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 Chapter 8

     John followed his father slowly through the barley field.  A stiff, steady wind kept the growing plants rustling noisily.  Joseph stopped periodically to inspect the grain heads for ripeness.  “‘Twill be a fine crop this year,” he repeated several times with a broad smile.  “Three more weeks and we will harvest this gorgeous crop!”  He reached down to pluck a stray weed from the base of a barley plant.

     “If only our potatoes had done as well,” John commented dryly.

     Joseph looked at his son with a displeased grimace.  “We take what the good Lord in Heaven gives us, son, and give thanks that we are not like so many others of our countrymen right now.”  He looked toward Heaven and crossed himself quickly.

     John suddenly felt embarrassed.  He felt his face flush red at the return.  What had gotten into his father?  He had never known him to be a particularly religious man.  Bad times makes people act in strange ways, he surmised.

     “Da,” John address his father seriously, “do you think the English had anything to do with the potato rot?”

     Joseph stopped, looked back at his son, and glared.  An unusually strong gust of wind howled through the barley, threatening to blow over the whole crop.  “Now what would make you think up something like that?” he asked harshly.  “Has someone been feeding your head with tales of nonsense?”

     John looked wordlessly away into the cloudy sky.  His embarrassment showing brightly in his face.  “I have just heard rumors,” he finally answered quietly, his voice snapped away in the wind.

     “There are some among the English who are arrogant, intolerable and not to be trusted,” Joseph answered his son heatedly, “but I have yet to meet one with the magical power to control the forces of nature!  Besides, if not for the compassion of our landlord here, we would be starving to death like so many others.”

     “But was not all this land, for hundreds of acres around, once farmed by our family?” John returned, his courage and conviction overcoming his shyness.

     Joseph’s face softened.  He gazed across the farmland surrounding them and took a deep breath.  “Aye, son, ‘twas at that,” he finally answered softly.  “But, ‘tis no longer.”  Joseph walked over and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Do not let anyone lie to you, lad, and fill your brain with thoughts of rebellion.  Only death walks those fields, and we have already had far too much of that around here.  I have no wish to see my sons with their necks stretched.”

     Did his father know he and Peter had attended the meeting of The Young Irelanders?  Did someone tell him?  Somehow, his father had changed of late.  Could it be he was just growing old?  John could remember seeing fire in his father’s eyes when speaking about the old ways, living the life of a clan.  In those times, land was open to the free passage of any man.  No one truly owned the land, but everyone had full use and benefit of it.  Why was he suddenly acting so different?

     “Would not you like to see the land the way it was in the old stories, Da?”  John asked, seeing the sadness in his father’s eyes.  “This land is ours, it was stolen from us.”

     Joseph looked sadly at his son.  “Aye, lad,” he responded slowly, “I would at that.  But, ‘tis no longer the way of things.  Now, I would rather see my sons have sons of their own, living on five acres of rented land, than to see them buried under that sod for a dream that will never be.”  He looked quickly away, turning his attention exaggeratedly back to his crop.

     John’s heart felt heavy.  He had to act on his own conscience, yet, how could he hurt his own Da?  The struggling lad desperately wanted to attend his second meeting with the group tomorrow night.  There was a kinship there, a feeling of connected purpose, that flowed far beyond physical ties.

     “Let’s go eat, lad,” Joseph suggested lovingly, turning back to his son.  He turned toward the cottage and slipped past John, weaving through the row of grain.

     The gusty wind boiled through the low clouds.  John watched as two ravens sailed across the sky like black darts, angling across the gale.  Stepping through the gap in the low stone fence, the lad followed his father into the empty remains of their potato patch.  Grey ashes were wind scattered across the garden, a last testament to the ruined crop.  Maybe he should be happy just to be alive and still in the home he loved.  So many others were starving, dead, or sent off to far away lands, forced to leave their homes.  His family still had food, shelter and a cash crop that would soon be ready to harvest.  What more could he rightly ask?  He stepped through the door into the dimly lit cottage.

     Peter looked up at his brother and smiled.  “Another day, brother,” he greeted quietly.  “Tomorrow we begin again.”

     John finished the last of his corn mash and flat bread.  He looked over at Peter who, with a disgusted look on his face, forced down the last of his meal.  James coughed heavily, sitting beside the fire, chewing slowly on his crust of bread.  The young lad shivered in front of the fire, staring into the glowing coals.

     Joseph tossed a couple more peat logs on the fire and looked at his youngest son.  “Are you all right, lad?” he asked, feeling of the boy’s forehead.  “Eileen, I think your brother has  fever again, will you look after him?”  James looked silently up at his father, his face pale and jaw quivering.

     Eileen sat down her cup and tended to her baby brother.  “You are on fire!” she commented, placing her hand on his pallid face.  “Let’s put you to bed.”  The lass lovingly picked up her brother and disappeared through the doorway into the rear of the cottage.

     The sound of horses outside suddenly caught John’s attention.  He looked up at Peter, who had obviously heard the same thing.  Joseph looked worriedly through the dark opening across the room where his daughter and youngest son had just disappeared.  A loud rap at the door quickly recaptured his attention.

     John slowly got up to answer the door.  Who could that be? He wondered, worriedly.  The sound of horses could bring no good news.  Another loud rap sounded at the door.  Stopping behind the still closed portal, John asked gruffly, “Who is it?”

     A loud English voice called back through the door, “Open up.  We are the agents for the Honorable Lord Winfrey!  Open up, I say.”

     John looked back to Peter and Joseph, a puzzled look on his face.  What could they want? He waited until his father joined him at the door.  Another loud rap at the door accentuated the impatience of the men waiting outside.

     “Open up in there, I say!” the voice demanded even louder.

     Joseph swung the door slowly open.  Three men in suits and Derby hats stood before him.  John’s stomach turned.  A jolt of recognition sent shock waves up his spine.  His breath caught in his throat.

     “What can I do for you, gentlemen,” Joseph asked politely.

     “I am Oliver Renfrew, agent for Lord Winfrey.” the man answered coldly.  “I am charged by his Lordship to inform you that this property is now in his possession.”

     Joseph’s jaw slackened and his arms dropped loosely to his side.  “What?” he asked, aghast.  “How could that be?”

     “Thomas Moore, your former landlord, is now deceased.” the agent informed Joseph matter-of-factly.  “His family sold this property as well as the rest of his holdings to Lord Winfrey.  Looking through Mr. Moore’s books, we have become aware that you are now two and a half months behind in your rent.”

     “Yes, that is right.  But, he was giving me the time until our barley was harvested to pay our rent.  Since our potato crop failed. . . .”

     “You have three days to pay your rent in full or vacate the premises.” Agent Renfrew cut the Irishman off coldly.  “Your rent due is now eighteen shillings for the next six months.”

     “Eighteen shillings?” Joseph stammered.  “How do you expect me to find that amount of money in three days?  My barley will be harvested in three weeks, sold in another.  It is a good harvest and with what I have now, I can pay then.  But, not in three days!”  His sun darkened skin turned pale as the blood drained from his face.

     John felt he was about to faint.  He looked quickly back to his brother.  Peter stood aghast, his eyes wide and mouth open.  Eileen stood in the doorway of the back room, her hands over her face.  The lass was shaking visibly.

     “We will be back three days from today.” the agent stated cooly.  “Be prepared to pay in full or vacate.  Good day, sir.”  The three Englishmen turned sharply on their heels and stepped brightly to their horses.  They mounted and quickly turned down the lane toward town.

     Joseph stood silently, gazing with an unbelieving stare after the three agents.  Slowly he shut the door and moved to the fireplace.  Dropping heavily onto a stool on the side, he stared into the dancing fire.  A strong gust of wind rattled the window across the room, breaking the heavy silence.

     “What will we do, Da?” John asked at the verge of tears.

     Eileen burst into loud sobs, dropping heavily to her knees onto the hard dirt floor.  “What is wrong, sister?” James’ weak voice asked feebly from the back room.

     Peter just stood and stared at his father, a look of absolute muteness across his face.

     Another loud knock at the door startled John.  His heart pounded in his ears.  What now? his mind cried.  Reluctantly, he took a step toward the door.

     With a second knock, a familiar voice called through the wooed planks.  “Joseph,” the familiar voice of their uncle, Tom, yelled out of breath from running.  “Open up, Joseph, we have got to talk!”  He pounded once more.

     John moved to open the door for his uncle.  “Come in, uncle,” he replied sadly.

     Tom rushed through the opened doorway.  “Joseph,” he cried breathlessly, looking around the room for his brother, “our land, it has been sold!”

     Joseph sat still staring into the fire, his back to his brother.  He did not move a muscle.  John did not even know if he had heard Tom.

     “Did you hear me, Joseph?” Tom started again, still out of breath.  “Our land is sold to the same Lord Winfrey who evicted and burned out the O’Toole’s!”

     “They just left here,” Joseph answered slowly and quietly.  “They gave me three days to have eighteen shillings or they will burn us out as well.”

     Tom stared wordlessly at his brother’s back, breathing heavily.  The wind whipped through the door, blowing in a cloud of ash from the garden.  John closed the portal silently.

     “What do we do, Joseph?” Tom asked quietly, catching his breath. “I have the same instruction.”

     “Pray,” Joseph responded at a whisper.  “Ask the Blessed Virgin to destroy the whole bloody lot of them!”  He spun to face his brother, fire blazing in his eyes.

     John was taken aback.  Such a sudden turnaround caught him totally by surprise.  “Maybe we should do more than just pray,” he commented quietly.

     Joseph looked up at his son, a storm in his eyes.  “You will do nothing but wait here while we go to the Constable and inform him of the situation.  Maybe things can be worked out.  We only need three weeks until we can pay their rent, as much a theft as it is.  Eighteen shillings indeed!”  He stood and walked to his brother’s side.  “Let us go to town, Tom.”  Grabbing his overcoat for protection against the wind, Joseph led the way out of the cottage and toward the lane.

     Peter put his arms around his sister.  “We will not let that happen,” he whispered in her ear.  Peter turned and looked up at John.  “We know what we must do now, brother,” he said loud enough for his brother to hear him.  “Tomorrow night we share a plan with the rest of the lads.”

     Eileen looked between her brothers, confusion in her eyes.  “What are you talking about?” she asked, worriedly.

     “Nothing, sister,” Peter comforted her, stroking his fingers through her thick, knotted hair.

     John sat down onto the small wooden bench in the darkness as he had before.  A cold wind whistled through the cracks in the old barn while a pouring rain hammered at the slate roof.  The lad’s wet clothing sent a shiver up his spine in the chill.  The rustling of feet and almost inaudible whispers back and forth in the impenetrable darkness still felt very eerie to John.  He leaned over to Peter and whispered quietly in his ear, “The room seems really full tonight.”

     “‘Tis, sometimes,” Peter whispered back.  “More than half the lads in the county attend the meetings here at one time or another.”

     Tim struck a match in the front of the room and lit the dim single candle to start their meeting.  The flare of the sudden flame seemed so bright that John almost had to squint to look toward the leader.

     John could hardly sit still.  He was ready to begin the meeting in earnest.  There were serious issues to discuss here tonight.  Somehow, he had not grasped the reality, nor the severity of the plague that afflicted his country until now.  But, now was the time for action.  The lad’s heart began to thump rapidly with anticipation. He and Peter had schemed late into the darkness of the previous night, concocting a plan of action.  He now intended to present their idea to the group tonight.

     “Hi ya, lads,” Tim began quietly.  “Lovely evening!”

     The group chuckled quietly, then quickly hushed to allow their leader’s direction.  “Any news?”  He looked over the group for a speaker to give his news.

     John looked over his shoulders around the dim room.  He had been right, there were probably twice as many people as in the last meeting.  He recognized a few more faces from the village, though he could not put a name on them.  There were also a couple more of the O’Toole clan in attendance.  He would have to speak with Brendan later and find out his intentions for his sister.  He had not visited Eileen for a month and she was pining.

     A stranger stood up in the shadows at the back of the group.  “The whole Malloy clan over in Birr has been shipped to America by their landlord,” he announced.  “Now there is a herd of cattle running through the countryside where their crops used to be.”

     “There is a new Workhouse being set up in Athlone,” another member of the group informed them.  “I hear it is already full and not yet completed.”

     Tim shook his head in disgust.  “How can anyone give up their freedom for a few morsels of food?” he asked no one in particular.  “Any more news?”

     Peter hesitantly stood to his feet.  “The lands to the southwest of town that were owned by the Moore family are now owned by Lord Winfrey,” he began.  “Our land is part of that tract.  Our family got behind on rent when it was necessary for us to buy food when our potatoes failed.  Now, we are given until tomorrow evening to produce eighteen shillings rent or be put off our land.”  He shuffled his feet slightly, running his finger through his hair.  “We have a beautiful crop of barley in the field that will be ready for harvest in three or four weeks, but they will give us no longer than tomorrow eve.”

     He quickly sat back down and stopped speaking.  John patted his brother on the back and shook his shoulder lovingly.  Peter smiled slightly at John and turned to listen to Tim.

     “That is terrible news indeed,” the leader replied with a gasp.

     “Those are the same buggers that killed our family and ran them off their lands,” Jim O’Toole interrupted angrily, jumping hastily to his feet..  “The bastards need to pay for their action!”

     Tim motioned the lad to sit back down.  “They need to pay, indeed.  How do we do that?”

     John stood slowly to his feet.  “They have a large herd of cattle now on the O’Tooles old lands.  I say we poison the water supply and kill them all.  That will take their precious money out of their pocketbooks!” he suggested.

     A low murmur drifted through the group, sounding slightly above the drum of heavy rain on the roof.

     “That will not work,” someone else from the rear of the room replied.  “‘Tis raining much too hard.  All the overflow would just contaminate our own livestock and crops.  We need something more close to the agents themselves.”

     Another fellow, whose face John recognized from the village, stood up with a suggestion.  “I know where those agents have their evening meal every day,” he began.  “They go to Callahan’s Pub.  If anything should be poisoned, I think it should be their own horses.”

     A collective gasp went through the crowd.  “I would rather kill the sons of bitches themselves than punish a beautiful innocent horse!” someone commented from the fringes.

     “Me as well!” several more commented.

     Tim, once again, stood up to quiet the group.  “If we kill the agents, the consequences could be more than we want to deal with at this point in time.  We will have the Dragoons down our throats faster than a sow can squeal!  I think poisoning their horses serves a brilliant purpose.”  Tim nodded to the fellow who made the suggestion.  “But, where do we get the poison?”

     John stood up again, pulling a vial from a pocket of his damp, tattered coat.  “Right here,” he answered with a devilish smile.  “My sister is knowledgeable in herb lore.  She cooked us up some nightshade without asking why we would need such a thing.”

     Tim smiled to match John.  “I see you keep yourself prepared, brother!” he commended the lad.  He looked across the faces in the room.  “We cannot take everyone who came here tonight.  We would be spotted right away, even in the rain.  We must choose no more than eight or ten lads to do this deed.”

     “I think it should be the O’Tooles and the Walshes!” young Brendan O’Toole announced vigorously.  “We are the ones with a fight against these particular bastards.”

     Tim nodded in agreement.  “Very well then,” he agreed.  “I see five of the O’Toole clan, two Walshes, Samuel Brady here to give us directions and myself.  We will wait until the rest of you lads depart.  The next mission more of you will get to participate.”

     After a quick murmur through the group several members got up to leave.  Tim quickly blew out the candle and slid onto the bench beside John in the dark.  “Glad to have you with us,” he whispered to both Peter and his brother.  “Tonight is a first step in our fight for freedom!”

     John smiled broadly in the dark.  He had never thought of himself as a freedom fighter, but he was starting to like the feel of it.  He had certainly had his share of brawls as a lad, it was almost expected of his culture, but never had he thought of the possibility of taking a life.  Not even the life of an animal, solely for the sake of vengeance.

     The fire flared in his veins.  Visions of battle tales streamed through his thoughts.  He could help lead this revolution!  The taste of freedom crossed his lips.

     The lads of the O’Toole clan slipped in behind John, Peter and Tim.  “I knew we were cousins in spirit,” one of them commented, patting John roughly on the shoulder.

     “We need to leave one or two at a time.” Tim instructed.  “We will meet down the road towards the village at the bend in the creek.  Two of the O’Tooles go first, the Walshes second.  Sam and I will go next, then the rest of the O’Tooles.”

     John heard two of the lads behind him slip off into the darkness.  He waited a couple of minutes and tapped Peter on the knee, prompting his brother to lead their exit.  The lad’s heart bounced up into his throat, beating so hard he could hardly breathe.

     He followed his younger brother out of the barn, into the chilly rain.  At least the storm was not as hard as it had been previously.  John’s breath vaporized with each heavy exhalation.  The muddy field sucked at the lad’s feet, making his walk very difficult.  Struggling through a shallow ditch onto the muddy lane, the two brothers turned toward the village.

     Quickly, they made their way silently to the appointed meeting spot.  Brendan and Ignacious O’Toole waited for the others at the edge of the trees.  The rest of the group soon arrived and everyone headed silently toward town.

     The rain had let up, becoming only a light sprinkle as Samuel took the lead, directing the small party through the back alleys of the village.  He motioned for them to stop at the crossing of another alley.  “Callahan’s is there,” he whispered, pointing to the rear of a dark building.  “The horses will be tied up front.  They are rarely watched over, so there should be no problem slipping them the poison.”

     “How do we give them the poison?” one of the O’Tooles asked curiously.

     John had not thought of that part.  “We need something they will eat, I suppose,” he answered, still rather perplexed at the problem.

     “There is a market across the street,” Samuel answered, “they have a few apples left inside.  They are rather rotten, but a horse should still eat them with fervor.”

     The lads looked between themselves, “Get them,” Tim directed the lad.

     Sam slipped between buildings toward the shop.  The rain finally stopped as they awaited his return.  A figure suddenly appeared around the corner of the pub.  Struggling to see if it was Sam returning, Tim motioned for the group to stay quiet and still.

     The man disappeared into the outhouse in the rear of the tavern.  A flash of lightning reflected off the rear of the building, followed by long, low roll of distant thunder.  A light rain began to fall once again, splashing lightly into the puddles around the group’s feet.

     “That was one of the Englishman’s agents,” Liam O’Toole announced quietly, his eyes growing wide with recognition of the man in the privy.  Fire kindled deeply in the lad’s eyes.  He took a quick look around the group, then back toward the outhouse.  Spotting a short thick piece of square wood leaning against the building next to him, Liam grabbed the plank and crept toward the outhouse.

     A smile crossed Brendan O’Toole’s face as he recognized Liam’s intention and followed him quietly toward their target.  He motioned the rest of the group to follow.  Tim, perceiving the opportunity as well, instructed the rest of the lads to follow him.  The group carefully approached the privy, their footsteps splashing through the shallow puddles of rain.  Liam leaned as quietly as he could against the side of the building.

     “Who is there?” the English accented occupant asked through the walls.  “Edward, is that you?  I will be out momentarily.”

     John’s heart raced.  His ears began to ring with the excitement of the moment.  The lad’s senses were heightened to the point that he could almost hear the agent’s breath inside the tiny building.  The lad exhaled slowly, a cloud of steamy vapor forming in front of his face.  The cold light rain streamed down the young man’s face, tickling his forehead.  He was afraid to move and remedy the situation.

     Peter crept up beside his brother at the rear of the privy, leaning silently against the rough wooden wall.  He turned, peeking around the corner to Liam’s side of the structure.  His elbow bumped the wall, thumping the wood audibly.  His eyes widened and face flushed.

     “Who is that?” the occupant yelled worriedly.  “Who is out there?”

     John sucked in his breath.  His muscles tensed and he felt he needed to scream.  What could he do?  “Hurry up in there!” he demanded loudly, making his voice sound as if he had already drank too much whiskey.  “I have got to piss!”

     Peter and the other lads looked over at John with broad smiles.

     “Get out of here, you old drunken Irish fool,” the Englishman in the privy responded vehemently.  “Go piss in the street!”

     “I have got to go,” John repeated drunken voiced..  He splashed around the side of the outhouse to the door of the structure and knocked loudly.

     “All right, I am coming out,” the agent replied hotly.  “Damned drunken Irish louts,” he mumbled almost inaudibly.

     John backed away from the little building.  He watched as Liam readied himself  behind the swinging outhouse door for his attack.  The big O’Toole lad lifted the plank off his broad shoulder and cocked it beside his head.  The door swung open and the Englishman emerged into the light rain.  He spotted John, standing five yards away, just as the door slammed noisily shut.

     “What the bloody hell?” he spouted, startled.

     Liam stepped around the corner of the building, his weapon cocked.  The surprised Englishman reached quickly into his coat for his pistol.  It was too late.

     The big Irishman swung the heavy plank with a vengeance.  His blow landed flatly across the agent’s chest, knocking him roughly into the wall.  The Englishman sprang back off the building, still digging desperately for his weapon.  Liam struck again, hitting the man on his right shoulder with a savage blow.

     The rest of the group gathered around, encircling the agent.  Horror engulfed the man’s face as he look around at the mob of vengeful Irish youths.  The pistol appeared in the agent’s right had.  Liam again was too swift.  Another wicked blow broke the Englishman’s forearm, knocking the weapon into the mud.  The man’s right hand dangled limply.  A desperate loud cry issued from the horrified agent’s lungs.

     Blood lust filled the faces of the young Irishmen.  All watched with pleasure as Liam struck another blow, sending the stunned man once again roughly into the side of the outhouse.  A second rapid swing by Liam caught the Englishman directly across the forehead, pinning his head between the plank and the wall.

     Blood splattered profusely across the front of the building.  John gasped, horrified at the sight of terrorized death.  The man fell like a shaft of scythed barley into the mud.  The light rain slowly washed the blood down the wall.

     Fenton O’Toole crouched beside the bleeding corpse, digging in the mud for the dropped pistol.  Finding the weapon, he lifted it over his head like a trophy.  Tim reached under the man’s coat, retrieving his extra cartridge belt.  Liam walked over to the body, kicking it harshly on his way by.  The rest of the party followed suit, taking turns walking by and kicking at the dead Englishman.

     John was caught up in the excitement and blood lust.  He kicked at the dead man’s side as hard as he could, then spat on the corpse.  Fire flowed hotly through his Celtic blood, sending chills up his back.  He never before thought he could kill another human.  Yet, for some reason, he felt brilliantly alive.

     Running footsteps splashed up the far side of the pub.  “What is happening back there?” another English voice screamed from around the dark corner.

     Tim waved the party to split in half.  John, Peter, Liam and Fenton followed him, the rest bolted in the opposite direction.  Tim led his small group down a dark, narrow alleyway between the pub and another building.  Stopping at a small niche in the dark wall, they all packed into the tight space.  Liam stood at the entrance of the niche with his club.  Fenton stood nervously beside him, brandishing the muddy pistol.

     “Where did they go?” the Englishman yelled, leaving the body of their dead partner.

     “There,” the other agent directed loudly.

     Running footsteps splashed up the alley toward John and the group.  “I do not see them,” one of the agents responded, quickly approaching the group’s hiding place.

     Liam pressed tightly back into the shadows, almost crushing John into the rough wooden wall.  The smashed lad could hardly breath, and his muscles ached with fear and anticipation.  His heart pounded so hard that he could hear it over the sound of the light rain dripping from the roof.  Another distant flash of lightning reflected off the building across the alleyway.

     The two Englishmen splashed loudly down the path.  Just as they passed by the hidden group, Liam unexpectedly stepped out.  He swung his wooden plank, catching the rear agent in the back of the head.  The man landed face down in the mud, his pistol flying across the alley.

     The lead agent stopped and spun in their direction.  His feet slipped out from under him in the slick mud.  The fellow fell to his knees, bracing himself with his arms.

     Fenton stepped quickly out of the shadows, holding the pistol in both hands.  He pointed shakily at the Englishman and fired, striking the man dead center of his chest.  The man fell face down onto the muddy ground.  Fenton stood rigidly, staring at the man he had just shot.

     The agent which Liam had hit with his club, struggled to his knees.  He searched the mud for his weapon, stricken with panic.  Liam drew back his plank for another blow.  Fenton turned toward the man, pointed the pistol at the man’s head and fired once more.

     John watched in horror as the top of the Englishman’s head exploded.  The fellow was blown backward, falling face up at the lad’s feet.  Blood and brain matter flew everywhere.  John dropped to his knees in the mud, unable to move, staring into the remains of the man’s face.

     Peter and Tim slipped from their hiding places.  Tim quickly crossed the alley to find the pistols.  Peter turned away from the dead men and vomited loudly several times.  Fenton stood wordlessly staring at both men he had just shot.  His arms were still extended with his hands wrapped around the handle of the weapon.  Slowly, he lowered his arms.

     Several people from the pub ran to the entrance of the alley.  Seeing what had just transpired, they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.  Tim found both pistols and stuffed one in his belt and handed the second to Liam.  “Get the ammunition!” he snapped at the Walsh brothers.

     Peter spat and moved to the side of the man who was shot in the chest.  He reached under his coat and found the pouch containing the man’s spare cartridges.  Jerking the leather container roughly off the deadman’s belt, he clipped it precariously to the top of his trousers, under his shirt.

     John crawled through the bloody mud to fetch the ammunition off the body of the agent laying before him.  He wanted to follow his brother’s example and vomit, but he could not.  His belly was on fire as he dug at the dead agent’s corpse.  Retrieving the bounty, he tossed it to Tim and stood, turning his back to the dead man.

     “Let’s go,” Tim hissed, running back the way they came.

     Peter looked panic stricken toward his brother as they followed their leader down the alleyway.  They ran as fast as they could, intentionally not looking at the first man they had killed.  Taking the most direct path out of town, they found the road back to their house.

     The rain began once again in earnest as John and Peter parted from the other lads and headed toward home.  They took off at a fast trot, trying both to escape the rain and leave the events of town far behind them.  Silently they ran, splashing through the standing puddles of rain and mud on the narrow lane.  Both lads breath steamed thickly in the cold air.

     Lightening flashed nearby, followed by a loud boom of thunder.  John’s lungs were ablaze and his body ached with fatigue.  Still he ran, only wanting to be next to the warm turf fire at home.  His stomach still felt sick as images of dead men plagued the lad’s consciousness.

     Peter suddenly tripped over something in the road.  He fell astraddle the muddy lane with a huff.  John stopped, breathing heavily, to help his brother.  Peter rolled over into a sitting position, clutching at his ankle.  “Damn my carelessness!” he cursed, grimacing at the pain.

     John reached down to help the lad to his feet.  “Come on,” he offered, “I will help you home.”

     Peter grasped his brother’s hand and stood painfully to feet.  Trying to take a step, he almost fell back into the mud.  John wrapped his arm around the lad’s shoulder as a brace.

     “Is it broken?” John asked, compassionately.

     Peter moved his ankle around gingerly, holding it in the air in front of him.  “No,” he replied, “just twisted the hell out of it.”  He put his foot back on the ground and took a light step.  The grimace on his face showed his pain.

     Peter stepped out of John’s grasp and took several more steps on the sore ankle.  “I just need a few minutes to walk it off,” he informed John through his clenched teeth.  “I will be all right soon.”

     “Take your time,” John responded.  “I will wait for you until you are able to walk better.”

     “No, brother,” Peter replied, “go on home.  There is no need for both of us to be standing in this pouring rain.  I will be right behind you.”

     “I cannot leave you out here like this,” John declared.  “Come sit on the edge of the road for a few moments and then we will head home.”

     “Please, John, go on home and make sure the fire is warm.  I am going to be cold when I get home.”  Peter limped around the narrow lane, trying to work the soreness out of his twisted ankle.

     “All right,” John answered, eyeing his brother unsurely.  “I will wait up for you.  If you are not soon behind me, I am coming back for you.”  With a nod from Peter, the lad set out at a run once again for home.   At this pace, he could be home in fifteen or twenty minutes.

     The rain diminished as John ran through the gap in the stone fence in front of their cottage.  Feeling the mud caked into his hair and clothes, he ran straight to the water trough on the side of the house.  The lad decided to just get in, clothes and all.  After all, he was already drenched to the bone in the soaking rain.

     He shivered, plunging under the cold water.  Running his fingers through his hair a couple of times under water, he resurfaced, taking a long, sharp breath.  The lad stepped out of the wooden trough and sprinted for the warmth of the dark cottage.

     John quietly pulled the door open and stepped inside.  A low fire still burned on the coals in the hearth.  Everyone was asleep and, except for the light from the fireplace, the room was quiet and dark.

     He slipped out of his wet clothing and laid them on the stones of the hearth.  Retrieving a blanket off the straw mat at the rear of the room, John covered his naked body.  Joseph snorted from his pallet on the opposite side of the room.

     Quietly, the lad placed a couple more peat logs on the glowing coals.  He sat beside the kindling fire to try and chase the rawness from his bones.  Peter should be along in a few more minutes, so he would rest his weary body until he arrived.  Leaning back against the warm stone wall of the fireplace, John closed his eyes and was soon fast asleep.

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