Ship Harbour, Nova Scotia, 1831
Michael’s head dropped forward, jerking him awake. The room was too warm and he had just eaten a large dinner. Elizabeth had insisted on a fire though it was only October and many much colder months lay ahead. He would have preferred to use the wood more sparingly. He stood up, intent on doing something to shake off his drowsiness.
Elizabeth looked up from her embroidery. “Why don’t you take a nap, Papa?”
He shook his head and went to the window. On the road in front of his property, he saw Anna and her little boy walking, head down, hungry eyes seeing nothing around them. Then the young woman looked up and he realized that it wasn’t Anna. Of course, it wasn’t. Anna was long dead. He shook his head and wondered where his mind had gone. That was seventy years ago! But something about the woman’s manner had reminded him.
Before they walked out of his field of vision, he called his daughter. “Who is that young woman?”
Elizabeth sighed deeply, put aside her needlework, then got up and hobbled to the window. She shook her head and pursed her lips. “You know her, Papa. That’s the Widow Lawrence. She rents the log cabin on the property you bought from her husband last year.”
She must think him stupid for forgetting. “Yes,” he said. “Her husband died last winter, didn’t he?”
She shrugged. “They say she’s applied to the parish for alms.”
“Poor woman,” he said, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen her in a long time. That is why I forgot her.”
“What?! Hasn’t she been paying the rent since her husband died?”
He wished he hadn’t tried to explain his lapse in memory. He shook his head.
“That isn’t right, Papa! You mustn’t let people take advantage of you like that. You should go and demand your money.”
“What is the point if she doesn’t have any?”
“People should pay their debts.”
“Don’t be unkind, Elizabeth. Hard times happen to us all.” He was annoyed by her lack of charity, and he couldn’t help thinking it was somehow his fault. She had never known hard times; he had done his best to see that his children never knew such things. Ever since she was born, he had sheltered her and now she was an old woman herself. She’d never married nor had children of her own. He must be patient with her.
Elizabeth went back to her needlework, and Michael decided to go out. “I will pay a visit to the Widow Lawrence,” he said.
“That’s a good idea, Father. I hope you’ll make her see her duty.”
He didn’t answer as he was already on the way to put on his Sunday-best visiting clothes. He wanted to see just what it was about the woman that had made him think of Anna, her soft brown hair breaking free of its restraints to frame her baby face, her full, pouting lips and saucy green eyes.
Michael walked out in the late October afternoon. It was good to be out of the stuffy house and able to breathe in the crisp fall air. As he walked along the dirt road pitted with wagon tracks and bordered by dense forest, he thought how little Ship Harbour had changed in the more than forty years that he’d been here. It was still only a settlement– individual cabins surrounded by small cultivated fields spread along the single road that followed the coastline. The land was so barren and rocky that most settlers only grew subsistence crops. They could get a better livelihood from the forest and the sea, and most of the dwellings hugged the harbour where the little fishing boats were docked.
Michael was one of the few with enough land and labour to make a living from farming. He still had two unmarried sons at home who worked the land for him. But his oldest son Michael operated a saw mill at Seal Cove and his second son John Michael was captain of the schooner Waterloo, ferrying lumber and passengers down the coast to Halifax. Even after all these years, there was no road between the thriving seaport and the settlement. Ship Harbour provided the capital city with material to build churches, schools, halls, and shops, but there were no such buildings here– only houses and most of those still the original log cabins of the settlers. It always annoyed him how sloppily they were built. He remembered his own first cabin back in South Carolina. He had planed the logs by hand so that they were flat like boards in front, and the notches had fit so closely at the ends that only a little daub of mud was needed between the gaps.
Michael opens the door of his cabin on a warm spring day, and two-year-old Janet runs into his arms yelling, “Papa.” He lifts her high into the air, releasing and catching her as she laughs nervously. Placing her safely back on the good earth, he looks up to see his wife Lizzie by the fire with her brother Charles. His good mood vanishes abruptly.
“Good evening.” He goes to shake his brother-in-law’s hand, but Janet has attached herself to his legs. He laughs and pulls her forward. “Don’t hide. Come and say hello to Uncle Charles.”
The little girl bows her head and mumbles.
“I’ll take her to her room.” Lizzie takes her by the hand.
When they are gone, Michael asks, “Did Lizzie offer you anything to drink?”
“Sassafras tea, and I declined,” Charles replies with scorn.
“Would you like some whiskey?”
Charles smiles. “Don’t mind if I do.”
Michael takes out two pewter mugs and places them on the table with a thud. Lizzie will berate him after Charles has gone, but only strong drink can make his brother-in-law’s presence tolerable. He’s tired of listening to Charles’ complaints about the colonial government in the capital Charlestown. “So, what is it you’ve come to tell me, Charlie?”
Charles takes the mug from him. “The time has come…” He places his mug solidly on the wooden table. “To take sides.”
“What do you mean?” Michael takes a gulp of the moonshine whiskey, searing the back of his throat.
“Things are changing here in South Carolina. The Council of Safety has seized the Arsenal at Charlestown.”
“And what is the Council of Safety?” Michael suspects it is a fancy name the rebels have given themselves.
“The patriots, and they’ve declared Royal Power obsolete.”
“It’s time we took the law into our own hands. We can rule ourselves better than some king who lives on the other side of the ocean and doesn’t know what we need. I’m going to join the Sons of Liberty, and all citizens have to choose which side they’re on. Are you with us or are you the enemy?”
Michael shakes his head. He’s never understood his brother-in-law’s reckless disregard for the rule of law. “I am, and always will be, a loyal subject of King George. I swore an oath to him when I arrived here nine years ago.”
Charles sneers. “Then you are my enemy now, because I am an American.”
“You are a British subject.”
“I was born here.” Charles juts out his chin. “And you were born in Germany, so why do you feel any allegiance to Britain?”
“King George gave me this land himself, and I shall never be a traitor to His Majesty.” Michael crosses his arms.
Charles swallows the last dregs of his drink and stands up. “Then I’ll have nothing more to do with you.” On the way to the door, he turns around. “Give my regards to my sister.” He puts on his straw hat and leaves, slamming the door behind him.
There is not a moment to savour this good news before Lizzie comes back into the room.
“Why did my brother leave so soon?” She eyes the two mugs and the bottle on the table.
“He told me to give you his regards, but he won’t be coming back.”
“What do you mean?” Her eyes narrow. “Did you have a falling out over something?”
“That we did,” Michael puts away the whiskey bottle.
“You ought not to ply him with liquor. I’ve warned you how angry he gets when he’s drunk.”
“He only drank a mouthful! The man was not drunk.”
“Don’t shout at me. Just tell me why my brother is not coming back.”
“He’s joined the Sons of Liberty and says I must choose between the rebels and the British. According to him, I have chosen the wrong side.”
“Oh.” She sits at the table. “I don’t understand politics, but why can’t you choose the same side as my brother to keep peace in the family?”
“Because your brother’s choice is foolishness. Do you think a handful of colonists will prevail against the might of the British army?” He shakes his head. “I value the lives of my family too much for that. Besides, I am loyal to the King.”
“When I was starving, the King fed me. When I had nothing, he gave me this land. I owe him my life and livelihood.”
Lizzie looks down and picks at her nail. He hates the way she does that. Next thing she will be chewing on her fingers till they start to bleed.