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Letters From A Fugitive’s Son


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son

A Novel By Bruce Kemp


White Publishing

Letters From A Fugitive’s Son © 2011 by Bruce Kemp

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency. For a copyright license, visit: or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777

Little White Publishing 2-2095 Boucherie Rd., Westbank, BC, V4T 1Z4

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Kemp, Bruce A. Letters From A Fugitive’s Son   ISBN 978-0-9812451-3-3   1.    Kemp, Bruce A. – Fiction – Canadian/American History   Cover design by: Mishell Raedeke Cover picture of soldier courtesy of the Library Of Congress Photographic Collection, photographer unknown

This novel is dedicated to my mother, Dinora Kemp, who taught me the importance of the romantic intellect, and my dad, Howard, who never got the chance.



eptember in Detroit is a transitional month. Not a month of extremes, but one of variability nonetheless. Throughout September summer and autumn struggle to agree on an old age for summer or a premature youth for the fall. When Dr. Richard Jenkins rolled away from the warmth of his wife Connie and lifted his sleeping mask to let in the light, he was pleased to see that summer would be allowed to acquire a few more wrinkles. Reaching across the bed he placed his hand on her naked butt. Normally she wore a nightgown to bed, but with the girls at his sister’s house and Richard junior luxuriating in the independence of his sophomore dorm at Wayne State, the pair had killed a bottle of Sauvignon blanc and two of Shiraz with their meal. When they fell into bed, they spent the evening doing things that would cause their children great embarrassment if those things were ever made public. “Come on girl. The day’s wasting.” “I hurt.” “Doesn’t matter. The monarchs are waiting and if we don’t get moving we’ll miss them again this year.” He had been obsessed with seeing the migration of monarch butterflies since reading an article in National Geographic and discovering something so rare happened only a few miles away in Canada. “Let’s just stay in bed.” “No deal. It’s a beautiful day out there and we’re going to enjoy it.” Then he employed a line he’d heard on some television show to make her smile. “Besides, this is the worst you’re going to feel all day.” She did smile and rubbed her naked butt up against him. An hour later, Richard was loading their new Land Cruiser then they caught 696 to I-75 and drove through the middle of the Motor City heading for the tunnel that crosses under the Detroit River to Windsor on the Canadian side. At the customs booth the Canadian agent dutifully pounded in the license plate number on his computer keyboard then waved them through without looking at the passports they offered. Green highway signs attached to lampposts pointed them in the direction of Highway 401. From Windsor the 401 escapes across some of the flattest country in North America. Except for the disruption of distant woodlots, the horizon line is almost an inverted bowl curving downward into the haze at its ends. Energetic sunlight danced across the corn and soybean fields bordering the roadway. Another green sign, this time for Point Pelee National Park, caused Jenkins to flip on his right turn signal indicating he would be heading off the highway

Letters From A Fugitive’s Son toward the north shore of Lake Erie. Richard booked the room in the bed and breakfast two months before. Built by a local farmer turned newspaper publisher, the house was a fine old Victorian home. When the Thompson’s, who owned the Migratory Arms B&B, offered him his choice of rooms, Richard chose the Tower Room that had part of a two-and-a-half story turret in one corner and an en suite in the other. Shortly after one o’clock Richard and Connie were back in the car heading to Pelee Park. The sky on the five-mile drive to the park entrance was a multicolored swirling tapestry of orange and gold and black against a background of crystalline blue. Butterflies were everywhere and Richard turned on the wipers several times to clear dead insects from the windshield. It turned into a splendid afternoon with Richard giving the new Nikon he bought especially for this trip, a workout. Connie was happy just to see him happy. Suddenly she began to enjoy herself even though the tiny fliers were Richard’s passion. When they first got there, she spent a frustrating hour trying to reach their oldest daughter Shannon on her cell phone, but the number was continually busy. She did not even try to contact their youngest girl, Christine, because Christine’s plan for the day included shopping and a movie at the mall with her cousin Lemoyne and Lemoyne’s mom. Finally, Connie got through to Shannon. “Hey baby girl. How are you?” The relief in Connie’s voice was tangible. “Hi mom. I’m fine and you? It’s like only twenty-four hours, not twenty-four months since you saw me and the kidnappers let me go early.” Connie could hear mall sounds in the background. “How’s the trip? Are the butterflies really cool?” “Fine honey. The butterflies are so beautiful. There’s just millions of them and daddy’s so happy. He’s taken like a ka-jillion pictures with his new camera.” While they were talking the wind shifted subtly from the southwest to the west and then the north. Connie didn’t notice it at first, but the butterflies did and as if one command had swept through their squadrons, the insects lifted off, turning south toward Ohio across the lake – the next step in the implausible transcontinental flight that would carry them to the Oyamel rainforests in central Mexico. “Oh my! Baby I’ve got to go. This is so beautiful I wish you were here to see it.” “That’s alright mama. I’ve seen butterflies before.” Then the butterflies were gone with only weak and dying insects remaining. In the end the remnants were merely elegant corpses whose color began to dis-


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son solve within the hour. “Did you see that? Did you see that honey?” Richard chanted over-and-over as if it had been a celestial vision instead of a natural phenomenon. He was still testifying when they swung into the Migratory Arms’ drive. Mike and Joanne were busy seeing the bed and breakfast’s other guests off, which left Connie and Richard as the establishment’s sole tenants. Before turning back off their front porch to go inside, Mike asked Richard about their experience. “Pretty impressive huh?” “Never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to get home to get my pictures downloaded.” “Got lots?” “Six memory cards full. It’s going to take a month to sort them all out and process them.” “Don’t start tonight. Joanne and I thought you might like to join us for dinner at the Skein Of Geese. Kind of a tradition with us. We’re closing for the season on Sunday so we always take our last guests out for dinner.” Connie didn’t let Richard answer. She was convinced he would somehow bring in the butterflies instead of accepting the invitation. “We’d love to. Just let us get cleaned up.” It was one of the most relaxed evenings Richard had ever spent. Mike asked intelligent questions about ophthalmology and Richard, in turn, talked about his time in the Navy treating eye injuries during the first Gulf War. When the bill came Richard tried to pick it up, but Mike insisted they were his guests and paid the two hundred and thirty dollar bill – more than twice what Richard and Connie spent for their room. When they were putting their coats on Mike told Richard. “There’s an estate auction on tomorrow at a century farm near here. The newspaper said there’ll be some nice antique walnut furniture.” Turning to Richard Connie asked, “Are the butterflies finished? Because if they are, I’d really like to go.” Richard couldn’t turn her down. She had endured, then enjoyed the natural spectacle of the monarchs heading south so the least he could do would be to go to the auction and buy her a piece of furniture. The yard in front of the farmhouse was packed with tractors, cultivators, wagons and manure spreaders. It was obvious that the late farm owner had a passion for tractors because the machinery collection included antique machines with solid iron wheels, two with bulldozer treads and four McCormick utility


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son tractors of varying vintages, the most recent of which had not been made for at least a half a century. Some of the less valuable tables, chairs and wardrobes were set out on the lawn in front of the house, and on these the auctioneers set boxes of dishes and cutlery along with the assorted bric-a-brac farm wives collect to ameliorate the loneliness of their lives. A line of cars stretched back from the edge of the yard along the maple-bordered drive. It was a good place to park because the canopy of trees kept the direct sun off the cars’ dashboards and leather seats. Richard was about to abandon the idea of finding a space in the lane when a young couple appeared carrying an oak-framed mirror and a kerosene lamp. The lights on a Nissan Maxima flashed indicating a keyless entry was about to be made and Richard positioned the Land Cruiser to block any would-be trespasser from occupying what would soon be his space. Inside the house there was an astounding collection of high quality, midnineteenth century furniture. One walnut bed in particular, with a hand carved head and footboard caught Connie’s attention and she whispered to Richard that she wanted to bid on it. When he saw the reserve bid, he sucked in his breath then decided it would be okay. After all, she had stood by him through med school, internship and his stint in the navy so this was payback he could live with. People stared at the couple as they browsed. Not because they were black, but because Richard could have been Colin Powell’s twin brother. He was tall and his slightly graying hair gave him dignity and appeal that caught envious stares from most men and lust-filled glances from any woman who had taste. Connie, on the other hand was a butterball. Everything about her was short including her hair. Her only features that weren’t diminutive were her bust line and her smile. Her smile arched across her face with genuine pleasure and made everyone she met feel good. The house had the peppery smell that marks the stain of long human habitation. Dowdy floral print wallpaper that didn’t match, or even compliment, the upholstery of the furniture covered the parlor walls. By far, the largest room in the house was the kitchen. Its walls had been overlaid so many times with glossy, white enamel paint the detail in the bead-board wainscoting virtually disappeared in places. Connie noticed it first, but it didn’t take long to register with Richard, there was a distinct lack of femininity about the house. The pictures remaining on the walls were men’s pictures – photos of navy ships, lithographed hunting scenes and a Ford tractor calendar. Among the boxes on offer only two of them con-


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son tained woman’s clothing which told Connie that the late owner’s wife had died before he did, leaving him to shuffle and shift in an attempt to create a new world as a replacement for the one his unknown wife had created for the both of them. It all made Richard feel melancholy and he found himself hoping that when he passed on the kids, and not strangers, would want his things. One of the tables in the yard supported a box of old record albums which he began going through. He fantasized about finding a set of pristine Ellington or Callaway 78-rpm recordings. Mostly, the records were Lawrence Welk or Montovani LPs with a few country music albums thrown in. Below the table were three more boxes with their flaps folded shut. Kneeling down, Richard slid the first one out and heard glass tinkle gently as he lifted it onto the table. It contained a set of cranberry-colored juice glasses. The second box held photographs. Several were tintypes and old-fashioned studio prints. There were also seven books that looked like ledgers, and three packets of letters tied together with ribbon. Richard gently lifted one of the tintypes. It was a photograph of an ageing black woman. She was thin and her dress was dark and definitely from the 1860s or ‘70s. It was plain just by looking at her reluctant face that the picture hadn’t been taken by her own choice. There was no smile on her lips or in her eyes. Hers was a tired and angry face laced with sadness. Three of the tintypes were pictures of black soldiers in Civil War uniforms. Each posed beside a freestanding Union standard and held both his Enfield musket and regimental colors. Two of the battle flags, Richard recognized as being from the 54th Massachusetts. The taller of that pair, whose head came to within inches of the flagstaff ’s head, had fierce eyes with vengeance radiating from them. Staring into those eyes gave Richard a rush of pride linking him unexpectedly to this unknown soldier who may have forfeited his life for a country that still had trouble recognizing blacks a century and a half after the end of that war. Turning his attention to the second of the 54th soldiers, Richard paused then brought the tintype closer to his face so he could inspect it. Apart from the age difference, the young man’s face was an exact duplicate of the woman’s who first caught his attention. “Brother and sister or mother and son…” he thought. Instead of glaring at the camera, the soldier stared timidly into the lens, uncertainty writ across his face. Moisture threatened the luminous black eyes and the mouth waited for any word that would give it some kind of shape. He was


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son no more than fifteen or sixteen years old and skinny. His uniform hung off him like washing pegged onto a clothesline. Where the first soldier had his head almost completely shaved, indicating he had been in camp long enough to have suffered from lice, the second soldier had a short crop of curls flowing out from under his kepi. The third soldier wore the stripes of a master sergeant and had a scar running from the ridge of his nose and across his left cheek that was a deeper tone than the rest of his cream-colored face. His look was placid, neither challenging nor frightened, but experienced. His posture was graceful and easy, one that Richard had seen before in professional soldiers. This man could respond in a second to the long roll of the drums calling him to battle or be instantly asleep with the sound of light’s out. It did not matter to him which he had to do. Digging further into the box, Richard saw that the bundles of letters had not been untied for a long time. The ribbons around them had permanently adopted the sharp angles created by the top and bottom edges of the packets. He gently worked some of the letters loose from their bundles and on one envelope discovered the return address of the Office of the Commanding General of the United States Army. “How much for the boxes of these old records and pictures?” he asked the auctioneer’s assistant who was standing guard over the materials in the yard. Richard asked about the records hoping to conceal his interest in the pictures and letters. It was obvious no one had gone through the box very thoroughly and when the assistant flipped off a price, “Twenty bucks’ll take all three,” Richard pealed off a bill without hesitation. To Connie’s disgust, Richard made a big deal out of getting a receipt. “You think you’re going to write that off of your taxes? You can’t write everything off, you know. You’re not a dentist.”    “Honey we just need it to get these things back to the States without a whole bunch of bullshit at the border.” “Well, you just make sure you get a receipt for the bed.” In his excitement he had forgotten the antique bed. He went back to the assistant and asked if he could buy it before the auction started and was delighted to find he could. Getting everything back to Birmingham was easier than expected. They paid a small duty and the customs agent didn’t even bother to look in the boxes. At home, Richard got his neighbor to help carry everything in from the garage. They put the bed in the spare room. Connie would have to give away or throw something out to make room, but the bed was magnificent and worth it. They


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son put the boxes on the island in the kitchen. “Don’t leave that stuff here honey…” she protested. “It’s okay, I’m just going to have a quick look to see if there’s much I want to keep, then I’ll put it all away.” It was a white lie, one that you tell your spouse when something has taken your fancy, but which you don’t want to talk about until you’ve had the chance to understand what it was that grabbed your soul. He knew he wanted to keep every scrap – except the records and juice glasses. Of the seven ledgers, four were actual ledgers with financial information that looked like it pertained to business operations. They could wait for further scrutiny. The remaining three were some form of diary or manuscript for a memoir. A quick look through gave him the date on which the writer had started writing his thoughts down: 1878. It was late when Richard made a decaf green tea for himself and told Connie he was going to stay up for a while. He took his tea and the first ledger into the den, sat in the wing-backed chair that he liked to sit in while he read, adjusted his reading glasses, took a sip of the tea and started to read.


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son


Book One



Letters From A Fugitive’s Son

Chapter One “June 2, 1878 Albert once told me that if I climbed high enough, into a tall tree or the steeple of our church, I would be able to see the path of the storm that tore through our township the year I was born. So I climbed into one of the black walnut trees along our lot line. It took what seemed like an hour until I got to limbs that were so thin they wouldn’t support my weight and I was terrified from the height. The thin, whip-like branches of the year’s new growth, driven by a wind I had not felt on the ground, raised welts across my face and arms. I thought the burning must have been like the pain my father felt when the master whipped him. Along with the flailing branches the entire tree moved, sawing with the breeze. I held on to whatever larger branches I could reach despite the fact my hands were awash in sweat. When I finally steadied myself enough to look out across the top of our bush lot, I could see the track of shorter trees that grew up after the storm and realized they hid the real destruction caused by the whirlwind. It occurs to me now that I only partly knew the extent of the damage because I had personally visited the wind-felled trees and ruins of unfortunate homes. Maybe because I had lived with stories of that storm all my life and heard them whenever my birthday came around, I expected more and could not understand or interpret what I was seeing, so I only attached import to the broader destruction it wrought. That was how I felt about the Insurrection and my role in it for a long time after coming home, but now my view is changing. Despite all the miles I tramped and my naïve eagerness to enter battle I, personally, did not see the worst of it. In many ways I am thankful for that. I suspect my wife Eunice knows those things more than I. What I saw and did terrified me to the very roots of my soul. Yet, it was very little and it was my duty, which I did as well as any man. There is another reason that I now indite this diary. It is the tree from which I hope to gain the height of time to look down upon the course of those events so I have a clarity of mind before committing myself to the instruction of the lady. I would not have undertaken such a thing, but for the letter. I am unusual in that respect. Many other veterans have expended countless hours and vast amounts of energy writing their memoirs. There are those who are proud of what they did and I cannot blame them for their pride because I share in it. Others have attempted, in the darkest hours of the night, to do what drink could never do: bring peace to their souls. Being a trained newspaperman, I did file dispatches home to The Planet, but I should probably have entertained a history of the


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son conflict and my contribution before now. However, I have nothing but the desire to forget our victory and with the innumerable pages out there, it seems futile to add one more account to what many would rather put behind them. If I ever finish this, I may show it to Rufus for his opinion. On that morning, four days ago, when the first letter arrived from the General, I had gone to the southeast field to get it ready for planting. We planned to grow ten acres of sweet corn, but to make sure the seed went into the ground in proper time to have it mature before the fall frosts, I first needed to drain the saturated ground. Absolom had ditched the edge of that field twenty-five years before, but little has been done since his death. The ditches needed to be cleaned and deepened. After I got them in good working order again, I planned to dig some lateral channels to speed the run-off. It was a big job and we hired Benjamin Munro to help. Like me, Benjamin had elected to return to British Canada rather than disappear into the graveyard that was the United States in the years following the Civil War. The spring weather was good for working. It wasn’t too cool and there was no fog coming up from the lake to make our clothes damp. Benjamin walked down from the village arriving in our yard just as night was graying into dawn. Eunice gave him coffee while I was in the outhouse. He said “Hello,” but Eunice, as always, did not say anything. She just set the coffee on the table in front of him and returned to whatever work she was doing. When I finished my business and went back into the house it was darker inside than out because the curtains were permanently closed and there was only one lamp burning. Eunice would not tolerate more than the barest amount of light to see by. She horded every penny even though we owned another property and were drawing a good income from it and our other enterprises. It was quiet in the kitchen even though there were three of us sitting around the table. Of recent years, Eunice had become a pall that fell over a room whenever she enters it and the shroud that trails behind her is becoming heavier. As it is, I am glad to escape her sobriety, but it would have made going to work much more pleasant if there had been the noise of a contented woman or happy children. However, Eunice and I were never able to have a baby. Benjamin and I collected shovels, rakes and hoes from the barn and loaded them in a barrow. It is not a very long walk from the house to the southeast field and before ten minutes were up we were working. This was our third day and already the ground was draining faster. On the higher rises you could see the difference in the color of the soil. It was lighter than the deep black where water still permeated the earth. I figured this would be the day when we fin-


Letters From A Fugitive’s Son ished the main ditch that ran along the edge of the concession road. There were a hundred and fifty yards to go, and between Benjamin and I we could get that cleared by mid-afternoon. ‘This reminds me of Petersburg. We spent more time with a shovel than a goddamned gun. And cold! God it was cold. Then it was hot. Never any inbetween.’ He laughed grimly. My service had been in a combat regiment under Col. Higginson, then with General Sherman’s army in Georgia and the Carolinas. What I saw was mainly fighting. When they gave contrabands uniforms a lot of our men were treated like workhorses and were still bitter about that. Benjamin figured someone had to dig the pits and build the barbettes. He watched as many of the white soldiers shouldered that burden so, unlike other colored soldiers, he never complained. Benjamin had a beautiful face for a man, but sometimes it lost its momentum. I often wondered where he went when that happened. His shoulders would relax, losing all the tension in them, his eyes would fix on a point and he wouldn’t speak or move for five or ten minutes, then he would set back to work without saying anything to me. His wife, Mary, told me he did not sleep well. He suffered from bad dreams and wandered the house at night constantly checking on his two sons. Eunice later told me how Lincoln arrived at the yard door looking for me. ‘He was all excited. He kept saying there was a big letter from the president of the United States in his father’s store and that you had to come quick. I didn’t know what it could be. I thought we were shut of those people. I don’t want anything to do with them so don’t include me in any foolishness.’ By the time she told me this, I already knew what the letter said and that I would probably refuse its request. Instead of crossing the fields, as he would have done in high summer when the ground was dry, Lincoln went back out to Wellington Street from our house and came by the longer route, following the road along the front of the farm and turning right onto the Dillon Road which crosses Wellington. He did this to avoid getting his school shoes muddy. Had he crossed the fields we would have seen him almost as soon as he came out from behind the buildings in the barnyard. We could have gone to meet him. Instead, he just appeared on the road above the ditch and his appearance startled both of us causing Benjamin to jump. ‘Mr. Frederick, there’s a letter for you at the post. My daddy sent me to get you ‘cause it’s from the president of America an’ important.’


Letters From a Fugitive's Son  

Bruce Kemp

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