Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Duffy's Cut, Part 1
(A fictionalized history series exploring what may have happened to the 57 Irish railroad workers believed to be buried in 1832 in a mass grave 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Past series have explored Polio, the Tunguska Event, the First Use of the Electric Chair, and the X-Ray Martyrs.)
John knotted his pack and stood in the dim light of the ship’s lower deck.
Muffled voices filtered through the hull planks. The sound of crowds was unpleasant, almost diseased, compared with the weeks of clean wind and slapping water during the voyage.
The moored ship had emptied already. His fellow passengers were gone. Eager and flushed in the face. He was not so eager. Was that strange? He thought about his feet and how this ship was the last tangible link to his home in Ireland.
Someone thudded onto deck over him.
Clomping shoes, too undignified to be an officer.
He lifted his pack as the sound rumbled down the stairs.
“Come on! We have work already! I don’t believe it!”
It was the nervous kid.
“You’ve got to hurry! The foreman is not very patient. He’s been waiting for our ship to offer the work to the lot of us, and he’s not happy we’re five days late!”
“Maybe he should hire the wind next time,” John said. “That way we might keep our schedule.”
“I’m serious! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
It must be a good omen, yes? Each one of them worried about how to get their foothold in America. Hunger doesn’t wait long to start gnawing. A man needs a wage, and a roof, and loaf of bread before long. He should be happy, not feeling his spirits sink.
The kid chattered as they climbed back up to sun and salty air. “He’s a railroad man, this Mr. Duffy. I’ll introduce you. He likes me already. He’s got railroad work. Hard work, but good wages. They’re filling a cut to the west of Philadelphia. Earth works. He’s behind schedule.”
“Behind schedule…. Got it.”
“Listen man. Stop. Breathe. If you don’t calm yourself, you’re going to be ill.”
A man in a top hat and a dark overcoat bellowed from the docks below.
Mr. Duffy, no doubt. Empty wagons were clopping toward the small crowd of his Irish shipmates.
He drew in a big breath of air and smelled it. Strangely sweet and thick. Not heavy with moisture as he was used to.
He descended the gangplank, and the ship pulled on the huge ropes. Restless waves thumped her slow and hard against the New World shore.
On to Part 2.
(Photo taken at the Philadelphia Art Museum)