Across the Sea by Wayne Mansfield is now available!
Twenty-two-year-old Jacob Tomkins is sentenced to seven years’ labour in the fledgling colony of Sydney Town, Australia. The voyage across the sea is arduous. He is travelling with mean, street-hardened criminals, some of whom would like to use him for their pleasure.
Fortunately he meets Peter, who takes Jacob under his wing. Together they find moments of pleasure amid the drudgery of the voyage. They share their hopes and dreams, and finally declare their love for each other upon the eve of their arrival in Sydney Town — a place where the currency is rum, distilled and controlled by the powerful military.
But what will happen once they disembark? The chances of remaining together are slim. A lot can happen in seven years, especially when Jacob’s new master takes a liking to him. Is their love strong enough to survive the ravages of time? Can they survive the rigors of their sentences?
“We heard ya last night,” said Collins, a tall, scrawny man whose straw-coloured hair always put Jacob in mind of a scarecrow, the way it stuck out all over the place.
Jacob stayed focused on the task at hand, but noticed Collins looking around to check for redcoats.
“And I’m gonna give ya the same thing one of these nights,” he said, grinning. “Make no mistake …” He grabbed his crotch. “… Collins is gonna get his share.”
The crack of a whip startled Jacob. He heard Collins yelp as the tail of the whip sliced a neat line through the man’s shirt and across his back. Without another word Collins moved off, but Jacob dared not turn his head to see in which direction. Once the whip was out, the overseer, a stocky man with crude tattoos all up and down his arm, was more than happy to use it at the slightest provocation.
When he’d finished airing his blankets and pillow, he placed them on the mattress then folded the mattress over to create a neat, easy-to-carry bundle, which he left on the deck by his feet.
Peter, not wanting to attract attention, ambled casually over to him and leaned against the bulwark. When he was certain the patrolling redcoats were out of earshot, he asked, “What did Collins say?”
Jacob began to study his tattered shoes. “Nothing.”
“I heard him say something, lad.”
“Nothing important is all I meant.”
He glanced at Peter and saw the dark expression he was wearing, but what was there to be gained by upsetting him with what Collins had said? A few of the men had tried to take from him what he willingly and happily gave Peter, but Peter had always put an end to their efforts. If Collins did try to make good on his threat, Peter would stop him as he’d stopped the others. And if what Collins had said was all talk, which he suspected it was, he’d be getting Peter worked up unnecessarily.
Without another word, Peter walked over to where Collins was sitting with another man called McCready. Collins had his head hung, but it was clear he was saying something. It’s what they all did when they wanted to talk above deck.
Jacob was momentarily distracted by someone calling out, “Oranges.”
The man carrying the tub of oranges appeared from below decks and was immediately swamped by convicts eager for the juicy sweetness of the fruit. It was a rare treat, albeit a necessary one, since oranges, along with lemons and limes, had the remarkable power to keep scurvy at bay. It was the only food item of any nutritional value given to men whose other sources of sustenance were stew, served to them once a day, every day, and made from vegetables which had already started to go bad, and gruel.
At once the overseer’s whip was cracking like lightning, leaving crimson streaks down the back of any man unfortunate enough to get in its way.
“Back, you dogs! Get back!”
Jacob watched the men slink away, heads down in submission. It seemed the overseer’s insult hadn’t been far from the truth, for at that moment the men truly did resemble dogs; and if they’d had tails, they would have been tucked between their legs.
“Nice and orderly now,” growled the overseer.
Jacob moved forward, knowing it was no longer just the overseer observing them, but that the redcoats, drawn from their conversations and daydreams by the commotion, were keeping a more watchful eye on them. It was a fact that didn’t bother him. Nothing was going to get in the way of him and the tub of oranges. Already his mouth was watering at the thought of that sweet juice trickling down his throat.
Suddenly a skirmish broke out. He turned and saw Peter slam his fist into Collins’s jaw. The overseer cracked the whip and two redcoats came running to assist. Jacob ran at the man with the tub of oranges and snatched up two of them. As the redcoats struggled to separate Peter and Collins, Jacob tucked one orange under his armpit and tore the skin off the other, pushing large chunks of thirst quenching fruit into his mouth.
Finally, the redcoats were able to separate the two men.
“What’s the meaning of this?” asked the taller of the two redcoats.
“It was him, sir,” said Collins, pointing a bony finger. “He just came at me with his fists.”
Jacob stuffed the remaining pieces of orange into his mouth, the juice leaking out over his lips and leaving a sticky mess on his chin.
The redcoat turned to Peter. “And what do you have to say for yourself?”
Peter looked the redcoat in the eye and replied, “Does it make any difference?”
Jacob momentarily stopped chewing. He looked from Peter to the redcoat and back to Peter. He felt the blood drain from his face.
The redcoat glared at Peter, an expression of disgust on his face. “Fifty lashes for both of them then put this one into the stocks.”
This one? ‘This one’ meant Peter. But why only Peter? He swallowed the mouthful of orange, nearly choking as he did so.
His eyes moved from Peter to Collins, who was already looking back at him, a self-satisfied grin plastered across his face. Collins gave a single nod and suddenly Jacob didn’t feel like eating his second orange. He could only hope the fifty lashes would leave Collins so weak and exhausted, he wouldn’t have the energy for anything else.
“Everybody back below!” shouted the overseer. “Come on. Let’s be quick about it.”
Jacob removed the orange from his armpit and returned to the spot where he’d left his bedding. He gathered up the folded mattress containing his blankets and pillow, and began walking slowly towards the steps leading down into the darkness below. He looked back at Peter, who was shaking his head as if to say sorry, and then at Collins, whose eyes were on someone further back along the line of convicts. When he turned further round to see who Collins was looking at, his stomach lurched. McCready. They were as thick as thieves and cut from the same mean, nasty cloth. His heart began to pound. When McCready turned to face the front and their eyes met, Jacob felt as if he was going to pass out.