Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Brand New Short Story - THE VISITORS

The other night I was talking to a friend of mine and I asked her for a story prompt, since I knew I was way overdue to post something here and had no idea what to write.  She said: "How about some medieval monks encounter space aliens?"  At the time I thought it was a silly idea, but the more I turned it over in my head the more interesting it seemed.  Here is the end result:

                                  THE VISITORS

                                                   A Short Story by

                                                      Lewis Smith


          Brother Maynard was in the cabbage garden when the Visitors came that day.  It was a beautiful late summer morning in the South Franklands, in the Year of Our Lord Eight Hundred and Five, and in the thirty-seventh year of the Reign of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and (more recently) Emperor of the Romans, as decreed by His Holiness the Pope.  Maynard was a young monk, not quite thirty yet, raised from his orphaned childhood by the brothers of the Priory of St. Eugene.  He was intelligent and deeply read in both the Scriptures and the histories of the ancient Romans and Greeks and had twice already made pilgrimages to Rome.  Some of the brothers in the cloister grumbled that Prior Simon had elevated the young man too quickly, but most recognized that Maynard was simply more intelligent and talented than all the rest of them.

          Maynard saw the bright light in the sky first, out of the six brothers who were helping him hoe the weeds away from the tender young heads of cabbage, but many in the fields around the village of Exibeau had already seen it.  A huge, glowing orb, it flashed brightly across the sky from east to west, hovered for a moment, and then slowly descended into the forest about a mile away.  Its beams were so radiant that the sun itself seemed to dim for a moment, and the villagers cried out in fear and fled for refuge back to their homes.  The monks fell to their knees, crossing themselves.

          “The Day of Judgment has come!” said Brother Pierre, his hands shaking as he worked his rosary.

          “It is truly a sign from the Almighty,” said the young acolyte Bertrand, who was still a year away from his final vows.

          “I do not think it is the end of times,” said Maynard, carefully watching as the bright orb descended into the forest.  “But I do think it is of divine origin. Mayhap we are being visited by messengers from our Lord Christ Himself!  I would fain investigate and see what word they bring to us.”

          “You cannot go, Maynard!  The Glory of the Lord will burn you to a cinder if you dare to approach too closely,” Pierre said.  He was old, superstitious, and overly cautious by nature.

          “Someone needs to go,” said Prior Simon, emerging from the doorway of the chapel where he had watched the final stage of the shining orb’s flight. “If it is a visitation from heaven, we need to be open to the message.  If it is a judgment on our realm, then someone must bear the warning to our fair King and Emperor.  Maynard, since you were the first to perceive the need, you may lead the way.  Who will join him?”

          None of the older monks raised their hands, but young Bertrand finally stood and took his place beside Maynard.  Prior Simon looked at his clerics with a bit of sadness graven into his features, and then addressed the two who had chosen to go.

          “Go forth, then, and see what this great light portends,” he told them.  “If they bear instructions, heed them.  If they call you to service, then serve.  If they pose a danger, return hither as soon as you can and let us know what it is.  God be with you both, my brothers!”

          The two men bowed and made the sign of the cross, and then set out along the dirt track that led towards the forest where the shining orb had come to earth. Bertrand was excited as he practically ran to keep up with the long-legged older monk.

          “Is it an angel, do you think?” he asked breathlessly as they got out of earshot of the Priory.

          “I do not know, brother,” said Maynard, striding along easily.  “It did remind me somewhat of the wheel of fire that appeared to the blessed prophet Ezekiel.”

          “I have heard that story, although my Latin is not yet proficient enough for me to read it,” Bertrand said.  “But could it not also be the fire of judgment, falling from on high?”

          “Why would God rain down fire on a vacant forest?” said Maynard. “If he wished to punish wickedness, why not smite Avignon instead?  Or – God forgive me – Rome itself?”

          “Rome is the center of Christendom!” exclaimed Bertrand.  “Why would God smite his own church’s most holy city?”

          “You have never been to Rome, my young brother,” said Maynard. “It is indeed the home of the Holy See, but it is also a sinkhole of human wickedness and depravity.  It is as if the Devil set up shop within sight of the Holy Father’s palace, the better to keep watch on the affairs of God’s church!”

          Bertrand did not know what to say, so he kept his mouth shut as they strode towards the forest.  In a matter of a few minutes, they were already under the shadow of the trees.  The trail continued through the woods, created by the local peasants who came there to dig up the exquisite truffles that grew under the ancient trees.  The monks were not supposed to indulge in culinary extravagances, but most of them had dug a truffle or two at one time or another and enjoyed the savory fungus.

          The forest was normally a peaceful and beautiful place, alive with the songs of birds, the yipping of foxes, and the rustling of squirrels chasing each other through the trees.  But today it was quiet, the animals apparently as intimidated as the humans by the heavenly phenomenon.  The silence grew oppressive as the two clerics walked down the trail, more slowly now, eyes focused on the trees lining the path, and the shadowy gloom where unspeakable things might lurk.

          Despite the ominous lack of sound, the monks saw nothing as they made their way along the narrow trail.  No bright-clad angels of heaven, nor nightmarish imps of hell, accosted them along the way.  They saw nothing but the deep emerald shadows and glints of sunlight working through the canopy above them; heard nothing but the rustle of the wind in the treetops.  Soon the way ahead lightened, and they knew they were approaching the clearing where the glowing orb had appeared to come to earth.  Despite their trepidation, they both picked up their pace, curiosity overcoming their fears.

          As they cleared the last of the trees, they saw the source of the light before them.  It was enormous, virtually filling the clearing where it had set down.  Its blinding glow was extinguished now, but its surface was still bright, a reflective silver that shone in the sun like a finely polished steel blade, although no earthly steel had surely ever been forged so smooth and flawless as the surface of this – exactly what was it?  Maynard wondered.

          In shape it was less circular than it had appeared in the sky; it resembled a huge dish – or perhaps the hulls of two ships, minus the masts, one turned upside down on top of the other.  It hovered above the ground, resting on nothing except one slender ramp or catwalk that protruded from an opening on its side. It emitted a low-pitched humming sound; persistent but harmonious. From inside the opening, a bright light glowed – although not as bright as the light that they had seen the disk emit while it was still in the sky.  It was through this opening, which was nearly twice as tall as a man, that the first of the Visitors emerged as they stood there watching.  Bertrand fled screaming in terror as the Visitor came down the ramp and stood there, blinking in the sun.  Maynard grew pale but remained where he stood.

          The Visitors – for there were three of them who emerged from the ship – were clearly not children of Adam.  Each one stood nearly eight feet tall, and their skin was a deep shade somewhere between blue and purple, although the exact color seemed to be outside any hue that Maynard had ever seen or heard of before.  Their raiment was of a glowing golden fabric that clung tightly to their bodies, trimmed with jet black.  Each one wore a white band around their wrist with a black, shiny disk attached to it; as Maynard observed later, bright letters and characters periodically appeared on the face of the disk, scrolling across and vanishing.  Their eyes were huge and black, and their ears and mouths comparatively small, with pointed chins and high foreheads.  They looked at Maynard, their moist eyes blinking in the afternoon sun, their attitudes conveying more curiosity than hostility.  Finally, the first of the Visitors to emerge from the craft stepped forward and raised his hand.  His digits were elongated, and there were six of them, each ending in a bulbous pad like that of a tree frog.  Maynard slowly raised his own hand in greeting.

          “Greetings,” the tall Visitor said in flawless Latin.  “Can you understand my speech? According to our observations, this is the language spoken by the learned residents of this part of your world.”

          “I can indeed,” said Brother Maynard.  “You will forgive my impertinence, but who – indeed what! – are you?  I have never seen a being of your kind.  Are you angels or demons, faerie or succubae?”

          “I understand these words, but I am unsure what you mean by them.  We are from elsewhere; another world far away.  Can you understand that concept?  Each star is a sun like your own; orbited by planets – worlds, if you prefer.  Most of them are lifeless, or else inhabited only by the most primitive of life forms.  But a tiny handful contain sentient species such as ourselves – and you,” the Visitor answered.

          Maynard drew a deep breath.  He had always assumed that the sun orbited around the earth, and that the stars were simply lamps that God hung in the sky to illuminate the night.  How great must be the size of the universe, if those tiny dots of light were each as big as the blazing sun that hung overhead!  And . . . other worlds?  Other kinds of life?  His mind reeled as he tried to process this strange information.  Finally, he managed to speak.

          “This is all dazzling and new to me,” he said.  “But I cannot help but wonder why you are here.  Do you mean us harm?”

          The Visitor blinked again. 

          “Harm?” it finally said.  “No, that is not our way.  Indeed, we would not visit your world at all, except for the fact that it may hold the answer to a mystery that has vexed us for many generations of our kind.”

          Maynard considered this and found his mind racing again.  Creatures that could make such fabulous magic, traveling between worlds, coming to him for answers?  Or at least, coming to earth for answers?  What could he possibly know that they did not?

          “What mystery is this you speak of?” he said.

          “We know that all of this -” the Visitor waved its six-digital hand to encompass the woods around them, the sky, and the sun that was now sinking towards the west “- was created by a single all-powerful force.  We know that this force is of great intelligence and remarkable will, for we encounter its traces all across the galaxy.”  Maynard had never heard this word before, but he grasped the meaning intuitively.  The Visitor continued.

          “In most places, those traces are faint and barely detectable, but they are there nonetheless. They are the – how can I express this in a way you can grasp? They are the finger-marks of the force that created the universe and all its worlds.  But we do not know what this force is, or perhaps it would be better to say, we do not know who it is, for we believe it to be a supreme intelligence.  One thing, however, is true: here, on this world, the traces are stronger, brighter, and more defined than we have seen anywhere in our long trek through the stars in search of this Creator.  It is as if this world, alone of any we have found, bears his signature.  Therefore, we come, from many worlds away, to ask you: Do you know of the Creator?  Will you share your knowledge of him with us?”

          Maynard’s surprise and wonder gave way to delight.  He wondered if this was how Philip the Evangelist felt when he encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on that desert road heading south from Jerusalem centuries before.  He slowly smiled, and then spoke.

          “I know this Creator very well, for I serve Him,” he told the Visitors. 

          Their reaction was sudden.  The one who had been speaking to him recoiled as if in shock, and quickly turned to the other two.  They placed their large heads close together, and light flickered between them as if their minds were joined in a barely visible flow of information.  There were no audible words, but Maynard could sense that an intense conversation was taking place.  One of the three looked at his wristband and punched the black disk with one long, bulbous digit, and red and gold characters flashed across the face of the disk. Finally, the leader turned and faced the monk once more.

          “I am Tishugnattha, the leader of the Quest,” he said.  Or at least, that was how Maynard rendered it in the secret account he forwarded to Rome later that week, at the request of Prior Simon.  But those letters only rendered the vaguest rendition of the syllables that flowed from the Visitor’s thin lips as it disclosed its identity.

          “I am Maynard, a brother of the Priory of Saint Eugene,” the monk replied. “I am a servant of the One True Church, Holy and Apostolic, and of His Holiness Pope Leo III, and of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

          “Which of these is the Creator?” Tishugnattha asked him.  “What do you know of him, and how do you know it?”

          “We know our Creator because he was incarnate as a man and walked among us, some eight hundred years ago,” said Maynard.

          The Visitors seemed even more stunned by this revelation, and once more conferred among themselves – for even longer this time.  Finally, Tishugnattha spoke to him again.

          “Your tongue is very primitive,” he said, “and does not frame your ideas in a way that is easy for us to grasp.  Are you saying that the Creator of the Universe came to your world, and walked among you – as one of you?  That he wore a physical body that looked like yours?”

          “Yes, that is correct!” said Brother Maynard with excitement.  “We have the writings of those who walked with him, and we have a creed that passes along the things that he taught to us.  Would you like to hear it?”

          “Yes!  Yes, that would be most helpful,” said the Visitor, his voice still sounding skeptical.

          “Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. Et in Iesum Christum, Filium eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,” Maynard began the familiar words: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

          Tishugnattha listened intently, his purplish brow furrowing as he tried to process the words Maynard spoke.  After the final words of the Creed were spoken, he shook his great head slowly.

          “Many of these words are new to me,” he said.  “What is ‘crucified,’ for example?”

          “It was a barbaric means of executing criminals, devised by the Romans long ago,” said Maynard patiently.  “Our Lord Jesus was nailed to a cross and hung there to die between two condemned felons.”

          “This cannot be!  The Creator not only became one of you, but was then murdered by you?  How is it that your world still exists, if it treated Him so poorly?” the Visitor asked.

          “It was necessary for our Messiah to suffer and die, that he might purchase forgiveness for our sins,” explained Maynard.

          “Your words make no sense to me,” Tishugnattha said.  “As you have seen, my species communicates directly, from mind to mind, without this painful process of forming words which are so easily misunderstood.  I believe that your thought processes are not too different from ours.  Brother Maynard of the Priory of Saint Eugene, may I read your thoughts on this matter?”

          Maynard hesitated.  The Visitors seemed friendly and genuinely curious about the teachings of the Church, but what if they were not what they made themselves out to be?  Was he opening himself up to demonic possession?  But – if he failed to convey to them the mysteries of the True Religion, would he be responsible if their whole world was damned?  Blessed Virgin, give me wisdom, he thought, and may Your Holy Son guide me to the right choice.

          “This is not our way,” he finally said.  “But I want you to understand what we believe as perfectly as you can.  Therefore . . . you may reach into my mind with yours, Tishugnattha.  I give you my leave.”

          The huge figure leaned close, its purplish skin fading to a light blue.  Fine dancing rays, like tiny bolts of lightning, flickered forth from its forehead, just above those eyes, those black eyes like a bottomless ocean of ink.  Tishugnattha gave off a faint odor that was at once sweet and a trifle nauseating.  Maynard suddenly stiffened as strange images and thoughts flooded his consciousness.

          Much of what he saw in those few seconds simply could not be put into words.  The images and concepts were so foreign his brain could not wrap around them.  But he was aware of the great ship, and the enormous distances it had traveled, and the burning curiosity that drove the Visitors across the cosmos in their Quest to connect with their maker.  He had the barest glimpse of their home world, a land of emerald volcanoes and light blue, tree-sized ferns beneath an orange sky.  Then suddenly the connection was broken, and he found himself slowly slumping to the ground.

          Tishugnattha was, if anything, more affected by the linking of their minds than Maynard had been.  The giant Visitor swayed back and forth, nearly falling backwards, and his companions had to bear him up.  When he recovered his equilibrium, he turned and leaned into them, and the dancing rays of light flickered between their heads again.  The link with the monk’s mind was not fully severed, because Maynard could catch tiny snatches of their conversation: “Fantastic . . . impossible . . . such an indignity . . .the Creator would never . . . our instruments . . .no other place . . . but no!”

          Finally, the three Visitors turned and bowed deeply.

          “We thank you for your time, and apologize for the shock we must have presented,” their leader said.  “It is obvious to us that we made a mistake in coming here.  Our instruments have never led us astray before, but the idea that the Creator would become a mortal being and then allow Himself to be murdered by other mortal beings is inconceivable to us.  That he should live as a humble . . . what was your word? Carpenter? For thirty of your years before revealing Himself? Absurd!  We are going to spend a long time recalibrating, and if necessary, rebuilding our instruments.  We will continue our quest for our Maker when we are done – but we have concluded we were wrong about this world.  What left the marks we mistook for the Creator’s signature we do not know, but we do not believe they were left by Him.  We will return to our vessel, and thence to our homes, and try to see where our calculations led us astray.  May you and your kind live in peace, even though that does not seem to be likely.”
          With that the three enormous creatures bowed, and quietly walked up the ramp that led to their ship.  The ramp retracted, leaving not so much as a seam to mark the opening that had been there moments before.  Then the vast ship slowly lifted into the sky.  Maynard watched with fascination as it rose higher and higher and then began to glow.  The light grew brighter and brighter, until he could no longer look at it directly.  As he shaded his eyes, the great craft shot across the sky with speed greater than any falling star, growing fainter and fainter until no trace was left of its passage.

          The monks of Saint Eugene’s found Maynard as he came stumbling out of the woods, his face and hands burned red, as if he had worked in the desert sun all day without a hood or hat to protect him.  Prior Simon took him inside, gave him a cup of wine, and then shut and locked the door of the chapter house before listening to Maynard’s description of his encounter.  When the monk was done, Simon bound him by the strictest oath of secrecy to tell none of the other monks what he had seen.  A few days later, Maynard drew up a detailed report of his encounter with the Visitors for the Holy See.  It was forwarded to Rome, where the Pope read it with great interest.  It was discussed among the most learned cardinals and bishops, then sealed in a black leather volume of mysteries and hidden away in the most secret recesses of the Vatican library.

          As for the Visitors, they returned to their distant planet, mystified by the malfunction of their instruments, and began to plan for the next phase of their endless Quest.  When they thought about Maynard and the inhabitants of his world, their attitude was one of pity mixed with wonder that any people could be so foolish as to mistake a humble carpenter – whatever that word meant! – for the Creator of the Universe.

          Maynard lived on for many years, dying in the tenth year of the reign of Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s grandson.  He kept his vow to never speak of the Visitors, until he made his final confession.  Father Basil, who heard his dying words, shook his head in sadness at the old monk’s strange flight of fancy.  But Maynard knew what he had seen and heard, and when he thought of the Visitors, his emotions were wonder at their marvelous abilities, mixed with a great pity that the beings who were so intelligent could not grasp the greatest and most profound mystery of them all, the one that lay at the heart of the Christian faith – the simplicity of Christ Himself.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

My Newest Short Story - A CHANCE MEETING

   We encounter other people every single day.  Countless conversations, some brief, some long, some serious, some not.  But each encounter casts a stone into the sea of time, and we know not how far they will travel, or upon what shore they will eventually land.  Like this brief conversation between a Quaker merchant and a seven year old boy, in the Year of Our Lord 1816 . . . .

                         A CHANCE MEETING

                                            A Short Story


                                          Lewis B. Smith


          Roger Dunnegan was a busy man.  An important man, by his own lights: he owned three grist mills and a general goods store.  The mills were located in three small townships scattered through Perry County, in the Indiana Territory; while the store lay across the river in the larger town of Dover’s Bend, just south of the river and across the border in Kentucky.  Managing his many properties kept him on horseback for a good bit of every day; he rode from one mill to another and then across the border to check on his store at least twice a week.  He lived in a growing settlement just across the river from Dover’s Bend; there his wife Elaine, five years his junior, tended a household that included six children; four of them were hers and two had been born to Roger’s first wife, Julia.  She had died bringing their second son into the world, and despite his happiness with Elaine, Roger still missed her every time he looked into her boy’s eyes.

          It might have been simpler for Roger to live next to his store in Dover’s Bend, but his Quaker upbringing had left him with a lifelong loathing of slavery. He could not abide the casual cruelty and brutality of the institution, but at the same time, there was a lot of money to be made selling flour and fabric and other manufactured goods south of the river, where industry was virtually non-existent among the rolling hills and big plantations.  So he held his nose when he was in Dover’s Bend, greeting the slavers with a smile and a wave as they rode their carriages into town, their pockets lined with the cash generated by the unrequited toil of their laborers, and he accepted their payments without demur.  To salve his conscience – which, in his most private moments, he wished would not prick him quite so often – he donated a fair amount of his profits every year to various charities that helped runaway Africans establish themselves in the North.  Occasionally he was even known to shelter a runaway briefly before sending them on their way, although he did his best to keep this from becoming known to his neighbors, especially those to the south.  Business, after all, was business.

          On this fine spring day, Dunnegan was riding to the northernmost of his holdings, the Hurricane Mill, located in Hurricane Township, Indiana – a small but growing community of some two hundred souls.  The road – if the two stumpy, rutted parallel tracks could be graced with the term – was overhung with towering trees, and dipped occasionally as it crossed one of the area’s many winding springs.  Once this area had been filled with native villages, but now the woods were quiet.

The Indians had mostly been driven out of this corner of the territory over the last few decades, although occasionally he would pass a campsite where one of the few remaining tribesmen would be setting traps or hunting deer.  The last battle for the territory had been fought some twenty miles away, five years ago, during Tecumseh’s great uprising.  Roger admired the great Indian chief’s courage in revolting against the superior numbers and arms of the United States government, even if the savagery of the Indian’s attacks on white settlements negated the virtue of their cause.  But the warchief of the Shawnee had witnessed the destruction of his people and fled Indiana,  continuing the fight till the bitter end.  He finally perished in Canada, fighting alongside the British in the Battle of the Thames, where Dunnegan had been present, serving as a major of volunteers under General Harrison – a choice that had led to his dismissal from the Society of Friends, who rejected warfare in all forms.

          No trace of the former conflict presented itself on this lovely spring day, as he rode through the sparsely settled region, surveying the woods on either side of the road.  Here and there a rude log cabin sat in the middle of a recently cleared patch of forest – families were streaming north from Kentucky these days, looking for cheap land and a second chance to make something of themselves in a free territory.  As he neared the settlement, the number of these clearings increased, until there was more cleared land than forest fronting the roadway.  Then the trees drew back, and the twenty or so buildings that made up Hurricane Township drew into view.  The grist mill was the largest and sturdiest of these, located on the town’s central square, between a saloon and a lawyer’s office.  No matter how small the town, Dunnegan reflected, there had to be someone to sort out the land titles and settle the petty lawsuits and claims that arose.

          Jebediah Clements, the mill’s manager, was standing in the door, watching as Dunnegan approached.  He stepped forward and shook Roger’s hand as the owner dismounted.

          “Morning, Mr. Dunnegan,” he said.  “Glad to see you, as always.”

          “Thankee kindly,” Roger replied.  “How is business this week?”

          “Steady,” his manager replied. “I just finished toting up the books for last month and have your profits counted out and ready to pick up.  Of course, half of it is coin, plus three pigs, six chickens, and two promissory notes!”

          “Pen up the livestock and sell them as you can,” said Dunnegan.  “I’ll let you hold the notes until they are paid off, as usual.  Anything else of note?”

          “Yessir,” he said. “Runaways!  A man and a woman with a baby; they’re hiding in the shed out back.  Slave catchers came through looking for them about two hours before they arrived.  I assume you’ll want to see them?”

          “Of course,” said Dunnegan.

          “Don’t know why you bother,” grumbled the mill boss.  “Better business would be to turn them over and collect the reward!”

          Dunnegan shook his head.

          “When I stand before the Almighty, I will not have it on my head that I returned any of his children to bondage for the sake of mammon,” he told Clements.  “I can’t undo the plague of slavery, but when I can strike some small blow at it, I will.  I pay you well enough to manage my property – and keep your mouth shut about my business!”

          “Mum’s the word, sir,” said Clements.  “Just talking to you as one businessman to another, I was.”

          “There is more to life than business,” Dunnegan said.  “Hand me the coin purse with my profits, please.”

          He dumped the coins into his had and counted out the take.  It had indeed been a steady week, and more customers than usual had paid in cash to have their meal ground.  The Lord provides, he thought as he made his way out back.

          Dunnegan entered the shed and quickly spotted the runaways. The man and woman were hiding behind a pile of flour sacks, obviously terrified that he was a slave catcher.

          “Come on out, children,” he said.  “I have no intention of returning you to your master.”

          The young man stepped out, tall and light-skinned for a Negro – no doubt the product of a white master’s lust being vented on some captive female.  This was an activity that all Southerners knew about, but none ever mentioned.  It was one of the many reasons why Dunnegan so thoroughly detested the Peculiar Institution.  Slavers denied the Negroes their humanity until their lust took hold of them, and then acknowledged it in the most basic way of all.

          “We’s thank you foh ‘lowing us to hide here, massuh,” the man said.  “Me and Sadie done took off when our old massuh said he gone sell her off wid our li’l baby, all de way down in Tennessee!  I jes’ din’t wants to lib apart from her, ‘specially since we jes’ jump de broom las’ yeah.”

          “Well, you are not safe here!” said Dunnegan. “The state government isn’t even fully formed yet, and there is no one to stop slave catchers from coming north and snatching you away.  They were already through here, looking for you, earlier today, according to my foreman.”

          He reached in his pocket and counted out four silver dollars.

          “Take this; and take a couple of the chickens from the coop beside the mill,” he said.  “Stay off the main roads, lay low by day, and travel north and east by night.  By the time the moon is full again, you should be far enough north to be out of their reach.  There are lots of new townships springing up in the Michigan Territory, and you should be able to find work – and be left alone.  Do you have a trade?”

          “Yassuh,” said the freed slave.  “Me, I kin shoe hosses, and Sadie, she a good housekeepah.  We kin suppo’t ousselves and li’l Franklin, too.  We jes’ need a chance, suh, and you done gib us dat.  My name be Lane, suh.  My massuh was named Jenkins, but I doan wan’ go by dat.  Wass yo’ las’ name, suh?”

          “Dunnegan,” replied Roger, “but I’d rather you not use it.  My mother’s maiden name was O’Shea – it’s a good old Irish name.  You may call yourself by it, if you like.”

          “Lane Oshay!” said the young black man.  “I use it proudly, suh!”

          “Well, then,” said Dunnegan, “Be off with you and your wife.  Good luck, my friend!”

          “Thank you, suh!” the young Negro suddenly dropped to his knees as he spoke. “I’se din’t know white folks could be so kind!”

          “Get on your feet, man!” said Roger with mild irritation. “Man was made to bow before the Almighty, and none other.  It’s the heat of the afternoon right now and most of the menfolk are out in their fields, and their women in the house tending babies and wash - a good time to slip out of town unseen.  Now you two be on your way, and may God speed your journey!”

          They stepped out of the shed and into the street, where Lane quickly grabbed up two fat hens, trussed their feet, and popped them into a flour sack.  With another bow and several more thank-you’s, he and Sadie trotted off down the street and disappeared into the forest that surrounded Hurricane Township.  Roger watched them go and uttered a silent prayer for their safety, and then turned to enter the mill.

          He had never heard the buckboard wagon pull up, but there it was, crammed to the gills with the household goods of the family that sat up front.  A tall, sturdy man, somewhat dark-skinned but with blunt, honest features, held the reins.  Next to him sat a pale, somewhat sickly-looking woman, and beside them a pretty young girl of nine and a black-headed boy somewhat younger, who had inherited his father’s dark complexion.

          “Pardon me, sir, are you Mr. Dunnegan, the mill owner?” the man asked.

          “Roger, please,” Dunnegan said.  “And yes, that would be me.”

          “Tom,” the man replied.  “and my wife, Nancy.  We’re heading west, looking for unclaimed land.  I was wondering if you had any need for day labor?  I’m strong as an ox and pretty handy with most tools.”

          “Go speak with Mr. Clements,” said Dunnegan.  “He runs the mill for me and is always complaining about the lack of good help.  He could probably put you to work for at least a day or two.”

          “Were those slaves yours?” the man asked him.

          “No, I refuse to own another human being,” said Dunnegan.  “Those were runaways from Kentucky, and I sent them on their way north.  Aside from the pure wickedness of it, slavery is bad for business.  Notice how there are no factories in the South!  Free southerners won’t do the hard manual labor that manufacturing requires, and slaveowners won’t spare their work from the fields.  I tell you, Tom, the future of this country is the factory and the mill, not the farm! As long as slavery persists, the South will fall further behind the North every year.”

          “So there’s no truth to the rumor the new state legislature is going to vote slavery in?” Tom asked him.

          “None,” said Roger.  “My brother is a legislator, and he said the slavers simply don’t have the votes.  Indiana is a free territory, about to become a free state, and there is nothing the planters can do to stop it!”

          “Good thing!” said Tom.  “A free smallholder like me can’t compete with those big planters.   There’s no room in the south for free labor, at least not when it comes to farming.  I came here to escape that wickedness – well, that, and because I hear it’s a lot easier to get a clear title to land up here.  I lost two hundred acres in Kentucky due to bad surveys and poorly made laws!”

          “There’s a lot of available land up around Pigeon Creek, about twenty miles west of here,” said Dunnegan.  “If you can get up there in the next few months, there should be some choice acreage that’s not claimed yet.”

          “Splendid!” the farmer said, his homely face beaming.  “If I can work here for a few days, better yet, for a week, that will give my family a chance to rest from the road and put a few coins in my pocket for the last leg of the journey.”

          “There’s an inn at the edge of town,” said Dunnegan.  “It’s called Boar’s Head.  Here, this should get a room for you and your family for a couple of nights at least,” he said, handing the man a silver dollar.

          Tom’s dark face flushed.  “I thank you for the offer, but I don’t take charity,” he said.  “I’ve always provided for me and mine.”

          “Consider it an advance on your labor, then,” said Dunnegan, “and go talk to Clements.”

          “That I will, and thank you kindly,” said the farmer.  “I’ll do just that."   He left, walking around the side of the mill towards the front door.

          Dunnegan looked at the woman and her two children.  She looked more than exhausted, she looked sick, and he could see the concern in her daughter’s eyes.

          “Listen,” he said.  “Take your children up to the Boar’s Head and tell Hannah, the cook, that Roger said to feed them and you a good hot meal and put it on my bill.”

          “You’re very kind, sir,” she said in a cultivated voice that spoke of a more sophisticated upbringing than her husband’s.  “Now what do you tell the man, children?”

          “Thank you, sir!” the boy and girl said simultaneously. Dunnegan patted each of them on the head, and the boy looked at him quizzically.

          “What is it, lad?” he asked the child.

          “Is slavery really wicked?” the boy asked him.

          Dunnegan went to one knee, placing himself eye to eye with the dark-headed lad.  He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and spoke.

“Son,” he said, “I am a Quaker, and I believe that all men are brothers in the eyes of God, regardless of skin color. There are few things on this earth more wicked than selling your brother at the auction block. Even killing a man acknowledges his humanity, albeit in a savage and vengeful way.  But selling a man?  That denies him the very essence of who he is, his status as a child of our Almighty Father.  It tells him he is no more than a piece of livestock!  If that is not wicked, I don’t know what wickedness is.  We call this a free country, and it is, I suppose, freer than most.  We celebrate our liberty at every opportunity, but at the same time we hold two million or more people in slavery.  That’s wrong; more than wrong, it is evil, and God will smite us for this sin if we don’t rid ourselves of it.  So listen to me, my boy – if you ever have the chance to do something to rid us of this infernal curse of slavery, you do it, no matter how small or how great it might be.  Will you promise me that?”

          “I promise!” the boy said.

          “Abraham, come along with me and Sarah now,” the woman said.

          “Yes, mama,” the boy replied, and Dunnegan watched as the Lincoln family made their way to the tavern and a hot meal.