They were soon aboard, with the pilot tied up against the Braziliera.
“Let’s go,” said a gruff navy man, and he led them to the commanding officer’s quarters.
“Lieutenant Behm, sir, the men on the pilot boat who sought permission to come aboard.” The other sailors had already brought the maps and plans to him.
“Who’s in charge?” the lieutenant said.
“I am, sir,” said Dempsey. “Twas my idea to get the plans and to sail. And if y’all will have us, we aim to fight for our freedom, to be navy men like all y’all here. Ain’t no one knows these waters better than us, sir.”
The lieutenant moved over to the table where he had stretched out the plans. “What’s your name, sir?” the lieutenant said.
“Dempsey Hill, sir,” and he moved toward the table while Ezekiel and the others hung back next to the sergeant who had brought them to the quarters.
“Tell me about these, Mr. Hill,” said the lieutenant.
Dempsey stared down at the plans for a moment. Ezekiel’s breathing lightened, feeling as though everything in his life might hang on this response.
“See, here is the inlet that we just passed through to reach yo ship,” said Dempsey. “It looks easy, sir, but you gots to know the waters and the channels. Many a ship done sunk around the inlets, sir. It gets shallow on you fast.”
“Uh huh,” the lieutenant murmured.
“Here, sir, is Fort Macon. This barrier island leading in.”
“I know Fort Macon,” said Lieutenant Behm.
“Yes, sir. They built those walls strong, sir. They’s supposed to stand up to cannon, but the sailors and folks who know who be fleein now, sir, they say those walls will crack under Union guns.”
“Do they, now?” said the lieutenant.
“Oh, yes, sir,” said Dempsey. “The streets of Beaufort, well, sir, they all empty now. Ain’t no one stayin. Everyone clearin out cuz they say the Yanks is comin. Ever since Hatteras, sir, they say the Yanks is comin and will destroy the city, defile the women. That sort of thing.”
Lieutenant Behm grunted. “Defile the women.”
“Yes, sir. That’s what some say.” Dempsey looked back down at the plans. “Now, sir, if you wants to get many people onshore, you gots to bring the boats this way. And you gots to have someone lead you who knows the way. Theys channels right in here,” Dempsey said, indicating spots just off Rachel Carson Island, “that is deep enough, but you gots to stay in them or you’ll smash up against the shore.”
“And you could bring us there if we needed?”
Dempsey turned back and looked at Ezekiel and all the men. “Me and any of these boys,” he said gesturing with his hand. “Any of these boys could get you there if you say so, sir.”
Lieutenant Behm nodded. A small smile stole across his face at last. “Dempsey Hill,” he said, extending his hand, “welcome to the United States Navy.” They shook hands, and then he looked up. “Ensign Wilson, see to it that these men are issued uniforms, their ranks assigned, and quarters setup.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ensign Wilson. He motioned to them, and Ezekiel followed him out.
After another twenty or so minutes of waiting for Wilson to process them, it was Ezekiel’s turn. He stepped into Wilson’s quarters, and Wilson said, “Your name?”
“Ain’t never had no last name, sir.”
“Huh,” said Wilson. “What was your master’s last name?”
Ezekiel licked his lips and took a breath. “I prefer to think of it as my daddy’s name, sir.”
Wilson gazed at him. “What’s that?”
“We was owned by the Wallaces, but my daddy was sorta the boss among the black folk there, and they call him Ole Man Wallace.”
“Very well. Ezekiel Wallace. Will that work?”
Ezekiel nodded. “I’d like that, sir.”
Wilson wrote it down on a form. “And your age?”
“Ain’t never known my age, sir.”
Wilson squinted and gazed at him. “I’d put you younger than fifty and older than thirty. Let’s call you thirty-seven.”
“Aye aye, sir,” said Ezekiel.
Wilson asked a few more questions, then said, “Midshipman Wallace, welcome to the Navy. God bless the United States of America.”
“God bless the USA,” said Ezekiel, and he smiled.