Episode 16 - "The Sick House"
by Camille LaGuire
"Cooper!" came Rocken's shout for the fifth time that day.
This time, though, it was a broken leg. Someone had dropped a log on someone else. While Cooper bent over his patient, a man named Orin, Rocken whipped the other fellow for carelessness. That would make another patient for Cooper that night. The man had probably only dropped the log in the weakness from the heat.
"Dammit!" he said, among the least of his string of curses. "We've got two lost in the sick house, we don't need another. And now four down in the heat...."
"You could use a bit of cooling yourself," said Cooper, looking up from binding a splint of sticks. The bucket boy came up with a fresh bucket just then, and Rocken took it without a word and poured it over his own head.
"How long until he's fit for work?"
"It's a broken leg, Mr. Rocken."
The overseer just let out another string of curses.
"We need to get him back to the pen," said Cooper. "Can I have a mule?"
"The mules are getting work done," said Rocken. He looked around at the men. "You, Jack. Come here."
Jack straightened and came, looking from Rocken to the man on the ground. He didn't say anything.
"Do you think you can carry him back to the pen?"
Jack looked back at the pen, and then down at the man. He sighed. His face was a bit flushed and it was clear he was hot and tired as well.
"Can I have a rest afterwards?"
Rocken frowned for a moment in his own considerations.
"Sure," he said, waving in resignation. "Get him back there and take your rest."
Rocken turned back to yell at the other men to get to work. Jackie turned to Cooper as soon as Rocken was out of earshot.
"Nice to know I'm of less value than a mule," said Jack as he bent to pick up Orin.
"What about the chain?" said Orin, even though he was half out from the heat. "The weight'll kill me."
"Anything we can do about it?" asked Jack.
"Not until we get back, if then. Maybe one of the guards will get a chisel."
Jack shook his head and helped Orin up to stand on his good leg, and then scooped him over a shoulder, grabbing onto the chain as well to keep it from pulling on the bad leg.
"Careful," said Cooper, as the man let out a groan.
It wasn't a great distance, but the heat of the man's body must have added to the burden. Cooper kept close to watch for a stumble, even even a collapse, but Jack kept it slow and steady, and made it to the pen with only a bit of a stagger toward the end. As they made their way through the grounds toward the sick house--a dark little hovel that had more shelter but little air--Orin let out a complaint.
"I don't want to go to the sick house," he said.
"You'll be fine," said Cooper. But Jack set him down outside, under the shelter of the pen's pavilion. Then he collapsed down himself, to sit in the dirt. He was red, and covered with more sweat than could cool him. Cooper went and got a bucket and dumped it over the man's head.
"That better?" he asked, and Jack just nodded.
Cooper went into the sickhouse to get his medicines, since he had some herbs that would help with Orin's pain. He had not had much time to go into the woods and gather herbs lately, but there was enough, he thought.
He checked on the two men already in the sick house--both with fevers--and wasn't surprised to find one dead. He paused to fold the dead man's arms across his chest. When he turned he found Jack standing behind him.
"What was his name?" he asked.
"Sorry to have missed you, Joe," said Jack. Then he looked at the other man, and went and sat down beside him. "Hello, I'm Jack Alwyn," he said.
The man, William, wheezed a bit, but smiled, and raised his hand.
"I've heard of you," he said. "You're Jackie the Freedom."
Cooper shook his head and went to get his medicines. He mixed up a tonic and gave it to Orin, and talked a guard into getting a chisel and removing the chain from the broken leg, although he wouldn't remove the shackle. The truth was, the force of removing it probably would be worse for the leg than leaving it on.
Once that was done, he noticed that Jack still hadn't come out of the sick house, so he went in to look for him. Jack was still talking to William.
"I'll tell them about that when I get back to Acton," said Jack. William let out a wheezing laugh.
"You'll never get back to Acton," he said.
"I suppose not," said Jack, after a bit of pause and a laugh at himself. "Then I'll tell that to the next person I meet who's likely to go to Acton."
"And how would you even manage that?" asked Cooper.
"Dunno," said Jack with a shrug. "Maybe when I've served my ten, I'll find work on the docks."
"Or you could be a sailor," said William.
"I don't much like the sea," said Jack, shaking his head. "Although I'd do anything if I thought it could get me home."
William closed his eyes, but he was still smiling. He spoke again, a little bit quieter.
"Do you have family back there?"
"Aye, a wife."
"I expect to them it's like we died."
"We're just ghosts now," agreed Jack.
"You think they'll forget us?"
"Never! But they'll have to move on, won't they? We want them to be happy."
"Think your wife will find someone else?"
Jack laughed. "My wife? Yes. If she needs somebody, she'll find him. She's already proven herself capable of that."
"Oh, it's the wife that left you."
"You heard about that?"
"Everybody heard about it. From that book."
"No, I've only been here two years."
"Oh, I see."
"So you took her back?"
"I had to. I love her."
"And why would she come back to a lump like you?"
Jack paused. In the dim light it was hard to see his expression.
"Because she wanted to," he said at last. "That's why she does things. I'm a bit worried about that."
"When she hears I've been taken, she might get herself into trouble trying to do something about it."
"She'll be all right," said William, with the assurance of a lost man who knows that there is no way they'd ever know what the truth was.
"She does have a way of slipping through trouble," said Jack. "Maybe it's her shining smile. It just blinds everyone."
William didn't answer, but you could hear his breath rasping.
"Come on, Jack. Let him rest now," said Cooper. They went out of the sick house, and stopped in the shade of the pavilion, where they could feel a bit of breeze. Jack sat down and leaned against a post, closing his eyes. Cooper looked down at him.
"They talk a lot about becoming sailors," he said. "That doesn't mean it's possible. Ship captains don't want us once we're used up. Don't expect to get out of here."
Jack opened his eyes and looked up at him, smiling just a bit, his blue eyes clear.
"Oh, I'll get out of here, all right. The same way that Joe did," he said, gesturing back toward the sickhouse, and the dead man in the other cot. "Only with a bit more spectacle, I hope."
"What was that about calling you Jackie the Freedom?"
"That's because I incited a revolution."
"You aren't expecting to incite one here, are you?"
Jack's smile faded and he looked away.
"I'm too weary," he said. "We were half free already in Acton. More than half. There's no freedom here at all." He paused and looked up again, eyes narrowed in a calculating way. "William told me something about men up in the jungle."
"Thinking of escape?"
Cooper shrugged. "I don't bother anymore. If you manage it, there's no place to go but up there in the jungle, and those that are already there will kill you. They're just bandits."
"Bandits, are they?" Jack looked off toward the green jungle which rose up along the mountain. "We had bandits in Acton."
Stay Tuned For Episode 17 - "The Bush Knife"
The Test of Freedom ebook available at major retailers in December 2012. It may be rewritten from the version you see here.
The first book in this series, The Wife of Freedom is at most ebook retailers.
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