes grew wide as saucers and he whispered, “Jimbi lavanca, the rooster crows.”
“I can’t feel my bleedin’ arm!” Sanders’ fever roared as he lay shivering on the deck. The whites of his eyes had taken a decidedly pinkish yellow tint, and the flesh around his wound swelled, grew black, and stank of rotten meat.
“Gangrene,” Tipton said and carefully washed maggots from the wound with water and iodine. “He won’t live long without help, and even then he will lose the arm.”
“We’re not long from port.” Machado turned to the others. “Full sail on all masts. Fly the distress flags. We race for Praia!”
“I will stay with him,” Tipton said, “should he succumb it is best that he do so with a minister present.”
The cargo had been mostly silent for three hours now but we still did not dare open the hatches. I put my ear to the deck and listened for any sound of hostility. My ears found only the perpetual shuffling of bare feet, the rattle of chains, and a queer sort of clicking or grinding, the origin of which I could not identify but was present no matter where upon the deck I placed my ear.
Captain Machado insisted on arming all who were not actively engaged in the running of the ship and I was called away from my listening to open the weapons locker. I handed a cutlass to each ready man, and took both pistol and cutlass for myself and for Captain Machado. In all we had six men armed, the rest tended the rigging and sighted for friendly vessels from atop the masts.
The calm above decks and the otherwise normal operation of Lady of Mercy released some of the men’s frustration at the loss of their shares for the death of the cargo. Though all was not normal, Sanders cried out constantly even though we’d forced enough rum into him to inebriate half a merchant crew.
Tipton and fed him crumbs of hardtack, water and soothing passages from The Bible.
I realized now that the Reverend was in his element. He was as much a minister of the Lord’s word, as a minister of goodwill and comfort. Conversions be damned, it was sick and the dying that stirred the evangelism in his soul. And in this I found great respect for him.
One day I should ask why he would abandon a continent so rife with need for such sympathetic men, more so, how me managed to keep his wits on a vessel crewed with the very agents of destruction to all of Africa?
A sound so subtle at first as to go unnoticed began to grow below decks, a moaning, groaning, swelled as if misery itself were given voice. Not a wail of sorrow, but a constant prolonged growl, like some great animal caught in a deadly trap yet still alive enough to protest.
The others heard it too as I saw the deck guards turn their ears towards the galley hatch and the men above in the rigging cast their eyes down.
Kabunta paced nervously behind me. He muttered and whispered unaware that I heard every sound. He was speaking the Bantu-tongue, a prayer I think.
“You know that sound?”
The groan increased until the vibrations of it tickled our feet.
“The dead walk,” he said.
A heavy, thunderous pounding burst from the starboard hatch but as we rushed to listen it stopped. Again the pounding began, this time the port hatch, this one did not hold so well. The negroes pounded hard enough to shear the iron pin battening the lid. However, the grate beneath the hatch prevented them from opening the bulkhead all the way.
“What are they doing?” Wright stood beside me. He pointed the tip of his blade down at the hatch.
The pounding came from the galley door now but not with the same ferocity, no doubt because the small size of the cooking area limited the number of men who could reach the door enough to strike it.
“They are testing. The dead are not fools, they still have instinct,” Kabunta said.
The galley door quieted and again the starboard hatch thundered.
“How long must we endure this?”
“Until they find way out.” Kabunta’s eyes turned to the stack of lifeboats beside the starboard wheelhouse.
“Mister Fredricksen!” Reverend Tipton stood atop the command deck.
He waved and I walked towards him.
“Sanders has passed,” he said.
I walked up the steps to join him. “Are you sure?” I guided him into the wheelhouse where Captain Machado stared out over the deck and into the Northwestern horizon.
“He went peacefully, and repentant.” Tipton removed his had and clutched it to his breast. “I will offer a prayer for —”
Sanders lurched against the wheelhouse doorframe. His eyes were red and bloody tears streaked his aged cheeks, his useless, infected arm hung lifeless. Maggots dripped from the wound and scurried around and over his bare feet. He grinned upon sight of us there revealing a black corrupted tongue and crooked yellow teeth.
“He still lives,” Machado said, “there is hope —”
Sanders lurched forward and slammed against the wheel. His right arm stretched out and gripped Captain Machado by the lapel. I shoved Tipton to safety then tore Sanders away from the Captain.
He turned on me and swung out, clipping my jaw with his fingernails. I thrust my cutlass through his chest but the blade had no effect on Sanders and he pressed forward until the hilt snagged against his ragged breastbone.
I floundered backwards as he lumbered from the wheelhouse.
Captain Machado struck Sanders across the side, spilling a plop of black viscera, but even that failed to drop the man.
Panic gripped Lady of Mercy. The men on guard, watching this battle unfold, backed away or dropped their weapons and climbed into the rigging at the urging of the others.
I raised my pistol and fired but the hammer clicked harmlessly into the pan. I chucked the thing aside and scavenged a dropped blade from the deck.
Sanders had his teeth in Captain Machado now and hot red blood spattered down around their legs as they struggled.
Kabunta rushed the pair, and with a single swipe of his blade, freed Sander’s head from his body. The head bounced down, mouth still chewing, eyes still swirling back and forth, but the rest stopped and tumbled finally dead at Kabunta’s feet.
Captain Machado clamped his hand down over the bite to his neck, but even covered I knew it was fatal as the beast had punctured his artery.
I squatted beside him as his life drained away.
He spoke in measured gasps. “Punishment. For. Bad. Life. Don’t. Let. Me. Come. Back.”
Reverend Tipton knelt and took Captain Machado’s head into his lap. “Sleep now my son. You are forgiven.”
Captain Machado shivered once then fell dead.
“He come back too. Not long.” Kabunta tugged at the Tipton’s jacket. “Take head.”
“You will not desecrate this corpse!” Tipton folded Captain Machado’s arms across his chest and began to pray.
“Don’t be a fool man, you saw what happened with Sanders!” I yanked Tipton away just as Captain Machado’s eyes sprung open and his limbs began to stir.
Kabunta lopped Machado’s head off and the body immediately quieted.
“I have never seen such horror,” Tipton gasped.
The crew who had climbed down from the rigging and gathered at the foot of the command deck looked to me for guidance and I could see the brewing mutiny in their eyes.
I felt a peculiar tingle on my chin and when I wiped it, noticed blood on my sleeve.
“We are too far off Cape Verde for the lifeboats, it’s a death sentence!” I pointed at our position on the map. My head pounded, whatever sickness Sanders had given me was spreading quickly, but it took three days for him to die and there was hope I could pilot Lady of Mercy close enough to the islands that we could debark on the lifeboats and scuttle the ship. I kept my worsening condition from the men, as only Tipton and I knew the full extent of my injury.
“You said two days,” Morell, who had become the official spokesman for the crew jabbed at the charts with his bony fingers. He made no effort to conceal his hatred of me.
“Two days at full sail.”
The monsters below decks began their testing again, first the starboard hatch, then port, then galley. This time the pounding was more ferocious as if the very scent of blood had inflamed them.
“Arm all men not actively manning the sails, post guards at each hatch.” I glanced at the Reverend. “Pray.”
“That’s no plan,” Morell said. “We should have thrown the whole lot of them overboard in Benin. They can’t all be whatever you say they are. We can scare them back, shut them up.”
“You don’t understand, they aren’t alive —”
“Then we tow the lifeboats with all unnecessary crew in them. At full sail we need five men in the riggings, one on lookout. You can tow the rest.”
“And in heavy seas we lose you all. Have faith Morell, I can get us to port. If only they would stop that infernal racket!” I clutched my temples and swooned. The headache was worse now, and my jaw burned as if the flesh was being held over a candle.
“Then we’ll slaughter them all!” Morell stormed from the wheelhouse and slammed the door behind him. “Every man take a rifle, cutlass, or any other weapon! We end this now!”
Kabunta stood in front of Morell and raised his hand. “Must cut off head.”
“Out of the way you savage!” Morell shoved Kabunta aside. “We should have never taken your kind on board as anything but cargo!”
Kabunta shoved back hard enough to throw the man half way across the deck.
Morell gunned Kabunta down with a single blast from his pistol.
“Barbarians,” Tipton screamed. “Murderers!”
Morell whirled around, his eyes were as ferocious as any wolf. “Join us or suffer the same fate!”
The men cheered.
“I carry no weapon but this!” Tipton raised his bible and stormed down to confront the crew. “Mark my words man, what you do today will secure your place in hell.”
“The way I see it, we’re in hell now. If you won’t fight with us, then you’ll die alone.”
The pounding had begun again, starboard hatch, port hatch, galley hatch, starboard hatch, port hatch, galley hatch. Morell handed out rifles and each man loaded and tamped down their rounds.
I watched, horrified, as they crew lined up as if children pretending to be soldiers on the battlefield with rifles raised.
“Aim for their heads!” I shouted and raised my pistol.
Morell strode to the galley hatch. “Don’t fire until I am out of the way!” He turned and faced the crew then withdrew a pistol from his belt. He aimed it at the hatch lock. “Steady on boys,”
Tipton rushed between the firing line and the door. “Do not do this, I implore you!”
Morell fired just as the door burst outwards and black hands snatched his jacket. He was torn, screaming, into the darkness below decks.
A moment of calm swept the deck. The beasts were content with their prize for now and made no motion to leave the darkness of the cargo deck.
Morell screamed and begged until his voice was silenced and the sound of wet cloth splashing the floor echoed out.
Wright stepped forward. His hands shook so badly the rifle muzzle danced back and forth like a child’s toy. “We can’t leave him in there!”
A wave of shambling black bodies flushed out of the hatch into a volley of rifle shot that tore through their chests and stomachs and did not even slow their advance.
The crew panicked. Some dropped their rifles.
Wright charged forward hefting the stock like a club and battered the zombies back. He felled five, ten, fifteen, until the sheer force of numbers overwhelmed his strength and he too was dismembered.
Men fought for the lifeboats.
I hurled an oil lamp into the melee that burst and spread quickly across the sea of shambling dead flesh and soulless bone that lurched forward. “Fight them men! Take their heads and kill them!” I shoved Reverend Tipton behind me and backed towards the lifeboats. We nearly tripped over a scattering of dead and dying sailors who’d sealed their fate in battle over who could escape fastest.
A thousand fingers caught, and those brave few who stood and fought were torn to pieces.
Blood and flames washed across the deck.
Screams and yowls erupted as the zombies set into their feast of slaver flesh. I heard the snap of bones and clacking together of dead teeth over the cacophony.
Tipton pushed towards the stairs to the main deck by the lifeboats into a sea of grasping hands. “Unhand me brutes! I am not your enemy! I am an herald of the Lord come to bring you home!”
The zombies set upon him like a pack of great feral dogs. Dead fingers tore his arms and legs and middle apart. Corrupted mouths bit off great dripping chunks of meat.
Reverend Tipton did not have time to scream as his life was ripped away.
The flames raced up into the rigging, the sails, and along the tall mast spires until the crew there had no choice but to leap for the decks or cook alive in their places. They yowled and climbed higher until, at the very tops of the masts, the flames consumed them.
I slashed my way across to the stack of lifeboats, chopped through the ropes holding them fast and shoved but the stack was too heavy to move by my own hand. I remembered the tackle hanging above them and chopped through the rope, releasing all five boats into the surf.
The dead surged forward, their faced slicked with blood, their moans eclipsing even the crackle and roar of the conflagration that swept up and consumed Lady of Mercy like St. Elmo’s wrathful fire.
I dove over the side as the ship screamed and lurched and listed.
The ship’s doctor dressed the festering wound on my jaw and stared at me with deep concern beneath a flickering candle. “Awake? Good. The morphine will make you a little sluggish. Can you hear me?”
I tried to nod but it was as if every muscle in my body had been disconnected.
“Were there other survivors?”
I managed to shake my head enough that he understood.
“Can you tell us anything?”
I felt my arms and legs begin to soften and relax enough to point at a pencil and paper beside the bunk where they’d stored me.
The doctor placed it on my chest. “We are almost home. You were very lucky to be sighted. The Atlantic is no place for a sick man in a little boat. Can you tell me the name of the vessel on which you served?”
I struggled to hold the pencil and paper. I wrote Lady of Mercy. All hands lost.
The doctor nodded to someone in the darkness. “A slaver,” he said.
I wanted so badly to speak but my jaw burned and ached as if someone had hammered a spike through the bone and into my tongue. I scrawled, Will I die?
The doctor looked at the note for a long time before speaking, and his facial expression said more than his words. “If we can reach a civilized port with a good hospital —”
I didn’t listen to the rest and wrote, Cut off my head. Don’t let me come back. Your ship is in danger.
The doctor folded the note and slipped it into his breast pocket then stood. “Try not to move, I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours.”
I reached out and snatched his arm but my fingers were deadened and weak from the drugs. “Kill. Me.” The words slurred out like thick mucus and speaking them served to make the pain unbearable.
“Calm down, calm down. I’ve treated worse than you. We’re a fast ship with a good wind. Don’t give up.” The doctor retreated slowly leaving only the candle to keep me company as the infection raged through my body.
I sobbed until the pain grew so great that I collapsed, breathless and my pillow was stained with tears of blood.