THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED

Chapter Four

 

       Jeremy shivered as the hulk of the moored ship grew to monstrous size before him.  He and the other prisoners taken from the Provost had been brought by wagon around the small body of water known as Wallabout Bay, to a place where several decommissioned British ships lay anchored.  He had been told in a hushed whisper by another prisoner before their guards climbed into the wagon, that he had best hope he was not bound for the largest of them, the Whitby.  Provost Marshall Cunningham was commander there and it was rumored that he laced the prisoner’s food with arsenic in order to hasten their deaths.  As they drew ever nearer the place where the ships lay berthed, Jeremy began to doubt the veracity of the tale.  The air itself was noisome.  It was suffused with sickly and offensive odors all but impossible to endure.   

     Why would the ship’s masters waste unnecessary coin on poison?

Already weak from the beating he had taken, Jeremy fought for consciousness as the noxious smell nearly overcame him.  If there had been anything in his stomach, he would have lost it.  As it was, he was fortunate.  He had not eaten since supper the night before, and then it had only been a light repast of tea and bread with honey and jam. 

      As they jogged along the uneven road, drawing ever closer to the prison ships, one of his fellow prisoners nudged him with his shoulder.  His head spinning, Jeremy looked up.  The man was about his age and dressed in what was left of an American naval uniform.  From the look of the gold braid trailing from one tattered sleeve, it appeared he might have been a junior officer.  Jeremy asked him a question with his eyes.  A nod in the direction of the shoreline answered it.  At first Jeremy couldn’t see anything worthy of his attention.  Then, with rising disbelief, he realized that what he had thought were pale white stones laying on the sparse beach were in fact skulls.  Ranged all about them were piles of bleached and broken bones.  As he swallowed bile, Jeremy realized they were the skeletal remains of the men who had earlier undertaken the journey he now made.

The forgotten patriots of the war.

What was most shocking of all was that there were not dozens, but hundreds of bones; many on the shore and others bobbing in the dark brackish waters.  The HMS Whitby, the first of what was now a growing fleet of British prison ships, had been stripped of her riggings, spars, rudders and masts and docked in the Bay only some two months after the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.  That had been less than a year and a half before.  Jeremy’s jaw tightened as the nascent horror that had gripped him galvanized into an impotent rage. 

This was not war, but murder!

 Jeremy fell against the navy man as the wagon unexpectedly jolted to a stop.  The British sergeant who had been seated at the rear of the wooden vehicle rose, leapt to the ground, and then turned to face them.

“My name is Sergeant Bulstrode Nash.  You’d best remember it.  From here on out until you are delivered to your ship, I am your god!  Whatever I say goes.  If you want to live to return to those doxies you call wives, you had best treat me right.  Now, everybody off!” he ordered.  “And make it quick!  If you look around you can see what we do to slackers!”

Jeremy had been positioned just behind the driver’s seat, so he was one of the last to disembark.  When he rose to do so, the world spun and went black for several heartbeats.  As he came to himself, he realized someone had placed an arm about his waist and was holding him up. 

It was the naval officer.

“You better keep your feet, mate,” the man whispered.  Jeremy was surprised by his English accent.  He looked at him, but had time only to register the fact that the sailor had an open face with wide cobalt-blue eyes before the British officer jumped into the wagon and forced them apart.

“They’ll be plenty of time for that, you john-and-johns, when you’re packed like mackerel in a barrel below.”  Sergeant Nash was a big man; gruff in voice and manner.  His face was deeply tanned from years in the field and the lambskin hair that framed it, grizzled with middle age.  Jeremy guessed him to be about fifty, though he might have been much younger.  Constant warfare had worn the man’s youth away like rain beating a marker standing sentinel at a crossroads.  Nash caught the naval officer by the collar and threw him out of the wagon.  Jeremy could do nothing as the kind young man struck the hard earth and then was kicked by another of the guards and told to stop lagging. 

“Pining for him already, are you?” Nash snorted as he turned back to him.  “Well, you best get used to it, Yank.”  Then he put a hand to Jeremy’s chest and shoved him hard so he fell back into the wagon, striking his head against the driver’s seat.  “This ain’t your destination, Master Kent.”  The sergeant patted the left pocket of his worn red coat and Jeremy heard something jingle.  “I got special orders concerning you.  Major Cripps always makes sure it is only the best for the man what foot the bills for Washington’s butchers.”

Jeremy was breathing hard.  As he gagged on the reeking air, he choked out, “Where…are you…taking me?”

 Bulstrode Nash studied him for a moment, and then knelt before him and took him by the collar.  “That is the first and last time you will speak without permission.  Is that understood, prisoner?”  As Jeremy nodded, he went on, “Your presence here is not to be known.  So we can’t have you checked in at the Whitby, can we, and your name on the record books?  You’re going straight over there.  To the Terrence.”  As Jeremy’s gaze went to the black hulk of a ship anchored on the far left of the Whitby, Nash leaned in close and added with a sneer that curled his lip and revealed several missing teeth.  “Though I hear those aboard her have dubbed her the Terror.  I’ll be sure to come around in a few days and ask your opinion.  Now make yourself comfortable, Kent, you got a short ride to your own particular Hell.”

 

Hell was too kind a description.

The walk to the moored ship was a page out of Dante’s Divine Comedy with Bulstrode Nash acting as a strange kind of Virgil, leading them over a path of dead men’s bones.  On the shore there were corpses.  Some, days old.  Others still fresh.  It was with a savage gleam in his hazel eyes that the British sergeant coolly informed him that it was common practice for the prisoners who had died during the night to be carried up to the forecastle and left there, exposed, until 8 o’clock the next morning.  Then their bodies were lowered down the side of the ship by a rope like slaughtered beasts.  After that the corpses would be stacked in heaps like kindling, until they were finally buried in graves so shallow the local dogs often mistook their bones for sticks.  As he finished Nash bent and picked up a leg bone.  He held it under Jeremy’s nose.  Then, with a grin, Nash tossed it into the bay, calling out, “Fetch!” 

     Jeremy’s teeth ground together.  His jaw and hands were clenched tight.  He knew the brute was trying to bait him.

     And it worked.

     His temper boiling over Jeremy charged the man.  In his weakened state there was little chance he could do any damage, but he had to try.  He had to do something.  All of the horrors of war he had witnessed – the wholesale slaughter on the battlefield, the corpses lining the roads of Chester after Brandywine, the shattered limbs and festering wounds of dying soldiers in army hospitals – nothing could have prepared him for this purgatory on Earth, or for the devils that delighted in it. 

     Sergeant Nash easily sidestepped, and Jeremy ended up face down in a wash of fetid water, bare bones and rotting flesh.

After a moment Nash caught him by the back of his collar and hauled him to his feet.  Looking at him, the sergeant’s muddy green-brown eyes narrowed with a mixture of annoyance and demonic mirth.  “Now, see what you’ve gone and done.  Why, you’re soaked through to the skin.  If you don’t take care of yourself, Kent, in a few days I’ll be lowering your carcass over the side of the ship.  Now get a move on.  It’s time we got you aboard.”

 

Captain Upton Tabard of the First Battalion of Chester County militia slowly shuffled across the deck of the hulked British battleship, the Terrence.  He was one of the lucky ones; he still had the soles of his army boots held on to his blistered and rotting feet by strips of foul linen torn from the tale of his ragged shirt.  Tabard had lost track of how many days he had been aboard the landlocked vessel, and of just how many times he had climbed the ladder from the lower levels to take part in the ritualistic humiliation that was about to begin. 

At least it got him above decks, if not into what he might call the ‘open’ air.

Captain Tabard was twenty-six years old and he doubted he would live to see twenty-seven.  When he had been taken his natal day had been about four weeks away, near the beginning of March.  By his reckoning that made it not quite a month since he had been brought aboard.  He only knew that because one of the ship’s dozen sailors had mentioned that today was his son’s birthday, February, the twenty-first.

He had a son.  He had two, in fact.  Charles and James.  They would have to celebrate all their remaining birthdays without a father.  They wouldn’t even remember him.  He and Kate had only married five years before.  In another life he had been a bookseller.  He had lived in the small town of West Chester, Pennsylvania and taken pleasure in things like a blue sky, a quiet beach.

A walk on a crisp cold winter day.

With a sigh, Upton took his usual place beside Giles Corbett.  He tried not to, but looked to his other side noting as he feared that one of the men from their mess, Lawrence Barnes, was nowhere to be found.  They never knew if the ones who went missing had escaped – there were rumors everyday that someone had – or if their rotting corpses had been fed to the fishes.  Somehow he suspected it was the fish and not Lawrence that was happy.

Upton scratched his bearded chin and glanced over at the ship’s mate.  Lieutenant Thomas Crawley was a frustrated man, embittered by his assignment to what he considered a floating stockyard.  Crawley had high ambitions and no matter what he did on the Terrence, it wouldn’t make any difference.  If he did his job well, no one would notice.  If he did it poorly, no one would notice.  And so Lieutenant Crawley chose to do the latter, and was known not only for his spontaneous cruelty but also for the fact that – at the right price – he would do anything.

Even commit murder.

It had happened before.  The captain of the Terrence had recognized one of the prisoners, a man named Limsey.  Apparently Limsey had been in New York City at the time the great fire broke out in September of ‘76.  Captain Skern lost a tavern that he owned in the fire.  The captain had been heard to remark that he would pleased if the damned rebels responsible were made to pay.  They found Limsey dead the next morning.  The sailors said it was from disease.

Funny kind of disease, Upton mused as he turned toward Crawley who had begun to recite the words of the daily ritual – one that left finger-shaped bruises on a man’s throat.

“You will stand at attention while the officers board!” the mate shouted and then he glared at them. 

Upton thought it was droll that he should ask.  How could a man with his navel pressed through to his backbone from hunger stand straight?  Or one riddled with the scurvy, whose very bones were melting inside his flesh?  Maybe the mate thought the fraction of an inch the prisoners gained from flinching at the sound of his high-pitched voice was enough. 

Anyhow, Crawley usually seemed satisfied.

 Beside Upton, Giles Corbett growled as he always did as the fat sleek soldiers of His Majesty King George the Third mounted the gangway and stepped onto the deck.  Giles had been a corporal back before he was a dying man, and a bare-knuckle fighter before that in England.  The story he told was that he never failed to knock his opponent out in the first round.  The first time Upton had seen Corbett, he had believed it.  He was a giant of a man with a face that had been smashed between bricks.  One eye hung half an inch below the other and his nose resembled a clot of cream.  Five weeks before, Giles Corbett had been all muscle and mouth.  Two weeks punishment for fighting spent in the lowest dungeon of the ship with the foreigners had tamed him.  After washing daily in salt water, Giles’ skin had thinned to parchment.  He had lost half his weight and all of his muscle tone, if not his anger.  But it was an impotent rage now.  Giles was a broken man.

They all were.

Corbett’s elbow nudged him.  Upton winced.  Anything poked into his side at this point struck a bone.  He followed the corporal’s gaze and saw what it was that had surprised him.  In the center of the usual parade of British officers and minor officials was a single prisoner.  Now, this was rare; not that a man would be brought to the Terrence, but that he would arrive alone.  Usually the damned creatures were allowed to pile up at the Whitby and then herded onto one of the other ships en masse.  The prisoner looked to be a civilian.  Though his clothes were sodden and already stained with sand, mud and blood, they were of an elegant cut and the suit coat fashioned from an expensive brown fabric.  One might have called them damned fine in any other environment.  Here, they wouldn’t hold up long.  Upton’s gaze dropped to the prisoner’s shoes.  They were new.  The leather was crusted with dried sea foam and crushed shells but it was complete and unbroken.

Those shoes and the silver buckles on them, more than anything else, might cost the newcomer his life in the brutal world below deck.

The man held himself as if he was already sick, so maybe it didn’t matter.  He was tall – over six feet – and looked like the son of someone important.  He wasn’t overly muscled like a laborer, but was well fed.  His hair was wheat blonde and thick, though crusted with blood as was one side of his face.  Upton’s gaze flicked to the soldier standing directly behind the newcomer.  It was Bulldog Bulstrode.  That was the affectionate name the inmates of the Terrence had given the British sergeant who made an appearance from time to tome – usually when some important prisoner was brought aboard.  Bulstrode was known for baiting prisoners until they broke and then beating them senseless.

So maybe the newcomer wasn’t sick.  Maybe he was just stupid.

“What’s it about?” Giles murmured between his teeth.

Upton shook his head.  In the microcosm that was the Terrence, they would soon find out.    

    

Jeremy kept his feet, but barely.  The combination of hunger, fatigue, exhaustion and pain, as well as an undeniable portion of panic threatened to unman him and send him to his knees.  Upon arriving at the ship Sergeant Nash had pushed him to the sandy shore and told him not to move.  Then he had drawn a pistol from behind his belt to emphasize that he meant it.  Together, they had watched as a coach approached, laboring over the soft land.  Jeremy had been surprised to see a half-dozen British officers and sergeants debark from it.  They greeted Sergeant Bulstrode with laughter and affection before turning faces of hatred on him.  Jeremy had been roughly hauled to his feet and placed in their midst, and then hustled up the gangway and onto the ship.  The sight that greeted him there had been nearly as horrifying as what lay on the beach: walking corpses, emaciated, covered with sores and showing signs of all manner of disease.   None looked to be over thirty, but all were old men, bent and broken, and damaged, it seemed, beyond repair.

As he watched, the British sergeants and officers who had accompanied him formed themselves roughly into two ranks, facing inwards.  Once they were in place, a sailor shouted orders for the prisoners to form a single line.  Then the boatswain began to call names.  Hawkins!  Corbett! Tabard!  As he did, the inmates of the Terrence began to drag their weak and weary bodies forward.  The word then was ‘pass!’  In response the men, like complacent sheep, passed through the scarlet gauntlet to the other side.  The purpose of this exercise escaped Jeremy, unless it be to intimidate or to search each face and see who might be missing.  It took some time for all on the quarterdeck to finish.  When they had, another officer appeared on the middle deck.  He held up his hand, which contained a leather pouch, and cried, “Five guinea’s bounty to any man who will enter His Majesty’s service!”  There were no takers, though a few of the men looked sorely tempted. 

Jeremy could understand why.  He had spent no more than an hour on the Terrence’s deck, and already he was overwhelmed with a sense of despair and a presentiment that this was where he would end his days.

As the officers broke up and prepared to leave the ship, Sergeant Bulstrode took charge of him once more.  Catching him roughly by the elbow, Bulstrode hauled him over to a man who looked as if he might have been by nature thin and rangy.  It was hard to tell since everyone on board had a gangrel look about them.  Like every prisoner, the man had a beard.  It, like the mop of hair on his head, was ash-brown.  It was impossible to tell whether the clothes he wore had started their life as a uniform or not.  All that was left was a pair of buff-colored breeches and the shreds of a shirt that hung from his bony-shoulders halfway to his knees.  A pair of jerry-rigged shoes clung to his feet, and he had managed somehow to hang onto his cravat that was tied in a haphazard knot just below his jutting Adam’s apple.  But the most striking thing about the man was his eyes.  They were amber, with a russet or coppery tint. 

As Jeremy watched the man straightened up as best he could and gave Sergeant Bulstrode a mock salute. 

“Tabard, this man is going to join your mess,” Bulstrode sneered.  “Since it seems you’ve come up one short.”

“It’s customary for us to choose our own replacement,” Tabard answered, rather boldly from Jeremy’s point of view.  But then maybe a quick death at the end of a ball shot from the sergeant’s pistol was something one came to covet on the Terrence.

“You hear that, Master Jeremiah Kent, the vermin don’t like you any more than I do.”

Tabard had been staring at him.  “Jeremiah Kent?” he repeated, an odd tone entering his voice.  “And how did you come to find the Terrence your winter’s accommodation, Master Kent?”

The man’s scrutiny was intense.  In his weakened state, it made Jeremy cringe.  He knew, as everywhere else, that the prison ship would have a hierarchy of power and position.  At the moment he was at the bottom of the pile with very little chance of having any say in determining his fate.

When he failed to reply, Sergeant Bulstrode answered for him.  “Master Kent, he’s an important man.   King George wanted us to show him only our finest.”

“Well, since we are ‘one short’, as you put it, and there needs be six men for a mess, I suppose he will do.”  Upton Tabard’s amber eyes crackled with thinly masked hatred as they met the Englishman’s.  “You can go now, sergeant, we’ll take care of him.”

That was twice Tabard had tempted fate.  His calm assurance in the midst of such insanity was unnerving and, at the same time, strangely assuring.  Here was a man who would die before he would beg. 

“One day, Upton, one day you’ll get yours, and I’ll be standing by laughing my arse off as you do,” Bulstrode snarled.

“Someone here will probably have eaten it before then,” the other man replied dryly.

Without warning, Bulstrode backhanded Upton Tabard and sent him to the deck.  As blood poured from his nose and a split at the corner of his mouth, Tabard’s amber-colored eyes crackled with amusement.       

     “You see, Bulldog,” he said quietly, “two can play your game.”  

 

 “Eat it, friend.  You need to keep up your strength,” the man with the intense amber eyes said as a shoveled a bit of salt pork just freed of its maggoty host into his mouth.

Jeremy swallowed over bile and shoved the battered tin plate he had been handed away.  “I can’t.”

“Now, don’t be ungrateful, Kent,” Giles Corbett – who was sitting on his other side, to his left about one foot away – reminded him.  “This here is two-thirds the ration old King George’s men are getting.  Don’t you forget that.”  Giles shoved a lump of what he referred to as ‘condemned’ biscuit into his mouth and continued as he chewed.  “With any luck it will assure that the damn Lobsterbacks will be dead in no time!”

After Sergeant Bulstrode had departed, Upton Tabard had led Jeremy and four other men, including Giles, down to one of the lower decks of the ship.  As a boy Jeremy had loved to go to the wharf and to follow his father onto the great vessels when, in the course of business, Samuel Larkin had gone there to greet incoming passengers.  He would stand on their decks and feel the wind in his hair and pretend that he had gone to sea to explore the world.  In the last few years, with the British invasion, the sight of them had taken on new meaning and menace. 

He had a feeling that, after this, he would never look at them again.

There must have been two to three hundred men stuffed into a space originally meant to hold at most twenty guns.  The cannon had been removed and their holding places turned into prison cells; the portholes they had looked out of blocked up or fitted with iron bars.  Little or no air made its way through the round openings, though they seemed an open window to the killing cold outside.  The deck was rank with all the sights, smells and sounds of closely confined humanity.  And they were closely confined.  At the moment he, Upton and Giles were sitting.  The other three men of their mess, whom he had met briefly on the walk down before the sailor on watch had ordered them to silence and begun to hand out what he brazenly called their ‘dinner’, were curled up about each other like puppies.  He could not imagine where he and the other two men were to sleep, but guessed they had to do it in shifts so they would fit.  It wasn’t as if there was any choice.  The next ‘mess’ of men on either side was only one thin board away, and from where he was sitting, Jeremy could see the diseased feet of those across the aisle pressing up against their own sleeping men.

Dry and killing coughs, prayers, curses and fevered cries filled the air.  The men surrounding him were listless, agitated, terrified and tired, dying and dead.  One of the men in the mess next to theirs had lost his battle the night before, just after those who had passed had been culled from the prisoner’s ranks.  He lay where he had fallen, his eyes open; his stiffened hands reaching toward the upper deck as if frozen in one last plea to an unhearing and uncaring Providence.   

Jeremy closed his eyes.  His mouth watered, but not with hunger.  The odor of death mingled with human filth, blood, sweat and vomit was withering.        

 Upton shook his arm.  “Jeremy, eat,” he encouraged him.

“I’ll eat it if he won’t,” Giles snarled, reaching for the plate.

“That’s enough, corporal!” 

Jeremy looked at Tabard with new eyes.  It was the first time he had spoken with authority and in such a way.  “You are military then?” he asked.

“Aye.  Not that it counts much here except with louts like Corbett.”  Upton lips parted in a brief smile.  “We were in the same regiment.  I’m a captain.  You?”

“A civilian.”

“What are you doing here then?” Corbett griped.

Jeremy rested his head on the wooden wall behind him and sighed.  “It’s a mistake.  I’m not supposed to be here.”

As the corporal snorted, Upton tried one more time.  “Regardless, you need to keep up your strength.”  He paused.  When he continued his voice was surprisingly soft.  “Don’t you want to see Chester again?”

If one of the British sailors had walked up to him and told him he was free to leave the ship, Jeremy could not have been more surprised.  “I beg your pardon?” he asked.

The captain dropped his voice to a whisper.  “Your name isn’t Kent.  It’s Larkin.  Jeremiah Larkin.”

    “I am afraid I must differ with you, sir,” Jeremy replied.  It was important his true identity not be exposed, even here.  “I am – ”

    “Robert Larkin’s little brother.”  Upton went on with a smile, “It’s no use.  I’ve seen you before.”

    Jeremy was astonished.  “Where?”

    “After Brandywine, in the streets of Chester.  And then again at your brother’s funeral.”  He offered him his hand.  “Captain Upton Tabard of the First Battalion of Chester County militia at your service.  I fought with your brother that day.”  Upton’s amber eyes grew haunted.  “Robert was a good man.  He deserved to live to see a ripe old age.  They said a sniper took him in the back.  Is that true?”

    Jeremy swallowed over the unexpected sense of grief and loss that had come over him at the mention of his brother’s name and nodded.  He didn’t answer for fear tears would flow.  He didn’t know what was wrong with him.  Normally when faced with an insoluble situation he simply set out to find a way to solve it.  Maybe it was the fact that he was so weak.

    Maybe he should eat.

    As he eyed the gray-green biscuit in the plate and the strip of putrefied meat beside it and the bile rose again in his throat, Jeremy told himself, tomorrow.  Tomorrow, I’ll be hungry enough.

    Yes, tomorrow.

    “I take it you followed in Robert’s footsteps after his death?” Upton asked gently.

    It was a good enough explanation.  Jeremy nodded again.

    “Since you are using a false identity, I assume it is espionage?”

    Jeremy glanced at Giles Corbett.  The man had shifted and was leaning against the poorly constructed partition as if he had no interest in their conversation, but he couldn’t help but hear.

    Upton followed his gaze.  “You needn’t worry about Giles.  His family was one of those driven out by Tory raiders.  He belongs heart and soul to the Cause.”

    “Still,” Jeremy’s eyes flicked to the sleeping men and the reeking, seething deck beyond, “it is best I not say.”

    The captain stared at him hard for a moment, as if weighing his words, and then nodded.  “Very well.  What transpires outside these walls matters very little now.  From now until the day you walk off the Terrence a free man, all that matters is survival.”  Upton took the food from Jeremy’s plate and stuffed what was left in his pocket.  “I’ll keep this for you.  Later, you may change your mind.  And who knows, tomorrow there may be no rations.”

    Jeremy shivered and pulled his coat closer about him.  He felt guilty that he was so well dressed when so many others were nearly naked.  Still, he knew, his small piece of creature comfort would not last long.  He had already seen men greedily eyeing his suit and shoes.  If he wasn’t careful, one of them might take his life as well as what covered him.

    It was fortunate Upton Tabard had taken him under his wing.

    “I thank you, sir,” Jeremy began and then paused as his long aching frame was racked with a cough.  Clearing his throat he continued, “I thank you for your kindness to me, though I don’t understand what I have done to merit it.”

    Tabard grew sober.  “I used to think that carrying a rifle and facing down an well-oiled line of British soldiers without running was the bravest thing a man could do.  I was wrong.  It’s choosing to live to get out of this place.

    “I’m sorry to say it, Jeremiah Kent, but welcome to the Terror.”