“Some pretty strong descriptions going around about you, Mitchell …..”
Mitchell could imagine the words. Lurid. Mitchell himself had been brought up strait-laced. But years in the marines had him talking in more colourful tones.
Young Tom’s secluded upbringing had by now got used to the lewd way sailors expressed themselves. His back shook laughing against Mitchell’s muscle-solid chest. But still Tom hadn’t dared use any of those words himself yet. Quickly he added,
“ .. all of it complimentary. Mitchell …..”
From behind Mitchell, still keeping Tom pressed to his front, .. he gave the lad a squeeze. His arms enclosed young Tom’s upper chest. He knew what Tom was going to say .. what the bystanders must have reported back after this first day. How “ fucking tough that marine-fucker had stood up to these fuckers today ….”
But Mitchell wanted to close off the thought. Unsure he could come up to that claim of super-toughness. Fearing how unrealistically his shipmates had seen his struggles against those sticks. It had been hell. It had been a close-run thing.
He’d been close to giving up .. several times. Only he knew how fragile any claims about his strength of will might be. Nervous what his mates were making of his performance. Making too much of his efforts maybe?
“Not once. Never. Didn’t cry out. Not once Mitchell!”
Mitchell felt a rush of excitement at that news. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t cry out? He’d beaten those evil fuckers at their sadistic game? He felt a shiver of pleasure. He’d felt all alone when he’d been roasting out in the sun. Deserted. Totally on his own. It had taken all his strength of mind to battle against the despair of feeling abandoned. The temptation to see the overpowering strength lined up against him .. rightly seen, forces he could never beat .. battling against that dismay .. it had taken every bit of willpower he could find.
But seemingly he HAD fought back. And he’d pulled it off. So he’d not cried out? Not once. Unbelievable. To himself too. How the heck had he managed that?
AND .. great news .. his crewmates had been with him. Not deserted. Watching, they had been gunning for him. Suffering for him. Fingers crossed for him. No one could expect them to intervene .. attack the handlers .. stop the beating. But knowing he had not been alone .. his mates had been there on his side, rooting for him .. that was the best Mitchell had heard in days.
“Not once did you cry out. How? How ‘d you manage that, Mitchell?”
Tom had twisted his head back round. As if he could look into his friend’s face and understand. Mitchell buried his head into the back of Tom’s neck. He didn’t know the answer himself.
“You know, Mitchell. No one can believe that! How’d you DO that?”
Tom’s voice was full of hero-worship. Mitchell didn’t know. He couldn’t believe it either. He’d been there. He’d been the one suffering. And he didn’t know how himself. The way he’d felt. The agonies he’d been suffering. The overpowering agonies. The weaknesses threatening to overcome his strength of will. How the heck had he kept it in?
He’d not cried out! Sweet music to his ears. He’d never have believed he could. The way he had been .. in tortured agony .. he could easily have believed he’d given in to the pain. Something in his pride had refused, though. Somehow. The secret was deep inside him, he didn’t understand it, .. deep down there’d been some inner strength. Some bloody-minded awkwardness. He couldn’t believe it. Though he WAS pleased as shit .. he’d thwarted those heathen monsters.
But …. a nagging question taunted Mitchell too. Tomorrow. It started all over again. Could he do that again? Could he keep doing that? The words of that slave-handler haunted him.
“Every FUCKING day!”
A daunting thought.
Tom had gone quiet. Had he fallen asleep? But then hesitatingly he uttered what had been churning in his mind.
“You know, Mitchell ……”
Mitchell listened. Breathing slowly .. calming the shudders in his flesh. The pains of the day still burning up the muscles of his battered backside. Still feeling incredibly weak .. for all this talk about him being tough. But at last he was relishing some cooling as the heat of day ebbed away.
Something was on Tom’s mind. Not surprising. These last few days must have blown his mind away. Out with it, lad, Mitchell thought. Get it off your chest. You can tell me. Cry if you need to. It’s OK to be scared. I’ve been scared out of my wits more than once these last days.
But it wasn’t his fears that haunted young Tom’s thoughts.
“Some are saying .. quietly ……”
Again Tom paused.
“Saying .. you give them the word .. tell them what to do ……”
Mitchell froze. He got an inkling of what was coming. And already he felt nervous at what he thought he was about to hear.
“You give them the lead, they are saying. You go for these animals. They’ll be right behind you.”
Mitchell shuddered. That couldn’t be, Mitchell knew. It would be a bloodbath. Unarmed sailors. Weakened by back-breaking hard work, Near starved to death. Up against swords, whips, clubs. An uprising. The sailors would be wiped out. A massacre. And any that survived ….. a dying of the worst kind .. tortured to death …….
Besides ….. Mitchell was no officer. He was not leader. He hadn’t been born to money, had the right education. No one had bought him a commission. He’d not been trained to lead. What life had trained him to do .. stand up for himself. That had been what these last days had been about. It was just he wasn’t going to be pushed around.
Leading an attack? Forming a battle-plan. What did he know about all that stuff? That could not be. Hero-worship in a young lad like Tom .. no harm in that. He liked the boy. He deserved for Mitchell to help him out. But if they were looking to him, the crew had got it wrong. Looking to him for a lead? All wrong Seeing him as their hero? Some guardian angel. That was not his thing.
Mitchell understood, these were desperate men, confused. He was too. His shipmates were worried sick. But they’d be putting their faith in the wrong person. Out of desperation. Miscalculation. Despair leading them to put their faith blindly in Mitchell .. just because he’d stood up to these heathens. But he’d done it for personal reasons. Because his image of himself would not let them shove their weight around.
Lead his shipmates into a bloodbath? He couldn’t let that be. Mitchell wasn’t going to lead his mates into a massacre.