In the spring of 1848, Thoreau returns to Plumford, Massachusetts, in search of a fellow conductor on the Underground Railroad, who has gone missing along with the escaped female slave he was assigned to transport. With the help of his good friend, Dr. Adam Walker, Thoreau finds the conductor—shot to death on a back road.
When the two men discover that Adam’s beloved cousin Julia has given the slave safe harbor, their relief is counterbalanced by concern for Julia, who has put herself in grave danger. Another conductor has been murdered in a neighboring town and a letter has been found from someone claiming to have been hired to assassinate anyone harboring fugitive slaves. With all of them now potential targets, the need for Thoreau and Adam to apprehend the killer is more urgent than ever…
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Thoreau in Phantom Bog
By B. B. Oak
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 B. B. Oak
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, May 17, 1848
When I called on Henry Thoreau's mother this afternoon, she was affable enough, but hardly forthcoming. And the same could be said of her two daughters. Mrs. Thoreau ushered me into her small parlor to meet them, and I found their resemblance to Henry quite striking. His elder sister Helen has large, deep-set eyes like his, and his younger sister Sophia has an aquiline nose just as prominent. So familiar and endearing were their features to me that I felt as if I already knew them. They did not reciprocate my warm feelings of friendship, however. Their manner toward me remained polite but wary throughout my short visit, and rather than be frank with me, they outright lied. But with so much at stake, I do not fault them for their subterfuge. Nor do I resent their hesitancy to include me, a complete stranger, in their clandestine operation.
Even Henry, to whom I have proven myself trustworthy and even doughty when the situation required it, was not very forthcoming when I broached the subject with him last week. I had requested that he come to Plumford to advise me on a structural change I wished to make to the house I'd inherited from my grandfather.
"I hope you do not intend to destroy the elegant proportions of this fine old construction with gables and fretwork," he said immediately upon arriving. Dressing up the plain fronts of eighteenth-century houses with Gothic Revival motifs had become all the rage, even in small towns like Plumford and Concord.
"Of course not, Henry. You should know me better than that," I replied. In truth, although we have shared some rather harrowing experiences during the last few years, we did not know each other all that well, for Henry is most reserved around women. I showed him the rough plan I'd drawn up, and he understood its purpose immediately.
"This looks to be a drawing of a hidden compartment beneath the stairs," he said. "I surmise its use would be to conceal runaway slaves from the eyes of the law."
"Exactly. I would like to offer you the use of my house as an Underground Railroad Station, Henry."
He kept his expression impassive. "Why make such an offer to me?"
"Come now, Henry. It's common knowledge that the Thoreau family is active in the Railroad."
"The more common the knowledge, the less it can be trusted," Henry said in a dismissive tone and went back to examining my plan. "Your measurements are slightly off," he concluded. He took a pencil from his coat pocket and made some corrections. "There. That should work."
"Now all I need is a carpenter I can trust. Will you take on the job, Henry?"
"And will you link my house to the Railroad?"
"I might," he said again. For a man who speaks his mind so freely and eloquently, Henry can be very tight-lipped when he so chooses.
"Pray be less ambiguous," I implored.
"The configuration of the network we speak of is intentionally kept ambiguous," Henry replied. "I freely admit that I conduct fugitives from one Station to another, but I leave the organization of Station routes to others."
"And who might they be?"
"I reckon you'll find out soon enough, Julia." And with those parting words, off he went. Shortly thereafter I received an invitation from Mrs. Thoreau to take tea with her and her daughters this afternoon.
And so here I was, cup in hand, sitting betwixt Helen and Sophia on a worn horsehair sofa, across from Mrs. Thoreau on a straight-back chair. After we had all expressed our pleasure in the fine weather we were having, Mrs. Thoreau got down to the purpose of my visit. Or so I thought.
"Thank you for volunteering to help in our Cause," she said. "Your offer could not have come at a better time, Mrs. Pelletier."
I inwardly flinched, as I always do, when I am addressed by my married name. Outwardly I smiled.
"Henry tells me you are a most accomplished portrait artist," Mrs. Thoreau continued.
Rather than modestly demur, I nodded my assent. My talent and skills, after all, are all I can lay claim to in my present situation.
"The Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society holds a fair on the Common every summer to raise money," she went on to inform me, "and we are hoping you will agree to make portraits of the attendees for us to sell. Nothing elaborate, of course. Just quick pencil drawings."
I'd come with the expectation of being asked to take part in the Underground Railroad, not some humdrum fair. But I have vowed to do anything I can to help free the four million slaves in my country, so I swallowed down my disappointment and told her I would be most happy to oblige.
"Excellent!" Mrs. Thoreau said. "Your participation will give us the opportunity to get to know you better, Mrs. Pelletier. And once we are on more familiar terms, we might discuss your participation in ... other activities related to the Cause. All in good time."
When I heard the phrase "all in good time" my face fell, for that usually means a good long time.
"Do not look so let down, my dear young woman," Mrs. Thoreau said. "The fair is a most important endeavor. All the proceeds we earn from it pay for the printing and dissemination of antislavery literature."
"Members of our Society work on handicrafts to sell at the fair all year round," Helen added.
As if on cue, Sophia pulled from her pocket a hook and a bobbin of white thread and commenced crocheting. "God in His providence has placed this Cause in the hands of women," she declared.
"It is left to us to agitate this nation's conscience if men are not willing to do it," Mrs. Thoreau stated firmly. "Even if we must step out of the bounds of our womanly sphere to do so."
"It's high time we extended the limits of those bounds!" I put in.
All three Thoreau ladies voiced their enthusiastic agreement, and I anticipated a rousing discussion concerning women's rights to follow. Instead the conversation turned to mundane matters concerning the fair, and I confess that my attention waned. Gazing out the front window I observed a man in rough farm clothes ride up on a sturdy dray horse. He tied the horse to the gatepost and hurried to the Thoreaus' entrance door. Mrs. Thoreau left us to answer his vigorous knocking, and, after a brief conversation with him in the dooryard, she returned to the parlor, looking rather concerned.
"Is something amiss, Mother?" Helen asked her.
"So it seems. The Plumford cargo did not arrive in Carlisle last night."
"Henry will get to the bottom of it," Sophia said. "I'll run to the Emerson house and inform him."
"No need to do that," Mrs. Thoreau said. "He's helping Father in the pencil manufactory right now. I'll go tell him myself." And with that she hurried to the house's back annex.
I looked from Helen to Sophia in the ensuing silence, waiting for them to speak. "What sort of cargo has gone missing?" I finally made bold to ask them.
"Oh, just a crate of Thoreau pencils," Helen replied.
I could not be put off by such a clumsy lie as that. "Why were pencils made in Concord dispatched from Plumford?"
Helen stared back at me blankly. "Why indeed."
"No delivery wagon was available in Concord," Sophia said, apparently more adept at invention than her sister.
Realizing further questions would only result in further fabrications, I left off my inquiry and looked out the window again. Henry and his mother had joined the farmer waiting in the dooryard. They talked awhile, and then the farmer shook hands with mother and son and rode away. Henry headed off on foot in the opposite direction, and Mrs. Thoreau returned to the parlor. Conversation concerning the fair resumed, and nothing more was said about the undelivered cargo. I took my leave shortly thereafter, and no one protested my hasty departure. I am sure they could not wait to talk frankly and openly amongst themselves. That they did not feel free to do so in my presence was disappointing but understandable. Trust is won through actions rather than words.
When I left the Thoreau home on Texas Street, I walked briskly but decorously down Concord's bustling Main Street, but as soon as I reached the open road north, I lifted my skirts and broke into a run. I sighted Henry as he was crossing a bridge over the Concord River and called to him to wait. He looked surprised to see me.
When I drew up to him, I was panting more than a little. As a girl I could run like the wind without getting winded, but that was before decorum required I wear stays. "I've just been visiting your mother," I explained to Henry as soon as I caught my breath. "She told me nothing concerning your mission, but I have deduced you are going to Plumford to see about a fugitive slave."
Henry remained silent.
"I can help you, Henry!"
"By offering my house as a safe haven for the runaway if need be."
Henry did not accept my offer, but neither did he turn it down. "Come along then," he said in a brisk tone. "Since we're both going in the same direction, we might as well walk together."
We continued over the bridge and up Lowell Road to Plumford, three miles away. Most men would have slackened their pace or at least offered a supporting arm to a female walking companion, but Henry did not. That's one of the traits I like best in him. He treats me as a comrade with little regard to my gender. Nor does he make any effort to engage in polite conversation with me. His long silences are contemplative rather than brooding, and I do not mind them.
When we reached the base of Wolf Hill, Henry suggested that we take a path that traversed it rather than continue on the road, and I agreed that would be the more efficient route. The path turned out to be steep and rocky, but I made no complaints as pebbles bruised the undersurface of my feet through the thin leather soles of my cloth gaiter boots. The left boot soon tore along the side, leaving my poor little outermost toe exposed to very rough treatment. On we trudged through groves of birches and beeches unfolding new leaves and stands of tamaracks sprouting fresh needles. Purple-trumpeted trillium and fragrant lily of the valley bloomed on the forest floor, but Henry did not suggest we stop to admire their show. Nor did he hark to the calls of the spring birds, disregarding the ovenbird's sweet refrain of teacher, teacher, teacher and the insistent pit-pit-pit of the wood thrush. He didn't even remark, as he usually does with wry amusement, that the oriole was saying eat it, Potter, eat it. His concern for the slave who'd gone missing pushed him forward, and he ignored my stumbling effort to keep up with him. When the path narrowed, however, he held back branches so I could pass unscathed. He may not be gallant, but he is always considerate, and if I could conjure up a big brother, he would be just like Henry Thoreau. But at my ripe old age of four and twenty, I reckon I no longer need a big brother to guide me. I have gone my own wayward way for too long now.
Back on the Lowell Road, about half a mile from the Plumford Green, Henry came to a stop and took off his broad-brimmed straw hat to wipe his brow. His thick crop of hair stood up like a patch of unruly weeds. "I think it best for me to go alone from here," he told me.
"Why can't I continue with you?"
"Allow me to remind you that it's against Federal Law to aid and abet fugitive slaves, Julia. You could be severely fined, even arrested, for taking one into your home."
"I am willing to risk it!"
"I have found that most people who say that are just spouting off their moral or political convictions and have not considered the consequences long and hard enough."
"Well, I assure you that I have. I am not like most people, Henry. My reasons for wanting to aid and abet fugitive slaves are deeply personal rather than merely theoretical."
"Personal?" He regarded me closely. "In what way?"
I would have preferred to keep it to myself but saw that Henry needed further convincing. Therefore I divulged the wretched truth about the man I was bound to for life. "I am married to a man who was once a slave trader."
Henry does not often look surprised, but he did at that moment.
"My husband, Jacques Pelletier, made his fortune shipping captured Africans to the French West Indies," I continued. "When I learned of this I immediately left him, for I could not abide living off the profits of his trade."
"You were right to renounce a life that went against your moral sense," Henry said. "Once you learned the truth, leaving such a man was the only honest thing you could do for yourself, despite the marital vows you made."
"And if I am to stay true to myself, how can I now abide living by the unjust laws that support slavery in my own country?" I asked him. "It seems so selfish and wasteful for me to live alone in the big house my grandfather left me when I could harbor fugitive slaves in it. Indeed, I have come to believe that is the very purpose of my inheritance."
Henry was silent for a long moment. "I will not stand in the way of such a high and earnest purpose, Julia," he finally said. "Let us go on together."
We left the main road and took an overgrown byway called Drover's Lane that cut through poor fields and rocky pasture. Henry told me it used to be a well-traveled route to the town of Carlisle ten miles away but had fallen into disuse when a more direct highway was built twenty years ago. Eventually a ramshackle homestead that I assumed was abandoned came into view. "That's the Station," Henry said.
The dilapidated house was set a good ways back from the lane, but as soon as we set foot on the drive leading to it, a dog started barking. The closer we got, the more furiously it yelped, but it held its position on the sagging porch. It was a very large mongrel, and I hoped it was tethered. It was not. Just as it was about to bound off the porch and charge us, a woman came out of the entry door and gripped it by the scruff of the neck.
"Ripper doesn't like strangers," she warned us as we drew near. She did not appear to like strangers either as she glared at us, eyes furrowed into slits.
"I am not a stranger to Ezra Tripp," Henry said. "Is he your husband, ma'am?"
She nodded and raked a hand through her snarled, graying tresses, attempting to put them in some semblance of order. She had my sympathy, for no female likes to be caught with her hair down.
"I would like a word with him," Henry said.
"He's not home at present."
"Where is he?"
"What business is it of yours, sir?"
"Your husband and I are both in the same business," Henry said.
"Are you a farmer?"
"No, a Railroad Conductor. I come from the Stationhouse in Concord. We have been alerted by another Conductor that your husband did not deliver his shipment to the Carlisle Station last night. Do you comprehend my meaning?"
"Oh, I get your meaning all right. But I got nothing to do with my husband's unlawful undertakings," Mrs. Tripp replied.
"Could you at least tell me if he left for Carlisle last night?" She nodded.
"By way of Drover's Lane?"
She nodded again.
"No, with that shipment, as you call it, in the back of his wagon under the cover of a blanket. I reckon the master she ran from would call her his rightful property."
"We should simply call her a human being, Mrs. Tripp," I put in. "Same as we are."
"But for her skin! And that makes a world of difference, as you know as well as I do," she replied.
I opened my mouth to argue, but Henry gave me a silencing look and addressed Mrs. Tripp. "What time did your husband leave for Carlisle?"
"A few hours before daybreak."
"Aren't you concerned that he has not yet returned?"
"Not at all. He is no doubt having himself a good time with his drinking cronies in Carlisle. He'll be back when it suits him and no sooner. Now Good Day to you. I have told you all I know, and I have chores to attend to." She turned and tugged the dog inside the house with her.
"I must go find Tripp," Henry told me. "I hope I'll meet up with him along the byway as he is returning home, but if I don't I'll walk all the way to Carlisle and seek him out there."
"I'll go with you."
He gave my damaged boot a disparaging look. "Time is of the essence, and you would only slow me down."
I didn't argue with him, for I knew he was right. "I'll go home then. If you locate the fugitive, and she is in need of a place to stay, pray bring her to me."
"I will," Henry said. "It is obvious that she would not be welcomed back by Mrs. Tripp."
We parted and went in opposite directions on Drover's Lane. But I did not get very far before further walking became near impossible. Realizing I would never make it to town unless I mended my boot, back I limped to the Tripp homestead.
Excerpted from Thoreau in Phantom Bog by B. B. Oak. Copyright © 2015 B. B. Oak. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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