John carried little James on his back as they neared the Grand Canal. For the past week, the dysentery had devastated the young lad. His small frame had dwindled to almost nothing. His pallid, sunken cheeks seemed almost translucent in the sunlight and the lad’s limbs had dwindled to mere skin and bone.
Yet, this was probably the last sight he, as well as anyone, would have of his brother, Peter. The Constable had been kind enough to inform them of when the prison barge would be leaving the quay in the village in its route to Cobh, and ultimately Australia. Peter would be on board. At least they could catch a final, brief glimpse of their family member.
Joseph led the small procession across the damp field to the shore of the waterway. John followed, carrying James, with Eileen by his side. Several other members of the Walsh family as well as a large number of O’Tooles followed closely behind, including Brian, Tom and both their families. If not for the solemn occasion, it could have been a grand time.
The sun peeked occasionally through the patchy clouds, only partially warming the chilly breeze. It was awfully cold for the beginning of autumn, threatening a harsh winter. The wind rippled the water of the canal, creating sparkles in the intermittent sun.
The barge should be floating by soon. Hopefully Peter would be at a place they could see him. Joseph picked out a spot on a gently sloping, low hillside. Wordlessly, he sat down on the wet, green grass, watching for any activity from upstream.
Eileen spread out a threadbare blanket and John laid James in the center of it. The lad coughed deeply and moaned slightly. “Is Peter coming yet?” he asked weakly.
“No, little one,” Eileen responded gently. “You lie back now and take your rest. We will let you know as soon as we see something.” The wee lad closed his eyes and waited silently.
The extended families gathered around the shoreline. Angus O’Toole sat down sadly beside Joseph. His nephew Brendan was also scheduled to be on that barge. Liam O’Toole was in a prison cell, awaiting his execution, having been found with the gun belonging to the other agent.
The leader, Tim had not been heard from since the incident. No one was quite sure where he had gotten off to. Maybe he returned back to where he came from. John had already emotionally bade him good riddance.
Few words were spoken between the members of the crowd. Most sat looking silently down the empty canal, waiting for the first glimpse of the boat. Brian sat down easily beside John, placing his hand supportively on the lad’s knee. “Do not blame yourself, lad,” he whispered. “You only did what you felt was right. Time was, when your father and I would have done the same thing.”
John looked sadly at his uncle. “But, would you have left Da alone in the middle of the road?” the lad asked, his heart heavy with blame and grief.
“You had no way of knowing, lad.” his uncle replied softly. “No way at all.” Brian looked wistfully across the dark water. “Your Da had a similar choice once in his early life. Unfortunately, he let the results haunt him all his life. Do not you go and make that same mistake now, lad. You have a life of your own to live.”
John looked away toward the cloud covered mountains. The story of Liam Sweeney and his Da’s infamous fishing trip suddenly popped into to the lad’s aching mind . His father’s refusal to talk about the experience finally began to make sense. A mistake like that would be difficult to admit for a lifetime.
And because of that mistake, John felt strongly that he should be on that barge with his brother. But what would that have done to his father? Losing one son was bad enough. And to have another gravely ill was almost unbearable to him. But to lose all three of his sons would have been sure death to the man, and the lad knew it.
“There is a boat” someone in the crowd behind John cried. The lad looked down the waterway through foggy eyes, spotting a small speck of movement far upstream. The vessel approached slowly, prolonging the agony of everyone in the group. As the craft finally neared, everyone stood to their feet and lined the shore of the waterway.
The mule team pulling the small barge passed by on the opposite shore. The drover whipped the team mercilessly, trying to gain speed past the crowd. On board, four Dragoons stood guard, one on each corner of the small craft. Each soldier had his musket in hand and eyed the group cautiously. Peter and Brendan sat in the middle of the craft, beside two other lads. Each of the young men’s wrists and necks were bound with steel collars. Large, heavy chains spanned between the collars and were attached and locked down to the deck of the boat. Peter shifted as much as he could to see the group that waited silently there to send him off. He attempted a small wave, however, the chains restricted him greatly.
Everyone in the crowd waved sadly as the boat floated swiftly by. John held James in his arms so he could gain a last look at his brother. James waved slightly and buried his face into John’s chest. He cried with what little fluid he had left in his fragile body.
One of the other young lads in the crowd picked up a large stone and drew back to hurl it toward the soldiers. Tom grasped his arm and forced the lad to drop his missile. “There is already been enough of that!” he warned, hotly. The admonished youngster looked dejectedly into the canal, his face turning bright red.
John looked over to his father. A small tear slid down the man’s face, sparkling in the bright ray of sunlight. Joseph quickly brushed the tear away and stood stone-faced until the boat passed out of sight.
Every member of each family continued to wave at the craft until it was far down the canal. As the boat disappeared around a slow bend and headed towards the River Shannon, the family members turned, one by one, and slowly regrouped at the side of the road. John stared after the boat until it was well beyond sight.
Angus O’Toole draped his arm around Joseph’s drooping shoulder. “I have two bottles of whiskey at my house and, by God, I am going to get roaring drunk tonight!” he told Joseph matter-of-factly. “You are welcome to come and join me.”
Joseph looked at the big man and smiled a sad smile. “I have six pence in me pocket,” he said, patting the jingling coins in his trousers. “I am going to stop in town and buy the biggest bottle of whiskey I can find and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow!” he finished his answer firmly. “I will be honored to join you with me own bottle, if Brian and Tom can come along as well!”
“You know they are always welcome, Joseph,” the big man responded with a squeeze of his hand. “You have become as much a part of my family as my own brothers! My door is always open to you!” A large smile grew on Angus’ red, round face. His wild blazing red hair shimmered in the windy sunlight, blowing back and forth across the man’s shoulders.
Joseph looked at John. “Take your brother and sister home, lad.” the father instructed. “I will be home later. I have some drinking to do and James and Eileen need someone to protect them. Someone strong.” He patted his son lovingly on the arm. It was the first loving thing he had been able to say to his son since the incident first occurred .
The four older men met at the roadway and struck off toward town. John shifted James in his arms and called for Eileen to follow. The siblings trailed the crowd slowly down the road.
Reaching their respective farms, the group began to dwindle in size. All of the O’Toole clan were gone by the time John and his siblings reached home. The lad carried James to bed and went back outside to look over their barley. In two or three more weeks, the grain would be ready for harvest. Maybe, by the grace of God, no one would come to collect rent before that time.
Molly, their milk cow, mooed her agreement with John. The lad smiled at the timing. He felt like running to his hillside and sitting, away from everyone, to think all his thoughts through.
How could he ever get Peter off his mind? The thought of his brother’s captivity made his heart sink once again. What a horrid sight it was to see him chained up and under guard that way. “Goodbye, brother,” John called quietly into the wind. “May the seas be calm to your new home.”
John sat atop the mossy stone fence and gazed out toward the Slieve Bloom mountains in the distance. He wanted desperately to cry, but forced himself to hold it in. I wish I could get desperately drunk, he thought, at least just for tonight.
Eileen walked up quietly behind John. He jumped as she placed her hands on his back. “Sorry, John,” she apologized quietly, then joined him on the fence top.
The lad looked at his sister and smiled sadly. “You said everything would change,” he commented. “I knew I should have listened to you. Anything that has not changed seems like it will soon.”
She stared quietly into the billowing clouds. “I fear another big change will be upon us soon,” she cried, large tears beginning to flow down her lean face. “James is taking a turn for the worst. I am afraid he may not make it past tomorrow or the day next.”
John looked sorrowfully at his sister. Taking her tightly in his arms, he tried to comfort her. “God would not take two brothers from us in one week,” the lad responded. “He just could not do that. Could he?”
Eileen sobbed at her brothers chest. A large gust of wind rustled the leaves on the barley. “I am afraid that might not be all he takes,” she sniffled, wiping the long wet streaks of tears from her face. Another burst of screaming wind ripped through the barley field, bearing the eerie sound of a long, distant wail. John gently stroked his sister’s hair and gazed into the dreary distance.
John awoke slowly, the morning light already bright in the cottage. His mind was still fragmented from the profuse dreams of the night. He fully expected Peter to be still sleeping on the pallet next to him. However, threads of reality quickly pulled the lad from the grip of fantasy. However the more cognizant he became, the more he wished that the grip of fantasy had not lost its hold.
Groggily, the tumultuous lad rolled over and dragged himself to his feet. He rubbed his eyes and noticed that his father’s pallet still lay empty. Where could he be? John wondered. It was not like his father to stay away from home all night. He sure hoped his Da had not gone and done something fool hearty with Angus and his uncles while they were drunk. He shook off the bad thoughts and refocused his thoughts elsewhere.
The air was extraordinarily chilled for the start of September. John shivered, prompting him to start a new fire in the hearth. James coughed weakly from the back room. John looked to the dark opening, wishing he knew something he could do for his little brother. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind.
John’s stomach growled loudly. This diet of cornmeal and flat bread was not doing much for him lately. It just did not have the filling qualities of a good meal of potatoes and milk. However, there were no potatoes to be found in the whole county that he knew of. Well, at least he could have the milk.
John slipped quietly out of the door with the small milk pail. Molly mooed loudly as the lad as he approached. “Good morning to you, lass,” John greeted the cow as if she were human. “Lovely morning isn’t it?” He tied the cow tightly to a post on the side of the house. This had been Peter’s job most of the time, so John still felt a little unconfident in his milking abilities. Seating himself on the milking stool, he grasped the warm udders with his cold hands, eliciting a loud bellow from Molly. “Sorry, lass!” he mumbled, stopping to warm his hands slightly under his arms.
“Psst, John,” a soft male voice whispered from behind him, giving the lad a start.
The young man’s heart jumped into his throat as he spun quickly on his stool to see who was there. Tim stepped quietly from behind the privy, surprising John completely.
“What the. . .?” John began, but was too shocked to finish.
Tim smiled boldly. “What is on, lad?” he greeted quietly. “How have you been?”
“What are you doing here? Where have you been?” John questioned, his mind racing almost as fast as his heart.
“One question at a time, lad,” Tim answered, still smiling. “I had to go back to Dublin to get some more help. We bit off a good bite the other night. Now I am back to get the lads back together for another operation.” He stepped fully into the open, his left arm in a sling.
“What happened to you?” John queried again, his face gaunt with displeasure.
“Had a small run in with a deputy that night.” Tim replied a little more seriously. “I barely got away.”
“Go away now or you might not get away again,” John informed the lad, turning back to his milking.
Tim looked around quickly. “Is there someone watching this place?” he asked, concern in his voice.
“No, I just do not want you around here. Now, off with you!” John began warming his hands once again.
“Do not want me around?” Tim responded with a shocked look on his face. “What do you mean? We are Young Irelanders, lad! We have got a mission to do!”
“My only mission is to get some milk for me breakfast. I have got no more cause to stand for, other than that.” the lad snarled.
“You have got to join us, John. We need all the support we can get. Most of the lads are meeting over in Birr. Here, I will give you directions.” Tim pulled a small sheet of paper from his shirt. “Meet us about an hour after dark,” he finished. He tucked the paper down the back of John’s shirt. “See you there, lad.”
John refused to turn and face the man. He gripped the cows udders and squeezed, squirting a spray of milk noisily into the bottom of the pail. “Be sure and tell the lads how you have gotten three good men killed and four more sent off to Botany Bay when you meet with them tonight,” he replied angrily.
Tim stopped in his tracks. He stood silently with his back to John for several seconds. Finally, he spun around, walking right up to the back of John. “I got three lads killed, did I?” the man questioned hotly. “Whose idea was that mission? As I recall, it was not from my mind! Anyway, this is war! I said up front we were on a dangerous path. Some of our members might not make it through every action.”
The lad stopped, spinning away from John, who sat steadily milking the cow. Tim threw his hands up into the air. “Have you turned into an English loving dog? Or, have you just lost your spine?”
John jumped to his feet, kicking the small stool several feet across the yard. He turned roughly on the prodding lad, grabbing his shirt and pushing him hard against the wall of the outhouse. John’s gaunt body shook with fury as he held the fellow tightly against the rough wood. “I have lost no part of me spine!” he hissed. “What I have lost is me brother and several friends!”
Fear showed in Tim’s face as he stared at the lad holding him in place. He trembled, not knowing what the wild eyed lad might do to him. “I did not mean that, John.” he apologized softly. “I really am sorry for your loss.”
The sound of footsteps behind John caught his attention. He looked over his shoulder to see his father approaching from the street. John released Tim and stepped back a couple of steps. “Go away, now,” he spat through clenched teeth, vehemence in his low voice. “Off with you and do not come back!”
The fellow turned indignantly and set off across the vacant potato field. “You will see things our way again,” he promised over his shoulder. “You will be back with us!” He disappeared into the tall stand of barley.
Joseph walk up beside his son. “Who was that lad?” he asked quietly.
“His name is Tim,” John answered, still looking after the lad. “He is the leader of the Young Irelanders that I told you about. He was wanting me to come join them again.” John looked at his father with fire still in his eyes. “I told him no and to never come here again.”
Joseph smiled slightly at his son. “I am proud of you lad,” he affirmed. The man rubbed his temples with his fingers and turned toward the cottage. “My head feels like its going to split in half and my stomach is on fire. I have got to go lie down for a while. Wake me if you need anything,” he instructed.
John smiled back at his father. Maybe it was a good thing that he did not get drunk last night, the smiling lad thought. He felt bad enough already. “I will, Da.” John watched his father disappear into the house.
Molly mooed, her head tied too closely to the post to reach a bite of hay. The lad smiled once again and picked up his stool to resume the milking. John’s stomach growled loudly as Eileen slipped out of the door and into the privy.
“I will have milk ready for breakfast,” he called after his sister.
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