The light of the flickering lamps danced brightly in the growing night breeze. Stars twinkled brightly between puffs of quickly drifting clouds. The silence on the ship was deafening as John and Martin exhaustedly laid the last corpse on the darkened, gently rolling deck.
As they had been doing all evening, Paddy and a small group of faithful passengers promptly gathered the body and cast it reverently into the waiting waves. Each member duly crossed himself and muttered a blessing for the unfortunate soul.
John and Martin slumped onto the hard deck beside Douglas and Peter. All four lads were exhaustedly sprawled against the railing, catching a well deserved rest. John brushed the hair out of his eyes with a sore hand and stared up into the night. The activities of the day weighed upon his heart like a fallen oak. His emotions seemed to exude through his pores, sweating his angst out to be carried away by the wind.
“When do we get our whiskey?” Peter muttered. ‘I could sure use some right now!”
“Me as well,” Martin agreed. “Too bad no one else would volunteer to help us. Seems we will have no one to share our bottles with.”
“Other than your Da,” Douglas teased, venting his pent up anxiety. “It was he who played Priest and sent the unfortunates to the sea. And you know how Priests like their drink!” He looked at Martin, smiling slightly.
“Aye, and the fellows who helped him,” John added. He shifted slightly, trying to relieve the tension on his aching back. The lad looked back toward the quarterdeck. He could see a couple of sailors milling around the raised platform in the glow of a flickering lantern. “I will see if we can get our bounty right now,” the lad volunteered, standing groaningly to his feet.
John shuffled slowly across the deck toward the rear of the ship, followed closely by the other three lads. Stopping at the base of the poop deck stair, he called up to one of the sailors standing at the rail. “Sir, we four have just now finished retrieving the bodies of the dead from below and have come to collect our payment.” He shifted slightly, awaiting an answer from the stoic figure.
“Sir,” John tried again a little more emphatically, “the Captain promised us each a bottle of whiskey when we brought the dead up from below.”
Still the sailor said nothing. He turned away from the handrail and began to walk away from John and the others. Aggravated and too tired to have much patience, John looked around himself and spotted a small clump of frayed rope that had recently been trimmed off.
The lad picked up the hand-sized bundle and tossed it, hitting the retreating sailor squarely in the back. The seaman jerked around and glared toward the four insubordinate lads. “You should not a done that!” he growled, retracing his steps to the railing. “Off with you. Get away from here, you lugs!” The second sailor standing at the helm smirked at his shipmate.
“We just want our whiskey,” John repeated forcefully.
“Come back tomorrow,” the incensed tar shot back. “Stores are closed for the night.”
“We do not want it tomorrow, we want it now,” Peter spoke up.
His eyes blazing with wrath, the sailor turned toward the steps to the deck. “You might not need it at all when I finish with you!” he croaked. “Off with you whilst you still can!”
The four lads stood tightly at the base of the steps, awaiting the gnarled fellow. A shot of adrenaline infused John with new life. He stood firm at the lead of the pack. “If you come down here,” he warned, “You might end up floating in the ocean with the other bodies we just set afloat!”
The infuriated sailor hissed at the belligerent lad. He took a heavy step down the flight of stairs. “What is going on here?” the thick Scottish brogue of Captain MacMillan boomed.
The seaman stopped in his tracks, turning to greet the officer. “Just getting rid of these noisy buggers, sir,” he cowed. “They are making themselves a nuisance.”
“What do they want?” the Captain questioned.
“They were asking for. . .” the sailor began.
John interrupted the fellow, wishing to express his own request. “Captain, sir, we have come for our whiskey. We have just finished removing all the dead from below and now would like to have our payment.”
The Captain scowled briefly at the four ragged lads. “Give them their whiskey,” he ordered the frowning sailor.
“Ship’s stores are closed, sir,” the unwilling tar croaked back.
“Then open them, man! The lads deserve their drink after digging through the dead all day!” Captain MacMillan snapped at the sailor. “And take their names down for extra rations the remainder of the voyage.”
“Aye, sir,” the sailor complied grudgingly.
“Thank you very much, Captain,” John replied gratefully. He turned and followed the sailor to a small doorway entering into the wall of the raised deck.
“Wait here,” the sailor snarled harshly.
The four lads gathered around the closed door. Several minutes passed, seeming like an eternity to the small group. “What if he does not come back?” Douglas whined.
“Now, where would he go?” Peter chuckled at his friend’s pessimism. “Besides, we could just tell the Captain what he did and probably have his toothless arse dragged behind the ship.”
All four lads chuckled at the vision of the sailor being towed behind the ship. “‘Twould be grand fun, would it not?” John mused.
The door cracked open, revealing a brightly lit lantern. The face of the sailor in charge of the stores appeared through the opening. Silently, he led them to the ship’s pantry and unlocked the door. The keys rang on the heavy brass ring as he spun the lock. The door swung open into the pitch dark room. “Stay here,” the fellow ordered. “I will bring your whiskey.”
He disappeared through the doorway, closing the portal at his back. Quickly he returned carrying a bottle of liquor. “Here,” he spat, glaring at the four lads.
“We get a bottle each,” John replied vehemently. “Get us three more!”
The old seaman glowered at the belligerent lad. Slowly, he retreated back into the opening and returned with three more bottles. He quickly handed a jug to each of the four lads.
“Now the Captain said to take down our names,” John ordered, feeling cocky. “We get triple rations for the remainder of the trip.”
The grisled fellow looked down his long, crooked nose at John, his eyes smoldering with ire. John did not back off, staring the sailor down. The old tar grudgingly returned through the portal and returned with his passenger rationing logbook.
“Names,” the gruff sailor growled.
The four lads cheerfully volunteered their names, each repeating his name slowly to taunt the fellow. “All right then,” John replied, “I think we have got other things to do than make small talk here!” He lifted his bottle of whisky and nodded for the other lads to follow. Chuckling and pushing each other playfully, the group sauntered across the deck to an open spot near the port side hand railing amidships.
“I will find my Da,” Martin offered, looking around the dark deck.
John nodded approvingly. He found a pile of tightly coiled rope and plopped roughly down into the hollow center. Douglas and Peter followed suit, dropping to the slowly heaving deck to either side of John.
The eastern sky showed a slight, golden glow where the waxing moon was just about to show her face. Bright stars twinkled overhead in the clear night sky, promising another fine day tomorrow. John took a deep draught of cool night air, stretched his weary limbs and relaxed into his coiled seat. He pulled at the cork that stopped the mouth of the whiskey jug. The stubborn stopper resisted his first efforts, then finally slid out of the opening with a loud pop.
Peter and Douglas fumbled their corks with determined expressions on their faces. Peter’s cork succumbed to his persistent yanking with another loud pop, followed quickly by Douglas’.
“Ah-ha!” Peter retorted, holding his bottle up to toast his comrades.
Martin, Paddy, and two other older fellows arrived with bright smiles. “Just in time!” Paddy responded to Peter’s cheer.
Martin placed his bottle between his knees and tugged on the stubborn stopper. Everyone waited until the now familiar pop of the cork was heard.
“Hear-hear!” cried Douglas. “To the those brave enough to dance amongst the dead!”
John and the others looked at the toasting lad with mixed feeling showing on their faces. “Or those desperate enough,” Paddy finally responded, taking the whiskey bottle from his son and turning it up.
John, Douglas and Peter followed Paddy’s lead, each turning up a bottle and taking a large swig of the amber liquid. Douglas coughed and spat as he downed the hard liquor, then gasped for his next breath. John fought his urge to cough with thick tears forming in his eyes. Paddy growled his approval, handing the bottle back to his son.
Peter gasped for a breath. “Blah!” he spat hoarsely, “‘tis Scotch whiskey, are they trying to poison us?”
“Aye, and bad Scotch whiskey, it is!” Douglas complained between coughing spells. He handed his bottle off to one of the fellows that arrived with Paddy. John did likewise.
“Aye,” Paddy addressed the youngsters, “but bad Scotch whiskey is better than no whiskey at all!” He laughed, watching his son take a drink and break into a deep coughing spell.
The bottles were passed around for several more rounds with no conversation between the men. “John, here, tells me he heard we will be arriving in America in a couple more days,” Paddy offered, finally breaking the silence.
The others in the group turned wide-eyed to John. “Is that true?” Peter asked, his voice already beginning to slur with the liquor.
John smiled slightly and looked down at the bottle in his hand. “‘Tis,” he replied quietly. “Or at least that is what I heard the Captain say when we went to talk with him today.”
“Then why did we. . .,” Douglas began, stopping to hiccup loudly, “why did we carry all those dead bodies out from below? Someone else could have done that when we reached America!”
“Would you want your mother lying down there,” John countered, irritated, “rotting for three more days so that some stranger could get her body and do no telling what with it?”
Douglas’ face softened. The lad took another swig of alcohol and answered softly, “No.”
“Those were our countrymen,” John began again, looking sternly around the group. “We have already been treated worse than the sick pig. Our dead deserve to at least be buried with dignity!”
“That is my lad!” Paddy slurred, turning up the bottle for another long drink. “I would be proud to have you for my son in law!”
John blushed brightly. He took his bottle back from one of Paddy’s friends and took a big swig. “And I would be proud to have you as my father in law, as well!”
Paddy stood up and stumbled over to the lad. He attempted to sit on the coil of rope next to John, but missed and flopped onto the hard deck instead. “Jesus Christ!” he howled, I think I broke my arse!” The fellow broke into a drunken laugh at himself. The rest of the group quickly joined the laughter.
John woke up, his head still spinning from an overabundance of alcohol. The sky was still dark, but the bright glow of the moon bathed the sleeping deck in a fuzzy iridescent glow. He felt someone standing near him. His foggy eyes and brain strained to pick out the shape of a woman standing silently beside him. A bolt of fear pulsed through his paralyzed body. He feared it was an angel, sent to spirit him away.
The figure reached gently out and stroked his face. She then leaned over and kissed his forehead warmly. “Who are. . . .” he mumbled, almost incoherently.
The figure put her finger to her lips then stroked his forehead once again. “Bye,” she said and turned away.
John’s sick stomach churned with inebriation. He tried to sit up to get a better look at the angel, but his head spun too much, making him incredibly dizzy. “Wait,” the mouthed silently, as he lay back onto the rough coil of rope. Oh well, she did not take me away, he thought thankfully. I will see the sun tomorrow. The moonlight and stars faded as he slipped quickly into oblivion.
“John,” Mary prodded her sleeping friend. “John, wake up.”
The lad moaned painfully. He rolled slowly onto his back and opened his eyes to the early morning sun. Instantly he shut his aching orbs and wrapped his arm tightly over his face. “It is too early, leave me alone.” He moaned, weakly waving the lass off.
“John, please,” Mary persisted, “I cannot find Brigid. I have looked all around the ship.”
The agonizing lad slowly removed his arm from his face and peeked with one eye toward Mary. “What do you mean you cannot find her? Where could she go?”
“I do not know,” Mary responded, almost in tears.
“Did you check below?” John asked, raising to his elbows with a grimace. He looked quickly around at the rest of his comrades, still passed out on the deck around him. “She could have gone down there for some reason.”
“No, I have not gone down below,” the lass admitted. “But, she would have no need to go down there.”
John laid back to the deck, his head pounding with the fury of a spring gale. “God, I feel sick,” he moaned once more.
Mary looked at the bottle of whiskey that was three fourths empty. “I can understand why,” she replied halfway under her breath. “Please, John, help me find Brigid.”
The lad rolled slowly to his side and pushed himself up to a sitting position. “I need some water,” he croaked, rubbing his face with his free hand.
“Stay here,” Mary ordered, turning swiftly away.
The lass soon returned with a jug of water and the remains of a flat bread wrapped in a loose rag. Mary handed the jug to John and waited patiently for him to drink. “Here, eat this. It will make you feel better.”
He took the package and opened it slowly. “I do not think I can eat anything at the moment,” the lad complained, holding his rumbling stomach.
“Eat it and you will feel better,” Mary directed sternly. “You need your strength.”
John nibbled gingerly at the crust. After a few minutes the cake had disappeared. He took several slow deep breaths, trying to remove the cobwebs from his aching head. “Was she in her bed this morning?” he asked quietly.
“Brigid, was she in her bed this morning?” he repeated a little louder.
“No,” Mary replied worriedly. “Her blankets were empty and cold, right where she always sleeps.”
Taking another deep breath, John stood slowly to his feet. “I will go search below,” he acquiesced. “But, if I find her, I will not be able to carry her up right away.”
“Fair enough,” Mary returned, helping her friend stand. “At least we will know where she is.”
John shielded his yes from the bright, rising sun and scanned the deck. Very few passengers had arisen. “Are you sure you checked all around up here? Maybe she got up to relieve herself and got back under the wrong blanket.”
“No, I have searched everywhere,” Mary affirmed.
“All right then,” John replied, moving toward the door to the bunkroom. He stopped after a few steps and looked quickly around the deck. “I will need something over my nose. I could not stomach the smell this morning.”
Mary chuckled slightly. “I will get your old shirt.” She left to retrieve the shirt that he had used as a mask the day before.
John stood breathing deeply in the damp early morning air. The fogginess in his brain seemed to be lifting somewhat. Suddenly the memory of the vision, or dream, or whatever it was the night before, returned to him. The hazy face of an angelic young lass, kissing him on the forehead and telling him goodbye played across his memory. He tried hard to see the face, however, the alcohol had blurred his vision much too much for a clear view.
“Here,” Mary offered John his shirt as she returned behind the lad.
John absently took the garment from her. “I had the strangest dream last night,” he reminisced, still trying to put a recognizable face on the dream figure. “I think it was an angel.”
Mary smirked. “If it had been an angel visit you last night, she would have probably gotten drunk off your breath and then gotten kicked out of Heaven!” She giggled as John leered at her with bloodshot eyes.
“I have got to check below,” he growled, not in the mood to be teased. John turned toward the doorway, tying the rag loosely over his face. He could still smell the acrid odor that had permeated the cloth the day before. The lingering stench made his stomach turn. I have got to find Brigid, he demanded of himself, trying to combat the sudden sickness.
The door had been left propped open in order to remove as much stench as possible for those few sick remaining below. John slipped through the opening and stopped momentarily to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the early morning light. His head was beginning to pound mercilessly. He moaned slightly and plodded down the stair.
The bunkroom was still too dark for the lad to see. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out one of the matchsticks that Douglas had provided the day before. John struck the sulfured end of the match against the wooden post at his side until the stick sputtered to life. He retrieved a lamp from its hanger on the post and lit the dampened wick.
John held the lantern as far as he could out in front of him and scanned the room. The first scan seemed to show the room to be just as he had left it the night before. “Brigid?” he called quietly. “Brigid, you in here?”
Silence was his only answer. Maybe she was asleep, he thought, moving toward the first row of bunks. He dreaded looking through the beds once more. Especially the way his head and stomach felt at that moment. Yet, it was the only way he would find his friend.
“Brigid, where are you?” he called quietly once again as he got halfway down the row of empty bunks.
The searching lad worked his way back and forth through the bunkroom, checking any bunk thoroughly that seemed to contain a person. Occasionally he called for the lass, never receiving an answer. Beginning to get frustrated, John scurried down the final row of beds with no result.
“Where could she be?” he asked aloud. John stopped and leaned his aching head against a bed rail. Maybe Mary had already found their friend in some obscure corner of the deck and all his searching was in vain.
John gathered his strength and sauntered painfully toward the stair. Brigid was obviously not in the bunkroom. He climbed the steep steps, exiting to a bright, fresh morning breeze. The lad stopped, untied his mask and drew in a deep breath of air.
“Well?” Mary asked excitedly, arriving at John’s side. “Did you find her?”
Taking another deep breath, the lad looked disappointedly at Mary. “No,” he finally returned. “Brigid is not below. I searched every bunk. I was hoping you had found her whilst I was below.” He rubbed his face briskly into his hands.
A cloud of deep worry and disappointment grew on Mary’s face. “Where could she be?”
“I do not know,” John replied, putting his arm lovingly across her shoulders. “Let’s check the deck together. We can start at the front of the ship.”
Mary nodded her approval, moving toward the forecastle stair. John looked toward his friends and noticed Paddy had sat up with his head propped in his hands. The lad smiled slightly and chuckled under his breath. At least he was not the only one that felt as if they had fallen off a mountain.
“Well come on, now,” Mary needled, turning and waiting for John. He stepped up beside the eager lass and together they proceeded to the front of the ship.
“I will take this side,” Mary directed. “Search your side from the railing to the center of the ship.”
John nodded his understanding and began his search. Most of the forecastle was open deck with no place to hide. Except for a few coils of rope, he could just scan the entire area from where he stood.
Mary, on the other hand, walked very deliberately back and forth across the broad ship. Her eyes swept around the planking as if she might find her friend hiding in the cracks between two timbers. John watched his friend’s methodology and laughed quietly at the sight.
“Well, come on now!” Mary ordered exasperatedly. “You have hardly moved from where you first stood! We will never get this ship searched at that pace!”
Chuckling, the lad moved toward the antsy lass. “I can see the whole deck from here,” he responded brightly. “I do not think Brigid can fall between the timbers of the deck!”
“I just want to be thorough,” she hissed, scowling at John.
Mary reached the top of the forecastle stair and headed down toward the lower deck. John followed just behind the lass, shading his eyes with his hand and looking the deck over. Most of the passengers were up and around by then, with many beginning to line up at the ship’s pantry for their daily rations.
“Go that way,” Mary directed. “I will search over here, my way!” She gave her friend a playful sneer.
John strolled across the deck, searching around each fire pit, coil of rope and stray blanket that he could find. Occasionally, he checked Mary’s progress, making sure she had not found Brigid herself. He reached the wall of the quarterdeck and looked back over his path. The lad watched as Mary reach the rear of the ship soon after he did. All seemed to be to no avail.
“Where could Brigid be?” Mary cried, walking swiftly toward John. “You are sure she is not below?”
“Aye, certain,” John answered, worry beginning to creep into the back of his mind. “There is no place else for her to have gone. She could not have gone in there.” He pointed toward the cabins under the raised rear deck.
Mary just stared blankly across the crowded ship. “I have got to eat,” she finally stated blandly, holding her thin stomach.
As if on cue, John’s stomach growled loudly. “Me as well,” he agreed. “We have triple rations starting today. I say we eat what we need and take the rest to the sick down below.”
“Aye, sounds like a good plan,” Mary agreed hollowly, still gazing across the deck. She drew in a deep breath and turned toward the pantry. “We should search the ship once more after we have had a bite.”
“Agreed,” the hungry lad concurred. “After we have had a bite.”
John stood quietly next to Mary at the starboard hand rail, his foot propped heavily on the raised gunwale. The couple watched absently as the last vestiges of the sun sank into the darkening ocean. Red and gold streaks painted the high clouds overhead, while the soft evening breeze made hardly a ripple on the gently rolling sea.
The distant tune of a tin whistle drifted lightly upon the warm currents from somewhere across the deck. A light tune it was, that tore at the lad’s troubled heart. Mary reached out, wrapping her arm tightly around John’s waist. The lass sighed deeply and wiped an errant tear from her cheek.
“I do not understand where Brigid could have gone,” Mary sobbed. “We have search the whole ship three more times and not a sign.”
John stood silently watching the sunlight die over the bloody ocean. He took in a deep breath and grimaced slightly. “I do not understand myself,” he finally replied quietly. “The sea is the only place left for her to go. Why would she do something as such?”
Mary grew very quiet as the night deepened. The first stars were beginning to peek through the evening haze, twinkling like silver points through the greying clouds. “Manannan MacLir,” she called softly to the ancient Irish sea king, “take care of our friend. Give her comfort and rejoin her with the mother she loved so much.”
The incantation surprised John. He looked at the lass with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Do you believe in the old gods?” he asked quietly.
Drying her eyes, Mary held her head high and put a mask of strength on her grieving face. “I believe in whatever god will take care of our friend,” she replied seriously.
John smiled slightly and pulled the lass tighter to his side. “Aye,” he agreed. “The one we have right now does not seem to be very much interested in us.”
The stern visage on Mary’s face finally cracked. She began to sob in earnest. John wrapped his arms around the weeping young woman and pulled her tightly to his chest. The lad stroked her hair lightly as the soft beautiful voice of a siren joined the flute upon the breeze. The old, sad song moistened his eyes as the memories of Brigid flashed through his mind.
Back to Table of Contents To Chapter 22