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Glasgow, July 1768

The letter had arrived some four months ago; it had been uncharacteristically personal for James, and, quite contrary to his usual correspondence, it had not contained a single direct reference to his pecuniary situation. That alone had struck John as most remarkable for its honesty.

(John loves his brother, perhaps more than he ought to and certainly more than their other brothers would prefer, but he is not blind to James’s failings. Chief among these is an utter inability to manage his own funds.)

My dear John, it had begun, I fear the worst has come to pass. I received news today of the passing of my beloved Rachel, whose memory I hope you will recall with utmost affection for the joy she brought your dear brother for more than a decade’s time. My sons—your nephews—are left most grievously alone on the island of St. Croix, and I in my obligations here and my grief for Rachel, confess that I have not the time nor strength of will to make the journey. I implore you, dear brother, to find it in your heart to send for them at once; they are bright boys, and carry our name well. It is my dearest wish that they should have the opportunity to know our home land and grow up among their cousins, even while I their father as a result of my own failings have become absent…

John loves his brother, despite his history, and it had been an easy thing to send letters to the harbormaster and probate courts in St. Croix aboard one of his shipments. He’d entrusted Davies, his best captain, to deliver the documents and reclaim the lads himself.

The letter from James is in his hands now, worried over and wrinkled, as he strides along the docks through the hazy stench of fish and sweat. The Aurelia has returned to port today, and it’s meant to be with Davies and the lads in tow.

John’s left his carriage behind at the Hamilton offices, and takes care to step around the sailors unloading case after case of tobacco from the Aurelia’s stop in Virginia Colony as he approaches the gangway.

Davies is easy to find, his burly stature and shorn head standing high above the rest.

“M’lord!” Davies shouts, tipping his chin; John responds in kind, walking up the ramp and neatly over the rails to the deck. He’s not a seaman, himself, but here—under the beating midday sun, with the soft roll of the wooden planks under his feet—he thinks he could be.

“Captain! I trust you are well?” John shakes Davies’ hand with a familiarity borne out of nearly fourteen years’ work together.

“Aye, m’lord, you’ll be might pleased with the shipment,” Davies answers, and in the flick of his eyes, John can tell there’s something he’s not saying.

“And the lads?” John asks, straightening; he likes the captain, yes, but he does not like being lied to.

“The court released them to me, m’lord, but soon after we left port, the elder boy fell to a fever. There wasna anything to be done, was the truth of it,” Davies says, quiet and apologetic.

He continues with a recounting of the sickness as it passed through the ship. John barely hears, caught up in readjusting his perceptions and intentions for James’s sons—son, now, and a tragedy it is, to be sure. A queasiness rises in John’s stomach, thinking of the tossing of the waves and the drenching sweat of a fever, ending in a small linen shroud slipped over the rails, falling to the deepest dark of the ocean.

John’s thoughts are cut off by the abrupt arrival of a scrawny twig of a lad, brown-haired and dirty, who ducks out of the door to the hold with his head down, a small hand shielding his face from the sunlight. He’s barefoot, with breeks that have hardly weathered the two-month journey at sea. John’s wife will be appalled.

Davies claps a hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Here’s your uncle, then,” he says, and the lad’s head jerks up, revealing dark eyes and a thin face more bones than flesh.

When Davies lets go, the boy sways for a moment, a rootless tree, and John reaches for him instinctively. His fingers catch the ragged edge of the boy's once-white cotton shirt.

“What’s your name, lad?”