“You have got to tie the cloth tightly around your face,” John instructed Martin, Douglas, and Peter. The two other lads services were enlisted as a favor for helping Douglas’ uncle. “You can still smell the odor this way, but it is not unbearable.”
“I still do not like this,” Peter complained under his breath. “Going down into the dark with the dead. Let them rest in peace, I say.”
Douglas looked scornfully at his friend as he finished tying the mask over his nose. “Get your mask on,” he commanded, his voice muffled by the thick folds of cloth covering his face.
“A bottle of whiskey, eh?” Peter questioned snidely. “I hope they give it to us right after we get out of that pit of death. I feel I am going to be in need of it!”
John smiled at the resistant lad, the mid-afternoon sun glowing brightly on his sweaty forehead. He looked around a final time, nodding an affirmation to Paddy who stood resolutely, waiting at the stairway door. He then looked to Brigid, whom he had helped move closer to the opening so that she could be near when her mother was brought up on deck. Mary and Eileen stood beside Brigid, holding the ailing lass’ hand. Connor stood at the edge of the growing crowd, glowering at his two-timing friends.
“OK, lads, time to go,” John directed resolutely. He stepped to the door and allowed Paddy to open it for him. The lad stepped into the gloom, allowing his eyes to adjust to the low light before proceeding down the narrow staircase. Silently, he descended the stairs, followed closely by his three companions.
The small group reached the bottom of the dark stair, pausing to regroup before continuing their gruesome task. “Jesus Christ, it stinks in here!” Peter complained quietly. “How could there be anyone alive in this place?”
As if in answer, a low moan and cough echoed from somewhere across the shadowy room. The four partners looked sadly at one another. “What do we do with the ones still living?” Douglas whispered.
“I do not know,” John answered honestly. “We will worry about that later. Come on, I will show you where the old fellow is. Douglas, you and Peter wrap him up in his blanket and take him up. Martin and I will get Brigid’s mother.”
Douglas slowly nodded his affirmation. John turned down the dark aisle with Martin at his heels. “Here,” he replied quietly, arriving at the bunk with the hand extended into the walkway. “This is the fellow I told you about.”
John and Martin ducked the limb and left the other two companions to their chore. “We will meet you on deck,” John whispered.
Douglas and Peter both silently nodded their comprehension. Arriving at Sheila’s bunk, John looked in at the ill-fated woman. A deep sadness gripped his heart. He could almost feel Brigid’s grief. Or was it his own memory?
Martin pressed up against him. “What now?” he whispered nervously.
John snapped back to the task at hand. “We need to wrap her tightly in the blanket. Then you take her feet and I will get her head. We can then carry her up onto the deck.”
The shaking lad reached tentatively across the dead woman, pulling the blanket from under her cold body. With Martin at one end, the two lads straightened the blanket over the body, carefully covering her from head to toe. John then rolled the woman away from him as much as possible and tucked the blanket under her body. Finally, the two lads rolled the woman toward themselves, pulling the ends of the blanket to completely wrap around her.
“All right then,” John directed, “pull her out gently.” He grasped the emaciated woman’s stiff shoulders and lifted her off the bunk. Her body weighed almost nothing. Martin had hold of the blanket like two handles, pulling her feet from between the low bunks.
“I will have to go first,” Martin commented, adjusting his load as he turned back toward the stair. Quickly, he led the way down the narrow aisle, carrying his end of the light bundle under his left arm.
John followed, struggling to keep a gentle hold on the dead woman’s upper body. His grip began to slip and the lad grasped for the firmness of the blanket’s corners. “Wait!” John cried quietly. “She is slipping.”
He dropped to his knees, resting the woman’s head and shoulders onto his lap. A chilblain shot up his spine with the corpse resting coldly across his legs. Martin turned to survey the problem, a grotesque look on his anxious face. “Hurry, would you!” he hissed through clenched teeth.
Changing his tact, John wrapped his hands into the blanket. He figured the bundle would be much more secure that way.
The lad struggled to regain his feet and was almost pulled off balance by a harried Martin. “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, Martin!” he pleaded, “Would you at least let me get my balance?”
Wordlessly, Martin shuffled for the stairway. He stopped momentarily at the base of the steps. “We are coming up!” he called up to Paddy, who stood peering through the doorway with a rag held tightly over his nose.
“They are coming up!” Paddy relayed to the crowd behind him. “Careful, lad.”
Martin started up the steep, narrow stairway, holding tightly to Sheila’s feet. He struggled up each step, pulling himself along with his free hand. John pushed the woman’s body as much as he ethically could. This was his friend’s mother, he thought. Not a piece of planking to be shoved up like building materials.
“Give me your end, lad,” Paddy directed from his perch. He reached for the woman’s feet. “Got it,” he confirmed, grasping the end of the blanket tightly.
Martin stood at the top step, helping John with his end of the load. “All right then,” John grunted, finally handing off his burden to another fellow who took Paddy’s place in the doorway.
John followed Martin out through the exit, shading his eyes to the brightness of the bright afternoon. Paddy and his cohort gently laid the woman’s body beside the other. Those who stood near knelt down and crossed themselves, mumbling prayers for the dead.
Brigid slowly approached the covered body, fear and pain in her misty eyes. John took a path to intercept the lass. “Brigid,” he called tenderly. She never took her eyes from her mother’s corpse.
“Máthair,” Brigid cried, suddenly bursting into tears and charging to the dead woman’s side. “Tá grá agam duit, a mháthair!” she exclaimed, dropping heavily to her knees beside her mother.
John was quickly beside Brigid, gently stroking the pining lass’ hair. Tears began to well up in his own eyes. Mary knelt down on Brigid’s other side, placing a loving arm around her shoulder. Brigid reached out and slowly pulled the blanket off her mother’s face. It was the colorless, sunken face of a long and agonizing death. Brigid wailed like a banshee. She fell atop the dead woman, tightly hugging her stiffened neck.
Several old women crowded around the agonizing lass, tears flowing freely down their faces. John moved slowly away, feeling he was out of place with the grieving. He moved to Paddy’s side. “Such a sad sight,” he commented, quickly brushing an errant tear from his cheek.
“‘Tis,” Paddy agreed solemnly.
“Has anyone come to claim the old man’s body?” John inquired, trying to break the agony of the moment.
“No, not a peep from anyone.” Paddy returned sadly.
John looked away, out across the ocean. “We need to go back down there and see if there are any more dead.”
Paddy nodded his agreement.
“Come on, Martin,” John ordered. Martin haltingly complied, following the lad to where Douglas and Peter stood waiting. “We should go back down,” he addressed the group. “There may be others down below. We cannot let our countrymen rot away unattended in an Englishman’s boat!”
A sudden flare sparked in the three lad’s eyes. “Aye,” Peter agreed hotly, “the bastards can take our land but they will not have our dead!” He tied the mask around his face and headed toward the stairway door.
“Wait,” John instructed. “It is dark down there. We need matches to light the lamps.”
“Good idea,” Douglas agreed. “I have got some right here.” The lad reached into his pocket, producing several large match sticks.
“Lovely,” John commented, taking a couple of matches from his partner. “Now we need a plan.”
“I think we should start in the far corners and work our way out,” Martin offered.
“Aye, good plan,” Peter acknowledged. “But, I think we should first take a tally, see how many dead there are. Then we will know what we are facing.”
“Grand,” John agreed, “Then we are off. We will each take a corner of the room and work our way out. We will all meet back out here and determine what kind of a problem we have.”
Peter turned once again for the stair, followed closely by Douglas. Martin looked at John and turned to follow the other two lads. John looked back to see Brigid still laying across her mother’s chest. Poor lass, he thought. He sighed and stepped quickly off to catch up with his cohorts.
John tied the shirt around his face and followed Martin down the dark passage. The flare of a match brightened the gloom slightly as Douglas held the flame to the wick of the lamp hanging next to the stairway.
“Here Peter, you take this one,” Douglas directed, taking the lamp from its hanger. “There is another just around the corner.”
Peter took the brightly burning lamp and started toward a far corner. Douglas reached the second light and lit the dampened wick. He took the burning lamp off its holder, handing it to Martin. “I am afraid the other lamps are toward the rear of the room,” he said to John.
“‘Tis all right, I have matches!” John held up the wooden sticks. “I will go this way.” He pointed toward one of the unexplored corners.
Douglas nodded his agreement and turned for the opposite side of the room. Even the flickering glow of the receding lamps helped dispel the gloom to some extent. John stepped between the narrow bunks, winding his way to the far corner of the room. He spotted a lamp hanging precariously from one of the ships timbers. The lad reached up, retrieving the vessel and struck a match. The bright flare caused him to squint momentarily as he lit the wick.
Much better, he thought as he set off down the row of bunks once again. John could see several people in the bunks as he passed, however, he did not take the time to see if they were still living or not. The lad reached the rear of the room and stopped to survey the area.
There were so many bunks. It would take a good while to just search them all. He held his breath as he peeked into the very end row of bunks. The beds were stacked four high with very little room in between. The first four were empty. He exhaled slowly, relaxing his shoulders a little. The second group was also empty as were their counterparts across the narrow aisle.
The lad continued searching the rows of bunks, spotting nothing amiss. Maybe things were not as bad as he feared. John was close to completing his search of the entire first row of bedding. Then there were only five more aisles to check in the section he was to search. Holding out his lamp to better light one of the lower bunks, he peered in on an old fellow who was barely breathing. The poor emaciated man seemed nothing more than a skeleton under his thin blanket. “Sir,” he whispered, “can I help you in any way?”
The old man turned slowly to face John, his eyes sunken deeply into his skull-like face and bloody sputum caked down the side of his cheek. John wanted to turn away and run. His stomach turned at the sight. The fellow moaned slightly and closed his eyes, gasping for another breath.
A cry of anguish caught in John’s throat. He turned quickly away, not knowing what to do. The lad crossed himself rapidly, praying to all the Saints he knew of to remove the horrid vision. His knees trembled so badly he could hardly stand. The lad finally sank to the floor to regain his composure.
Setting the glowing lamp on the floor beside him, John crossed himself once again. “Saint Brigid, give me strength,” he begged under his breath.
The lad took a deep, filtered breath, and stood slowly back to his feet. He intentionally avoided looking in the direction of the old man’s bunk and hoped there was no one in the bed above him.
John turned the corner into the second aisle of beds. His heart was pounding so hard that he could hear his own blood pumping in his ears. A sick feeling troubled the lad’s stomach and his heart. God forbid there be others like that in here, he thought with a grimace.
Tentatively, the lad held his breath and shone his light into the first bunk of the second aisle. Thank God it was empty. The hot breath hissed out of his tight lungs. Second bunk, also empty. Again, he was making progress searching an empty line of bunks.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” a male voice wailed from across the room. “Uuugh!” The sound of a stifled wail quickly followed.
John turned to see what the ruckus was about. Suddenly, the sound of running feet clapped through the dim room. The glow of a swaying lantern shot across the opposite side of the bunkroom and up the stair, disappearing quickly from his view. The lad hoped that one of his partners had not stumbled on as horrifying a scene as himself.
“Douglas,” Peter’s muffled voice called from across the room. “Douglas, you still here?”
There was no answer. John returned to his duties, shining his lamp into the next empty bunk. He wanted to follow Douglas up the stair and never come back. Yet, he could not leave his duties to his countrymen.
Another low groan echoed through the room, sending more chills up John’s back. His nerves were becoming more frayed with each bunk he looked into. He stopped in the center of the aisle, closed his eyes and took another long, slow breath. The faint smell that had earlier permeated his mask was now absent. He figured his nose must be seared from the acrid stench. Letting his shoulders droop, he leaned heavily against the railings.
It seemed he had been down there for an eternity. Maybe he should go up to the deck, catch his breath and return later. He decided against the plan, it would only prolong his agony. He took another deep breath and extricated himself from the bed frames.
John turned, shining his light into the next bunk. The thin blanket that lay across the bed was heaped over a small lump in the middle of the narrow mattress. His heart jumped. The lad closed his eyes momentarily, then poked gently at the mound. “Hello,” he whispered. “You all right?”
The mound did not move. Another lump grew in his throat, making his breathing erratic. Reaching out with a shaky hand, John pulled the blanket slowly down the bed. Thick, long red hair appeared. Slowly, he continued, revealing the lifeless face of a young woman. She lay on her side staring inanimately at John. His breath caught in his throat. The top of another tiny head became visible. Inching the covering down further he found a wee tot of two or three lying dead in his mother’s grasp.
Hurriedly, he recovered the bodies. Tears welled up in his eyes. He wanted to vomit. Too much death, too much death, kept echoing through his mind. John rubbed his eyes, crossed himself and moved slowly to the next bunk.
The sound of footsteps plodding down the stair signaled the return of Douglas to his duties. John watched as the glow of the lad’s lantern blinked between the forest-like bedframes. The pounding of the lad’s heart was beginning to subside a bit and his eyes had begun to dry.
“Are you all right?” Peter called faintly to his friend.
“Aye,” Douglas answered hesitantly. “I will survive.”
The deathly silence again took over the gloom of the bunkroom. John quickly scanned two more empty bunks. Thank God the room was not filled with corpses, he thought sullenly. The next two bunks were not such a fortunate scene. The bodies of a middle aged man and woman lay stiffly under their coverings.
Unfortunately, the sight of death was becoming ever more bearable. John noted the couple and moved to the next aisle. Two aisles down and only four more to go. Then would come the worse task of removing the corpses from their resting places.
John looked up the stairwell into the waiting face of his friend Paddy. His feet and his heart felt extremely heavy as he plodded up the final few steps. The lad stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine. The shadows of the rigging lay distinctly across the deck. A small puff of cloud floated gracefully across the face of the sun, casting the ship into brief shadow.
Taking off his mask, John shielded his eyes as the sun suddenly erupted from behind the cloud. He closed his eyes and took a deep draught of fresh sea air. Paddy moved quietly behind the lad, gently massaging his shoulders.
“How bad was it?” Paddy asked somberly.
John dropped his chin to his chest, kicked at the wooden deck and sighed heavily. “I counted nine dead, two still alive, but very sick, and one poor old fellow who should have given up the ghost long ago,” he answered hesitantly. The lad rubbed his face and eyes in both hands. “What of the others?”
“Martin and Peter have returned,” Paddy replied, “Douglas is still down below.”
John took another long breath and looked around the deck of the ship. A group of curious passengers surrounded each of John’s partners. A few others just milled about in the background. Mary stood silently, just a few feet away. Her saddened face was streaked where her tears had dried down both cheeks. Brigid was nowhere to be seen.
Forcing a crooked smile, John reached out for Mary. The eager lass rushed to his open arms. “I have heard the Devil himself would be wont to go below,” she whispered in his ear, hugging his neck tightly.
The lad silently hugged her tightly in return. He would not want to put the weight of his observations on anyone’s mind. Much less Mary’s. John gently stroked the lass’ hair and kissed her softly on the cheek.
“Aye,” he finally answered, “‘tis worse than I feared.” A tear formed silently in his eye. John pulled gently out of Mary’s grasp, quickly rubbing his emotions from his face and eyes. “I must go speak with the others.”
John turned, hung his head and strolled to where Martin stood. The small group surrounding Martin opened to allow John to pass. “We need to make a plan,” John addressed the lad simply.
Martin’s face was still ghostly. He stood with his mask hanging loosely from his hand. “I. . .,” the trembling lad stammered, “I never could imagine it could be so bad.” Eileen pulled next to her beau and took his shaking hand. Tears slipped noiselessly down her cheeks to spill onto the rough deck.
“There is the other one,” a woman in the crowd spouted, pointing toward the stairway.
John and Martin both looked toward the opening. Douglas slipped quickly out of the dark portal and pulled the mask off his ashen face. The lad covered his mouth with a hand and dry heaved several times as he ran for the ship’s railing. He hung his head over the rail, heaving several more times before he stood upright, taking in several long draughts of cool sea breeze.
Peter pulled away from the group surrounding him and joined his friend at the side of the ship. John motioned for Martin to follow him and join the others. The crowd parted once again to allow their exit.
“Douglas, Peter,” John called across the deck. “Let’s talk.”
Peter and Douglas turned toward the approaching lads and nodded their agreement. Both their faces were pallid and their eyes red. “The dead,” Douglas started shakily, “they are everywhere.”
Peter turned away, looking out to sea. “I do not know if I can go back down there,” he confessed. “I. . .I just do not know.”
John stepped up to the wavering lad and laid a friendly hand upon his shoulder. “I know,” he agreed. “How many did you see down there?”
“I counted twelve dead,” Douglas answered softly, “and several more very sick.” He looked up into the deepening afternoon sky. “One old woman has been dead a long time. I had to run out when I saw her.” He began trembling violently. “I. . .,” the lad stopped short, instead turning to face the gently rolling ocean.
“I saw fifteen dead,” Peter spoke up, still facing the ocean. “I think six were from one family. Man, woman and four wee ones.” He stopped speaking and took in a long breath. “Only two more were still alive but sick.”
“I found nine, myself,” John contributed. “Like you say, a few looked like families. And three still alive, barely.” He looked to Martin.
Martin closed his eyes, his pale face just beginning to show a little color once again. “I saw but eight,” he replied sadly. “But there were six still sick where I was. One is a young woman with two sick children. They look as if they had not eaten in a week.”
“There we have it,” John summed up the situation. “There are forty four dead below. Plus the two we have already retrieved. And several more still sick. What shall we do?”
“I think we should ask for more help,” Martin suggested. “I would be willing to give up some of my extra rations for another pair of hands.”
“Aye,” Douglas agreed. “We need more help.”
“Connor will help,” Peter stated matter-of-factly. “I will share my bottle of whiskey with him. “Hell fire, I cannot drink a whole bottle by myself anyway.”
John nodded his agreement to the plan. “Agreed. Peter, if you can get Connor’s help, I think the rest of us can enlist one more lad each.”
“Fair enough,” Martin returned. “I think we should get started.”
“We need to put the two to rest that were brought up earlier,” John directed. “The woman is my friend Brigid’s mother. I cannot just let her lie coldly on the deck.”
“Agreed,” all three partners chimed in harmony.
John stepped away, walking slowly toward Mary. He wished desperately that there were a Priest on board, even with his disdain of the profession. At least a Priest’s last rights would give completion to the dead and the living alike.
Taking Mary’s hands in his own, John took a breath and looked the lass lovingly in the eyes. “I think we should put Sheila to rest,” he opined quietly. “Is Brigid ready for such?”
“I think herself is,” Mary responded in a hoarse whisper. “She is still by her mother’s side at the moment.”
“All right then,” the lad retorted loathingly, “let’s get this done.”
Mary stepped away toward the two bodies lying on deck. John followed directly after her. The lad weaved through the group still surrounding the dead and moved quickly to Brigid’s side.
The pining lass looked up to John as he approached from where she sat at her mother’s side. Lines of grime from the voyage were washed away by a thick flow of tears, leaving white lines down her young cheeks. Though her eyes were dry at that moment, the blazing redness was proof that they were not that way long ago.
John and Mary knelt on each side of Brigid. The lad reached out and lovingly stroked the mourning lasses hair. Brigid reached up, taking him by the neck and squeezing his body tightly to her own. “Tá ghrá agam duit,” she whispered in his ear. “Is love to you.”
John smiled slightly, feeling the trembling lass’ feverish body pulled tightly to his own. “I love you, as well,” he whispered back into her ear.
Brigid’s body began to once again convulse in tearful sobs. The lad’s heart was wrenched. He could not even communicate well enough with the lass to console her. John held her tightly for several minutes more, until her sobs began to subside.
The heartbroken lad gently pulled slightly away, looking compassionately into Brigid sweet face. “Are you ready to say goodbye?” he asked tenderly.
Though the look on Brigid’s face said she did not understand the exact words, his meaning came across very clearly. The lass slowly nodded her tearful affirmation. She looked at her mother’s body one more time and stood to her feet along with John. Quickly crossing herself, Brigid clasped her hands together, looked toward Heaven and with silently moving lips began to pray.
John knelt down beside Sheila’s body, reached out and wrapped the blanket tightly around her. The late afternoon sun streaked dark shadows across the woman’s body. A light breeze tousled the lad’s hair as he rose to his feet and summoned the assistance of Martin.
Mary stood near to Brigid, seeing her knees wobbling with a rising fever. The lass put an arm around the sick young woman’s waist for support. Brigid’s face was becoming ever more flushed as she stood praying.
John and Martin each slid their arms gently under the corpse, lifting her off the hard deck. “Move her to the railing,” John instructed his partner.
The pair laid Sheila softly back on the deck at the railing. “Should we say something?” John asked Mary respectfully.
“I would not know what to say,” Mary responded softly as several passengers gathered around.
Paddy arrived with Honor and Eileen at his side. All three of the group crossed themselves in unison. “We have come to pay our last respects,” Paddy offered.
“Thank you,” Brigid mumbled raspily.
“We feel we should say something, but we do not know what,” Mary addressed her father.
“Aye, would you help us, Paddy?”
“I will do what I can, not being a Priest and all,” Paddy answered solemnly. He turned toward the wrapped body of the dead woman, then looked out to sea. Crossing himself once more, the fellow began as much a eulogy as he could muster. “Dear God,” he prayed, “we give you the spirit of this fine woman and mother. Please receive her in your loving arms and comfort her eternal soul.”
“Amen,” several passengers nearby replied.
“And Lord God,” Paddy continued, “Please see fit to give aid to our countrymen. There are too many dead and dying already. Please take this burden from us.”
“Amen,” the group responded once again. Someone with a tin whistle in the crowd began to play a slow dirge. Numerous passengers in the crowd crossed themselves and began to pray silently.
Brigid began to weep freely once again and leaned heavily upon Mary for support. “Tá ghrá agam duit, a mháthair,” she sobbed.
John nodded to Martin and reached down to pick the woman up off the deck once more. The two lads lifted her over the hand railing and gently let her slide into the dark blue water below. The body hit the water with a muffled splash as Brigid wailed out. The lass ran to the railing and watched as her mother’s body slowly sank below the surface. Once the body was out of sight beneath the dark water and foam from the ship’s wake, Brigid collapsed onto the deck, wailing loudly.
Several people gathered around the hysterical lass in an attempt to comfort her. “Help me get her to her blankets,” Mary directed John. “I will stay with her whilst you complete your duties.”
John nodded slightly and moved to Brigid’s side. He tried taking her hand and leading her up from the deck where she lay in a pile. However, she refused to move. Finally, John scooped the bawling lass up in his arms and spirited off with her.
Burying her face in John’s chest, Brigid trembled heavily with her weeping. Her feverish body weighed little in his arms. Mary followed at his heels, her hand lovingly pressed against his back.
Reaching their sleeping spot, John laid Brigid carefully on her blanket and covered the quaking lass tightly. His heart ached with empathy for the distraught lass. He watched her silently for several moments.
“I have got a lot of work to do,” he eventually said, reminding himself as much as informing Mary.
Mary looked lovingly at the young man, took him in her arms and kissed him gently on the lips. “You are a fine man, John Walsh,” she replied. “A fine man indeed.”
John stroked the lass’ hair and kissed her back on the forehead. “And you are a fine lass,” he confirmed. “Take care of our friend and I will return as soon as possible.”
John looked up to see the body of the other old fellow slide silently over the hand railing and into the dark water. He rubbed his face in his hands and walked briskly toward the crowd. “There is much to be done,” he whispered to himself. “Too much!”
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