"Bill Westbrook’s follow-up to The Bermuda Privateer is buoyed by details of history and seamanship that will delight any fan of saltwater yarns and explosive action.”—Broos Campbell author of the Matty Graves Novels
That dashing British privateer Nicholas Fallon is back again, helping himself to a fistful of mayhem in The Black Ring. The year is 1798. The African slave trade is in brutal flower, and the great powers are fighting for control of the Caribbean’s immensely profitable sugar plantations.Nico, meanwhile, has been trying his damnedest to become a salt merchant under Ezra Somers, father of the beautiful Elinore. But when an urgent request arrives from Admiral Davies of the Leeward Island Station, Ezra and Elinore give Nico their blessing to head off in search of plunder and adventure. Sailing aboard the American-built topsail schooner Rascal, Nico takes on the job of slipping a secret agent into Cuba, but soon becomes entangled in numerous dangers—or opportunities, as he likes to call them. There’s an escaped slave trying to burn every stalk of sugarcane in Cuba, a pirate running riot with a flotilla of “little wolves,” an admiral’s lady that needs a bit of rescuing, and a French plot that threatens Britain’s very presence in the islands.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Senegal, West Africa
The Long, black snake slowly wound its way down from the tree-covered hills and into the tall plains grasses, hidden by the swaying greens and yellows, every bird and animal silenced, every insect suddenly quiet in an eerie, soundless chorus. The spine of the snake undulated as it moved and curved in a lazy S, stretching and constricting a chain attached to a hundred and fifty men at the neck. The slaves choked on the dust and spat out wet dirt until they ran dry of saliva but, to a man, they kept their heads down.
Behind them, perhaps a quarter of a mile, a long snake of women and children, shackled only at the ankles, moved slower than the men because occasionally the drivers would stop the line to rape one of the women. It happened enough that no one looked up. Anyway, they didn't dare.
This was a business, nothing more. African kings raided other kingdoms and kidnapped their enemies and, rather than kill them, simply sold them as slaves. It was a growing part of the economy of West Africa, where there were many kings. The only nuisance was having to march them from the interior to the island of Gorée, where the European and Caribbean dealers were. But business was good, for every king had many enemies, and kidnapping them had the effect of consolidating a king's power.
Each night found the men and women collapsed on the ground, the only sound being the screams of another assault. There was no thought of escape, only confusion among the slaves about what had happened and where they were going.
The African warrior stood on the auction block, naked. He was tall and strongly built, with a jagged scab on his cheek from a spear tip that could have just as easily killed him as he fought desperately to save his village. He had been a guard when the kidnappers came, and he had obviously failed in his duty because everyone in his village had been either taken prisoner or slaughtered. His failure shamed him. His neck was raw from the constant movement of the tugging chain as he was marched from his village; now the chain had been replaced by manacles on his feet. Around him bidders sized him up; some poked at his arms or legs with sticks to judge his muscularity. They pulled on their beards and gazed at him, evaluating the purchase of a human being like one would a cow or a horse.
The warrior watched as one of the men nodded and pulled out a purse. He did not know he had just been bought by Captain Lebron, an old Frenchman and an independent slaver who bought kidnapped Africans to sell at various slave markets throughout the Caribbean and various U.S. ports. Lebron measured his new slave and noted the scar on his cheek as he wrote a description of his latest purchase on the manifest he kept.
The warrior was taken off the block and led to where Lebron's other slaves stood in bewilderment. He could see his sister in a group of women waiting to be auctioned; the red ribbon in her hair was all she wore. The women were being sold just as the men were, but for far less, for they broke down in the fields under the strain of continuous manual work. Lebron sized up the women carefully, wanting only the strongest and healthiest looking. He bought fifty women, and the warrior's sister was the last chosen. On his manifest, he gave all his purchases English names.
Finally, the bidding and buying were over and all the men, women, and a few older children were divided up. The bidders and bystanders had to endure the wailing of separated families, another nuisance with slaves. But at last the seasoning began. Each slave would now begin to learn how it was going to be, where the lines were, and who the master was, for each slave would wear the brand of the trader or dealer who had bought them. Each was led to a fire where a hot iron waited, glowing red to signal the coming pain, bearing the trader's unique symbol. Men, women, and children would thus become his chattel.
A cow's hide is tough. The branding iron burns only the upper layer of hide, searing off the hair such that it will never grow back. Human skin is different, without a hard hide, so that as the iron touches it, the skin immediately blisters and then starts to bleed. The pain is beyond excruciating and then, as the iron burns farther into layers of blood vessels and tissue, unbearable. The smell of burning human skin is something you never forget, especially if it is your own.
The warrior stood with his back to the branding post, his hands manacled behind it, and stared wide-eyed at the various glowing irons in the fire, each a brand for a different trader. Lebron selected the iron with a small, crude L and banged the ashes off it. He held it in the air and looked at the warrior indifferently; after all, he'd done this thousands of times. Slowly he brought the iron up, hesitated a moment to let the warrior focus his eyes on the iron in fear, and pushed the brand into the flesh of his shoulder. The warrior gasped and screamed despite himself, and tears leapt from his eyes in an involuntary eruption of pain.
Lebron didn't seem to notice. He'd seen this and worse in his years as a slaver, seen men pass out and women throw fits, and children — well, some children died on the spot. Pain was funny that way, he thought, as he put the iron back into the fire to heat up for the next slave. It was all monotonous but it had to be done, else how could you tell the buggers apart?
Lebron's selections were held in a warehouse on the island, chained and shackled. There were lots of thirty men confined in eight-foot square cells with only a slit of a window for outside air. Women were housed separately in the warehouse, naked except for a piece of cloth to tie around their waists. On the floor above the slaves' heads were the dealers' apartments, where nightly festivities and gaiety belied the human misery only a few feet below.
After several days, Lebron was ready to leave. Each of his slaves was rousted and pushed through the "door of no return," a small opening to the outside of the warehouse through which every man, woman, and child walked to the shore and the waiting canoes.
Lebron's ship could hold five hundred slaves, but he had purchased and branded 562. In his business you expected to have waste. How many would die on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean was not so easy to predict, but you planned as best you could. Satisfied that all his property was accounted for on the shore, Lebron began the process of loading his slaves into the waiting canoes for the short trip out to his ship. The canoes, the water, all of this was terrifying to the slaves, and many had to be whipped into going. The warrior slave stepped into the rocking canoe and held his breath in fear. Finally, the seamen pushed the canoes into the surf and began paddling. Up and down over the waves went the canoes, and general moaning sounded over the water, the slaves' fear becoming audible in their throats. In their panic, two women in the first canoe stood up and caused the canoe to tip enough to throw them into the water, their feet still in manacles. The seamen steadied the canoe and kept paddling, for it was too dangerous and too much trouble to rescue flailing slaves, especially women, who weren't worth nearly as much as men anyway. The warrior watched closely, but by the time his canoe reached the place where the women had gone overboard there were only bubbles on the surface of the sea.
Upon reaching Lebron's ship, the slaves were roughly pushed down into the holds, where there were broad shelves stacked two high, with about two feet of headroom between them. The men were allotted a space of six feet by sixteen inches in which to lie. The women had five feet by thirteen inches and along with the children were quartered separately from the men, which made them easier for the slavers to get to. There was no real air circulation below decks; the only air and sunshine came through two grates on the main deck. For most of the slaves it was dark and suffocating, and they had to breathe air that had already been breathed.
The warrior lay with his body glistening with fear, his heart racing with confusion and concern for his sister. Around him men were crying and jerking at their manacles, the fetid smell of vomit hanging in the air.
And there was more, much more, to come.CHAPTER 2
Captain Nicholas Fallon stood up from the desk where he had been working diligently to be someone he wasn't: a record keeper, an accountant, an aspiring manager of the Somers Salt Company of Bermuda. He was lean and tall, with strong shoulders and arms more suited for grappling with drunken sailors than with numbers. His black hair hung loosely about his face, a narrow face punctuated by green eyes that bore a hint of melancholy about the edges, a gift inherited from his mother.
The room in which he was working was the Somers office in St. George Town, and a new desk had been brought in just for him — a partner's desk so he could sit opposite Ezra Somers, the founder of the company. Somers was a gout-ridden old man, wise and blunt, and a crack shot with a pistol despite his age. His wife had died giving birth to Elinore, their only child, and he had struggled to raise her alone without a woman's influence in the house. The last few years had brought father and daughter closer together, however, not least because of their mutual attachment to Fallon.
Somers had built his fortune in the salt business, with Somers's ships regularly making the round trip from Grand Turk, where the salt was harvested, to American ports, where it was sold. Fallon had been a very successful captain for him, protecting his ships and even capturing prizes that were sold to the Admiralty. Now Fallon was trying to learn the business of the business, as Somers called it.
It was a business that had always used slaves for labor on Grand Turk. But Fallon's latent anti-slavery views had been brought out in full force after encountering a derelict slave ship that had been plundered by pirates for the "black gold" it carried. Fallon's crew had searched the ship for survivors but at first had found only the grotesque bodies of slaves and crew who had fought for their lives and died horribly butchered.
Then, a small boy hiding below. A terrified, silent young man who was taken aboard Fallon's schooner and treated so kindly by the crew that, over time, he emerged from his cocoon of fear. He revealed his name as Ajani, meaning He who wins the struggle, and over time he became like a son to Fallon. But the experience of finding the slave boy, embracing him, and coaxing him out of his fear had hardened Fallon's opinion of slavery as the abomination it was.
When Somers had asked Fallon to join the Somers Salt Company as a partner, he had accepted under one condition: The slaves on Grand Turk must be set free and paid wages. Somers struggled with that; slaves had been in his family and business since before he was born. But he forced himself to consider Fallon's idea, philosophically and practically. He was an old man, practiced in his ways and thinking, but surely not too old to change. Fallon had asked him to imagine Ajani, to whom Somers had become quite attached, working the salt flats as a slave: boils on his feet from the brine, blinded by the glare of the sun on the salt, ragged and miserable. No, Somers could not imagine that. Could not in a million years imagine that. For the first time in his life, slavery became personal.
Now, having convinced Somers that the salt business could survive, even thrive, paying wages to salt rakers instead of using slave labor, Fallon was trying to prove it. It was an expensive experiment and, of course, salt prices went up accordingly. The American buyers in Boston and elsewhere had complained bitterly, but as Somers had a virtual monopoly on salt production in the Caribbean, and as the United States had no salt production to speak of, the shipments to American ports continued as always. Maybe Fallon was more of a businessman than he thought he was. Why, just now he had been adding up some very important figures on tons of salt shipped at X price to X locations in X number of forty-pound bags and, well, he wanted to put a bullet in his temple.
He decided to walk to the town dock instead. It was not a very long walk and would not take him far, but he wanted a bit of time to work his way out of his melancholy. He stepped out onto Aunt Peggy's Lane, named for a slave woman who often sat at her window and watched over the town, though she was not at her window today.
It was late afternoon, and when Fallon reached the dock he looked out at Rascal, moving about slightly in the fickle breeze of the harbor, and tugging on her anchor she rode like a puppy trying to get free of its leash. She was an American-built topsail schooner that he'd captured in an improbable escape from Savannah in 1796. In the two years since, he'd cruised Rascal successfully as Somers's captain with a letter of marque to legally fight privateers and pirates on behalf of Great Britain. Her two-month refit had coincided with Fallon's time ashore, and now ship and captain were both ready for sea again.
The crew was mostly ashore in Bermuda; there was only a skeletal watch aboard and Fallon climbed down into Rascal's gig and began rowing out to the ship. The Americans had built her in Maryland along the lines of a Baltimore pilot schooner: She was gaff-rigged and "sharp built," fine at the entry and, owing to her relatively shallow draft, able to move about the coral-strewn Caribbean where larger ships wouldn't dare go.
As he rowed around her lovely stern he looked down the length of her 105 feet. She was built of American oak and elm to balance stiffness with speed. Her gun ports were closed, but behind them were eight 12-pounders each side, plus a long 9-pounder in the bows. The cast iron long nine was considered the most accurate gun in the Royal Navy.
He clapped on and climbed the side easily, to be met by one of the crew at the channel with a salute and a smile. He walked the length and breadth of the ship, taking his time, and then went below decks and inspected the holds and cabins and even the galley. It was all pleasingly familiar to him, every sight and smell. Rascal carried all her guns on the weather deck; the crew lived and slept and ate on the lower deck, cramped as it was. As he ascended the companionway he smiled broadly, for he was proud of his command; in all respects, Rascal was a fast war machine if handled with alacrity.
As he surveyed the deck of his ship, a ship that had brought him home safely through battles and storms, Fallon fought down the urge to cut the cable and sail out to sea. By any measure he had to admit he had a good life: a beautiful woman who loved him, a father who adored him, a business partner who respected him. A good life, just not the one he wanted.
He rowed back to the dock, keeping his ship in his vision as the sinking sun cast a warm glow on her oiled hull. Tonight, he would visit his father at the White Horse, which, as his father liked to say, was the oldest pub still leaning in Bermuda. It had been in the Fallon family for generations and his father would be working there, as he had been every day that Fallon could remember. Tonight, they would share something wet, perhaps a good laugh or two, before Fallon would stumble upstairs to bed.
Tomorrow was another day, he reminded himself. At the office.CHAPTER 3
Ezra Somers had a truly remarkable library, full of books on astronomy, geography, history, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Fallon and Somers had spent many afternoons after the day's work was done talking about the world outside their windows. Lately, they'd been discussing philosophy and one particular precept that intrigued Fallon: Everything you needed to solve a problem was within a few feet of where you were standing.
It had often seemed true in Fallon's life, particularly in his sailing life, when cornered by enemies or besieged by weather. But it hadn't seemed to work on land, at least not until one early afternoon after a packet ship arrived bearing a letter from the Windward Islands, Antigua to be exact, English Harbor to be particularly exact. The letter was delivered to the office by a dock boy, and it seemed to float upon the sea of papers on Fallon's desk. He looked at it carefully, somehow knowing it was going to change everything but not knowing how. Surprisingly, he was fearful to open it, for it bore the official seal of the Royal Navy. It sat there only two feet from his nose. Slowly, Fallon picked up the letter, held it a moment, and tore it open.
His good friend Rear Admiral Harry Davies, in charge of the Leeward Islands station at English Harbor, was asking a favor. And he was willing to pay handsomely for it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Black Ring"
Copyright © 2018 William Westbrook.
Excerpted by permission of MCBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.