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Newportes Newes, Virqinia April 25, 1747
The London Pride chafed against the quay as the currents of a rising nor'easter slowly rocked the vessel on her cables. Close above her mastheads, errant clouds tumbled in darkening portent of an advancing storm. Gulls swooped in and out of the ship's rigging, lending their raucous cries to the rattle of chains as a double file of thin, ragged convicts stumbled up from the companionway and shuffled in unison across the weathered planking. The men, hobbled by leg irons and bound to each other by no more than a fathom's length of chain, were prodded into line for the bosun's inspection. The women were individually shackled and could move at their own pace toward the forward hatch where they had been told to wait.
Farther aft, a common swabber paused in his labors to observe the latter group. After casting a cautious glance toward the quarterdeck, he grew bold at the continued absence of Captain Fitch and his bovine wife and hastily stowed his mop and bucket before ambling across the deck. Strutting like a well-preened rooster around the shabby women, he provoked a near-solid bulwark of embittered glares with his leering grin and brash manner. The singular exception was a dark-eyed, raven-haired harlot who had been convicted of lifting the purses of the men she had bedded and of seriously wounding a goodly number in the process. She alone offered a promising smile to the tar.
"I ain't seen the bogtrotter 'round in nigh a week, Mr. Potts," the strumpet remarked coarsely, tossing a triumphant smirk toward her glowering companions. "Ye don't suppose the li'l beggar's gone an' caughther death in the cable tier, now do ye? 'Twould be a right fittin' comeuppance for biffin' me in the nose."
A small wisp of a woman with limp brown hair pushed her way out of the cluster of women and gave the harlot a crisp retort. "Ye can twist that lyin' tongue all ye want, Morrisa 'Atcher, but the lot o' us know m'liedy give ye no more'n ye deserved. The way ye jabbed her in the ribs when she weren't lookin', ye should've been the one what spent time in the chain locker! If 'tweren't for yer li'l lap doggie here" she indicated Potts with scathing abhorrence "bendin' Mrs. Fitch's ear, m'liedy might've been allowed ta have her say."
Setting his beefy arms akimbo, Potts faced the small, feisty woman. "An' ye, Annie Carver, might've done us all a heap o' good fillin' our sheets with wind from yer ever-flappin' tongue. Ain't no question 'bout it, we'd have run ahead soarin' free on that gale."
The sound of dragging chains drifted up from the hold, claiming the swabber's attention. His small, beady eyes took on a sadistic gleam. "Well, blimey! I thinks I hear m'liedy comin' now." Chortling to himself, he lumbered toward the companionway and hunkered down to squint into the shadows below. "Eh, bogtrotter? Be it yer own bloomin' self comin' up from 'em lower chambers?"
Shemaine O'Hearn lifted seething green eyes toward the broad silhouette looming over the opening. For daring to defend herself against this oaf's shipboard doxy, she had spent the last four days isolated in a dank pit in the forward depths of the ship. There she had been forced to scrap with rats and roaches for every morsel of bread that had been tossed to her. If not for her sorely depleted strength, she might have clawed her way up the stairs and raked the tar's ugly visage with ragged nails, but heavy sarcasm was the most she could muster energy for. "And what other poor wretch would this smelly toad have come to fetch, if not me, Mr. Potts?" she asked, jerking her head to indicate the squat, little man who limped along beside her. "I was sure you had persuaded Mrs. Fitch to reserve those quarters for me alone."
Potts heaved an exaggerated sigh of displeasure, making much of her disparagement. "There ye go, Sh'maine, insultin' me friends again."
Her escort reached out and viciously pinched her arm for a second time since freeing her from the cable tier. Freddy was every bit as mean as Potts and needed no coaxing to take his spite out on anyone who couldn't fight back. "Watch yer manners, ye highfalutin tootie!"
"I will, Freddy," she gritted, snatching her arm away from his grubby fingers, "the very day the lot of you learn some.
Potts's gruff voice resonated through the companionway. "Ye'd better get up here an' be quick 'bout it, Sh'mame, or I'll have ta teach ye 'nother lesson."
The girl scoffed at the ogre's rapidly diminishing leverage. "Captain Fitch may have something to say about your heavy-handed ways if he intends to sell me today."
"The cap'n may have his say, al'right," Potts allowed, bestowing a cocky grin upon her as she struggled to make an ascent hindered by weighty iron anklets and chains. "But ever'body knows his missus has the final say on this here voyage."
Since being hauled in shackles aboard the bark, Shemaine had become convinced that no other place on earth was more akin to the pits of hell than an English prison ship bound for the colonies. And surely, no other person had done as much to advance that belief as Gertrude Turnbull Fitch, wife of its captain and only offspring of J. Horace Turnbull, solitary owner of the London Pride and a small fleet of other merchant ships.
With such a formidable reminder as Gertrude Fitch goading her to be wary, Shemaine paused to readjust a makeshift kerchief over her head. During several outings on deck, her fiery red tresses had incensed the dour-faced virago, causing Gertrude to berate the whole Irish race as a crass, slowwitted lot and to demean Shemaine as a filthy little bogtrotter, a derogatory appellation many an Englishman was wont to lay on the Irish.
"Don't ye dare dawdle now," Potts taunted. His pig eyes gleamed overbright, attesting to his penchant for cruelty as he eagerly watched for any infraction that he could pounce on.