Thanks to Jedikay for the great picture and to Antoinette for her Beta work.
Something began to change between the boys when they had to move into the cave again. Nathan was increasingly more and more critical of Josiah and began to voice his disapproval. The situation simmered for several weeks until it began to rain and they were forced to stay inside together for two whole days. They were having their evening meal when Nathan brought one of the tins down from the shelves and opened it.
"What are you doing?" Josiah asked in a sharp tone.
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm getting something else to eat," Nathan spat back at him.
"I thought we agreed to save those for an emergency?"
"You decided! I don't remember you asking any of us about it. Which brings up another point. Who appointed you Captain of the island?"
"I'm the oldest. But we've always talked about things," Josiah defended, his voice rising in his anger.
"Yeah, you talk, you decide. It's always got to be your way!" Nathan yelled as he came to his feet.
It was too much for Vin and he leapt to his feet. "Stop it! Just stop it!" In the stunned silence, he bolted from the cave and out into the storm.
"Vin! Vin come back!" Buck yelled as he shifted JD off of his lap and ran after the younger boy. Chris was right on his heels yelling for Vin to stop.
The two older boys looked at each other and then at the two boys still in the cave with them. JD was cringing in fear with tears rolling down his cheeks while Ezra merely looked afraid. He had never been witness to violence between adults the way some of the other boys had been. Before they could even bring themselves to speak to each other, Buck came running back.
"Nathan, Josiah, you gotta come! Lightning struck a tree and it fell on Vin! He's pinned down and we can't get him out!"
"Ezra, you stay here with JD," Josiah said as he started out of the cave. Seeing that the boy was set to protest, Nathan also spoke.
"You do as he says and keep the kid inside. Build up the fire and straighten up the bed to lay him on when we bring him back, you hear?" Nathan waited until Ezra nodded before he hurried after Josiah and Buck.
He hurt! Vin had never felt anything that hurt as bad as he did just then. He had been running away from the fighting, from the raised voices. It was too much for him, being cooped up in the small cave day in and day out. He wasn't paying attention to where he was going, he was just running. When he realized that he was soaked to the skin, he angled for the remains of the trawler, at least he would be out of the torrential rain. He heard the others crashing through the trees, calling for him to stop and come back. Turning to tell them to go back, he was startled by the explosion as the lightning bolt struck the tree. He heard the limbs being torn off of the other trees as the giant palm tree toppled toward the ground. Temporarily blinded by the flash of light, he didn't see the tree bearing down on him. His last clear thought was that he hoped the others wouldn't fight about him getting killed by the tree. When he roused a few minutes later, he could hear Chris telling him that they would get him free, that he just needed to hold on. All he could do was hold on and struggle to breathe. The trunk of the tree pinned him face down on the ground. The simple act of drawing breath brought him pain and he passed out again.
Josiah slipped in the mud and landed hard next to the trunk of the tree. Another flash of lightning had him ducking while trying to see Vin at the same time. He knew he couldn't lift the tree off of him, it was too large and heavy. Nathan collapsed to his knees beside Vin and felt for his pulse. He then began to feel along the boy's back to see if he could tell how badly he was hurt. He lifted Vin's head and tucked his arm under it to keep his face out of the water that was pooling around him.
"Get some rocks and stuff under the tree to hold it up, I'm going to get the cross cut saw and cut this thing off of him," Josiah yelled to be heard over the wind and crashing surf. The others moved quickly to do what he had said. Running back to the cave, Josiah prayed every prayer he could think of and then just began to keep a running commentary up with God. " ... get off this lousy rock. Please don't punish Vin because of our anger and my arrogance. He's a great kid and he's learned so much. He deserves that new family he was coming to America to get."
Ezra looked up, wide-eyed in his concern as Josiah grabbed the saw and started out. JD misunderstood and began to howl. "Don't cut Vin in pieces! Please Josiah! Don't saw him up!"
"JD, I'm going to saw up the tree that fell on him. I would never hurt Vin. You stay in here and listen to Ezra and we'll bring Vin back as soon as possible." Ezra moved to put his arms around the littler boy, rocking him slightly to distract him as Josiah dashed into the storm again.
"Vin? Can you hear me?" Nathan called urgently as he pressed his hand on Vin's shoulder to keep him from trying to move. The other boys had wedged rocks under the tree on either side of Vin so that Josiah could cut the trunk without it slipping or putting more pressure on his back. When Vin opened his eyes, Nathan could see that he was hurting.
"Hey Nathan. Guess I screwed up, huh?"
"Don't worry, Josiah will get this thing off of you. Don't try to move or anything, okay?"
As soon as Josiah returned with the saw, Nathan ran back toward the cave. He grabbed up a pair of the wide, reasonably smooth planks. Laying them side by side, he took a couple of shorter pieces and nailed them to the planks, making a platform wide enough to carry Vin. Running into the cave, he grabbed up the belt they had found in the clothing from the trawler and then grabbed a stack of rags and a roll of bandages. Stumbling in the dark, he hurried back to the tree and to Vin. Buck and Josiah had gotten the rhythm down and were steadily eating into the wet, green wood. The saw wasn't as sharp as it could have been and it was taking forever to get through the thick trunk.
Vin turned his head slightly and got some water in his nose. Coughing caused sharp spikes of pain to rip into his body and he screamed. Chris tried to hold him still, to keep him from moving and making it worse. Nathan took the larger of the rags and draped it over Vin's head to keep the water from falling on his face. Chris took the corners and held it just the way the older boy showed him so that the water flowed down the material and onto Vin's back instead of landing in his face.
Another lightning strike caused all of them to flinch and peer around anxiously. As soon as they figured they were safe, they resumed their efforts to free Vin.
In the cave, Ezra was rocking JD as he worried. He genuinely liked the shy boy. Vin had welcomed him into their group from the beginning. He couldn't imagine how they would continue without his soft smiles and teasing humor.
The trunk finally separated and Josiah put the saw aside. Exchanging a glance with Nathan, they both moved to the piece lying across Vin. It was still incredibly heavy. They finally got it to move and took wobbly steps away from their trapped friend. When they were past his bare feet, they lowered the tree to the ground and held it until they were sure it wouldn't roll back. Nathan spun around and began tossing the rocks out of the way. Buck had grabbed the boards and held them out. Josiah helped steer the makeshift stretcher into position.
"Now we gotta roll him all at the same time so we don't hurt him any worse," Nathan yelled. All four boys positioned themselves and gently rolled Vin onto his back. Panic filled the blue eyes as he looked up at them. Nathan carefully tucked some of the rags under his head before lifting the end of the boards and setting them on his thighs. With the rolls of bandages, he began to secure Vin to the stretcher.
"No, please don't tie me down," Vin pleaded.
"It's just till we get you to the cave so I can see how bad you're hurt. Trust me?" Nathan leaned over so he could look into Vin's eyes.
"I trust ya," he whispered before closing his eyes again. Nathan used the belt across Vin's chest and another roll of bandages across his thighs before nodding to the others. Josiah and Nathan took the end nearest Vin's head while Chris and Buck took the other end and they hurried back to the cave. Ezra was sitting on the corner of the pallet, still rocking a sleeping JD when the others arrived.
They set the stretcher down across the small table. Nathan unwrapped the bandages and gently lifted one of Vin's eyelids to look in. Seeing the pupil react was reassuring. He removed the belt and the other roll of bandages. In the firelight, he could see where the younger boy was going to have some pretty nasty bruises from the fall he had taken. Vin moaned and tried to turn over, the pain of lying flat of his back on the boards was too much. Nathan tried to keep him still but finally gave in and they helped him to turn to his stomach. Vin flinched at the lightest touch on his lower back and they could all see where the trunk had hit him hard enough to leave deep bruises and rub the skin raw. Ezra had set their biggest cooking pot outside to capture the rain and started the water to heating by the fire. Nathan dipped a clean cloth in the warm water and laid it gently across Vin's back. After hissing at the contact, Vin relaxed under the warmth. For the next few hours, the two older boys took turns replacing the cloths after dipping them in the hot water. Buck cleaned up the remnants of the evening meal and Ezra was curled up with JD on the corner of the pallet asleep. Chris stood watching the others work, feeling an unusual tightness in his chest every time Vin whimpered or flinched under their touch.
The night dragged on until even Buck and Chris had gone to sleep. The two older boys remained awake, tending to Vin and worrying. As Nathan replaced the cloth again, Josiah addressed him.
"I'm sorry for the way I spoke to you earlier."
"S'alright, I shouldn'ta gone off like that. It's just that being all alone here is starting to get to me. I keep wondering if they told my daddy that I died."
"Your father is alive? I didn't know that. So how'd you end up working on the ship if you got family?"
"The war left a whole lot of us without a home. The plantations got burned to the ground and the Massa's, they moved on. A man come along and he told my daddy that I could get a job working on a ship and that I could have a good life. Seeing as we didn't even have a place to hang our hat, he let me go."
"How long since you saw him?"
"Three years not counting our time here. He probably thinks I died. What about your folks? How'd you end up on the ship?"
"My father was a traveling minister. He decided that I needed a skill, since I wasn't interested in preaching from the good book, so he sold me as an apprentice to the captain," Josiah explained. He watched carefully to see what kind of reaction his words caused.
"Sold you?" Nathan questioned.
"Yeah, the captain paid a hundred dollars to take me on. I had to work for him for five years to work off the debt. When it was paid off, I could start receiving pay."
"So you were as much a slave as my family."
"Yeah, I guess so. I never thought of it that way because there was always an end in sight."
Eventually, the two older boys fell asleep, one on each side of the table where Vin still lay on the stretcher. They awoke immediately when he moaned softly and began to try to move.
"What's wrong, Vin?" Nathan asked.
"Gotta go take a leak. It hurts so bad, Nathan!" Vin said as he tried to move.
Gradually, they got Vin upright and took him out to relieve himself. Nathan was worried because the boy couldn't bear any weight on his own and because of the blood in his urine. He could tell from the tightening of Josiah's jaw that he realized it too. When they got back to the cave, Vin wanted to sit in one of the chairs. As soon as they started to let his weight down, he tensed and began to struggle.
"You're gonna have to stay layin' down until whatever is hurt inside you heals," Nathan said. Chris was already up and he pulled one of the blankets from their pallet. Folding it in fourths, he placed it on the board to pad it some. Vin smiled in gratitude as the others helped him to get situated again. They could all see the worry in Nathan's eyes and tried to avoid mentioning it. Ezra kept the fire built up so that it was warmer in the cave while Chris brought food for Vin.
For four days, they kept Vin on his stomach on the boards except for when he had to get up to relieve himself. Nathan noticed that the younger boy didn't move his left leg as much as the right one. He didn't say anything about it because he didn't want to cause them all more worry. He and Josiah tended to Vin, carrying him when he needed to get out of the cave. Gradually, Vin could bear to sit up for short periods of time. From the tension in his jaw, they could tell that he was hurting but trying to hide it. In spite of the drop in temperature as winter progressed, the boy craved being outside. Every time the others had to go off to catch fish or gather wood, his spirit slipped a little farther. It was JD who brought it to the attention of the others.
"Something's wrong with Vin," the youngest told Chris.
"What do mean?"
"He don't ever smile any more. I even brought him Birdie and let him pet her and he didn't smile."
"Well, Vin still don't feel too good from that tree falling on him."
"Ain't he ever gonna smile again?" JD asked.
"I hope so, kid," Chris answered. He let the subject drop but it continued to roll around in his mind. Finally, he went to Nathan with his concerns. "What if he can't walk anymore? He'll never get into a good home when we get to America."
After a group discussion, they decided that it was time for Vin to get up on his own feet again. Josiah found a pair of reasonably straight saplings and cut them down. He cleared the branches leaving only one at the top and one near the middle of each. When the crutches were measured and cut, Chris took some of the cloth they had been saving and wrapped the tops, padding them thickly. Vin had been returned to sleeping in the group pallet when it no longer hurt him to lay on or be touched on his back. The bruising had faded very slowly leaving only faint scars from the deep scrapes the trunk had left. They started getting Vin ready by bending his legs and making him push against them to build up the muscles again. The first time they flexed his left leg, he cried out in pain.
"Don't! Please Nathan, I can't do it! It hurts!" Vin yelled as he fisted his hands in the bedding.
"You got to get up and get moving. You can't lay here and have us waiting on you forever," Nathan answered as he massaged the taut muscles. Vin continued to sob and beg the older boy to stop until he finally did. Vin immediately turned on his side and buried his face in the blankets he had wadded up.
"I don't know if I can do it, Josiah. He says it hurts when I touch him," Nathan said as he slumped against a tree beside the older boy.
"You said that if he doesn't start using his legs that they'll waste away until he'll never walk."
"But I can't be going in there and hurting him all the time, I just can't!"
Out of the shadows, another voice spoke. "I'll do it. He's got to walk again, he has to," Chris said as he stepped closer.
"You sure about that? You and Vin are pretty close. If you have to do that to him every day, he might come to be hating you," Nathan warned.
"I don't care. He's my friend and I want him to walk again," Chris swore.
The next day, Nathan showed Chris what had to be done. Vin pleaded and begged for them to leave him alone until he finally ended up screaming every time either of them touched him. When it was over, Josiah went in and carried him out of the cave so he could sit in the sunshine.
Every day, Chris went in and tortured his friend by bending and flexing his legs. It got so bad that Vin flinched away from Chris even when he wasn't going to move his legs. The tension in the cave was thick as the cold season wore on.
"Come on Vin, time for your exercises," Chris said as he flipped the blankets off of his friend's legs.
"Leave me alone! Can't you see? Don't you get it? I'm never going to walk again so you may as well stop hurting me! I hate you! I hate you!" Vin screamed at his friend.
Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Chris reached out and took hold of Vin's leg and began the exercises. Vin clenched his teeth and ground his head into the mattress. When he finished, Chris ran from the cave. Blinded by his tears, he didn't see the other boy on the path until he ran into him.
Buck wrapped his arms around Chris and stumbled back against a tree. "What's wrong? Did something happen to Vin?"
Sobbing and heart broken, Chris clung to the other boy. "He said he hates me."
"You know he don't mean it. He's just hurting and scared. When Nathan and Josiah get him walking again, he'll thank ya, you'll see," Buck assured the blond boy.
Ezra and JD crept into the cave after hearing the wrenching sobs. Both of them clung to Vin, offering him what little comfort they could. Ezra brought damp cloths and helped Vin to clean up and helped him change into clean clothes. After he had eaten a few bites of coconut and a handful of fish, Vin curled up and went to sleep.
Seeing how upset Chris was, Josiah and Nathan agreed to take over the exercises for a while. They also began getting Vin up on the crutches. While his right leg would bear his weight, he couldn't put any weight on the left one without cringing in pain. By the time it was beginning to warm into spring, Vin was hobbling around on the crutches. He still cringed whenever Chris, Josiah or Nathan approached him though, and that hurt the blond boy deeply.
As in the previous two springs, storms came and their beaches became littered with the remains of unfortunate ships. Josiah and Buck were on patrol when they spotted the partially buried trunk. They raced forward eagerly to open it, only to find it filled with bottles of whiskey. Josiah knew they could use the alcohol for cleaning wounds and for starting fires in green or damp wood so it wasn't a total loss. A little farther down the beach, they spotted something sparkling in the bright sunlight. Buck left the box of whiskey and raced down to the glittering bauble. A tangled mass of jewelry had washed up on the shore. Strands of seaweed were also mingled into the knotted mess. They also picked up pieces of clothing that washed ashore.
When they returned to camp, Josiah carefully untangled the chains of the jewelry. One of the pieces was a delicate looking cross on a chain. One was a larger pendant with a green stone surrounded by clear stones. When he finished, there were six different necklaces or bracelets and a strand of pearls. They decided to put the jewelry away and take it with them if they ever got off of the island.
Chris and Nathan made a patrol round to see if the birds had returned. As before, there were scores of birds making shelters in the face of the cliff. They stole enough eggs to make a meal before continuing with their patrol. They spotted the dolphins again and stopped to watch them for a while before going back to the tree house.
Josiah decided that they needed more room in the tree house. Climbing farther up the tree, he discovered another set of branches that would support a floor. Taking the saw up with him, he began clearing branches. As soon as the other boys realized what he was going to do, they jumped in enthusiastically. Vin, unable to climb the ladder into the tree house, stood on the ground watching them and feeling sorry for himself. From where he was working to secure the floor beams to the limbs, Nathan watched the young boy on the ground.
"What are we going to do about Vin?" he asked Josiah.
"What do you mean?"
"He can't climb the ladder to get up to the tree house."
"I guess we'll have to carry him up."
With only a limited amount of lumber left from the trawler before they would actually have to demolish the hull, they had another discussion. Nathan still wanted to try to build something seaworthy and try to leave the island. Josiah still felt it was too great a risk to take since they didn't know where they were. It developed into a heated argument between the two older boys, although they were careful to stay away from Vin and the younger boys when they argued. Josiah finally conceded to leaving the keel and ribs of the ship untouched so that Nathan could try to cut them down to make a smaller vessel out of the larger one.
The second floor of the tree house was almost complete before Vin got to go up to the first floor. Josiah secretly hoped that he would try the ladder if they left him on the ground long enough. Finally, when it was warm enough for them to move up, they had to make a decision. Ezra and JD refused to come up unless Vin could go up, Chris was too little to carry Vin, as was Buck, so it fell on the two older boys. They decided to take turns hauling Vin up and down, Josiah taking him up at night and Nathan bringing him down in the morning. They drew the line at taking him to the second floor of the tree house, though. He settled for sleeping on the lower floor with Ezra and Buck. JD alternated between sleeping up top with the other boys and sleeping below.
As it grew warmer, Vin grew stronger. He refused to let the other boys baby him because of his injury, turning to Chris to fix his crutch so he could let go of it without losing it completely. It was the beginning of patching the relationship between the two boys. Chris took a strip of leather and nailed it to the crutch so that it could hang on Vin's shoulder if he let go of it. With that modification, Vin was able to help with the gathering of wood and clean up around the tree house. Nathan fixed him up with a cloth bag that hung over his shoulder so he could also carry things like fruit and roots and he returned to taking patrols with the others. He was slow, but it didn't matter, he was contributing.
It was by accident that they discovered that Vin could still swim in spite of his 'bum' leg. The other boys were working with their nets to try to catch some of the schools of fish that they could see swimming past the island. JD was playing in the sand at the edge of the surf. Although all of them could swim, JD wasn't a strong swimmer. A surprise wave broke on the beach and swept the startled child away.
"Vin ... help!" JD cried as he foundered in the water and spit out the bitter, gritty water.
On the beach, Vin stood up and scanned for the dark haired, fair skinned child. Horror tightened his stomach as he saw the little boy thrashing in the water. As quickly as he could go on his crutch, Vin hurried down to the water. Throwing his crutch aside, he dove into the waves. With strong, sure strokes, he managed to get to JD before he reached the point where the strong undertow would get him. Unfortunately, once he got to the boy, he was confused as to how to get him back to shore. Vin's smaller, lighter frame couldn't keep both of them above water. JD panicked, his arms hitting Vin as he tried to cling to him while Vin tried to push him away so he didn't drag them both under.
"JD! JD turn on your back and float! Turn over and float and I'll drag you back to shore!" Vin shouted.
"Vin! Vin, I'm scared!" JD wailed.
"I know but you have to help me," Vin called again. Something nudged his leg and he jerked away in terror. A wave washed over his head, leaving him disoriented and choking on the salt water. Whatever it was touched him again and he felt a smooth, rubbery body touch him. His hand raked over the fin and a new wave of terror washed over him. He was touching a shark! The large, gray form surfaced and Vin realized that it wasn't a shark, but a dolphin. The friendly mammal nudged him again and JD, who had been trying to float on his back, saw it.
"A dolphin! It's a dolphin ... ulp ... Vin," JD yelled, spitting out the water that washed into his mouth.
"Grab hold of him, JD. Maybe he'll take us to shore." Both boys grabbed the fin and the dolphin began towing them slowly through the water. After a couple of minutes, Vin's feet touched bottom and he let go. The dolphin continued to pull JD until the little boy was almost on his knees in the sandy bottom. The dolphin rolled, pulling free of JD before splashing him with its tail fin as it moved back to the deeper water. A series of clicks and whistles flowed from the animal as it swam just out of reach.
JD stood up in the water and clapped his hands as he yelled, "Thank you, pretty dolphin!"
Josiah, Buck and Chris came racing into the surf to help JD and Vin out of the water. Chris and Buck each drew one of Vin's arms across their shoulder. Buck deftly flipped the crutch up from the sand and carried it with him back to the big rock where Vin had been sitting watching JD play. Nathan raced over after securing his catch and checked JD and Vin.
"That was incredible! How did you get the dolphin to help you?" Buck asked.
"It just came up and helped us," Vin said as his sharp eyes scanned the water for the gray shape.
"Did it hurt when you swam?" Nathan wanted to know.
"A little, why?" Vin answered.
"Because swimming might help you build up your muscles and strengthen whatever is making your back hurt when you stand and when you walk," the dark skinned boy suggested. "If you want, you can swim with me in the afternoons, see if it helps."
For the next few weeks, Vin did swim with Nathan. It helped him to the point where he no longer needed the crutch to walk but he still had a dull pain in his back if he did too much. They saw a lot of the dolphins for several weeks. JD begged to be allowed to swim out to them and the older boys kept him back. As the season waned, the mammals headed farther south for warmer water.
That the boys had grown so used to the elongated gray shapes in the water almost cost Nathan his life. He and Buck and Chris were working with the nets in the water when a dark fin surfaced several yards away. Nathan noticed it and promptly dismissed it as he turned his attention to the dark school of fish swimming just outside of his throwing range. Picking up the large stick he used to anchor the longest net rope, he took several steps deeper into the water. The waves were lapping almost over his shoulders as he struggled with the net. Buck and Chris were so intent on the fish that they didn't even see the dark shape advancing on their friend until it was almost on him.
At first, the bump angered him. Nathan scowled at the thick wooden pole he had pushed into the sand as it hit his thigh. Something brushed past his stomach and became tangled in the net. Letting go of the net and grabbing firmly to the post, Nathan looked into the slightly murky water. Suddenly, something hit his thigh again, this time causing him to scream in pain. The water immediately churned as the large shape fought the net and the wooden post jammed in its jaws.
Josiah was just arriving on the beach when he heard the blood-curdling scream. Dropping the rods and bait bucket, he raced for the others. Nathan was struggling for shore, his face a mask of pain and fear. He was fighting the rope attached to the net that was tied to his wrist. The older boy grabbed the rope and hauled the net, post and all, into the shallows before taking a good look at his friend. Nathan was bent over, holding on to his thigh as blood poured from between his fingers and ran down his leg. Chris and Buck were staring, transfixed, at the blood. Nathan fell to his knees, his eyes fluttering as he tried to remain conscious. He tumbled into Josiah's arms, whispering one word.
Holding Nathan up with one arm, Josiah dug into his pocket for his folding knife. He sawed against the wet twine rope until it snapped. Slinging Nathan over his shoulder, he stood, his knees wobbling under the load, he and Nathan were about the same height and weight. Shoving Chris and Buck out of the water, he made his way up the beach to the shelter they had built in the tree line. It was where they cleaned the fish they caught and where they rested if they were tired. Josiah sank to one knee and eased Nathan down to the palm leaf covered ground. He blanched at the sight of the blood that ran freely from the torn thigh.
"Run back to the cave and bring bandages, the sewing kit and a bottle of that whiskey that we found! Hurry! I also need to build a fire here to boil water so I can clean him up! Tell the others to bring a couple of blankets down here," Josiah ordered.
"Shouldn't we take him back to the cave?" Buck asked.
"No time, go now!"
After the other two boys had gone, Josiah pulled off his own shirt and flipped it inside out. Folding it carefully, he placed it over the bleeding gashes and pressed down firmly, earning a groan from Nathan. Soon, he could hear the sound of the other boys running up behind him. Chris set down the crate with the bandages, sewing kit and whiskey in it. Buck came behind him, carrying a burning torch, the kind they had made for emergencies.
"We used some of the whiskey so it would keep burning," Chris explained as Buck began to build a fire. Ezra and the others arrived a few minutes later with the kettle they used for heating water and a pair of blankets. Vin brought up the rear of the entourage, not able to carry anything except himself. Ezra had the presence of mind to fill the kettle with fresh water from the stream, as well as bringing the canteen filled with water.
Nathan wakened while Josiah was cleaning out the multiple puncture wounds. Chris and Buck took turns running to refill the canteen. While the smaller wounds stopped bleeding, some of the larger one continued to gape open and bleed every time he lifted the bandages.
"I'm going to have to sew these spots," Josiah told Nathan. "It's gonna hurt."
"It already hurts," Nathan said. "Just do it."
For the sake of sterility, Josiah dipped the piece of thread in the whiskey and then poured some over his hands and the open wound. Nathan hissed and thrashed on the ground as the fiery liquid burned the torn flesh. He finally slumped limply against the ground, a fact that Josiah was grateful for, as he didn't want to have to stitch him while awake. With trembling hands, he began to work. Chris knelt across from Josiah with the small folding knife, cleaned and doused in whiskey, to cut the thread after each knot. It took an hour to close the large gash and the smaller ones that still seeped blood. Using the squares they had torn from the shirts they found in the women's clothing and put aside for bandages, he bound up the wounded thigh and wrapped it tightly with strips of cloth.
As all of the boys sank back on their heels, Vin looked toward the water. He saw the dark shape, undulating in the water, trapped in the net. Extending one hand, he pointed.
"He caught it, Josiah."
Rage consumed the oldest member of the group and he stormed down the beach to where the net continued to drift on the water. Grabbing the net with both bloody hands, he began to haul the shark, net and all, onto the beach.
"Run and get the small saw," Josiah told Ezra, who had come down to retrieve JD. "I'm going to kill this thing and we're going to eat it."
Leaving JD standing there staring at the massive shark, Ezra ran to fetch the saw. When he returned, Josiah had dragged the shark well up the beach and was carefully untangling it from the net. He had already knocked the creature senseless with the stick he had taken from its mouth. The saw made an odd sound as it worked through the muscle and cartilage behind the shark's head. Buck and Vin were both dragging wood out of the trees to build fires and Chris was struggling to straighten the net with JD's help. Ezra went to kneel beside Nathan, tucking the blanket close around their injured friend.
The rest of the evening was given to cleaning and cutting the shark into strips to cook over the ring of fires Buck and Vin had built. Nathan had stirred briefly and taken some water. He was weak from blood loss and beginning to shake with fever. Ezra and Vin went back to the tree house and got more blankets and brought them down to the beach shelter. JD struggled to stay awake but lost the battle. Buck carried the smaller boy to the palm leaves and settled him on the other side of the shelter where his nightly tossing and turning would not bother Nathan. The others stayed up well into the night, cooking the strips of shark meat and worrying about their friend.
William nudged Hubert and pointed. "Do you see that over there?"
Hubert took the binoculars and looked in the direction Wil had pointed. What he had thought was a reflection of the moon on the water actually materialized into a row of fires. Pulling the map from the compartment on the shelf, he marked the position of the fires. Turning from the observation deck, he hurried for the captain's quarters.
"You're certain it was fires you saw and not the reflection of the moon on the waves?" Captain Leonard asked.
"Positive, sir. A string of five small fires. That island has never been explored, perhaps it's some poor survivors of a ship wreck," Hubert said, trembling slightly before the ship's captain.
"Drop anchor, we'll check into it in the morning."
By the time the sun rose, Nathan was burning with fever, thrashing and crying out. Josiah unwrapped his thigh and looked at the wounds. The large gash was only slightly swollen but some of the smaller ones were grossly swollen and seeping. He poured more of the whiskey over Nathan's leg, dropping the bottle to grab his friend when he shot bolt upright and screamed in agony. JD was crying and clinging to a very sleepy Buck. Vin and Ezra were both huddled up in the corner, too frightened to even move. Chris took the canteen and ran to refill it with fresh water.
"Don't leave me! Daddy! Don't leave me!" Nathan called as he tossed fitfully in the blankets. "Daddy, No! NOOO!"
Josiah forcibly held Nathan down until he went limp again. Looking to the other boys, he sighed. "Why don't you all go on back to the tree house and rest. I'll tend to Nathan."
"Is Nathan going to die, Josiah?" JD asked.
"I hope not, kid," Josiah answered sadly.
Chris was only a couple of steps away from Josiah when he dropped the canteen. Water splashed out, running down the oldest boy's back.
"Be careful, we need the water for Nathan!" Josiah barked angrily as he turned and caught the stunned look on the blond boy's face.
"Look!" Chris said as he pointed to the water.
The four men on the oars pulled in unison as the small lifeboat approached the island. The captain and three of his men stared in disbelief at the half naked people in the makeshift shelter. They had spotted the hull of the trawler, the Sea Dog, some time ago and decided that no one could have survived. No signal fire had been burning on the beach any of the nights they had been in the area. Through the binoculars, the captain was stunned to see that they appeared to be only children as they left the shelter and stood in a loose group up the beach. Only the last one to stand had any hair on his face, although they all had longer hair than was usual for children, at first he thought that they might be little girls. One of them, the smallest, leaned against a bigger child.
"Is it real, Buck? Are we going to America now?" JD asked as he tucked up close to his friend.
"Just keep quiet, JD. Let me do the talking," Josiah said. "You stay here with Nathan."
The oldest of the boys walked down as the keel of the lifeboat ground on the sand. The first two oarsmen leapt out to steady the little craft for the others to get out.
"Hello, Captain Francis Leonard of the Merry Wave Rider and you are?"
The man held out his hand but Josiah shrank from the outstretched limb. His eyes scanned the other seven men, weighing the danger to his friends. Only two of them were armed, with single action pistols, but they could still easily kill him and Nathan and take the younger boys to sell into slavery.
"We mean you no harm, son," the captain said, realizing that he was dealing with a young man.
"I'm not your son," Josiah defended hotly.
"You speak English, that's good. Would you care to tell me how long you have been here and how you came to be on this island?"
Deciding that he trusted the man, Josiah nodded. "This is our third summer on the island. We were on board the Nautical Gem when a storm hit. We got away in a lifeboat."
"The Nautical Gem? Yes, I remember her. Such a tragedy. And what about your name, son?"
"What about your friends back there? What are their names?" the captain pressed.
"Nathan, Buck, Chris, JD, Vin and Ezra."
"Are they your brothers?"
He opened his mouth to say no. He actually drew a breath as his brain sent the signal to his throat but something stopped him. They were a family, molded together by their similar circumstances and purified by their trials on the island.
"Yeah, they are," Josiah said. Need overcame caution as he remembered Nathan's injury. "Do you have a doctor on your ship? Nathan got attacked by a shark and he's burning with fever."
"Can I see him first? Would that be alright?" The captain realized that the young man and his siblings had been alone for three years after what must have been a terrifying ordeal. When Josiah turned and walked back toward the shelter, Leonard motioned for the others to remain behind.
The boys parted like the Red Sea as he approached. Under the blankets, tossing and murmuring in his fevered state, was a Negro. Like Josiah, he had hair on his face, only sparsely, but he was certainly not a child. The captain knelt and placed his palm lightly on the young man's face to gauge his temperature. Pulling back the blanket, he saw the thread holding the swollen wound closed.
"Aaron, Peter, come here," the captain called. Two of the men detached from the group and ran up the sand. "Gather him up and take him to the ship. Have the Doc look at him, he was attacked by a shark."
As the men moved to gather Nathan into their arms, JD came to life. Hurling his small body at the man giving orders, he began to wail.
"No! No! Don't take Nathan away! Don't take him!"
Buck and Chris gasped as JD flailed his fists, striking the Captain in the stomach. The man caught the little hands and knelt down, holding the frightened, angry child firmly. As scared as they were of the other men on the beach, they couldn't allow this man to hurt their friend.
"I'm not going to harm your friend. I have a doctor on my ship and he can try to make Nathan better. Will you allow me to do that? For Nathan?"
JD considered it. He really wanted Nathan to get better but he was afraid to let him go out to the distant ship. His lower lip quivered as his dark eyes swam with tears. He looked out to the dark shape of the ship and then back to where the men stood holding Nathan.
"Can't your doctor come here and take care of him?" JD asked. As soon as he blinked, his cheeks were streaked with tears.
The Captain sighed and motioned for the men to put Nathan back on the ground. "Tell the oarsmen to row out and bring the Doc. We'll wait here for him."
Aaron protested, opening his mouth to tell the Captain that he was making a mistake. Seeing the hard, warning glare he received, he snapped his mouth shut and walked away. When he came back with the other two men, he was tense with concern.
"While we wait, why don't you tell me a little bit about yourselves?" Leonard said as he eased his body to the ground. The boys exchanged worried glances and said nothing.
"We was on our way to America to get new families," JD chirped. The other boys cringed. Josiah had said they were brothers and JD had just blown the story.
"Well, it certainly looks like you've been eating alright." He poked at the little roll of fat around JD's middle, earning a giggle.
"We catch fish and we have peaches and coconuts and some roots. Oh, and sometimes we has regular vegetables from the cans we found on the beach. We live in a tree house. You wanna come see it? We have a cave where we keep stuff and Josiah and Nathan makes barrels to keep food in so we don't go hungry when it's cold," JD chattered happily, even moving to sit in the Captain's lap. The other younger boys looked on almost hungrily as the man rested a hand on JD's back and smiled at him.
Josiah watched as the lifeboat began its return to the island. He was torn. On one hand, he was happy that they were going to get help and that Nathan would get better. On the other hand, he was terrified that they would all be split up upon arriving on whatever mainland the ship called home. His heart beat so hard that he was amazed that the others couldn't hear it. He watched with envy as Ezra and Vin moved closer to the man holding JD in his lap. Buck and Chris hung back, fear shining brightly in their eyes. The small boat reached the beach and two men stepped out and ran up to the shelter.
"This is Doctor Landon," the captain said as the man waited for permission or direction. "This young lad is Nathan and it seems he's been in a bit of a scrape with a shark. His leg looks swollen." While the doctor was examining Nathan, the captain edged JD out of his lap and stood. "Why don't you show me this tree house of yours?"
Taking the man's hand, JD fearlessly led the man toward the trail, still chattering non-stop about all of the things they had made or found on the beaches. Vin and Ezra followed along only a step or two behind. Chris and Buck edged closer to Nathan, watching the stranger tend to their friend.
"Well, it doesn't look too bad. Could one of you get me some fresh water? I have some sulfa powder in my bag and we'll get Nathan fixed right up," the doctor said. Slowly, Buck separated from Chris and reached for the canteen. As soon as his feet left the palm leaves, he took off running. He came back only a few minutes later with the canteen filled to the brim with cool, clean water. The stranger took the canteen and poured some powder in a small cup and then added some water. When all of the powder had dissolved, he gently lifted Nathan's head and coaxed him to drink. Chris could see that the man had cut some of the stitches and was letting the pus drain out of them. "I'll need someone to hold him down while I clean these wounds with the carbolic," he said, more to the sailors than to the children. Aaron started forward but Josiah stepped past him and knelt at Nathan's shoulders.
Captain Leonard stood on the ground staring up in amazement at where the children had been living. The two-story tree house appeared solidly constructed, complete with low walls to protect them from the wind and from falling. At JD's insistence, he had climbed the ladder to the first floor and looked around. He was amazed that they had the presence of mind to use the kettle filled with sand and rocks as a bed for their fire. Climbing to the second floor, he smiled as JD showed him the 'swings' where they slept. He was amazed at their ingenuity in making a home for themselves. He also followed the small boy into the nearby cave where they had built shelves for their storage. JD patiently explained how they cooked the fish and then stored it in the small casks. While they were talking, a bird flew into the cave and landed on JD's outstretched arm. The man marveled that the bird seemed completely at ease with the child.
Nathan cried out as the doctor poured the carbolic into the wounds and scrubbed them clean. Chris and Buck each held one of his hands while Josiah held his shoulders. The sailor, Aaron, knelt holding Nathan's ankles down. The two younger boys were wide eyed with awe as the doctor worked on their friend. When the wounds had all been cleaned, the doctor began to stitch them closed again. From his bag, he brought out snowy white bandages to dress the injury. From another small packet, he poured more powder into the cup and added more water. Lifting Nathan's head, he coaxed the liquid down his throat, Nathan grimacing at the bitter taste.
"It's for pain," the doctor explained. "He'll probably sleep for several hours. We could use some more cool water to bathe him for the fever, to help the sulfa along."
Josiah reluctantly got up and nodded to the other two boys. He went to get the bucket and brought back more cool water. The doctor sat back and let them gently wipe Nathan down with the water.
"Why don't you boys bring some of those peaches down to the beach and I'll have my men catch some fish and we'll have lunch on the beach while we decide what to do?" Captain Leonard suggested when JD had shown him everything.
"You don't have to catch fish, we got a bucket of fresh-caught shark to eat," Ezra said with just a hint of pride in his voice.
The captain noticed that his accent wasn't the same as the other boys. "Where are you from, son?"
Ezra shrank in fear. He was good at reading people, a skill he'd learned from his mother, and he knew that he'd just given himself away. Affecting a fair imitation of JD's soft Irish brogue, he answered, "The same as the other boys, sir."
Deciding that Ezra could use a distraction, Vin shifted uncomfortably, letting the pain he constantly felt show on his delicate features. "Ezra, I need to sit down. Can you help me?"
The captain watched as the copper haired child eased the other boy into a chair and hovered around him nervously. Ezra took hold of one of Vin's legs and gently straightened it. While Vin maintained a grip on the chair, the other boy firmly massaged the muscles of that leg.
"What's wrong with him?" the captain asked.
JD immediately explained, "A tree fell on him and hurt his back. He has the leg-aches real bad sometimes. Ezra's real good at rubbing them out, though."
"I'll have my doctor take a look at him when we get back to the beach. Will you allow me to carry you?" he asked Vin. Getting a shy nod, he bent and gently gathered the small boy in his arms. Ezra pulled one of the wooden casks of peaches down and waited for the man to lead the way.
By the time they returned to the beach, the doctor had sent the sailors back to the ship and had them bring some other things. From the embers of the boys' fire, they had built another fire and the delicious smell of something cooking wafted on the breeze. Josiah was still hovering near Nathan while the other two boys were staring at the small cast iron pot with stew bubbling over the fire. A pair of tents had been set up nearer the hull of the trawler. As soon as he saw Vin being carried, Josiah leapt to his feet and rushed to take the boy into his arms.
"What happened? Did he hurt you?" Josiah whispered nervously.
"No, but he was asking Ezra questions and Ezra was scared so I told him my back was hurting," Vin whispered back as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Asking questions. What kind of questions?"
"He heard Ezra talk and asked where he was from. He knows he's not from the same place as the rest of us. What are we going to do, Josiah? Do you think he'll take us to America? Will they split us up?"
Sinking to sit under the shelter, Josiah pondered the last question. It was the reason he had fought Nathan so hard about getting off of the island. If he went back to America, he would most likely be returned to his father, a fate almost worse than death. He had grown to love the other boys as a kind of surrogate family. They looked up to him like a father figure. He tried to protect and provide for them as well as he could. The very idea of them all being sent to live with different families while he was returned to serving on the seas was almost too much to consider. When he refocused on Vin, he noticed that the others had also gathered in close.
"They aren't going to split us up! I won't allow it!" Josiah declared vehemently.
"Soup's on!" the doctor called as he began to dip the bean soup out of the pot. Where the boys had been standing over it drooling only a few minutes ago, they now remained tensely huddled under the palm leaf shelter staring at him distrustfully. "Come on, boys. It's good, I promise."
"Go and eat, it's okay," Josiah told them softly. He could smell the food and his own stomach was rumbling softly, he didn't want them to miss out.
Captain Leonard took two bowls of the beans and carried one of them over to the older boy who had remained with his injured friend. He stared into the striking blue eyes as Josiah took the bowl from his hand. "I'm not your enemy, son."
"I'm not your son! Can you understand that?" Josiah hissed.
"I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect. I just want you to know that I'm not here to harm you or the other boys. I gather that you've grown attached to them since you arrived here." The blue eyes locked on his and he saw the young man nod. "That why you told me you were all brothers even though at least three of them are clearly from Ireland and England and one is black and one is from the deep south?"
"We're family, as much as anyone else is. We've been here for three years, that's almost half of JD's life! I don't want to lose them," Josiah answered. Swallowing hard, he looked to where the doctor was running a damp cloth across Nathan's face and neck. "We've done alright here by ourselves. None of us has anybody in the world except for him. His daddy might still be alive, if he can find him. The others are orphans. Ezra's mother was on the ship when it went down."
"You didn't know that there were other survivors?"
Josiah's breath froze in his lungs. He'd been keeping all of them here because he didn't think they had any family and Ezra's mother might have survived. The weight of that information was almost too much for him to bear.
"I don't know how many survived, but another lifeboat was picked up. It's possible that his mother made it. It's also equally possible that she didn't. Doesn't he deserve the chance to find out?"
For two days, they lived on the beach while the doctor tended to Nathan. His fever broke on the first night and he fell into a deep, healing sleep. Josiah disappeared that next morning, his footprints showing he'd gone around the curve of the beach. With the provisions brought from the ship, the other boys were enjoying things they hadn't had in a long time. The cook came on shore and entertained them by making flapjacks. For lunch, they had more of the cooked shark but with a suitable gravy and biscuits, it was heaven to the children. The doctor examined Vin and said that he'd probably broken his pelvis and that it hadn't healed exactly right, that was why he still had so much pain. He assured the boy that it could be fixed with surgery, a prospect he didn't look forward to at all. As the other boys talked and laughed with the sailors and the cook, Chris hung back. The painful loss of his family reared up until it stole his breath. Hot, bitter tears stung in his eyes but he refused to let them fall.
The dolphins were back. Josiah watched them frolic in the water, wishing JD was there to see them. The captain had informed him that they would be moving on as soon as the doctor said that Nathan was well enough to travel. Although he couldn't make them go with him, he was urging them to leave the island. Josiah didn't want to deny them the right to go on to the mainland and find their new families, he just wished he could be sure that they would be able to see each other occasionally. He knew that with all the disruption the war had caused that it was unlikely that they would ever see each other again. He and Nathan would have to sell themselves as apprentices and work for a living. The boys would probably be sent out west where there were farming and ranching families that needed help. It would be a hard life but they would be provided for. He hoped that a nice family would be found for JD, the little guy deserved it so much more than the others. It was also possible that Ezra had family besides his mother that he could go to. A rapid flapping of wings announced the arrival of JD's bird. Birdie had been set free early in the spring when the other birds were on the island making their nests. The fool bird came back every time they took him around to the cliffs. Finally, they had dismantled his cage. Birdie took to sleeping on the hammock with JD. 'Stupid bird,' he thought.
Moaning softly, Nathan opened his eyes. His leg hurt and he felt achy all over. Someone lifted his head and tipped a cup to his lips and he drank greedily. The sweet tea was a shock and his eyes sprang open. A slightly balding white man knelt beside him, urging him to take more of the tea.
"It's got medicine in it, you need to drink it all," the doctor said as he tipped the cup again.
When Nathan finished all of the tea, he drew his elbows up and raised himself up to look around. At first, he thought he was having a hallucination. When he saw the other boys talking with other strangers, he sank back with relief. Turning his gaze back to the man kneeling at his side, he found his voice.
"Thank you. Are you the one who fixed up my leg?"
"I didn't think you would remember that, you had a pretty high fever," the doctor admitted.
"Just in bits and pieces. I guess I owe you my life. Josiah did all he could but we just didn't have the right supplies. Where is Josiah, anyway?"
"He went for a walk yesterday morning after your fever broke and he hasn't come back. Captain Leonard wants to get going as soon as you're strong enough to be moved."
"Going? Where?" Nathan's mind whirled with possibilities.
"Well, Atlanta for starters, that's where we were headed when we spotted the signal fires."
Now that Nathan had awakened, the captain was eager to be going. He gathered the boys and told them that they could take anything they wanted from the island. JD looked around and realized that Josiah hadn't come back from his 'patrol.'
"We can't leave without Josiah!" he protested.
Chris and Buck decided to go looking for their friend. They had a pretty good idea of where he was. As they came up on the sandy little inlet, they found him staring into a pool of water.
"Josiah, Nathan's awake and asking for you," Buck said.
"And Captain Leonard wants to leave," Chris added.
"Let him go," Josiah answered. He had decided that he wouldn't leave the island. He could catch fish and live on the fruit and roots that they had been eating.
"What about us?" Chris asked. "He wants us to come too."
"Go or stay. What ever you want to do."
"Aren't you going?" Buck asked.
"No. I'm going to stay here."
That was the crux of the problem, wasn't it? There was no reason for him to stay if the others left but he had no desire to see them split up. Or worse, to see them disillusioned when they didn't get the perfect family they had been dreaming of when they set out so long ago. Except for JD, they were all almost too old to be adopted and would probably have to find work for themselves. He looked away from his reflection and found two pairs of concerned eyes watching him closely.
"Go on, go with him. Good luck! I hope you find what you're looking for," Josiah said. "Just go!"
They stood there, staring at the older boy like he'd lost his mind before finally turning and walking away. As they walked back to where the others waited, they discussed the situation.
"We probably won't get adopted, no one wants kids as old as us," Chris said.
"They might want JD," Buck countered. "And Ezra's ma mighta survived."
"They should go."
"What about Vin? The Doc said they could fix what's broken inside so he don't hurt all the time. He should go."
"You think Nathan'll stay?" Chris asked. They all knew how badly he had wanted to get back home so he could try to find his daddy.
"I think he'll go. He needs the doctor still."
"So it's just you and me and Josiah?"
"You really gonna stay?" Buck asked as he pulled the blond to a stop.
"I dunno. There's not really much for us to look forward to. We're grown men practically."
"How about seeing if Captain Leonard can use a few more hands?"
"Nah, one trip in a life boat was enough for me," Chris answered.
When they reached the campsite, the tents had already been sent on to the ship. The sailors were loading the casks of preserved fish and fruit into the small boat.
"You need to leave some of that," Chris called as he hurried to reclaim the containers.
"What do you mean? Why are we leaving it, where's Josiah?" Vin demanded.
"We're staying, Buck, Josiah and I. We need some of the emergency supplies," the blond explained.
"Why? We're getting rescued! We're going to America! This is what we wanted!" Vin yelled.
"When we were children. Buck, Josiah and I are too old to be adopted any more. You and JD, you still got a chance. Ezra might have family looking for him. You three should go. Maybe the captain could tell people that we're here. Maybe they could drop supplies sometimes. You take the jewelry we found, you can sell it."
"I don't want to go without you!" Vin protested, throwing his arms around Chris.
"What's this I hear? Some of you aren't going?" Captain Leonard asked as he strode up.
"That's right, sir. We're staying. We're too old to be adopted," Buck answered.
"I can't go off and leave you here. Have you given any thought to working onboard another ship? I'm quite certain I could find you jobs on other vessels."
"No, thank you kindly. We've had enough of that. We'll be okay here. If you would let other ships know, maybe they would be willing to drop some supplies? We'll continue to pick up anything that lands on the beaches and we'll trade them for things," Chris offered.
JD had arrived and his quick mind figured out what they were talking about. He latched on to Buck's arm and began to cry. "I'm not leaving without you!"
Captain Leonard nodded to his crewmen and they grabbed the younger boys, carrying them to the lifeboats that waited for them on the beach. JD and Vin screamed as they were placed in one boat while Chris and Buck were forced into the other. Ezra, dodging under the arms of his would-be captor, tore off down the beach. In his ears rang the screaming of his friends as they were being taken away.
The older boy looked up in surprise at hearing his name. He saw Ezra running, looking over his shoulder at the two men who were pursuing him. Coming to his feet, Josiah caught the boy and put himself between Ezra and the sailors. The two men stopped running and bent over to catch their breath.
"What are you doing? Why are you chasing him?" Josiah demanded.
"They took the others! They took them and made them go to the ship!" Ezra shouted.
"The captain sent us after him. He said to take all of the kids to the ship. If you want to stay, fine, you're old enough to make that decision. But the others are only children and they're going to Atlanta to find homes," the older of the sailors explained.
"They didn't want to go, Josiah! They just took them!" Ezra yelled.
"You need to go too, Ezra."
Stunned, betrayed green eyes locked on the young man. Josiah tried to harden his expression so that the youngster would leave. While locked in the battle of wills, the sailors swept Ezra from his feet and carried him away, kicking and screaming. His heart clenched while he watched the little hands clawing as Ezra struggled for freedom.
"Jo - si - aaaah!" Ezra yelled as his captors rounded the beachhead and the older boy disappeared from his sight.
He took one step and then another, as he followed the trio. Josiah broke into a jog, reaching the beach where the last lifeboat was moving away from the shore. Ezra's hands and feet had been bound with handkerchiefs to stop his hitting and kicking. Taking off running, Josiah hit the surf and stroked toward the lifeboat. Ezra spotted him and began screaming for the men on the o
rs to wait. Grabbing the side of the boat, Josiah lifted his body out of the water and the men pulled him in. He held out his arms and Ezra squirmed until he was released, landing squarely in Josiah's lap.
On the ship, the four boys were locked in a cabin together. Nathan had been taken to the doctor's quarters in another part of the ship. Terrified, they clung to each other and cried. Vin was dangerously close to hyperventilating from being enclosed in the small room after so long under the sky. Even in the winter when the boys had been forced into the cave, he could always sit near the opening when he felt closed in. Chris was trying valiantly to calm him while Buck dealt with a distraught JD.
The door to the cabin opened and the boys looked up, prepared to charge their captors and try for their freedom. Instead, Josiah stood in the doorway with Ezra in his arms. They rushed into the room and clung to each other, crying with happiness. Captain Leonard stood in the corridor looking into the room with a satisfied smile on his face. It would be only a few more days until they reached the port in Atlanta.
Nathan grew stronger under the doctor's care. The infection in his leg was gone and the rich foods and ample liquids helped his body to replace the lost blood. He was only allowed a brief visit with the others each day, the rest of the time, he slept.
The boys grew familiar with the ship and the crew. Josiah took to following the deck hands as they worked, familiarizing himself again with the workings of the ship. The younger boys found out that they could play in the main corridor without causing too much havoc and were frequently found running and chasing each other. A few of the crewmen gave them toys that they had picked up for their own children. Their final days together were filled with fun and laughter.
Standing on the foredeck, Ezra stared at the shoreline and the mast poles of other ships in the port. He could feel the tears stinging in his eyes as he hung on the railing. Fear gripped his heart as he squinted to see the roofs of the houses that spread out from the port. JD and Vin joined him at the railing, staring eagerly toward the little haven of souls that was Atlanta. In their hearts, the only thing the boys feared was being separated. Ezra was just pragmatic enough to consider that they could not possibly find a home that would keep them all together. He had spoken with Josiah about it the night before.
"If, by some miracle, my mother survived the ship wreck, I'm going to ask her to adopt JD. He's young enough that she might be willing. I wish I could convince her to take the others too. I shall do my best to keep in touch with you."
"It'll be hard on JD, being separated from Buck," Josiah commented softly.
"Of course, you're right. It's just that ... I always wanted a brother and JD's the only one ..."
"I know Ezra, I understand. It'll be better for him to have a family."
"Will you ... will you talk to the others?"
A little while later, they were all gathered on the edge of a bunk. Josiah explained to them that Ezra was the one most likely to still have surviving family. He explained that if Ezra's mother came for him, that he was going to talk her into taking JD. The little brunet burst into hysterical tears and clung, first to Buck, then to Chris and Nathan.
"I don't wanna go away with you! I wanna stay together! I don't want everyone to go away!"
A small hand tucked into his and Ezra looked down at JD. The youngster still had red-rimmed eyes from crying. Vin draped his arms over the rail and stared toward the darkening horizon, imagining the animals and mountains and rivers he hoped to see one day. Buck stepped up behind JD and rested a hand on Ezra and JD's shoulders. Chris soon joined them, standing close to Vin as he watched the smaller ships moving in and out of the harbor. Josiah and Nathan were the last to reach the little group, the dark skinned boy leaning heavily on the crutches the ship's doctor had given him.
On the deck above the children, a middle-aged couple stood watching the gathering. Everyone on board was aware of the seven orphans who had been rescued from the island. The man knew what would happen to them when they reached Atlanta. Their only hope of a future was if they could be apprenticed to someone to learn a trade but most likely, they would end up being adopted by families needing help on farms and ranches where they would be little more than slaves.
The port sailors caught the massive anchor ropes and wrapped them around the pier pilings. A gangplank was lowered and secured. Suddenly, a flurry of activity surged forward, bodies moving up and down the swaying path. The boys pressed together in a tight wedge against the railing, to stay out of the way and to have a few more precious moments together. Tears streaked more than one little face.
"Oh, Orin," Evie Travis said as she grasped her husband by the arm, "Isn't there something we can do?" Her eyes went to the smallest of the boys, who clung to each other with dread in their eyes.
Orin sighed. He and Evie had taken a trip to Ireland to visit his wife's family. Spending two long weeks crowded into the tiny house with all of his brothers and sisters in law and their children had started the longing in his wife for a family of their own. He had been offered the chance to become a circuit court judge in the Denver circuit. His father's death had left the couple with a sprawling ranch, complete with cattle and horses. "Do you have any idea what you're asking for?" he said as he pulled her closer.
"I'm asking for a family, Orin. Can't we at least talk to them about it?"
Captain Leonard and Sister Constance approached the wary children. The young nun smiled and tried to encourage them to do the same. "Hello, boys. The captain has been telling me a most amazing story about all of you. Won't you come with me? I'm certain that the other children at the orphanage will be intrigued and fascinated to hear of your adventures."
The boys remained rooted to the deck as they stared at the kindly woman. She reached out and took hold of JD's free hand, preparing to lead him away. The little boy pulled away and began to cry.
"I don't want to go to no orphanage! I want to stay with my brothers!"
Several of the ship's crew advanced on the children, preparing to carry them to the dock if necessary. The older boys moved to stand in front of the younger ones, ready to defend them.
"Now boys, we discussed this. Sister Constance will try to keep as many of you together as she can. Let's get you off of the ship," the captain said as he approached the group.
An unfamiliar voice called out and the captain turned as it addressed him. "Captain Leonard, if I may have a word. My wife and I have a plan to keep the boys together and we'd like to discuss it with them if you don't mind."
The boys turned their collective gaze on the couple and a glimmer of hope sparked in their eyes.