John fought back tears as he held his mother’s hand. She was still now and getting colder by the minute. As the sun set, the temperature of the room dropped too. Molly Delaney was gone.
It was late April 1858, and spring in New York was behind schedule. His mother had taken her last breath shortly after his younger sister Nelly left to get the priest. John was not a religious person but his mother had been a good Catholic and he knew she’d have wanted the priest there doing what priests did when people died. Nelly was also fond of all the church business so she would know what to say to the priest. John wondered if the man would come since they were Irish peasants. If Nelly wasn’t back soon, he’d need to go find her. This part of New York was no place for a girl of fifteen. He didn’t like her being out alone after dark.
It had been just the three of them, living in a one-room apartment above a saloon. They had arrived in New York from Ireland less than a year before. There had been nothing for them there, not after his father died. What family they had left boarded two different ships for America. His sister Elizabeth, the baby, had died in a tragic accident on the ship and was buried at sea.
The oldest brothers, Daniel and Patrick, had left Ireland first and were living with relatives in Massachusetts. They had both found work though the family had not heard from them since Christmas. Molly wrote to the boys often, but they rarely wrote back. John himself could not read. He knew his letters but that was all. He knew Patrick could read and maybe Daniel could but John figured they were too busy.
The loss of baby Elizabeth had been hard on Molly. John did not think she would ever get over her sorrow but somehow she had managed. Molly was a remarkable woman. Tears coursed down John’s face as he thought about all his poor mother had gone through. John’s father, Michael Flannery Delaney, had died in a British jail, beaten to death by the guards. In June of 1857, there had been a riot in Belfast that lasted ten days. It was the usual Protestants against Catholics. The police, and later the soldiers, mostly Protestants, rounded up the men they thought were the leaders. By chance, they ran across Michael Delaney, who had just arrived in Belfast. They were happy to find him. For years he had led bands of Irish thugs, fomenting no end of chaos for the crown. During that time the British had killed two of his sons and there were arrest warrants out for all the Delaneys.
They locked Michael Delaney up but he died before he could be tried. When word got out that he was dead, the riots began anew. Molly Delaney sold what she had before the British could confiscate it. She booked passage to America, escaping Ireland with what remained of her family.
Though the Delaney family had fought bravely for generations against the English, the war was over now. They had nothing left to fight for. Their land was gone, taken legally by a corrupt English court. Proud Irishmen fought to the death against the British as their Celtic forefathers had done, with the same result. Molly was not going to let them take her remaining children as they had taken everything else. She was not going to let the proud Delaney name die.
She could not have known that America would not be much better. Within a year she would die in a strange new land that didn’t want her, chased from her home by a hostile English government happy to see her gone.
Once in America, she had found employment sewing leather for a cobbler in a shoe shop. Jonas Blackman, a local fixer and blackguard, had rented them a room above the saloon. Just when it looked like things might be settling down, Molly took sick. She worked as long as she could with the fever but now she was gone.
John listened as he waited for Nelly. He half expected to hear Blackie clomping up the old stairway from the alley down below. The man had a talent for showing up at the wrong time. Rent was paid until the end of the week but John would need to do something soon. At seventeen he was full-grown, six feet tall, with broad shoulders, and he was strong. He could always get work. But he worried about Nelly. They had no family in New York and as he closed his mother’s eyes, he wondered how he would take care of his sister.
The last shadows were closing the door on this sad day as he heard Nelly coming up the stairs with another person. If it was the priest, then good. If it was Blackie, trouble was brewing. John had done quite a bit of fighting in his life and didn’t mind doing a little more to protect his sister. He left his mother’s side and opened the door just as Nelly reached the landing. Several steps behind her was a nice-looking priest smiling at John as he tried to keep up with Nelly. She flew past her brother to their mother’s side.
“I’m too late. I did my best. Oh, my dear sweet mum is gone,” Nelly wept.
The priest shook John’s hand, then went to Molly’s bed. He went to work chanting and waving over his mother. It seemed to help Nelly, so John didn’t mind, though it all seemed meaningless now with Molly gone. Before the priest could finish his duties, the door swung open without a knock. There stood Blackie in the doorway, glaring at the bed.
Blackie worked for a man who owned all the buildings on their block as well as most of the buildings in the area. John had never seen the owner and never would. Blackie made his rounds collecting rent and evicting tenants when necessary. He was good at his job and he enjoyed it. His collecting duties took little time so he spent most of his day visiting the local saloons, keeping up on all the latest gossip. Blackie was a huge man with hands like ham hocks, dark eyes, a round face, and a bad temper.
“I thought this might be the case, yes sir,” he said. “When she hadn’t been out in a couple days, I figured this was next. I ought to start reading futures on the corner with those Gypsies. Rent is due at the end of next week. We don’t operate no charity round here.”
“We’d never ask for anything from you,” John shot back before Blackie knew he was through talking.
“Why, you, insolent little Irish cur. I ought to give you a good licking.”
“That will be enough, sir,” the priest said as he moved between John and Blackie. “I’ll thank you to leave this family while they mourn their loss.”
Blackie grinned at John and looked around the room, appraising everything, trying to figure out if anything was worth taking. Then he stepped toward the door as if he might leave. Instead, he turned around and pointed at Nelly.
“We might be able to work out a trade for the pretty little filly.”
John didn’t wait for another insult. His father had taught him it was best to get in the first lick. He had also taught him to fight to win, which meant the other man could not even get in the fight if you were fast. And John was fast. The first blow was from his right fist. It landed square on old Blackie’s neck, right in the windpipe. It had the full force of John’s weight moving fast over several feet. Blackie stumbled out the door and onto the landing. He was still on his feet as John kicked him hard, just below the knees. It was a slight miss. Had it landed square, Blackie would have been finished for the night. It was enough sudden pain to make him look down. This was a mistake, as he was greeted with another right. This uppercut had not been well-aimed but John put all he had into the punch as it landed at the bridge of Blackie’s nose. The man’s eyes rolled back and he passed out, hitting the landing rail which, by some miracle, held his weight. Then he went to his knees. John threw a flurry of left and right hooks to the sides of his head before he felt his legs lift off the ground. The priest was carrying him back inside. Blackie fell over and tumbled down the stairs. John tried to go after him but the young priest held him fast.
“I believe Mr. Blackman understands you don’t appreciate his forward ways,” the priest said, with a smile. “I’m Father Matthew. Now if you would come and sit by your lovely sister we can continue.”
John was still too high on adrenaline to sit. He marched back to the door and saw Blackie still at the bottom of the stairs. The man was moving around but had not been able to gather himself up completely. John finally did as the priest asked. Father Matthew was calm and compassionate. He told them about what had to happen. He would take care of as much as he could since he knew they had no funds. He turned to Nelly and assured her that her mother would be properly cared for. He himself would arrange for the undertaker who would arrive soon.
A few hours later John and his sister were alone in the small, cold apartment. Neither one of them wanted to be there.
Blackie was gone but John knew it was not over. When the man recovered, he’d be back and he’d have friends–or weapons. John had been trained since he was a lad to deal with types like Blackie. His father died fighting bullies and if John had to do that now, that was just how it had to be. First, though, he had to take care of Nelly. She cried herself to sleep that night and was still asleep several hours later when John went out looking for Blackie. The man was nowhere to be found. Troubled, John stayed awake all night watching for the old scoundrel.
In the morning, John took Nelly to St. Patrick’s in search of the kind young priest. They were told he was at his morning prayers and they were asked to wait in a little garden outside the church. They were given warm bread and hot tea with a plate of fresh fruit. They were ravenous. John could not remember the last time they had eaten.
Just being near the church seemed to cheer Nelly. A short while later, an older nun came out and silently led them down a long hallway. They finally arrived at a large room filled with priests and nuns. They were seated in some sort of semicircle with an old priest dressed in a fancy robe at the front of the room. The nun led them into the center of the group, then bowed and left them with the priests. The old priest in the fancy robe seemed to be their leader.
“Good morning my children,” the priest said, with a gentle and kind voice. It was a mellow voice and soothing to hear. “Father Matthew has told us your story–as much as he knows. But now we’d like to hear it from you if we could.”
He nodded and a couple of nuns appeared with chairs for them. John looked at Nelly because she knew how to talk to these church people. He might be a bit too vulgar for their taste. This was a good plan, as it turned out, because Nelly was ready to talk.
“Your Excellency,” she began.
John would never have thought of that.
“We arrived in New York from Ireland last fall. Twas on All Saint’s Day so our mum took this to be a good sign. Our baby sister had died on the voyage over and was buried at sea, so as soon as we landed, we came to this very church to pray for her soul and that’s when we met Father Matthew. A kinder soul has yet to be found than this one.”
Nelly motioned toward the young priest. He smiled at her and winked.
“Mum and I never missed a mass except when she was forced to work on the Sabbath,” Nelly said.
John had no idea what a Sabbath was but he kept quiet. The old priest just smiled and nodded, encouraging her to continue. She did and by the time she was finished, all the priests were nodding earnestly. Every eye was fixed on the old priest as a moment later, he stood.
“Father Matthew I’d like for you to join the council in my chambers. We have some things to discuss. I’m sure we will have an appropriate solution when we return. After our noon meal, we shall announce what the Lord’s will is in this matter.”
He turned and a few of the priests followed him. The rest began to prepare the room for a feast. It seemed the old man loved to have a good meal after one of his proclamations. John had no idea how the fellow was going to determine the Lord’s will. He wasn’t even sure if he approved of the Lord’s will. He was not going to be ordered around by some old man in a fancy robe. John was not comfortable with someone else deciding what was best for them, especially after a lifetime of bowing to the British. Nelly knew he was having a problem with this so she hurried him off, away from the others.
“Now don’t you say a word until I’m finished talking,” she warned him. “These people are not the English. They do not want to take anything we have. So you just swallow that Irish pride and don’t say a word.”
“I’ll hear what they have to say but I’m not going to be told what is best for me,” John said.
“What about what I want?” Nelly interrupted.
John didn’t want to argue with his sister. The hurt was too raw. He simply shook his head in agreement as they wandered back out to the garden for a few moments. They talked quietly, reliving old memories in Ireland. For a moment they forgot their troubles.
When everything was ready the old priest arrived with his crew. Everyone stood as he walked in. He lifted his hand and began chanting in Latin. Nelly seemed to know what was going on but John was baffled. The whole thing was making him nervous. Had it not been for the wonderful smells of fresh bread and roast lamb, John would have walked out but the aroma kept him there.
After a while, the old priest had said enough and they all took their seats. Within moments they were served the best meal they had seen since their arrival in America. Afterward, a couple of young priests got up and sang a few tunes that John thought were pleasant. Then the old priest nodded and everyone fell silent, waiting with great anticipation.
“I feel certain we have come up with a solution to the children’s immediate needs,” he said.
He looked at John with a kind and understanding countenance.
“Son, I know you have had a difficult road thus far and I suspect you will have your share of trouble in the future. This is a hard land but it offers promise to those who behave themselves, work hard, and take advantage of what they are given.
Now you are about to be given something and I hope you will take advantage of it. I’m going to give you something more valuable than you can imagine. I’m going to give some advice as well as some charity. I hope your pride doesn’t jump in and cause you to reject such a gift.”
John didn’t have to look at Nelly. He knew she was glaring at him.
“My Paw and Mum taught me to respect my elders, and if what you say is good for me then I’d kindly accept it.”
He was hoping this would please the old man. He couldn’t tell. The old priest paused for a moment, his gaze fixed on John. John felt he should not interrupt the man again.
“As I was saying, Father Matthew has spoken highly of you and we will surely come to your aid. First, there is the immediate matter of your mother’s funeral. The church will handle all the arrangements and the service will be held in the east chapel. Please accept our condolences on your loss.
Now, for the child. New York is no place for a young lady. There are far too many ruffians about. Father Matthew has family in New Jersey with a farm. He tells me it’s a fine place for a young lady and that his mother will look after her properly. They are good Catholics and will do right by her.
John, you may do as you please, I hear you can handle yourself well enough, though I may not entirely approve of your methods. There is work in the city and Father Matthew will look in on you from time to time. After your mother is properly buried, he will take you both to meet his family. As I said earlier, and I hope you see it, this is your best option. Please consider it.”
When John was sure he was finished he said, “I will, sir.”
John said this without thinking. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wondered what he had done. He didn’t know these people. They weren’t even Irish. Then he looked at Nelly. She was glowing. He had never seen her look at him with such admiration before. So he let it ride. They would go to New Jersey and meet these people. What would it hurt? He hated New York so New Jersey might be better.
Father Matthew led them out of the dining room and down a hall with doors every few steps. He showed them to two small rooms. Each had a small bed and a desk in the corner. There were no windows or decorations of any kind. John didn’t care, though, and Nelly seemed pleased just to be around all the religious folks.
“We still need to get our things before Blackie decides they are his–and what is left of mum’s things too,” John said when he and Nelly were alone.
“John, can you do it without me? I can’t bear to go back. I never want to step foot in that place again.”
“It’s probably best if you don’t go back,” John agreed.
He was trying to be strong about this but the truth was he didn’t want to go either. But he did want to see Blackie again. He knew there was unfinished business between them. He didn’t want to be always looking over his shoulder because he knew Blackie was not going to accept defeat so easily. John leaned down, kissed her on the forehead, then left.
He circled around and came into the neighborhood from the east. He didn’t go to their rooms at first because he needed to locate Blackie. This time he was easier to find. He was sitting at his favorite table talking to a local policeman John recognized as one of his buddies. Blackie knew how to stay just inside the law by buying whiskey for the right authorities and giving them easy work when they needed to make an arrest or two. John slipped into the bar and merged with a group of young Irishmen. Blackie was nursing a few wounds from the night before. His left eye was swollen almost shut and he was limping rather badly. John inquired from the lads at his table if any of them knew what had happened to old Blackie. They knew nothing but reported he was being very tight-lipped about whatever it was. John felt sure the man did not want anyone learning that a young immigrant had gotten the best of him.
After a while, the policeman finished his drink and went back outside to walk his beat. Blackie was alone now, working on a whiskey that was doing a fair job of dulling the pain. He looked up from his glass only to see John sitting directly across the table from him, looking straight into his good eye. The young brat had the nerve to show up here. Good, Blackie thought. It saved him the trouble of having to look for him.
“You have your nerve,” he said as he slid his hand off the table to fetch the pistol from his pants pocket.
John never took his eye off Blackie but quick as a cat, he pushed the table into Blackie’s stomach so fast and hard it took away his wind. Then John reached under the table and tore the front pocket of Blackie’s pants open, spilling its contents onto the floor. The gun and several coins hit the floor and John kicked the gun across the room away from Blackie. By now the entire saloon was paying close attention. Before Blackie could catch his breath, John slapped him open-handed across the face. Blood began to trickle from his lip.
“I’m losing my patience with you, old man,” John leaned in and spoke softly to him. “If you give me cause again, I’ll beat you worse than last night, and there isn’t a priest here to pull me off you. Now can you behave yourself?”
Blackie didn’t say a word. He looked around the bar only to see what he was most afraid of. Everybody was witnessing his disgrace and his compadres were nowhere to be found. His gun was out of reach and his paints were ruined. He glared at the young Irishman as he gathered himself. He took out a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed his lip, then rubbed his eye tenderly.
“I need do nothing, my fine lad,” he said in a mocking Irish accent. “As it turns out there is a warrant for your arrest. I need only sit back and watch as the authorities do their work. You’ll make a fine addition to the city jail.”
He laughed and leaned back in his chair. What few teeth Blackie had left were rotten so the sight of him laughing was as disgusting as his rude comments about Nelly had been. John raised his hand as if to slap him again. Blackie jerked back, causing his chair to topple over and the big man landed hard. John was on his feet in a second looking down at him. The smile was gone from Blackie’s face.
“I spent most of my life dodging Bobbies and I’ll be just fine. But I’ll make you a promise. If I ever see you near me or my sister again I’ll finish what I started. We have plans to leave this hell hole of a city but until then, you’d do well to stay out of my sight.”
John walked over and picked up the pistol. He examined it, grinned, and put it in his pocket.
“I’ll keep this for my troubles, thank you.”
John bowed to the fat man lying on the ground, turned and winked at the young Irishmen, then strolled across the room like he owned the place. He departed to the sound of laughter.
John spent most of the afternoon and evening carrying their things to the church. He could have wept over how little they had. But he was ready to move on. New York had meant nothing but sorrow.
The day for them to leave finally arrived, less than a week after they buried their mother. The funeral was had been nice but it was very different from what John was used to. Funerals in Ireland started out with everyone crying and telling sad stories about how life was hard and ended with everyone drinking and laughing when the stories became more humorous. Mum’s funeral had been very formal. Nelly kept saying how she would be pleased, that everything was just so perfect. John was satisfied if not entirely convinced.
Spring had finally arrived and the sun felt good as they loaded all their belongings into the wagon. As was his custom, he had scouted out the area around the church prior to them loading the wagon. Blackie was nowhere to be found so perhaps they would get out without seeing him again. This was not to be, however. As they were loading, a couple of policemen arrived with orders to arrest John. Father Matthew looked at the warrant, then called for a nun. He wrote something on a note and handed it to her.
“Please take this to Margaret Murphy at once,” the priest said.
Then he turned to the policemen.
“If you gentlemen would like to wait inside, I’ve sent a note to the Police Commissioner’s wife. She is the head of our benevolence committee. These children are directly under her care and I’m sure she will be most interested in what you are doing here.”
The two policemen looked at each other and it was clear they wanted none of what was about to come down. One took the warrant back and they left without another word.
They didn’t leave alone, though. John followed them. He knew who was behind this. They stopped at a tenant dwelling a few blocks away and knocked. Blackie opened the door and he didn’t look happy during the discussion that ensued.
After the policemen left, John went to the door himself and knocked on it. As soon as Blackie opened the door, John pushed him inside. Blackie was caught off guard. Once again, John had the advantage. Before John could do anything they heard a voice.
“Who is it, my love?”
An elderly lady stepped through a doorway from the back. John and Blackie both turned to look at her.
“Oh, we have company,” she said. “I’ll make us some tea.”
“Don’t bother, mother. He is leaving.”
“Nonsense! We can all have a spot of tea. I’ve just baked sweet biscuits.”
John could not believe what he was seeing. He had never imagined Blackie having a mother, much less that he’d be here visiting with her. The desire to do further damage to Blackie had evaporated the minute she appeared.
“Madam I really can’t stay,” John nodded politely. “I just came by to tell your son goodbye.”
John stuck out his hand and Blackie took it. They shook hands firmly like old friends and John walked away. John then hurried back to the church to find the wagon loaded and Nelly and the priest waiting for him.
“We need to get going if we plan to make it there by dark,” Father Matthew said.
John looked over the wagon, then jumped up on the seat next to Nelly as they headed out of town. The day was nice and they chatted easily as they moved through town. They told Father Matthew their story and he told them his.