Here is the eighth episode of Dr Michael Apichella’s adventure novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds.
While on a scouting mission in Tenerife with Lieutenant McAndrews, Johnny Pilgrim disobeys orders and is absent without leave, seeking a ship bound for England. He is captured by McAndrews, flogged on the HMS Fortitude, and placed in the brig as the crew sail west to America on the trail of the privateer Captain Pollard. A clever lad, he escapes the jail in the Port of Philadelphia, and after risking his freedom by alerting Lieutenant McAndrews of Captain Pollard’s whereabouts leading to Pollard’s arrest, he makes his way into the deep American forest seeking a new life. After enduring poison ivy and harsh terrain, about fifty miles north of Philadelphia, ragged and famished, he unexpectedly sees a girl.
The girl was about 17 with long red hair and freckles.
Wearing a rustic smock over a blue gingham dress, she carried an oaken bucket while traversing a well-worn path.
There in the whispering shadows of tall blue-green pine trees, she noticed Johnny as he crouched in the brush. ‘Hello.’ She set the bucket down. ‘Are you thirsty?’
‘Truly I could use some water about now.’
‘What is thy name?’
‘I am called Anna Muhlenberg.’
‘May I carry that?’ Johnny reached for the heavy pail.
‘I am quite used to this chore, thank you kindly.’
After Johnny sated his thirst, he glanced around at the tree trunks surrounding the clearing, tall and smooth like limestone pillars, rising into a green canopy above their heads. ‘In a way, this space reminds me a lot of the nave of St. James’s Church back in England.’
‘You are from England? Papa always warns us to be careful out among you English.’ She took Johnny’s hand. ‘But if you like it, come. Let me show you something else.’
They strolled side by side under the trees until they reached a prominent knoll in the next clearing.
Climbing to the top, they stopped and, catching her breath, Anna set down the pail and pressed her fists on her hips. ‘Sit you down and just look.’
They could see endlessly in three directions under sunny blue skies, across hills, fields, and forests, unlike anything one could or would see in England outside of the Lake District or perhaps North Wales.
The flat horizon was fringed with rolling blue-grey mountains, peaked and heavily forested, higher than any Johnny ever seen.
Overhead a pair of eagles described elongated ovals in the sky, riding on powerful heat thermals pulsating from the sun-drenched timberland below, and everywhere Johnny heard the chirping of blue jays, robins and a hundred other species.
‘I know it’s a just a noise they make marking their territory, but to me birdsong is music.’
She confided a great secret. ‘Some elders in our church reject music, allowing only horrid chanting, whereas we have a fiddle and my father leads us in lively German songs at night.’ She tumbled next to Johnny, pointing aloft. ‘Look. That cloud is a fierce lion. See its mane and curled tail? And there, a whale.’
‘But the whale could also be a castle.’
‘Oh, you will have seen castles. We have none here. I imagine they are very cold and draughty places in winter.’ They both laughed.
‘Look. Now the castle looks like a hare.’ Johnny had never taken time to do something as frivolous as this game. He wondered if all girls were like Anna. He hooked his big hands behind his head, closing his eyes, listening to the bird-whistles and sharp trills as the sunlight caressed his tanned face. He felt Anna’s nearness, hearing the soft in-and-out of her breathing.
It was as if being near her intensified his senses. Was that the sweet aroma the wildflowers or was it the loveliness of her coppery hair, so clean and long as it spread out in a splash over her shoulders? Such intimacy made him tremble.
‘Oh! My parents will wonder where I am.’
‘I’ll take that bucket now.’ Grabbing the pail, Johnny fell into step with Anna who half walked, half skipped down the knoll before him. Dead ahead, Johnny gazed at a sturdy log cabin standing adjacent to newly worked land.
There before the cabin were a few massive black oak stumps obstinately cluttering the land. They would need to be cleared before planting time. ‘Papa has been working on the stumps for weeks.’
‘Stumps are like facts, Anna. Stubborn.’
‘I suppose that’s true. Come to that. Papa is a lot like that tree stump.’
‘Yes. For one thing, he insists I continue with my studies. My mother says she sees little need for girls to read and write. I feel she may be right.’
Johnny peered hard into Anna’s face. ‘My guess is your trying to convince yourself of that idea. Aesop’s sour grapes.’ Anna acted aloof, but Johnny continued. ‘One time I had the chance to complete my education.’
‘My foolishness prevented it. Don’t make my mistake, Anna.’
Her freckles dissolved as her cheeks flushed bright red. She knew he was speaking truth. ‘I never have conversations like this. Not even with myself. You see, there’s something that concerns my father and me. Things that require my knowing more than just my letters. Mother knows nothing of this business of which I speak. She must never know about what Papa and I do.’ She was on the cusp of confiding something very important, but she stopped, thinking perhaps she had already been far too candid with a stranger, an Englishman at that. ‘Come on. I’ll introduce you.’
Jakob and Miriam Muhlenberg seemed delighted to meet Johnny, and over dinner invited him to stay on for a few weeks. ‘There’s a space in barn for you. Food and lodging in return for labour.’
He spit on his callused palm and extended his hand across the oak table. ‘What do you say?’
Johnny spat on his palm and a deal was struck. ‘Lord willing, we will complete clearing the land, but first, if you don’t mind, tomorrow morning, you shall take the cart into town and bring back some supplies I ordered.’ Jakob handed Johnny five pounds. ‘Bring me the change.’
‘With a good will, Sir.’
The next morning, Johnny rode into town stopping at the only inn asking for water for himself and the horse. Taking a seat while a boy fetched the water, Johnny casually read the news stories of the broadsheet lying on the table. Auctions. Land sales. An account of a drunken brawl between two Quaker brothers.
Turning the page, he barely stifled a cry. There was his face and his personal details.
Below the picture an announcement boldly declared: ‘Wanted by HM Navy for desertion. A 20 reward for anyone turning in Johnny Pilgrim, dead or alive. Contact Captain Evans, Royal Navy, Philadelphia.’
He grimaced as inquisitive eyes turned from their broadsheets to appraise the stranger in their midst. With sweat beading on his upper lip, Johnny ambled out into the street calmly, rapidly cutting into the woods, heels flying into the air.
After trotting along a deer track until his energy was drained, Johnny tumbled to the warm grass. As he lay panting, planning his next move, there came a loud snort a short distance away. Glancing up he beheld a foraging she-bear followed by her cubs. Seconds later, the odious creature reared, turning her sharp snout in the breeze, which, inopportunely, had changed and was now coming from Johnny’s direction. Opening her blood-red maw exposing rows of long, sharp teeth, she let out an awful roar that seemed to reverberate across the woods as she charged him.
Pulling a knife, Johnny defended himself. Suddenly a loud report and the smell of powder filled the air, and the bear fell wounded crushing Johnny’s legs.
There, standing above Johnny, a bearded man in black frantically reloaded his musket, spilling power as he rushed to complete the task. ‘Get away, lad. She is only stunned. I will sink another ball in her head and that will put paid to her.’
Johnny clawed his way between the man’s legs while he dispatched her with a boom in a cloud of grey smoke.
The man was a raw-boned fellow with salt-and- pepper hair tied into a neat ponytail beneath an old-fashioned broad-brimmed hat. ‘I’m Rabbi Mordechai Shulman.’
Introducing himself, Johnny peered oddly at the fellow. ‘If you don’t mind my asking –’
‘What’s a religious leader doing here?’ Shulman peered at Johnny’s tattered naval uniform. ‘By the same token, my lad. I might ask what a sailor is doing in the forest. Perhaps it’s best not to ask each other any more questions, eh? Now, if you do not lay any prior claim on our friend here, I will butcher her, and share a portion of the meat with you, for I want what’s left and the pelt to sell in yonder Little Gap.’ He reached for a long knife and set to the task with alacrity.
‘You are not only handy with a musket but a knife, too, I see.’
‘My father was a gunsmith and a butcher back in Bavaria. May he rest in peace. Alav ha-shalom.’
By the time the pair finished cutting the bear into parcels, salted and ready to be sold, the sun was low in the western sky. ‘It will be dark soon. I must push on now.’ Instinctively, he lifted his hand in benediction. ‘Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam po’ke’ah ivrim.’
The rabbi noticed Johnny’s quizzical expression. ‘I prayed that you would have eyes to see.’
‘Oh, but my vision is perfect.’
‘Ah yes. But vision and seeing are not necessarily one and the same thing.’
‘That sounds clever. What is your meaning?’
‘If I told you,’ he said grinning broadly, ‘I would not be a good rabbi. No. You must learn for yourself. Meantime, a very good day to you.’
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved
For the next episode, visit the Bury Free Press website next Sunday at 6pm.