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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

The slavers would surely have impressed Lorber’s crew, shot the sick, stolen the cargo, and left the ship to burn.

The Plague Boy


The Plague Boy first appeared on the deck of the Kutaria, which sailed from a port in the North Congo in the spring of 1874. According to the logbook of Captain Randalle Lorber, the boy was no more than eight years of age, dirty to the point of a pig, and wouldn’t speak when first mate Timothy Gilliam shook his arm and accused him of stowing away.

The whole voyage was damned from the start.

The Treasury Association had immense trouble in retaining the funds, and when the Captain was finally paid proper price to sail, the ways broke down. They had to raise the ship at the dock, where the builder declared there was, in fact, damage to the vessel. Lorber decided to keep the repairs a secret.

In the two weeks it took to do the mending, Captain Lorber scrounged a crew from the local defectors. They were not the best of men and he knew it. It was against his worn judgment to take known murderers and thieves out onto the ocean, but with the pittance the Treasury Association would grant him, he couldn’t expect much better. He thought of canceling the journey three days before sail; it would have been a wise and prescient decision. Expressing his concerns to the members of the Association, they granted him extra pay for a first mate. He secured Timothy G., with whom he’d sailed three times past. G., a man of integrity, stood so tall he could be mistaken for a giant. He had long fingernails and a beard. He would straighten out the men. No need for worry.

The Kutaria weighed anchor at 6:15 on the morning of April 10th. Temperature 33 degrees Celsius; winds light and from the west.

Captain Lorber’s first logbook entries were standard. They were encouraged by a good wind. Only moderate acts of discipline were imposed on the rowdy crew. He even made the following remark:

“Impressed by three of the eight. They’re better at sea than I had predicted. One has even been to England since the recent mapping and has been offering G. advice on the approach. We will keep him near the charts when we are closer…”

On the third day, an incident: a boatswain let it slip that a monkey had been brought on board. Captain Lorber ordered the ship searched and found that the rumor was true. The animal belonged to a blonde runt of a seaman who kept it as a pet taken from the jungle. Lorber ordered the monkey’s neck wrung and the body thrown overboard. It soured the mood. Adding to this, the Runt knew of the repairs to the Kutaria’s hull from a friend on shore, and, upset about the dismal treatment of his beloved pet, started to blow the news about, causing grumbling amongst the crew.

“I’ve heard them talking about the builder, his reputation. I must admit, if any of it is, in fact, true, that it’s made me wonder about the storms ahead. I’ve been inspecting the joints daily — with G. at my side — and the repairs appear to have been faithfully executed, but…”

Then there was the Plague Boy. He showed himself on the sixth day. He had not been discovered during the search for the Runt’s monkey. Why two days later? No one knew the stowaway’s name for the boy would not speak. He was pasty white with hollow eyes and held a sack full of raw potatoes, some with mold, which he apparently had been eating since the voyage began. On the ship’s deck, on the brightest day, he appeared. G. shook him and demanded, “Who are you, then!” The first mate’s nails ripped into the boys skin, puncturing a place just below his arm. “Captain! Captain! Come ‘ave a look!”

More than the Captain came. In time, the boy was surrendering to everyone. He didn’t seem to belong to any of the men. No one would claim him. Lorber didn’t know what to do with the child. For a day, the Captain had him guarded below decks. The boy did not smile or frown.

After hours of silence, G. boxed the boy’s ears, frustrated. “What? Won’t speak! You deaf n’ dumb?” He kicked at the boy under the table. The boy moved away, but he didn’t cry. He didn’t even seem very upset about his treatment. He just looked at the first mate through his hollow green eyes and ate at his potatoes. “You think that’s it, don’ ya?” asked G. “You come along fer the voyage — back to England, mother home and country, aye? Free-of-charge. Not bloody likely! We’ll have you locked up — put in a boy’s home for the rest of your life. Fed porridge and crumbs. You’ll never see a clean home again — ‘cos stowin’s a hanging offense when you’re old as me. It’s the boys’ home for you, laddy!”

The Plague Boy stared at the man like he was a pile of bones.

It was the Runt who was the first to show the symptoms. Captain Lorber thought he was acting — retaliation for the killing of his monkey. Lorber let the man sleep for a day, then felt his forehead. He had a fever, very high. “Lord,” said the Captain under his breath. “Dear Lord…” He fetched a kit with roots and a syringe. He ground up a root and made a paste, sucking it up into the bulb of the syringe and squeezing it into the Runt’s ear. Up on deck, he took G. aside. “He’s come down with something.”

“From that damn monkey?”

“Yeah, I’ll wager that…” The Captain fidgeted with the course chart he held clutched in his hand. “They won’t let us land if they think we’ve got a man with the Yellow Jack.” The implication was obvious to them both — these men had been on the sea their whole lives and they had encountered this dilemma before. “If he doesn’t show improvement by tonight,” declared the Captain, “we’ll do it.”

“Shortly after sundown, Kirkby came to my cabin and demanded I put the stowaway back on deck, away from them all. We have yet to see the boy sleep…”

By the ninth day, three more of the men fell sick. The three had seen what Lorber did with the Runt, and, at the time, voted in full agreement. So now, the positions changed, they all hid their symptoms. This was not easy, as they soon took to madness.

A crack in their ranks became evident when they hit the first small storm of the journey. They lowered the sails and prepared the ship for the squall. The three sick men had trouble keeping their footing, hauling in the ropes and lowering the netting. G. noticed it and told the Captain. They discussed dropping their cargo — seventy barrels of pressed dates — in order to give them more speed. If they could make it to England in the next three days, instead of the five on the charts, they might be spared. There were no other ports to speak of, nothing friendly to British traders without a cannon — and the coast of Spain measured equal distance. Captain Lorber did not agree to drop the cargo. They would sail on.

On the twelfth day, they came upon a Dutch galliot, which raised a flag and identified itself as slavers.

“Short on water — what can you spare?”

The two ships, equal in size and crew, bobbed in the ocean as men shouted over each stern. Lorber didn’t like to cut his speed, but the wind had lulled and the galliot might have a doctor on board. (By now his own muscles had weakened and his brow was wet.) “Send a man over, if you want,” Lorber allowed. “We’ll give you a barrel of freshwater.” The galliot lowered a dingy holding five of her crew — more than was needed to collect a barrel. Lorber began to regret not sailing on. “Gilliam,” he whispered. “Get the pistols.”

In a flash, G. had returned with three sidearms and began pumping a ball into the sharpest. He handed the weapon over to the Captain, who let it fall to his side, too heavy for him in his weak disposition. G. noticed this but didn’t take the gun away. Instead, dutifully, he loaded the second pistol, a less accurate one, and handed it off to Kirkby, keeping the third for himself.

Lorber stood on the end of the stern and shouted weakly, “I say — are any of you down there a physician?”

The five slavers, midway between the two ships, stopped rowing.

“It seems we’ve… we’ve got a need for one. You see… someone’s brought the Yellow Jack on board. Yes… so if one of you is a doctor… we could use some expertise…”

The slavers rowed back, re-boarded, and sailed away. A brilliant play, for the slavers would surely have impressed Lorber’s crew, shot the sick, stolen the cargo, and left the ship to burn. An awful fate for the Kutaria. Had Lorber’s judgment not been dizzy from the beginning fever, he wouldn’t have even let the slavers get in their dingy — he would have sailed right past, able to recognize the easy markings of pirates.

He turned on the deck to see the Plague Boy, sitting on the lip of the wheelhouse, expressionless.

It was not long before two more had died.

G., after two weeks at sea, still had his wits. He, too, was feverish, but the raving was a slower crawl on his strong body. But, alas, G. was not a navigator. He was the muscle, the foreman – not a chart-reader. The mate who had professed experience with the route was the second to be thrown overboard, thankfully dead and yellow with sick and dehydration, unlike the Runt, who went alive to the sharks. Only hours before, the boatswain floated off the horizon, too.

They were down to just three when they cornered the Plague Boy — the two and Kirkby.

“It was him!” declared G.

“No… look… he’s not sick,” said the Captain, pistol still in hand, shirt-off and skin-burnt. He had let himself get dragged out of his cabin, and for what? “It was the monkey,” he concluded, sadly.

They drifted in the vast ocean, but really only three hours west from shore. Seventeen days and all three of the living had mush in the brain. Kirkby took his own life. There is no record of what happened to Timothy Gilliam, but it’s assumed he, too, threw himself overboard, delirious.

“…I may not be the dead yet; two will outlive me. G., he’s still up and about the decks, checking the joints and praying for a ship to come. He’d rather be robbed at this point than left alone on this ghost ship. And the boy… he’s still here, too… he has yet to speak… although I saw his lips move, once, when he passed by my door for the last time…”


Darren Callahan lives in Chicago.  His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.

This story is part of The Audrey Green Chronicles, by Darren Callahan, which can be purchased here.


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