Sweat had run .. sweat had dried itching on skin in the sweltering heat. The tight confines below decks on a man-of-war – they had nothing on this. On top of each other .. every move slapped against a shipmate. Drowning in their own stench and filth.
First light, the heavy double doors to their hellhole opened. Letting in blinding light. A sea of replenishing fresh life flowed in. There would have been a stampede .. to get out of this hellish pit of stinking darkness.
No pandemonium. No one had the strength. Like dying men who craved their last light and air, manly bodies groaned to their feet. Dog-tired limbs struggled to rise off exhausted knees. Agonisingly slowly legs tottered out, shattered. Gasping at the new air like it was their last breath. Like they had never smelled anything that sweet.
Sleep had been fitful. Men had groaned all night .. running with sweat .. breathing in overheated air rank with other men’s stink and foul breath. But with the dawn a fresh life beckoned them out of their hole.
It fell to the marines to beat the sailors into order when food came. Barrels of water. Bags of stale flat bread. But the starving horde would have ripped itself apart without the soldiers to beat them back.
“Not every man for himself,” the marine sergeant roared at the starving mob. “We’re in this together.”
Still the hungry mob looked wild-eyed, they didn’t care. Starving hungry, dead-beat.
“One man goes hungry, we ALL go hungry. GET THAT? In this together.”
The madness subsided as each man got some food in his belly .. not enough .. just enough to keep body and soul alive. Mitchell had Tom by his side .. feeling almost light-headed at having eaten after a day going without. Resting after dealing with the troublesome mob. With a few it had had to come to fisticuffs. But now some calm reigned.
Short-lived. The courtyard-ful of men stiffened as slave-masters entered en masse. A good twenty of them. Demonstratively wielding clubs. Some clutching canes. Ordered into two lines, cursed to their feet. Threatened to queue up in a pair of rows .. no one had any idea why. The captives slowly shuffled forward. Unsure of what was happening to them. But fearing they had no choice but to comply.
Mitchell had placed Tom protectively behind him. But as he approached the front of his line, he saw men were being checked out and being dispatched to one of four corners in the courtyard. No surprise, looking over his shoulder as he was assigned his place .. the muscled marine was sent to a different corner from the boyish kitchen-lad. Worried Mitchell glanced back, caught Tom’s eye. But there was nothing he could do to help the lad.
Rais was wasting no time. Selling off a bunch of American hides to the highest bidder. Sorting them out into types .. going into different auctions, no doubt. Suddenly Mitchell’s vow to rescue Tom out of this mess became a joke. If they were separated .. sorted into different groups .. what chance of keeping his promise then?
No surprise either that Mitchell was grouped with his other beefy marines. This was the muscular-physique gang. The pick of the crew. A few beefy sailors were added to their number as slave-masters hustled the gang of marines through a gate into another yard.
Empty. A yard surrounded by high walls. Empty except for a ring of short iron stakes hammered into the ground. Imprisoned behind high walls. With a bunch of mean-looking handlers armed with clubs.
Slave-masters quickly organised them into the ring. Shoving them, ordering them around, using the clubs to tell the marines where to go. Stood with a short iron stake on either side. Maybe fifteen men stood looking at each other, standing in this ring. For the life of him Mitchell could not help feeling nervous. And looking across at his mates, they too were exchanging worried looks.
A slave-master stood in the middle of the ring of fighting marines .. surrounded. They could have rushed him. They could have pounded the damned heathen to death. But still they’d be locked inside a high-sided trap.
“Everything. Every last stitch.”
They had lived together for months, in the narrow confines of the ship. No secrets in the night as hands did their job. They had whored together. Often sharing a girl. Sat in the room waiting their turn knocking back a beer as a mate did the business on the mattress in the corner. Bare arses, the sight of each others’ dicks — that had never bothered any one of them.
But this was not a bit of fun. This was not sharing a moment satisfying a need with a mate. This was made to get stark-naked before men who wished you ill. Who wielded power of life and death over you. Heathens .. given to using violence.
Ordered to strip to nothing by men who wanted you vulnerable and exposed .. for some evil purpose they were not sharing with you. No wonder Mitchell saw a few hands go to cover their privates. A mark of the jumpiness that prickled around this ring. Nerves getting through even to such a bunch of muscular men. Proud fighting marines .. yet still jittery under circumstances like there. Awkwardly stood naked .. before slaver-handlers.