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.