Preview Chapters: ‘RHG’

Chapter One:

The Everglades

A Diamondback rattlesnake pulled itself effortlessly out of the mud and onto a mound of raised ground.  Instinctively it twisted into a coil and began to bask and dry out in the hot mid-afternoon sun of Southern Florida.  The ground the snake selected was in the middle of a muddy track that ran along the side of a Cypress swamp.  A seemingly impenetrable wall of plants obscuring their host trees, huge cypresses that climbed towards the sky, as if trying to escape the parasitic swamp below. 
A few feet from the path, a Snowy Egret shook the last of the rains from its plumage and pointed its long yellow beak towards a deep, dark pool.  The rains had stopped as suddenly as they had started, but that was an every day occurrence in this part of the Everglades.
It was June, and through the summer months around the same time each day, the heavens would open and pour back the moisture they had stolen from the swamps throughout the previous night and forenoon.  While it rained, the downpour was all one could hear, but now insect and animal calls of the swamps had taken over again, and the sweet scent of ghost orchids permeated the air.
The Snowy Egret was the first to acknowledge danger.  Almost invisible in the mist rising from the murky water, it froze for a second, before moving deeper into the cover of the swamp.  While other birds took to the air simultaneously in a show of warning to all wildlife, small green herons scurried for cover knowing camouflage to be their best defence.  The old Diamondback rattlesnake was oblivious to the panic around him, until he sensed the vibrations in the ground.  What had been mud now had a thin dry crust.  He uncoiled, and zigzagged his way over the cracked surface and into the safety of the dark water.
Where the snake had been able to pass with ease, the woman and her child slipped and stumbled in the slimy mud.  Each time they fell they helped each other up.  The woman grabbed the child and pulled her on. 
The child was in a daze, but she kept up with her mother as best she could, although not really aware of what was going on around her.  What she had witnessed only a few hours earlier would not leave her young mind.  She could still hear her father’s words as they fled from the house.
“Don’t leave me,” he pleaded, “not like this.  I’ll die you bitch.  I’m dying.” 
Again they slipped and fell into the mud.
 “It’s no good,” said the woman,  “it’s time,” she cried. “God help me it is time.”
She could both see and feel the large bulge in her stomach move, and the pain was now constant.
 “You will have to help me,” she said to the child. 
 “What can I do, mama?” 
The child seemed to know intuitively what was about to happen.  She forgot about her father and turned her full attention back to her mother, now on her hands and knees helplessly in front of her. 
 “I’ll show you.” She motioned to where the snake had been coiled. “But first help me onto the dry ground.” 
Together they struggled onto the mound the snake had vacated only a few second earlier.  As she lay back, impulsively raising her legs, she could feel the baby’s head squeezing through. Feebly she tried to push, but it was no good; all her reserves of strength had been used up. She was dying and she knew it, but first she would give life.  She must, she had to, not only because life was sacred to her, but also because maybe in some strange atoning way it would make up for the one she had just taken. 
“Grab hold,” she said to the child between gasps for air,“firmly on each side of the baby’s head.”
The infant head was through, and the little girl could see it now among the mess of body fluids, blood and mud.  She did as she was told. Held the child’s head and pulled gently but firmly.  The woman mustered all her remaining strength and with a massive effort pushed and pushed until she almost lost consciousness with the effort and pain that now racked her battered body. 
“Thank God,” she breathed, as the infant was expelled from her womb.
She drew herself up and retrieved the infant from her daughter.  She bit through the umbilical cord and tied it off.  The baby did not need to be slapped into life, it cried willingly, as if aware of his new hostile environment.  The woman wrapped the newborn in her blouse and handed him over to the child. 
“Oh mama, he is beautiful,” said the child, tears streaming down her tiny face.
“Look after your brother, promise me you will.”  Her voice was a whisper, and the color of exertion had drained from her face.  She lay back and closed her eyes for the last time. 
“I will mama.  I promise.  Right hand up to god, I promise,” answered the child, holding the baby, but trying to reach out to her mother at the same time.  It was too late.  Her mother was already dead.
Tears of joy at the birth of her baby brother turned to tears of sorrow, and at the same time of panic.  She wanted to scream at her mother to get up, but she knew it would be futile.  The tears kept coming, but there was no sound from her mouth.  Her young mind raced to find a reason.  Too confused to be afraid, she looked around to try and make some sense of her situation.  She could not say it, simply because she could not pronounce it.  “The Fahkahatchee” she thought, part of the big swamp, and remembered having been here once before. 
The mist crept in off the water and she could barely see a few feet in front of her.  The only sound she was aware of was of the baby crying.  Instinctively she held it closer to protect it from the damp clinging mist.  She did not know how far, but somewhere along this path there was a houseboat.  It had been where her mother was taking her, to her sister and her husband.  There had been nowhere else to run to. She agonized over having to forsake her mother, but soon it would be dark and she must find shelter before nightfall. 
The mist clung to the ground obscuring the track as she willed herself on.  The baby stopped crying, and for a moment she froze panic stricken, but the child was still breathing.  Relieved, she turned her attention back to the track and the sticky mud.  Her feet sank into the slimy gunge; first one shoe and then the other were left behind, sucked from her tiny feet by the unforgiving surface, and it was all she could do to remain upright. 
An hour had passed and still there was no sign of the houseboat.  It was dark now, and the living sounds of the swamp all around her seemed to magnify in the eerie darkness.  She heard a scurry and a splash in the water beside her, but dared not think what it might be, and quickened her step away from the water’s edge.
Exhausted now, she knew she could not go much further.  She felt a slight breeze on her face from a rainsquall just ahead, and then a few drops of rain.  The breeze cleared some of the mist and she peered through the rain hoping for some sign of life, but there was none, just heavier and heavier rain.  She forced herself on, shielding the infant as best she could and then as suddenly as it had started, the rains stopped.  She could see the path twist back towards the swamp and then beyond a turn in the distance, a glimmer of light.  She closed her eyes tightly to clear them, not quite trusting her own vision, and opened them again, praying that the light was still there. 
“Yes!” she heard herself say.  “It must be the boat, it has to be.”
A large ruddy-faced man with a pipe firmly gripped between his teeth appeared from the rear of the houseboat.  A look of astonished disbelief spread all over his face as he looked down at this small child cradling an infant in her arms.  He had not been there the last time the child and her mother had visited, so he could not know that she was his niece. 
“Who are you? What do you want?” 
His voice was loud, and the child pulled back.  The question was more a reaction to his surprise than a serious request. His face softened, and he knelt down on one knee beside her. 
“What is your name child?” 
He asked removing the pipe from between his tobacco-stained teeth. 
“I’m Lori,” she answered, her voice shaky and near to tears.  The man was still amazed at what he saw.  He reached out to touch her, but Lori took another step backwards. 
“And how old are you?”
“I’m ten,” she replied with pride, her voice stronger now and with just a hint of defiance.

Chapter Eleven:

Belfast

Kelly O’Brien crossed over to the window and wiped away the blurred condensation obscuring the cold reality that was Belfast.  Peering through the wet glass, she looked along the twin rows of tiny red brick houses that grew grudgingly from the wet, shiny pavements.  From below she heard the faint click of a light switch and blinked to adjust her eyes to the yellow light reflected off the same wet concrete slabs below.  She looked to the gray, threatening sky, expecting, yet fearing, the approaching darkness.  Her gaze turned in the direction of the Shankhill.  Recently it had been quiet, but if there were to be any trouble it would come from that direction.  Another barricade blocked the ‘Falls Road’, and sooner or later the troops would break through.   
Her thoughts drifted back to happier days not so long ago. Days spent helping her mother look after five brothers and sisters, two sets of twins. Margaret and Mary who fought almost constantly with their older brothers John and Luke.  The youngest, and Kelly’s favourite, Shaun, was in fact their first cousin on their mother’s side.  The others knew of his adoption, but it made little difference, he was spoiled all the more because of it.  Shaun did not know, and the rest of the family were sworn to secrecy, at least until he was old enough to understand.
Money was always in short supply, but it was never a real problem.  Kelly’s father was a local postman and being a rural area he could always find time to barter with the farmers.  He seldom returned home without a chicken or eggs, or produce from one of the farms.
Kelly’s head fell forward resting against the cold wet glass.   “If only it could have stayed that way,” she murmured, remembering that awful night and the pain of hearing the news still clear in her mind.  The radio was the first to broadcast; three bombs had rocked the center of Belfast that afternoon.  Immediately she began to fear for the worst, knowing her parents were in the city finishing off their Christmas shopping.
It would be the parish priest who finally confirmed the tragedy, but Kelly had been the one to go to the morgue and identify the bodies, a task made grotesquely impossible by the force of the blast.  She viewed numerous remains until, too overcome to continue, she was allowed to return home.  The fact that her parents had not come home was all the confirmation she needed. 
After the funeral, the church supervised the break up of the family.  Luke and John would remain there in Armagh with their father’s brother’s family; Margaret and Mary would go south to the Free State and another batch of relatives; Kelly would go with young Shaun to Belfast and the Ballymurphy end of the falls.  The priest was well aware of the dangers of Belfast, but there was nowhere else for Kelly and Shaun to go.  He placed the youngest with the oldest, knowing that Kelly would look after her brother and surely the troubles could not last much longer.
Kelly was just seventeen when the troubles escalated in August sixty-nine, and barely turned eighteen when her parents fell victim to the carnage.  Before that fateful day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, her life was no different than thousands of other teenagers through out the province. 
She knew about the troubles from the television news and heard the chatter from her neighbours in the street, but that was politics and nothing to do with her.  She knew, and had known, lots of Protestants, and as far as she was concerned they were no different than herself.  Besides, she had enough on her plate with five siblings to help care for.  
She never did have much time for girlish vanity, makeup and such things, but was aware from other people’s reactions to her, particularly the men, that she was attractive.  Her dad had called her his beautiful princess with golden hair, but now the troubles were beginning to exact their toll.  Her once long blonde hair, and father’s pride, now grew in dull disarray and her youthful complexion had taken pallor from the lack of sustenance. 
Her aunt and uncle, who had done so much to make a home for her and Shaun, simply weren’t able to provide sufficient fare for them all.  At seven every morning her uncle would leave in search of work, but more often than not would return empty handed.  Work had never been plentiful in Northern Ireland, particularly if you happened to be Catholic, but since the troubles started, it simply wasn’t safe to work outside the Republican areas. 
So now thousands of unemployed men hung about the streets all day, with nothing better to do than add to the tension.  What little money there was came from the government, and simply did not go far enough.  As a result, Kelly often went without, making sure that Shaun did not go hungry.
Again she looked along the deserted street, hoping to spot Shaun making his way home.  Barely fourteen years old now, he was already part of the street violence that poisoned the youth of Belfast.  As if on cue with the darkness, Kelly could see the army flares that marked the direction of the riot.  She left the house dressed only in a thin cotton blouse and skirt, and within seconds the misty drizzle soaked through to her skin as she ran desperately in the direction of the telltale flares. 
“Please God, let him be safe, let him be safe,” she mouthed again and again between gasps for air.  The closer she got, the louder the sound of battle echoed back along the narrow streets.  Strangers and neighbours alike began to pass her, running in the opposite direction; she ignored their frantic warnings in her desperate attempt to find her brother.
“Get back girl, the English bastards are using gas.”  Women appeared from the darkened houses carrying buckets of water and vinegar to leave on their doorsteps.
Kelly stopped for a moment trying to catch her breath, the first whiffs of tear gas catching her throat and stinging her eyes.  She ripped a corner from her sodden skirt, and soaked it in the vinegar and water.  Covering her nose and mouth, she ran on.  She rounded a slight bend in the road and spotted the mob; there must have been two hundred men women and children.  The air was thick with smoke and gas, and flames leapt into the night from a burning bus, but it was the noise and apparent chaos that for the first few moments immobilized her. 
Rocks and petrol bombs were being hurled over the barricades at the British troops.  Protected by their shields and armoured vehicles they were advancing steadily on the makeshift barricade.  The blue flashing lights of the army vehicles dazzled her, while the wailing tones of the sirens invaded her ears, and all the time men threw whatever came to hand and barked their hatred with obscenities; women screamed in terror, some tending to the wounded others passing out rags soaked in the water and vinegar; above all this, the periodic crack of gunfire.  Through all this Kelly, frantically searched for a glimpse of her brother.  She couldn’t see Shaun, but most of the younger children seemed to be organized into groups to collect and re-supply the men at the front with missiles.  The gas drifted to one side away from the main body, so Kelly, without concern for her own safety, headed into the middle of the chaos.
The huge, steel-toothed grab of an army Scooby- Doo loomed over the barricade like the massive jaws of a prehistoric monster.  They grabbed and began to drag away the enflamed bus that was the mainstay of the obstruction.
Kelly hysterically called her brother’s name and ran from youth to youth in a desperate effort to find him.  The crowd began to break up as the barricade was dismantled. 
“It’s a Pig,” somebody shouted, as a troop carrier pushed its way through the burning rubble.  Paratroopers appeared from the rear of the vehicle and began to form a semi-circle formation in front of the main force.  An acrid blanket of CS gas was thrown across the mob and people ran panicked in all directions.  A teenaged boy fell, choking and vomiting, and rolled around the ground, clawing at his inflamed eyes.  Seeing the stricken youth, a Para ran forward and clamped the boy firmly to the ground with his massive oversized boot.
Kelly spotted Shaun in a similar condition to the other boys only a few yards from the imprisoned youth.  As she ran forward, the Para lifted his already primed weapon to mark her in his sights.  Faced with a probable terrorist running towards him, his training and instincts were to fire.  But her likeness was of, and for a split second, became that of his sister.  Kelly stooped to grab Shaun’s arm, all the time watching the Paratrooper, fully expecting him to squeeze the trigger at any second.  She pulled at Shaun, still struggling and clawing at his streaming eyes, and as they moved away from the Paratrooper, she knew that he had given her life. 
The high-powered automatic rifle was still levelled at Kelly, but he would not pull the trigger.  They had barely covered a few yards when Kelly saw a flash of fire from a nearby rooftop.  She turned, instinctively knowing the target, but was too late to call her warning.  The bullet struck the young Para in the throat, ripping it out, and propelling him backwards.  At the same instant, and by reflex action, his own weapon discharged and hit Kelly full in the chest.  She fell back on top of Shaun, pinning him to the ground.  She tried to speak, but she couldn’t, the blood that erupted from her shattered lungs prevented her from giving Shaun a final warning against the men of terror.
Shaun lay beneath his sister’s lifeless body, his senses numbed by the mayhem of battle that surrounded him, and an open gash just above his left eyebrow.  For a full twenty minutes, an all-out war seemed to be erupting all around him.  The British Para’s, enraged by the sight of one of their own dead, concentrated their fire on the rooftop, first pinning down, then neutralizing the sniper and at the same time bringing the action to an end.

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