Here is Part Two of “King’s Ranger.” I’m enjoying reading it. I know I wrote it, and it’s one of my favorites, but I am honestly enjoying re-reading it even as I dissect it into postable bits for this website.
I hope that you enjoy it as well.
— JB Steele
Captain Sasaki peered through the spyglass. He was a day out of port with a full cargo hold. He didn’t run this sort of cargo very often. It wasn’t out of a sense of decency. He didn’t care one fig for the erstwhile inhabitants of the hold, but he did care about what it did to his ship. Weapons, rum, poppies, and other things didn’t make noise or whine or mess up his holds when they died. He didn’t know what his next cargo was going to be, but he was for damn sure not going to do this again for a long while.
The first mate knocked on his cabin door. Captain Sasaki had been expecting him.
“Come in, Jack.”
The man came in and mopped his forehead with a large red handkerchief. Captain Sasaki had never seen him without it, and apparently neither had the crew. Everyone wondered if he reused the same one over and over, or if he had many. If he did, every one was red. It was a subject of popular speculation among the crew, but no one wanted to ask him. He had a violent temper, and several wags wondered if the first mate was part bull.
Captain Sasaki waited for him to be seated.
“All right, Jack, we’re a day outside of port.”
“I thought so. I’ve kept up with our course pretty well.”
“What do you think about this business?”
“What, carrying slaves? Doesn’t bother me one bit.”
“Why?” His voice was noncommittal.
“You saw ’em when they came on board, just as I did. Trash, all of ’em. Fit only to put to work and dump in a hole after they drop.”
The captain grunted. The first mate waited for a moment, but the captain was quiet. Finally, he gave in to impatience.
“Skipper, why’d you ask me a thing like that? It’s a job, and we’re in the business of fulfilling contracts.”
“That’s true, and we do that. No, I’ve been thinking lately on something.”
The first mate leaned in. They’d worked together for several years and the captain often used him as a sounding board. He watched as the captain stood up and went to the aft windows, his steps moving with the ship’s roll. It was stuffy in the captain’s cabin, and he wiped his forehead again.
“I’ve decided that it’s time to retire when we get back to port. Before we left port, I had the papers drawn up for you to take over the command of this vessel, subject to the agreement of the home office.” He smirked. The ‘home office’ wasn’t anything but a room where the master of the smuggling ring worked, gathering shipments and dispatching his three ships on their journeys. The first mate looked up at the captain’s back.
“I’m … surprised. Sir.” He paused for a moment, taking it in. “I didn’t expect to hear this.”
“I know, Jack.”
“Cap’n, pardon me if it ain’t any of my business, but when did you decide this?”
Captain Sasaki didn’t respond for a moment. He turned away from the large bay window and sat down again.
“I’ve been thinking about it since our last voyage.”
“Two months ago?”
“That’s right. I realized that all the times that I’ve gone out, including before you joined the crew, have all just started to blend together. I had to check my personal journal to see how many, and… well, it’s time. I’ve been doing this a long time, and sooner or later it’ll catch up to me.”
Jack nodded at the words, but didn’t say anything.
“I’ve hoarded my money and set up a nice plantation somewhere where nobody will find me. So, when we get back, I’m retiring.”
“Well then, sir. Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
Captain Sasaki brushed it off.
“No congratulations yet. Wait until we finish this run first.”
“I’m going to ask you to keep this private. No one else knows about it, understand?”
The captain fixed a steady glance on the first mate. It was a penetrating stare, and Jack was feeling uncomfortable with the weight of that regard. He shifted a little.
“Sir? Was there something else?”
The captain blinked, then sighed.
“Yes. I put in the papers, and they’re stored safely away, but under the ‘honest’ bylaws of this organization I can’t sign them until I’m ready to quit as soon as I put my pen to paper. As it is, I have to have the ship ready to turn over to its new captain – which would be you – before I could retire. So, as soon as we offload, we’re taking on supplies using a writ of lading. On the journey back, I want this vessel inspection ready.”
“Aye, aye, sir. I’ll do that thing.”
“This means that I have to make it back to port to sign the papers, so you need to keep my safety in mind, too. If you want command, that is. Otherwise, without that signature, there’s a good chance ‘the boss’ will assign it to someone else.” There was a twinkle in the old man’s eye.
“Aye, that, too.”
“That’s all I wanted, well – except for doing a wellness check of our cargo. Take some of our younger hands and do it. Get it done before we make port. The quicker we can get in, the quicker we can get out.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” The first mate stood up and nodded to the skipper, then hustled out.
For his part, Captain Sasaki got up again and went back to the bay windows to stare out at the rolling sea. Small whitecaps showed on the surface of the water, and he felt the motion of the ship as it sailed. He’d been at sea for decades, in one ship or another and one service or another. A long time to be afloat, and he wondered if he was doing the right thing. A seabird flew overhead crying at the sailors on deck with their duties. He thought again about the journal locked in his desk, and its contents, and felt better about his decision.
* * *
On the quarterdeck, the first mate watched the sailors work with a slight frown. The set of his face didn’t reveal his thoughts. It was about time, he gloated. I’ve worked too long and put up with him too much not to get it now. He pondered whether he should feel gratitude to the captain for the decision he’d made. It was a good question, he thought. On one hand, he couldn’t stand the cur – not that he ever showed it. On the other, he’d learned a lot about ship handling from him.
And what about that remark about his safety? Did he suspect something? Jack Doresche had been working with the steward to poison the man for six months now. Minute amounts, introduced in his tea or the potato soup he liked so much. The steward knew about a triplex poison. One part to settle in his heart, one part to settle in his brain, and the third part to activate the other two. The first mate had that packet in his quarters. When the time was right, all he had to do was dump it in the captain’s tea. The steward assured him it was like sugar. It would melt in without anyone the wiser.
Doresche remembered when he’d first came on board as first mate, five and a half years ago. The previous first mate had been killing in a gambling dispute, and that left a hole. There were no merchant commands for him, and he’d had to swallow his pride. Being the first mate on this ship wasn’t so bad, really. Not for a man with a decided larcenous streak to his heart. He’d established himself as iron-willed and hot-tempered, which was actually the truth. He had a foul mouth when he wanted to, and wasn’t above cheating another man out of his earnings. The crew learned not to mess with him.
He was meant to walk the rail of his own ship, and he’d planned on doing that three years ago. Doresche wasn’t getting any younger and it was past time for it to happen. The captain was known to drink heavily after getting to port and paying out the crew, wherever he went. The various bars knew him by name, and knew that he didn’t drink a drop while aboard ship. There was one exception. No matter how heavy he drank, the captain always had one last drink in his cabin. It was a ‘welcome back’ drink, he always said. The first mate had planned on slipping him the trinary poison in this last drink.
Then, after finding him dead in his bunk the next morning, there would be ‘the appropriate mourning. The fine captain, but with the one human failing. Had too much to drink that one final time.’ The first mate would then take command for the somber voyage home, after conducting a burial in very deep waters for the old sea-dog. He would drive the crew hard to keep their minds off the loss to the ship, and then split the captain’s share of the take with the steward.
Or, just arrange an accident for the steward. That way, he could keep it all.
Now, with that little surprise announcement, he couldn’t do it that way at all. It would be his luck to kill the old man, get the ship back to her home port – then get a new captain and stay the first mate. He knew the first mates of the other ships, too. One of them, a big guy who went by the name Segol, was the best of the group. Everyone in his ship snapped to his command. Doresche knew that it was no stretch of the imagination that if a command slot came open, Segol would get it without question. Unless, of course, the previous master made his preferences clear.
And for that to happen, there had to be a signature on the dotted line.
The first mate shook his head. He’d waited for years, and he could wait for a bit longer. He made a mental note to talk to the steward. In the meantime, the tasks of running the ship still remained. The first mate saw a few slackers barely winding rope in the proper manner and cursed them roundly. That motivated them to work harder.
Jack Doresche stared out to sea, looking back at the way they’d come. He’d have to watch his step for the next few days. If he could do his job and make it look like he was a loyal first mate and nothing else, then he’d be free. Sometime in the next watch the captain took, and before they made port, he’d have to have that little talk with the steward.
In the meantime, he had another job that had to be done. He passed the word for the carpenter and the doctor. After a few minutes, the carpenter hustled up.
“Waiting for the sawbones. Stay here.”
A couple of minutes more went by, and Doresche started to yell for the doctor to drop whatever he was doing. He closed his mouth when he saw the man’s distinctive walk head for the ladder.
“Sorry I’m late, Jack. Had a man with a busted toe from a dropped cannonball. Had to get it cut off and sewed up, and I didn’t think you wanted me to have blood all over my clothes.”
The first mate’s thoughts was jarred from their previous bad mood by the desultory explanation.
“Cannonball? What was he doing with a cannonball?”
“Three of them, actually. He was trying to juggle them.” The look on the doctor’s face was nasty. “He won’t be trying that again.”
“Did you have to cut his toe off?”
“No, there was a slim chance he would have kept it, but I told him that rusty cannonballs could give him lockjaw and I had to take it off. I’ll wager he won’t try juggling cannonballs again.”
“Or anything else.” The carpenter mumbled. Doresche looked at him and nodded in agreement.
“Well, now that you’re both here, I have a job for you. The captain wants the cargo below given a wellness check before we make port. That’ll be in about sixteen hours, so get busy.”
The men grimaced. The first mate scowled mightily at them.
“Go! Get busy with that. If you don’t like it, then we can see how you like a flogging!”
They went, waiting to turn the corner before muttering to each other about the first mate.
* * *
The steward was on edge. He had been slipping the powders in the captain’s food and drink for a while now, and was wondering when the first mate was going to make his move. It was nerve-racking, having to act like there was nothing wrong. On top of that, he had to perform his duties beyond reproach. He didn’t want to be busted down below decks and be unable to keep administering the poisons. From experience, he knew that they would leech out over time, and the captain would start feeling better.
The occasional hacking coughs that he’d recently developed was from a general chill that ran around the ship. However, the steward knew that the presence of the foreign substances in the captain’s body had something to do with it. The first two parts of the cocktail tended to make the victim more prone to illnesses, but the captain was a hearty man for his age. The steward put it down to a lifetime at sea. Certainly a lesser man would have already died just from what he’d been using, much less the third portion.
He sat in his cubbyhole just off the captain’s cabin and thought carefully. What could he do if the first mate didn’t make his move? The steward knew that they had to get the cargo unloaded and the payment made before the captain got his terminal dose. It was still hard to wait for that moment, though. The plans had been made for when he found the captain. It had been decided that it would be best if he found the captain dead and then alerted the first mate. The steward went over his role in his mind yet again, then pushed the thought away with an effort.
This waiting was hard. He had more of the same substance that the first mate had, and was sorely tempted to just use it now and get the waiting over with. The first mate didn’t know that he had it, and that was just prudence’s sake. If he became captain, then the first meal he ate as captain would be poisoned, as well. The steward knew how to guard himself.
The man got up and started to clean up his area. It was almost time for the captain’s lunch, and he had to get busy.
* * *
The carpenter stood on the rail, out of sight of the first mate. It stank below, where the slaves were kept. He’d had to go from one to the other, checking the wood that each slave was on and the chains. The metal was all suitable, without any noticeable wear, but the various benches and shelves and racks the assorted prisoners awaited their fates on needed a little work.
The various bodily fluids that soaked the wood didn’t help the resiliency and some of them were rotting away or growing splinters. The seawater that the sailors dumped over the slaves to wash the surfaces off didn’t help either. The rime that the salt left in the grains of the wood stuck and had to be scrubbed out after the slaves left. Either that, or he had to get busy and start replacing the damaged sections.
He wasn’t comfortable with the thought of transporting slaves. The carpenter supposed that there was a very small kernel of empathy buried down deep inside him, but he ignored it. It was not easy at times, especially in the dark hours of the night, but he rationalized it by telling himself that he didn’t have any say on what the ship hauled. That didn’t make it any easier when he saw the looks in the eyes of the poor brutes shackled to the beams. The ones with sores, bruises, and raw skin made it worse.
The carpenter knew he’d be visiting the sail maker tonight. They were old friends, having known each other for almost twenty years, in one ship or the other. The sail maker always had a supply of hooch that he kept guarded zealously. He would charge for it, but the carpenter knew he’d get a discount. Come to think of it, his old friend harbored some of the same reservations. Maybe he wouldn’t have to drink alone tonight.
Below, the doctor was going down a list, checking this and that. He ordered that the ports needed to be opened up and kept opened, to air out the space. There were a few that was very sick and probably wouldn’t make it. The carpenter had known that and didn’t want to spend more time down there than necessary. He’d done his part of the job quickly and thoroughly, and left the doctor with the guards without saying a word.
The doctor watched him go, and shook his head. He looked at one of the guards, who shook his head.
“Can’t blame him, doc. He’s not used to the smell when we ship like this.”
“I’m not either. Lift this one up.”
The guard did, and the doctor inspected the slave’s back.
“This one has sores, but otherwise healthy. Put him back.”
The guard let go, and the slave flopped back onto his back with a moan and a jingle of chains. The doctor ignored it, already stepping to the next one. There were a few more sores, but for the most part the slaves were in tolerable shape for the journey they had endured.
“How many do we have, all total?”
“Doc, told you a week ago. Seventy-six.”
“I keep forgetting. Not that important. Long as we have seventy to meet the terms of the charter. Four of these have gone bad.”
The doctor indicated the ones he observed, and the guard nodded to the others. Those were unchained and unceremoniously thrown overboard to the mercies of the sharks following the ship. The doctor didn’t stay, but went back to his work. At the turn of the watch, the first mate showed up.
“All but four.”
“Was that the ones I saw tipped over earlier?”
“That leaves us with a spare. I’ll see what we can do with that one.”
The doctor nodded, without saying anything. He ignored the first mate, who left to tell the captain.
* * *
Captain Sasaki was on the quarterdeck. He watched as the ship entered Drokan’s Beard. He’d seen this harbor many times, almost more than he’d seen his home. Or, so it seemed to him. Well, this was the last time. He thought about the decision that he’d made and seemed glad of it. For some strange reason, he didn’t feel any regret or melancholy about not seeing this harbor again. In fact, he was ready to get done with this cargo and get back home to retire.
He didn’t care about the crew so much either, but he did love this ship. She was all his, and had served him well over the years. Captain Sasaki looked at the first mate, talking with the chief leads-man. If he had to give up the command when he retired, at least it was going to someone who knew what he was doing. The captain had spent plenty of time teaching the younger man what he needed to know.
As far as he was concerned, one crew was like any other. Full of drunks and laggards and layabouts, responding only to threats and curses and the whip. Even sick, he could perform several tasks easier than they could. He reflected that maybe it was because of a lifetime at sea, but dismissed it. Captains were all supposed to be extremely competent in their roles. He ordered sail trimmed and watched the tide carefully.
The ship edged up to the usual dock, off to the side from the main wharf. This gave it some privacy for loading and unloading operations. If another ship had been there, it would have been bad for that master. This dock was purported to be only for the use of the shell company he worked for. Any others that didn’t run for the ‘shipping line’ was subject to heavy fines stiff enough to bury the owners of those competitors in debt. The captain gave his rudder ordered and looked to make sure the line handlers stood ready.
“Lines away!” came the order from the first mate. “Capstan ready!”
The squeak of the capstan rumbling around and pulling the ship closer to the dock punctuated the tenser-than-usual maneuver. After the ship was tied off to the dock, a customs officer came aboard. As the usual forms were being signed, the first mate offered a drink to the man and slipped him an envelope. He took both smoothly, and the envelope disappeared.
The customs man took a cursory look around, then vanished in the direction of the captain’s cabin. After a few minutes, he came out. The first mate crossed over to him.
“Captain says he’ll wait for the ‘next official visit’ when the moon rises. I’ll arrange for that to happen.”
“Sounds good. Make it happen.”
“You got it. Have a nice evening.”
The customs man went back over the side, his forms filled out properly and pocket heavier. Doresche watched him go, mind again tumbling over with thoughts. The conversation with the steward had been uneasy, with the man a little fearful. The first mate had to reassure him that there was nothing to worry about and that should the old man suspect something, his name wouldn’t come up.
That was a lie, but he sold it. The man calmed down, not knowing that the first mate would indeed throw him overboard if he had to. Whatever would work.