Richard was halfway through his final pre-supper circuit through the Cattleman’s restaurant kitchen when his cellphone buzzed with the urgent message from the VFD; all available volunteers report to the firehouse immediately. He had been a volunteer for the past several years – and this was one of his standby days. He wasn’t yet a full-fledged fire-fighting volunteer, due to his erratic attendance at training sessions, but he had scored well enough on the required first aid exams and victim rescue tests to qualify to ride out with Chris in the VFD ambulance. He rushed into the office, to pull his coat out of the closet, and collided with Lew Dubois as he rushed out again.

“You, too?” he gasped, and Lew nodded.

“We’ll take my car, cher. Mr. Charboneau, from housekeeping has been called as well.”

The two men hustled out of the service door, where the old stables used to be, joined in the parking area by a large and normally silent Fred Charboneau, the resident handyman, who had married into the sprawling Gonzalez/Gonzales clan. The rain was pelting down in a manner which reminded Richard keenly of summer in Bickley. Both Lew and Fred hefted duffle bags of turnout gear into the trunk of Lew’s late model Lexus and peeled out of the narrow employee lot on two wheels. It was barely three blocks to the VFD station, already being converged upon by an assortment of civilian vehicles.

“It’s hard to believe that something is on fire in this weather,” Fred Charboneau observed. Richard and Lew laughed, hollowly.

“It is said to be most difficult to make something fool-proof, as fools are most ingenious,” Lew replied. Richard, remembering the flood on the river of some years previous, ventured an explanation.

“Probably an emergency rescue on the river, or a low crossing … some kid messing around on the riverbank and getting swept away.”

“Could be, cher,” Lew found a place to park as close to the station as he could, and they all dashed through the driving rain – which now seemed determined to achieve in four hours what it had taken Noah’s flood forty days and nights.

 

There wasn’t anything but somber faces in the briefing area, once Milo Grigoriev finished outlining the situation, and setting the search parameters. Every single one of the volunteers in the room knew Joe Vaughn, some of them had even played on the Moths Varsity football team, back in the days when he was the high school football hero. There wasn’t a single one who would mind getting soaked to the skin, or worse, scouting along the two most likely back-country roads – just to make certain that he would be found and returned, safe and sound.

“The weather folks predict that the worst of this storm will pass over the search area in half an hour to forty-five minutes,” Milo Grigoriev concluded, “There’s a hazard in sending out a search while it’s still pissing down to beat the band … but they call it the Golden Hour for a damned good reason – if we find someone injured – badly injured –  and get them to medical care within that hour, then there’s a much better chance for survival and recovery. We have to risk it, people. It’s a matter of life and death. You know the plan, then. Go, people. Find Chief Vaughn – and stay safe out there.”

That being said, all but Richard, Chris Mayall, Lew and Steve Gonzales, a full-time FD employee scattered for their personal vehicles. Since the expansion of Venue Properties, International to include a lease on the Cattleman Hotel and a constant stream of day-trippers and holidaymakers, the VFD had found themselves in the way of a second ambulance, the vehicle and contents of necessary gear generously funded by the corporate Good Fairy. There were just the four remaining at the VFD to take any calls for EMS and an ambulance from Tina Gonzalez at the police station dispatch desk.  Chris tapped Richard on the shoulder.

“You’re with me, if they call for Number One Magic Bus. Lew, if you don’t mind – you’re with Steve on Number Two. You OK with that, Ricardo – Lew?”

“Fine with me,” Richard replied. This gave him time to change into his VFD gear, now that he had achieved the dignity of a locker of his own at the Fire Station, in which to keep the issue trousers, boots, and official shirt with his name embroidered over the pocket, against the day when the whole crew of volunteers was called out. Then he rejoined his First Aid fellows in the all-purpose room, where the on-duty firefighters whiled away the idle hour in luxuriously overstuffed Barca-loungers, waiting for various disasters to call them to action. A tall coffee urn perked away on a table in the corner, attended by a stack of heavy china mugs, and a dispenser full of sugar packets and little round containers of shelf-stable creamer.

Chris and Steve were watching an old film noir mystery movie from the 1950s, without much interest. A somewhat intrigued Lew was identifying the scene of the outdoor locations, since he had attended college in Los Angeles and had once intended a career in Hollywood set design, before diverted by chance into hospitality management.

“Lake Arrowhead was very popular for shooting scenes of mountain lakes and pine trees,” He was saying as Richard took possession of an empty lounge chair. “Alas, it looks nothing like the Alps of Switzerland at all … but in those days, very few people might know the difference, just by looking at a movie screen. But …”

At that moment, the duty room telephone rang, and Chris picked up with a crisp report;

“Luna City FD, Mayall speaking.”

“Ambulance call, 24 Pin Oak, elderly woman in distress,” reported Tina Gonzalez, from next door in the police station – the extension was on the speakerphone mode. Chris gave a deep sigh.

“Thanks, Tina. Sending Unit 2,” Chris hung up the receiver, and addressed the room at large. “Mrs. Mafilda Potrero – probably having a panic attack again. She always does, when it rains heavy like this. Never got over getting caught in a flooding low-water crossing, ten-fifteen years ago. Steve, you and Lew take it. Ricardo and I’ll wait to hear from the search party.”

“On it, Doc,” Steve shouldered into his rain slicker and hood. He and Lew vanished into the garage part of the station, and the brief wail of the ambulances’ siren could be heard until it faded into the sound of rain drumming on the metal roof. Chris sighed again. “You want some coffee, Ricardo? We may be here for a while.”

“Not unless it’s from the Café,” Richard replied. “I don’t trust anything calling itself coffee, unless it came from my kitchen or one that I supervise. Sounds as if you’ve gone to the dance with the Potrero woman before.”

“Frequent flyer, man,” Chris sauntered over to the coffee and helped himself. “Nice old broad, but still has PTSD from the fright of near drowning … in a foot of water over the old road a couple years back. I can relate. A good few puffs of oxygen, some sternly-worded reassurance, and she apologizes for having been such trouble, and brings out some butter cookies that her sister made, and brags about her grandchildren. All hunky-dory. But one of these days, she will have a heart attack or something for real … aannndd that’s why we send the Magic Bus over to 24 Pin Oak. Just in case. You might as well kick back and relax, Ricardo … by my reckoning, we won’t be called for …” Chris consulted his watch. “At least twenty-five minutes. Sooner, maybe, but only if Joe was exceeding the speed limit, and you know what a freak he was about that kind of thing.”

“How do you figure?” Richard was honestly intrigued. He really hoped that Chris was right. And that the rainstorm had blown through by the time #2 Ambulance returned to the barn. And really – if this call-out took too long, could Chris or Lew drop him off at the Age, and spare him the long trek on his bicycle?

“Joe told Jess that he was about half an hour out,” Chris explained patiently. “So, even in the rain, it will take almost that long for our search crews to reach the approximate area and begin to search. Longer, if they have to be careful in heavy rain. So, relax, Ricardo. Have a cup of awful coffee. Sit back and watch a dumb old movie. Betcha anything that Steve and Lew will be back before we get the call. We might even see the end of the movie.”

19. November 2023 · Comments Off on Just As A Teaser… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

the notes from the end of That Fateful Lightning, which is now available for pre-release order in Kindle.

Like the story told in my previous series of books, The Adelsverein Trilogy, a lot of the background to this story was new to me. I wasn’t raised in the South, and the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist. Frankly, all I knew about the chattel slavery in the South was what there was contained in generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War and articles in my mothers’ issues of American Heritage. There was nothing much in my store of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it was in the time in which the first half of this book takes place, so a deep dive into contemporary accounts of travels in the South were required.

Richmond, Virginia, was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: I have tried to describe what Minnie would have seen and experienced in that visit to Shockoe Bottom and create conversations that she would have had with Southerners like Pres Devereaux and Levi Chaffin, Susan Edmonds and with slaves like Hepzibah – all of whom would in real life in that period would have said something like the dialog which I wrote for them. There is a word for readers who will assume that such words are my own thoughts on the matter of chattel slavery, as they are very much counter to contemporary mores. That word is “idiot.” That term also extends to writers who bolt conventional contemporary attitudes onto characters set in another place and time. It is a disservice to readers who honestly want to explore other places, times, and situations, and a grim transgression against the art of building a story, in that it basically puts 21st century characters in unconvincing costumes.

Details are taken from contemporary accounts. Minnie would not have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions.   For most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.

The escape by rail travel of Miss Bonnie Beauchamp and her servant/husband was based on a similar occurrence; that of William and Ellen Craft from Macon, Georgia in 1848. Ellen Craft, who appeared sufficiently white to pass as such, dressed in male clothing, bandages, and spectacles, claiming that injuries prevented her from signing hotel registries and deafness as an excuse to not chat with fellow passengers. They posed a wealthy young planter and his manservant, and gained safety in Philadelphia, Boston and eventually England, after many close calls and fraught moments.

Boston was practically the epicenter of the American abolitionist movement, a movement which roiled the political world in the U.S. for more than two decades, finally culminating in open war. Whether it was slavery, or economics which served as the touchpaper to war is a matter still disputed by historians, but to the real-life contemporaries of Minne Vining, there was no question at all: slavery was the issue.

The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corp. All of that went out the window when the fighting began. Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission in June, 1861. The Sanitary Commission served the Union Army much as the combined military medical commands, the Morale, Recreation and Welfare offices and the Red Cross serve our armed forces today.

Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses, and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war. Those accounts make for stirring reading and I have depended on several of them, especially a memoir left by Rebecca Pomroy to fill out Minnie’s experiences. The account of Minnie’s daily routine at the Columbia College Hospital was taken from Mrs. Pomroy’s memoir. There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period. Many of the best-known women volunteers were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends with each other. Minnie’s friend, Mary Ashton Livermore was one in real life. She also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist minister husband owned.

As related, Mary Jane Bickerdyke was an early volunteer nurse in the western theater. Perhaps we do not realize today how much of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid, before sanitation, sterile surgery, and vaccination for common childhood diseases. Both Mary Bickerdyke and Rebecca Pomroy had cared for invalid husbands for years; they and other volunteer nurses had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of formal medical training. General Grant endorsed her presence and actions as Union forces advanced down the Mississippi. It was the peppery-tempered General Sherman who responded one of his subordinates complaining about her, demanding that he do something about that ‘damned bossy woman’ by saying, “I can’t – she ranks me.” Mary Bickerdyke was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Western Army’s medical command. She participated in Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, at General Sherman’s express request.

Mary Jane Safford, the nurse at the Cairo Army hospital when Mrs. Bickerdyke and Minnie arrived, was a real person also – who later studied medicine herself and became a one of the very first female gynecologists to practice in the United States, and a professor of gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, was indeed a spy for the Union all throughout the war, and upon defeat of the Confederacy, was the first in Richmond to hang the US flag from her house. It has been claimed that one member of her spy ring, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave freed by her family, was placed in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Her spying and philanthropic activities eventually drained her family fortune, and in later life she was supported by the families of former POWs held in Libby Prison during the war.

The character of Colonel Levi Chaffin is based on the experience of General George Henry Thomas, known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” – born in Virginia to a plantation-owning, slave-holding family, but married to a woman from upstate New York. Like Grant and Sherman, he was a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War … and he broke with his family in remaining with the Union. His family never forgave him for that disloyalty to his native state. They burned all of his letters, never mentioned his name again, and did not attend his funeral when he died prematurely of a stroke, barely five years after the end of the war. A modest and competent man, he may have been the only Civil War general on either side who never wrote a post-war memoir and burned his private papers.

Finally – this account of the experiences of a 19th century American woman who was not all that unusual as an activist and campaigner for all kinds of causes – fills in or provides a background to certain stories and characters in my other historical novels. Minnie’s deceased younger brother Horace, husband to her dear friend Annabelle, is the bigamous husband of Margaret Becker, of Daughter of Texas and Deep In the Heart. Unknown to Minnie, the unconscious Confederate soldier in her field hospital in the final chapter is Horace Vining’s youngest son, Peter Vining. In the opening chapter of Adelsverein: The Harvesting, Peter Vining returns alone and on foot to his family home in Texas, after the defeat of the Confederacy, and tries to figure out a new life for himself. An octogenarian Minnie herself appears in the first chapters of Sunset and Steel Rails, belatedly providing her grandniece, Sophie Brewer, with the means of escaping Boston and the machinations of her lamentably sociopathic brother. And finally, Minnie’s experiences after the battle at Shiloh are briefly referred to in My Dear Cousin, with Sophie Brewer’s granddaughter Vennie Stoneman as an Army nurse in WWII.

Tag-dah! The cover for That Fateful Lightning has been generated by a writer friend who dabbles in this kind of thing – Thanks to Covers Girl, for this creation, which uses a generated image of a woman, and one of my own photographs as a background! Look for this to be released in ebook and printby the end of November, 2023!

28. July 2023 · Comments Off on From “That Fateful Lightning” · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Yes, the work in progress is humming along – I hope to have it all done and ready by late November, and launch officially at Miss Ruby’s Author Corral at Giddings, the first Saturday in December. In this excerpt, Minnie Vining and Mrs. Mary Bickerdyke have a good look at the Army hospital at Cairo, Illinois, in the first summer of the War Between the States.

At the same instant that Colonel Ennis bid them good evening, and took his departure, a very young woman in a calico dress which drooped hoop-less and looked by the hem of it to have been dragged through mud and other unclean matter, emerged from the nearest tent. Her apron was also similarly stained. She carried a bucket, which she set down as soon as she saw the other two women.

“Oh, merciful heavens, Mrs. Bickerdyke – you are here!” She was a very pretty, slender young woman, worn down to a thread and very near tears. “There is so much… and so many! I have done all that I can, and the contraband women and some ladies from Cairo are helping me, but there is only so much we can do with what little the Army can spare!”

“We are here now, Miss Vining and I,” Mary Bickerdyke enfolded the younger woman in a comforting embrace. “And four boxcar-loads of supplies – linens, food, spare cots and blankets and much else as well – which are on their way this very minute from the railyard. Colonel Ennis was good enough to put a trusty sergeant and a work party at our disposal. I do not wish to waste any time; show me the hospital, so that we may make plans to remedy the dire situation as soon as we are able. We may not be able to make improvements tonight,” Mary Bickerdyke added, with particularly resolute determination, “But at least, we will have a notion of what needs to be done.”

“Everything,” Miss Safford sniffed, and rubbed her eyes. “Everything … the poor souls lie in their own filthy bedding for hours, for lack of anything clean… It is all that I can do to bring them beef tea and a concoction of willow bark, steeped in hot water, or Peruvian bark for those poor souls with the ague and chills.”

“I have sufficient funds to hire laundresses,” Mary Bickerdyke replied. “And indeed – I do suppose that the contrabands in the camp that we passed would be happy enough to be hired for that task. Now show me the hospital.”

“All right,” Miss Safford gulped back her tears with a commendable effort. “This way … the convalescents are here, those who are still ill and not cleared by Surgeon-Major Frost to return to duty with their company. They help as much as they can, but they are hardly well themselves…”

The first tent was not so awful; filled with cots and bedrolls, most occupied by men, most in a state of dishevelment, or indeed, undress. At least half of them immediately dived for the cover of blankets or those garments they had set aside in the interests of comfort within the sweltering canvas roof, as the three women entered the tent.

“They are … unclothed!” Minnie hissed in a startled undertone. It was not that she had been completely unaccustomed to the sight of naked or near-naked males – after all, when she was a girl, her brothers and their friends would swim in the Charles, when the summer heat was particularly oppressive.

“They are,” Miss Safford acknowledged, in a welter of embarrassment and fanned her flushed face with her hand. “They are still recovering, and the heat is so pernicious. I … try to think of them in the same manner as creatures in the barnyard.”

“I was married to my husband Mr. Bickerdyke for twenty years, and have two sons,” Mrs. Bickerdyke replied, serenely. “I’m not seeing a particle of anything that I didn’t already know about.”

Minnie felt the same flush of embarrassment rising in her face. Well, she would have to get used to this. It was one thing to minister to her brothers when they were ill, and when they were dying – it would be another matter entirely to see to the needs of strange men; boys, really. Perhaps she would do her best to think of them as infants and small boys, in need of sisterly or motherly care. Miss Safford, so very young and unmarried, seemed to have found a means of coping by thinking of their patients as horses and cows.

Conditions in the other tents were … abominable. Hot, filled with the stench of vomit and feces, of unclean bodies and pungent male perspiration, stale air, and the indefinable odor of sickness. Minnie tried to hold her breath as much as possible. Mary Bickerdyke’s expression remained stern and resolute, even as Miss Safford’s expression reflected a degree of shamed embarrassment. But Mary Bickerdyke was unmoved, even serene.

“Rest easy, dear boys,” she said several times, as she leaned over a cot or a bedroll, smoothing the ragged, stained covering over the shivering form underneath. “Rest easy, for in the morning, we will fix things. You will be cared for as tenderly as if you were home with your dear mother. Rest easy, boys.”

It was fully evening when their tour of the hospital tents ended. The sun had gone down in the west, well below the edge of the levee, but the sky still retained the color of a bleached sea-shell in it, edged with pale apricot shreds of cloud. The distant sounds of drill and stamping feet echoed from the distant parade ground – a sound which had become so very familiar to Minnie, as familiar as the regular ticking of the old clock in Papa-the-Judge’s study, far away in Boston. Minnie took a deep breath of relatively fresher air. The compound of tents stretched away before the three women, many lit within by oil lamps, which gave the effect of a collection of Chinese paper lanterns. A scattering of campfires sent golden sparks up into the evening air, as ephemeral as golden fireflies. A bugle on the far side of camp sent a melancholy thread of music into the air. Minnie shivered a little, half in dread, half in anticipation – this would be her life for the foreseeable future, the regular tramp of marching feet, harsh male voices, the discordant music of drum and bugle.

In the open quadrant by the hospital tents a pile of crates and trunks steadily grew, as they were unloaded from Army wagons, under the profane direction of Sgt. Sullivan – at least, profane until he noted the presence of the three women.

“God save the mark, Ma’am.” He came to them, after bawling his last set of orders and commands over his shoulder to the half-dozen soldiers laboring to unload the last wagon. “Here we have all of your traps and treasure brought from the railway … was there anything more that you wish us to do?”

“There is,” Mary Bickerdyke studied the stack of barrels and scrap-wood crates, piled next to the nearest cook tent. “Those hogshead barrels … I would like eight or ten of the soundest and least damaged to be sawn in half, and the bungs stopped with plugs. Can you do that for me by tomorrow.”

“Of course, ma’am,” Sgt. Sullivan appeared to be mildly nonplussed. After a short hesitation, he ventured a question. “May I ask, ma’am – for what purpose?”

Mary Bickerdyke looked up at him as if this were the most obvious thing in the world, although even Minnie and Miss Safford were puzzled. “For bathing the sick, of course. Those barrels will make admirable tubs. Cleanliness is essential for these poor lads – and they are filthy-dirty. We’ll start on the morrow, ladies,” she added, with a look over her shoulder at the other two women. “Miss Safford, dear – have we a place to lay our heads down tonight, and perhaps have a bite of supper? Miss Vining and I are fatigued after a long day’s journey, and tomorrow will be very busy for all of us.”

“Oh, but of course,” Miss Safford replied, somewhat relieved that the tour of the dreadful ward tents was completed. “Colonel Prentiss very kindly allotted me a tent to myself and Free Mary … she is one of the contrabands who has been assisting me … we have been issued some camp cots, and Free Mary has been friends with the cook in the nearest camp kitchen. Besides, she brings me some good cornbread that her mother bakes … she and her sister and mother all escaped together and took refuge with the Army. Free Mary will have brought us all something to eat, I am certain.”

“Good,” Minnie replied, mildly relieved that she and Mary did have a place to sleep that night – as well as the prospect of a meal, although whether it would be edible or not was a matter of conjecture. She had a packet of food in the valise which she had brought with her from Galesburg; some slabs of bread and cheese, hardboiled eggs, and some cold fried chicken, in the event of the Army cook not being anywhere near as gifted as Mrs. Norris. She was as exhausted as she had ever been, after a long train journey, and contemplating the prospect of sorting out the hospital and it’s suffering patients on the morrow. She was so tired that she thought she could have lain down and slept soundly on a bare pallet, just as the soldiers did.

 

08. July 2023 · Comments Off on From the Current WIP – Chapter 14: The Watchfires of a Thousand Circling Camps · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

With a feeling of intense anticipation and relief, Minnie packed her small traveling trunk, left instructions to Mrs. Norris and her daughters to close up the main part of the Beacon Street mansion, bid Sophie and Richie a fond, but abstracted goodbye. and set off for Chicago and the west. At last, amid the tumult of events, she had a purpose and a goal, once more, would be of use in the grand crusade against the cruelty and evil that informed the slave system. The journey was no more or less comfortable than so many others she had made over the last fifteen years. The discomfort of this excursion was a little alleviated by a night spent in a very comfortable little compartment in a special car set up as a sleeping coach. It was, Minnie thought to herself, very much like a miniature stateroom on one of the more luxurious steamboats, all polished wood with pretty curtains to be drawn against the twilight, and a little bed set with clean sheets and a feather comforter. The conductor on that train informed her that this sleeping car was a special one, an experiment of sorts, and if it proved popular enough, soon most railway lines would offer such cars for the convenience of those traveling long distances.

She arrived at the Galena & Chicago Union Station at mid-morning, refreshed from a good rest in the sleeping coach, and to her joy, Mary Livermore met her on the platform.

“My dear Minnie, it seems an age!” Mary embraced her as if they had been apart for years. “There is so much going on these days, I hardly have time to think … when were you last in Chicago? I think you had gave a lecture at the …. Was it three years ago, or longer?”

“Two years, only two years,” Minnie replied, returning the embrace. It was always startling to her to see Mary in her current incarnation, a stout middle-aged body, prim and earnest, afire with good works. She had been Mary Ashton Rice, back then; Minnie always thought of her as she was when first she and Annabelle met her at dame school in Boston, so many years ago.  Mary was always in Minnie’s memory as the earnest schoolgirl with her hair tightly woven into plaits on either side of her round face, solemn and serious, when the light-hearted Annabelle teased her mercilessly.

“In any case, you are welcome as always,” Mary took her arm, and they walked out to the street. “And the train to Galesburg departs first thing in the morning, so of course you will spend the night with us … are you wearied, Minnie dear? Are you up to a diversion, before I take you home; you must be exhausted…”

“Not a bit of it,” Minnie replied, stoutly. “I had a good rest on the train, and nothing but time until tomorrow morning and the Galesburg train.”

“Oh, good,” Mary replied. “You see, we have a simply enormous bazaar today in Tremont House ballroom, to benefit the Sanitary Commission – so many of our good patriotic ladies have volunteered to make things, and to work in the booths, and I had such a large part in organizing it all that I simply have to make an appearance, even if Mrs. Armstrong does have all the volunteers so very well organized … I must introduce you to her, in any case. Feenie Armstrong is my good right hand, in Mr. Livermore’s congregation. Her husband, Mr. Armstrong, is in finance, and both are such strong supporters of our efforts. A lovely young couple, they have three very charming and well-mannered children. You would like her, I think.”

Minnie groaned. “All the dear sweet ladies, selling bits of embroidery and fancywork to each other, and to the patriotic souls… Mary, I volunteered to go with your friend Mrs. Bickerdyke, just to escape this kind of feminine flummery. Embroidery. Sweet little paintings on china. Berlin wool-work slippers, and fancy samplers. Tatting … did I ever tell you how much I despise tatting and other useless handiwork considered suitable for ladies?”

“No, you didn’t,” Mary patted Minnie’s hand. “Not above a hundred times, beginning when you pricked your fingers and bled on your sampler, and said some very rude words in Latin which your brothers had taught you. So very helpful that Madame Dubois didn’t understand Latin…”

“But all the girls who did, were shocked to their souls,” Mary smiled, impishly. “Ne’er mind, Minnie – we will not expect you to donate any goods for sale or expect you to mind a booth. I just want to introduce you around – this is a grand undertaking, and you should at least make yourself known to those dear ladies who will remain by their hearths and send up their prayers for you … and all our dear boys.”

“Very well, I shall do my best to be cordial,” Minnie relented, and Mary embraced her again, and took the small travel trunk from her.

“You will not regret it, Minnie dear,” she promised. “It will do your heart good to know that Chicago is all for Union. I am certain that there are more for Abolition here in Chicago than there are in our old dear Boston!”

“I’ll not argue that,” Minnie said, as Mary showed her to a hansom cab, waiting among a crowd of other conveyances in the street outside the station, the single horse in harness pawing the dirt at his feet with weary interest, as if he had hoped to find a grain or two of corn in the filth, but wasn’t really expecting such.

The Tremont House was the grandest of such in Chicago, Minnie knew – the cynosure of all eyes, especially of the wealthy. And the ballroom did not disappoint, especially not today, all hung with patriotic colors, and filled from pillar to pillar with tables and small booths ornamented with swags of bunting and fresh flowers, ribbon bows – and women, women everywhere, young,  old and in between. Their pleasant voices, and the rustle of their skirts filled the room, at least as much as their energy and good cheer, as well as the undernote of rustling paper money and the clink of coins, as all manner of home-made pretty things changed hands.

“We had a remarkable turnout for this fair,” Mary remarked as they entered the ballroom. “Our dear Colonel Ellsworth was of this city, you will remember… our folk have taken his bloody murder at the hands of that vile Secessionist very hard. He and his Zouave company were much beloved, in Chicago.”

“I know,” Minnie replied – for the handsome Colonel of volunteers was much admired throughout the North and had been a firm friend to President Lincoln – indeed, Colonel Ellsworth had lain in state in the White House, his body lapped in bouquets of white lilies, or so Minnie had read in the newspapers. He had been shot by an innkeeper in Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington – on a mission of taking down a taunting Confederate banner posted by the owner of the inn. A rash response to a taunt – but Minnie knew very well that men were like that. Was this war a schoolyard taunt grown to continental proportions? She wondered about that, now and again. The blood of a new martyr had focused all serious attention to the matter of war just this spring, electrifying the North after the Sumter surrender. It would not be over soon, or bloodlessly. First reckless words, then the surrender of Fort Sumter and the Federal garrison in Texas. No, words and threats had been exchanged in broadsides in print and speeches … but the death of Colonel Ellsworth, even more than Fort Sumter meant that there would be bloodshed, and blood in quantity.  Likely every woman in the Tremont ballroom on this morning knew it in her heart, even if she might not admit it publicly.

Now a younger woman at the nearest booth looked up, catching Mary Livermore’s attention. She was pretty, still in the bloom of youth, clad in the most tasteful and subtly expensive of recent fashion; her brown hair, threaded with auburn highlights, was combed smoothly back from a widow’s peak in her forehead and tidied away under a modish small bonnet. Minnie thought the woman looked familiar – perhaps they had met before, when she herself was on the lecture circuit. One met so many others, and lamentably, only a handful of the most notable or eccentric really stood out in memory, sufficient to instantly attach a name. Three children stood at the woman’s side; the eldest a pretty miss of twelve or so with curls of a brighter auburn shade, offering a basket of small nosegays tied with silk ribbons for sale. The younger lads – presumably her brothers – solemnly collected payment for the flowers and made change.

“I see you are putting the children to good work, Feenie,” Mary Livermore remarked.

“My husband says that children are never too young to learn the meaning of work – or charity,” Feenie Armstrong replied with a fond smile, and Mary Livermore chuckled.

“So very correct Mr. Armstrong is in that! Never too young to be of good use in the world! Feenie, I would like to make you known to one of my oldest friends in the word; Miss Minnie Vining, this is Feenie – Mrs. Josephine Armstrong.”

“So very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Armstrong,” Minnie was still certain that she had met Mrs. Armstrong before. She knew her face; that distinct heart-shape and grey eyes were familiar. Not from Boston, though – not the daughter of old friends or a distant relative. And did she imagine the fleeting expression of … fear, fear and apprehension that crossed Mrs. Armstrong’s countenance.

“I have heard so very much about your work in the Cause,” the younger woman replied, with every evidence of pleasure, after that first brief and inexplicable moment of dread. “I had often wished to attend one of your lectures, but never had the opportunity – for which I am very sorry.”

“I share that regret,” Minnie replied, “But I am certain that we have met before – you seem very familiar to me. Might we have encountered each other through friends and kin in Boston? Were you at school there? Are your parents someone that I knew?”

“No,” Feenie Armstrong shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I was an orphan from the age of ten, but I was blessed with an attentive guardian, who sent me to school in Philadelphia and supported me until I married Mr. Armstrong.”

“Perhaps I recall someone who resembled your person,” Minnie replied, and at that moment glanced at Mrs. Armstrong’s daughter … and at that moment she realized, with a feeling like being struck by lightning where she had first encountered Feenie. Where she had first met Feenie Armstrong, or the woman who went by that name now; in Richmond, the nearly-white child named Josephine that she and Elizabeth Van Lew had purchased at the slave auction, so many years ago. A poor tearful child, frantic at being tossed in among the brutal slave system, rescued at the last minute, restored to freedom and the chance of happiness. It was all dreadfully clear in that one moment to Minnie. Josephine was a woman now grown, settled in a prosperous life, and a happy marriage, content with happy and well-mannered children. But she must still live in dread, knowing that an unthoughtful or vicious word about how she had been bought in a slave auction in Richmond at the age of eleven years, just because her father died in debt and her mother had an ancestor of the Negro race and born in bondage… did anyone know of this, save Minnie herself, and the kindly Van Lew family, who had seen to Feenie’s education and subsequent freedom into another life… Did Feenie Armstrong’s husband, even know of her past, although nothing of it was her fault in the least …

No, she wouldn’t say anything about what she knew of Mrs. Armstrong’s past.