“Come, Boy!” the captain called from the side of the whaleboat, “Time to cast off, whilst the trough is here!”
“I can’t let them drown in shackles!”
“Boy! We’ve got no time fer this! To the boat!”
But Adam was already making his way down the ladder and to the captain’s small cabin.
“Fool! Cast off! All together!” and the whaleboat pitched expertly into the ocean on the lee of the Anson, oars biting in almost as the keel hit water.
The next wave caught Adam as he reached the door. It took all his strength to hang onto the latch with both hands and thwart the roiling water once more. Once inside the eerie keening of the wind through the open door matched the surrealness of the calm air inside after ten hours in the gale. The desk where the shackles key was kept was locked but the desk key hung on a peg under the desk and it was nothing for Adam to unlock the desk and retrieve the key.
The next wave caught him unprepared and he somersaulted through the small space to smash into the lee cabinets. Water swirled through the doorway and rushed back out as the ship pitched and rolled. Gasping for breath he righted himself and clawed his way to the opening. Snaring a stay whose deck end was still secure he slid across the deck to the hatch and then scurried down the ladder before the next wave dumped cold buckets on his head.
He held onto the ladder and kept his feet but knew his task was hopeless. The water was already waist deep and he could feel the extra weight making the Anson even more sluggish.
The Africans were each held by two irons, a leg iron attached to a ring in the keel and a wrist iron attached to a ring in a beam that crossed the hold from stem to stern about three feet from the hull. These beams essentially divided the hold into three sections, the outer two with the Africans huddled against the hull and a narrow central section where the crew could pass. Adam plunged under the cold water, grasping the first leg iron ring he could find and thrusting his key into the hole. Then another as the ship heeled in the next wave and he felt the rush of more water through the open hatch.
Three, four then he had to surface to gasp for a lungful of air. Plunging under again as the ship lurched into the next wave.
The Africans, terrified by the rising water and by the violent storm of which they could only hear and feel in the dark hold which, of itself, was totally foreign to all of them before their imprisonment three short days before, at first did not even realize Adam was in the hold. One by one a few began to realize their leg irons were loose and then noticed the oddly behaving figure in the center section.
A single voice lifted in song. It was a full deep baritone and its first tones silenced the entire hold. The whimpering, crying, and frightened susurrations faded as everyone listed to the single voice. It told of hope and asked for patience; it gathered the shredded sanities of each prisoner back and handed them back to their owners with the equivalence of a chance.
Adam, concentrating as he was amidst the pitching and the rising waters took two cycles of gasping and diving back under to realize the human sounds of the hold had changed. He did not understand the words but he instantly grasped the emotion. The song had a calming effect on him and he plunged into his task with less frenzy and more efficiency.
The water had risen to chest high as he reached the end. The last African on the windward side was a woman, probably no more than twenty years old. Wild terror fought desperate hope in her eyes as Adam reached over and slipped the key in the lock for her wrist iron. It fell into the rising water as another great crack announced the splintering of the foremast.
Adam motioned for the woman to pass him and head for the ladder as he slipped the key in the next lock, freeing a teenager whose nose was barely above the black water. Uncomprehending, the first woman did not move but the teenager, seizing Adam’s meaning, snatched the older woman’s hand and pulled her toward the ladder. Anson stuttered into the next wave but appeared to not roll as much and the torrent cascading through the open hatch was much reduced.
As Adam worked the wrist locks the baritone’s song changed and became a sing-song round that Adam sensed was instructions to the hold for what to do when their irons were finally unlocked. He silently prayed they would instinctively know what to do once on deck.
Finally, the water at chin level, Adam came to the man whose singing had been so helpful. He was stocky and short enough that he was struggling to keep his mouth above the sea but his song ended in a huge tooth-filled grin when Adam thrust the key into the lock. His first action was to wrap his rescuer in a joyous hug. The African then surged up the ladder with Adam pulling himself after.
Me as a critic (be careful! the harshness will be well concealed!)