(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.)
(This series, which I've been meaning to finish, starts HERE.)
John slept in the woods.
Cholera breeds cholera. That much was sure. When it started, it usually was hungry for many more than one.
He helped bury the bodies of the men he worked with. He helped to carry water to the suffering in the sick tent. He even washed putrid blankets in the tiny stream. But then he stayed away from them, countrymen or not. Twelve dead already, and ten more likely to follow in a day. He didn’t think much, by exhaustion or choice. But he did think that he didn’t want to join them.
As John slept in the woods, he even dreamed. Under the purity of starlight, he saw himself as a lad chasing moths on the green hills of County Tyrone. He saw his beaten down father still alive. He saw the eyes of the girl he missed so terribly that he dared not express it in words. Not even to himself.
When he woke with a start in the depth of night, he saw the flicker of flames through the forest.
A noise jolted him. Something sharp and loud. He blinked in the direction of the men wasting away in the tent.
Someone was up. Moving. The fires looked like torches.
He brushed dirt from his legs and steadied himself on groggy feet. He was about to start walking when strange voices made him freeze. Not Irish. The clipped, dulled intonations of American born.
People from the nearby town of Malvern didn’t mix with his kind. Cold fear tickled up his back. The people of Malvern hated the lowly Irish workers, which generally suited him just fine. But nothing good could come from torches in the night. The voices were low and hissed to each other. He knew when he was close to a beating and had learned how to avoid it.
When he turned to creep away, he caught a hard blow to the stomach.
From the ground, choking and coughing, he saw the boots of the two men he didn’t hear behind him.
“Here’s another one,” a voice said.
A gunshot boomed from the direction of the tent.
“Clean it up,” the man said. “Every last one.”
John peered up.
From the strange illumination of moving torches, he could make out a pistol pointed down at his head. If he had the breath to speak, he would yell, “wait!”
“Dirty scum, go back to Ireland,” the man said.
The muzzle flashed.
Near dawn, John was dragged to the ditch dug for all of the other bodies. Work on the railroad went silent that day.
(Note about the series: Every day, my train passes the area known as Duffy’s Cut. Years ago, I noticed a strange stone memorial near the tracks out in the woods dedicated to Irish railroad workers. More recently, Duffy’s Cut has been in the news, since local researchers have begun to unearth the previously lost bodies of workers who may have been killed by a mob frightened by the spread the cholera at the work camp.)
Go back to Part 3.