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Ladies of Mischief #3

Mulberry Bend

Aisling’s Story


by Karen Dean Benson

Mission Song

Pilfering food for her sickly máthair, Aisling O’Quinn wanders amidst the filth-ridden cobbled streets of Five Points, Manhattan. A matron of the Children’s Aid Society catches her and considers it her civic duty to force the twelve-year-old onto an orphan train to a “better life”. Though Five Points is a notorious slum, with its rag-picker alleys and bandit haunts, she desperately misses the one-room tenement at the bend on Mulberry Street that overflowed with love and laughter.

On the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg, as Northern and Southern military troops are gathering, Aisling O’Quinn musters the courage to escape the dreadful farm where she lives. Not even the fear of capture as a runaway fades her intense longing to reunite with her beloved máthair.

Can Aisling overcome the influence of her disastrous past? Is she strong enough to take control of the drastic changes and unfortunate circumstances she is about to face? Will her unresolved memories cripple her?


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Release Date: November 22, 2016
Genre: Historical Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

June 1863

Smythe Farm

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

 

Alan bent over the pitchfork laden with straw, carried it to the horse stall and scattered it about the floor. The roan, familiar with the worker, nickered, received a pat on the nose, and small talk. A fresh pail of water and oats to replenish the leather pouch completed the mare’s needs.

Alan moved to the next stall and bent to chores, better than listening to the belligerent voices drifting from the loft where Mr. Smythe goaded, “A right upper. Faster. Harder.”

A squeamish feeling grew at the thud of fist to flesh. “That’s my boy. Watch his left.” Mr. Smythe’s two sons, Hector and Earl, in their late teens, worked the farm with their father, who boasted of money to earn with the skill of boxing. Men wore leather gloves and beat at each other until one fell to the floor, a bloody-pulp loser after the count of ten. The man standing earned the purse.

Grit and dust floated down as the sons beat on each other while circling the slatted floor above. Grunts and cuss words tangled with beams of sunlight drifting through slim openings. Alan hated violence provoked by the father. How much longer before Mr. Smythe included his foster child in the game?

Mr. Smythe ended the fight. “Enough now. Save some for baling. Earl, you got the better of him again. You’ll make my fortune, son.”

Hector did not use the ladder; he jumped to the floor of the barn. Earl descended the steps with his dad following. Alan scooped up another load of straw, dropping it over the next stall. Ducking under the rope across the opening, Alan intended to become invisible until they left for the fields. Patting the bay’s withers, he spread the bundle about the small space. A prickling sensation alerted him to the presence of another.

Hector’s size took up the opening to the stall, hairy arms crossed his chest, large for eighteen, a full-grown man. A trickle of blood seeped down the side of his cheek from his forehead. His legs planted wide; a cold, flinty darkness sparked in his eyes. Alan knew the dangerous, brooding look. Every time Mr. Smythe forced such behavior on his two sons, Hector smoldered with anger.

He growled, “You about done?”

Alan shrugged.

“Follow me.” Already the sign of swelling and redness spread across his cheek. Alan heard the father congratulate the younger brother, though Hector’s balled fists were blood spattered with retaliation proving he got in a few punches.

Alan sensed the resentment and wrath, and balked. “I’ve got chores. You know your da when I don’t finish,” he said, fists shoved defiantly under armpits.

Towering over the youth, Hector’s open palm rammed against Alan’s arms. Alan, stumbling backward, spread his arms wide gaining balance. Hector, shoved Alan in the chest, against the stall.

Unnatural silence hung in the moment. Shock registered on Hector’s face as he glared at his open palm then at Alan’s chest.

Every fiber of Alan’s body was suddenly on alert. Stunned, wordlessly gaping at each other, Hector’s lips moved, his startled voice rasped, “Yer a girlie.” He thrust his palm once again on the little chest. “I’ll be damned six ways to hell, you got little ones, but you got ‘em all righty.”

Aisling couldn’t find her voice. Her knees buckled, the wall supported her, kept her from escape, too. Hector’s hawk eyes brightened appearing monstrous as blood trickled down his cheek.

She froze with the realization her disguise was over. He flexed his fists, jaw clenched, eyelids lowered over his keen assessment of the younger, smaller person. “Drop yer pants.”

Her heart hammered. She opened her mouth to scream. His palm cupped her lower face in a death grip.

His other palm squeezed against the bib of her dungarees and the small mound of flesh beneath. “Little nibs, but they’ll do.” His brow touched hers. Spittle from his lips flicked over her face when he added, “You’ll let me, or I’ll tell.” She squirmed, kicking his shins.

Mr. Smythe’s voice boomed from the other end of the barn. “Hector. Where’d you get to?”

Aisling kneed Hector between the legs. His mouth popped as wide as his eyeballs bugged. It cost him not to yell. Groaning, his hold on her slackened, he could not ignore the summons from his da. Ham-like paws clasped his nether parts. He threw her a murderous glare. “We do this later, girlie. My da won’t take kindly to your lie these past years. ‘Cause I’ll tell him you been givin’ me what I want all along. You ain’t got no say on my land.” His shoulder banged against the stall as he lumbered to his pa’s summons.

She sank to the ground, a wild ringing in her ears. Gulping air, she could not quit shaking. Her mind sped over the tenuous hold on normalcy to the mess of her life. She had no control over her circumstance beyond the moment. Each day awaking on a pallet hidden behind a draped sheet at the end of the hallway, she faced her shadowy world. The length of cotton that shielded her privacy flapped at whim, like her life.

 

~ * ~

 

Aisling O’Quinn was one of the orphan train children from a tenement in Five Points, Manhattan. Unlike the hords of children who lived on the streets of the slum, she lived with her máthair. At a young age, she began dressing as a boy to walk the streets looking for work. A matron from the Children’s Aid Society caught her as she shoved an apple in her pocket demanding Aisling take her to her parents or she would hand her over to the authorities. 

With the thief clutched firmly in hand, the matron confronted her máthair who was too weak to lift her head off the cot. In her frail voice, she whispered, “Take my child to your sanctuary for two months, ‘till I’m on my feet.”

When the matron asked her name, Aisling spoke up. “Alan, ma’am. Alan O’Quinn.” Her máthair was too weak to argue the point; and so began her odyssey. What started out as blarney became fact. Lads had a way lassies did not.

When they arrived at the orphanage, a gang of others about her same size pressed against the walls, filling the corridor. There was an awful din of crying and shouting, arms clutching bundles. The sight mirrored what she must resemble only a hundred times more.

Women herded them into double lines, led them outside to a wagon ordering all to sit on the floor, and make room for the rest. Aisling did as told. An adventure to be sure, snuggled so close to others most of whom were of somber nature. A second wagonload followed. She counted fifty-nine in her load. So many needing to be fed and bedded at night. Her máthair wanted this so she went willingly, though she would miss familiar folk on the streets. Her dearest máthair, all alone, could hardly use the pot by herself, let alone chew food. Aisling knew her parent’s love and that comforted her knowing her máthair would eventually come for her.

Her athair had faded to a dim memory. A robust man, his brains were bashed by cudgels in a workers strike at the meat packing plant when she was seven. Five brothers succumbed on the ship that brought them from Dublin to a new life, as her parents would say. A sudden fever grabbed the boys while crossing the great ocean. Blessed with a vial of holy water and shrouded, their bodies slid down a plank into the cold, black water; one by one, day after day, until all were gone. Half the immigrants on the boat gave way on that crossing from the motherland.

Shortly thereafter, before the ship arrived in America, her máthair birthed Aisling. Her name meant vision or dream in the Irish tongue. That is the love they had for their only daughter, and only child.

Aisling, jostled in the wagonload of children, wished she had not begun as a lad with the Children’s Aid Society now that she would not be on the street seeking work. The wagons jolted to a stop; adults lowered the gate, helping them off. She lined up with the rest, clutching her bundle, wondering why they boarded a ferry to get to the orphanage. She’d never been on a ferry. Her nose twitched with the earthy scent of wet boats moored on the Hudson River, pungent ripe fish, coupled with the noise of bargemen shouting. The bustle was industrious taking all her curious attention.

A man, holding a list, checked each name as the next child stepped onto the first step. Some of the orphans ahead of her cried and balked. Glancing at the line behind, Aisling stepped aside. One of the matrons grabbed her arm. “Where do you think you’re headed, laddie?”

“I’m not getting on the boat.” She jerked her arm out of the woman’s grip.

“You most certainly are.” The matron clutched her jacket, pulling her close. “The papers all signed. You’re going to a better life.”

She yanked herself out of the grasp. “My máthair said two months.”

“She put you in our care, didn’t she? What is your name? I’ll check.” She loosened her hold and some of Aisling’s fear quieted. By this time, her place in line reached the man with the list.

“Do you have Alan on your list, sir,” the matron asked.

His finger slid down the page then stopped. “O’Quinn?”

Aisling nodded.

“Step lively, son. We’ve a long line behind ye.” The woman grabbed hold of Aisling’s arm hoisting her up, then moved her along the aisle; together they sat on a bench. Her clutch firm, there would be no escaping. Aisling’s thoughts grew mulish. Once across the Hudson River, the ferry ride ended. In a double line, they walked to a train and boarded to places unknown. The days passed much like the one before, like the snap of fingers, she became one of the orphan train children headed to places away from New York City. Silt from the engine drifted in the windows as dreams of her máthair and their one-room home dissolved into thin air.

Depot after depot, the orphans paraded in a line on the platforms until all families had taken the orphan they wanted. She lasted to the end, sullen, grieving all the way to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

At each train station, their numbers dwindled as strangers paraded up and down the boardwalk looking them over. Like shopping for bread or fruit, they squeezed to see how fresh and plump. The matron, and a man from the Children’s Aid Society, warned they should smile and look the families in the eye, especially the mothers and fathers. Be quick with yes sir, yes missus. Aisling refused to conform; her heart belonged with her máthair. She was not adoptable; she already had a family. The O’Quinn’s from Fingal, Ireland, and Five Points, even though just she and her máthair were all that remained.

Stubbornness brought her to the end of the line with six girls in dresses and no one interested in fostering her. Her sullen demeanor grew. She refused to yes sir and no sir to the folks expecting to take her. She assumed the leftovers would return to New York City. She intended to be a leftover.

A husband, wife, young daughter, and two sons slipped their gaze over her. She could see he thought her small for a lad, the instant his hard gaze flicked over her. He wanted a boy, hopefully bigger. Fists clenched, she hung her head and whispered prayers to the Blessed Mother. Down to the nub of the whole, giving children to strangers, and pickings slim, she hoped they’d pass her by. Her sense of pride played games, however. Pretending to be what she was not might get her chosen. Would her sin against God thwart her?

He walked to the end of the platform, then slowly back up the line. Please, please take one of the hopeful girls desperate for a family, she prayed. His sons kept pace, the mother and daughter lagged behind. The burly man, mud on his boots, dungarees with filthy bottoms, walked past all the children. Then he retraced his steps, grabbing her upper arm, squeezing. “Thin,” he said over his shoulder to his wife. The young daughter, big hazel eyes, stared at her gold copper hair sticking out from the cap. “Probably eat more than the work I’d get out of him,” the father groused.

The matron from the Aid Society smiled. Aisling knew the drill, heard it in every train depot between Gettysburg and Dowagiac, Michigan where it all began. “You will have to sign a contract stipulating he’s schooled on a regular basis. There will be periodic checks to see how you all fare. There is a trial period. If he doesn’t suit, he can be returned.”

The man nodded. “Dregs of the pot, I’m thinkin’. Nothin’ but riff raff left. My sense tells me to wait for the next train.” There was a long pause while his sons argued for an extra pair of hands for the farm. “I’ll teach him to clean the stalls, feed the horses,” chimed the tallest of the two sons.

He sighed. “I’ll take him.” His somber, beady scan swept the length of her. “What’s your name, boy?”

Aisling O’Quinn on the tip of her tongue, she sensed the truth might free her. The matron spoke up. “Alan O’Quinn.”

“Plain as can be a lazy Irish clod. Looks like a girl, don’t he?” he said with disgust, a snarly grin outlined blackened teeth.

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