A mind that can't focus
words just out of reach
Beauty outside my window
floating so close yet so far
I try to grasp it but my fingers
brush ghostly fragments
Colors leak into a canvas
of monochrome madness
Sleep becomes fitful
waking is a nightmare
Phantom hands tighten
my eyes fly wide open
Cries go unheard through
a voice rendered mute
Panic fades with the rising sun
but its touch lingers on
Drifting on the heaviness
of my softly sinking mind
Sometimes I wonder if
you think about me
as often as I
think about you
Maybe your nights are
as filled with me as
mine are with you
Is your heart breaking
with a longing as deep
as mine? does your soul
search for mine as
desperately as mine
And I can almost taste the
bittersweet of your yearning
see the look in your eyes as
you hold my image in your
I can almost feel your touch
a soft breath on my skin
lose myself in the weight of
your love's caress
but I look up and glance
around the room and I'm
Maybe the night with you will come
but tonight is not that night
Tonight is a night of hot tea steaming
in my nostrils and curling around
my hands and hair
Tonight is the night of dark sweet chocolate
melting around my tongue and
slowly infusing with tears
Tonight is a night for twisting faded flowers
together into a bouquet of wishes
to ponder as it crumbles
Tonight is a night to be serenaded by all
the wounded hearts who've
Maybe someday the night will come
when I can pour myself into you
when I can let my worries slide away
in your embrace
tonight, I will pour my words out
onto a blank emotionless page
a simple consolation
despite the lack of commiseration
but for you is
a poor substitute
New Year’s Day Ponderings
It’s New Year’s Day, the holidays are past
A new year has begun, but
I’m not sure I’m ready—’cause I
keep looking back, wondering if life will ever be
where I want it to be
I find myself wishing I could undo,
If it’s taken me this long
to be where I am now
(And I don’t even know where I am,
to be perfectly honest)—
What’s another year, another decade,
I’ll do it all again, incessantly, inevitably,
As the human I am and will ever be on this
beautiful, terrible earth.
Mortality is to be imperfect,
bound by our consciousness
An existence of shortcomings, never enoughs,
wishing we coulds, justice delayed,
a quagmire of interrelations, a litany of grief
unfulfilled longings, unrequited desires
a myriad of sacrifices, yielding poor returns
a condition borne on wings of dust,
While our wandering eyes peer heavenward
always, always beyond
And maybe that’s the root of our discontent—
we are never satisfied with being mortal.
What if we gave up the striving, the futile, neverending
What if we set aside the hustle? What if
we decided to lay down
the restless need
Maybe one day we’d all wake up and realize
we were never mortal at all.
I might mourn the existential despair that floods me later, but for now, a cup of tea in my hands and the sun on my cheeks, this moment is enough.
Under the moon
I feel serenely alive
as its quiet presence
infuses my soul,
while its gentle waves
of liquid silver
purify the night.
Chapter 46: Farewells to Kith and Kin
Berlin, Germany – Summer 1890
Etta Mae Kincade alighted from the carriage with the help of her driver and found her footing on the uneven pavement. She took in the bustling thoroughfare as she smoothed her dress and adjusted her hat so the ribbons and feathers lay just so.
Then, thanking the driver, she tipped him generously, asking him to wait for her return, and turned to join the flood of eager spectators. They were all there for the same reason: the world-famous traveling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, had come to Europe once again, and Etta had been just lucky enough to be in Berlin on the exact date of the performance.
The news in the city was that Kaiser Wilhelm II himself had recently gotten a private performance in which a famed young female sharpshooter had shot a cigar right out of the Kaiser’s mouth. Now the rest of the city and half of Europe were here to see it for themselves.
Etta had been traveling through Europe and parts of Asia for the past few months. Maybe it was a bit reckless to do at her age, and alone at that, but she didn’t know how much time she had left.
Since the death of her beloved James, Etta had been feeling the life force seeping from her in gradually quickening succession. She’d known she needed to prepare Chadlynn for her departure before she undertook this journey. And when Etta left Sam and Chadlynn’s farm on the eastbound train, she knew it was for the last time.
She thought Chadlynn suspected the same, from the unending rivers cascading down the younger woman’s cheeks as Etta waved from the departing train. Chadlynn had thrown herself into Sam’s comforting arms when she could watch no longer, and Etta withdrew from the window and faced forward as the tears began to flow down her own cheeks.
She wanted to see the world before she left it. This trip was a last hurrah of sorts, a final goodbye to this mortal world as she departed to join James in the immortal one.
Etta was not sorry to leave; it had been a good life, full of adventure and bursting with love and joy. She had no regrets, save for the dear ones she would leave behind.
This was partly why a trip was a good idea: let them get used to her not being around for a while; then, they might not take her death so hard. She shook her head at herself. Well, at least it was worth a shot.
Anyway, she’d enjoy herself while she was here. And what luck to be in the city at just the time the Wild West show was performing.
Etta had heard of this band of circus-like performers; they accomplished great feats of skill, bringing to the world the wonders and exotic flair of the grand, wild American West. They had performers of every kind, from riders and sharpshooters, to cowboys and Indians, to Turks and Mongols decked out in their traditional costumes. Events ranged from staged races, shooting matches, and reenactments of common western scenarios such as Indian attacks on wagon trains and stagecoach robberies.
It was a world Etta Mae knew all too well, having lived her whole life as a main character on the western stage.
She finally found a seat in the crowded stands surrounding the arena just as the show began.
Oh, it was such fun. She hadn’t laughed like this in ages. She oohed and ahhed with the crowd and cheered and clapped with the thundering applause. Smiling at the awed Europeans on every side of her, she knew they’d probably never seen anything like it. The American Wild West was as foreign and exotic to them as their own lands and peoples were to her fellow Americans.
Still, Etta enjoyed the performances as enthusiastically as anyone else. One of her favorite parts was the reenactment of the Pony Express. She and James had known Buffalo Bill personally back then, and it was strange to see him again from a distance, performing on a stage the stories that they’d lived through in years past.
Oh, did that bring back memories from her wild youth: running like the devil to escape chasing bands of Indians or no-good thieves, pushing through blistering heat, withering winds, and winter snow, crossing high mountain passes and wide desert plains, camping under inexpressibly beautiful starry skies, stumbling into each station ready to fall off her horse from exhaustion.
Every day a new, thrilling adventure.
She’d give a great deal to go back and taste those winds of freedom again for just a minute.
“And now,” rang out the rich voice of the show announcer, “we will give up the stage to one of the finest sharpshooters of the century, the wondrous, the peerless, the fantastic lady crack-shot of the West, ‘Little Sure Shot,’ Annie Oakley!”
Applause broke out, and Etta stared transfixed at the little woman who strode out into the middle of the arena holding a rifle and sporting a confident grin as she waved at the spectators. So this was the famous wonder of the West who’d shown off for the Kaiser. She was dressed in a sharp western-style uniform complete with cowboy hat and boots, distinctly American in every way, and Etta’s heart swelled with pride toward this female sensation that reminded her so much of herself when she was young.
Annie performed several nearly impossible shots, ones Etta would have struggled to achieve, with perfect ease and grace. She shot backwards looking into a mirror and, for her final act, shot a cigar perched casually in her own husband’s lips. Etta felt the collective relief of the crowd when the smoke cleared and Frank Butler was holding up the smoking stub of his cigar.
After the show ended, Etta was making her way along the slowly moving current of bodies toward the exit. She looked down to clutch her reticule tighter in preparation for returning to her carriage, but her hands were empty. Somewhere along the way she’d misplaced it.
Fighting against the flow of outgoing spectators, she headed back toward where she had been seated.
Several minutes of searching, however, turned up nothing. Etta was puzzled, but not overly worried. The bag hadn’t been carrying anything of great value besides around twenty dollars. She had more money back at the hotel.
Etta prepared to head back toward the exit when she heard a delicate voice call out in an American accent: “Excuse me, ma’am. I believe you were looking for this?”
Etta turned and saw none other than Miss Annie Oakley standing before her with a smile and an outstretched hand. Etta took the bag and tipped her head graciously.
“I thank you, Miss Oakley.”
“Thank you, Annie.”
“My pleasure, ma’am…Miss…” Annie trailed off, clearly wondering the name of the woman she’d just assisted.
“Etta Mae Jenkins,” Etta offered. Why had she felt compelled to give her maiden name? Something about this place, this setting, was causing Etta to revert to her old life.
Annie repeated the name to herself. “Etta Mae…Jenkins…Jenkins?” She jerked her head up, looking Etta directly in the eye. “You aren’t by some miracle the Etta Mae Jenkins, lady crack-shot of the Pony Express?”
Etta’s jaw dropped open. “I, well, uh, yes, I am. That is, I was.”
“Well, land sakes alive!” Annie exclaimed. “Frank!” She motioned to the man standing fifty paces away on the torn-up dirt of the arena. “Frank, get over here, quick!”
Her husband joined them with a curious glint in his eyes. When Annie eagerly explained who Etta was, he appeared just as excited.
“I beg your pardon, but…how do you know me?” Etta asked, befuddled.
“Well, you’re only one of my girlhood heroines, Miss Jenkins,” Annie said. “Ever since I got interested in shootin’, I was hungry for anything I could learn about guns and sharpshootin’ and stories about famous gunslingers and crack-shots. I ‘specially loved the stories about females; made me realize I could be like those incredible women of the West. And you’re one of ‘em. Heard about you from a former Pony Express rider I met when I was fifteen. And then when Frank and I joined up with Buffalo Bill, he told me more about you, knowin’ ya personally.”
Etta was stunned.
“Speak of the devil—hey, Billy! Over here!” Annie shouted at a distinguished, white-bearded man across the arena and motioned vigorously.
“Well, goodness gracious, if it ain’t Etta Mae Jenkins herself,” Buffalo Bill Cody exclaimed as he crossed the distance between them. He let out a great laugh and Etta couldn’t help joining him.
“After all these years,” he said, shaking his head.
“I’m surprised you recognized me,” Etta joked, a twinkle in her eye.
“Why, Etta Mae, you know I could always pick you out of a crowd of pretty faces.”
“Oh, fiddlesticks,” Etta laughed, her cheeks reddening. “Regardless, it is good to see you again.”
“Likewise, Etta Mae, likewise.” Buffalo Bill grinned widely. “What are you doing in Germany?” He glanced around her. “How’s my man James these days?”
Etta’s face fell immediately, and the three people around her sobered. “He’s been gone three years now.”
“Ah, my deepest condolences, dear Etta Mae,” Buffalo Bill said. “He was quite a remarkable man, and one of the best riders we ever had.”
“Indeed, he was,” Etta agreed. She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “I am traveling the world, finally. My daughter is grown and married, with children of her own, and I thought it high time to see the world before it comes time for me to leave it as well.”
“A fine idea, at that. Although I ’spect you will be around for many years to come. You’re as hale and healthy a woman I’ve ever seen.” Buffalo Bill winked.
Etta smiled serenely. “We shall see.”
Lander, Wyoming – September 1890
Paris, France: We regret to inform you that Mrs. Etta Mae Kincade was found in her hotel room this morning. Appeared to pass peacefully in sleep. More details forthcoming.
Chadlynn felt the telegram slip from between her fingers as she sagged against the wall, seeking support. Vaguely, she felt Sam hold her up and guide her to the couch.
“It’s happened,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “She’s gone, Sam.”
“Yes, my dear Lynnie. Your mother has gone to join your father in the great cloudless beyond.” He kissed the top of her head and pressed her tightly to his chest as great sobs released themselves from her throat.
Little voices came from the kitchen as the back door opened and closed. Two pairs of feet ran into the room and tumbled onto the couch between Sam and Chadlynn.
“Mama, Mama, what’s wrong?” came little Vivian.
“What’s the matter, Mama?” echoed Violet’s softer voice.
Chadlynn sniffed loudly and wrapped her arms around her girls, giving them each a kiss. “My little darlings. Your grandmother has gone to heaven.”
Vivian and Violet looked back at their mother, their matching brown eyes wide and solemn.
“You mean she went to be with God?” asked Vivian.
“Yes, my little Viv. She went to be with God.”
“She’s not coming back to see us?” Violet wanted to know.
“No, sweet Vi, she’s not coming back.”
“But…” Violet seemed to be thinking deeply. “We will see her again someday, won’t we?”
Chadlynn nodded wordlessly, the tears beginning to escape from their prison again.
“Indeed, Vi!” Sam said, lifting Violet up high so she giggled and then cuddling her to his chest. “We will see her again, and your Grandfather James as well. They are both waiting for us in the sweet by and by, in the land that is fairer than day.” He smiled at the twins, who looked particularly thoughtful for their five years.
“That’s silly, Papa,” Vivian broke in. “How can a land be fairer than day?”
Sam seemed to puzzle over that. “I’m not sure, my child, but that’s what the song says.”
“You should write a better song.”
“Maybe you should, Vivian,” Sam said, tapping her on the nose. Her childish giggles filled the room and spread to Violet, their innocent laughter bringing a blissful lightness to the room.
Chadlynn and Sam smiled at each other. The girls had been their saving grace throughout the months following Etta’s and James’ departures.
“All right,” Sam said, standing up and causing a cacophony of tumbles and squeals as the girls struggled to hold onto him. “Who wants to go help Papa milk the cows?”
Both girls then started arguing over who got to help milk the cows.
“Now, now. Quit your fussin’. Both of you can come.”
Chadlynn laughed as the troupe headed toward the door. Yes, she was devastated at her mother’s passing. Yet, she knew that as long as she had her beloved Sam and her girls to comfort and strengthen her, she could face whatever this world had to offer.
Picking up the fallen telegram, she read it again, blinking the tears from her eyes, and folded it carefully and placed it in the cupboard drawer along with the letters her mother had sent from her travels. Then she went out to join her family.
April 14, 1891
I hope you are well. I have exciting news. I believe you have heard of the upcoming opening of Carnegie Hall here in New York; well, would you guess? I have been invited to participate in the Hall’s inaugural concert on May fifth! I will be playing with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, along with a number of other skilled musicians, and I feel utterly inadequate for the task. Nevertheless, I will enjoy it and make the most of it as an opportunity I will never have again in my life.
Of course, I must insist that you be present for my performance, Father. As kin to one of the performers, you will certainly be admitted free of charge, and Frank, too, if he feels up to it. Please tell him I long to see him, Father. I know he is in a state from the lingering amnesia, but he cannot give into it. I have heard that many former soldiers and people in violent situations suffer such ill effects from the trauma inflicted. But there is hope for him. There must be. I believe a night of glorious music may be just the cure…
William looked up from reading Randolph’s letter and sighed blearily. “What cure?” Lifting his glass, he added, “This is the only cure to what ails.”
He took another long swig and frowned when it drained to empty. Rummaging through the boxes and junk cluttered around his chair, his fingers closed around the half-full brandy bottle, from which he tipped a generous amount into his tumbler. Then he sat back and nursed it, staring out the window at nothing.
With a startled laugh, he realized he couldn’t remember the last time he was completely sober.
A shadow crossed over his face in the already gloomy room. Tilting his head up, he saw a pair of fiery green eyes looming over him, and he felt the slightest bit terrified. Muted, of course, from the influence of the alcohol.
“Oh, Azalea, what brings you here?” he said as nonchalantly as he could muster, trying not to slur his words.
She didn’t reply at first, merely eyeing the bottle of brandy and the tumbler that seemed permanently attached to his person now.
“Why the frightful look? I suppose I must look a sight.”
She propped her hands on her hips. “When was the last time you bathed? Or ate a decent meal? Or went to see your son?”
The disapproval oozed from her tone.
“I’m not sure. A couple…days ago.” He answered the first two questions, hoping Azalea wouldn’t repeat the last one. “Maybe.”
“Why, William? Why do you do this to yourself?” A hint of pity entered her eyes, and William grimaced.
“I don’t have the strength to do anything else.”
“But you’ll never find the strength you need unless you get sober. You’ll never recover and get back to living your life unless you do something about your condition. You might…die if you don’t, Will. You know what the doctor said—”
“Oh, hang the old doctor. Don’t you get it, Azalea? I don’t want to be sober anymore. It—hurts too much.”
“Will, that’s why you need us, your family. Please, let us help you.”
Azalea nodded, and William noticed a tall, silent figure standing behind her in the shadows. Funny he hadn’t noticed before.
“Well, Jeremy.” William raised his glass in mock salute. “So you’re back, too? Come to help pull your poor ’dopted uncle outta Hell?” He thought he saw Jeremy’s head shake side to side. “Ah, no matter. It won’t do any good. I’m headed there a’ready. Devil’s got his claws in deep.”
“Uncle William, don’t say that.”
“Why not? We all know it. I’m good as done with this miserable life. Just have to wait until it comes and takes me away.”
“Will, what about Frank?” Azalea asked.
At the mention of his son, William hesitated with the glass poised at his lips. “What about him?” he asked evenly.
“He’s your son! And he needs you, desperately. He needs his father.”
William gulped, avoiding Azalea’s gaze. “What could his poor, old, broken father do for him? He needs better care. The people at the institution, they’ll be more suited for that.”
“I disagree,” Jeremy said firmly. “What he needs is his father. His flesh and blood. A family member who loves him and will promise to be there for him no matter what. Though my adoptive family is now as dear to me as my own mother and father, nothing can replace blood,” he said, softer now. “I know that to be true. Don’t lose out on this chance, Uncle. Please don’t do something you’ll regret.”
Silence stretched as William recalled how Jeremy had lost his father as a baby and his mother in the Chicago fire so many years ago. He felt vaguely apologetic, but it couldn’t pierce the haze of hopeless indifference that had been pervading his being for too long.
“I’m too far gone now, Jeremy. I’m sorry.” He glanced at Azalea. “Go do what you can for Frank. Give him the motherly care only a woman can bring. Tell him—tell him…to go see Randolph perform at Carnegie Hall.” He thrust the letter into Azalea’s hands.
“And leave me be.”
Carnegie Hall, New York City – May 5th, 1891
Randolph took a deep breath and surveyed the buzzing auditorium from backstage; it was filled to the max with eager patrons. And well they might be. This building was a feat of architecture, a wondrous marvel of stone and marble and red velvet that would last for centuries to come. And the acoustics of the place…he’d never experienced anything like it.
As nervous as he was, he couldn’t wait to overflow the hall with the glorious strains of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Mere minutes were left until his performance.
He’d been overjoyed when a horde of his relatives had found him earlier while he’d been assisting with setting up the stage: Azalea, Charles, and Jeremy; Fiona and Arthur and their five children; Cora and John and their young son Harry; even his brother Frank had made it, and Randolph had embraced him heartily, bringing a smile to Frank’s face.
The only person missing was his father. When Randolph had inquired of his aunt softly, she’d only shaken her head sadly.
So, his father still insisted on drowning his sorrows. Randolph’s heart ached for him, but there wasn’t much he could do unless his father made the choice to come out of it himself. You couldn't save someone who didn’t want to be saved.
The sounds of the orchestra warming up reached his ears, and Randolph put all other thoughts aside for now.
It was time for his moment to shine.
New Orleans – July 1891
Halting piano sounds filtered from the music room next door to the drawing room where the rest of the Brimford family was gathered.
“Would you listen to her play, Arthur?” Fiona said, a proud smile stretching over her face. “She’s barely stopped touching the keys since we found that old piano.”
“I believe the greatest measure of thanks belongs to Randolph,” Arthur grinned. “I think she fell under his musical enchantment during that concert. I’d never seen her eyes sparkle so.”
“Yes, I as well. Our Rosie is certainly destined for great things.” Fiona ended a row of her knitting and flipped it around to start again. She paused, a thoughtful gaze in her eyes. “Dear, should we begin to make plans for music school, or a tutor? After all, she is already twelve. Many a prodigy has started years younger, you know. Too bad we did not discover her affinity earlier.”
Arthur considered this. “Perhaps I shall write Randolph and ask his advice. I hardly know whether our Rosie is a prodigy, though.”
“Pshaw, of course, she is. Just listen to her!”
The two listened for a few minutes to the eager efforts of their daughter; though she missed a note here and there, and the rhythm was not quite right, the girl plowed through magnificently for one who was practically self-taught as yet.
“I suppose Randolph will perceive her projected abilities more readily.”
“True,” Fiona murmured, counting her stitches. She glanced over at nine-year-old Owen, lying on the floor on his stomach and whose head was currently buried in a copy of The Strand literary magazine. “And which story has you so entranced this time, Owen?”
Unsurprisingly, she had to call his name at least twice more before he finally looked up. Wordlessly, he just raised the magazine up and let her read the title herself. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I like his name.” She glanced at Arthur with a grin. “Another mystery, I suppose?”
Owen nodded, clearly annoyed by his mother’s interruption.
“Oh, I recognize that look,” she said with a wave. “Do go on back into your fantasy world, son. And I apologize for bothering you.”
She let out a brief laugh and then focused her attention on the other three children. Owen’s twin, Diana, was sitting cross-legged while fashioning a slingshot with a forked stick and twine. Six-year-old James was building a tower out of wooden blocks; and baby Artemis, Artie for short, was napping in her cradle, a blissful smile on her face.
Fiona called Diana’s name and motioned to her to sit more ladylike, to which Diana gave a sour expression, but complied.
“Frank appeared greatly improved from the last time we saw him,” Arthur stated.
Fiona nodded. “Cora seemed in better spirits, too. In fact, I think all of us were somewhat cured by that concert. Seems that music is indeed a miraculous tamer of even the wildest of beasts.”
Arthur snorted. “Frank and Cora would have something to say about that particular label, I think.”
“Ah, but who is to say I was referring to them?” Fiona said with a mischievous glint.
Arthur shook his head. “And I suppose it is I to whom you were referring?”
Fiona only smiled enigmatically.
New York City – October 1891
Charles Kincade hurried his way down the grand wooden staircases and columned halls of New York University, which had been his home for the past three years, toward the crowded main lecture hall of the School of Law.
He had awakened late this morning after staying up half the night to complete an essay assignment and had just dropped it off at his professor’s office, but now his lateness was threatening to deprive him of this special event he’d been anticipating for weeks now. Even if he had to stand at the very furthest corner of the highest balcony, he was determined not to miss the guest lecture by a prominent judge here in New York, Justice Walter Lloyd Smith.
Justice Smith, Charles’ newest hero and idol, was recently appointed to the New York Supreme Court, and had been invited to address the student body at the university.
Charles had still not lost sight of the dream he had carried in his heart since a teenager: to become the greatest judge in the state of New York, and if possible, the United States. He would be known for his sagacity and just rulings in the courts, bringing order and progress to society. He would accomplish what no court of law had done before, whatever that may be (he did not know what; he only knew he would accomplish it), and his name, Justice Charles Henry Kincade, would resound in the hallowed halls of every law school, courtroom, and civic building throughout the country.
Charles was just a few months away from graduating with his Juris Doctor degree. From there, he would take the bar exam, and then secure a position as a lawyer here in the city while he worked toward his goal of becoming a judge. The only thing to detract from his passion and determination was the somewhat recent death of his father.
Though it had already been four years, Charles could not fully blot out the bloodstained image of his father dying in front of his eyes. Oliver had been his greatest supporter, and had given his blessing to Charles’ plans to attend NYU that fall.
Then, without warning, his father had been snatched away from him, and Charles had nearly canceled his plans. It was only by Azalea’s fervent imploring to not give up that Charles had begun his first year of law school.
“Your father would have wanted you to follow your dreams,” she’d reminded him through the despair and gloom.
And that was the memory he’d carried in his heart these past four years, the memory that had gotten him through many a weary night.
These, and many similar thoughts, ran through his mind as he pushed his way through the rows of lecture seats, finally glimpsing an empty one a third of the way down the aisle.
Well, more like half a seat. Bodies had smashed their way in so that some seats were nearly occupied two a piece, despite the narrowness and nonexistent padding of the wooden seats. Charles could not see his seatmate until he had fallen, half out of breath, into the seat.
He heard a soft—and surprisingly feminine—voice murmur an “Ouch!” whereupon he quickly turned and offered his apologies to the lady.
“My deepest apologies, dear lady, I did not mean to crush you.”
The woman was younger than he’d imagined, perhaps a few years older than himself, her hair a shade lighter than raven black and her hazel eyes clear and perceptive as they scanned him over.
She dipped her chin in acknowledgment and turned toward the stage, smoothing her skirts and clutching her reticule in her pale hands. Despite her sharp appearance, she seemed just slightly uneasy.
Charles tried not to stare, but she was extremely attractive. “Where are you from, Ma’am?” he ventured, then thought that was probably a foolish question. From all appearances, she was most likely a socialite residing right here in New York City.
The lady turned and gave him another piercing gaze, causing Charles to falter. Just as he thought she was going to ignore him, she opened her mouth and he heard the most musical voice.
“I come from Virginia.”
“Indeed?” Charles replied eagerly. “Why, that is my home of origin as well! I hail from Galena.” When she knitted her brows in confusion, he added, “Ah, it is a small town of no consequence, southwest of Roanoke.”
“My parents reside in a small township near Richmond,” she said, her subtle southern accent beginning to show.
“Are you a farm girl, then?” Charles inquired rather boldly.
Her eyebrows narrowed once again, this time with a defiant arch to them. “Former,” she corrected firmly.
“Of course,” Charles responded, grinning. He was suddenly feeling quite happy and wide-awake, for what reason, he couldn’t tell exactly. But now he was looking forward to the upcoming lecture even more than he’d realized.
He glanced toward the stage and saw one of his usual lecturers preparing to approach the podium. Sitting at the back of the stage, facing the audience, were two other men, one of which he recognized as the esteemed Justice Smith.
Lowering his voice slightly, he turned to the young woman again. “May I introduce myself? I am Charles Kincade.”
He offered his hand, which she took after a moment of hesitation. “Miss Kate Rodney.”
“Well, Miss Rodney, and who are you here with?”
“Whatever do you mean, Mr. Kincade?”
At her confused look, he continued, “Did you come to visit a family member, acquaintance, friend? Which man here got you into the lecture?” He chuckled. “You must be an exception, as I don’t see any other women in here.” He glanced around playfully, as if searching for her companion in the individuals surrounding them.
With a sudden jerk, Miss Rodney extracted her hand from his grasp and faced the stage again, her jaw tight and eyes fixed in cold detachment.
Charles stared in shock at her abrupt withdrawal. “I do beg your pardon, ma’am, was it something I said?”
“You are an astute one,” she muttered.
Charles realized that she was mocking him. Instead of being insulted, he was more intrigued. Who was this fireball of a woman? And what the deuce had he said to offend her?
Finally, she sighed and faced him at an impersonal angle, as if he were of no more significance than a bug she was forced to deal with. “I am a student at this university, Mr. Kincade.”
He tried to reply, but his mouth just flapped like a fish.
“I am studying to become a lawyer,” she added, arching a brow for emphasis. Charles shrunk into his chair away from Miss Rodney, wanting to make himself as compact as possible.
Ah. Now he understood. There he went stuffing his foot into his mouth again.
It wasn’t his first time doing so, and it wouldn’t be his last.
Dublin, Virginia – March 1892
Uncle William was in another fight. This time, over a bottle of whiskey at the pub down the street.
The intoxicated stupors had been getting worse, leading to violence and fits of rage. Jeremy had volunteered to be his uncle’s unofficial caregiver, but Jeremy was beginning to consider his role as more of a warden. He was living with William for the time being, but even then, William managed to get into trouble.
He wasn’t in good shape these days; his health was rapidly deteriorating, yet he refused to change his lifestyle or accept any offers of aid. Jeremy’s heart hurt watching his uncle drive himself into the ground. What could he do? He felt helpless most of the time.
“Uncle William, let it go and come with me. You need to get yourself to bed.” Jeremy reached out to take his uncle’s arm, but William just shoved him away and kept on whaling on the poor drunken sop beside him.
“Beat it, Jeremy. Told ya…don’t need you to look after me…not some helpless old foozler…”
Jeremy sighed. By the clock over the bar, it was nearing three in the morning. He’d gotten no sleep so far tonight and hardly any the night before.
After many minutes of clever persuasion, Jeremy coaxed William from the bar and pulled him toward the door.
“Wait here, Uncle, while I go borrow a lantern from the shop next door.”
Jeremy left William sitting on an overturned barrel and headed down the boarded walk. When he returned several minutes later, his uncle was missing.
Scanning the darkened street urgently, Jeremy glimpsed a dark human-shaped lump lying at the mouth of an alley. He gasped and ran toward it…
Chadlynn jolted awake and sat up in bed, breathing heavily. Sweat beaded on her forehead and she pushed away strands of hair that had stuck to her face.
No, she begged. No, no, no…
“Please, no,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Lynnie?” came Sam’s groggy voice as he stretched his hand out to touch her arm and then sat up beside her. “What is it? Another dream?”
Chadlynn sat frozen for another few seconds before nodding reluctantly.
Sam was quiet for a minute. Then he asked softly, “Who was it about this time?”
Chadlynn shook her head, feeling the tears trickle down her cheeks. She sniffed and shuddered as the dream, no, nightmare, washed over her again.
Never had one of her dreams not come to pass before. But this one…it couldn’t be…not again. Why must she keep witnessing the horrible fates of her beloved family members? It was too cruel.
“Who, Chadlynn?” Sam repeated.
She turned to face him, letting his warm, dark eyes steady her in the night.
“Uncle William. He’s…I think he’s dead.”
Chapter 37: The Storm that Brought a Deafening Calm
Early 1872 – Galena, Virginia
“Though her mortal body is not present with us, being reposed among the wild splendor of Wyoming Territory, her spirit will always reside within our hearts. The memory of our dearly departed mother, grandmother, aunt, and friend, Flower Kincade Farragut, will live strong and deep among us forever.”
The minister finished his eulogy, whereupon he opened the podium for any of Flower’s friends or relatives to say a few words. William, Anna, and Oliver all rose in turn to speak of the fond memories they had with their mother and aunt. When it came time for Hope to speak, however, she could barely hold back the flow of tears.
“My mother was . . . she was the very best friend I had. Even when my husband passed away, and . . . my—my children were not present with me, my dear mother was always there for me. I will be ever grateful to her for that and I will cherish her memory forever,” she finished on a great sob.
The rest of the Kincade clan exchanged sorrowful glances. They all knew the pain and grief poor Hope had gone through with losing her husband Owen to a freak accident and then losing her children—though not in death, the experience as painful as if they had perished in flames before her very eyes. Thankfully, Hope’s relationship with Samuel had greatly improved in recent years, but that did not make all the hurt from before simply vanish, especially with the fact that Maria had not been heard from in years.
“I do wish Samuel had been able to make the funeral,” Anna murmured to William as they left the church and passed through the quiet graveyard toward their buggy.
“As do I,” William agreed. “It might have given Hope some much needed strength and consolation in this difficult time.”
“Hope says he is still living in isolation,” Oliver joined in from behind, holding a squirmy Cora Mae in his arms. “He refuses to leave or have many visitors.”
“As well I can understand, I must say,” William replied. “The thought of living in quiet solitude with the freedom to live and do as I please is an enticing one.” At a not-so-subtle shove from his wife, he amended with a shaky laugh, “I mean, with you and the children there as well, of course.”
The two families paused in front of their buggies, parked side by side.
“Any word about Maria?” Azalia inquired softly. She glanced toward the door of the church, where Hope was receiving condolences from the minister’s kind wife.
William shook his head gravely. “Nothing.” After a pause, he continued in a low tone, “I know that she had committed some serious crimes against the state, not to mention the heinous acts she was involved in with the blacks during the war…” He pressed his lips tightly and rubbed his head. “The authorities are no doubt seeking her incarceration. But I do not know what has happened. Perhaps we may never know.”
The cousins regarded one another solemnly, but the increasingly wild antics of the restless children required them to be on their way. They would all be gathering at Hope’s home for a meal, a final celebration of their beloved matriarch’s life.
The last original Kincade to make this country their home had finally been laid to rest.
August 1872 – Wyoming Territory
A young escaped convict had been moving gradually along the western territories, terrorizing settlers and fellow criminals alike. What surprised most when they found out the convict’s identity was the fact that this now infamous name was that of a woman.
Veronica Kinley, she was known by. Not many knew her real name, and perhaps that was how she wanted it. With the alternate identity she’d adopted upon herself, Maria had severed any remaining ties to her former life and family. Plus, it made it easier for her to stay undetected from any nosy detectives or peace officers still assigned to her case.
Word was she’d escaped the Kansas State Penitentiary in January, leaving a bloody and gruesome trail of bodies behind her, and had gone West, eluding her pursuers and undertaking a campaign of terror with her half-mad behavior and merciless methods.
Though her twin, Samuel, was still greatly immersed in his life of solitude, bits and pieces of the real world beyond his small farm slipped through the cracks here and there. He did not regularly read newspapers—the few that actually made their way out to his remote region of Wyoming, that is—but every so often, he found himself with the curious urge to know what was happening out there.
On just such an occasion, Samuel happened to read an editorial in a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, a paper published in Denver by a man named William Byers.
He read the description of the escaped convict and newest female terror of the West, his eyes widening in complete shock as she began to feel more and more familiar. When he saw the crudely drawn likeness of her face, most likely taken from her prison file, his fingers trembled around the paper they were holding and a tear slipped from his eye.
Then he read the name below the picture that confirmed his fears.
It was his sister—or what was left of her—the twin he had held dear to his heart even after she had made her choice to go the way of destruction. The fact of her imprisonment and subsequent escape was not what surprised him—it was the abject madness the artist had captured in every line of her face, the stony set of her mouth, and the stark blankness in her eyes.
Maria, his once beloved sister and friend, was now a stranger to him, unredeemable, irreconcilable, lost to him forever.
Samuel threw the paper down and tried to distract himself with his accordion, and then his violin; he’d taken to playing on his instruments for hours at a time and it seemed to bring him peace like nothing else.
This time, however, he couldn’t seem to focus or lose himself in the rhythm of the music. Finally, he grabbed the paper with the article, crumpled it up, and threw it in the fire. After watching it disintegrate into ashes, he left the house and went on a long, long walk.
November 15, 1872 – Dublin, Virginia
My Dear Etta,
I hope all is well with you and your family. I am sorry it has been so long since my last letter. Life seems to never give me a break these days. My brood of sons is growing up and they are just as wild as—if not more than—I’m told William and his brother were as boys.
William has recently taken up cartooning, alongside his oil paints, and reckons himself to be the next Thomas Nast. He was quite engrossed in the recent campaign and re-election of President Grant and the accompanying Nast cartoons which humorously depicted the rivalry between Grant and Horace Greeley, which I’m certain served as a great deal of inspiration for William’s new endeavor. His mission now is to have his cartoons as regularly published as Nast’s. I would laugh at that, except for the fact that several of his cartoons were actually good enough that the local paper agreed to publish them. So I am compelled to take his new passion seriously, and I am not entirely convinced that it won’t someday bring us a small fortune.
Timothy, my young man, has begun to follow in his father’s footsteps and sits in his room drawing at all hours of the day when he does not have schoolwork to attend to. He is quite the studious lad, though, and is now taller than I—can you believe that?! How they do grow. He spends a good amount of time with his favorite cousin Seamus as well; the two are surprisingly close, considering their apparent dissimilarity: my Timmy is more reserved and dark-haired, while Seamus is endowed with a temperament to match his fiery hair. It is quite fun to watch Timothy come more alive when he is with Seamus, and Seamus, as his more thoughtful side is encouraged around Timothy; the two bring out each other’s best qualities.
Randy and Frank are shooting up just as quickly, and are thick as thieves with their boyish shenanigans. I cannot turn my head for a minute without them falling into some mischief or other.
One more thing I feel I need to tell you: You know that I had secretly mentioned to you and Azalia last spring about my activities with the women’s suffrage movement here in Virginia. I have become more active in my local association and recently was elected to the position of Treasurer. I have not yet told William; he thinks I’ve been attending the Ladies’ Aid Society meetings. Somehow I cannot find the words to say it and, truthfully, I am unsure of what he will think. Not that he would be against the civil rights of women—I believe he would be in favor—but the fact of my heavy involvement. I would be more than just involved, truth be told. I would love to lead a rally of my own; I feel so strongly about this matter. I shall inform you of future developments.
I am greatly looking forward to seeing you all soon, I hope, at Thanksgiving, and if not then, at Christmas.
Give my love to James, Chadlynn, and little Scottie.
Your loving cousin-in-law, and sister in spirit,
January 1873 – Chalfin Springs, Colorado
I am so dreadfully sorry we could not make it to Virginia for Christmas. I can well understand your busy life, as work on the ranch has increased ten-fold since last year. James has purchased a new herd of cattle and intends to grow our herds to triple their size by this spring once the heifers begin calving. He is determined to have the largest cattle ranch this side of the Mississippi, I believe.
What with ranch work and taking care of the children, I hardly have time to write letters these days. I mostly cook meals, supervise Chadlynn’s schoolwork (we do not currently have a school close enough to send her to), and watch Scottie, while also assisting James and his ranch hands with milking the smaller herd of dairy cows and feeding the main herd of beef cattle, as much as I have time for. James and I fall into bed each night with no energy left for more amorous activities. Chadlynn is now old enough that I have put her in charge of the care of the chickens and our goat, which she has adopted as her own pet. James and I had considered slaughtering the goat next year, but I think we will reconsider that and keep her solely for milk.
I must confess that I still worry some for Chadlynn. Though her dreams have begun to wane in frequency, she still occasionally wakes up in fits of tears and terror, even crying out to her father and I sometimes. Just two nights ago she confessed to a horrible dream of a woman gone mad who traveled the country slaughtering innocent victims in cold blood. Oh, Anna, the look in my poor girl’s eyes as she told it to James and I with violent shudders . . . I wish more than anything that I could bear these nightmares in her place. Why must they be so dark and foreboding? A young girl should be dreaming of soft starlight and endless blue skies . . .
In regards to your suffrage work, I must commend you, not for the fact of its secrecy, but that you are determined enough to give your all to a cause you believe in so strongly, despite the challenges. I am reminded of my days riding for the Pony Express, when I threw caution to the wind and simply lived for the thrill of adventure and danger, letting the miles disappear behind me among clouds of dust. Ah, I miss it in many ways, but I speak honestly that I would not give up the life I have now for anything. I love James with all my heart and he is so good to me, more than I deserve; my little woman Chadlynn, and even Scottie now, though born under duress, have both become my whole world and reason for existing. But alas, I wax long and am surely tiring your busy self with my flowery words.
I will conclude by saying that I wish you the best in your endeavors. I recommend that you broach the topic to William as soon as you can, but use wisdom and caution in choosing the time and place to tell him. I’ve heard that women in Wyoming have already won complete voting rights, four years ago now. One can only wonder how that has happened, with the rest of the Union holding so rigidly to their old-fashioned ways. Perhaps it has to do with the fact Wyoming is not yet an official state of the Union, thus, less encumbered by more rigorous legislation. As we in Colorado Territory have still not managed to be admitted to statehood either, I am curious what the women here could accomplish in comparison with our sisters to the north. I believe I will speak to James about the matter and look into whether we have a suffrage association anywhere near us. I am interested in lending my aid to this cause.
All my love to you and yours,
Etta Mae Kincade
May 1873 – Wyoming Territory
The woman halted her mount at the edge of a green meadow. Giving the loyal mare a pat on the neck, she dismounted, leading the horse to the verdant grasses. She’d rest here for a while, perhaps overnight, before heading into the town to mark her next target, preferably a Northern sympathizer.
The bank? The local mercantile, maybe? Those reticent shopkeepers were known for hoarding large amounts of cash overnight before making their deposit in the morning. It was definitely an easier job than a bank. Lighter security and easier to control the outcome. She knew that from personal experience gained over the past year and a half.
People expected a bank to be robbed at any given moment, but not always so with a shop or mercantile. Those arrogant, stuffed-up proprietors turned into yellow-bellied suckers the minute they saw the flash of steel. It was all too easy to threaten their families to keep them quiet, and then she had a ready-made cash flow the entire length of her stay in town. If it required a few dead bodies to maintain silence, she didn’t much care. She’d do whatever it took for her freedom. They would never report her to the local sheriff until she was out of town, and by then, she was long gone.
A perfect set-up.
A whinny of a horse from the trees opposite her position alerted her to a lone traveler who appeared to be bedding down for the night. The bearded man looked worn and dusty, but he had a refined look about him and she glimpsed a fat saddlebag slung over his arm as he unpacked his loaded horse.
She grinned. Tonight, she’d feast.
Straightening her simple riding gown and securing a bonnet over her neatly coiled hair, she took a moment to assume the mien of a modest pioneer wife who’d recently lost her husband. Then she crossed the flower-strewn meadow, hardly giving thought to its wild beauty.
The traveler gave a start when he became aware of her presence.
“I apologize, sir,” Maria began, a single golden tear poised at the corner of her eye, “I did not mean to startle you.”
“It is all right,” he ventured, still frozen mid-process of lighting his small campfire. “Ah, do you need assistance, ma’am?”
“No, indeed, sir, I shall be on my way back toward town soon. I only ask that you lend me the comfort of your fire a moment.”
“Of course, ma’am. Take your time.” He hesitantly finished lighting the kindling and blew on it to enflame the larger sticks.
“I have come here to mourn my dead husband,” she continued, sniffing loudly for effect. “He was buried just over there.” She gestured toward the meadow with a delicate nod of her chin.
“My condolences, ma’am. Has he recently passed?”
“Yes.” She looked down at her hands, folded demurely in front of her.
“A fine location for burial,” the man said.
That was unexpected; Maria tilted her head curiously. “How so?”
“You’ve not heard the story about that meadow?”
She shook her head.
“Strange, being that you are a resident of the town.” He shook his head as if dismissing the thought. “Anyway, the story I’ve heard is that an old woman was traveling here with her nephew a few years back. After peacefully watching the sun set in the west, she breathed her last and was buried in the meadow, under a tree at its center. Her name was Flower. Since then, wildflowers have claimed the entire meadow as if in tribute to the pure soul resting beneath.” He paused and appeared lost in thought.
Maria blinked several times, thoroughly disarmed in that moment. For several minutes, she lost the crazed look pervading her being beneath the façade, and a genuine tear beaded in her eye. One could only surmise the content of her muddled thoughts.
But then, she looked to have gained a hold of her nearly escaped emotions once more. Before the tear could loose itself from her eyelid, she wiped it away firmly and a wooden smirk came over her face.
“What a lovely story,” she crooned before drawing out her long-toothed knife and stalking toward the unsuspecting man.
Three months later, still somewhere in Wyoming Territory . . .
Samuel settled down in his easy chair, ready to enjoy a tranquil evening with a book and a cup of tea. He’d been reading through the works of Henry David Thoreau, one of his new favorite authors. Thoreau’s thoughts on solitude and transcendentalism intrigued and inspired Samuel, giving him hope that he would someday find his own true peace and solace.
He was distracted from his reading by a noise outside. Setting down his copy of Walden, he rose and grabbed the rifle over the mantle, not willing to take any chances with the possibility of bandits or horse thieves. He’d lost one of his favorite mares that way just last month.
Blowing out the candles, he crept out the back door and rounded the corner toward the barn. In the dim light, he could see that his horses had been startled by something. Then, a figure dashed from the barn to the chicken house.
“Stop where you are!” Samuel yelled, but the man ducked behind the building. Samuel gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes. This intruder apparently wasn’t going to be taken easily, but he would not be getting away from Samuel tonight. He began to stalk the man; his better knowledge of his own farm gave him the advantage.
As Samuel leaned out from his spot just inside the barn, the intruder let a shot loose.
Samuel muttered a curse and whipped his head back inside. He readied his repeater rifle, the Winchester Model 1873; he’d been lucky enough to secure one of the newest guns on the market just the week before. He hadn’t even fired it yet past a few practice rounds. Despite his newness with the firearm, Samuel was confident in the gun’s superior abilities. He knew it wouldn’t let him down.
He fired off a shot to distract the intruder. Then, leaving the shelter of the barn, Samuel managed to reach a spot behind a tool shed midway to the chicken house. He maintained complete silence and after a minute, heard the squawking of frightened hens coming from the other building.
He grinned. He had this scumbag over a barrel.
The intruder fired again, thinking Samuel was still at the barn. Samuel heard a muffled, guttural laugh utter from the man’s lips, and shuddered slightly. The guy seemed to be partially mad.
When there were no return shots, the man must’ve figured something was up, and cautiously made his way out of the coop.
Taking aim once more, Samuel let his eager rifle rip loose and shot two bullets, one right after the other. He’d been aiming for the man’s arm or shoulder, but he must’ve had luckier aim than he thought. Blood oozed from two wounds in the intruder’s lower abdomen.
The man let out an anguished moan and sank down against the building.
Samuel rose and put up his rifle; no one could survive those wounds. He slowly crossed the yard, needing to have a closer look at his would-be thief.
The injured man was holding a hand to his stomach, twisted with pain, but he looked up at Samuel as he approached. The full moon illuminated Samuel’s face. The intruder’s eyes widened.
“S-Samuel, i-is that . . . you?”
Samuel froze to the spot. The voice was not male, as he’d thought. The intruder was a woman. She was dressed in rough men’s clothing; from a distance he’d assumed the figure was that of a man.
But how did she know his name? And why was she staring at him as if he were the devil himself?
Samuel leaned forward to get a better view and finally recognized the face behind the madness and trail dust. She was so altered, so—so . . . but it was her. Agony pierced his heart as the awful truth rammed its way home.
She shook her head with trembling, rapid breaths. “No, it can’t be . . .” She let out a choked laugh. “I don’t have a brother anymore . . .” Her voice faded into silence.
“Maria!” Samuel shook her shoulders. “No, no, no, no, no . . .” Blood soaked his hands as he vainly pressed them against the wounds. His voice broke as great sobs tumbled free to mingle with his words. “Please, sister, don’t go. I’m here for you, always here for you. I’ll protect you. I won’t let anything bad happen to you . . . Maria!”
Her eyes fluttered shut and her body stilled. As Samuel laid his forehead on her pale, clammy cheek, he felt as she let out a long breath and did not breathe again.
If one had looked upon the scene from a distance, it would have appeared as a heartwarming vision of a man embracing a woman under the light of the full moon.
A panic had struck the United States, starting in New York and spreading down the Eastern seaboard, eventually affecting the western states. Financial trouble in Europe had led to investors selling off their bonds and investments in America, particularly with the railroad, leading to banks closing and companies going bankrupt. The effects of the Panic would be felt in a depression for years to come.
Lower class working men and women felt the brunt of the economic slump. The Kincades and Farraguts encountered their share of troubles from the Panic and were forced to adjust their lives accordingly.
William had heretofore been making an impressive sum from his paintings and, more recently, his cartoons, but with the financial strain all around them, people were not buying art like before, not enough to live on, anyway.
With his background in dentistry, William eventually found a job working as a medical aide at a local hospital. It didn’t pay much, but at least it was enough to scrape by in these hard times, along with money Anna made taking in laundry and seamstressing jobs from whomever would pay her. Even Timothy helped bring in extra money doing odd jobs and errands for those who needed the help.
In the nearby Oliver Kincade household, times were similarly difficult. Oliver struggled to find writing or journalist opportunities, and not many were willing or able to publish his works these days. Even his frequent publisher, Edward Dutton, had been forced to temporarily shut down his small publishing house. Azalia helped where she could, but her days were busy with their five children and everything that came with running a household.
Finally, Oliver broke down and found work in a local meat-packing factory. He still toiled away at his beloved books and stories whenever he had the chance, collecting an impressive repertoire of manuscripts that lay dormant, waiting for their time to shine in the sun of public acclamation.
By mid-March of 1874, circumstances for Oliver and Azalia had once again improved, so much so that Oliver quit his factory job and told Azalia of a plan that had been formulating in his mind.
“Do you remember that famous photographer, William Henry Jackson, who went on an expedition to Wyoming a couple years ago and took all those incredible photographs?”
Azalia nodded, though a knowing look came in her eyes. “My, I cannot guess where this is leading,” she said playfully.
“You know me too well, love.” Oliver laughed. “Yes, I’d like to go there myself, and, if you don’t have objection to it, take Seamus with me as well. But I was thinking: how about we take a family trip to see James and Etta first, and you and the younger children can stay with them while Seamus and I go up to Wyoming?”
Azalia’s smile turned eager. “Yes, let’s! We’re long overdue for a visit. Plus, this house now has the smell of ham permanently embedded in it. I cannot wait to escape it.”
“So you have mentioned from the day I started that job. I will inquire with Hope as to Samuel’s precise location, and perhaps we can drop by his farm as well.”
“It is settled, then,” Azalia announced, then went to tell the children the exciting news.
Oliver and Seamus had a grand time basking in the wild splendor of Yellowstone. They were entranced at seeing with their own eyes the majestic sights that they’d only seen in monochromatic photographs before. Oliver captured his own share of photos, albeit, in his opinion, less refined in quality to Jackson’s.
Fifteen-year-old Seamus was living out all of his wildest fantasies of being a great explorer and adventurer of the American wilderness. Oliver taught him what he knew of shooting a rifle and they managed to shoot enough small game to sustain them for the entire trip. They were fully satisfied in both body and soul by the time they emerged, father and son, from the mountain passes and thick forests, and made their way southeast to Samuel’s farm.
April 4, 1874
My dearest Aza,
I have distressing news to share, but first: do not be alarmed. Seamus and I are both in fine health. My news is regarding Samuel, whom we are now visiting, and his twin sister, Maria.
Yes, I have news of Maria. When Seamus and I arrived at Samuel’s farm, he was in low spirits, lower than I’ve ever seen a man. I thought he was nigh ready to throw himself off the nearest cliff. I was frightened for him, Azalia. He was like a dead man walking, barely finding breath to draw into his corpse of skin and bones. He would not rise from bed, would hardly eat a bite. Finally he roused himself enough to tell us the story.
One night last August, he was alerted to something or someone on his farm and went out to discourage or dissuade the intruder by any means possible. After a short showdown, Samuel ended up shooting the intruder twice in the stomach. The intruder was quickly dying, but Samuel went to get a closer look, and, horror of horrors, Azalia, the intruder was not a man, but a woman bandit, none other than his own twin sister, Maria.
Samuel said that several months before, he had seen a newspaper article that said Maria had been imprisoned following the war, since ’66, but had escaped in January of ’73. She had turned half-insane and was killing and pillaging without mercy. He had not told anyone what he had read, as it was too painful for him.
Oh, Aza, I weep as I write this. He shot his own sister, and buried her with his own hands. I cannot comprehend the agony and grief he must have been feeling all this time, with none to comfort him. It has been eight months since that event. How has he been surviving? I can only guess that his animals and farm, which depend on him implicitly, have been his saving grace. He was always the softhearted one for creatures in need. Yes, including his sister.
. . .
Azalia, it has been several days since I wrote the above. I was hesitant to send the letter before I found some measure of serenity in my own mind, as well as a more positive ending to this tragedy, if there was one to be had.
The day after I wrote that first part, a young black man showed up at Samuel’s farm. He introduced himself as Samuel Martin, and claimed that his mother told him that Samuel—our Samuel—had saved his mother’s life almost fifteen years ago. I was skeptical, but after Samuel broke from his stupor, he confirmed that this is indeed true.
He had not told any of the family of this story either. It happened in October of 1859, when John Brown attacked the U.S. arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Samuel happened to come across Eloise Martin, who’d been injured in the fighting, and brought her to a doctor where Sam—we are using this nickname to distinguish the two—was born several hours later. Eloise named her son after the man who saved her. Samuel.
It is a fantastic story. I wonder at the secrets poor Samuel has been keeping for so long. At any rate, young Sam seems to have done wonders to Samuel’s spirits in the short days he has been here. Seamus has taken to him as well and the boys have been spending much time together on the farm. Sam shows great promise in tending to livestock and crops. I do not know where he gained such knowledge, but I only hope it was not on a slave plantation. I understand he is a natural-born freeman, since his mother was freed several months before his birth. However, I don’t know what circumstances have been like for him since then.
Sam told us all last night, as we gathered around the great fireplace in Samuel’s cozy home, that he had been searching for the man who saved his mother, and his own unborn life, for two years. His mother, Eloise, was searching with him initially, but tragically passed away six months ago. Sam forged on alone, and his perseverance has been rewarded handsomely.
He seems determined to stay on with Samuel, and I am relieved that he won’t be alone any longer.
I must end this now before I use up all of Samuel’s writing paper. Samuel has given his permission to share the contents of this letter with the rest of our family. He desires to mourn Maria’s life with us all, and has consented to travel to Virginia soon for a proper funeral. His soul is broken, Azalia. Yet I have hope he will one day find healing.
I will send more news when I have it, but for now, Seamus and I plan to stay here another week at most, whereupon we will journey back to Chalfin Springs.
I hope you do not mind the delay much. I know you are enjoying your extended visit with Etta and the children.
All my love,
Chapter 30: Crossroads of the Soul
August 1858 – Freeport, Illinois
The Great Debates of 1858 were the biggest news of the year, indeed, nearly of the entire decade. The debates were between the incumbent Senator of Illinois, Stephen Douglas, and the Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln.
So far, they had covered key issues on slavery, race, and equality. Douglas accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist who was threatening to overthrow state laws on slavery; Lincoln argued that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize and perpetuate slavery, thus endangering the Union.
The second of these debates was being held in Freeport, on August 27. In attendance were none other than Oliver and Azalia Kincade, with their four-month-old son Seamus.
They’d arrived on the train in Chicago, amazed at the hubbub permeating the entire city. Scores of newspaper companies from around the country had sent journalists to capture and record this historical debate.
By the time they got to Freeport, the crowds were numbering nearly 15,000, drawing spectators from neighboring states as well.
Oliver didn’t consider himself a journalist, but he knew that this series of debates was significant enough to witness, photograph, and write about. Even more, he knew his cousin Owen would have wanted to be here had he still been alive. Journalism had been Owen’s heart and soul; he’d risked his life many times to capture momentous stories, many of which had become immortalized as part of American history.
Oliver remembered his cousin telling stories of his adventurous trip to Illinois and meeting the tall, thoughtful young Lincoln who’d shaped much of his ideology on slavery and politics. How fascinated Owen would be now to see the progression of that young man’s career, much closer to the Presidency than even Owen could have foreseen.
Oliver knew a big reason for this trip was because of his cousin’s unrealized aspirations. He was here for Owen; but he was also here for himself, and for his country. He knew great things were burgeoning here, though he also feared the worst.
Tensions had grown so bad that the idea of a civil war breaking out among the states was not so farfetched anymore. He felt Lincoln was the Union’s last hope.
He and Azalia found places to sit on the large field where the spectators gathered, waiting for the debate to commence.
Oliver mused in silence while he surveyed the scene. He had been thinking that he would probably turn his notes and drafts into a series of opinion pieces for one of the local papers that would detail each debate, comparing and contrasting the ideas, styles, and policies of the two candidates.
Now he realized that he would be contending against many other writers for the privilege of publishing his own unique viewpoint of the debates.
Perhaps he would need to go a different route. A book? A pamphlet? He needed some sort of angle that would set him apart from the others. Maybe…
He widened his eyes and turned to Azalia, who was intently observing the crowds while bouncing little red-haired Seamus in her arms. He looked to be just as entranced by the sights.
She turned to look at him, curiosity at the eagerness in his gaze. “What is it, love?” she replied in her soft, Irish-Australian accent that he so loved.
“I have to meet him personally!”
“Mr. Lincoln!” He rushed on. “I need to obtain a personal audience with him, take his portrait if he’ll allow me, and interview him one-on-one!”
“Yes, that would be quite something, indeed, but…” She paused. “Is it possible?”
“I will make it possible, dear.”
Her brows lifted.
“If I knew anything about my late cousin Owen,” he continued, “it was that he was fearless when it came to getting his stories. He was dauntless, and I shall be the same. After all, Cousin Owen knew Mr. Lincoln personally when he was younger. They served together in the war. That will be my link to getting to Mr. Lincoln. He would be overjoyed to speak with the relative of his former military comrade, don’t you think?”
She bit down on her lip thoughtfully, leaning down to coo to the baby, before giving him her steady gaze. “I say, anything’s possible for my husband to accomplish. You must try it.”
He grinned and planted a kiss right on her lips. She gasped and looked around them, but the spectators around them were otherwise occupied waiting for their first glimpse of the famous politicians.
“Thank you for your support,” Oliver said earnestly. He knew this would be the edge he needed to make himself stand apart. Mr. Lincoln was a somewhat reticent fellow, difficult to reach for personal interviews, so if he accomplished this, it would be an irresistible enticement for the media.
Their attention was drawn to the stage; Mr. Lincoln and Sen. Douglas had taken their places at the podiums. Oliver readied his pencil and notebook.
The debate was about to begin.
December 1859 – Norfolk, Virginia
Following their frightful experiences in Colorado Territory with Uncle James in July of 1857, the twins had decided to come with their mother back to Virginia for a rest. It hadn’t taken much persuasion from Grandmother Flower—a rough life in the West simply wasn’t for them any longer.
Truthfully, Samuel had needed the rest more than Maria, but the girl was hard-pressed to go anywhere without her brother, or to let him go off without her, especially in his partially invalid state.
Had it not been for their uncle James, things might have turned out drastically different when a half-crazed bandit waylaid their wagon. James’ calm fortitude and courage prevented any harm being inflicted from the bandit, but the freak accident just following was a different matter. The loud crack of a rifle spooked the horses and caused their wagon to flip multiple times until it lay half over the side of a jagged ledge.
James had feared the worst when he rushed to get to the twins. What he’d found was Samuel wrapped protectively around Maria, cradling her from the worst of the impact. She’d come out of it with nary a scratch. Her tears flowed unabated when she saw what Samuel had endured to protect her.
Samuel had injured his shoulder and leg in the accident. His shoulder was healed now except for the dull ache that would rear its head during a particularly nasty rainstorm, but his leg had not been so fortunate. Despite the work of the skilled surgeon who set the bone as best he could, Samuel would never walk fully normal again in his life. His limp was part of him now, and he figured he’d better welcome it as an uneasy acquaintance sooner than later.
He could not have known that the seemingly unfortunate accident would prove to be a blessing in disguise not five years later when he would be denied enlistment in the Army during what would turn out to be the bloodiest conflict the Union had yet seen. His talents were vast, however, and would lie in a different direction than he would have chosen himself.
Now that Christmas was coming, Diana had come down from New York, and William and Anna had traveled from Baltimore with their young boy, Timothy, to visit the family and stay for the holidays.
Oliver and Azalia couldn’t make it, but they sent their love. They had settled near Chicago where Oliver worked at a small book publishing company, and they now had a little girl, Fiona, who was doted on by her older brother, Seamus.
On this particularly icy December evening, the family was gathered around the toasty wood stove while Diana read aloud a recent news article written by one of her own journalists back in New York City.
“After a hasty trial, held in Charles Town last month, John Brown has been found to be guilty of all charges brought against him and sentenced to execution. These charges were named as treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and inciting a slave insurrection, during which he led a revolt of both white and black men to take over the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October.
“Brown was defeated by a company of Marines, led by one Col. Robert E. Lee, who were ordered by President Buchanan to put down the revolt and take the insurrectionists into custody. After a lengthy contest over several days, the Marines subdued the conflict, jailing Brown along with others of his co-conspirators.
“Brown was interviewed by several officials, including Governor Wise and Senator James M. Mason, and has been said to be a fanatic or madman by some, but a man of courage, truthfulness, and intelligence by others. It must be concluded that only God himself can truly judge and pronounce this man’s just reward.
“Brown will be hanged on December 2.”
Silence reigned while the family members processed their individual thoughts.
“He was doing God’s work,” Flower said finally, her face lined with sorrow and defeat. “His accusers will face their own divine justice one day.”
“He’s somewhat of a radical, I’ll admit, but his intentions were just and true,” William, Sr., commented, taking a deep puff of his pipe.
“He’s getting what he deserved, I say,” Maria threw in.
Her mother, grandfather, and grandmothers turned to stare at her, though not entirely surprised at her words. William and Anna, however, appeared positively shocked.
“Maria, dear, how can you say that?” Anna asked as she cuddled little Timmy closer to her chest.
“How can I say that, Aunt Anna? How can I not? Men like John Brown are tearing our country apart. Unsettling the core of our society with their strong rhetoric and violent acts. They threaten to destroy the solid system that has kept our country thriving until now.”
“Slavery is not a healthy system, Maria,” William, Jr. joined in. “You must see that. It is a travesty of humanity.”
Maria gritted her teeth, her gaze searching Samuel’s out. Why was he not backing her up? She sent him a glare.
“There are…advantages and disadvantages to both sides, depending on the perspective one takes,” Samuel ventured, but reluctantly, Maria thought. What was going on in her twin’s mind? she wondered.
“Your father died helping the slaves, Maria,” Hope said, drawing her daughter’s focus once more, “doing what he believed in. What would he think of you now?”
“Well, he’s not here,” Maria fired back angrily. “What do the thoughts of a dead man matter now?”
Hope reared back as if Maria had slapped her on the face, the blow no less painful. Avoiding the anguished eyes of her mother, Maria turned and left the room without another word.
“Let her go, Hope,” the soothing voice of Grandmother Diana floated from the room behind her. “She’s a headstrong young woman. Let her stew for a while. She’ll eventually come to her senses.”
Hope scoffed. What did they know of her true feelings?
She left the house, walking aimlessly down the street for several minutes, not sure where she was headed but needing to let out her agitation. The chill was biting and she gathered her cloak tighter around her.
As Maria took a shortcut down an alley, a noise ahead caught her attention. Walking to the mouth of the alley, she peered into the street and saw a group of men combing the buildings and houses, with guns and torches held high. What were they searching for?
As if in answer, a wracking cough came from the small shed in the alley just to her right. Curious, Maria noticed one of the wooden shutters sat ajar and edged her way toward it. Looking through the window slats, she saw five figures huddled together.
Even in the dim interior, Maria could make out the gleam of the moonlight reflecting off their dark skin. She looked back toward the street at the rough band of white men, the coils of rope held on their shoulders, the merciless set of their mouths and jaws, their ominous shouts as they closed in, and she understood.
She turned back toward the refugees. One of the figures noticed her watching and gasped sharply. The woman’s eyes pleaded with Maria to not say anything, to let them be.
Maria held her gaze for several seconds before stepping away from the window crack. She straightened and took two paces toward the main street.
The men were approaching. She could hear their distinct words now.
“Dirty, filthy rats,” one man spat. “Wait’ll they get what’s comin’ to ’em.”
“They actually thought they could make it?” joined in a higher, whiny voice. “It’s that damn Brown fella, givin’ them slaves ideas above their stations. I can’t wait to set ’em straight.” He cackled madly.
Maria’s pulse quickened the nearer the men drew to her place, but she refused to cower. The torchlight filtered into the alley, illuminating her statuesque figure.
The men were surprised at her presence, but merely nodded, a couple giving her an “Evenin’, ma’am,” one or two of the more rowdy—and, she guessed, intoxicated—ones giving her probing leers, which she ignored.
The men lumbered on, moving almost fully past the shed. It seemed they weren’t going to search it.
Maria’s chest rose and fell rapidly, and her heart felt as if it would pump right out of her body. Time seemed to slow as she took a step forward, her bone-dry mouth opening and closing like a catfish.
Then she spoke: “Excuse me, sirs.” Her voice was steady and calm.
As one, the men halted and rotated to stare at her openly.
“I think you’ll find the runaways you’re searching for in here,” she continued quietly, gesturing toward the plain wooden shed.
She didn’t flinch as they brought out the two men and three women, who struggled and wept openly; she hardly blinked as the escapees were tightly bound with pieces of rope amid the triumphant cackles and leers of the men.
The only sign that all was not as tranquil inside Maria as she appeared on the outside was a slight trembling of her hands as she wiped them on her skirt and a quiver in her throat as she swallowed.
She knew what she’d done, but this was how it had to be. She knew she was right. She had to be. This was how she was going to help bring peace and unity back to her crumbling country.
This was how she would help save the Union.
Meanwhile, Samuel had also left the family gathering and walked in the opposite direction of his twin, struggling with his own conflicted mind.
He had a secret; one that he had not even told Maria—and they usually told each other everything.
Back in October, William had invited Samuel to come to Baltimore to attend a dental convention there. Samuel knew William desired to get him into the dental field as well; though Samuel wasn’t interested, he decided the visit would do him good anyway. He hadn’t seen them in quite some time and had not yet had the chance to meet his little cousin Timothy.
His visit was pleasant and peaceful, and Samuel had started back on the train toward Norfolk, which happened to run directly through the town of Harpers Ferry.
While the train idled in the station, bringing on supplies, Samuel had taken a little walk to stretch his legs. That evening, the raid on the U.S. Arsenal had broken out just a few streets over from the train station where Samuel was…
October 16, 1859 – Two months earlier…
Samuel breathed in the clear evening air and tipped his head up to take in the brilliant starry sky. The time was nearing midnight.
He was glad to have a small break in the eight-hour train trip to stretch his legs. He’d never been to Harpers Ferry before; it was a quaint, industrial village situated between the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, the home of the first railroad junction in the United States, as well as essential telegraph lines.
He’d learned recently that it also boasted a federal armory and arsenal for the United States government. That might be an intriguing site to visit someday, should he ever have the chance.
Faint shouts broke out somewhere to his right, deeper into the town. Then, a shot rang through the air.
Samuel jolted in surprise, but assumed it was a random, isolated discharge. It was soon evident this was not the case.
More signs of fighting carried from across the bridge nearby. Samuel crept down a darkened street, wanting to see what was going on, but cautious to keep out of sight.
A young boy ran from the direction of the ruckus. Samuel grabbed his arm as he ran past.
“What is it, boy? What’s going on?” he asked the pale-faced boy, who stared at Samuel with terror stricken eyes.
The boy shook his head as if unable to form words. Then he stammered, “They—they…be attackin’ the armory.”
“Who?” Samuel pressed.
“Are they white men? Or black men?”
“Mos’ly white, but I saw a few black ones in the fightin’, too,” the boy replied.
Samuel’s eyebrows furrowed. The boy licked his lips and seemed to have something else to say. “What is it?”
“They shot a black man. I saw it myself.”
“Why would a group of white and black men fighting together shoot another black man?” Samuel mused out loud.
The boy, apparently taking advantage of Samuel’s distraction, yanked his arm away and darted into the night.
Right then, a loud alarm bell began ringing, alerting the entire town.
Samuel wasn’t sure whether to keep going or head back toward the train station. He didn’t want to miss his train, though with this new unrest, he wasn’t sure if the train would keep its original schedule.
He decided to go a little further, just to the edge of the Potomac River where the bridge was. The sounds of fighting and shouts grew louder as he walked closer.
Movement down the street made him pause and duck into a darkened storefront. As he watched, a stumbling figure made its way toward him. When the figure stepped into the moonlight, the person’s features became clear.
He wasn’t expecting it to be a young black woman. He hesitated; she looked to be injured. But this was none of his business. Whatever had happened to get her hurt was probably deserved on her part, anyway.
He turned away.
The woman uttered a soft moan, and then Samuel heard a thump behind him as she fell to the ground.
Involuntarily, he twisted to face the young woman.
“Help, help me,” she was whispering. Was she praying?
Samuel closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He wasn’t supposed to care about slaves and their problems. With a final deep breath, he pushed away from the wall and approached the woman.
“Are you…all right?” he asked uncertainly.
She opened her eyes and looked at him blearily. “Help me, mista’, please.”
Close up, she didn’t appear to be more than fifteen or sixteen years of age. Her shoulder was gashed open, bleeding freely with what looked to be a gunshot wound.
Samuel felt something in him shift as he stared down at the bleeding woman. In this moment, she was but another human being who needed aid. Why should he not provide it?
“What can I do to help?” he asked, bending down on one knee.
“The docta’,” she rasped. “Docta’ Starry, get me there. He live—he lives jus’ across the river.”
Gasping for breath, she laid her hand gently on her abdomen, which Samuel noticed for the first time was round and large. Could she be expecting a child?
He felt the urgency rise within him as he picked the young woman up as carefully as possible. She grunted, squeezing her eyes shut against the pain.
Samuel carried her down to the bridge and cautiously made his way across the deserted road. Shifting her in his arms, he rammed his fist on the doctor’s door.
A kind-looking man opened it several minutes later. His front was covered in blood, some streaked on his face as well. He wiped his hand across his eyes and inquired, “What can I do for you?”
“This woman, she’s hurt,” Samuel said, “I think she was caught in the fighting going on across the river.”
“I see,” Dr. Starry said, scanning the woman’s body for injury. “Yes, I have just been treating a man who was wounded there. He didn’t make it.” The doctor looked dejected.
“I am sorry, Doctor, but please, hurry. She’s also expecting a child.”
“A child?” The doctor appeared to gather his strength. “Let’s bring her inside.”
They entered the cramped building and Dr. Starry motioned to a blood-streaked exam table. “I apologize I have not had time to clean up yet. But we must hurry—she looks to be nearly at her time. I must stop the bleeding in her shoulder first.”
The doctor went to work and Samuel hung back, feeling uncomfortable, but not willing to leave yet.
The young woman lifted a weak hand and turned her head to look at Samuel. Slowly, he neared and took hold of her hand.
“Thank you,” she said.
Samuel nodded, pressing his lips together.
“What’s your name, mista’?”
“Samuel,” she repeated. “It’s a good name.” She inhaled a labored breath. “My name is Eloise Martin.”
“Shh, Miss Martin, you must stay quiet and still,” Dr. Starry urged gently.
She closed her eyes as the doctor gave her an anesthetic, then slipped into an uneasy rest. Samuel held her hand until the doctor finished sewing up her wound.
“She should be fine,” Dr. Starry said with a sigh, wiping his hands on a dirty rag. “As long as the wound is kept clean. She will sleep for another couple hours.”
“She’ll probably go into labor soon, but from all appearances, I anticipate a healthy delivery. ”
Samuel let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
Dr. Starry looked at him curiously. “Are you…a friend?”
“Ah, no, I happened to come across her in the street just before I brought her here.” He rubbed his head. “Actually, I am just passing through. I need to catch the train before it leaves…”
Why did he feel so reluctant to go, then?
The doctor nodded. “I understand, though I must warn you to expect possible delays with the ruckus in town.”
Samuel nodded. He gave Eloise one last glance and laid her hand down on the table. Then, he turned to go.
The doctor was right. The train was delayed until the next morning. Samuel spent the time curled on a wooden bench trying, and failing, to find sleep. At one point he thought he saw a man board the train who bore a strong resemblance to the portrait of John Brown that had been circulating in the papers.
Before Samuel finally departed Harpers Ferry on the train that morning, he’d heard from Dr. Starry that Eloise had delivered a healthy, beautiful boy. He’d also mentioned one significant fact: she had named her new son Samuel—in her words, “after the man who saved me.”
By the time Samuel arrived back in Norfolk, the news of John Brown and his attack on the arsenal had traveled across the country to become front-page news.
Samuel had resumed his normal life in Virginia, but somehow, he felt that nothing would be “normal” for him again.
December 1859 – Norfolk, Virginia
The day following her encounter with the slaves, Maria was walking nearby to the spot where she had helped the slave owners recover the runaways. Keeping her head held high and her eyes straight ahead, she picked up her pace toward the Mercantile.
A man idled on the boarded sidewalk but she felt his eyes on her. Not fully certain why, she quickened her pace, soon realizing he was following her. She darted down a side alleyway hoping to lose him, but her efforts were for naught. Two other men were standing at the other end of the alley blocking her escape.
Maria was nearly ready to scream out for help when one man closed in on her. But then she recognized him. He was one of the slave owners she’d seen last night. He sized her up for a moment, making her feel self-conscious under his scrutiny.
What did he see in her? What did he want?
Then he opened his mouth and spoke the words that would change the course of her future. “You were a big help to us last night, girl. How’d ya like to come work with us? Help bring back runaway slaves to their rightful places? We could use someone like you.” He continued his unabashed scanning of her person, then tapped the barrel of his pistol on his stubbled cheek. “Well? How ’bout it? Ya want to do some more spying for your country?”
She hesitated but a moment—she knew only one answer that would satisfy her newfound passion: “What do you need me to do?”
Mr. Oliver Kincade will be giving a lecture this evening to present his newly published book, titled, “Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, In the Celebrated Campaign of 1858, in Illinois.” The book is edited personally by Mr. Lincoln and contains an exclusive interview between the author and Mr. Lincoln himself. Mr. Kincade will be signing copies of his book following the lecture.
My Dear Brother and Sister-in-law,
I have begun a new venture. About a month ago, I was scouting around the edges of my land in Colorado, when I ran into some men assailing a lone rider who had taken refuge in a rocky area. I helped the besieged man scare them off with no delay and brought him back to the house where we talked. His name is William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill Cody, and he is a rider for the newfangled Pony Express mail delivery system. He told me all about it and said if I joined, I would be part of one of the greatest new innovative systems of the century.
I’ve been feeling a bit restless here on my land, so it didn’t take much convincing. I will leave my cattle ranch to my foreman Johnson for now, and check on it periodically, whenever I come through the area. Blue Snake has been off on his own lately, but I may try to contact him and persuade him to join me.
One other thing: I met a lady rider for the Pony Express. Imagine my surprise at that! Her name is Etta Mae Jenkins, and she’s the prettiest, gun-totin’-est, crack-shot of a woman I have ever met in my life. Her mother was a Cheyenne who married a white explorer. I hope to spend more time with her in the future.
My best wishes for your family’s health and happiness.
Reading Orwell: A Grim New World
Reading is more than a habit or fun activity for me, though it is both of those. It’s a way of life for me. Though I can’t recall the first book I ever read, I also can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading something. Stories are my mind’s lifeblood—I think I would suffocate from a lack of mental air if I were ever to lose the ability to read.
One of the stories that I remember first making a significant impact on me is Animal Farm by George Orwell. I had a writing class on the dystopian novel in early high school, and though I only read it because it was assigned to me, it really affected how I viewed the world, history, and political ideologies. It opened a new world to me in the form of veiled parallels and pictorial parables, a startling message that is more adequately conveyed through what seems at first glance to be a children’s fairy tale, albeit a bit gruesome, in true Grimm Brothers fashion.
Prior to reading Animal Farm, I hadn’t realized that the world could be such a deceptively awful place, what is intially appearing as innocent and innocuous ultimately turning rotten and warped. Sure, I’d read about the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Cold War and its subtle terror, and many other tragedies and terrors of history. But I hadn’t understood how those came about, that the atrocities of dictators like Hitler and Stalin had such simple and, seemingly avoidable, beginnings.
Reading a historical account of an event is drastically different from reading a story of that same event, complete with plot, characters, tension, climax, resolution. That’s what is so powerful about a novel. Often from small, uncluttered origins, the conflict takes root more quickly and less noticeably than our brave hero or heroine always realizes. Before they can blink, they find themselves standing waist-deep in a problem that they didn’t know they had. The reader, inevitably, feels deeply on behalf of the characters and this is how Animal Farm drew me in to a larger world than I’d known before.
Though to an enlightened reader, it seems obvious what the animals in power are doing through their propagandizing and the twisted meanings of certain words and phrases (e.g. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”), Orwell is unflinchingly clear on how the masses are so easily manipulated and swayed. It highlights how mere idealism can rapidly deteriorate into actual violence and injustice, and that if we are not aware of what is happening around us in real time, we will miss our chance to put a halt to potentially damaging perspectives and policies that will entangle an unsuspecting nation if left alone.
Change is possible, if I care enough to see my world for what it is, and do something in my sphere of influence. Waves begin with the smallest of ripples, and the power of storytelling is the pebble tossed into the pond.