Beneath Red Tail Wings

The dangers of war are behind him, but not the memories, the guilt driven never ending memories.
The fiery liquor offers brief respite, then…
the real nightmare begins.


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Prologue

September 1873

            The festering strips burned, the fever sucked him dry. The voice of his father harangued his ears, accusing.

            “Traitorous, wretched boy! No son of mine would do such a thing!”

            “How could you do this? Did you think of us, you bastard? Do you know what this means?”

            The echo of the door slamming against his battered jaw pounded on his ears until he cried out.

            The Captain would hear. He would come and the beatings would begin again.

            “Quiet, quiet boy. You want to get caught?  You want to the mate to strike with that devilish belayin’ pin? You want to lay in the fo’c’sle waiting to die from another beating? You want to run up and down and up and down for days and nights without sleep or vittles? You want to live boy?”

            “No no more, no more. Shut up Papa, shut up. You said follow my conscience. You said be a man and make a stand. I made it Papa. I made it. Ah, don’t hate me Papa. Please listen, please!”

            “Get out, get out traitorous, wretched boy! Don’t show your face again. Traitor!”

            He wanted to deny forsaking his family. But the truth could not be denied. They were dead. Father and Royal were dead years gone now, hating him, the traitor. He must keep moving or the Captain would find him. Fearing the tarred ropes and belaying pins striking from the dark, he crawled away from the dock. His body was soaking wet, trembling one moment and burning the next. Desperate, Matthew sucked the briny damp from his filthy shirt. He curled into a stack of cargo already strapped down to be loaded onto another hell ship. He could hear the crowd yelling, demanding the Captain’s surrender. He could barely see through his irritated eyes, one swollen shut from a nasty cut and blow to the face he got from a knife or marlinspike. He had never seen it coming.

            Charlie had been taken ashore, but the rest of them were not allowed to leave. Lucky Charlie. Say what you want, but he wished he had a friend in this city full of crimps. Benjamin called them that. Crimps. Slave catchers. Need a body? Take it. Matthew was no sailor and tried to explain to the First Mate he was taken under duress. His protest got him a beating. The worst of his life in fact. He had no idea how long he was insensible, but when he was able to stagger from the ragged hammock Harris came and beat him again. Matthew was sure he defended himself the first time, but not this time. There was a belaying pin. He came to, chained to the grates on deck and flogged. It would not be the last time. Mr. Maloney told him to cease resisting and go along so he would stay alive. He was so weak from the beatings and flogging, further protest was impossible anyway.

            Months later, Matthew realized it made little difference if he was subservient. He kept his head down and learned to do the work, but feared he would not see land again. Three of the battered crew died. The story was they jumped overboard or fell by accident, but Matthew would always wonder if Harris had outright killed them. Poor John, he was just a boy. Everyone was starving on hardtack and little water. He was shamed he survived because Harris’ ire shifted to someone else and they died.

            Matthew didn’t know if Benjamin put him over the side tonight hoping he would drown or make it out. The man’s loyalties shifted each day. There was some talk about a Sailor’s Home for help. Matthew didn’t know this place and thought it was a fool’s errand. Ben said if he stayed he might just die. He was too weak to fight Ben’s insistence. The tide tried to take him away but he grabbed the anchor line and hung on until he got his bearings. The horrific sting of the cold salt water stole his breath. He believed he would drown for sure. How he managed to get onto the pier remained a miracle to him.  His nails tore off at the quick from his desperate effort to climb the ladder. The men on the dock were yelling for the Captain’s blood, many drunk and angry waving torches and rope for a hanging.

            Matthew had enough sense left to scuttle away through stacks of cargo into the shadows between buildings. Rats squealed and ran about in the darkness. He prayed no other crimps found him. Benjamin said if he got caught he would wind up on another ship even broken as he was. Matthew decided he would kill himself for sure to escape another hellish journey like this. His overtaxed body soon failed him. His last thought was he would die in mud reeking of urine and feces.

*****

Birds were singing. He must be lying in the four poster with the balcony doors open to catch an errant breeze. The birds were singing and Matthew’s heart reveled in gratitude. For some reason he was especially glad to hear those chirping ditties that used to drive him mad when he wanted to lie in. He was safe now. Somehow all was forgiven and he was home. He waited for his mother to come to him with a cool glass of spring water. Where was she? He was so thirsty.

            Father Arturo shook his head in great dismay. Brother Finley worked at his side through the night washing away the filth and cleaning infected wounds across the young man’s back and sides. Finley worked with tears in his own eyes until sent away to sleep. In four hours they would trade places beside the cot in the ongoing effort to save this poor soul.

            When conscious, the man struggled against the bindings that kept him on his stomach. His back was exposed to the air, the flesh extremely raw from the lancing of the wounds and the harsh carbolic acid wash. The priest hoped he would not be reduced to begging honey or vinegar to keep the wounds clean of further infection. He was grateful a recent graduate of Tolands Medical College had dared to set up practice nearby. The young English doctor was brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas, but had a razor sharp tongue. That was evident when they were all flayed for washing the wounds out with the carbolic, which was supposed to be used to clean the room! Father Arturo feared the realities of life the seamen endured would crush the young man’s idealism and fervor.

There was certainly little money to support a practice. The doctor would probably leave for a more prosperous part of town and perhaps do charitable work out of St. Mary’s. For now Father Arturo would be grateful to God for His mercy and timely intervention that this life may be saved.

            Collapsing onto the stool, Arturo’s prayers gave way to the meditative stanzas of the Rosary through which he asked the Blessed Mother to pray for the boy’s deliverance. Jesus would surely see to it he roused if the poor soul took a turn for the worse. The exhausted man ignored the racket from the street. The humid air was not very good for a sick soul, heavy with foul odors as it was. But leaving the boy to breath air thick with sick and blood could not be good either. So they left the shutters ajar.

            Shouting men carried on with the labor of the day.  Harness jangled, horses and mules whinnied and brayed. The high pitched voices of children piped up hawking the home grown vegetables for their mothers. The meager goods were spread out on blankets in the street. The less fortunate children handed out advertising bills from more nefarious employers. Occasionally the sounds would escalate, fueled by arguments and the crack of whips. When the day began to wane, hysterical laughter and screams would add to the chaotic music from the saloons and cribs several blocks away. These dens of iniquity enticed the day laborers to throw away their pitiful earnings on drink and fornication. They were a small part of the overwhelming number that infested the city like fleas.

            The priest’s efforts to turn men from this folly had not been fruitful. Father Arturo labored against a rising tide of sin from the clapboard structure his group moved into. After driving out the rats and roaches, they offered reasonably clean cots and what medicine they had available from donations. Sometimes medicine was what they stirred up in the kitchen. There were a few men who turned up for confession, weeping over their inability to fight the addiction to liquor and opium. Prayers were said, comfort given and the cycle would begin again. By the Grace of God he escaped many promised beatings from the owner of the local establishments. The sailors and freight drivers threatened to burn the saloon down if hands were laid on a priest or the lay brothers who offered them succor. Sometimes that care was only reasonably clean water and rags to wash away blood, before these men waded back into the cesspit that was their daily life.

            Father Arturo dipped the chair back against the gray wall to rest his aching head. Brother Finley woke him up at dawn. The lay brother was upset about resting all night while the priest remained on watch. Arturo listened, mildly amused, to the tirade as he checked on their sleeping patient once more.

            The days faded into one another, a sad parade with tired men struggling to save a soul with no desire left to survive. When conscious the poor boy stared as if horror struck for endless hours. His voice was lost completely after screaming, crying and begging through relentless nightmares. Their touch, their very presence finally became unremarked. Exhaustion forced his eyes to shut but when awake, only the stare. The doctor declared his mind was possibly broken forever. But Father Arturo would not give up. They forced broth into the unresisting husk at every opportunity, continued to treat his wounds and prayed.

*****

            Four months later Matthew made the effort to stand on his own two legs. He did not know if he was grateful to these men who labored so hard to save him. Two thick limbs from a tree were held in shaky fists propping him up. He remained plagued by bouts of dizziness and his vision seem to be impaired for the long haul.  Sometimes the battered muscles in his thighs and legs cramped so tightly he feared they would tear loose from his bones. Dr. Everley assured him that time would resolve these issues, but Matthew worried he was going blind as some days his vision appeared worse than others.  Assurances meant nothing to him at this point. He’d been blind before.