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 Chapter 9

     John awoke with a start.  The predawn light spilled dimly through the small window in the room, giving everything an eerie glow.  The lad’s neck ached and the back of his head had no feeling from sleeping against the hard, rock fireplace all night.  Snippets of nightmares still plagued his mind, clouding any clear thoughts.

     He stood up slowly, wrapping the blanket he had slept with tightly around his unclothed body.  John stretched stiffly, the cold rain, physical exertion and emotional trauma of the previous night had taken its toll.  His whole body began to ache from the abuse.

     Stretching hugely once more, the lad reached for his clothing that lay before the low embers of the hearth.  Thank God they were dry.  He dressed himself quickly as he heard rustling in the back room.  Eileen must be getting out of bed, he thought, buttoning his shirt.

     A weak shaft of sunlight appeared on the wall across the room from John.  At least the rain has stopped, the lad surmised.  Suddenly, a thought of Peter crossed his mind.  When did he get home, John wondered, I must have been dead asleep not to have heard him come in!

     Eileen entered the room, heading immediately out the front door to relieve herself.  The door shut noisily, waking Joseph.  Their father rolled over, rustling the pallet of hay, as he tried to stay asleep.  The ray of sunlight on the far wall grew brighter, lighting the corner where Peter’s straw pallet lay.  John glanced toward the pallet, fully expecting his brother to be sound asleep, curled up against the breaking morning.  However, it was empty.

     Where could Peter be?  A feeling of dread took him.  Maybe he just got up early and left the house.  No, his pallet was not slept in.  The blanket was just as he left it yesterday.  John’s breath caught in his throat.  Something was definitely amiss.  His stomach grumbled loudly for lack of food and harsh physical activity.  But, he did not have time to eat, he had to find his brother.  John slipped on his mud caked shoes, tying them so that the broken seams could not come any farther apart.

     James coughed deeply in the back room.  The young lad moaned slightly and coughed again.  “Eileen,” he called weakly, “I have got to go, Eileen.”

     John looked toward the door.  He hoped James was all right.  Hell, he hoped both his brothers were all right.  Unfortunately, he had to go out and search for Peter right then, there was no time to care for his littlest brother.

     Swiftly making his way to the exit, John almost knocked Eileen over as they met face to face in the doorway.  John stepped aside and let his sister enter the cottage.  “James is calling for you,” he informed her quietly.

     “Where would you be off to so early in the morning?” Eileen replied, questioningly.  “You must have just gotten home not long ago.”  A sour expression covered the lasses face.

     “I will tell you later,” he responded, quickly stepping through the doorway.  “I have got something I have to do right now.”  Without another word, the lad sped out of the door and toward the gate.  John turned toward town and set a brisk pace down the soggy road.

     “Do you not want breakfast?” she called after him.

     “Later.”  John answered, calling loudly over his shoulder.  The worried lad turned his attention back down the lane toward town.  He would walk as far as where he had left his brother the night before.  If he could not find him on the road, there were several abandoned cottages on the way.  That is probably it, the lad thought, attempting to calm himself, Peter probably hurt his ankle more than he would confess and made his way to an abandoned cottage alongside the road somewhere.

     That idea made more sense to the lad than anything else he could think of.  He would have to keep an eye out for any signs of life as he passed each of the ruined houses.  Bright streaks of sun darted to earth between the rolling, puffy clouds, giving the ripening grain a golden hue.

     A slight breeze rustled the leaves noisily in the trees next to the road.  Autumn was getting close with September just around the corner.  It looks like the crops will be ready a little early this year, he thought, keeping his errant mind busy as he made his way down the lane.  A chilly breeze tousled his dark hair, sending a chill up the lad’s spine.

     Passing by an abandoned cottage, John decided to investigate for his brother.  He turned off the road and pushed open the door to the one roomed hovel.  The portal swung open with a loud squeak.  The place was not much more than four dilapidated mud walls and the remains of a caved in straw roof.  Peering inside the shadowy shanty, he found the structure empty.

     He attempted to kick the mud off of his feet on the wooden door post.  The motion caused another large section of thatch to fall roughly to the floor.  John jumped with a start.  His heart raced as a gasp caught in his throat.  Recognizing what had happened, he took a long, deep breath and returned to the road.

     A line of dark clouds appeared on the horizon, blocking the sun.  They boiled as if in a cailleach’s vat.  A heavy gust of wind rustled the leaves around him once again, promising another miserable, wet day.  John looked disgustedly at the cloud mass and shook his head.  He hoped he could find Peter before the rain started again.

     A far distant roll of thunder brought a smirk to the lad’s face.  Or was it thunder?  The sound kept rolling and getting louder.  “Holy Jesus!” he swore aloud and jumped to the side of the road.  A long line of horses overtook him from behind, mounted by a whole platoon of Dragoons.

     John’s heart leapt into his throat and his breathing raced.  It was too late to run, they were right on his tail.  What should he do?  The lad stood deathly still on the curb of the narrow lane.  He knew he was done for.  The squadron of soldiers was no doubt called in after the killing of the three agents last night.  Now they would be out for blood.

     The lad’s knees quaked as the riders approached.  He watched them arrive in front of him, rigid with fear and completely unable to move.  He was as good as dead.

     The soldiers reined as they pulled beside him.  Four Dragoons dismounted and rapidly surrounded the lad.  “Where you headed, boy?” the leader of the group asked gruffly, still seated in his saddle.

     John opened his mouth but nothing would come out.  “I. . .,” he started and choked.  “I was trying to find some work,” the lad finally spit out, coming up with the best excuse he could find.  “My family is hungry and my little brother’s sick.  We need food, can you give us some?”  He looked up at the soldier with begging eyes.  Weakly, he held out his hand toward one of the soldiers surrounding him.

     The soldier spat on the Irish lad, grasped him tightly by the arm and shoved him into the side of a horse.  The empty, hanging stirrup knocked his breath out of him and a rivet in the heavy saddle gouged his lip.  The Dragoon then kicked John’s feet apart and roughly frisked him.  Next, the Englishman grasped John by the scruff of his neck and shoved him, face first, onto the muddy road.

     “Irish scum,” the man spat.  He shook his head negatively at the Lieutenant that lead the group.  The soldier then stepped back toward his horse, followed by the rest of the dismounted Dragoons.  John fought to his knees, still gasping for breath.  Blood dripped from his lip as he shook his head to try and regain his senses.

     “Get home, boy,” the Lieutenant commanded.  “Tell the rest of your Irish bastard relatives that we will find the damnable white apes that murdered her Majesty’s Agents last night!  You hear me?”  The leader’s horse spun around in the street.  “And when we do,” he continued, bringing his steed back around to face the roughed up lad. “every last one will hang by their bleeding, grimy necks until they are dead!”
 The lieutenant spurred his horse down the road.  The animal took off like a shot, narrowly missing trampling John.  The Irish lad forced himself to quickly roll off the muddy road, dodging horses hooves as they flew by.

     John moaned and spat out a mouthful of blood as he watched the mud spattered Scarlet backs of the soldiers retreat down the lane.  “Sweet Brigid,” he said aloud, “I hope they do not have Peter!”  He shivered heavily with a combination of cold and fear.

     What should he do, John wondered?  Looking both ways down the lane, he needed to make up his mind.  Should he keep looking for his brother or return home?  John spat again and struggled to his feet.  His ribs were already sore from the rough handling, making every breath painful.

     The lad turned and rammed his fist at the backs of the distant soldiers.  “Damned English dogs!” John mumbled under his breath.  “I hope you all go to hell!”  He spat toward the Dragoons once more and followed the soldiers path.

     He was not far from where he had left his brother.  He would just go that far and turn around back home.  John wiped the crusting blood off his lip, grasped his aching chest and set off at a brisk walk.

     Reaching the spot where he had last seen Peter, John poked around through the weeds that grew on the sides of the lane.  There was no sign of his brother.  The recently passing horses of the Dragoons had eradicated any kind of footprint or other such sign in the soft mud of the roadway.

     Several abandoned cottages stood nearby.  They would need to be checked.  No matter the apparent danger, John was determined to find his family member.  There was no other reasonable option.  After all, he felt fully responsible for leaving him injured in the middle of the roadway.

     The worried lad hopped a low, moss covered stone fence and headed toward the first structure.  There was no sign that it had been inhabited for quite some time.  The door of the empty, one room house was off its hinges, laying askew against the outside of the cottage.  Brushing a large cobweb aside from the opening, John stepped inside.  Several large mice scurried away when the lad entered, disappearing under the stone walls.

     John grimaced at his lack of discovery and left the structure.  Light rain began to fall from the darkening clouds overhead.  At least the weather should afford a wee bit of protection for his search of the surrounding countryside..

     The lad moved to the next structure with similar results.  Frustrated, he scanned the nearby countryside and chose the closest of the remaining three cottages nearby.  The lad set a track for the small building.

     Entering the small structure, an all too familiar stench greeted him at the door.  John’s heart skipped a beat.  He stuck his head through the opening and was greeted by the rotting remains of someone’s unfortunate pooch.  The carcass seemed to have been butchered like a hog.  What has our world come to when our people have to kill and eat their own pets to stay alive? he wondered sadly.

     Beginning to feel his search was in vain, the lad decided to return home.  Peter might already be there anyway, he thought.  And here I am trudging around in the rain and mud!  John looked up into the billowing clouds and set out toward home.

     He would have to be careful on his return trip.  His first confrontation with a group of soldiers had been successful, but another might no be so.  John walked quickly down the edge of the lane, ready at any sign of trouble to slip behind a nearby stone fence or patch of weeds.  He kept his eyes wide open all around, constantly watching over his shoulder so as not to be taken again by surprise.

     Several rounds of gunfire sounded in the distance, far behind him.  He had become all too acquainted with that sound.  At least the shots were opposite the direction he was headed.  The lad had no desire to be involved in more shenanigans right then.

     John quickened his pace a step in response to the sound.  No need to tempt fate, he surmised.  A wet gust of chilled wind predicated a heavy rain shower coming his way.  Thunder began to roll in the distance and the temperature began to drop noticeably.  The lad clutched at his sore ribs and set off at a trot.

     The rain was puddling deeply as John arrived back at his cottage.  The sweet smell of burning peat signaled the warmth waiting within.  He ran for the door, splashing through the grassy front yard of the house.

     Joseph and Eileen sat across from each other at the little table before the fireplace as John entered the room.  There was still no sign of Peter.  The fire in the hearth was the only light in the room against the dark overcast of the rainy day.  John shivered and stood dripping at the door.

     “Where you been, son?” Joseph asked roughly.  “Where is your brother, Peter?”

     John looked dumbly at his father.  He did not have the heart to relay his story.  “I do not know,” the shivering lad answered truthfully.  “I have not seen him this morning.”

     Eileen stared silently into the burning fireplace as John moved closer to warm himself.  “How is James?” he asked, remembering the young lad’s cough, and call for Eileen, earlier that morning.

     Eileen looked sadly up at him.  “He is not doing well at all,” she answered quietly.  “His fever is high and he can keep nothing in his stomach.”

     “And today the agents will be back for their rent money,” Joseph added, disgustedly.  “They will probably have soldiers with them and evict us without a thought for the wee one.”  His eyes were red with worry and sadness.  The man’s body slumped heavily, obviously feeling no recourse but to give up.

     John opened his mouth to tell his father that the agents definitely would not be coming today, but thought better of it.  “Maybe the weather will keep them away for the day,” he offered instead.

     “I pray to the Holy Mother that be true,” Joseph answered softly.  “But, ‘tis inevitable that we are forced out anyway.  Unless God in Heaven sees fit to give us a month or so to get our crops out of the field.”

     “Stranger things have happened,” John commented, staring into the fire and rubbing his hands in the warmth.

     Eileen looked oddly at her brother.  “I need to check on James,” she replied, slipping off her stool and toward the back door of the room.  “Your lip is bleeding, brother,” she added flippantly over her shoulder, disappearing through the doorway.

     A loud clap of thunder shook the little window.  Several drops of rain had began working their way through the old thatched roof, dripping with a splat onto the dirt floor.  John wiped the blood from his lip with the side of his hand and stepped closer to the bright fire.  He then ran his fingers through his dripping hair, trying to squeeze out some of the rainwater.  The hungry lad picked up a small piece of day old bread from the table and began to eat.

     The sound of horses hooves splashing up to their door gave John a start.  His heart began to pound in his sore chest.  He looked over at his father, who sat silently in front of the bright fire.  Joseph had not moved from his spot all day.  The deluge had finally let up, becoming only a fine drizzle after a long day of soaking rain.

     John and Eileen looked nervously at each other.  However, Joseph either did not seem to notice the sound or really did not care.  Eileen jumped up and rushed to the little window, peering worriedly through the dirty glass.

     “‘Tis the Constable,” she replied, a slight look of relief easing her facial expression.  “No agents with him.”

     Joseph turned his gaze off the fire and toward his daughter.  “The Constable?” he inquired curiously.  “What could he want on a day like this?  Will he be the one to evict us?”  The man dragged himself off his stool and plodded to the door.

     “Joseph, Joseph Walsh!” the Constable called loudly from outside, still mounted on his horse.  “Come out here, I have news for you.”

     Opening the door slowly, Joseph prepared himself for the inevitable.  “Hello, Edward,” he greeted the Constable quietly.  “What could bring you out here on a stormy day such as this?”     Both men had grown up in this village, just in different social circles.  Still, they were familiar enough with one another to be cordial.  There had even been a few occasions between the men that could be described as friendly encounters.

     “I am afraid I have your son, Peter, in my jail,” the lawman answered seriously.  His watered down English accent denoted his family’s long tie with this country.  The man remained true to the Crown, but also seemed to feel the plight of the people around him.

     Joseph’s jaw dropped.  “Peter?” he started with a gasp.  “Why.  What did he do?”
 The Constable dismounted from his horse, walking toward the startled man with grave concern showing on his face.  “There were three agents of Lord Winfrey who were murdered last night,” he began.  “Seems a few lads ambushed them behind Callahan’s Pub and clubbed and shot them to death.”

     Joseph listened intently, his eyes wide with disbelief.  How could his son have been involved in murder?  “Are you sure it was Peter?” he interrupted.

     Edward took a deep breath and continued his story.  “We are unsure of your son’s participation in the killings.  But, one of my deputies found him on this road last night, after the murders, with one of the agent’s cartridge belt on his person.”  He stopped to wipe the rain off of his forehead with a kerchief pulled from his trouser pocket.

     Thunder rolled again ominously in the distance as the Constable tucked the cloth back into his pants pocket.  Joseph rocked with anticipation, dumbstruck with the sudden news.  Eileen stood pressed tightly against her father’s back, listening intently to the Constable.  She was visibly shaken, her face twisted with emotional agony.

     The Constable looked up into the darkening clouds, then continued his information.  “There is a grain of good news on your son’s behalf, however.  We have evidence that your son did not actually kill any of the men.  It is suspected that one of the O’Toole clan was the actual killer.  He, himself was shot and killed today by Dragoons after they found him with the agent’s weapon.  The lad tried to shoot his way out of the jam, but was unsuccessful.”  The lawman retrieved his kerchief once more to blot his wet forehead.

     “What. . .what does that mean for my son?” Joseph stammered, taken with the news.  He stared wild eyed at the Constable.

     “It means that I think I can keep your son from hanging,” Edward answered solemnly.  “The leaders of this group will surely be hanged when we get them in custody.  But, as for your son, I think I can prevent that.  However, I do not think I can keep him from being sent to Botany Bay Colony.”

     Joseph’s arms dropped limply to his side.  His knees were visibly weakened and he almost sagged to the ground.  “Botany Bay?” he responded emotionally.  “I will never see me son again!”

     “Aye, Joseph,” Edward responded sadly, “but, he will be alive.  That is the best I can do.  The army wanted to hang him immediately, but I intervened and got a trial for him with a Barrister I know very well.  I can arrange his transport to Australia, but since he was caught with the cartridges, it implicates him directly with the crime.  That is the best we can hope for.”

     Leaning heavily against the door post, Joseph broke into a heavy sob.  “Holy Mother of God!” he cried.  “How could this happen to us?”

     Eileen wailed loudly to match her father.  She crossed herself, trembling greatly, almost unable to stand.  John still stood before the fire, suddenly thrown into deep shock.  He could hardly breathe, let alone cry.  His whole body and brain went numb.  He had let his brother down.  How could he have left him injured like he did?

     “Can I see him?” Joseph asked shakily.

     “No, at least not directly,” the lawman replied, grief shaking his voice.  “I will see if I can arrange something, at least get a message to the lad.”

     “At least tell him we love him,” Eileen broke in.  “Tell him we are thinking of him!”

     “I will be sure to do that,” Edward responded quietly.  “I must get back to the village.”  He looked again to the dark clouds overhead.  Without another word, he strode back to his horse and remounted.  The Constable spun the steed out to the lane and back toward town.

     Joseph and Eileen stared after the lawman in silence.  Another clap of thunder rumbled loudly through the sky.  Large drops of rain began to splatter in the deep puddles in front of the house.

     Joseph dragged himself back into the cottage and collapsed onto the stool by the fire.  He stared silently into the flames for several minutes.  Looking up at John, who stood beside him, he asked, “What do you know about this?”

     John grimaced and looked away from his father.  His eyes met Eileen’s.  The lass stared questioningly at him from across the room.  The lad’s heart felt as if it were about to rupture.  Tears began to roll down his cheek.  Turning back toward his father, he began, “Peter took me with him to meet with a few lads he knew a week or two ago. . . .”  He was numb as he related the story as best he could to his father.

     The heavy rain began to filter through the roof once again, dripping as though setting time with the story.  Joseph listened quietly to his son.  At the end, he turned back to the fire and stared wordlessly into the flickering flames.  “I thought I taught my sons better than this,” he spoke to no one in particular.  “Now I lose everything.”

     James coughed deeply in the back room.  “Eileen,” he cried weakly, “where are you?”

     “Coming,” the lass replied sweetly.  She shot a glance of vehemence toward John and slipped into the other room.

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