Life and Debt

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Chapter 10

Although Tom had not taken kindly to Mike at first, they had become friends. Their bond was akin to brothers. Mike was vaguely aware of Tom’s words as he fought to stay awake.

“I think I told you I never knew my actual family. Jericho and Henry were the closest thing to parents I ever knew.” Mike was closer to his own age, and Tom eventually discovered it was easier to talk to Mike than to the older men about some things. “You know,” he said as he leaned back against the wall of the barn, “it took me a spell to warm up to you. I got real good at not showin’ it bothered me what people said. I didn’t care for nobody else but Henry and Jericho. In fact, until you came along, I didn’t think I needed no friend.” If the light had been better, Mike might have seen his cheeks coloring at this confession.

Tom sat staring at Mike in silence for a while. From time to time, he refreshed the cloth on his forehead, and if Mike thrashed about, he checked carefully to see that the bleeding had not started again.

“You better get well,” he whispered close to Mike. “I think I’ve got used to having you around.” He checked the cloth again for coolness, and then continued to chat quietly. “Hey, you remember when you taught me to swim? I was such a ninny in that lake. But, you never got mad at me. You just kept telling me I could do it. You never paid no attention to Henry and Jericho hootin’ at us from the banks. Nobody else would a’ done that,” he said as he lifted his head, remembering that summer day.

Tom leaned back against the rough wall of the barn. Then he leaned close again to check his fever. “You know, Mike, I never really did say how sorry I was for what I done to you, when you first joined us. You remember? At that tavern? I just wanted to see what you’d do when I put that girl onto you. Jericho told me I shouldn’t a done it. I guess maybe he was right. I’m sorry.”

Mike stirred, moaned in pain, and his eyes opened. His brow creased as he slowly looked around.

“Jericho!” Tom jumped up, and shook the sleeping Jericho.

Jericho was up in a flash. He placed a rough hand on Mike’s flushed face.

“The fever’s still there, but he don’t seem quite as hot as he did earlier,” he said, shaking his head.

Mike tried to focus his eyes, but they would not focus on anything for long. Jericho held a water flask to his lips.

“Here, drink this.” Mike allowed the cool water to enter his mouth, and managed to swallow down a mouthful or two.

“Where are we?” came the faint whisper from his parched lips.

“In the loft of that old barn. Don’t you remember?” He exchanged a look of concern with Tom.

“We can’t stay here—we need to keep moving—” Jericho gently pushed him back, when he attempted to sit up.

“You ain’t in no condition to go nowhere. We’re safe for now. Just lay back and be still, so you won’t start bleeding again.” He rinsed the cloth and mopped Mike’s face.

It was nearly sundown, when Henry returned alone and unhappy. “I couldn’t get through. There’s search parties everywhere. I had to do some tall talking when some bloke said he thought he recognized me.”

“How long do you suppose they’ll keep looking for us?” asked Tom, biting his lip.

“No tellin’. I thought they might a give up by now. Maybe think we was long gone.” He sighed as he sat down and handed Jericho the small bag he had brought with him. “I managed to get a bit of food. It’ll have to do for now,” he apologized as Jericho extracted the meager fare. “I guess Tolabert won’t call off the hue and cry ’til he’s good and certain he can’t get to Mike no more.”

Mike listened to them, Regret churning in him, and wishing he could make things different. If they had not done this for him, they would not be in this danger.

“This is my fault,” he said in a low voice. “Put me on a horse, and let’s get out of here. We’re all in danger if we stay here much longer. I won’t be the cause of harm coming to you.”

“What the devil do you think you’re going to do on a horse? You can’t even sit up. How you going to ride?” snapped Henry.

“I’ll do what I have to—”

“Just hush,” he said in a kinder tone. “The ride’d kill you.”

“It’s no worse than hanging. Please—”

“Ain’t nobody dyin’. Not today, anyway. Just settle down and rest. Leave the planning to me. We need to get you some help. That’s first.”

Arguing was pointless. Mike lay back, feeling useless and even weaker. But, even so, he found it strange that he no longer had the fear of death he had when he thought he was about to hang. True, he was sad at the thought of never seeing his friends again, but there was a peace now—a resignation to it. He even welcomed it as a way to end the pain he was feeling and causing his friends.

In the dim moonlight, beaming through holes and cracks of the barn’s dilapidated structure, Mike could see Tom crouched beside him. “Tom?”

Tom was instantly closer. “Yeah, I’m right here, what you need?”

Mike reached out a hand to take Tom’s. “You’ve been a good friend. I’m glad I had a chance to know you.”

Tom was glad it was so dark, and Mike could not see his face. “You’re a good friend, too, Mike. I’m glad you’re here.”

“I need you to promise me you’ll do something for me—later.”

“Sure, Mike. I’ll do anything you say.”

“Later, when this is all over with, and it’s safe for you … I want you to go to Father John, and tell him that I—that I’m grateful for all he did for me, and my family. Tell him I’m sorry for the way things ended—”

“Nothin’s ended! You heard Henry. You can tell him all that yourself, when you’re better.”

Mike smiled weakly. “Tom, it’s all right. I’m not afraid anymore. Don’t be sad for me.”

Tom was again grateful for the darkness that hid a tear slipping down his cheek. He managed a quivery response. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere. You’ll see. You’ll be just fine.”

Mike slipped back into a fitful sleep, as Tom sniffed and wiped his face on his sleeve.

Mike felt so peaceful and incredibly light. It was as though he were floating, drifting aimlessly along with no worries, no goals. There was no pain in his side, and when he opened his eyes, Mike found he was standing alone, surrounded by a thick fog. There were no shapes in the swirling gray light—no trees, buildings, or people.

Suddenly, remembering his wound, Mike slapped his hand to his side. There was no pain. He looked down at his shirt. There was a ragged little hole where the bullet had pierced him, but there was no blood, and most wonderfully, no pain at all. It was wonderful not to hurt. He was mildly confused, but he felt no great fear.

He moved his hand in front of him, fascinated by the patterns it made in the mists. Then, he heard a deep chuckle. Another and another followed it, until they turned into long, hideous, and sinister laughter. Mike opened his mouth to call out, but no sound came. He walked a few steps in what he thought was the direction of the sound, but it seemed to be everywhere, yet nowhere. Between the laughter, he thought he heard a man speaking. At first, the words were unclear. He strained to hear the whisper that grew slowly louder.

“I’ve won. I’ve beaten you.” The words repeated between the laughter. A chill tingled down Mike’s spine. The voice belonged to Jacob Tolabert.

Mike flailed at the mist, trying to find a way out, to get away from the sound, and the one making it. And, then suddenly, it stopped. The ensuing silence was deafening, and still there were no shapes in the fog. Mike walked, looking from side to side, hoping to see something that would tell him where he was, and how to leave.

Light was intensifying behind the mist. It was an eerie light, and it seemed to shine on nothing but him. There was nothing else except him, and the endless fog. The fog began to brighten, and thin to his right. He turned, and walked in that direction. From beyond the disappearing curtain of mist, came a sweet familiar voice.

“Michael. Michael?” It seemed an irresistible force drawing him onward. The mists continued to thin, and as they cleared, a lush green valley spread in panorama before him, resplendent with flowers and trees, a babbling brook, and birds of varied and beautiful colors. He marveled at the beauty. He could remember nothing like this place.

At a sound, he turned his head and saw a figure hurrying toward him, arms outstretched. As she neared, he saw that the smiling girl was Janny! He tried to run to her. He wanted to scoop her up and hug her tightly, but his feet felt like they were deep in mire. He could barely lift either foot, and forward movement was impossible.

Janny stood still then, waiting patiently for him. Behind her, two more figures stepped forward into view. They came up beside Janny, and stopped. Mike could hardly believe his eyes. Sarah and Gerard stood with Janny. Sarah, in her emerald green gown she had worn the last time Mike saw her, her hands clasped at her chin expectantly, and Gerard with one arm around her and the other in his vest pocket. The sight was so peaceful, and he wanted to get to them so badly, but his feet just would not move. As he struggled, from the mists behind him a different voice called to him with urgency. It was such a commanding call he knew he had to answer it. With a little wave to his family, he turned. To his surprise, when he turned to walk back toward the voice, his feet moved easily, no longer bogged down.

Janny called gently after him as he walked, but he could not turn back. “We’ll wait for you, Mike.” Then the mists swallowed him, and the valley was gone. The euphoric feeling was fading, and with the insistent voice came a jarring sensation.

“Mike!” Jericho’s voice penetrated the mists.

Mike opened his eyes with effort, to see Jericho bent over him, his hands gripping the front of Mike’s shirt, shaking him. It took all of his strength to speak.

“Jericho.” The thin raspy sound came from his tight throat.

“Thank God,” he whispered. “I thought we lost you,” Jericho sighed, and eased him back onto the blanket. “You gave us a scare.”

Mike became aware that he was breathing heavily, and that he was wet with sweat. To his disappointment, the pain was still in his side. But, he was too weak to do more than manage a whisper.

“Why? What happened?”

Jericho wrung the excess water from the cloth, and placed it back on Mike’s forehead.

“You got restless, tossin’ around and callin’ to someone. Then all of a sudden, you just stiffened up, and quit breathin’. Tom started bellerin’, and I grabbed you, and started shakin’.” Mike lay still, allowing Jericho to check his wound and fuss over him. “You rest now. This gunshot has left you weak. You need to be still, and let your body try to fight it.”

The morning sun was glowing in through the cracks where the moonlight had shone before. Faintly in the distance, the bells of Cambridge rang, calling students to their studies. Tom rose, climbed down the ladder, and began quietly to saddle his horse. Henry had seen him go down, and followed him on cat’s paws. When he reached out and grabbed his arm, Tom jumped, as if shot.

“What do you think you’re doin’?”

“I’m going for help,” Tom turned back to the saddle cinch.

“And, just what makes you think you can get through, if I couldn’t?” Henry stood towering over him with arms crossed over his chest.

“I don’t know. But, someone’s got to get a doctor. Mike won’t last much longer like this.” He turned back to his task, frustrated that Henry did not seem to understand.

Henry watched Tom finish his preparations. “Actually, there’s a possibility you could make it. But, you can’t go chargin’ in there like a mad man.”

Tom glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Then what?”

“I been thinkin’ ‘bout it all night. They won’t be looking for a boy alone goin’ about his business. You get to town, and then you slow down to a walk. No one’s going to notice you if you look like you’re just doing what everyone else is doing—getting ready for the day. You go on to the Bishop’s house and ask to speak to him. When he comes you make sure there’s no one else around, then you tell him what happened, and ask him if he has any ideas how to get Mike a doctor.” As soon as Henry had finished instructing Tom, he was galloping toward the city.

Several hours after Tom had left the barn, a carriage pulled up, and the driver pulled it into the open doors of the barn. Henry and Jericho moved stealthily to the edge of the loft, weapons at the ready. To their amazement, Father John looked up at them, and waved as he climbed down from the driver’s seat. He was not wearing his usual clothes that marked him as a man of rank in the church. Instead, he was dressed as any other minister. Then Tom stepped out from inside the covered landau, holding a satchel. The most amazing thing was that Tom was dressed the same way as Father John. He wore a black suit with a white collar, and a wide brimmed black hat. They were stunned to silence as the newcomers made their way up the ladder, and behind the barrier.

Father John knelt beside Mike, who appeared to be asleep, and was very pale. Sensing his presence, Mike opened his eyes and smiled weakly.

“Father—”

“Yes, Michael. I’m here. How do you feel?”

“Very tired—my side hurts—Father, I saw Janny.” Father John looked up questioningly at Jericho and Henry, then back to Mike.

“Janny?”

“Yes. Mother and Father, too.” He closed his eyes. “They’re waiting for me, you know. They looked so happy…”

“That’s—that’s wonderful, son, but you need to rest now. We’re going to take you out of here, and get you some help. You’ll be well again in no time.” He did not sound as convincing as he had hoped, but Mike did not seem to notice.

“Thank you, Father…” was all he managed, before sinking back to near unconsciousness.

Henry had looked on, his face a dark cloud. It took great effort not to scream at the Bishop.

“And, just how do you propose to take him anywhere? Even if he wasn’t at death’s door, it’d be too risky to take him back into the city. And, not just for him and us, but for you as well.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve made arrangements already. In that bag you will find garments for each of you … if you wish to come along,” he said as he began to take Mike’s shirt off. “Those clothes will allow you to travel anywhere you wish, without question.”

Tom yanked open the satchel, and pulled out three black outfits. Henry’s eyes widened, and his fists went to his hips. “You want us to wear those?”

“Those clothes are all anyone will see, if they give you a second glance. They’re searching for criminals, not clergy. You’ll find all the things you need to shave and dress. I’ll take care of dressing Mike while you change. I want to make sure you are properly attired before we leave.” He began to undress Mike, and then cautioned them. “You had better hurry, from the look of him.”

Father John took the bottle of Scotch whiskey from Tom’s hands as quickly as he had pulled it out of the bag.

That is not for you. I brought it to put on Mike’s wound. And, to help ease the pain of the trip for him.”

He placed the bottle to Mike’s lips, and coaxed him to swallow a mouthful. Mike coughed and sputtered, trying to turn his head away, but Father John held him tightly, and coaxed a bit more down him. When he was satisfied that Mike had drunk enough to sufficiently make him numb, he tipped the bottle over the bandaged wound, and blotted up the excess, before he finished dressing him.

Henry carefully carried Mike back down the ladder, the same way he had brought him up, while Tom packed all their gear into the boot, and covered it with the canvas. They seated Mike inside the landau, Tom and Jericho holding him between them. Jericho kept checking Mike’s wound, hoping all the activity had not caused it to begin bleeding again.

After attaching the reins of the other two horses to the back of the vehicle, Henry mounted his horse.

“If anyone questions us, let me speak to them,” Father John said with authority just before mounting the driver’s seat again. “Our story is that our brother has taken ill, and was unable to ride. That will explain the extra horses.”

Moments later, they were on their way back into the city, looking like a solemn little group of traveling holy men.

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