"During the night, the Atlantic storm that had raged for four days and nights waned, the groans and creaks of the ship's timbers eased, and the Jonathan began to ride more peacefully. The change woke fourteen-year-old Sarah Douglas. She raised herself on one elbow, pulling her skirts away from the seawater that trickled across the planking near her pallet.
Candles guttered in the few lanterns and cast a dim light on the other women passengers in the shadowy hold. They slumped among their belongings, crouched retching into buckets, or lay moaning with the fever that had pounced on them only days before. A few lucky ones slept.
"Aaahhh!" Sarah cried softly, when she spied a large rat nosing around Aunt Mary, who slept beside her. Too tired to eat, Aunt Mary had wrapped a moldy ship's biscuit in a handkerchief and tucked it under her head. The rat, grown bold in the cramped quarters of the ship, was after the biscuit.
Her hand trembling, Sarah reached down and seized her shoe. "Scat!" she whispered, waving the shoe and hoping the rat would scamper off.
The rat simply bared its teeth and continued snuffling around Aunt Mary's head. Remembering the bite marks she had seen on the neck of one woman who had died, Sarah hesitantly poked the toe of her shoe at the rat's hind end.
"Ssst! Ssst!" she hissed. Finally, holding her breath, Sarah sat up and smacked the shoe down on the end of the creature's tail. With a nasty squeak, it was gone.
The noise woke her friend Anne Bell, lying on the other side of Sarah. "Rat," Sarah whispered. "And Anne, the storm's ending. We won't have to be shut below decks in this heat much longer."
Anne smiled. "I'll miss the smell of vomit and unwashed bodies," she joked, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her knees, her copper-colored hair the only bright spot in the gloom.
Sarah leaned back against the side of the ship. "I won't miss it," she said. "And neither will you." There were nearly two hundred passengers aboard the Jonathan, most of them women. Sarah had counted nearly one hundred and fifty shut below deck. Many were ill. Some had died. During the days the ship was buffeted like a twig caught in a millrace, the dead had been shoved through the wooden porthold into the raging sea, without even the proper words said over their wasted bodies.
Sarah sighed, rubbing her hands over her cheeks. "It's a while till morning, but I'll never get back to sleep again."
"Nor will I," Anne whispered. In the six weeks they'd been aboard, neither girl had slept more than a few hours at a time. "You can't sleep when lice are chewing on you," Anne added, scratching at her shoulder.
Or when you're furious and fearful, Sarah thought. She frowned at Aunt Mary's huddled form as fluttering shadows wavered over the sleeping woman. Oh, how I wish you'd never met Charles, she silently told her aunt. Aunt Mary answered with a raspy snore, then restlessly rolled onto her back.
It was unusual for Aunt Mary to toss about, and Sarah stared at her, her stomach trembling at the sight of Mary's flushed face, the dark hollows under her eyes. She touched her aunt's forehead with the back of her fingers, then turned to Anne and clutched her sleeve.
"God, help us. Aunt Mary has the fever," she told her friend.
Ann quickly crawled around Sarah to kneel beside the woman. "Wet a cloth," she ordered.
Her heart churning, Sarah quickly rose and dipped a rag into the barrel of filthy water nearby. She watched as Anne wiped Aunt Mary's face and picked off all the lice she could find, popping them angrily on her fingernail. Then Sarah and Anne wrapped both their rugs around her.
Please, don't die, Sarah silently begged her sleeping aunt. I'll stop being angry with you. I'll try to like Virginia. Just don't die. You're all I have left in the world. Her aunt's only answer was a moan.