Firebrand, by Sarah Thompson

Chapter One 
Is mise Saoirse.
I am Freedom.
Brookfield, Texas
June 20, 1857
First day in our new home we
buried my brother Aidan in that hard, hot, Texas ground beside my uncle’s fresh
grave.
I was twelve years old.
Only my cousin Jack and myself were present for the service.
Sweat dripped down our backs as the sun beat down on us with a fury I had never
felt before in Ireland. Jack wasn’t so much affected, having been born in that
hell, but I wilted long before he finished the burial.
Aidan’s grave was covered, full. I felt naked and empty.
Jack carried me inside the house, gave me water, and went
back to work outside. All without saying a word. I spent the afternoon on the
parlor sofa, crying into one of Mam’s needlepoint pillows while the house
mocked me with silence.
Later that day, my brother Declan tried to take his own
life.
Jack found him retching near the dried-up creek bed next to
an empty bottle of laudanum. As he dragged Declan inside, he met my eyes, and I
knew I’d just lost another brother. But Jack told me to fetch the physician,
and I did. I managed to saddle up the old mare and drove the poor dear three
full miles into town, even in my skirts and all.
By the time we got back to the farm, Declan was hardly
breathing. That fool doctor claimed he could do little else but pronounce my
brother dead, and I cursed him for that. I climbed up onto the bed beside my
brother and pressed my warm palms against his clammy cheeks. His cloudy eyes
stared unfocused past me as I leaned over him.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” I whispered. My tears
splashed against his blue lips. “I’ll not be losing both of my brothers
Declan, I won’t! So you pull yourself together, now. I need you.”
He didn’t even blink in response.
Jack tried to pry me away. As if I hadn’t already seen what
death looked like. But I would not

be moved, and so Jack sat at the foot of the
bed, his head bowed in prayer.

I never heard much of anything about the good Lord before I
met Jack, save the stories Aidan told me at Christmas about the baby Jesus. I’d
never given Himself any more thought than I did to stories of Oisín and the
land of Tír na nÓg. But when Jack said later that ’twas the Lord that saved
Declan’s life, I believed him.
Declan was laid up in bed for almost a fortnight afterwards.
Mam never came to see him. She was still bound up in her grief, locked away in
her room. Da came in once. He said nothing. Wouldn’t even look me in the eye.
He hadn’t since the day before Aidan was murdered.
It fell to Jack and myself to nurse Declan back to health. I
stayed at my post throughout his recovery, fetching him water and soup, and
reading to him. Even when he told me to leave.
“Get up and make me,” I said, voice catching in my throat.
“I promised Aidan I would take care of you. And I—I mean to do it.”
Declan only glared at me and fell back asleep.
Watching him gave me some comfort. A momentary serenity
settled on his countenance which reminded me so much more of Aidan. They were
twins. Same auburn hair, same olive eyes, but there had always been a peace and
cheerfulness in Aidan’s expression which was ever vacant in Declan’s.
Mam used to remark on it, on occasion. Far too much
seriousness in a boy of fifteen, she said of Declan the morning we arrived in
New Orleans. At fifteen, you should still be more than a little silly. Declan
had ignored her while Aidan proceeded to play a game of jacks with me.
As I sat beside Declan in his sickbed, a whimper escaped my
lips. A fearful, childish whine. Aidan’s name. I needed him to reappear, come
through the bedroom door and tell me that it was all a cruel joke. I’d pretend
to be cross with him, but ‘twouldn’t last long. I never could stay cross at
Aidan. He would then hold me, and sing to me, and tell me everything would be
all right. Then he would tell me about all of the beauty and adventure we would
find in our new home. He would keep Mam from crying, and Da from drinking, and
all of us from fighting. He would keep us living.
Mam once told me that Aidan’s name meant little fire. And
that was what he had been for me. A bright, lively wisp of a boy who made my
heart glow whenever he was near. But he was dead. My fire was gone. And my
heart was cold.
All I had left was Declan, and he hated me.
“You killed him, you know.”
I sucked in a shuddering breath and glanced down.
Declan scowled at me with red-rimmed eyes. He coughed
weakly. “It’s your fault he’s dead.”
Those words, hardly more than a pitiful croak from his raw
throat, made my stomach twist. I wanted to look away, to shove my fingers in my
ears, but I couldn’t. Because he was right.
“If you’d only done as you were told.” He clenched
the quilt in his hand as he struggled for breath. Tears streamed from his eyes.
“If you had stayed put, and not run off in a tantrum—”
“And where were you?”
Declan blinked at me. “What?”
“You saw me run away that night, and you didn’t stop
me.” My face burned. “Aidan was the only one to come looking for me,
and you let him go out alone!”
Declan paled. “I was asleep!”
“Liar! You’re a liar and a coward. The least you could
do is admit it.”
Declan turned his face away. His breathing worsened. Mam had
a meaning for his name, too. It was an older name, older than the river
Shannon, she declared. But as she understood it, it meant full of goodness.
She must have been mistaken. Or else missed the mark
something terrible when she named him. Full of something, to be sure, but
’twasn’t goodness. Was there an Irish name for full of—
“Why are you still here?” Declan spoke through his
teeth. “Go and be useful, for a change.”
I tumbled off the bed and stared at him, clenching my fists
with rising guilt and fury. Wanting to run from the room in a huff, but
determined to stay at his side. He was ill, that was all. He needed me, even if
he didn’t want me. Even if I didn’t want him. He was hurting. But then, so was
I.
“Declan, I’m—”
“Out!”
Declan grabbed one of my books from the nightstand and flung
it across the room. The effort left him wheezing.
But my pity was just as spent. “I hate you, Declan
Callahan! You’re a sniveling coward. And you can be getting your own soup,
now.”
I whirled and ran from the room before I burst into tears. I
stopped at my mother’s door, but it was locked tight. She cried softly behind
it. No one else existed in her world of grief.
I glanced at the stairs to the attic, where Aidan and my
Uncle Brendan’s trunks were stored. But I was forbidden to go up there, and the
dusty old room scared me, anyhow.
Downstairs was no better. Da was in his study, but I caught
a glimpse of him through a crack in the door. He was slumped over his desk,
pouring another glass of whiskey.
A heavy weight pressed on me from all sides. I couldn’t
catch my breath, couldn’t see through my tears. My head pounded like my skull
would split at any moment. All as badly as the night Aidan died.
One bullet was all it had taken. One bullet, and any chance
for my already tattered family to become whole again was destroyed. One bullet
had killed them all. I was utterly alone. And it was all my fault.
I know very well what my own name means. ‘Tis the Irish word
for freedom. Saoirse. Da always said Mam was half-mad when she named me. Most
days I agreed with him, because I felt anything but free.
The sound of a hammer echoing across the yard broke into my
thoughts, and I welcomed the noise as if it were a symphony. I bolted towards
the back door.
#
Cousin
Jack was wrestling with a post near the stables, trying to mend the damage from
the storm last spring. ‘Twas the fiercest he’d seen, he said. Splintered
fences, blew a wall out of the barn, and killed three of the sheep. Even ripped
half the roof from the main house before claiming the life of his father.
Uncle Brendan’s grave was hardly cold before Jack made the
trip to New Orleans to fetch us. Since he returned to Brookfield, Jack spent
every spare minute of daylight he could restoring the farm. ‘Twas grueling work
for one man alone, much less a boy of sixteen, no matter how fit and strong he
was. And yet Jack did it all without complaint. But as I watched him from the
porch, I couldn’t help but noticed how alone he was, too. There we were, falling
to pieces, with only Jack to pick them all up, while he was struggling with his
own broken heart.
He was my uncle’s only child. And though he was but a year
older than Declan, he already looked very much like a man. He had the bearing
of my father—tall, broad-shouldered, and strong-j­awed. And he had the same
pale green eyes. But he took after his mother and her people the most, with his
russet complexion and black hair. She was a native woman from the Choctaw
tribe, as he told me. He couldn’t rightly say how his parents had met, since
his father’s story apparently changed each time he’d told it. But she passed
away when Jack was a young boy, and now Uncle Brendan and Aidan were both
buried beside her, too.
Jack sang softly as he worked. The words made no sense to
me, but they sounded like a lullaby in his mother’s tongue, from my reckoning.
I strained my ears to try and make sense of the pretty little song. But Jack
stopped singing abruptly to curse and kick the obstinate fence post. He slumped
on the ground beside it, taking off his hat to run his hand through his
raggedly shorn hair before burying his face in his hands.
I froze by the garden. I didn’t have the heart to go to him
with my own pain. I was about to turn away and retreat inside, when a sweet
southern voice called out for my cousin.
Abigail Lewis emerged from the shadows of the stables to
kneel next to Jack and hold out a canteen of water. She was one of the most
beautiful girls I’d ever seen. About Jack’s age, tall and graceful, with ebony
skin and gentle brown eyes. She did the cooking and the cleaning for the house,
and tended after my mother. But Jack didn’t let her tend to Declan. That was
probably just as well, for her sake.
I’d heard of slavery in the Americas. I had all sorts of ideas
about what it looked like, awful fantasies of chains and beatings and men and
women being used like beasts of burden. But there were no chains ’round
Abigail’s ankles, no burden upon her back. She did not work under the lash. She
seemed to have far more in common with my old governess back in Ireland, though
Jack made me swear to tell no one that Abigail knew her letters.
I knew she was a slave, and although the notion itself was
rather queer to me, I did not find it so alarming, at first. ‘Twasn’t as though
I thought it was right. More like I didn’t know what to think. It simply was.
All I knew for certain was that Abigail was my friend, and that she lived in a
little shack behind the big house, not altogether worse-off than Da’s tenants
in Kilkavan. I didn’t see her as property, and I simply couldn’t fathom how
anyone could see her as livestock.
But that was before I met our new neighbor, Nathan Reeves.
He owned half of the town of Brookfield, and a large farm to the east of us
where he bred fancy horses. A week after we arrived, he came calling, while
Abigail and I prepared tea together. Strolled into the parlor looking for my
da. About frightened Abigail half to death, he did. He looked on her as if he
had rights to her very soul.
In Reeves’ eyes, I had found Slavery, and upon finding it, I
felt an ember of outrage take deep root inside my heart.
But in Jack’s eyes I saw only friendship. They were an odd
pair, Abigail and Jack—the strange slave girl who knew her letters and spoke
proper, and the Indian-Irish shepherd who treated her as his equal. When I saw
them together, I forgot entirely about that dreadful institution.
“You need to take a rest,” Abigail said while Jack
took greedy gulps from the canteen.
His response was softer than I could hear.
I crept forward, and crouched by the garden gate to listen
as they spoke quietly. An strange sort of cricket—Jack called them
cicadas—buzzed in the dead foliage beside me.
“I don’t care how much needs done.” Abigail lifted
her chin. “You can’t do it all alone.”
I pressed my fists into the cracked ground. If my da wasn’t
passed out in a puddle of drool all the time, he could be helping. If Declan
hadn’t been so selfish, he could be too.
Jack grunted. He tried to stand, but Abigail gave him a
light shove and he fell back onto his seat. I glanced past him at the pile of
lumber waiting for him, and frowned down at my slight form. There wasn’t much
of me, but surely I could be of some use? If it weren’t for that dreadful heat.
“Why can’t you get some boys in town come out and
help?”
Jack shook his head. “I’d have to talk with Uncle
Brian, but I don’t think we have the money to pay for any extra help,
anyway.”
“Shame on them! With all the hurt this family has gone
through, they should be out here helping for nothing, like good
Christians.”
I could hear the wry smile in Jack’s response. “Did you
forget which town we’re talking about?”
Abigail smacked him in the arm. “Hush!”
Jack reached up suddenly and grabbed her wrist. “What’s
that?” He turned her arm over. “That’s a bruise!”
Abigail snatched her arm back and rubbed it. “It’s
nothing. Caitlín didn’t want her supper last night. Again.”
“So she hit you?”
“No, no. The soup bowl did.”
Jack threw up his hands. “You let my aunt get her own
dang supper from now on! You—”
Abigail stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “She
just lost her son, Jack. Nearly lost both of them.”
“It’s no excuse for—”
“I’m fine,
Jack. She’ll be too. Someday. Sooner if I’m here to help her. Only love will
bring her out of that dark place she’s in. This whole family… I’m worried about
them, Jack. I’m worried about you.”
Jack said nothing, but I saw his hat tip down again as he
stared at his knees. He muttered something I could not hear. I crept closer,
disturbing the grasshoppers by the fence. The bushes rustled, but Jack and
Abigail didn’t notice.
She suddenly jumped back. “Jack, no! If Master
Brendan—”
“Don’t call him that!” Jack snapped. He coughed
and looked away.
Abigail sighed. “If your Pa had wanted me to be free,
he’d have seen to it.”
“He meant to! He said so. He—he…” Jack faltered.
His voice was small. “He didn’t intend on dying young, Abi.”
“It’s all right,” she murmured. “Go on, ask
your uncle. But don’t hate him when he says ‘no.’ You don’t need all that hate
again.”
The cicada buzzed again, but this time, the noise didn’t
stop. I glanced down to see where it came from, and saw a thick brown snake
coiled and rattling inches from my fingers. I sprang away with a scream and
tripped backwards, landing sprawled on my back with the sky straight above me.
The snake rattled louder. I kicked and scrambled away, never so thankful that
Mam refused to let me lower the hem of my skirts until I turned fifteen.
As soon as I got to my feet, I felt Jack grab me by the
collar. With one hand, he threw me behind him, and with the other, fired a
revolver at the serpent.
I half-stood, trembling behind him with Abigail’s arms
wrapped tight around me.
“Rattler?” she called out.
Jack inched towards the garden and kicked at the dirt. He
holstered his gun. “Dead now.”
I slipped out of Abigail’s arms and collapsed on the ground,
sobbing. She was beside me in an instant, gently shushing me. Even Jack turned
around and ran back to us.
He knelt in front of me and began to inspect my leg.
“What’s wrong? Are you bit?”
I tried to tell him no, but I couldn’t form the words.
Abigail shook her head.
Jack’s brow furrowed. “What’s the matter? Everything
all right at the house? Is it Declan?”
I cried harder, and I hated myself for it. My heart was
fluttering erratically. I gulped down a breath. Needed to calm down…
“Want me to take you back inside, Honey?” Abigail
stroked my hair.
“I don’t,” I managed. “I cannot bear that
place any longer!”
Jack sat back on his heels and wiped his brow. “Finally
got tired of that ass of a brother mistreating you, did you?”
“Jack!” Abigail hissed.
Jack ignored her. “Don’t you listen to a word Declan
says.” His eyes were narrowed, and he stared at me for a long moment.
“It wasn’t your fault. Do you understand me? Wasn’t anyone’s fault but the
man who pulled that trigger. Tell me you understand, Saoirse.”
“I do,” I lied.
Jack passed me his canteen and made me drink. I could see in
his eyes he didn’t believe me, but he let the matter drop. “What were you
doing out here?”
I swallowed. “Looking for you.”
Jack’s mouth tilted in a half grin. “In the
bushes?”
“I didn’t hear anything!” I blurted.
“Hogwash, you spying little devil!” Jack laughed.
He rose and helped Abigail and I to our feet. He folded his arms and looked
over me. “If you hadn’t been screaming and flailing like you did you’d
have heard a little more, too.”
Abigail was cleaning my tear-streaked face with a
handkerchief and she stopped, eyes wide. “Jack!”
A look passed between them. The smile had gone from Jack’s
eyes, and an iron determination replaced it. Abigail shook her head once,
firmly, but Jack didn’t so much as blink. She sighed and dropped her chin, and
he looked back down at me as if waiting for me to speak.
“What…” I began hesitantly, “what were you
talking about?”
“Meeting,” he answered simply. “And I was
telling her you ought to come with us tonight.”
Abigail looked up again. “Jack, please, we can’t
involve her in that.”
“Involve her in what? It’s prayer.”
“It’s not allowed, and you know it.”
“Meeting?” My toes curled and I couldn’t help the
smile that began to form. I lowered my voice to whisper. “Is it a secret
meeting? Like the abolitionists up in the north?”
 Abigail looked as if
she were about to faint. “Where ever did you hear about such a
thing?”
“From Mr. Reeves.”
Abigail pressed her palm to her forehead and moaned.
“Heaven help us!”
“Oh hush,” Jack said. “It’s church, Saoirse.
But out here, see, all the men in charge like Mr. Reeves aren’t too keen on any
of their slaves gathering together, even for prayer. So we have to do it
without them knowing. You can keep it a secret, right?”
I couldn’t help but see Aidan just then, in Jack. I nodded
excitedly. “I can, I will!”
“Even from your brother,” he said carefully.
Abigail was wringing the handkerchief now.
I rolled my eyes. “Naturally.” But then I bit my
lip, eying the pile of timber by the stables. “On one condition,
now.”
Jack smiled as if he knew what I was about to request.
“And what’s that?”
“You let me help you with the work ’round the farm. And
you teach me how to shoot snakes!”
He pinched my skinny arm and laughed. “Well, I’ll take
what I can get! Tomorrow, though. For now, you get inside and get yourself
something to eat. I’ll be up later to feed your ungrateful brother. Miss Abi’ll
take you on back to the house.”

“I ought to lock you up when we get there.”
Abigail threw a sharp glare at Jack, and steered me by my shoulders towards the
porch. “Keep you from getting into any of this fool trouble. Between the
two of you, I’ve a bad feeling my morning prayers are going to take twice as
long from now on…”