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Winter House: Chapter 8
Fiction by Christian Shuck
July 8, 1820
Henry Harris dismounted his horse. A woman paused to look at him for only moment, then shuffled away, herding her young daughter. He took note of the side glances coming from other passersby. In all, seven men, four women, six children. It was a skill unintentionally developed from years working on the plantation in Virginia. He had not expected a celebratory welcome, but had hoped the rumors of more accepting conditions in the newly formed State of Indiana were true. So far, he was not confident.
He observed the construction site before him. The walls of the two story brick building were complete. Scaffolding still clung to the exterior. Through the openings that would be windows, he could see that none of the interior was finished. The roof was open, but the wood frame for the bell tower was already set in place. Henry wondered if the skills he learned from his father would be enough.
“Is there something here I can help you with, boy?”
Henry turned to see a spindly man wearing a blue waistcoat and top hat. His cream colored trousers stopped just at his ankles where his slim, black shoes shined. The cane he carried had a small, golden lion head on top.
The man waited for a response.
When Henry didn’t say anything, the man, rather irritated, introduced himself.
“My name is Andrew Brooks, I am the County Treasurer.”
Henry again said nothing. The man looked him up and down, examining Henry’s tattered brown jacket and muddy boots. His eyes followed the reins in Henry’s hand back to his horse.
“Where did you get that horse?”
Henry tipped his hat back on his head and looked at the brown and white face of his four-legged companion.
“He was a gift,” Henry said.
The man scoffed. “Oh, so I see you do speak. And English, too. Who, pray tell, would be so gracious as to give you a horse?”
Ignoring the question, Henry asked, “Who should I see about findin’ work here?” He motioned to the brick building.
Mr. Brooks scrunched up his face. “I think perhaps you are mistaken. This building is to be the new county courthouse. These contracts were bid out to these men. Even if you wanted to, legally you could not work here.”
Henry nodded in understanding. “You know of other work available, through the County or sole proprietor?”
The man looked aghast. “Clearly you don’t take my meaning. There is no work for you. Here.” He tapped his cane on the sidewalk. “East of here is a gathering for people, like you. I suggest you head that way. Turn south just as you pass the creek.” As if the minimal conversation was an insult to his existence, Mr. Brooks gave one last ugly look to Henry, then walked stiffly away, nose in the air.
Inhaling deeply, Henry rubbed the nose of his horse. “We knew this wouldn’t be easy, didn’t we?” Prairie, as the horse had been called before she was gifted to Henry, made a grunting noise.
He figured the horse was thirsty, and seeing a watering trough up the main street, led her to it. While Prairie guzzled from the trough, Henry took time to examine the rest of the city. The stories of the battle fought against the Indians at the fort nearby had reached all the way to Virginia. Once granted his freedom, Henry wasted no time making his way to Basevale. Here, it was said, was opportunity and wilderness untamed. Now that Indiana was an official state in the Union, and the governor had just declared the state slave-free, there should have been plenty of work building roads and trade yards near the river.
Plenty of work, for a white man.
The city was bustling with people. Standing at the corner of 4th Street and Wabashiki Ave., Henry could see almost all the way past the unfinished courthouse, to the river. Though the state capital was no longer to the south at Vincennes, Basevale was still positioned as a necessary station to bring goods west from Indianapolis. From here, trade moved north to Chicago, south to Vincennes, back east to Indianapolis and west to St. Louis. Henry was sure this was a place to make his own way.
When Prairie had enough to drink, Henry climbed back into the saddle. He guided the horse east, where Mr. Brooks said he might find better welcome.
The road leading east was as plain as it was when Henry traveled west. For an area denoted as a valley region, compared to the mountains he traversed leaving Virginia, he thought the territory to be quite flat. There were no great landscapes on the horizon. Not even sizeable hills. The grass smelled different. He thought, for a moment, he caught the odor of something dead. A breeze whisked up and carried it away before he had opportunity to consider it further.
After the creek, he turned south, as he was directed. The woods were thick. No path was visible, but Henry suspected if there were other former slaves living here, they preferred it that way.
Prairie had barely taken him a few yards into the woods when she stopped and became agitated. Looking over the forest floor, Henry expected to see a snake or other animal, but he found none. Briefly, he thought he smelled death again. The horse’s nervous demeanor held his attention though, and to avoid risk of being bucked off, he dismounted. He led Prairie forward until he found a small clearing.
A group of shanties littered the meadow. To his surprise, there were whites and negroes living together. Henry expected to find a group of struggling former slaves, but was pleased to see this was not the case. One man, a white man, set down a pail and walked to meet Henry.
“Afternoon,” the man said.
“Afternoon,” Henry said, tipping his hat. The man was wearing a cotton shirt, damp from sweat. Others in the clearing paused their work to observe the newcomer.
“You must have gone to town first, only way you could know we were here,” the man said. “My name is Phillip.”
“Henry, and yes, I did go to town first.”
Phillip smiled. “The governor may have outlawed slavery, that does not mean all wish to adhere.”
“So I learned,” Henry said, returning the smile. “I wonder if I might stay here until I decide whether or not to move on.”
Phillip shifted his weight, taking the opportunity to glance back at the few others beginning to gather near them. Three negro men, one white man, one white woman.
“What’s your trade?”
“I worked with my father in carpentry in Virginia. For my,” he paused, “on the plantation. We repaired and built barns.”
Phillip scratched his forehead and smiled again. “We can always use a hand fixing things up.”
The man turned to introduce the others gathered behind him. Left to right, Isaiah, William, James, Peter, and Elizabeth. Henry introduced himself again. Then, Phillip led him to a place where he could leave Prairie. Almost as soon as he dropped the reins, the horse began to graze. It made Henry smile to see her relaxed again.
Later in the evening, everyone gathered together for supper. Henry expressed his gratitude to the group as bowls of vegetables passed around the tables. They gathered outside, near the center of the shanties. The whole meal was cooked over a large open fire, kettles dangling in the flames.
Two tables. Seven men, two white and five negro. Six women, two white and four negro. And Henry. The mood was solemn. Nobody was speaking.
“How did you all come to be out here?” Henry asked.
One of the negro women, she was wearing a dark blue dress. Henry thought her face looked, tired. Older. She answered, “Me and my sister came from east too, like you. We traveled here with our father, but-”
“He isn’t living,” another negro woman said. “My name is Anita, this is my sister Claire.”
“Nice to meet you both,” said Henry. “My sympathies for your father.” He didn’t say out loud that he thought they both looked too old to still be traveling with their father.
“Was a terrible accident,” Phillip chimed in. He passed a bowl full of rabbit stew to a negro man next to him.
“It was no accident,” said the man receiving the bowl.
“William,” Phillip cut him off. “We should not tell stories at the table. Henry just got here and we ought not to be running him off with legends.” Phillip turned to Henry, “Levi was a good man. He slipped and fell into a small ravine just a few yards west of here, in another clearing.”
“That’s awful,” said Henry. “I have to admit my curiosity, though. What legend do you mean, William?”
“The fireflies,” William said.
“That is quite enough, I said.” Phillip glared at William.
“Apologies,” Henry said, “I don’t wish to upset anyone.”
“Phillip, no need to be so harsh.” The other white man sitting at the other table called down to Phillip. “We all know what happened and no story William tells will change it. Let him tell his tale.”
“It’s an old tale,” William said. “The fireflies come at night, only they’re different. They glow pink and red. They will swarm you, but they prefer children. They only go after adults if there’s nobody else.”
Henry recounted the people in the camp. Fourteen adults, including himself. No children. William continued.
“My grandmother used to tell me the stories. Adze, she called them. The other children and I were terrified, so we’d not sneak out of our beds at night.”
“You’ve seen the fireflies?” Henry asked.
“I have,” William said.
Phillip again objected to the conversation, but his persistence at limiting the discussion made Henry believe Phillip was afraid William was not lying. Or, he knew William was not lying. The rest of the group made small talk of their work, of their hopes for a slave-free state. Henry let the talk go on, but decided to approach William later.
When the meal was finished and folks seemed to be preparing for the evening to come to a close, William offered to let Henry stay in his shack.
“That’s much appreciated,” Henry began. “‘Fore we bed down for the night, I wonder if you and I might speak a little longer. I can’t help but think of the story you shared, and similar tales I heard when I was young.”
“I reckon it came with our kind,” William said. “My grandmother told it to my mother, and on to me. It’s a story from our land.”
“If that’s so, how could the story be true here?”
“How do you mean?” asked William.
“That’s a story to frighten children, to keep them from wanderin’ off in the night. Even if it’s true, how could such a thing come to live here?”
“I don’t know,” William shrugged. “Things that live in the dark like that, they’re not like us. Not like a dog or a ‘coon, neither. They don’t live here, they live in the spirit side. So I s’pose that means they can pretty much go where they like.”
Henry scratched his chin. “I never much thought of it that way.” Then he asked, “Which way is the ravine?”
“Where we found Levi?” William asked. His eyes were wide.
“I can’t say what’s come over me. Too much time on the road, I s’pose. I’d just like to see it.”
William looked up at the half moon, then his head shifted from small hut to small hut.
“I’ll tell ya, but don’t say anythin’ to anyone else. Phillip don’t want to admit it, but he knows what’s out there. You tell ‘em I told you, and I’ll say you’re lyin’.”
“You won’t go?” asked Henry.
“Lord no, no way you can get me there. You’d be smart to stay away, or at least wait for daylight. I’d just as well keep my soul, thank you.” Henry chuckled a little at William’s fear, until he saw just how real it was. He walked back to the space he’d been allowed to tie up Prairie, on the other side of the camp. He counted people as he made his way. Seven men and seven women.
After making sure Prairie was safe, Henry set out to walk back through the camp and to the next clearing. Seven men and six women.
Just a few minutes before, he’d counted seven men and seven women. At dinner, there were only six women. The count now was the same as dinner. Had he miscounted a few moments ago? He tried to think of where the extra woman appeared, which people she had been standing with. It was an unfamiliar area, perhaps he’d made a mistake. Or, perhaps a woman had not joined them for dinner. Henry decided to blame it on road weariness.
He made his way up to William’s house, tipped his hat to the man as he walked by, then entered the woods again. The moonlight wasn’t enough to break through the canopy of trees. He moved slowly through the brush. His heart beat a little faster, not knowing what he was going to find. He was sure it would be nothing. After all, Levi’s body was gone. Henry contemplated this sudden fascination with William’s story. He recalled a similar tale being told to him when he was younger, but didn’t remember being terrified. What if the stories were true?
Pushing aside brush and making more noise than he cared to, Henry waded through the overgrowth at the edge of the woods. He broke through, into the next meadow, just where William said it would be. Though, he didn’t see a ravine.
The moonlight was enough he could make out a small hill, near the center of the clearing. He walked toward it, through the tall grass, letting the palms of his hands brush the tassels. In his mind, he wondered if he’d been tricked. A joke played on the newcomer by a group of people with not too much to do. But as he approached the center of the meadow he could see the edge of an opening.
Henry stood at the ledge. It was bright enough out he could see into the crevice, but dark enough he couldn’t see the bottom. The angle of the moon wasn’t quite high enough. The air was foul. He’d smelled something similar, when he’d met some miners in Virginia. Like rotten eggs. He winced, trying to see deeper into the hole, and understood how Levi might have missed it completely. For a moment, he thought he saw a faint glimmer of light coming from an opening near the ravine floor.
Behind him, a light began to show. He heard a rustle.
Spinning on his heels, Henry found all of the meadow dwellers standing, staring.
Startled, Henry managed to get a few words out. “I’m sorry, you gave me such a scare.” He was holding his chest, feeling his heartbeat.
“I asked you to keep this quiet,” Phillip said, looking at William.
“He didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” Henry defended. “I wanted to know where this was. It’s so much like a story I used to know.”
“No harm done here, Phillip,” William said. “Let’s all head back and bed down for the night. We can sort this out in the mornin’.”
Phillip held his torch up and moved toward Henry. “You’ll say nothing of this place to anyone in town, understand?”
Feeling the ledge underneath his heels, Henry quickly agreed. “No sir, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this anyway. Just want to make a fresh start here.”
He couldn’t make out the faces of the other people, Phillip’s torch was too bright in his face. Phillip had not backed off.
Henry held up his hands. “Look, I don’t even have to stay with you all tonight. I’ll be on my way, if it makes you feel better.”
Henry looked to William, who stared back.
A movement came from the line, fast. Faster than a person should be. As the shape moved past William’s torch, Henry made out the color of the dress.
Two hands landed in the center of his chest and shoved Henry over the edge. The air rushed out of his lungs. The impact of his body on the dirt beneath made his ears ring. He gasped, trying to catch his breath, then coughed from the sudden influx of air. He felt something wet dribble out of his mouth.
A torch light appeared over the ledge. Phillip stood, staring down at him. Three other faces appeared next to Phillip. Henry’s blurred vision wouldn’t let him focus on who they were.
“Please,” he wheezed. “I just want a fresh start.”
“And that’s exactly what we’ve given you,” said Phillip.
From behind him, Henry smelled rotten eggs. A faint, red glow reflected off the rock walls of the crevice.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.