Here is the prologue to the novel that I’m working on with the tentative title of Idols of the Tribe, which is taken from Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum.
This is a (very) rough draft….so expect errors and changes. Idols of the Tribe is a story about family and is set in Civil War Missouri.
Boone County, Missouri
George Blair blew his breath out as he leaned against the handle of his new shovel. It was one of the four necessities he had traveled to St. Louis only the week before to buy. He had also purchased some dry goods and a bolt of undyed Boston broadcloth for Narcissa. The cloth was meant to be a surprise but as he reflected bitterly, it was the least of the surprises she had in store.
The day was cool, but he was sweating from his exertions. Blair was used to demanding physical labor but on this stunning spring day, he drove himself harder than usual. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and then glared at the crying baby under the shade of the wagon. There was no way out of his dilemma and the cries only served to heighten his discomfort on what should have been a pleasant day.
He had tried to get the child to drink water from the canteen, but he hadn’t had much luck. He had then soaked a rag in water to see if the boy would suck on that, but he had the same results. The boy wasn’t weaned yet, and his mother lay half-buried in the second of the shallow graves Blair had dug. Blair didn’t know what had killed the woman. It wasn’t smallpox, thankfully. Perhaps it was typhus. Or measles. He hadn’t seen the rash against her coal black skin before he bought the woman, and while the auctioneer claimed the woman and her husband were free from disease, well, all sales were final.
Blair had buried the husband almost a full day before. He had been a big man, a powerful man, and Blair was surprised that the fever took him so quickly. He had noticed the woman was sick first and had he been a betting man, he would have wagered that the woman, Mary Ann, would have been the first to go. She had fought hard to stay alive, however, and it was clear that concern for her son kept her going long after her time should have come. Before she died, she had begged Blair to take care of the boy and not to sell him down the river.
Blair had given her the promise that she begged for and he hoped it helped her pass with an easier mind. He didn’t know yet if he could keep the promise to take care of the child as it seemed rather unlikely that the boy would survive. Even if the baby hadn’t contracted whatever disease the parents had, if Blair couldn’t get the baby to take water and then milk, it was doubtful he would live more than a day or so. Roanoke was still more than a day away, and if the child was to have any chance of living, Blair would have to finish the burial and get moving.
Not for the first time, the thought occurred to Blair that perhaps he was infected now as well, and Narcissa’s surprise was destined to be even more dramatic. He hoped he might be spared…he had contracted every disease he could think of during the Canadian campaign so many years before and survived. If that war and the rampant disease in the ranks hadn’t killed him, he reckoned, it was unlikely that some African fever would. Still, even after he got home, he would pitch a tent away from the house for a few days to see if he was also infected.
As he resumed burying the woman, he was thinking of what words he should say over their graves, if any, and the calculating part of George Blair suggested that he had only known the slaves for a few days and he wasn’t responsible for their deaths. Maybe words were unnecessary, yet he uncomfortably understood that he was responsible for their servitude, at least their last week of it, and although he had never held slaves before, he had promised Narcissa that he would take the responsibility of being a master seriously.
Blair finished his task and leaned on his shovel once more. It was time to pray for the dead and leave, but while Blair was a religious man, he was never one for words. He had buried men before but had never been responsible for either their lives or ensuring their afterlives. Blair looked toward the heavens for inspiration, but none came. He looked back at the two graves, removed his hat, closed his eyes, and trusting that the words would come to him, said in a low voice, “Father, I beg you to pardon the sins of this man and his wife and take them into your arms. And I have one more request, I humbly ask that you give me the wisdom to figure out what to do with this young fella here. I cain’t tell Narcissa that I took our life savings to buy help for the farm and, well, you know the rest of the story.” Blair realized that his eulogy for the dead was transitioning into a personal plea for help that bordered on complaining. That wouldn’t do. Blair shook his head at his weakness and finished his service by saying, “Please help these poor folk, Lord. And please pardon me for my transgressions against them. Amen.”
Blair shook his head again, this time in recognition of the inadequacies of his words. He also knew that it would have to do. He had three paths emerging before him and he needed to take one. He could take the child home to Narcissa. He would have to drive his team all day and all night to get home before the child passed from dehydration or hunger, but Blair knew it could be done. He had gone without sleep for several days during the pursuit of General Proctor and the Battle of the Thames nearly twenty years before and Blair knew that he could do it again. He also knew that once Narcissa had her hands on another baby, regardless of its color, she would insist on raising the child along their own children and as a free man. From the unnamed prairie where Blair stood, it seemed like a course of action that appeared to have numerous downsides and little reward.
Blair thought about his other options. He considered the boy’s death almost inevitable, which meant he could head home at his own pace and if the fever seized the child or the boy died from dehydration and hunger, it would be nothing more than a natural course of events. Blair didn’t think he could be faulted if he let nature run its course, although the boy would likely be buried in the woods far from his parents, which would make Narcissa unhappy.
As Blair uncomfortably knew, there was a third option. Blair could accelerate the inevitable and head home to Narcissa and his son with no slaves but no entanglements either. A simple swing of the shovel and he could be with his family and the poor child would be buried with his own. But Blair was a man who believed firmly in heaven and hell. Even though he could justify the act to himself as merely helping the boy’s life come to its inevitable conclusion, he didn’t want to justify the act to his god should he not last the week himself. Equally concerning was the thought that he would live and Narcissa might find out what he had done. Judgement Day would pale in comparison to her wrath. He would have to pray again for guidance.
He dropped the shovel, eased himself to his knees, and clasped his hands as he bowed his head and prayed for the wisdom that had thus far eluded him. Blair prayed earnestly for five minutes, an unusual task for such a taciturn man, and when he was done, he rocked back on his feet and stared at the baby under the wagon. The baby wasn’t moving. He half hoped that perhaps God had delivered him from his dilemma and that he could just bury the child and move on, but then he saw the boy’s tiny chest move ever so slightly. Blair looked to the sky and asked, “You’re sure?”
Blair received no answer, but he had expected no further communication. Blair stood up wearily, picked up his shovel and looked at the baby again. “Well, hell,” he muttered, and Blair walked back to the wagon, tossing the shovel into the bed as he did so. He knelt down next to the child and as he reached for the naked baby, a stream of urine erupted vertically from the baby shooting skyward barely missing the brim of his hat. George Blair laughed at the unexpectedness of it and he realized it was the first time he’d laughed for days. Still laughing, he said, “Come on, boy. Let’s see if we can make it home in time to get some fresh milk tomorrow morning.”
Copyright 2020 by Mark Bowlin