A First Draft of an Early Chapter in My Next Novel
Chapter 2: James and Emma come to America
James trudged up the battered staircase, stepping lightly lest his bulk pierce the weakened boards. True to form, when he reached his third floor hovel the door stuck and he had to lift it on its hinges to wrest it open.
Inside, Emma was not to be seen but she’d left a trail of red rose petals across the threadbare carpet to show him the way to the bedroom. Whatever hand maiden’s devilry she’d done to get these roses in this foul town…, no, he quickly shoved the thought to the back of his mind. He’d hoped to find her waiting to hear of his day.
His upcoming fight was most pressing. Casting about for a handle to help affirm his decision to tell her now or later was shortcoming. The ripped torn sofa, the chair with its cane seat blasted through, the faded curtains over the unwashed sink clogged high with pots and dishes and fouled remains; none of these cured his laments. If he shared with her the threats of the bullies and gunnies from the Shadowed Lantern – a pub formerly second home to him – her mood would be broken. But if he didn’t she might accuse him of holding out, robbing her of the one thing broken women always accuse a man of.
It wasn’t until he saw the picture they’d had drawn by a roadside artist of the two of them at their happiest moment, all hugs and smiles, after the big heist in Lancashire, when they’d run off afterwards to hide out in the sea town of Holly Nobs and spend some of their loot alone, in peace. She always kept that picture to remind her of what she thought they could be.
These days it sat in a stained wooden frame, its corner broken and missing one of its little carved dragons feet, making it stand slightly askew, the glass cracked across their bodies in a ghastly gash, reflecting their broken life on the run, from small job to small job, collecting James’s prizes from bare knuckled jousts, his own way of kicking in, and then while he was recovering it’d be Emma leaving to clean a wealthy ladies house, who’d get robbed when a few months later they were short of cash again; and then they’d move elsewhere.
The picture itself was barely smudged despite its spoiled surroundings. His mind made up, he ran his fingers through his unkempt hair and wiped the alcohol from the corners of his mouth; James unbridled his suspenders, letting them dangle like reins from his waist and his shirt slipped to the rotted floor.
He drew three sharp breaths to pump up his prideful chest, one of Emma’s favorite features of his, one of, speaking to himself softly, “Aye Emma, I love thee,” then gently nodding in private reassurance as he strutted to the back, unbuckling his pants as he went, he brayed earnestly louder, “Honey, I love what you’ve done with these flowers.”
* * *
Emma lay on the bed wearing nothing but red rose petals covering her womanly parts. She’d heard James come in and lay waiting for her man. When he finally rounded the corner letting his pants crumple to floor, she looked in his eyes and frowned. His face was busted up like a rotten tomato, his cheeks purpled and black, one eye had a cut which would eventually scar.
“Oh no James,” she winced. “Not again.”
Since she’d met him as a child of eight, he’d come to her for succor again and again.
“They were just trying to make their point. It was me having some difficulty seeing it through Emmie. You can’t blame them.” His one eye dropped as he said it, and Emma knew it was a lie. He’d always made excuses for the rough and tumble life he led. He prodded on, “I’ll have another talk with them tomorrow,” as if they’d give him the opportunity for any sort of negotiation.
* * *
As a girl, she hadn’t know he’d seen her in the marketplace, nor that he’d found her beautiful enough to follow home, not then. Not till years later would he confide his feelings. All she knew for certain the first time she met young Jimmy MacParlan was he’d been beaten up by a group of bullies for not wanting to play the cripple in a pickpocket sham. ‘If you won’t play one,’ they’d threatened, ‘then we’ll make you one.’ They’d taken him bad and left him behind some ash cans. And that’s where her Da’ found him, and he carried James into their house and into her life.
The next day, when he could walk, he made his way from the guest room to the kitchen, trying to conceal his amazement at their luxury. She watched him from the piano bench in the formal living room. She thought he might be handsome under the bruises he still bore, especially if he were shown how to comb the cowlicks out of his hair. He didn’t know she was there. When he went past the foyer table and gawked at a candlestick holder, its brass shined to a flaming golden hue, he tried to stuff it into the pocket of his ragged shorts. But he couldn’t conceal it well enough. Its stem either shot loose below his hem or the heavy base kept escaping the confines of the top of his pocket. He struggled briefly with pulling his shirt out to cover it and adjusting his stomach by puffing it out and sucking it in as if he could remake his body to hide it. Neither worked and Emma had to suppress a laugh from her hiding spot down the hall. Finally he gave up on stealing the candle holder, haphazardly replacing it and instead took the little ivory snuff box laying nearby and then limped away from his heist to search the rest of the house, and Emma trailed after him.
She caught him in the kitchen, glaring into the cutlery drawer in the way a pirate might look at a captured prize. When she coughed he froze, but didn’t jump, and recapturing his dignity closed the drawer, demanding, “I wan’t liftin anyfing.”
Emma pretended not to care and waltzed by him close enough to let her skirt brush his leg while she grabbed some sweetbreads from the pantry. “Never said you were.” She let the boy – she didn’t yet know his name – watch her as she gathered her snack. She’d prepared for his stares by wearing one of her good dresses, the white and pink one with the big bow in back. Once settled she took a big bite from the meatiest part of the bread. She dared a glance to see if he was staring at her but instead saw he was glaring at the food. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Maybe just a crumb,” he confessed pulling up to the table. She pushed him over the food. He sat awkwardly; as if unsure the plate might be yanked away from him.
“Go ahead,” she urged and he leapt onto the plate, letting both hands grab the bread, shoving it into his mouth in deep gulping bites. She giggled and he stopped briefly to shoot her a puffy lidded glance. When her giggling continued, so did his feasting and forever more Emma knew she could take care of this bruised boy.
* * *
Years later, on one of the raunchiest docks of London’s lowest wharfs…
Captain Pol Janka’s dead gray eye was razored red, still festering from the claw wounds and deserved an eye patch but he refused to cover his favorite battle scar. He enjoyed the power it gave him. It and his pepper-corned hair offset nicely his lack of charm, keeping his foes at bay.
How did the man sleep?
James MacParlan was no foe. He be a paying customer, naeventually, and he needed a service. He’d returned late, after a long day working piecemeal on the docks, walking hurriedly over loosely shadowed spillways, their murky blackness swallowing lamp lit islands where a few deliberate men gathered here and there. He’d returned to the lower wharves of London this night to talk to Janka aboard the Portuguese ship Sanctus Spiritus, hoping the heinous tales were exaggerated rumors. Standing opposite Janka now, James watched the jaundiced looking coppery Captain with the vicious eye peel an orange, dropping the colorful rind and despoiling its freshness with the seamless filth of the ship. James knows the main to be soulless, a banshee forever on the backside of Joss.
Earlier, James and a friend had argued over calling the Spiritus a ‘coffin ship’ and warning James to stay away from it. The Portuguese didn’t obey English law outside of England and Portugal profitably neglected to forbid the practice. The best of these merchant princes dubbed themselves Privateers and doubled, may haps tripled the profits of their runs. Captain Pol Janka was no prince. If there were another ship James could go to he would. But the Sanctus Spiritus was the only ship offering the still barely legal practice of indentured servitude and the final nail, it was leaving on the week end.
“Why you want get to Amelica?” Janka asked, sounding more Asian than European. One eye blinks. The other stares.
“Can you get me there?”
“Maybe. How you pay?”
“How much?” James was used to bartering on the docks. They haggle and settle on just a little more than half. But James needs insurance he’s ill to afford.
“What if I needed to get there and I dinna have the money?” James asked.
Janka spit onto the deck. “I could still get you out of England. But not to land of free.” A sneer underlines the caustic eye.
“How long?” Inwardly James flinches.
“What about for two?”
Janka shrugs, “Fi’ year each.”
James knows his next words will become rocks tied to his ankles. “Three.”
“Four. Who’s second servant?”
‘Servant’ pinched James nerves. “My woman.”
“How about she do all the work for only two year?” Janka chuckles, laughing lightly at the absurdly cold honesty of his proposal.
Getting out of England is more important than this shite. “We’ll either have the money or work the four,” he declares. For the love of Joss, his way had to swing soon. Either, or, unless fortune presents itself come Saturday, he and Emma be aboard this floating stench pot for nae two months.
One problem solved.
* * *
Back in her girlhood kitchen…
“Go ahead,” she urged and he leapt onto the plate, letting both hands shove the tasty bread into his mouth. She giggled.
“What?” he asked.
“The way you eat?
He didn’t flinch. “Well at least I don’t snort.”
“Emma,” a man’s voice shouted from the second floor. Its second calling was louder, coming down stairs, “Sarah Emma Thompson. Are you down here?” It was her Da’ wanting her for the daily Bible read.
“Tell him you want work,” she told the hungry boy. “He’ll think better of you and let you come around more.”
It was good advice and it worked. Within a few years they’d grown from childhood friends, to confidants, and as they attained pubescence – lovers.
He was everything Emma’s Dad wasn’t. When she thought of James MacParlan she thought of adventure and was certain he would not be a boring life. Although she knew good and well she’d have to sacrifice a nice home and the comfortable fireside, most of her friends would never travel more than a few miles from where they grew up; but not her. There was a new world opening up out there and she’d heard about women’s groups demanding the same rights as men. And, there were inventions of all types being manufactured faster than ever before in history. Some people claimed there was more information printed on presses every day than was known about Gods Green Earth in its entirety only a hundred years ago. And Freedom unlike anything ever offered in humanity’s lifeline. Over time, he let her read to him and he tried to pronounce the words. Still, she was guarded. One day, James came late to do gardening chores and arrived in the yard only a little bit before her Da’ came home for the day. Mom had already helped some other starving men out by letting them do his work.
When James got there he was looking about for anything to do but nae thing needed doan, then the good Dr. Thompson showed up and rubbed James head, mistakenly thinking James had done all the chores. “A fine job today young man. You’re getting better at it too. You hardly look dirty at all.” Then her Da’ pulled a two shilling coin from his waistcoat and gave it to James.
Emma was secretly watching James again as it happened. Only this time he never saw her. He did look at the coin though. It was as if she knew what he was thinking. As her Da’ started off, James stopped him and gave him back his coin. James confided the truth to the man. When Dr. Thompson heard the honesty, he thanked James, rewarding him with an invitation to dinner and welcoming him formally into the house.
* * *
She lay back on the rose petals and the shadow of James walks in to the darkened room. His pants fall to the floor.
For weeks she’d known something was up. But now, all she wants is one more perfect moment before the next jump. She gives up thinking about it and they make love.
Afterwards, she gets up and puts on a robe. Rose petals cling in her hair.
“What’d they have you do?” Emma asks, purposely not staring at his bruised face.
“Turley thinks he can convince me into not mincing up Bill Mallory.”
“He did a fine job of it too,’ Emma accuses.
On the table next to James is a large brown book atop a pad of paper. He thumbs the cover, letting the pages ripple down his forefingers. Joss wasn’t offering an easy path. In spite of all this, James is positivistic in leaving, beyond escaping another pounding by Turley’s henchmen. He tries to joke, “But you know how I am about me lessons?”
“Do you mean the hard part? Or the, ‘I can’t get this stuff into your head with a mallet part?” She finally looks him in the face and sees his ‘I’ve got something I have to tell you’ look. She’s seen that face every time they have to jump to a new locale. It crushes her. But she knew it was coming and Emma decides to let James MacParlan tell her all about their next step as he sees it.
“I don’t know about the servitude Jimmie. That part scares me.” Scares and intrigues – she doesn’t say.
“You’re the very last option love. I figure we go through it like this and I’ll take the worst step first. First is, I do as Turley wants. Probably not. But I can’t totally dismiss it as an option. Second is we don’t do it, in which case…”
Emma picked up the thread. “…in which case we don’t want to stick around and see how it pans out in any case. Why can’t we sign up as a couple?”
“Captain Janka says there’s no buyer for a married couple. But he swears he can keep us in the same area, probably to the same buyer.” He lowers his voice to an excited whisper. “It’s our chance Emmie. We’ll be afoot in the new world, finally.”
“Yes, but we won’t be free.”
“Few really are love,” he justifies, “even there. But we’ll be able to keep a good eye on the end of the rainbow. It’s within sight from the moment we get there.”
“I don’t know James.”
At least we agree on this, James thinks. Whenever it got like this between him and Emma, James would inevitably forget some of her schooling. “We’re better off’n it looks love. Let’s just make some contingency plans, just in case like. We shouldn’t be shy on money no matter what. We’re poor but we’re not broke.” In these words he showed his small hard spot to Emma, a spot he’d usually hide from her if he could. “We be doan’nough already to cover one. Living like this is crap. It’s bonkers. But I’ve shoved a wee bit’ a ducats aside for us to journey on. I was hopin’ you’d done the same and we could cover at least one of us. We sell what little junk’s worth anyfing and we might be further along than we know. But we’ve got’a commit.”
“And you’ll protect me no matter what?”
“If anyone has to be indentured it’ll be me. The way we set it won’t even happen.”
He knew she was Joss with the idea when it shot up her nose and got caught. She held it balanced like a plate on a stick and when she cocked her head forward they were together. All in the time it takes to flip a coin.
“What can we do on the fight then?” Emma asks. Quicker than James in some regards, she grimaces at their belongings. “We haven’t got much. We couldn’t fill more than a cart with junk and still not gain a shilling. Still since we’re gambling with our savings and our future, what’s one more wager? We might as well make some extra, and how do we stage our exit?”
“Me bonny girl,” James smiles, “what do ye think of the number 8?”
* * *
The bell rang for the 6th round and two sweaty, messy men stumbled to the center of the ring. Their muscles covered in sheen of perspiration. Their fists cocked in front of them ready. Both fighters were hitting each other hard. They were beaten and bruised but standing. The crowd in the converted warehouse is thirty men deep from the shabby ring to the pale rough wooden walls which penned clouds of hazy cigar smoke mere inches over everyone’s heads. The first half dozen spectators were the ringleaders of the fight and sat in chairs. Them and everyone else, even the two pence entrants who got splinters from squeezing in and standing in the back were getting their money’s worth.
Jab. Jab. Punch. Punch.
Bill Mallory is a plenty right Wally. He seems stupid because of a gap in his front teeth but he is nae dumb. All the same, laying down for him wasn’t Joss.
Punch. Punch. Whack.
James takes three ferocious blows to the head. He recovers, dancing around while Bill swipes a wild left. Big Bill chooses his moment and snaps James 4 quick rib shots. They separate and Bill sneaks another couple punches in on James.
Punch. Wham. Wham. Wham
James follows up with a right and two big lefts. Bills steam is ebbing. He comes in for a third barrage. The two boxers swing jaw to jaw, trying to knock each other’s off. James gets Big Bills number. His punch, at best come in bunches of four. Big Bill can’t throw more than four without adjusting his balance or taking a breath. James wished it was three. Four is forefront in his awareness. James – the Tawny Rock – MacParlan and “Big” Bill Mallory pummel for the delight of the crowd another dozen punches, and a half dozen more, four at a time.
The bell pries them apart.
Between rounds, both fighters are given cold water and a towel. Their hands bleed. Big dark patches are dotting their rib cages. The bell sounds again, announcing the start of the 7th.
Big Bill rushes to begin pounding James like a packing machine. Four punches. Four punches. James curls up to take Bill Mallory’s temperature. He’s tired. But so is James and he knows with being tired comes sloppiness. Picking his moment, James reminds the room why he’s called the Tawny Rock – because he can stand against the gale forces of nature, like Big Bill Mallory. A Rock. On the count of four, James steps back and to the side. Big Bill stumbles a half step forward, missing his target, catching open air where he expected resistance and falling into the hole where James was, allowing James to deliver a quick jab to the side of Bill’s head; knuckle on ear, cauliflower in the making..
Wham, and dance. Wham, and dance. Bill is a difficult tree. His feet are rooted. James doesn’t want to have to cream the fella. No choice. Time to make horseradish. He shouldn’t be doing this. He dances and he jabs. He connects again and again and keeps moving around the big man. Stop.
Bill snaps off an unnerving back hand, spinning James.
James catches himself mad.
Wham. Punch. Wham. Punch. WHAM. WHAM. WHAM. Playing is over. Not much sprawl. The last thought of Big Bill Mallory is “This is gonna hurt” and James’s fist crowds his vision. It’s all he can see or withstand. Bill topples over like an old growth fir reaped for royalty, all in one long solid fall.
The ringleaders rush onto the mat like banshee whores wanting to touch the flesh of the champion as the room erupts into a bulls market. James strains to see through the crowd looking for Emma. He spots Turley’s rough-hewn skinny face, now tomato red, angrily shouting orders at Blarney and the Edge to push through the crowd towards the back. They see Emma directly in their path and push through the chaos, jostling weaker men aside.
Arms are tugging at James, wanting to pat his back, wanting to piston his fists in the air. Everyone wants to congratulate him. He struggles through crowd; a salmon swimming upstream. It’s a slow motion nightmare and the Edge gets to Emma first. Blarney and Turley are close behind. They drag Emma into the back room. Escaping the last of the well wishers, James sprints to the back. The door to his room is closed and locked. Without hesitating, he throws his shoulder into it and bursts in in a heaving rush.
On the far side of the room, the Edge holds Emma with an arm lock across her neck. His free hand menacingly holds a long slender boning knife.
WHAM. James is knocked upside the head and slams into the wall on his left. Someone closes the door. Though his head rings like a church bell, through the fog James senses someone yelling.
It’s Turley. “Ya just couldn’t do as asked could ya?” He slaps James for emphasis and stands him back up by the back of his hair. “And we’s asking all nice like. Don’t you think we’s asking all nice like?”
In the uncomfortable silence, Blarney – as big as he is stupid – blurts, “I thought we’s asking all nice like Turley.”
“Shut up.” Turley to Blarney, “Hit him again.”
James bats away Blarneys first swing, and second, but he won’t last another fight. “Aint no use fighting it mate,” Blarney says. “I’ll get ya.”
James blocks one more and then Blarney connects to the jaw. “I told ya.”
When James recovers, he says, “So why aren’t you in the ring mate?”
Blarney shrugs, “I don’t like to hurt people. I can’t help it if I’m good at it. But no ones offered me an accountants job. If you get my meaning.”
“Aint that the truth,” the Edge says.
Turley paces angrily. “We gots to make a statement here. And I really really hates to make statements.”
“Why don’t you just leave us alone,” Emma shouts.
“Now where be the profit in that me gully girl?” Turley runs up into her face and spray while he shouts, “Where the fuck be the profit in that?”
“I’ll pay you a few shillings for a few minutes with this here bonny one,” Edge offers. He rubs his knife hand low and high on her waist, pausing on her nether regions. “I bet lots of blokes would.”
“We’ll see. We’ll see. I lost lots of money tonight Johnny.” Turley jerks a thumb at James who’s gotten himself together again. “What’ve you got to compensate me other than your lass?”
“Don’t know mate. I haven’t got much. Why do you think I fight in the first place?”
As if on cue, a knock on the busted door swings it open.
“James?” a man asks. “It’s me, Mr. Miller. Is it alright if I come in?”
“It’s not really a good time Mr. Miller.”
“I want to give you your winnings James.”
Turley whispers to James, “Let’s see what he’s got?” He motions for Blarney to pull open the door, then says with low-life hospitality, “Come on in sir.”
Mr. Miller is the rare retired fighter done well. He’s tall and though his lifestyle has placed a degree of fat over his once tone figure, he’s still formidable; a businessman with a butcher’s body. He’s well dressed and smokes a cigar the size of a corn cob. There’s a younger man equally big wearing familial face and similar dress – his son.
“Do come in,” Turley repeats.
“What’s going on here James?” Mr. Miller asks looking around.
“I’m having a bit of negotiations with me agent,” says James calmly. “He’s not really happy with our current contract.”
“So it seems,” says Mr. Miller noticing Emma and the Edge. “I gotta tell you James, I don’t fancy this kind of thing going on in my club. Bad for business it is and if you know me, you know I’m all about the business.”
“Now there’s a man I can talk to,” injects Turley, pulling a knife from his belt. “I think I like you Mr. Miller.”
“That’s interesting sir,” says Mr. Miller who motions to his son, “Jack put the sack down on the table.” All the eyes in the room focus on the heavy bag as it clinks down loudly, allowing Mr. Miller a moment to pull out his own weapon of choice; a gun, which his long arm stretches deliberately straight at Turleys head. “Because I don’t think I like you one bit.”
“Whoa. Whoa. WHOA.” Turley’s eyes cross on the gun muzzle kissing his forehead. “We had an arrangement James.”
“Take your girl and go James,” says Mr. Miller with business prim. “Me and Jack will clean up tonight.”
Turley inches towards the money. The gun follows. He stops. “Edge?” he asks. “You got a good hold on the lovely?”
“Good as Gold you might say boss.” The Edge tightens his grip around Emma’s waist, gouges his knife just enough into Emma’s neck to draw first blood.
She gasps, freezes.
Jack and Blarney square off to each other.
“Seems all you’ve got is me Mr. Miller.” Turley tries to step back from the gun. Mr. Miller presses. “Your boy Jack will be busy with me Blarney while the Edge’ll fix James’s missus with a new smile. Or we can just reach a new arrangement.” Turley slowly leans away from the muzzle.
Mr. Miller swings his gun to the Edge and draws a second weapon to reclaim his aim on Turley. “That’s why I brought back-up,” he says.
“You think you can get off all your shots afore we get in a couple sticks and jabs ourselves?” Turley asks. “Could be messy. Could be we get in more.”
Could be. Ya might be right,” says Mr. Miller. He shifts one gun to Turleys eye, with the other he straight arms at the Edge’s head. “But in me spare time, I’ve been practicing. Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t.”
A knife slips from Turley’s sleeve into his hand. “Whoa. Whoa. WHOA,” He yells again, lunging for Mr. Miller, sticking below the ribs.
The gun fires wide and blasts the bag of coins, showering the Edge in gold ingots. Emma uses the distraction to free herself. Blarney and Jack trade blows like two Vesuvius.
“You li’l prick,” Mr. Miller gasps, the knife handle still protruding from his side. He turns and shoots, opening a hole in Turley’s chest. Emma reaches James and he pulls her towards the door. The Edge is chasing Emma but pauses at the money table. Coins are spread out in a fan away from Mr. Miller who turns back to the Edge. The Edge sticks his own blade in Mr. Miller’s chest.
Emma slips from James and she grabs a fistful of coins.
The Edge grabs her wrists. “No you don’t lassie.”
James fist collides into Edge’s face, knocking him flat and excavating two teeth.
“Don’t touch her again mate.”
Emma grabs a second handful of coins and they run out, down the back hall, out a door into the alley, which leads to the street where they hail a carriage and head for the docks. As they climb in the carriage Emma says, “What happened to the 8th?”
“It’s nae a scientific method love.”
* * *
They’d been aboard nearly a month. Off in the distance is a thin strip of land.
“You put the chains on now,” Deni says. He’s a tall seaman with a bald head and muscles.
He hands James a set of manacles; Emma too.
“Are these really necessary?”
“It’s a big land. Too many places to run,” says Deni’s plainly.
Their coins were not enough to stave servitude and once they’d reached the ship they realized they couldn’t go back. They left all their belongings and any other savings back at their apartment.
In the hold of the Sanctus Spiritus most slept wherever. They bought a stable for privacy and kept telling themselves the Captain promised to guide their sale.
“Never know.” Deni waits as they put on the manacles. “You’ll be fine. Just a precaution.” At sea, Deni and James bonded one night while lulling above deck looking at the stars. Deni believed in Maat. It was a lot like Joss. He said he’d learned it from a 120 year old Madagascar man who claimed it the secret of longevity. Maat was embracing what will be and making the most of it while impacting the least. This was the highest form of life.
James had learned Joss from an older sailor. Joss was the breath of life. It was luck and skill all wrapped into one. It was what a man could make of himself and the world and how the world treated the man. It was everything and it was how it was.
In the states there’d be plenty of land and not many people. There’d always been the lowest rung: slaves, serfs, peasants, whatever the empire, there were those whose lives were tread upon by the rest. He’d had enough of that as a boxer. And while slaves were only good for day laboring, most didn’t speak English; yet an Indentured Servant, might know a skill or a craft, albeit they came at a higher price. Even without a contract, James had always been a servant to someone: the King and Queen, his landlord, his foreman, food, heating oil, even water had a tax on it, Turley, even Mr. Miller. By committing entirely a lifetime of servitude could be wiped away in three years.
* * *
“This isn’t right James.”
“What shall we do love? I don’ think they’ll take no for an answer.”
“James, ask me now. I don’t care about if you’re not ready yet. Ask me now.”
“Emma, in three years we’ll both be free, with a small dowery and all the world before us. Now’s na the time. You know I love ye lass. But canna it wait till I’m in a bit of a better circumstance? Besides you know what Captain Janka said about married couples not being able to sell and he promised to still keep us together. This is the best way.”
Inside her heart, Emma was seething. But her love for James dampened the flames of her anger. Having to put on the manacles was a greater embarrassment than she’d expected. It stung her out of all the pleasure from arriving. And James had been making her wait for two years already, the bastard. Why’d she love him so? She knew. He was the only way away from her father, away from Belfast and London and finally to the states. But this was unacceptable. She didn’t know how but she’d show James which side of Joss this was on, she would.
By late afternoon, they had docked and in shackles, yet not prisoners, James MacParlan and Sarah Emma Thompson set foot for their first time on the wharves of New York, America. They were led off in a trailing succession of Indentured Servants to a waiting crowd of farmers, city men, business types, tradesmen and more. Each seemed seasoned in their ranks and each was waiting to see what, or who, could be had in the bargain.
The Servants were led to a large squared log in front of the men and asked to step up onto it. The bidders thronged and ask harassing questions, “Do you speak English?”, “What can you do?”, “Can you read and write?”, and “What’d you do for a living back home?”
James saw a hard working looking fella in a Bay coat and one of those western styled hats inspect Emma’s hand and ask, “What you do back home miss?”
James lunged and the restraints held him back. “Watch yourself laddie. She’s not entirely for sale.”
The cowboy smiled and pushed his hat back to show a fair face and straw colored hair. “Are you sure fella? I’d have to read the small print on that one.”
“I’m sure,” James defended.
“A Portuguese coffin ship, from who knows where, with people from who cares. Who’s to say what her contract reads.”
“Better watch yourself mate.”
“Might not even be legal hereabouts.”
Those nearby laughed knowingly.
Most of the men averted their eyes and James realized the severity of the comment. He sought support from Captain Janka, a small Pacific Islander man with a ratty commodore’s hat and a severely ravaged eye. “Janka, remember your promise!”
Janka replied harshly, offering the business end of his whipping stick towards James’s throat, “I promised to try. Now shut up and back in line.”
The cowboy stood his ground but let Emma’s hand go. “That one seems to have a thing for you?”
Emma was afraid, but also mad. James had done so much to her. To come to the docks of America and have to stand barely more than a slave was belittling. As a woman she was all too aware of the men’s eyes on her. Even after being aboard ship without a bath all these weeks they looked at her like she was fresh meat. She’d given up so much for James, helped him become better than he was. But at times, even her backbone could vanish. Frick her Father and all his commandments.
“Yes,” she said.
The cowboy looked from Emma to James. “Betrothed, are you?” he asked keeping his gaze on James.
Emma thought, wishing James had asked the question, “Not exactly.” she said.
“Well,” the cowboy exploded, “Let’s have us an auction.”
As a group, Janka told the Indentured Servants to step down from the log. Then, one by one, each is asked to step back up. A poorly washed bald man wearing glasses claimed the spot at the far end of the log and Janka took his position at the other, next to his merchandise. He slapped the chest of the man first in line with his whipping stick, causing him to stand straight and then in his most melodramatic voice of welcome shouted, “What give me for this gentleman, good sirs?”
At the far end of the log, the clerk unfurled a scroll and read from it in guttural English, “This INDENTURE Witnesseth that Lawrence Toomes, a Harrier, a cobbler, and a big believer in his Lord God…”
The crowd laughed. Lawrence Toombes shot the clerk a look of betrayal.
Whispering aside to the core group, the clerk said, “Paid me extra to say that one for him he did.” He and they are all good friends from years of business.
The clerk continues, “…doth Voluntarily put himself Servant to Captain Pol Janka of the Sanctus Spiritus to serve the said Captain Janka and his Assigns, for and during the full Space, Time and Term of Five Years,..” He stops and turns his head to Lawrence, “Not that jolly good of a harrier I’d say.”
The crowd laughs again, but the harshness of the statement rings a sour note except for the most contemptible men, of which a few laughed loudest.
“…from the first Day of the said Lawrence’s arrival in New York in AMERICA,,” the clerk emphasized pushing his glasses up on his face, to read faster “…during which Time or Term the said Master or his Assigns shall and will find and supply the said James with sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and all other necessaries befitting such a Servant, and at the end and expiration of said Term, the said Lawrence to be made Free, etc., etc., etc.,”
“The bidding will be in pounds sirs. We are making a quick departure in a few days and don’t want to be burdened with exchangers. I’m sure you understand.” Janka put on his biggest smile. “Bidding opens at ten pounds”
Lawrence sold for 25. The need for skills had increased since the Sanctus Spiritus last voyage to America. After the first auction, a steady business pallor overtook the arena, with congratulations passed out to the highest bidder as servants met masters. Most times, the shackles were immediately taken off once the merchandise was handed over. A ship caulker, a printers assistant, a bar tender – that one did get a few comments from the crowd – a farmer, a road worker, an artisan, a waste man, and finally to the dock laborer from Belfast and London.
The clerk read his preamble, citing a three year contract and called James a Longshoreman and journeyman boxer. Janka brayed, “Ten Pounds for the Tawny Rock.”
From the middle of the pack, the cowboy was first to bid, “Ten.”
“Fifteen,” shouted a voice from the back. It was yelled by a smallish man, who would otherwise have remained unnoticed excepting for his bid and the enormous black Union soldier next to him.
“For fifteen, you can have him,” sneered the cowboy.
“Eighteen,” came up from elsewhere in the crowd. “Twenty pounds,” shouted another. The warehouse and dock work was plentiful in the busy port of New York; plus, the boxing gave James an added attraction. Soon, the price was up to thirty-five pounds.
“Going once,” shouted Janka. “Going twice. Sold to the man in the back.” The winning bidder was a smaller than average man who directed forward the black Union officer to claim his property.
The crowd parted for the black man like the Red Sea. He was tall and muscular and even if he hadn’t worn a pressed blue uniform with stripes on the sleeves most men would have granted him passage. He was as black as a panther and looked strong as an ox, the kind of black man who put fear into the whites in case his heart was as black as his skin. When he got to the front he held out his hand for James.
James looked the mountainous uniformed black man in the face and he stood on a squared log and was above average height himself. The man had to be nearly seven feet tall if he was an inch. His head was the size of a pumpkin and had features James had never inspected so close before. His lips were easily as thick as James’s thumbs and looked the color of bruises. His eyes were the size and color of goose eggs and his skin reminded James ever so much of blackened bog mud. The only black men James had seen had been house servants back in England and this man looked like he served no one unless he damned well wanted too. If this was the likes of the black men in America then the Southern armies must be giants to control the slaves cause this man was a, was a troll. His enlarged features looked like the angry side of a midnight pumpkin, James decided as he looked into his face. He dare not walk over this mans bridge unless he had full permission. But if he had to fight him some time he would, cause that was what James MacParlan was, a fighter, even if he should die trying. The last thing James noticed was the little wool soldiers cap perched atop the man’s head, a sort of symbol of civility and it was after James acknowledged the mans hat that he lifted his two shackled hands and held them out together. The big black man grabbed them by the chain and eased James down off the log.
“Now there’s something you don’t see every day,” piped someone in the crowd.
The black officer led James to the back of the crowd again amid mumbles of prejudice. James saw the boss man of the black who held his reins. There was nothing impressive about him James thought. If you met him on the street you’d never give him more than a passing glance. The small man merely looked James quickly from head to toe, gave only the slightest nod of acceptance and turned to leave. The black officer, the one he was beginning to call Big Black in his own head, gave James a tug.
A pang struck James like a bell tower ringing. “Wait sir, I have a friend.”
The small man looked from James to Big Black to the auction block and back to James.
“Please,” James asked.
“Hmmpf,” grunted the small boss man passing his hand in front of James and the Big Black like he was approving his hand in a card game. He gave his attention to the auction block.
At the front of the crowd, Janka cleared his throat and said aloud, “And what do we have next?”
Next up was Emma.
The clerk read his preamble; “…an ability to read and write in four languages, a hard worker,… Years of service ahead from this one,” he sneered and then concluded with, “three years service exactly.”
She’s a country rose next to the others. Her radiance eclipses the rest of the servants in the way the Borealis brightens a night sky.
“Twenty pounds for the lady,” hollered Janka.
A fat man in coveralls bidded first but soon her price escalated two dollars at a time. James explained to the smallish man on Emma’s behalf. The man sported a neatly trimmed beard which hid his emotions. “She’s a real good cook mister. And she can sew too. She does math like a juggernaut.” His pleading changed to mercy when at thirty dollars the cowboy joined in the bidding. “There must be something you can do for her. She’s my wife to be sir. Please don’t let her go elsewhere.” The cowboy and another man, more finely dressed compete driving the bid past thirty five dollars. At thirty eight pounds the smallish man made a bid. But he’s quickly out bid by the finely dressed man, and then cowboy drove up the bid again. The smallish man shook his head and turned his back on it, ready to go.
“James,” Emma erupted, suddenly scared at what’s happening.
“Janka!” James shouted. His voice going hoarse with sobs. “YOU SAID!”
Janka merely shrugged in an ‘I tried’ sort of way, which of course he hadn’t done at all.
“Going once, going twice,” Janka said. “Sold to the gentlemen in the hat and tan coat for forty-three pounds.” The cowboy stepped forward, stuffing a small pile of bills into Janka’s hand and tugged Emma aside.
“EMMA!” James screamed.
“JAMES, “Emma wailed, her hands pulled forward.
With all his strength James yanked against the big man holding his shackles. The big man was dragged two steps before regaining his balance. To James he was a big black and blue anchor, his Big Black. The black man looked to the smallish man for direction. The small man gave a go ahead look and big black gave the chains a quick lift, jerking James arms over his head. With his other hand, Big Black made a big black fist about the size of a beer stein and deftly doubled James over, forcing all the air out of him with the force of a horses kick. Big Black grabbed James by his shoulder and dragged him, his feet scrabbling but finding no purchase over the hard dirt and boards of the wharves, away to a carriage, into which he was loaded in the two handed fashion of a sack of grain. His last look of Emma was of her searching over her shoulder for him as the cowboy lead her away around a distant corner, still shackled herself.
* * *
James woke heavily some time later. He was flopped on a bed in a darkened room, possibly a hotel room. It’s night. Someone sitting across the room got up from his chair. He was big and black and wore a Union uniform. James closed his eyes and drifted unconscious.
When he opened his eyes again there was a much smaller man across from him smoking a small cheroot between his neatly bearded lips. James wondered if he’s been out 5 minutes, five hours or five days. When he’d been trounced upon by this mans hireling, Big Black, he’d been exhausted. His body felt better although still under nourished and beaten.
“Good evening James,” the man said. “You’ve slept a long time.”
“Where am I?”
“America. New York to be more exact. We’ve not moved you far.”
“That’s little consolation,” said James. “What about Emma?”
The small man quickly detailed his facts. He felt this to be the best way to get James in the right frame of mind. “I didn’t know you’d be bringing anyone. So I wasn’t prepared. I’m sorry but she’s been taken elsewhere and I don’t know where.”
“She was to be mine. We’d promised to each other!” James lied.
“Like I said, I’m sorry. But when she was asked if she was married or betrothed she said ‘No.’ At that point the law was against us. There’s a big difference between being married and not. And she said, No, otherwise I could’ve plead hardship to the local authorities and got an exception made for you. But as it was…”
“…As it was, it wasn’t your wife.” James hissed.
“Nor was she yours.”
“We couldn’t risk an incident on the docks. I had to let her go.”
James gave thought to what he was hearing. The small man continued, “James, you’ll find me to be a very fair man, should you perform adequately; and if you perform supremely I’ve even been prone to generosity.”
“Oh, is it negotiations we be havin’?” James swung his legs off the bed and sat upright. His movement stirred a shadow in the corner to shift uneasily. “I’m used to them. But I’ll warn you, I’m not that good at it.” He thought it better if he didn’t go into detail.
“I was prepared to make you an offer. But what can I say? I’m a soft touch. I’m in need of services that I think you’ll do nicely for. If you’ll do nicely that is. I’m in need of an assistant as it were. But I have to tell you the one thing I need more than anything else is trust. Everything else I can teach you and more. But I have to know that you’ll trust me implicitly and that I can trust you.”
James asked the obvious question. “What if I just tell you, you can trust me and then I run away?”
The small man knew how to be mean when needed. “You could probably get away, perhaps even quite far away, but eventually I’d find you and then you’d be useless. I’d maximize your punishment with whatever magistrate of whatever barbaric region you’d fled and sell double or triple the remainder of your contract to the lowest bidder.” He lowered his brow and stared James direct in the eye. “And how much closer will you be to Emma, James? I can help you find her. Don’t you want her back?”
Aye, he did. James knew the answer to that question without blinking. He gave the small man a full assessment. His beard was neatly trimmed. It most likely hid a weak chin. Further, the man had no accent favoring any one country. Perhaps it was a truly American way of speaking. Yet, he looked like his line came from the Kingdom’s isles. He asked things like a gentleman crook but he spoke of the law like he worked it to his own will, without worrying about the who or the where. He knew how to hire big men to do his bidding and how to threaten in that quiet determined voice only used by the most capable, absolutely certain there’d be no funny business he wasn’t operating himself. And he did this all in a very plain looking suit with a very simple manner. Unsure of everything and not wanting to repeat old mistakes, James figured this gentleman to be new breed of culprit and he was after all in a new world, he submitted to his future. He stuck out his hand, “You have me word Governor. I’ll na cross ya.”
The small man shook it. “I’ll be testing that answer quite often, James. So don’t think about changing it. But first, you need to get better. For the next few days you’re confined to the hotel. Order what you need and rest up, but don’t venture beyond the lobby. Bill it to this room. My man here will be around mostly, but not always. We have to trust. But he may be around at times and you simply won’t know it either. Please don’t test it. I’ll be back in a day or two and we’ll talk again.”
James thought the big black man would be easy to spot in a crowd. “What about Emma?”
“Unfortunately James, there’s no short path on that one. Even at our best I’d wager the cowboy hides his trail well. Most men in the gangways don’t want to leave tracks even if they ride a big horse. You better get used to the idea that finding Emma and correcting your situation may take some time. If it was 6 months I’d say we’d done well. Best to venture a year. A lot depends on you James.” The small man stood up and prepared to leave. Much had been settled. The rest will unfold later.
“And what do I call you,…” James gave a sideways look at Big Black, “Master?”
“As master I’d prefer you treat me like your employer. But on your word James, I need our relationship kept close to the vest. Talk little and if forced admit you’re an indentured servant being shipped to a master in Chicago in the next few days. You may call me Allen, E.J. Allen. Now I hate to say it, but you must prepare for some hard times James. Your training is to begin very very soon.”
“Where do I report for this training Mr. Allen?”
“This gentlemen here with us will start your training,” Allen said indicating to the man James considered Big Black. “Say hello to Corporal John Adams, one of New York’s finest.”
Big Black John Adams pushed back his blue cap and showed the entirety of his wrinkled pumpkin face, twisting it into a clown’s mask of happiness as his white eyes flung themselves all the way open and his purple lips parted into a white toothy grin.