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As  they rode off, Sarah felt her heart pumping. She would see her son Albert for the first time in a year and a half. Her grip on Henry’s waist and rib cage was so tight he had to take her hands and ease the pressure so he could breathe properly. The road was better than yesterday and in an hour they were at the docks searching for Albert’s ship. Vessels of different sizes were moored on the still, grey waters of the Mersey. Gangs of men, some of them convicts in their chains, were on the wharves loading and unloading goods. In another spot, men were constructing and mending ships. Further along, several ships were anchored away from the bank and Henry tried to read their names through the fog.

“Look,” he said suddenly, “there it is, the Argot.”

Sarah nearly fell off their horse, trying to see where Henry was looking. “Where? Which one?” she said. She could hardly read, despite his occasional efforts to teach her, and names on sides of ships were meaningless to her.

“Over there, the one with crates and bags piled up near the stern.” He pointed to a large ship a little way on. “It must still be waiting to dock.”

She put her hand over her heart which felt as if it was about to leap out of her body. “There’s someone on the deck,” she said.

“That’s Captain Hardwick. I hope he remembers me.”

“I don’t see anyone else,” Sarah said.

“Albert’s sure to be there if produce is still to be unloaded.”

“Won’t the convicts unload it?”

“They only work on the government ships.”

“Let’s go closer,” she said, geeing the horse with her feet.

“Captain Hardwick,” Henry bellowed as they drew level with the ship.

A man of about fifty, his skin bronzed from the sun, glanced up. “Hello there,” he said.

“Do you recall who I am?”

He looked hard at Henry. “Ah, indeed I do.”

“Do you have my son, Albert?”

“Who?”

Sarah gripped Henry’s arm. Surely he was there, and the captain was just hard of hearing.

“Albert Wakefield, for ten pounds,” Henry said. “Remember?”

“Ah, yes.”

She tightened her grip and bobbed up and down with excitement.

“Where is he?” Henry called out.

“I’m afraid I have bad news, Sir.”

Sarah raised her hands to her face and shook.

“You mean you haven’t got him?” Henry said. “Have we come all this way and he’s not here?”

He jumped off his horse and hurried down to the water’s edge, followed by Sarah and the driver. But after a few steps, Sarah slumped to the ground.

“Where is he?” he yelled across the murky water.

“He’s committed another crime. They put him in a chain gang, making roads, out Parramatta way.”

“What? Where?” Henry shouted.

“It’s a couple of hours up the river from Sydney.”

“You were supposed to bring him back.”

“I tried to. I even went to Parramatta, and saw him in a long line of men chained one to the other.”

“Surely you could have done something.”

“Heaven knows, for ten pounds, given half a chance I would have, you know that.”

“You bumbling idiot, you …”

“They had three guards.”

“That’s not many.”

“… with guns, against my bare hands and those of my drunken crew.”

“I bet you were drunk too.”

A Weaver's Web ebook cover 150 dpi

At that moment, Jacob tapped Henry on the shoulder. “We’d better go, Sir,” he said, and went to gently take his arm.

“Let me go,” Henry said, shoving the driver hard. “I’m going to find myself a rowboat, Captain, and come aboard to make sure he’s not there. You might be keeping him as a slave.”

Hardwick laughed. “I’d be better off with ten pounds, Sir.”

“Mr Wakefield,” the driver said, again trying to take Henry’s arm. This time there was slightly less resistance.

“I knew I couldn’t trust him,” Henry said to the driver as they walked back.

Sarah was sitting in mud, near the road, where she had fallen. She had heard the conversation. “In a chain gang,” she said tearfully, her quavering voice barely audible.

Henry took her hand and helped her up. “We’ll find another ship to bring him back.”

He cast his eye along the Mersey at the dozens of vessels, many unloading goods from Europe, the New World, the East and New South Wales. Others were preparing to take goods, including cloth and apparel from Manchester and quite possibly from his own mill, to these distant places.

“There must be a ship going to Sydney before long,” he said.

“I’d save your money, Sir,” the driver said. “Another captain will have the same problem.”

“Miserable fools,” Henry said, struggling not to let Sarah fall over again. “I’ll buy a buggy instead and we’ll have some degree of comfort on the return journey.”

“It wouldn’t get through the mud for days, Sir.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Come on, then. We must get as far as we can towards home by tonight. I can’t afford any more time away from the mill.”

They got on their horses and rode off. Sarah flopped up and down, distraught, glimpsing at the river once or twice before she quickly had to look away. When they passed a wharf, she couldn’t help but notice a convict gang at work. One of the convicts had been unchained from the others and was being punished. Henry and the driver didn’t take much notice. They had seen this a number of times in Manchester. Sarah hadn’t. What she saw horrified her. A slip of a lad, no older than her Albert, had been tied to a post and was being whipped by a guard twice his size. She shuddered each time she heard the whip crack against the victim’s bare back and the consequent scream, and wondered what he had done wrong – if he tried to escape or swore at his overseer or slackened off. The cracks of the whip and the screams bounced off nearby buildings and ships. This seemed to prolong the agony. His back was bloody, but still the flogging went on. She saw the boy as Albert, under a hot sun in Sydney, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, being beaten because he couldn’t work hard enough, then collapsing on the barren ground, at the mercy of snakes and savages. How long he could survive this, she didn’t know. Perhaps he was dead already. She had no way of finding out.

She tried to control her tears as she sat behind Henry in silence, not wanting him or Jacob to see her in this state, for fear they would think she wasn’t strong and shouldn’t have come with them, not that the trip had achieved anything. She was cross with herself for believing Henry’s scheme would work.

For quite some time they rode through the rain and mud at walking pace. Later the rain eased and they passed several villages, local townspeople going about their business. Farmers walked their produce in wheelbarrows and handcarts. A young man was trying to get a horse and cart through the mud. And there were a few travellers on horseback. Unlike Henry and Jacob, Sarah didn’t acknowledge them. Her mind was consumed with thoughts of Albert and images of him at the hands of some brutal flagellator. She felt so helpless. Each step the horse took bounced her about and she ached all over and was cold and wet.

A Weaver’s Web is available at the following sites:

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK

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Apple iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/a-weavers-web/id775610928?mt=11

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