by Raji Singh (Publisher, Fiction House Publishing)
My great grandmother Shelva’s girlhood writings. The 1870’s.
I wonder. Do schoolchildren in America learn about their Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as we in Moscow? They should. It was something evil as anything the Czar cooks up nowadays. But if they have a teacher like mine, Mrs. Dumbinski, they probably don’t. I often distrust what Mrs. Dumbinski says.
(That is not her real name. I just don’t want someone to discover this in the future, and maybe through her, get me, or my family hounded by the Czar’s dirty workers, his Cossacks.)
Mrs. Dumb is so enamored of the Czar. If it’s something bad about another country, she is sure to use it in a lesson: her example for why his iron fist rule is necessary. I just know she says to herself as she glares out at us above gherkin nose. “Mother Russia is perfect, students. My lessons prove that.”
‘Hhmph,’ to that!
Well, I know she isn’t lying about the America Act. Uncle Vanya was there. He gets caught in its unjust fury as he aided those Americans called “Abolitionists”. So, Mrs. Dumb, you are right. But Mrs. D., the Czar has his enforcers. They treat our, who you call peasants, as evilly as some Americans did their enslaved.
* * *
A family of six runaway slaves – mother, father, twin sons age five, an infant daughter, and a graying grandfa – crowd into the back of Uncle Vanya’s canvas-top wagon. They sleep as the pair of draw-horses ‘clip, clop’ steadily northward on a desolate backroad. It is the morning after a harried crossing of the Ohio River. Canada bound – FREEDOM. Uncle Vanya and my Uncle-to-be, William, today Willamina, switches driving and looking out for slave catchers. (To make his identity even more confusing William/Willamina writes novels under the nom de plume, ‘Golden Boy’.)
“Just you look at that aura of mystical contentment on our Golden Boy’s face. We never thought, seeing him as a child, that his look of confusion would ever disappear, eh Sol?”
“Indeed Mum. Our golden boy is finally content in being Golden Boy.”
“Doesn’t that peacefulness match the ‘appiness on Uncle Vanya’s face?”
“That it does, Mum. Vanya’s got the look of bloke fully satisfied with the good ‘e’s ‘elpin accomplish.”
But Uncle Vanya seems perplexed as he glances at Willamina. Willamina is still in his evening dress that so stirred Vanya’s amorous desires the previous night. Vanya puts those emotions aside for now. His perplexity comes from his thoughts about America’s unjust ways. “I just not understand, Willamina. We are in free state. So how the catchers able to come and take our journeyors back to their tormentors?”
“It’s what we Abolitionists call the Bloodhound Law, Vanya. Allows them to traipse north, force anyone they want to do their bidding, and pluck free souls back to their hell of whippings, maimings, and worse. Some of us have deterrents to it though.” He pats the repeater rifle hidden by the folds of his loose camisole.
“Ach! They use methods surely learned from the Czar, Willamina.”
Vanya musters courage. He strokes the hand, firm but smooth, of his seatmate. “Willamina, you’re even lovelier in the sunrise than last night in the moonglow. Please do not consider this too bold a thing to say, but I think I could come to care for you deeply, My Dear.”
Willamina slips his hand away. “I wouldn’t even consider that Vanya. I’m someone who could change quickly. More quickly than you might ever imagine. You might find out that what I become is not so pretty.”
Uncle Vanya would learn Willamina’s meaning of that statement in short order.
Thundering hooves of a half dozen horses interrupt them. Dust stirs as riders block the road.
“Whoa!” shouts Willamina. He slips his hand through an inconspicuous slit in his clothing. He fingers the trigger.
“Pardon, Ma’am, Sir,” to Willamina and Uncle Vanya says a sharply chiseled Federal Marshall. He is charged with enforcing the law of the United States of all America. “We must search all transports.” Willamina sees, by the way his handlebar moustache quivers nervously, how he fidgets with his derby hat, he reluctantly does his duty.
Willamina surveys the whole situation. He concludes, by the fresh horses, the clean clothes of at least two of the others. They are northern conscripts forced by law into this dirty work.
Two others, their faces whisker stubbled, and their clothes ratty: They’re, they’re just hires, interested only in saving their hides if threatened. Only one – probably overseer at the plantation where the family escaped – a stern face man in a long leather jacket, chaps, and low crown slouch hat, has a stake.
‘A calculated risk to keep them from their search is well worth a try,’ Willamina tells himself.
“Of course, Marshall,” Willamina says. My husband and I understand you have your regulations.”
Uncle Vanya keeps his face expressionless, stone, though Willamina’s reaction causes his perplexity to escalate. ‘And this, ‘Mine husbant, statement of Willamina’s?’ Before Vanya can pronounce objections to the search, Willamina stops him with a briefest, yet coldest glare.
Then, Willamina says to the Marshall. “We have some very delicate items in the back from Russia. I’d feel better if we did the unloading.”
The impatient overseer glares at the wagon, grits his teeth and demands. “Who the hell cares about any of that? Marshall, let’s just get to it.”
Willamina’s look returns to Uncle Vanya. His eyes say. “Now it is your turn to use your greenhorn ways Vanya. They’ll think you’re as naive as Blackjack and I did when we first met you.”
“I from Moscow,” Uncle Vanya says. Know nothing of your politics, your laws, just a trader of my country’s precious goods. Trying build goot relationship between two great nations. Truly hate see anything broke. After I bring all way from Mother Russia for Eagle Amerikans to enjoy.”
“We been riding all night,” the Marshall says. “Let them do the work if they want.”
The other riders shift in their stirrups, shuffle anxiously in their saddles, and prompt the overseer, “Come on Mr. Ashley, give us a break?”
“All right. But don’t take all the day.”
Willamina says, “But first, I have some business to take care of. Personal lady-chore. If you gentlemen do not mind….”
Exasperated, the overseer waves his hand. “Sure, Mrs. sure.”
With his eyes, Willamina says to Uncle. “Do not budge from the seat.”
Willamina goes behind a wide buckeye tree. In less than five seconds, Uncle sees a cowboy emerge. His gleaming repeater rifle beads on the riders.
“Dismount slow, steady,” William orders.
“We’re a duly appointed possee charged by the Federal Government to carry out the law,” says the Marshall.
William fires, sending the slouch hat flying. The overseer freezes. He pales.
“And I’m a self appointed thief. About to requistion your arms and steeds, and the Russians goods. Name’s Dollar Bill. And I act at will. So none of you budge unnecessarily, because I won’t hesitate in blowing sizeable holes in your gizzards. Now dismount.” Slowly, they comply.
Not knowing what to do Uncle Vanya doesn’t move. ‘Willamina! Please be safe. Don’t let him have hurt you.’ Vanya plans and then questions the wisdom of that plan for the sake of Willamina and the family in the wagon. ‘If he gets close enough. I should jump him.’
Next week: Uncle Vanya discovers the fallacy of falling for a femme fatale too quickly.
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh