Sydney Town, November 1803
ELIZABETH McGUIRE swallowed bile and fought another retch. She squinted, blinded by the day’s brightness. She thought no painter’s palette could capture such brilliance of light reflecting off the ocean or the smirks on the faces of convicts and free standing in the crowds.
Susanna’s arm gripped her around the waist. “Elizabeth, you need to calm down. Take deep breaths. This won’t do you nor Joshua any good. Think about your baby also.”
“How could they send us from a pit of coldness to this place?” Elizabeth leaned against Susanna’s hip. “How can they do this to me boy?”
Sixteen-year-old Joshua, stripped to the waist, stood arms tied to embrace a tree. Elizabeth glowered at Captain Marcus Linton standing beside the tree, the brass buckles and buttons on his red coat gleaming in the sunlight.
“Marcus should be tied like an animal.”
“You must stay silent,” Susanna said.
“Flaming hell, I will.” Elizabeth flipped her red hair off her shoulders and shoved her way toward Joshua, squeezing between the mostly barefooted crowds, causing some to lose their straw hats.
Reverend Marsden, his beady eyes surrounded by blubber cheeks, stood in front of the crowd, flanked by soldiers. “No need to go any further,” the Reverend said.
“You dare call yourself a man of the Lord. The fires of Hell will engulf you long before any of us. Let me go.”
Two soldiers grabbed her arms. “That’s near enough.”
“You let him loose,” Elizabeth said. “You have no evidence for what you’ve accused him of.”
Marcus stepped toward her, hands on hips, his black curls tied behind his head in a queue. The ribbon holding his hair fluttered in the breeze. Loathing and scorn covered his face. “You’re a convict felon, a prisoner of the Crown. Keep your mouth shut.” He leaned his face close to hers and lowered his voice. “I can ensure the lash rips out your son’s heart and it’s fed to the birds and his flesh to the pigs. If your son tells us where the other pikes are hidden, we’ll let him go.”
Elizabeth shrugged an arm free and wiped her sleeve across her forehead to remove the sweat. “He can’t tell you something he doesn’t know.”
“Mother, say no more,” Joshua shouted.
Marcus glared at her. “You should listen to your son.”
She trembled and lowered her head, and every muscle in her jaw hardened. May God have no mercy on you. I won’t hesitate to slit your neck the first opportunity I get.
Marcus stepped in front of Joshua, cleared his throat and faced the crowd. “Any further whisper of rebellion against the British government will ensure that conspirators will feel the noose cut off all this world has to offer.” He pointed to a young man at the front of the crowd. “Seamus O’Callaghan, step forward.”
“I beg of you, for the love of Mary, I can’t do it.”
“You’ll take the cat o’ nine tails and do it, or you’ll be shot and we’ll find someone else to take your place.”
The soldiers standing around the crowd raised their muskets at Seamus. He lowered his head and stepped forward. A soldier standing near the buckets beside the tree handed him a whip made of nine pieces of cord, each knotted at intervals and ending in a bead of lead bulbs.
Seamus raised the cat above his head and hesitated. “You can’t kill us all.”
“Put your fingers through the lash and bloody strike,” Marcus shouted.
“Pray, I beg of you.” Elizabeth struggled against the guards’ grip on her arms. “Joshua doesn’t know where any pikes are hidden.”
Marcus pointed at Seamus. “The muskets are aimed to fire.”
“Shoot me,” Seamus said.
“If we have to we’ll shoot every one of you disobedient fools.” Marcus smirked and fixed his gaze on Seamus’s wife, Susanna, who stood behind their young son. “Fling the lash or you’ll ensure your whore is left alone in this land of desperate men and your son is placed in the orphanage.”
“Flog the Irish devils,” a man shouted. “They’d be as guilty as each other.”
“Shut your mouth,” Elizabeth screamed.
The darkest fear shaded Susanna’s face. “To the back of the people, go Jeremy.” She pushed her son into the solemn crowd behind her, while the crowd on the other side jeered. Her voice wavered while she pleaded with Seamus, “It’s better to be a coward for a minute than dead the rest of your life.”
Seamus paled, stared at Joshua, and raised the cat. “May the angels protect you.”
The cat whistled toward Joshua’s white back and with the first strike, it was as if lightning struck Elizabeth and an inferno tore through her body. Great scarlet lumps arose and spread on Joshua’s flesh the same instant. The muscles in his arms quivered, his shoulders slumped against the tree, and he gasped between strikes, holding in his pain.
Elizabeth sagged in the soldiers’ arms. She stared at the trees unable to bear the sight of her flesh and blood, her heart, suffering.
A low and distinctive hiccupping chuckle came from a tree. An adult brown and white kookaburra perched on a branch, threw back its head and broke out in raucous, mocking laughter, as if the scenes below were the most humorous sight. Instantaneously, hundreds of birds joined the crowd in a laughing chorus.
“Hold her up,” Marcus barked. “Make sure she watches each lash strike.”
Seamus raised the cat, flung it forward, and looked away. The cat’s tails struck Joshua again. A new stream of bloody welts appeared, glistering against the white of her son’s back. The grip on Elizabeth’s arms tightened.
The cat struck again and again, taking her son apart piece by piece. Flesh and skin flew off the cat and into her face. Sickly lumps caught in her throat and she convulsed, spewing until she couldn’t anymore. “I beg of you,” she gasped, “stop before you kill him.”
She closed her eyes, each strike sounding like it struck raw beef, while half the crowd laughed.
Then the doctor called out. “Halt! Pull down his breeches. The next hits on his buttocks.” The whip cracked again and again. “Now on his thighs.”
When the final count stopped at fifty, she dared not open her eyes. The birds no longer laughed. He’s dead. Elizabeth took several deep breaths. A quivering mesh of blood and skin covered Joshua’s back. Two soldiers raised buckets and threw salt water over Joshua’s back, prompting the most horrendous scream.
Elizabeth tried to struggle away from the soldiers. “Let me go to him, for mercy’s sake.”
“Release her, but shoot her if she goes to him,” Marcus said. “He’ll be taken to the hospital, then placed in irons.”
Seamus threw the dripping cat on the ground and stepped toward the silent side of the crowd and into Susanna’s arms.
The grip on Elizabeth’s arms released. She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dress.
“Untie him.” Marcus stepped toward her. “If he finds trouble again, it will be the noose, and I’ll ensure you watch every second of your son choke to death in chains.”
She spat in his face. “To hell with you, this land and everything in it.”
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