Ceres, a fast, little schooner with an exciting history, received her first commission in 1807 as a merchant ship. With a compliment of forty, including the Captain, Mates, and seamen she made several trips across the Atlantic. The official manifests always listed her cargo as different types of food and drink but on occasion she had humans restrained within her to be sold into slavery. During the War of 1812, she transformed into a war ship but only encountered two battles with British vessels. After considerable damage, she returned to the sea, rebuilt, as a merchant vessel.
Ten years since her first commission, Ceres fell under the command of the privateer Captain Edward Pike. His own country called him a privateer while others named him a pirate. The truth, he took any job that would pay whether legitimate or other. He experienced more horrors of the sea than most other captains, but his skills would be tested after finding an abandoned ship in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
Captain Pike acted unusual compared to most captains. He chose a woman as his first officer, Ms. Maria Copeland. Years ago, some men fell prey to their primal urges with her on their ship.
“Step back or I’ll remove your little tool you’re so eager to use.” She said.
“And I’ll help her.” The first mate said.
That first mate became Captain Pike. Several crewman and sailors received the same threats. Even after her commission, many men would not take orders from a woman. Those defiant sailors learned Ms. Copeland always followed through with her promised threats. The current crew respected her as much as the Captain. She gave her respect in return.
Captain Pike called Ms. Copeland to his chambers as they approached the motionless vessel.
“Arrange a boarding party with two men from our crew and a couple of our passengers. Have them look for supplies.” Captain Pike said.
“Aye, Sir. Mr. Burn and Mr. Gibbs have a good rapport with the passengers.” She said.
“Thank you, Ms. Copeland. And if the passengers complain, remind them we allowed them on board at lower than standard pay.” He said.
Maria Copeland, nearly as tall as any man on the ship and twice as mean, spent many years earning her place on every ship she sailed. Captain Pike remained the only man to show her kindness. He saved her life on many sea voyages and she repaid the favor a few times. Mystery and secrecy surrounded the story of how Ms. Copeland and Captain Pike met.
“He pulled me out of the ocean many years ago.”
Ms. Copeland never said more. She would never turn down an opportunity to tell anyone about a past adventure, but she never spoke about her life before meeting Captain Pike. Many would ask but the Captain would always give the same answer.
“Her life is her business and none of yours.”
Most of their current crew sailed with them long enough to know not to pry into the past. They had heard many others try.
“Won’t you tell us of the first adventure you and Ms. Copeland embarked on?”
“You’re not to be fraternizing with the officers, boy.”
“Mr. Burn. Mr. Gibbs. The Captain wants you to take a couple passengers and search the ship. See if anything can be salvaged.” Ms. Copeland said.
“Aye, Ma’am.” Mr. Gibbs said.
“I know two passengers who will help. They’re good men.” Mr. Burn said.
Jimmy Gibbs sailed since he could climb onto a boat. As the ship’s Boatswain and Quartermaster, and as the oldest crew member, he knew every inch of the boat and how best to operate it.
“Beggin’ your pardon Captain but a bowline knot is best to tie this off.”
“Very good, Mr. Gibbs. See that it’s done.”
Joseph Burn found freedom on the sea as a runaway slave. He always found work on ships as a skilled carpenter. Ship’s carpenters often became surgeons since they had the necessary tools, but Mr. Burn worked for a surgeon in his youth and knew more than the average seaman. His race prevented him for ever going to medical school, but the surgeon taught him well.
“You may never be free Joseph, but you will be valuable to any man with these skills I’ve taught you. Do not waste them.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll help people no matter their color.”
The surgeon died, and his family sold Mr. Burn. He did not see kindness again until he met Captain Pike years later.
Several Freedmen from Florida traveled on the ship and Mr. Burn had befriended them. If he asked he knew they would help search the abandoned ship.
“George. Peter. I’d like to ask a favor.” Mr. Burn said.
“Whatever it is, we’ll do it. You and your Captain helped us escape the war. We’re forever in your debt.” George said.
“We need help searching the abandoned ship. You really don’t mind?”
“Of course not. We owe you. I’d rather be dead than go back to that country.” Peter said.
“They call it the United States but we’re not all united.” George said.
“On this ship we are united.” Mr. Burn said.
They followed simple orders; search for the crew, search for food and water, and search for anything salvageable to be used for the ship. If still intact, they could tow the ship back to port.
“I’ll check the hold for supplies. I’ll know better than you boys of what can be salvaged. Peter, check the Captain’s Cabin. George, check the Forecastle. Mr. Burn, with me.” Mr. Gibbs said.
“Check the what?” George said.
“Crew quarters. Front of the ship. That door.” Mr. Burn said.
“Savvy?” Mr. Gibbs said.
“Yes, Sir.” George and Peter said.
Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Burn climbed down the hatch to the hold. Mr. Burn lit a lantern hanging next to the hatch ladder.
“What’s that smell? Rotting flesh?” Mr. Burn said.
“All the barrels are empty. Another ship may have cleared it out.” Mr. Gibbs said.
They walked towards the stern in the damp darkness. The smell grew stronger.
“There’s your rotting flesh; human remains.” Mr. Gibbs said.
Mostly skeletons lay around the hold, but some still had flesh rotting away.
“See the chains. This was a slave ship. They must’ve starved to death. You think the crew abandoned the ship?” Mr. Burn said.
“Let’s check the Captain’s Log.” Mr. Gibbs said.
“That sounds like Peter.” Mr. Burn said.
“What’s going on!?” George said.
Peter stumbled out holding his neck. He struggled to Ceres wet with crimson.
“What’s going on!?” Ms. Copeland said.
“I don’t know.” Mr. Gibbs said.
The rest of the crew huddled around Peter.
“Were you attacked?”
Captain Pike pushed through the crowd to the bleeding man.
“We don’t know. We were below deck, Sir. He was in the Captain’s Cabin.” Mr. Burn said.
“Tell me who did this.” Captain Pike said.
Peter struggled for words but only gasped for air. He fell, motionless as blood gurgled from his mouth.
“Have the body prepared. Allow those who desire to pay their respects then release it to the ocean. No one boards the other ship until I say.”
“Mr. Gibbs. Mr. Burn. Was anything found in the hold?”
“Only bodies, Sir.” Mr. Gibbs said.
“Two from our crew and two from the passengers on watch all night. Make the arrangements, Mr. Gibbs.”
Peter received a brief and solemn service. They tossed his body overboard as the Sun began to set.
“I heard a ghost killed him and that’s why the old crew abandoned ship.” One passenger said.
“No, he fell onto a broken board. I saw the gash in his neck.” George said.
“He had bite marks on his neck.”
“Oh, shut up, Sarah, you’re always sayin’ things that ain’t true.”
“It’s true. I saw it. So, did she.”
“You’re both pulling my leg.” George said.
“All rifles and pistols are to be loaded and all swords and knives to be sharpened before supper.” Captain Pike said.
The passengers and crew grew anxious. Only Ms. Copeland and Captain Pike knew what evil lay ahead.
“How many do you expect to lose, Sir.” Ms. Copeland said.
“Most of the passengers I suspect. We have a solid crew. I think they’ll manage.” Captain Pike said.
“How many do you think there are?”
“One or two. Three if Peter rises tonight.”
“I know. He won’t understand what’s happening. I doubt he’ll remember dying. Wake me when it starts.”
“Aye, Sir. I put your sword by the bedside.”
“Thank you, Maria. Stay alive.”
“I always do. I fought these things long before you found me.”
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