John strolled slowly up and down each row of the family potato patch looking for signs of blight on their crop. It had been three weeks since reading the newspaper article about the return of the fungus to the north. So far, however, everything here seemed fine. There was no sign of disease on any of the plants. All the leaves and stems were a dark, healthy green and growing strongly. Even when he brushed back a bit of soil around the base, the tubers seemed to be filling out very well.
Since his inclusion in his father and uncles’ party, he felt a sense of self initiated responsibility for the family’s welfare. So now he had taken it upon himself to stroll through the plot every morning to closely check the crop. Maybe if the blight did come, he could catch it early and save most of their spuds.
The lad checked the last few plants then strolled through the small opening in the stone fence into their ‘cash’ field, five acres of barley they would harvest and sell to pay the rent. The barley was growing well, the young green leaves full and swaying in the breeze. There were even a few early grain heads developing on some of the plants. The year had seen a mild spring with plenty of rainfall and the barley plants seemed to love it.
A quick survey of the field revealed several large weeds standing between the rows of grain. Tomorrow he would get Peter and Eileen out into the field to help him hoe out the chaff. Today, however, was Sunday, and it was time to get away to his favorite hillside.
John turned his back to the duties awaiting his attention and walked toward the lane heading into town. The sun broke brightly through the scattered clouds, dancing gaily through the leaves of the oak trees lining the narrow lane. A fresh breeze blew against his face, enlivening the lad as he turned down the road.
He picked up his pace. The sun was already a hand’s width up into sky. If he did not hurry to his spot, he would not have long to enjoy his solitude. John was to meet his extended family in Tullamore Village at midday.
Every Spring since his mother had died, the family gathered at her grave behind the Catholic Church to pay respects. His mother, Mary, was a well loved woman. She had been kind, compassionate and a pillar of the community. She was known many times to sew a new dress or shirt for one of the poorer children in the village, even at her own neglect. And no one had a hungry belly if she could help it.
John still missed his mother sorely. He could almost feel her presence strolling there beside him. Her voice seemed to whisper to him from the babble of the narrow creek that dissected the lane. Crossing a small wooden bridge over the creek, he took a long deep breath of sweet air. The sun shone in his eyes as his deep memories brought a brief tear to his cheek.
He had never had the desire to really get to know his baby brother, James, since his mother had died giving him birth. Somehow, he could not get over feeling that it was he who took their mother away. Eight years since her passing seemed both yesterday and a century ago.
John slipped off his thick sweater, pulling it roughly over his head. The sun had become warm as he left the tree shaded stretch of lane and entered into the sun drenched open fields of the fertile farming lands. Rich green rolling tracts, kriss-crossed with ivy covered stone fences surrounded the lad. He took a broad sweep of the countryside, sucking in every morsel of damp fragrance and quiet beauty that he could. The swoop of a great hawk momentarily caught his full attention as it plummeted from the sky upon its breakfast. He loved this land.
A small column of thickening smoke caught his attention, rising darkly into the sky before him. What could that be? he wondered. It was too thick to be smoke from a hearth. The column gathered strength until it became a black boiling cloud carried slowly away in the light upper air currents. His curiosity piqued, John quickened his step toward the smoke.
A distant popping sound, followed quickly by two more, startled the lad. He began to run toward the fire. Maybe someone was in trouble. He would help if he could. The smoke seemed
to come from just over the next hill. That was where the O’Toole place was. Some of their clan had been left behind when Ciaran and his immediate family were shipped to America by their landlord.
John began to hear a low rumble come from over the rise in front of him. Suddenly, over the crest of the small hill, a capped head appeared, bobbing up and down as if on horseback. The rider was followed closely by a whole column of bobbing heads. Over the crest they rode at a fast trot, eight soldiers, sitting tall and rigid in the saddle. The crimson of the men’s coats was splashed against the mix of dark blue sky and coarse black smoke. In a trick of the mind, those fiery jackets seemed to be the very source of the thick smoke still rising into the sky behind them. The early sun glinted brightly off the gold buttons and ornaments of their uniforms. A large white feathered plume flowed in the wind, draping brightly off the side of each of their blue, flat-topped hats. A long rifle was strapped tightly across the backs of all but the lead rider.
The line of soldiers bore down on John as if he were completely invisible. The lad had to scramble off the roadway and lean heavily against the stone fence to avoid being trampled. The horsemen brushed so close that he felt he could snatch one of the sabers that dangled at each man’s side.
The sound of the horses hooves was deafening. John held his hands tightly over his ears, choking in the boiling dust of the group. Off they rode, leaving the air laden with heavy dirt. The astonished lad stepped back into the middle of the road, coughed and spat after the horsemen. Damned English soldiers, he thought, cannot be any good come of that!
“Away, boy!” shouted an unexpected voice from behind him. Startled, John spun around, three more horsemen wearing brown business suits and derbies were quickly bearing down on him. He jumped nimbly to the side of the road as the horses whisked by. “Damned Irish beggars!” he overheard one man shout to the others. “No better than white niggers!” All three riders laughed loudly as they retreated down the way.
John grimaced hotly. Looking after the unsettling group, a cold chill ran suddenly up his back. “What the devil could they be about?” he asked no one in particular. He gathered himself, brushed off the cloud of dust that had settled over him and refocused his attention to the now diminishing column of smoke over the rise. He took off at a run, something was surely amiss.
Cresting the hill at a dead run, the lad spied a small cottage a quarter mile away, its collapsed thatched roof still smoldering from between the smoke blackened stone walls. A small group of people were scattered around the yard in front of the house. Most of the group were standing close to the burning structure, staring at the burned out shell. One more figure knelt halfway between the cottage and the fence, near two others who lay on the ground, unmoving.
“That is Angus O’Toole’s place,” John said to himself, not breaking stride. “What has happened?”
John increased his speed down the backside of the low hill. He arrived, panting heavily, at the gap of the stone fence in front of the ruined cottage. On closer inspection, he spied four young children staring in horror at the last wisps of smoke rising from their home. Their mother, Sara O’Toole, knelt tearfully beside her eldest son. John also recognized the woman’s husband, Angus, who lay moaning on the ground between the gate and his family. A large pool of blood issued from the man’s wounded left chest.
The panting young man almost passed out. Between the hard run and the horrific sight that laid before him, he had to steady himself on the thick fence and catch his breath. Several neighbors were now running across the fields toward them. They had obviously waited for the departure of the soldiers before finding out what was happening.
Slowly, John left the security of the fence and walked passed the moaning Angus. “Help me, lad,” the man wheezed just above a whisper. John looked at the man, his blood spilling freely onto the warm earth. He could not do anything, he did not know how.
The young man returned his attention to the mother and her son. As he approach the pair, he could see that the boy was no more than twelve or fourteen years old. A step closer revealed a large hole through the center of the young boy’s chest. His dead eyes were still open as he was being cradled lovingly in his mother’s arms. John wanted to vomit. He forced himself to hold down his food and turned quickly away from them.
Instead, he looked toward the other four children. They ranged in age from probably four to ten years old. Vacant stares adorned their faces, eyes trained on the burned out shell of their cottage. How could anyone do something like this? He wondered incredulously.
Horror overtook John. Tears began to flow freely down his dusty face. Unable to contain himself any further, he spun toward the gate and bolted. He dashed headlong through the opening, stopped and lost control of his stomach. He vomited time and again. One of the neighbor women, nearing the family, screamed, further curdling the sickened lad’s blood.
Dizzily, John began to run. At first he did not care where, just away from that scene. Eventually he turned toward his spot on the hill overlooking the village. Blindly he ran. His lungs ached and his heart raced. The lad clawed his way up the hillside through the heather. He gasped hotly for air. Breathe! he commanded himself.
Bright spots exploded before his eyes as the young man collapsed on the grassy knoll. He gasped deeply, wanted to wretch once again, but had nothing left to give. Instead, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes to the bright sky. “God, why did you do this?” he questioned. He received no answer.
John’s scorched lungs began to ease as one tear, then two slipped silently down the sides of his face, into his ears. He rubbed the liquid out of the openings, rolled over onto his stomach and buried his face into arms. He could not get the image of the dead boy out of his mind. The young lad’s blank, lifeless eyes already haunted him. How could anyone shoot down a child in cold blood? He began to sob in earnest.
Wiping the last few tears from his face, John sat up and looked across the small village. The tall white spire of St. Catherine’s stood like a bony finger pointing into the deep blue sky. He refused to think, only look over the lives of his fellow villagers, smell the sweetness of the flowering heather and listen to the sounds of life around him.
Wagons rolled through the streets of the village, passing small groups walking to their respective places of worship. The small group of Protestants in the town came here to St. Catherine’s while the majority of the populous attended Catholic Mass across town. It had only been relatively recently that they were once again legally permitted to attend a Catholic Mass.
Joseph had told his son stories of his young life, how Priests were hunted as outlaws and sport taken at their capture. John was told how anyone caught attending a Catholic service would be imprisoned or worse. No Catholic person was allowed to live in town, possess property or have any human rights under persecution of law. Now, Catholics could openly worship as they pleased without fear of being imprisoned, but, had things really changed?
Gazing out across the fertile green farmlands his heart warmed a bit. He really did love this land. It was a place where anyone could till the earth, raise a few animals and live in peace with family and nature. Why did not the outside world just leave them alone? He looked up at the sky and saw the sun nearing midday. It was time for him to head into town.
Standing in the shadows of the tallest ancient Celtic Cross in the cemetery, John scanned around him for any signs of his family. The sun bore down brightly, causing a trickle of sweat to roll down his brow as he shifted nervously, not at all comfortable in this place for the dead. He was especially uncomfortable after the harrowing events of that day. The eyes of the dead seemed to stare back at him from every lichen covered gravestone.
His mother’s resting place was on the opposite side of the graveyard from where he stood. The disturbed lad just could not bring himself to journey into that space as yet. He would need some company for that. Death was still too close to him right then.
The sun had already broken midday. Where was his family, John wondered, in an attempt to take his mind from the pit it now inhabited. They always met at his mother’s grave at midday. He peered longingly past the grey stone walls of the old church toward Harbour Street, from which direction his family should arrive. There was still no sign of movement.
Sweet Brigid, he thought suddenly, those horsemen that passed me on the road earlier were headed toward my house. Please God, let everything be all right! The worried young man started toward the gate of the churchyard. Maybe he should retrace his steps home and make sure all was well. God forbid something should happen to his own family.
John swung the squeaky wooden gate open and hurried down the side of the old chapel toward the dusty street. Stopping in front of the structure, he gazed down the cobblestone street in the direction of his house. A number of people scurried to and fro between the rows of brightly painted stone buildings lining each side of the narrow roadway. Several horses were tied in front of Callahan’s Pub, restlessly bobbing their heads and whinnying back and forth. Father O’Casey stepped through the heavy plank doors of the church and, though uninvited, joined the lad at the edge of the street.
“Good afternoon to you, John,” he greeted cheerfully. “Looking for anything in particular or just waiting here for next Mass?”
John looked blankly at the Priest, undesirous of even returning an answer to such a ridiculous question. “No, Father,” he finally returned blandly, “I am meeting my family here to pay our respects to our departed mother.”
“Are you, now?” the prying Priest responded questioningly. “I will be happy to read some Psalms for the sake of your mourning family. Then, I will be happy to have all of you come in for confession. Been a while since I have seen the whole lot of you here.”
John grimaced at he pontiff, then turned his attention back down the road. “You will have to ask me Da about that. I am not the one to make those decisions.”
Father O’Casey smiled at the young man. “Oh, but you are, lad. Show the rest of your family by your own example of how to pay respect to the Almighty. I will dare say, you will be wanting the find yourself a wife here sometimes soon and you will be needing a Priest to wed you. You know, its never too soon to. . . .”
“Excuse me Father, but, I really need to see where my Da and the rest of my family are. They were supposed to be here long ago,” he cut the clergyman off mid-sentence, stepped immediately into the street and walked away without looking back.
He found Priests about as offensive as soldiers. Both were in the market of death and dying. It was not time for that as yet.
“I will be here when you return,” the persistent Priest called after the lad.
John ignored the last comment and strode hastily down Harbour Street toward William Street. Where could everyone be, he wondered. Old Paddy Fitzpatrick stumbled out of The Hare and Hound Pub and ran headlong into John, almost knocking him down. The smell of whiskey on the old man’s breath nearly overpowered the wincing lad. Paddy fell flat on his face in the middle of the street and did not move.
Holy Jesus, did I kill him? John wondered. He reached down and shook the fellow’s shoulder. “Paddy, oh Paddy.”
The man moaned, laughed and rose slowly to his knees. “Oh, me lad, are ya’ a calling to me?” he slurred, with an deep, drunken laugh. Paddy got to his feet, swayed and dropped back down to his knees.
John laughed and looked around at the people gathering around them on the street. Several of the village ladies turned their noses and walked hurriedly passed. A couple of the men chuckled, slapped each other on the arms and walked toward John.
“Need some help there Lad?” one of the men asked John jovially. “Your pappy has had a wee too much drink, I would say!”
“He ain’t my Da,” John corrected with a snap. “He just ran over me right here on the street and fell over.”
The clip-clop of horses hooves caught the lad’s attention. He looked up the street to see three riders in brown business suits turning the corner of William Street onto Harbour. Uninterested, he turned back to Paddy, who had just grabbed a heavy hold of John’s shirt. “Paddy, I think we need to get you out of the street,” he requested. “I will help you up and we will get to the side.”
Paddy looked up at the lad, his head bobbing unsteadily and eyes wild as June thunder. “Up we go!” he laughed, attempting to regain his feet. The old fellow’s legs were like rubber as he took a couple of steps toward the side of the road. He fell, once again, to his knees. Outweighed by probably sixty pounds, John was unable to hold the man upright.
The sound of the horses was getting closer. The struggling lad looked up to see the riders, riding abreast across the narrow street, now less than a block away. “Come on, Paddy,” he prompted hurriedly, “riders are coming.”
Paddy laughed again, making no attempt to regain his feet. He pulled John down closer to him to say something in his ear. “Know what I saw today?” he asked, almost unintelligibly.
“We do not have time for that right now. There are riders coming,” John prompted more seriously. “Let’s get off the road.” He looked toward the riders to check their progress. Everyone else had stepped to the side of the road to let the horses pass. The riders seemed to have sped up after seeing the struggling pair in the middle of the street.
John tried unsuccessfully to drag Paddy off the road. The horses bore down quickly on John and Paddy. “I need some help,” he pleaded, seeing the riders giving no quarter to them. Two bystanders rushed into the street, grabbed the drunkened fellow by the arms and dragged him off the road. The horsemen trotted by, completely ignoring that anything was ever in their path.
One of the men who helped John, spat vehemently after the riders. “Damned English! May you burn in the fires of hell.” he muttered, spitting once more at the men.
John, now panting heavily in exhaustion and fear, looked unbelievingly after the horses. “Who was that?” he questioned hotly.
“Henchmen for the Winfrey’s,” one of the men informed the lad. “They oversee the rent payment for a few hundred acres not far out of town. Send all the money back to their Lord in England.” The fellow muttered some vehemence under his breath.
“I think I saw them earlier,”John told the men quietly. “They were with a group of soldiers.”
Both men and a few other people who had gathered around looked curiously at the lad. “On my way into town, they passed me riding away from Angus O’Toole’s place.” Recanting this story was the last thing he wanted to do right then.
“That could mean no good,” a bystander commented with alarm. “Go on, lad” You see anything amiss?”
The crowd quieted as John began to tremble. He could not hold back his tears while informing the townspeople of what he had witnessed.
“The bastards!” someone commented from the crowd. “They shot a defenseless young lad?”
“What do we do?” someone else asked.
“What can we do?” responded one of the fellows who helped pull Paddy out of the street. “They got the law and the soldiers on their side. We do not even have weapons!”
Paddy moaned and vomited loudly, prompting everyone to move further down the road.
John looked around the crowd once more. “My Da was supposed to be here earlier, but he ain’t showed up. I have got to go see that he is all right, ‘cause those riders were heading away from town toward our place when I last saw them.” He quickly turned and headed back down Harbour Street toward home.
Another small group of people suddenly rounded the corner off Williams, led by Liam O’Toole, Angus O’Toole’s brother. John recognized most of the faces in the crowd, including his father, Eileen and Peter. Brian, Tom and other members of the lad’s extended family marched curtly alongside many of the O’Toole clan. John breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his family, but worried at the look of the group.
Liam’s long red hair tossed wildly in the wind. He had the look of vengeance burning on his face. Straight down Harbour he led them, stopping before the crowd of people gathered on the street.
John slipped between O’Tooles and Walshes, gaining the side of his family. “What is on?” he asked Peter and Eileen quietly.
“Henchmen burned out two families of the O’Toole clan,” Eileen responded sorrowfully. “First they killed Angus O’Toole and his eldest son, Tighe. Then they went and burned out Liam’s old aunt and uncle’s cottage.”
Peter interrupted, “We have come to get the Sheriff and demand justice!”
John glared at his brother and sister. A strong mix of fear, loathing and absolute hatred filled his senses. “I saw what they did to Angus and his family,” he replied with emotion overcoming him. “He was still alive but bleeding badly when I saw him last. The boy was already dead though. The men who did it passed me on the road on my way here. There was a group of soldiers and three men in suits. I did not know they burned another family out, as well.”
“You saw them?” Eileen asked stunned. “And you did not come to warn us?” A look of surprise and dismay crossed her lean face.
“I. . .I just ran away. I could not stand what I saw,” John returned defensively. “The boy’s eyes, they stared at me, a stare of death.” He turned his face away, unable to look his sister in the face.
Several of the men conversed hotly in front of the group. Liam O’Toole spat out profanities and threatened everyone from Queen Victoria to God himself. The cooler heads tried to calm him a bit with very little success. The man’s scarlet head seemed more like fire than hair as he animatedly waved his arms over his head.
“The three men that I saw this morning just passed by here a few moments ago,” John added, almost as an afterthought. He looked down Harbour Street where the trio had passed.
“They what?” Peter answered incredulously. “Where?”
“That way,” John pointed. “I think that is their horses tied up at the pub there.”
A look of sheer amazement enveloped Peter’s face. He moved to his father’s side and grasped his shoulder. The younger brother then spoke quietly into Joseph’s ear. His father turned to look at John, motioning him to come forward. Pushing his way through the tight band of people, Joseph directed his son to Liam’s side. The red haired man was still shouting curses as Joseph grasped his shoulder. Liam’s head snapped quickly around to see who had dared approach him.
“This is my son, John,” Joseph addressed the fiery man. “He saw the men who murdered your family.”
Liam’s jaw dropped slightly, “This true, lad? You see the dogs that killed me brother and nephew?”
John nodded affirmatively, staring at the ground before him. He shifted slightly. No words would form in his mouth as shame burned in his gut.
“Who were they? Where did they go?” Liam prodded roughly.
“A group of soldiers, eight or ten, I think,” John forced between clenched teeth. “Three men in fancy business suits followed close behind. I just saw those three men pass by here a few minutes ago.” The quivering lad looked quickly at his father then back to the ground.
“Where?” another of the O’Toole clan joined in. “Where are they now?” The whole crowd stared at the young man now.
He pointed down the street. “That way,” he squeaked.
“They went into Callahan’s Pub,” another bystander answered angrily.
Without another word, Liam O’Toole pushed through the tight crowd, shoving people out of the way as he headed for the pub. “I will kill the bastards,” he spat. Hostility bled from his pores. The gathered crowd followed the man to the front of the building. Its brightly painted walls and large, fresh sign identified the pub as the nicest one in the village.
Liam stomped up to the entrance of the pub and slammed the door open wide. He peered silently around the bar, the ravenous crowd pushed tightly up against him, trying to peek over his shoulder. “Where are the English dogs who killed me family?” he hissed vehemently.
A small man on the opposite side of the room stood slowly to his feet. Two others, sitting at each side of the man, turned to look at the wildman in the doorway. None seemed too awfully concerned.
James Callahan, standing behind the bar, stifled an outcry. The publican’s jaw dropped and his face clouded. “Gentlemen,” he begged, “please, if you have an argument, take it outside. I will have no disputes in my pub!”
Liam stared at the suited man, fire blazing from his eyes. “Bloody swine!” he hissed again. “I will break your murderous neck!” The man took a quick step inside the door, wild vengeance smeared across his face.
The worried publican rushed out from behind the bar, blocking Liam’s entry. “Please, lad,” he begged again quietly, “take your troubles outside. I have not done a thing to you, now!
Liam gazed viciously at James Callahan and looked back at the three Englishmen across the room. “You get those vermin out front or I will burn this place down myself,” he swore through his clenched teeth. The Irishman spun on his heels and stomped back out the door.
John stepped swiftly aside as Liam brushed passed. Was he going to get someone else killed here, he wondered? He felt it would be his fault for telling the vengeful man of the identity and location of the Englishmen. The worried lad slipped to the rear of the growing crowd, pushing passed his brother and sister.
Liam stood stiffly in the middle of the street, staring intently into the door of the dark pub. His sinewy arms hung loosely at his sides with fists clenching and unclenching. His breath vaporized with every exhalation. The crowd was deathly quiet, arched around the back of the bristling Irishman. All eyes were fixed on the dark opening. The bright afternoon sun dimmed as a thick cloud slipped overhead.
“Get out here, you mangey vermin!” Liam screamed. “You have ten more seconds before I come in to get you, and no one will stop me this time!”
The crowd began to mutter quietly as the doorway remained empty. John held his breath. Peter and Eileen stood directly in front of their brother, on the front lines of the antsy crowd. Joseph stood apart from his children, close behind Liam, a stern glower on his face. The sun burst out from behind the shady cloud, causing several people to shade their eyes to the bright light. Impatiently, Liam started back toward the open door. Suddenly a man appeared from the dark opening, followed closely by two others. Each man wore similarly styled, dusty brown suits and a Derby hat. The man on the right had his arms folded tightly across his chest while the other two sauntered casually into the street.
“And who would you be to disturb my dinner?” the first man asked cooly.
“Me name is Liam O’Toole. You murdered me brother and nephew today, shot them down like dogs. Then you burned their house and the house of me defenseless auld aunt and uncle. Almost killed them as well!”
All three men smiled coldly. “Dogs is too kind a description for that louse infested brood,” the front man snickered. “They were more than six months behind with their rent and Lord Winfrey was only exercising his legal right to evict such deadbeats and repossess his own lands. Your brother, or uncle, or whomever resisted our legal proceedings and we had no other recourse than to protect ourselves.”
Liam’s body tightened. The hairs on back of his neck stood on end. John swore that fire shot from his nostrils. His jaw was locked hard and his eyes glowered at the repulsive men standing before him. “The right. . .” he started, unable to complete his phrase. “The right to murder a twelve year old child? Then you call me family worse than dogs and burn their houses?” He took a step toward the three Englishmen. “I am going to break your God damned neck, I am! I will see you all sent to hell before this day is over!” He lunged toward the trio.
A small pistol suddenly appeared in the hand of the Englishman on the right. He aimed cooly at Liam’s chest. The Irishman stopped in his tracks. The crowd split into two, moving suddenly from behind the Irishman. Several women screamed fearfully and ran into local buildings. Most of the rest of the group dropped to the ground. John fell to his knees, a cry stuck in his throat. The second Englishman pulled a gun from under his jacket. He waved the pistol threateningly around the crowd.
“If anyone here dies today, it will not be us,” the leader responded callously. “We are under the legal jurisdiction and protection of Her Majesty, the Queen of England. It is our duty and responsibility to protect her laws and preserve her order. Any one of you who stand in the way of our enforcement of such will be determined a criminal and dealt with accordingly. For those of you who are under the governorship of Lord Winfrey, rents will be demanded paid on time, in amounts determined by his Lordship and his honorable agents. Now, be gone with you! I want to finish my dinner.”
Liam took another step toward the Englishmen with a yell. The agent on the right cocked his weapon and held it at the Irishman’s face. Liam stopped again. “You worthless, rotten balls of shite!” he cried. “Your souls shall rot in hell and the worms gnaw at your bones soon! I will see to that myself. I would keep me eyes looking over me shoulder if I were you! The devil himself will soon be clutching at your soul!
John breathed again as Liam turned reluctantly down the street. The three English agents returned to the inside of the building. The remaining group of people dispersed quietly, leaving John’s family and the O’Toole clan plodding silently down the street.
“It is time to bury the dead,” Liam muttered quietly. His children gathered at his side.
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