Creekbank Blog

The writing blog of Curt Iles and Creekbank Stories. Our mission: To connect hearts to God by using stories of encouragement and inspiration.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The following post is the first chapter of my upcoming novel, The Wayfaring Stranger. I believe you'll enjoy this tale of two people from two worlds meeting in the Louisiana No Man's Land of the mid-19th century. If you like the first chapter, follow directions at chapter end to read additional chapters.

The Wayfaring Stranger by Curt Iles copyright 2007 Creekbank Stories.

Chapter One- The Journey Begins...

I am a poor Wayfaring Stranger,
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, toil, or danger
In that world to which I go.

I’m going home to see my Father,
I’m going home no more to roam.
I am just going over Jordan; I am just going over home.

-“The Wayfaring Stranger”
Traditional Irish Ballad

Updated 4/27/07

March 1849

Joseph Moore, breathing heavily and heart pounding wildly, tried to lay quietly behind the low stone wall next to the freshly plowed field. Once again, he felt the wound just below his right knee and withdrew his hand to see blood. He had just run a panic-filled mile frantically trying to escape the baying dogs and shouting men chasing him.
The dirt felt cool against his face as he lay on the ground. The sweat from fear and exertion ran down his cheek in a trickle onto the dirt. Wiping his face, Joseph watched nervously through a hole in the rock wall. He could see toward the west as he scanned carefully for any sign of the men and dogs. On a normal day the unique smell of the peaty dirt of western Ireland would have been something he enjoyed. But today was not a normal day. It was a day full of events that would change his life forever – if he survived it.
On this day, in the year 1849, Joseph Moore of the village of Westport, County Mayo, Ireland was a young man of sixteen. A tall thin teenager with sandy hair and a pleasant ruddy face, he was dressed in homespun clothes and bare-footed. All in all, he was pretty non-descript among typical Irish teens in this famine-ravaged area.
He was pretty non-descript except for one detail – anyone who met him for the first time always commented on his intense deep green eyes. Those eyes smoldered with a fiery passion that was unforgettable when you looked into them. An older Irish lady had once commented to his mother, “My Lord, those green eyes will either get him killed or make him kill someone. I’ve never seen any quite like his emerald Irish eyes.”
At the moment, those green eyes were peering cautiously over the low stone wall as he heard the howling dog approaching. Shaking with the rush of adrenaline, he wondered if his life was to end at this young age. In the last four years he had seen plenty of death up close among both adults and children much younger than he. The failures of the potato crop had caused widespread famine and cost the lives of thousands throughout Ireland. Coupled with the desperate mass emigration of thousands who had left County Mayo, it seemed Ireland was now becoming barren of people.
The smell of the dirt beneath his face reminded him of the scores of fresh graves he had helped dig only last week at Doo Lough. That sad sight of the famine victims lying along the lonely lake pathway had not left his mind since. He could not even talk about it—and wondered if he would ever be able to.
Lying behind the stone wall, he thought, “I helped dig many of those shallow graves last week. I just wonder if f someone will be digging my own grave before this mess is over.”
Joseph dizzyingly thought back on the events of the day that had brought him to this terrifying moment. This normal March morning had begun innocently enough. There were always plenty of chores to do on the small Moore farm. What had earlier been a family of seven now consisted of only Joseph and an older married sister. Everyone was gone – his dad’s exile to Australia by the authorities, other family members who had emigrated to England or America, and the rest who were dead from starvation or the famine fever that had swept through during the worst days of the past four years.
When the trouble started on this particular spring morning he had been using the spade to heap the potato rows with more dirt. He had planted this spring’s crop early in hopes that the potato rot would not hit them before the crop was ready. It was hoped that this year’s early crop might be disease-free. The cool breeze from the west had the smell of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. He had always loved that salty smell that stung your nostrils and made you feel a little more alive. The ocean smell always made him dream of being on the sea, a huge fantasy for a boy who had never traveled more than twenty miles from home.
As he shoveled, Joseph was just out of sight of the last possessions of his family farm: their small sheep herd: an old ram, two ewes, and two year-old lambs. They were grazing in the next field hidden from view by a stone wall and grove of trees.
Along with the garden, these sheep were the livelihood of his sister, her family, and himself. So precious were they that each night they were brought into the one room of the dirt-floored family cottage. It might have seemed odd to a teenager in Dublin or London, but Joseph Moore had never known any other way of life than sharing a house with the family animals. Before they had sold their only pig to help pay last year’s rent, it had also been a nightly house guest. In a land of starvation, any food source had to be closely watched.
That was why this morning’s sound of bleating had filled him with fear. The dreadful sound was coming from the adjacent field. The fearful bleating of the sheep was joined by the barking and yelping of several dogs. Keeping his heavy spade in hand, Joseph rushed toward the sound of the animals. What he saw as he reached the stone wall sickened him. A pack of four dogs were attacking the sheep.
As is their nature, the sheep were all huddled up helplessly at a corner of the stone wall. The large dogs were attacking the sheep viciously. Blood poured from the neck and head of one of the ewes. A young lamb lay twitching in the convulsions of death beside its defenseless mother.
Joseph sprinted toward the dogs filled with sudden rage, shouting hoarsely and waving his spade. All but one of the dogs loped off when he came close. The one remaining dog, a big yellow hound, did not stop as it bit down on the neck of the other lamb. Angrily, Joseph struck the dog across the back with his spade. The snarling dog turned on the Irish teen and with lightning quick speed latched onto his right calf.
Letting out a painful yell and feeling a blind rage that he did not quite know whence it came, Joseph began viciously striking the dog on the head over and over. The dog quickly released its grip on his leg and fell to the ground yelping in pain.
It lay with blood pouring out of its mouth and one ear. Even after knowing he had hit the dog enough to kill it, he continued a steady rain of blows. It was as if all of the anger – from the heavy-handed abuse of the absentee landlords, the potato failure, the constant hunger and poverty, the unending deaths of family and friends – seemed to pour forth from Joseph and be directed at the body of the prone dog. He turned toward the other three dogs that were watching and lunged toward them. They ran off whimpering with their tails tucked between their legs, content that they’d seen enough and happy to escape.
The green eyes that neighbors always noticed were now filled with a burning passion and rage. Breathing heavily, the boy knelt down beside his dead sheep and the quivering dying dog. His right leg hurt badly from the dog bite and his only pair of pants was torn and bloody. He looked at the three dead sheep on the ground and tears filled his eyes as he realized what this loss meant for him, his sister and her family.
Kneeling over the sheep and dog, Joseph had no idea that an observer had watched the entire episode. This witness to the attack also knew who the dogs belonged to. They were the property of the English land agent, Smith, who oversaw all of the rental land east of Westport City. The dog killed by Joseph was his prize hound. The land Joseph and his sister’s family lived on was part of these land holdings. Neither of these two facts boded well for Joseph Moore. Put together they were serious trouble and he knew it.
The silent observer didn’t wait long to send word to Smith’s estate about the Irish peasant who had killed the Englishman’s best dog. As in any small rural town anywhere in the world, most of the village knew about the encounter by noon that day. Not only did the news of the killing spread, but also the echoing threat of Smith to kill the boy who had dared to kill his best hunting dog.
When a neighbor ran to tell Joseph’s older sister, Bridget, of this threat, terror filled her heart. Everyone knew that this wealthy English land agent meant what he said and was used to getting his way. It did not surprise her that the nobleman would place the life of a hunting dog above the life of a mere Irish peasant boy. She well remembered last year how Smith had allowed the public flogging of a salmon poacher caught trespassing on his private river. The resultant beating was so severe that the man nearly died. When townspeople complained of the brutality and public humiliation of the flogging, Smith’s icy comment was, “I bet the next man who thinks about trespassing will be reminded to stay out of my river.”
Recalling this, Bridget took her younger brother by the shoulders and said, “Brother, ye must go. Run for yer life. Only prison or worse awaits you here now. Go—Go now.” She tenderly kissed him and pushing him on his way cried, “God bless ye Joseph. May God lead ye away from this place.”
Her push was not one minute too soon. As he went out the back door, he saw the men approaching about two hundred yards away. There were four of them. He recognized Smith because of his fine clothing. On each side of him were British soldiers from the town. A fourth man dressed in civilian clothing cradled what appeared to be a shotgun. He also carried something else in his other hand that Joseph couldn’t quite make out. One of the soldiers was leading a dog. Joseph knew it was the tracking dog from the station. It looked as if these men were serious about finding him.
He ran quickly for the safety of the nearby three foot high stone wall. Reaching it he leaped over it and squatted down. Now hidden, he crouched and crawled along—out of sight of his pursuers. He soon reached the end of the stone wall where he saw that no cover existed past it.
Now watching over the wall, he saw the men pass up the house, ignoring Bridget who stood in the doorway. One of the men shouted something back at her but Joseph couldn’t make it out. But he could now see what the shotgun-toting man had in his other hand—it was a long crowbar. He also recognized him as the bailiff. When a landlord wanted to evict a tenant, the bailiff was in charge of the eviction. The crowbar was the tool used to knock down the entire stone cabin. It was called “tumbling down” and meant nearly certain starvation for the evicted family.
So now, filled with fear and adrenaline-charged, Joseph Moore lay half-hidden in the potato field watching the approaching men, seething with rage and fear knowing that the family cabin would probably be a pile of rubble by sunset. He could see the baying hound, nose to the ground, moving step by step toward his hiding place.
He took a deep breath of the fresh Irish air. “I know I’ve got to run. To stay here will mean certain capture and probably death. They may shoot me, but they’ll have to hit a running target.” Watching their approach, he selected a small shrub by the side of the road the pursuers were coming down. Then he looked behind him at a grove of trees along another nearby stone wall. “When and if the dogs reach that point, I’m going to jump up and run for me life. If I can make it for the forty yards to those trees, I’ll be sheltered from the guns long enough to put some proper distance between me and them.”
He had selected the roadside shrub because he felt the pursuers were still out of shotgun range at that distance. He just hoped the soldiers with their side arms were slow and poor marksman.
For the first time in a long while, he prayed: “Lord, if you could, please turn that dog. I sure need a little help to get out of this one.”
But when the dog was within about a hundred yards, it evidently picked up his scent for it yelped with a new intensity and began loping right toward his hiding place.
“Well, it’s now or never. Feet don’t fail me now!” With a yell that seemed to be a curious mixture of pent-up rage and extreme fear, he jumped up and started running. It so happened the men were looking back toward the house when he leaped up and made the first few steps. The recognizing bark of the dog and Joseph’s own yell wheeled them quickly back around. He never knew if it was one or two shots he heard. It all happened very fast and he definitely wasn’t in any mood to look back. He heard the pellets whistle past him and felt a sting above his left elbow. In spite of the painful dog bite on his leg and the burning of the wound in his arm, he was making tracks for the cover of the trees. With great strides he was hurdling the potato rows he had been working earlier in the day.
In the coming years, after enough time had passed to dull the pain and allow some humor, Joseph would regale men sitting around the campfire with what he called “Me famous wild Irish potato run.” It was especially a favorite story of the young boys who loved hearing him tell it in his rich Irish brogue replete with his renditions of yelling, guns firing, and dog barking.
But there was nothing funny about it on that March afternoon in 1849. With the cover of the trees, Moore was now screened from the guns but he never even considered slowing down. He ran a long time, before the baying of the hound faded behind him. Finally he stopped, stooped over, placing his hands on his knees and trying to get air into his oxygen-starved lungs. Looking back, he saw his pursuers holding the dogs and watching him from a distance of a quarter mile. He heard Smith holler with cupped hands in a distinctly English accent, “You can run young ‘Irsh’ but you can’t hide. We’ll get you tomorrow or the next day. It’s only a matter of time… Jest a matter of time.”

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