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Frank Kleinholz



Writing Group

Bruce Carson

photoI met Bruce when we were both on the NWU steering committee. He seemed to me to be the most reasonable, clear-spoken of the members. I am forever beholden to him for starting the manuscript group by passing around that legal pad. Little did I know when I scrawled my name and phone number on the sheet that this would be one of the most fortuitous meetings of my life. Bruce is a freelance art editor. This excerpt is from his gripping historical novel, Bloody Kansas, on the abolitionists struggle to keep Kansas from entering the Union as a slave state. His work-in-progress is a contemporary novel about the devastating effect of the closing of the steel mills on his hometown on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.


"A Face in the Window"

This is the opening. It's the moment when hero and patriarch, minister Ian Mackenzie, discovers his fate in an elusive encounter with a runaway slave. Ian's son Andrew will become major player in the novel, and the necklace will become key to the plot. The painting by Ethel Magafan depicts the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, where key battles between abolitionists and slave owners raged.


PART I:  Hamptonshire,  Massachusetts

Prologue:  January, 1841

Ian Mackenzie stared at the stranger who emerged from the storm and stood at the window. The features of the man's face blurred as he pressed against the frozen panes. Rags were wound around his head and tied under his chin. In the reflection of the orange light cast by the blazing fire, the stranger's deep-set eyes looked as black as his skin. He put his fingertips to the frosted glass, his palms raw from exposure as snow swirled about him.  His eyes widened, filled with longing.  No doubt he wanted to be safe and snug like Ian, who sat at the kitchen table with his shirt sleeves rolled up while heat poured from the Franklin stove.  That poor wretch was freezing to death and here he was sitting, doing nothing.  He'd bring the stranger inside and tend to him like a good Christian should. 

Ian rose. The man jerked his hands away and leaped back.

"Stay where you are!"  Ian hurried to the window and looked into the darkness outside as the slender man staggered toward the gate, flailing his arms, fighting the Nor'easter that hurled snow against the outer walls of the parsonage. Shifting winds slammed him against the fence, and then into a spinning whirlpool of whiteness.

Ian ran to the front door and struggled to open it against the force of the wind. Icy pellets struck him hard as he rushed to the gate. His feet sank into drifts as high as his waist.  Clutching his arms about his chest in the cold, Ian peered up and down the lane.  Salt breezes blew from the harbor, pushing the large flakes of snow that obscured his view of the Common. He made his way to the kitchen window, searching for footprints, or some other trace of the stranger, but the blizzard had obliterated his tracks.

The next morning—

A fiery dawn reflected against the windows of nearby houses, the kitchen filled with light.  Ian hadn't noticed when the storm passed on out to sea.  He'd been pacing, remembering over and over again the terrible yearning in the stranger's deep-set eyes. Only now, when Ian halted, did he feel exhausted from lack of sleep.  But how could he rest when that poor man was still wandering somewhere, struggling to find his way?  Ian looked outside at the village buried beneath two feet of snow.

What had happened to the Negro?  Why was he here? Hamptonshire wasn't a stop on the Underground Railroad, which led from slavery in the South, to freedom in Canada far to the north.  There were no safe houses here. Ian began pacing again, deep in thought once more.  And then he knew what to do.  

Later in the day Ian comes upon his young son Andrew playing in the snow.

"Andrew, let's work together and build the tallest snowman in Hamptonshire," Ian said, stooping to meet his son at eye level. Andrew clapped his mittened hands in excitement, his cheeks rosy-pink and eyes bright....

"Look at him, Andrew," Ian said as they were finishing.  "He's over six feet high, as tall as me.  Ours is the biggest on the street," he added, pleased when Andrew beamed with pride. 

The two of them searched together for twigs which were inserted for the mouth, and they used two stones for eyes.  Ian stood back to examine their creation.

"He needs something else," he said, wondering if he should bring out the silk-covered top hat he'd worn at his wedding.  He had been saving it with special care all these years, but he'd fetch it if that would make his son happy.

"Here."  Andrew reached down and lifted something he'd found in the snow.

"What's that?"

"A watch!"  The boy grinned, pushing what looked like some kind of dark chain into the snowman's massive chest, the way Ian's own gold watch dangled from his vest.

Ian removed the object, and held it within his hands.

It was a strand of rounded black beads polished to a shine, and held together with long strips of brown leather that crossed the beads in a woven pattern.  Ian had never felt such soft leather... It was manly-looking, like something he might make in the unlikely event that he were to fashion a necklace for himself.

"Father," Andrew tugged at Ian's coat and then pointed to the snowman.  "His watch."

"This is a necklace, Andrew.  Someone lost it last night in the storm.  I'm going to take this inside and examine it.  I want to find out whose it might be." 

"I found it!  It's mine!"

Ian ignored him and started for the house.

"Give it back!"  Andrew yelled even louder this time, as he lunged for the choker...

Ian let go of his son. Leaning down, he spoke quietly. "It's very important that I borrow this necklace from you, just for today.  I promise I'll be back as soon as I can.  We'll build another snowman."

In his study, Ian becomes lost in thought. Hours pass, and then he has an idea and begins leafing through his books.

Ian opened it to the lithograph he had found, a scene of a naked young black man fighting a gang of white men.  Ropes crossed the black man's chest.  Frayed cords cut into his flesh as the African resisted, his hands forming fists as he lunged at the slavers.  There was something heroic in his unwillingness to submit.  

But what riveted Ian's attention were the wavy lines and coiled shapes sketched about the man's muscled neck, a clumsy attempt to draw a choker exactly like the one he lifted from the table and held within his hands....

He'd been searching for something ever since Rachel died. And then last night God sent that black man to him, bearing a sign. The runaway slave had left the choker, knowing he was meant to find it....

He peered through the window where the runaway slave had appeared. In the bluish haze of winter twilight Ian was taken aback when he saw that Andrew had toppled the snowman, the rounded form stomped into scattered heaps.

Ian knew that he should go upstairs and speak to him about it. Instead he thought again about his new mission. The parishioners might not understand the significance of the choker. The Lord would reveal when it should be displayed. Ian slipped the African necklace inside the protective pouch that held Rachel's jewels. Through the soft folds he felt the ebony beads and leather strands pressing above his heart.


Painting: Ethel Magafan, "Lawrence Massacre"
Excerpt © Bruce Carson | Photo of Bruce © Brittany Kaplan
Fish photo credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
© 1999-2007 by Lisa Kleinholz.