Anne’s father had often told her that a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, but this morning she was grateful for the tranquility as the Providence cut the surface like a finger trailing in the water. The blue sky overhead stretched to the horizon with lazy white clouds floating on the breeze.
She tried to convince herself that her calm surroundings made her present task somewhat less repellant, but the expressions of her fellow passengers told her otherwise, which was why the duty had fallen to her. No one else had stepped forward to help.
Kneeling on the deck, the skin on Anne’s arms and face was tight from prolonged exposure to the sun and seawater. The dull needle in her hand pierced the bloody canvas with a gentle pop as she pulled the edges of the hammock closer together to create a makeshift shroud.
She avoided looking at the dead man’s eyes as they stared sightlessly up at the heavens. Holding her breath against the rancid smell of his rotting teeth and gums, she said a silent prayer, hoping he had not felt the rats gnawing on the soles of his feet as he lay dying.
The sailor standing beside her shifted, momentarily blocking the sun. “That’s only twelve stitches. He’ll come back if you don’t have thirteen.”
“Perhaps you’d like to do the last one,” Anne snapped up at him, unable to hold her tongue any longer.
The sailor took a hasty step back, shaking his head, his eyes wide with fear. These men and their silly superstitions, she thought.
Bracing herself, Anne pushed the needle through one side of the canvas before passing it through the dead man’s nose. She winced as she tugged at the thread to complete the last and final stitch to close the hammock. The sailors claimed that the law of the sea demanded it, a way to make sure that the person wasn’t simply sleeping.
Anne knew for a fact that the man before her was dead, for she was the one who had found him. Hidden behind a large crate on the quarterdeck of the Providence, he had crawled away to suffer the scurvy alone and in silence. He’d had no family on board, no one to claim him.
Her task complete, Anne sat back on her haunches, waiting as a few sailors lifted the body. Gaunt and exhausted themselves,
they rested it briefly on the railing before rolling it over the edge into the serene sea below.
Anne closed her eyes when she heard the splash, knowing the cannonball they’d placed in the hammock would drag the emaciated form down to the murky depths of the ocean. A small part of her couldn’t help thinking that perhaps he was the lucky one. His suffering was over. For the rest left on board, their hardships would continue.
In the five weeks since they’d left the shores of England behind, he was the sixth person to succumb to the disease, and unless they reached their destination soon, he would not be the last.
From the beginning, the vessel had been plagued by exceptionally bad luck.
A lack of foresight or funds had left them with an inadequate supply of provisions. Their salted pork and dried fish had long run out, with only hardtack remaining. The biscuits themselves were barely edible, teeming with beetles and weevils. After her mother’s death, Anne had thought she’d known hunger. That was nothing compared to the famine she endured now.
The weary people surrounding Anne wore threadbare clothes and haunted expressions, resembling the ship on which they sailed. It was a miracle the Providence had made it this far, with its tattered sails and slowly leaking hull.
While the other onlookers drifted to different parts of the deck, Cara helped Anne to her feet. “How do you do it?” Cara
asked, her freckled face pale underneath her sunburn. Her once plump features had significantly thinned in the weeks since their departure.
Anne had told Cara and her brother, Coyle, how she’d been taken from the Drummond estate and put on the Providence against Richard Drummond’s instructions. In turn, Anne had learned that Coyle and Cara’s uncle had sent them enough funds to sail on a grand ship, but someone had robbed them, and the two were left to sail on the Providence as well. Anne was grateful for their friendship.
Looking up from the needle in her hand, Anne gave Cara a sad smile. “It’s not much different than mending the sails.” Cara had a fine hand for stitching and had been invaluable to the crew of the Providence for patching and repairing the old canvas sails ripped during the storms they’d encountered. Cara hoped to earn a living as a seamstress one day, and put her talent to use.
“I don’t believe you. Some of these lads have been sailing for years and none of them offered to help the poor man.”
“It was the least I could do. I like to think that if anything happened to me, someone would take the time to give me a proper burial at sea.”
Cara crossed herself before shaking her head at Anne. “Don’t be talking like that. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Coyle won’t allow it. And neither will I.”
“Aye, she’s right,” Coyle said, coming toward them. His blond hair, so similar to his sister’s, had lightened considerably
in the sun, while his fair skin had darkened. He’d lost at least two stones since they’d set sail. “We’re glad you’re here, even if we were all supposed to be on the Deliverance.”
Cara linked her arm with Anne’s. “And when we get to Nassau, you can stay with us. I’m sure our uncle would welcome an extra hand in his tavern. From what we’ve heard, he seems to be doing well, with plenty of thirsty folk on the island.”
“It will only be until I can earn enough to continue my journey. I don’t wish to be a burden,” Anne said, hating the fact that she was once again penniless, with no way to send word back to Teach. Every time she thought of him, the pain of his absence was like a cruel fist squeezing her heart.
It would take weeks for any letter to reach Bristol, but she had to try something to get in touch with him. Perhaps he’d left word with her father’s solicitor. It was quite possible Teach had quit the country, in an attempt to find her.
If she closed her eyes, she could almost picture him aloft in the rigging of a ship, adjusting the sails and making repairs. The work of a sailor was physically demanding, yet Teach would never shrink from his responsibilities. He wouldn’t have hesitated to sew the dead man up in the hammock. Not because he was unfeeling, but because Teach knew there was enough filth and disease on a ship without a decaying body adding to the misery.
A part of Anne couldn’t help being grateful that she would soon reach land and have to stay there for some time. The trip across the Atlantic had been more challenging and difficult
than anything she’d imagined. They’d endured unending hours of monotony, only to be surprised by storms so violent and fierce that Anne had been convinced the ship would send her to a watery grave.
Cara gave Anne a comforting squeeze. “You could never be a burden. If you hadn’t allowed me to share your cabin, I would still be forced to sleep with the passengers below and Coyle would never get any rest.”
“I still don’t get any rest. But at least I don’t worry as much,” Coyle said, striking the small biscuit in his hand on the railing. Several weevils fell out and he brushed the tiny black insects overboard, before dipping the hardtack into a mug of diluted brandy. “Care for some?” he asked, offering it to Anne.
She shook her head. They’d all learned the hard way that the simple wafers were unbreakable and had to first be immersed in liquid in order to make them edible. Hardtack might be inexpensive to make and long-lasting for a voyage, but flavorful it was not.
Coyle shrugged and took a bite. Cara wrinkled her nose at him. “Aren’t you going to offer me anything?” Cara asked.
“No. George ate your portion.”
“Which George?” Cara had taken it upon herself to try to name every rat on the Providence. An impossible task considering how many there were, but it was a simple game that helped fight the monotony of the voyage.
“How should I know?”
“Was he missing a hind foot? If so, it was George III. If part of his tail was gone, then that’s George I.”
“I’m too bloody tired for this, Cara,” Coyle muttered, rubbing his weary eyes.
Anne shook her head at him. “You don’t need to sleep outside our cabin, Coyle. You’ve heard Captain Oxley. He’s said no harm will come to us.” After weeks observing the coarse crew, Anne had come to realize that the sailors mostly kept to themselves, leaving the passengers alone. Cara’s outgoing nature bordered on flirtatious, but the men were too busy trying to keep the ship afloat to pay much attention to her. Especially with Coyle remaining nearby.
“I want to be close by in case anything does happen,” Coyle said, looking off the port side.
Anne followed his gaze, a thread of unease winding its way through her chest. In the distance, two ships cruised the open waters, their dark outlines visible against the stark blue of the sky. For weeks, the Providence had sailed along, separated from familiar landmarks without a glimpse of another vessel on the horizon.
But two days ago as they neared their destination, the call had gone out that a ship had been spotted. And shortly after, a second ship had appeared. Like two shadows, they followed the Providence, but made no move to get any closer.
Anne drew a deep breath. “Have they shown their flags?”
“No. We’re too far for them to raise an ensign,” Coyle said.
“What do you think they want?” Cara asked, her eyes narrowed. “We don’t have anything worth taking.” The Providence was a pitiable merchant vessel. With rotting timbers and old rigging, the ship transported more people than cargo. Whatever goods she did carry, it couldn’t have amounted to more than a few hundred schillings at best.
“I don’t know,” Coyle said, downing the rest of his brandy. “But it’s not normal.”
“It seems to me that they’re waiting for something,” Anne said.
“Like what?” Cara asked, her voice sharp.
Coyle wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Don’t know, but I think Anne’s right. See how they keep their distance?”
Cara looked between her brother and Anne. “But we’re only a few days away from Nassau. It’s to be expected that we see other ships.”
“Yes, but they should move on, shouldn’t they? If they’re merchants, they would be heading to their next port,” Anne said. “Do you think the tales are true?”
A few of the crew members had claimed that life was difficult for many settlers in Nassau. The Spanish had burned and destroyed the town in 1684. English settlers had arrived two years later and more continued to arrive each year, but stability was difficult to maintain, even with a governor in residence. In order to survive, many in the population had turned to piracy to earn their living. Nassau was rumored to be a lawless nest of adventurers and thieves.
“Surely they wouldn’t attack a ship flying under the English flag,” Cara said.
Anne remained silent, the Providence rising and falling gently beneath her feet. Was it possible that the life she’d left behind in Bristol was better than the one she now faced, living amongst thieves in Nassau?
The first part of their journey was nearly complete. In a few days’ time, they would make port. But what kind of future awaited her?
Looking up, Anne raised a hand to shield her eyes, squinting against the brightness of the sun. In the distance, the unmistakable outline of another vessel dotted the horizon.
A murmur spread across the deck like a wave approaching shore as other passengers and crew crowded along the railing. If they hadn’t been so spooked by the two ships already following them, Anne doubted the appearance of a third would have caused such a stir.
But cause a stir it did.
The downy hair on Anne’s nape prickled. Glancing back up at the cloudless blue sky, she saw that there was no sign of an approaching storm, but she sensed danger on the horizon nonetheless.