THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED
“Is he dead?
“No. By his breath on the plate, he’s still living.”
“Are you sure? He looks dead.”
“They all look dead when they’re sleeping, you great lout! Though by his color, this one’ll be over the side tomorrow.”
“Where’s Tabard? He ain’t left him since they brought him in.”
“Gone above with the others of his mess to pass.”
“And left this one here for the crows to pick over?”
“That Tabard, his trinkets must be steel. I saw old Crawley take him. Dressed him good he did, ‘til Upton’s blood ran red. This one must be his personal hobby horse for him to have put up such a fuss.”
“More likely his Molly. No doubt he’ll be looking for a new one soon. Now, come on. Ain’t much time. Nick the macaroni’s shoes. They’re the prime article. He’s sure not to need them when he’s cold meat.”
Jeremy heard the voices as if in a dream. He didn’t realize until he felt rough hands on his legs that the two men were talking about him. Once he did he tried to rouse himself to fight, but found he didn’t have the strength. The last few days had been a steady progression into a nightmare world of sickness. It had started with the cough, which began on the day he arrived. At first it had been shallow and easily ignored, but had quickly worsened until now it jarred his body and produced a rusty colored corruption. By the third day of his confinement below deck in the pestilent world of the Terrence, his temperature had risen and he had been overcome with a series of teeth-chattering chills. Still, that day as the day before, he had managed to climb the wooden ladder to ‘pass’ and had even been granted the dubious privilege of fetching the mess’s provisions – something a new man seldom got to do. One of the men in Tabard’s group had managed to secure a wooden drawer from a long-neglected cupboard to the rear of the deck. This became their serving tray, and it was that drawer that he had carried to the area of the hulked ship ludicrously called the ‘kitchen’ to accept what the captain of the Terrence had declared to be their day’s ration. It had consisted of a dozen dried peas floating in vermin-infested water brown as a mud-hole; fourteen peas to feed six men for a period of twenty-four hours.
Tabard told him when he
arrived back in their stall that there would have been more but that those in
charge took the greatest portion for themselves and sold the extras in the
nearby town for coin.
The fourth day of his confinement – the one before this – Jeremy had begun to find it hard to breathe. His heart pounded and his chest ached as if someone had lowered a crushing weight upon it. A man in their mess by the name of Geoffrey Leeds had been an army surgeon. Later that night, when they thought him asleep, he had heard him speaking in low tones to Captain Tabard. Leeds said he had Lung Fever and that, if they did not get him out of the hold and into fresh air, there was little chance he would last out the week.
Jeremy had never thought he could be reduced to a place where he did not care if he lived or died, but the futility of hope was a luxury at this point that he did not have the energy to afford. It took everything that was in him just to continue breathing and to command his heart to beat. Every time he opened his eyes it was onto the same dark world of disease, death and despair. All about him men were swearing and blaspheming. Some were crying, praying, and wringing their hands. Others stalked about like ghosts, while still others were delirious, raving and storming, or groaning and dying. And each and every one was panting for breath. Then there were the dead, corrupting the air so foul that at times a lamp could not be lit. Tabard had told him he would grow used to it, but he was wrong – what he was going to do was grow cold and have his bones added to the piles that lay on the beach below Remsen’s Mill.
Jeremy’s feet were bare now. He could feel the cold of the ship’s deck against his heels. It was a curious contrast to the fetid and unceasing heat of the dozens of bodies crushed up against him. And that was the saddest thing. He was being robbed and no one cared. He was just one more living corpse being stripped of the things he would soon no longer need.
Jeremy coughed and the hands that had been unbuttoning his shirt paused. They had already removed his coat along with his shoes.
“He’s waking up!” the first voice warned in a fierce whisper.
“Use your head! Pick up the wood box and bash him with it. No one will know the difference. Dead’s dead.”
“No. Listen. Someone’s coming.”
“Cock and pie! Leave it then. Take the coat and shoes and hide them in one of the pots. They’ll buy a few bottles of French Cream and a piece of French mutton to go with them!”
“What if he tells?
“He’s fevered, remember?” A rough hand slapped Jeremy’s face, setting off a fit of coughing. “Ain’t nothing more than a dying man’s dream.”
Jeremy heard someone shout something, but he lost the words as the fit seized him. Moments later someone was kneeling by his side and had taken him up in their arms.
“Hang on, Jeremy,” Upton Tabard’s voice demanded. “Hang on. I’ll get you out of this place if it’s the last thing I do.”
He didn’t even have the strength to shake his head. “No. Let me die….”
“You won’t die. None of my men will die. I won’t accept it.”
Another fit seized him. Upton held him as he coughed and then shook from head to bare toe. “There’s no…way out. We’re all…going to die,” he despaired.
“You won’t die unless you give up. Think of Robert. What would he want you to do?” Upton shook his shoulders. “Jeremy!”
“He’d…want me…to live,” he answered, his breath ragged.
“Right. Listen, Doctor Leeds says he can bleed you. It might save your life, but it might kill you as well. He’s got a sharpened scrap of metal from a barrel, but there’s no fire to cure it in.”
“They took my instruments when I was captured,” Geoffrey Leeds added. “Bastards. How many men could I have helped and maybe saved?”
“It’s been known to work for Lung Fever,” the surgeon assured him. Geoff’s hand rested on his shoulder. “Something has to be done.”
“Why are you…doing this?” Jeremy coughed again. “Why not…let me die?”
Tabard and Leeds looked at each other. Upton nodded and Jeremy watched as the surgeon rose and positioned himself between them and the men of the next mess. At another nod from Captain Tabard, Giles Corbett and the others began to squabble and then to shout, and then they pushed into the eighteen inch-wide aisle that ran the length of the gun deck and began to fight.
Upton Tabard leaned in
close. Above the din, it was hard
to hear him, but that was his intent. He
lowered his head so his lips were near Jeremy’s ear.
“I couldn’t tell you at first. Even
though you were Robert’s brother, I had to know you were safe and not a plant
or spy. Robert told me your father
has sympathies for the King.” Tabard’s
fingers tightened on his arm. “It
has been several weeks in planning. Jeremy,
but the word just came today. That’s
why I had to leave you alone and let Crawley bully me into going up top so I
could make contact. We are getting
out of here. In three days, on the
28th, we are going to burn this damned purgatory of a ship to
its waterline. You have to
hang on! Three more days and
you will be free!”
Upton’s hand was ice on his fevered skin; his breath against it, excruciating. As a boy Jeremy’s father had taken him to Philadelphia to visit a friend who suffered from the Lung Fever. They had stayed to see the man through the crisis and he had lived, so he knew it was possible. But living meant choosing not to die, and choosing not to die meant fighting, and he didn’t think he had any fight left in him.
And then he thought of his brother, Robert, as Upton had urged. Robert who, after a sniper’s bullet had taken him in the back, continued on until his last breath, and he knew he couldn’t give up.
Jeremy fought off another fit of coughing. He clenched his teeth and nodded even as he heard First Mate Crawley’s voice echo through the cramped and pestilent space, threatening to hang whoever had started the fight from the yardarm.
“Tell Leeds to do his business,” he said.
An hour later Upton Tabard sat in the filthy hold of the Terence, his hand on Jeremy Larkin’s shoulder. Though surrounded by dead and dying men, his thoughts were bent on just this one whose bloodied arm lay exposed on the murderous deck. He hadn’t explained to Jeremy just why his continued survival was so important to him, and he didn’t intend to. It was personal.
Personal between him and Captain Robert Larkin.
When he and Robert had first met there had been the usual competition. They were both Chester boys far from home and had vied for position in the line command. It had been at the Battle of Long Island; the battle that proved to be the first blooding for them both. But unlike Robert, Upton had not come to the battle alone. His youngest brother, Lewis, had come with him. Lew was a foot soldier assigned, as it turned out, to Robert Larkin’s command. The battle had been joined with high expectations, but when they learned that their 10,000 soldiers were up against Howe’s 20,000, any hope of victory quickly disappeared and survival had become the word of the day. In the end, though they fought bravely, over 300 were killed and nearly 1400 wounded.
Lew was among the 1200 captured.
Later that day, General William Alexander and his men delayed the Redcoats at the Old Stone House so Washington’s army had time to withdraw to the fortifications of the Brooklyn Heights. Near the beginning of the move, word had come that a group of prisoners had escaped and were trying to make it back to the line. When Robert Larkin found out that his men were among them, he refused to leave. He argued that someone should stay until there was no hope. Along with a half-dozen others who volunteered he and Robert remained behind, shoulder to shoulder and barely concealed, to keep watch. At candle-lighting the men appeared. Lew was among them. He was badly wounded and by the time they had reached the Heights, his brother was dead. Upton had never forgotten Captain Larkin’s bravery and kindness, or the debt he owed him. Lew had died, but it had not been in a prison. It had been in his brother’s arms.
Now he had a chance to see the debt repaid.
Upton stirred as Geoff Leeds nudged him. They were crammed as usual so close it was nearly impossible to find the room to raise an arm to do so. Upton was shielding the surgeon with his body. It wasn’t that their guards would care if they bled one of their own – but the band from the metal barrel they had found and broken into pieces, and then honed against the heavy stones on the deck above when no one was looking, might have made the sailors…well, nervous.
“What is it, Geoff? Are you done? How is he?”
“Resting more peacefully,” the surgeon answered.
Upton glanced at the young man as Leeds rose to his feet, the bloody plate in his hands. Robert’s brother was pale as his shirt and not moving. For a moment panic seized him, but then he saw Jeremy’s chest slowly rising and falling. “How long will it take him to recover? Can he be on his feet in three days?”
“It’s all up to the constitution of the individual,” Leeds answered, somewhat distracted. “Brandy would help. Or garlic. But short of raiding the captain’s table, I don’t see us getting hold of either of those.”
“Wait a day or two,” Upton growled as the doctor nodded and then moved away. “Bartholomew Skern will be more than happy to hand us the keys to the cabinet where he keeps his liquor, unless he wants it to burn along with his ship.”
They had already secured the powder. Barely more than three handfuls, but it was enough. The men had kept watch for one another during the ‘pass’ and, when they could, those who were free had scraped it up from the deck where it had fallen from kegs or sailor’s shot-bags and powder horns. With that small amount they could set the ship ablaze. All they needed was fire, which could be had from the captain’s cabin, and access to the powder stores.
The scheme was this: there was a small room under the forecastle called the roundhouse that was normally locked. It was seldom used, as there were other places in the ship to be had. Employing a sliver of the barrel’s hoop they had palmed, Corbett would pick the lock the morning of the escape and leave it undone. The guards were supposed to check all the locks each and every day, but they had grown slack with indifference and were most often drunk, and it would surely pass the day’s inspection unnoticed. That night, after the evening meal, their mess would make it into the roundhouse and remain there until the ship fell asleep. The prisoners surrounding their stall would fill the area in so it did not appear any were missing. The other prisoners knew it was their only way out as well. No one would tell. There were no favors to be had from the Terrence’s crew for snitching – only a whipping and half-rations until a man fainted from starvation or died.
At the proper time they would leave the roundhouse and ascend the ladder to the quarterdeck one by one. Once up top, they would storm the captain’s cabin and hold him prisoner. Then, they would free the others and, after they had all escaped to the shore, set the Terrence on fire and watch as she burned.
Upton turned and looked at Jeremy Larkin where he lay sleeping. In any other circumstances the idea of taking a man half-dead with them would have been out of the question. As it was, in the best of health, he and Corbett and Leeds and the others were barely better off. There was no such thing as a strong man or a steady man on the Terrence.
Only desperate ones.
Jeremy opened his eyes only to find that the nightmare continued. He drew a shallow breath and coughed as the assaulting air assured him that he was awake. He coughed again, though not so deeply as before, and shifted – only to find that he was butted up against Giles Corbett on one side and Captain Upton on the other. When he moved Corbett growled and moved into a half-seated position.
“So you’re still alive,” Giles said, as if he regretted it. Then he
and touched his shoulder almost tenderly. “Keep
fighting, Kent. In three
days we make them pay.”
“How do you feel?” Upton asked as he too shifted and sat up.
“Warmer than I have…in some time,” Jeremy admitted.
Upton nodded. “Leeds said to keep you warm. It took an order, but Corbett complied,” he added with a half-smile.
“You keep your trap shut, you hear?” Giles snarled. “I won’t have anyone thinking me a fribble or Molly.”
Somehow Jeremy doubted that anyone would dare to mention it to the giant of a man.
“What made you decide to fight?” Upton asked him as he placed an arm around his shoulders and helped him to lean against the ship’s wall. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Jeremy was silent for a moment. “You asked me about my brother’s death. He…Robert…well, in a way he took a bullet that was meant for me.” He paused. The sentence had taken nearly all his wind. Jeremy took a moment to draw several shallow breaths and then continued, “He kept riding. He told me to do what I had to do instead of caring for him.” He swallowed hard. “He never gave up.”
“That’d be Robert,” Upton said, a wan smile curling the edge of one chaffed and scarred lip.
“Did you know him well?”
“As well as I know you,” he answered. “The stuff Robert was made of shone out of his eyes. He was strong. You, are strong.”
“I don’t feel very strong,” Jeremy said. Weakness robbed his voice of strength so it came out in a whisper.
“You will.” Upton’s tone brightened falsely as he reached over and picked up a plate and held it out before him. “It’s pudding day.”
Jeremy blanched. The ‘pudding’ was made of damaged flour that arrived in a three pound green lump. Along with it the prisoners were given about a pound of raisins. They soon learned to mash out the lumps in the flour, and to combine it with the raisins along with some water in their drawer in order to form a mix. After that they put it into a bag and boiled it. When done it was cold, hard, lumpy and practically inedible.
Even the maggots avoided it.
“Well?” Upton asked, waving the plate under his nose.
Jeremy summoned what strength he had and reached out to take the plate. He balanced it on his lap and then pinched a bit of the offending stuff off with his good hand. After only a moment’s hesitation he raised it to his lips and put it in his mouth and began to chew.
He was going to live.
Hours later after the rest of his mess had fallen asleep a slender figure in a tattered uniform, escorted by the First Mate of the Terrence ascended the ladder to the main deck and slowly approached the captain’s cabin. As he waited for access to be granted, he reconsidered for the hundredth time the course he was taking. It was wrong to betray his mates, but what Captain Tabard was considering was wrong as well. There was no way the thousand or so men held in the Terrence’s belly could escape before the ship was consumed by fire, and in all likelihood the escape would fail. Hundreds would die and for no purpose.
Geoffrey Leeds drew a deep breath as the cabin door opened. He had approached Thomas Crawley and told him he had important information for the captain concerning an uprising in the making. He had no intention of giving either names or details. He only wanted to warn the ship’s crew so they could prevent it from happening. There were other ways to escape, even if it meant doing so one at a time. Leeds had sworn when he became a doctor that he would preserve lives at all costs, not help in taking them. He intended to plead with Captain Skern for the return of his instruments. After all, if he helped Skern, why would the man not assist him in turn? What could it hurt if he tended to the prisoners below? These men could not be completely without compassion. They must see, daily, how the prisoners suffered.
As Leeds entered the captain’s cabin a buxom woman in a scandalous scarlet dress rose from her seat on Skern’s lap. The captain caught her about the waist and pulled her back. Then he turned her so he could cup her breasts in his hands and kissed her hard. The strumpet cackled with delight and returned Skern’s attentions by catching his crotch in her hand and then mincing away with a sharp twist of her bum roll. As she passed Leeds, she gave a little bounce and then disappeared out into the night.
“That doxie’ll be the end of me. I will cap downright if she’s not given me the clap!” Skern bellowed merrily as he laced his leggings. “I don’t suppose, surgeon, that you have a remedy?”
“I might suggest you stay away from whores,” Leeds answered dryly.
Skern was about fifty and, from the look of him, had spent the last thirty or so of them ignoring any such advice. His graying hair was patchy, and there were places where he had no eyebrows at all. There were cankers on his mouth and in the folds of his skin. Leeds noticed the captain moved as if his muscles were stiff, and there was a hint of paralysis about his mouth: all signs of the pox. Altogether Captain Skern was not a healthy man.
Which made him have even more in common with the men below.
At his suggestion, the commander of the Terrence laughed again, but it was a sound without mirth. Sobering, Skern leaned forward. His warty fingers locked together as he asked, “So what have you come to tell me, Doctor Leeds?”
“You understand I do this to save lives?” he replied.
“Most likely your own,” Thomas Crawley sneered.
“I would gladly perish if it would save hundreds of those men below,” he snapped in reply.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Skern cautioned. “Go on, Doctor Leeds.”
Leeds wet his lips. Once he spoke, he was entirely committed. He closed his eyes briefly and was confronted by the same vision – five hundred men, on fire, leaping into water that was also ablaze. Opening them, he replied matter-of-factly, “There is an escape attempt afoot. One of the messes intends to hide in a secure place and then to take the ship by force.” He swallowed hard. “It is their intention to set the Terrence afire.”
Skern was silent for a moment. “And which mess would this be? Who is their leader?”
Leeds stiffened his back. “I cannot say.”
“Cannot? Or will not?” Skern asked, his voice darkening.
“You do not need to know the men’s names to stop it. I will not give them to you.”
“What if I promise they will not be harmed?”
Leeds didn’t even bother to answer that.
Thomas Crawley had remained silent, leaning against the inner wall of the captain’s cabin. Now he pushed off it and came to the doctor’s side. Crawley laced his fingers together and cracked the knuckles deliberately. The sound echoed through the narrow space with the threat that was intended.
“I can make him tell,” Crawley snarled. “It’ll take no more than the shake of a lammie’s tale.”
Captain Bartholomew Skern rose from his seat and crossed to where Leeds stood. He stopped just in front of him and met the doctor’s gaze. “Now you tell me, Doctor, what would you do if a man held back a cure for a sickness that was threatening the lives of those you were responsible for? Would you let him go? Or would you make him talk?”
Leeds drew a breath and
held his ground. He must have been mad thinking he could reason with such men.
“I have taken an oath never to harm another human being.”
Thomas Crawley sneered, showing missing teeth.
“It’s a good thing then, mate, that I haven’t.”
Hours later Jeremy awoke to wild whispers flying all about him. One of the prisoners of another mess had reported seeing Doctor Leeds on the deck near sunset, heading for the captain’s cabin. The man had been employed in bringing rations onto the ship. The news took Upton Tabard completely by surprise. Jeremy watched him pale, and then grow crimson with anger.
“Damn him!” he cursed. “He’s given us away.”
“But why would he do that?” Jeremy asked.
“He’s a pigeon-livered coward,” Giles Corbett spat.
“Shut you mouth, corporal. Geoff is far from a coward. Even if I don’t agree with him, what he’s done took a kind of courage you’ll never find.” Upton leaned back against the ship’s wall and covered his face with his hands. “I should have known. I should have seen this coming.”
Jeremy looked from one to the other. Giles was angry with Leeds. Upton, it seemed, was angry with himself.
“Do you know what this is about?” he asked him.
Upton lowered his hands. “Leeds made his objections clear, but he was overruled. The doctor was against setting fire to the ship. He said too many men would perish and he’s right, hundreds will die – but hundreds of others will escape. Given the choice, I’d rather take a chance at burning than die in this filthy hole.”
“Upton.” It was one of the other men of the mess who spoke. “Someone’s coming.”
It was night on the deck and they were not allowed light, so the only illumination was the moon’s beams that filtered through the bars on the ship’s portholes. They fell in striped patches that dotted the filth and sweat-stained floor. As they watched a figure moved through the light, dragging something heavy. The prisoners who lay on the deck unwilling or unable to clear the way, grunted as they were alternately stepped on or kicked to clear a path.
“Whoever it is, he’s headed here,” Giles warned as he rose to his feet. “I tell you the sawbones gave us up!”
As the man approached they saw that it was Thomas Crawley. There was no mistaking the first mate’s uneven gate and tall menacing figure. He paused just within one of the patches of light. Whatever he had in his hand remained in shadow.
“I found something up top I think belongs to you, Captain Tabard. Being the kind of man I am, I thought I would return it. Though it ain’t worth nothing but throwing in the pot, even though the meat’s not quite cold.” With a flick of his wrist Crawley drew the object into the light. It was Doctor Leeds. The medical man had been beaten until he was nearly unrecognizable, but Jeremy knew him by his shape and the remnant’s of his medical uniform. As he continued to stare, Crawley let the doctor’s hand drop and then stepped over so he straddled the man’s broken form. “Consider this a warning, Upton. I’m watching you.”
With that Thomas Crawley kicked the doctor’s fallen form one last time. Then he laughed all the way to the ladder, and was still laughing as he ascended it and disappeared from sight.
A hush had fallen on the deck, deep as the grave the doctor was now looking into. Upton Tabard rose and walked to the dying man and knelt at his side. “Geoff,” he said as he took one battered hand in his, “why?”
Leeds breath rattled in his chest. His words were painful to hear, as they came between deep gasps for air. “I didn’t…tell them…who, only…what. I’m sorry…Captain. I thought…even…in the worst of us…there has to…be…humanity…” Leeds paused. He drew a sharp intake of breath.
Upton Tabard sat for some time unmoving. Then he lifted his head and with tears in his eyes, whispered, “No, I’m sorry, Geoff.
“You were wrong.”