Greetings friends and readers. As promised, what follows is a short story I wrote sometime back. As you’ll note, the story has an introduction that may sound familiar to some. A closer inspection will reveal from whence the inspiration for this story came. If you can guess it, please leave a comment. I’ll let you know in a future post who was right :)
Anywho, without further adieu, here is No Bad Deed
Sitting at the table, top hat in hand and linen bag by his feet, is Mr. Fineus T Barlow.
It is 1865, and a terrible Civil War has just ended.
Mister Barlow and compatriot are sitting ‘round and discussing financial opportunities presented by the end of the terrible and destructive war.
Mister Barlow is a salesman, though his goods-in-trade are not made of wood, metal, leather, or cloth. Mister Barlow trades in lies, scams, and broken dreams, making a living off those who are too poor, depressed, or downtrodden to see exactly what a poor salesman Mister Barlow actually is.
Like most of his ilk, Mr. Barlow believes he’s checked his conscience at the door.
But he’ll soon find that the little voice cannot be silenced utterly. And that all things do not stay equal.
“I tell you the opportunity is golden.”
“And I tell you it isn’t worth the risk.”
This argument was stale by now, Fineus and Markeson hadn’t seen eye to eye since the war had ended.
“James Markeson.” Fineus declared. “You’re growing soft.”
“Growing wise, perhaps.” His old friend, well, acquaintance anyway, replied.
“So you say.”
Fineus leaned back in his chair, about to deliver a pointed piece of logic.
“It isn’t just about the money, Fredrick, it never has been. It’s about the score, the accomplishment. The daring, that we’ll do what no one else will even try. And we’ll succeed.”
Fredrick Markeson narrowed his eyes and smiled.
“We don’t always succeed.”
Fineus waved off the concern.
“A minor inconvenience. There’s always the next one.”
“One never knows if that next one will be the last one.”
Fineus merely shook his head.
“So it’s true. You have softened. Oh, what happened to my friend and mentor?”
“He realized it was time to try something else. He saw his luck had run out, and it was high time for a new vocation.”
Fineus grinned devishly.
“Meaning, you were nearly caught and now you’re running scared.”
Fredrick shook his head.
“No, my friend.” He said as he rose from the table, discussion over. “Meaning it’s time I were moving on. Better opportunities elsewhere and all that.”
“I tell you, this one is gold, pure gold.”
“I acknowledge that, but it simply isn’t worth the risk.”
Fineus rose, offering a hand in parting friendship.
“So be it, old friend. I’ll show you I was right, upon my return.”
“If you return.”
A handshake later, Fredrick Markeson was gone.
Fineus stood just outside the saloon, looking south at the vast stretch he intended to conquer.
Won’t Fredrick feel the fool when I return with a wagon full of riches.
His chariot awaited at the downtown stables. A rather plain affair when he bought it, Fineus had transformed the wagon into an official piece of government equipment for the cost of a brush and a few paints.
Fineus sat proudly on the bench as he rode out of the conquered city of Richmond, Virginia. Smiles he gave away to the bearded men in their blue uniforms. It was good to see the soldiers of righteousness, as long as they weren’t looking for him.
At the gates, he nodded politely at the Federal lieutenant standing guard.
He needed at least a day’s ride away from any centers of administration or commerce, lest news of his activity should get back faster than he did.
Fineus lay awake that night in the back of his wagon, dreaming of the coin and paper he would soon amass. Not to mention the unimaginable thrill.
Morning passed slowly as he began to pass various farms and plantations. The war had certainly taken its toll here. Muddy fields, populated only by broken and derelict equipment, seemed to stretch to the horizon on both sides of the pock-marked road.
Farmhouses were deserted, with no one left alive to live in them. Many dwellings were burnt, black husks of lost hopes consumed in a war that should never happened, but was inevitable just the same.
A clever man knows where opportunity lies. Fineus heard his mentor’s words in his mind as he rumbled along the war-ravaged countryside. A clever man sees past the human, the moral, to see the raw gain. The eye of a true businessman, of any stripe.
Fineus knew rationalization when he heard it, but the words held true just the same.
And he heard the message.
Keep your eye on the coin, not the man holding it.
The other eye should be watching carefully, in case the other hand holds a pistol, Fineus thought. He’d added that last little bit of wisdom himself, and was quite proud of it.
As the day waned, Fineus found his heart somewhat sunk, as he’d failed to pass a habited, or even habitable, residence all day. Shaking his head at the waste, not of lives but of his time, Fineus pulled his grand wagon off the road for another sleepless night.
This night seemed darker than most, puzzling him until he discovered the reason. There was no moon tonight, it must be new.
Fitting. He thought. A new moon to start a new venture. This must be a sign.
He did at last fall asleep, though he hadn’t expected too and so was quite surprised when he opened his eyes to a landscape lit by a bright morning sun.
Fineus took a deep breath as he looked out over the horizon. He felt lighter somehow, and told himself that today would be the day everything changed for him.
That change became evident right away.
Not an hour after he’d set off that morning, Fineus came across his first customer.
Sweeping dust off a damaged front porch, the old woman in a long black dress eyed him warily as he cautiously approached.
This was the most precarious part of the deal, the introduction. Come on too strong, the pigeon will fly away. Too soft, and the ploy is obvious. One must find that crucial balance. And Fineus knew just where it was.
“Good morning, ma’am.” He began, trying to inject just enough southern into his distinctly northern speech to sound cordial. “Might I ask, how are you this fine day?”
She’d stopped, considering him carefully as he stood in the overgrown weeds surrounding her home. Her eyes darted quickly to his wagon, then back to him.
“Well enough, sir.” She answered at last.
“Glad to hear. Ah, my name is Fineus Barlow. As you can see by my signage, I am a representative of the Federal Restorative Agency. We are a bureau created for the sole purpose of righting the wrongs done to our land and our people during the trying years of civil turmoil. Might I come closer, and explain the details, ma’am?”
This was the moment of truth in every scam, con, or swindle. If you were rebuffed, pull out and move on to the next one. But if you were waved in, well sir, you had yourself a mark.
After careful consideration, she waved him forward without a word, holding tightly to the broom in her hand.
Fineus stopped a few feet shy, when her knuckles turned white.
“Thank you ma’am. May I ask you name?”
“Thank you Ms. Grayland.” Fineus bowed. “Please let me take this opportunity to say how grateful I am that we can spend this time together.”
“What do you want?” she asked pointedly.
Fineus leaned forward, ever so slightly.
“I want you help you, my dear lady. What, may I ask, do you want?”
“I want my husband back.” She began. “And my sons. I want my daughters to return home. I want my land restored back to the way it was, before Lincoln sent his miscreants into my nation.”
This would be a delicate negotiation. But Fineus was ready.
“Yes, it was a tragic affair that never should have occurred. You have my deepest condolences and sympathies. I too, had family on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.”
Fineus bowed his head reverently. He’d played this part before, knew it by heart.
“Yes. My own dear sister met a carpenter from Arkansas. They eloped and we never saw her again. Word recently reached our parents that both she and her husband had been killed in a Bushwhacker raid. I can’t, can’t help but feel that she would still be alive if not for that infernal war.”
Raising his eyes slowly, Fineus noted the softening of Ms. Greyland’s features.
Smiling inwardly, he pressed on.
“But I shall not burden you with my guilt. You are far too fine a woman.”
Taking a step forward, and noting she did not withdraw, Fineus continued.
“Helping people has brought me some measure of comfort though, and it is that capacity that has brought us together today. President Lincoln, misguided though he was to invade sovereign soil, has seen the error of his ways and wish to make amends. Thus he created the bureau for whom I now work. We at the Federal Restorative Agency are dedicated to rebuilding the South into the grand milieu it once was. With your approval, and a small down payment, we will begin the work to rebuild your home and farm, and with it, all of the South.”
And this was the moment of truth. He could see her mind churning, through the window of her eyes. He knew that look intimately.
“You’ll help rebuild my house, and re-sow my fields?”
Reel her in carefully.
“Yes, my dear. It will all be taken care of.”
“And who will work the rows?” She asked. “We had only a few slaves, and they are gone now.”
If you hadn’t kept slaves you wouldn’t be in this mess.
“There are many men out of work.” Fineus responded, as he practiced. “Men who have gladly signed on with our Agency to do the very work you need. Carpenters, laborers, we have them all. I can see your farm up and running smoothly under your care in just a few short months.”
He read her thoughts, felt her leaning toward him.
At last, she furrowed her brow.
“Very well, Mr. Barlow. But I haven’t much money.”
Fineus smiled most disarming smile.
“It is only a small stipend, two dollars. For that price, you can rebuild your home.”
After a downtrodden gaze, Ms. Greyland led Mr. Barlow into her home.
He stayed near the door. Wandering too far inside often brought fear. After rummaging through a small box, Ms. Greyland returned with two nice, crisp one-dollar bills. In Confederate money.
Careful, here. Fineus held on to his kindest face.
“Ah, Ms. Greyland.” He began, sorrow dripping from his every word. “I hate to bring up such a crass detail, but I am afraid this tender is no longer currency. At least, in New York. It may take me some time to, ah, exchange this for something more valuable. If there is some other way, it would speed things up considerably.”
She could not have looked more pathetic. Her eyes seemed to droop even more, her shoulders slumped further. Turning again to the small wooden box, Ms. Greyland returned with two coins seemingly minted in gold.
“These are our last two gold dollars. I, I will give them over to you if it will help rebuild my family’s land.”
She held out her hand. Cautiously, trying to seem like he didn’t want to take them even though he did, Fineus caught her last two dollars as they fell from her hand.
“Bless you.” He uttered. “You’ve just taken the first step toward rebuilding your life.”
Ester took a deep breath.
“And when will this work begin?”
“I will dispatch a letter this very evening. Men from our bureau should arrive within one or two weeks. Everything will be done to your specifications.”
At last, Ms. Greyland smiled. Now that he had her trust, and more importantly her money, it was time to go.
She watched him leave, that cheery, hopeful look in her eye that they all held when he left them.
Fineus didn’t feel at all bothered by the fact he’d just robbed a war widow of her last savings because she’d once owned slaves. As far as he was concerned, she and the other Southerners had brought the devastation of war down on themselves by refusing to give up their barbaric practices.
No one would blame him for feeding off the carcass of a dead Confederacy.
After an uplifting lunch in his wagon, Fineus came across another mark late that afternoon in the remains of a broken farmhouse and a broken family. His wit and charm served as well as before, and again he walked away with what was left of the pitiful family’s fortune.
Later that evening, a few lonely homes and businesses cropped up in the distance. As he urged his carriage forward, the buildings assembled into a small town, named, “Ives” by the newly painted sign planted near the outskirts.
Perhaps lodging could be found here, freeing him from the uncomfortable wooden slats of the wagon.
Evening townsfolk studied him and his wagon with great interest, though he doubted very many of them could actually read.
After spotting the local bed-and-breakfast, Fineus parked his wagon at the nearby stables.
While crossing the street to the lodgings, a loud crack shot through the air from somewhere nearby.
Fineus looked around.
As he turned his gaze to follow that of other onlookers on the street, Fineus saw where the sound was coming from.
A tall man in a dirty shirt and muddy breeches was holding a whip in one hand. Nearby, a young black man was tied by his wrists to a post. Long red lines ran down the colored man’s back, bright drops of crimson flowing from the wounds.
The wicked smile on the tall man’s face indicated he was rather enjoying his work.
This is impossible. They can’t do this, slavery’s been outlawed.
Never a brave man, Fineus had to fight the sudden urge he felt to walk over and end this madness right then and there.
What’s happening to me?
Fineus paused a moment, suddenly unsure of himself. Why was he going so far out of his way to help this man? His gentle nature had long been strangled out of him. Long ago.
The tavern light beckoned from the other side of the street. Warmth and comfort invited him inside.
Instead, he cast about for federal troops. They had to be there, after all. Grant himself had declared there would be Federal troops stationed throughout the South to ensure an orderly and timely transition.
There were, in fact, no troops at all.
After looking down a few streets, Fineus was forced to give up his search for help. His anger at the injustice before him grew with each sound of the whip.
I can stand it no longer. These southern malefactors must be shown their place.
Suddenly, Fineus found himself walking toward the tall man. The whipping was over, it seemed, as the offender was rolling his wicked tool up into a nice, round circle.
Fineus stopped though, when he saw a man in uniform emerge into the glow of evening. Finally, someone had come to remind these upstarts who had won the war.
His elation fell as quickly as it rose however, when he saw the man’s uniform was gray, not blue.
What is going on here? How can they still wear their uniforms?
Incredulity aside, Fineus saw there was little he could do now. But when he returned to Richmond, oh what a story he would tell to the Federal officials there. About a little town called Ives.
The evening’s display had ruined his appetite, but he ate anyway. Their southern cuisine tasted like ash in his mouth, and his contempt for them grew with each bite.
By the time he’d finished eating, Fineus knew he wouldn’t be completing his tour of the South.
What’s gotten into me? He thought as he sat smoking a pipe. His consideration for others had long since drowned in a sea of selfishness and greed. But somehow, the brutal act of cruelty he witnessed had awoken some sort of fire within him, a fire that needed to see justice done.
What an odd conflict within oneself. To both break the law and desire to uphold it at the same time.
After debating with himself into the wee hours, Fineus finally formed his plan and made ready his mind and will.
First, he needed to secure escape. After his wagon was situated near the outskirts of town, Fineus made his way between the rough buildings of town.
The slave was still chained to the post. He was slumped over and his eyes were closed. For a moment, Fineus was certain they’d whipped the poor man to death. But somehow he was just sleeping, as was demonstrated when he took a sudden and deep breath.
Creeping slowly, carefully, Fineus made his way toward the post. The streets were deserted now.
The black youth still slept, amazing Fineus that anyone could rest in such a position. Oh, the cruelties these poor people had been forced to endure.
“Shh.” Fineus whispered.
At first, the captive made no move, or response. When Fineus repeated his warning, the slave came alive, nearly yelling and surprising them both.
“Keep quiet.” Fineus uttered under his breath, looking around cautiously. While these townspeople might be in the wrong, they also had the strength of numbers. And they likely wouldn’t take kindly to what Fineus was about to do, even though he was right and they were wrong.
“What are you about, sir?” the black man whispered.
“Setting you free, as it were.”
“Oh no, sir. Please don’t put yourself up on my account.”
“You are a free man.” Fineus replied as he worked the padlocked chains with the skill of an expert. “They cannot do this to you any longer.”
Concentrating as he was, Fineus missed the puzzled expression the captive slave offered.
When the locks were opened, Fineus carefully removed the chains and laid them aside. With one more cat-like look about, the pair quietly made their way between ramshackle buildings to Fineus’ waiting chariot.
It was well into morning before the liberated prisoner would say anything. After more than an hour of looking behind them, the former slave finally looked over at his benefactor.
“Thank you sir, for this act of kindness. My name is Kintate.”
Fineus bowed his head slightly.
“You are welcome, sir. And I am Fineus T Barlow.”
Fineus offered his hand in friendship, which Kintate failed to take, not understanding the gesture.
“Where are we going?”
“Ah, I’ve been giving that some thought.” Fineus answered. “As I’m not sure we’d make it all the way to New York before our friends back there caught up to us, I think out safest course is to head directly to Richmond. I have friends there, and…”
Fineus’ line of thought was broken by the painful death-grip that had suddenly attached to his arm.
“Richmond?” Kintate asked, eyes wide with fear. “No, no we cannot go there.”
Fineus smiled, that same comforting smile that had disarmed so many widows in its day.
“Be at peace, my friend. All is well in Richmond, I assure you. You’ll be safe there as long as you’re with me. And I intend to stay with you until we can get this sordid mess all sorted out. Ah Kintate, I can’t wait to see their faces when a few hundred Federal troops show up in that little hovel to punish them for breaking the law.”
“Breaking the law?” Kintate seemed genuinely perplexed.
Those bastards. They didn’t even tell their slaves the war was lost.
“The slavery law, of course.” Fineus answered. “They can’t own you anymore, Kintate. You’re a free man.”
Kintate’s dark eyes went wild, grasping for meaning. As if this were the first time in his life he’d even considered that state of being known as liberty.
With a slap of the reins, the wagon shot forward into the night. Fineus’ heart pounded. This thrill was even greater than delicate theft.
Kintate’s lack of enthusiasm for their projected outcome confused his liberator. Fineus shrugged it off as nothing more than the shock induced by the sudden turn of events.
The pair pressed on through day and night. Fineus knew that even though the North had won the war, the southerners would not easily let go of a man whom they still thought of as their ‘property’.
Finally, after a hard ride through now-hostile territory, the gates of Richmond rose slowly in the distance. Though he was sure their pursuers had been hot on his trail, they had remained undiscovered, and now salvation was finally near.
The morning sun was just gracing the landscape when Fineus drove his painted wagon up to the gates of the once-proud capital of the Confederacy.
Two men in drab, dusty uniforms took up arms at his approach. Standard procedure, of course. Thought he war was won, this could still be dangerous territory.
The soldiers said nothing at first, walking up and down Fineus’ wagon. Their uniforms were quite dirty it seemed, as barely a hint of blue could be seen through the grime.
“Federal Restorative Agency?” The taller of the two soldiers remarked. “Never heard of it? That a northern invention?”
“I suppose one could say so, yes.” Fineus replied.
“He belong to you?” The other solodier asked, indicating Kintate, whose wide eyes and trembling lip made it seem as though he were sitting in a vat of pure fear.
“Belong, sir? I think not.” Fineus replied incredulously. “This man is free, as are all of his kind, by the grace of our good President Lincoln. Now, if you don’t mind, we have business within the city.”
One the right, the soldier brought his rifle to bear, not yet pointing it up, but close.
To his left, Fineus met an unsettling stare.
“Our good president? What the hell is that supposed to mean? And how does Mr. Lincoln free all our slaves?”
Something touched Fineus’ shoulder in that moment, dread.
“By his authority as President, of course.”
“He ain’t our President, friend.” The one on the right, rifle ready, spat between his teeth.
“He is everyone’s President.” Fineus replied.
“No sir, he is not.” The left soldier answered. “Jefferson Davis is our President.”
Fineus bowed his head, trying not to smile sarcastically, not wanting to antagonize these poor men. But surely they had to know…
Suddenly, the bucket of fear in which Kintate sat made room for his liberator.
“Men.” Fineus began in his sternest voice, whilst he did his best to push down the growing terror within. “I would love to sit here and offer you a lesson on recent history, but I have urgent business in the city. Now, with all due respect, we must admit that Robert Lee surrendered just a few months ago at Appamattox, and Jefferson Davis is no more a President than you or I. Now if you please.”
Fineus raised the reins. The next instant, the soldiers raised their weapons.
“Put those down, friend.”
Fineus knew that tone of voice, the one that wouldn’t hesitate to kill should you disobey.
“Lee surrendered, huh?” The soldier on the left said, lowering his weapon. “Looks like you’re the one who needs the history lesson, friend.”
An icy grip froze Fineus’s spine, sending cold slivers of ice through his body.
The conman looked down the barrel of a musket, hearing the words but not sure how they could possibly be true. Each word strengthened the grip of terror on his soul.
“I don’t know where you’ve been hearing those tall tales.” The soldier continued. “But the facts couldn’t be further apart. It was Lincoln, and General McClellan who surrendered. Not two months ago but two years. On the lawn of your good Mr. Lincoln’s new House.”
Fineus spent his life judging men, well enough to know when they were telling the truth or lying. These men were telling truth.
As he studied the officer’s uniforms, Fineus began to realize that they were not covered in grime or dust at all. The drab grey was, in fact, the actual coloring.
Lost in thought, in time and space, Fineus Barlow barely noticed when one of the soldier’s boarded his wagon and ordered him forward, musket barrel an inch from his head. Unable to speak, much less move, the slave Kintate took the reins and ushered them forward.
What happened? How could this be?
During his stay in the Richmond jail, Fineus learned that what the soldiers had told him was indeed true.
General Lee had laid siege to Washington in 1863, and repelled all of General McClellan’s subsequent attempts to drive him back. And in the late fall of that year, when Lee threatened to scorch the North ahead of winter, Lincoln accepted defeat, and just a few weeks later travelled to this very city. A treaty of peace was signed, ending the war and legitimizing the Confederacy.
Fineus Barlow’s sentence of death, for theft of property and attempting to free a slave, was commuted to life in prison after he was deemed insane for his continual insistence that he should not have been tried at all, because the North had won the Civil War.
Fineus Barlow was never seen again, in this world or any other. But he knows, like we all do deep down, that no bad deed goes truly unpunished, no matter how mitigated by good the sin might be.
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See You in the Future,
J S Eaton