It had cost him everything he had to buy a one-way ticket from Adelaide to San Francisco on this boat. And when he’d lied about his name and who he was, and handed them forged papers, it hadn’t felt like dishonesty. That name no longer belonged to him, and he didn’t want it anyways. It had felt like shedding an old skin.
His stomach twisted with hunger. The food served down in steerage was nearly inedible, but he’d choked down as much of it as he could. They’d actually had to steal a little fresh water earlier, he and one of the Americans he was sharing quarters with. They’d broken into a second-class cabin whose occupants were at supper and had hauled several gallons of it back down into steerage to share with their fellow travelers.
Almost there. He told himself, pulling his coat around his shoulders against the stinging salt air. It’s been getting warmer the last week or two. It feels less like winter. We're on the other side of the world now. Surely we’ll be there soon.
“I reckoned I’d find you out here.” The hoarse voice startled him, and he jerked his head around to see the tall, broad-shouldered Yank that had helped him scrump the water several hours ago. The man folded up his long legs and scooted alongside him into the shadows.
Jon gave him a hard look of concern, unable to see much more than the man’s dim shape in the darkness. “What are you doing out here, mate? This weather isn’t going to help that cough of yours.”
“Well, now...” the man sighed in his folksy, Carolina drawl. “You know it ain’t much better down below. Least the air’s clean up here and it aint’ like breathin’ in swamp gas. And I reckon they’s glad to be rid of me down there anyways.”
Jon frowned. Can’t argue that, and that’s the fair dinkum oil. Many of the passengers and crew were sick. Grippe, most likely. And when some of the steerage passengers discovered they’d be sharing quarters with a black American, they’d nearly revolted. Although they weren’t too good to drink the water we stole. He put out a hand and settled it across the man’s damp, ebony brow.
“Struth... you’re burning up. You should be lying down.”
“Can’t breathe down there. I sure enough can’t sleep any noways. Aint’ enough air down there to keep a mosquito alive.” He crossed his arms across his knees and coughed into them.
Jon gave the man’s shoulder a comforting shake. “It’s getting warmer, mate. We’ll be there soon.”
Footsteps on the deck startled him and he jumped at the sharp voice suddenly barking a question at him. “What the hell are you two doing up here?” The voice wasn’t Australian, and it wasn’t American. Jon looked up, squinting into the damp darkness.
The sailor was standing arms akimbo, glaring at them. “You aren’t supposed to up here. What’s going on?”
“Came up for some air.” Jon said carefully. “Bunking in steerage.” He jerked his head at his companion. “You know the others don’t like seeing him down there. And he’s sick...so...”
The man took a step backwards. Jon pressed his advantage. “He’s less likely to spread the grippe up here than down below. So you might want to keep your distance, yeah?”
“You’re both from Carolina, yes? You are traveling together?”
Jon raised an eyebrow, baffled. And not for the first time. Why do they keep asking that? There were South African sailors on board, and more than one of them were seemingly unable to tell his Australian accent from an American Southern one.Truthfully, he’d only made the man’s acquaintance during the soul-crushing boredom and misery of this ocean crossing. But the indentured man had been as alone as he was, and having a companion on a harrowing journey like this one served to make them both less vulnerable. And unlike most of their fellow travelers, Jon could not have cared less that the man happened to be a negro. He glanced over at his companion and took a deep breath. carefully queuing up the lie. “We’re traveling together.” He said, deliberately using his new friend’s speech habits as he looked back up at the sailor. The less anyone knows about me, the better. I could credibly hide where I’m from if I play this right. The wheels in his head turned rapidly, calculating. This may work in my favor And in his as well. If everyone thinks he’s with me, he might get treated better. Nobody will question him, either. “I reckon you don’t mind if we take in a little breeze, do you? Ain’t enough air down there to keep a mosquito alive.”
“Hmph.” The man said in his heavy, alien-sounding accent. “Do not make me regret letting you stay out here.” He gave them a warning nod and hurried off, clearly glad to be away from them.
“Hungerford...” The deep voice chuckled beside him. “If that ain’t the sorriest thing I ever did hear...”
“Go with it, mate, it might work out for both of us.” Jon chuckled. “You don’t need to be on your own in a place like this...and I need to be from somewhere else.” He felt bright, inquisitive eyes on him in the darkness, questioning him with fresh curiosity.
“I reckon Hungerford ain’t really your name.”
“It bloody well is, mate.” Jon dropped his voice down low. “Fair dinkum oil.” A grim smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. “And anyways, that’s rich, coming from you. How the hell does a bloke get saddled with a name like yours?”
“Well, now, that’d be my brothers' and sister’s doing. Back home, I used to sneak out at night and come back with buckets of crawdad.” He laughed. “That...and ain’t nobody can grab me in a fight. I’m slippery.”
“Like this hellbender beastie you were telling me about last week? This thing that looks like a sheep’s tongue covered in slime?”
“Yessir, that’s the one.”
Jon shook his head, mopping his eyes with his fingers. “That’s buggering awful, mate.”
Hellbender Freeman laughed a deep, explosive guffaw, throwing back his head. “Sure enough beats the hell out of ‘Snot Otter, don’t it?”