SEEKING SHELTER: A Steamfunk Tale
A bitter chill gnawed at the back of Thomas Morgan’s pink neck.
He flipped up the collar of his overcoat and walked briskly up the lonely road. “It will be dark soon,” he whispered. “I must find shelter.”
Thomas continued on, thinking that the feeling of unmerciful winds biting into his flesh must be what it felt like to the countless number of slaves who had tasted the caustic sting of his whip.
The memory of his whip rending black flesh warmed him a bit and strengthened his resolve to continue on.
Finally, Thomas came upon a house. He crept up to it. The smell of cinnamon met him, caressing his nostrils. Thomas peeked through a window at the front of the house. Inside, an elderly Black couple sat before a flickering fire. Steam rose from their brass mugs as they sipped from them.
“Niggers,” Thomas hissed. To Thomas, ‘niggers’ were bad enough, but ‘Yankee niggers’ were the worst.
“Well, their nigger home looks warm,” He thought. “And niggers are too scared to turn away a white man seekin’ shelter.”
A moment later, a man’s voice called from the other side of the door. “Who’s there?”
“My name’s Morgan,” Thomas replied. “Thomas Morgan. My airship crashed about a half mile from here. I need a warm place to spend the night until I can find a tinkerer in the morning.”
The door opened a crack. A pair of brown eyes peered out. “You sound like a Southerner, Mr. Morgan,” the old man said.
“Born and raised,” Thomas said, tipping his bowler as he saluted the old man with a deep bow. “But my heart belongs to the North.”
“What brings you to Weeksville?” The old man inquired.
“I’ve been usin’ that ol’ airship of mine to transport runaways for Harriet Tubman,” Thomas lied. He wondered what this old coon would do if he told them that he was really headed to Auburn to kill ‘General Tubman’.
“You can stay,” the old man said. “If you tell me an’ my wife a good story.”
Thomas rubbed his numb fingers under his armpits. “Umm…there once was a man from Nantucket…”
“I said a good story!” The old man said, interrupting Thomas’ limerick.
“I wish I could, but I’m just a transporter of people and cargo,” Thomas said. “I don’t have no stories to tell.”
“Black devil!” Thomas spat as he stormed away from the house.
He perused the area. A barn sat several yards behind the house. Thomas scurried toward the barn. He tugged at the door and it swung open. Inside, the barn was empty, save for a few farming tools strewn about and a large mound of straw that sat in a far corner.
Thomas dashed to the mound and dived into it. He burrowed deep into the mound, pulling straw over himself until he was completely covered. He quickly warmed up and, within moments, he was sound asleep.
A gruff voice awakened him.
Thomas peered between a few blades of straw, seeking the source of the harsh, baritone voice that had startled him out of his slumber.
In the middle of the barn, illuminated by a single lantern, stood two of the largest men Thomas had ever seen in his life. One man stood about seven feet tall. His massive muscles strained against his leather overcoat as he rapidly rubbed two sticks together over a pile of twigs and dry leaves
The other man, nearly a foot taller than the first and just as massive, dragged something large and heavy across the floor.
Both men’s faces were concealed by the over-sized brims of their top-hats, but their hands were nearly black as pitch.
As the fire came to life and lit the barn, Thomas saw clearly what the man was dragging – the corpse of a portly white man. The flesh on the corpse’s neck was twisted into a sickening spiral pattern, as if someone – or something – had tried to screw his head off.
The first man tied a rope around the corpse’s feet. “Hang him from that beam and let’s roast him.”
“I’m tired,” the first man replied. “Let Tom Morgan do it.”
Thomas shuddered. “How could they know I’m here? How do they know my name?”
“Come on out,” the second man bellowed.
Thomas crawled out of the mound of hay.
The first man yanked him to his feet. “Turn the corpse…and do not let it burn!”
Thomas’ mouth went dry and sourness gurgled in his throat. He nodded.
Thomas began to slowly turn the corpse over the fire.
The men turned from him. The first man snatched the barn door open. Moonlight poured into the barn, reflecting off the giants’ ebon skin.
“Keep turning, Tom,” the second man said as he disappeared into the night. “We’ll be back soon.”
Thomas shook as he turned the body over the fire.
A loud snap startled him. Suddenly, the corpse plummeted into the now raging flame. Sparks and ashes flew into the air and the barn filled with smoke.
“No!” Thomas screamed. “They’ll kill me!”
Thomas sprinted out the door and back onto the road. He raced into the frigid wind, fear keeping his legs pumping even though they ached terribly. When he could not run another step, he scurried into a muddy ditch, hiding behind a moist clump of overgrown weeds.
He had barely caught his breath when he heard thunderous footsteps upon the road above him.
“I am tired of carrying this charred, fat fool,” a gruff voice bellowed. “You carry him now.”
“Not me,” a second voice – as deep and gruff as the first – replied. “I’m tired. Let Tom Morgan do it.”
A loud thud exploded behind Thomas. He whirled toward the sound. Standing over him was the massive second man from the barn.
The man wrapped his thick fingers around Thomas’ neck and then hurled him high into the air.
Thomas winced as his buttocks slammed onto the road.
The first man snatched him onto his feet.
“Drag this body to Whitmore Ridge so we can bury it!” The first man ordered.
“But…but ain’t Whitmore Ridge about a mile from here?” Thomas asked.
“Move!” The first man commanded.
Thomas tucked the corpse’s feet under his armpits and shambled up the road, dragging the obese, bloated body behind him.
Thomas’ legs burned and his back felt as if it would fold in upon itself, but his fear of the twin black giants kept his taxed legs moving.
“While you’re down there, start digging,” the first man snickered.
“With my hands?” Thomas sighed.
“Well, you can’t dig with my hands, can you?” The first man spat.
The second man tapped the first man on the shoulder and then pointed toward the reddening sky. “Sun’s coming.”
“It’s your lucky night, Tom Morgan,” the first man said. “If we could stay a bit longer, we’d bury you with that body.”
With that, the men sauntered away and soon disappeared up the road.
Thomas leapt to his feet and then sprinted down the road in the opposite direction of the giants. Soon, he came upon the same house with the barn behind it in which the two men had found him. He slammed his fists on the door.
The door swung open. The old man of the house stood before him.
“You, again?” The old man hissed.
“Please, sir,” Thomas cried. “Some crazed men made me do terrible things! Please, grant me a place to hide and to rest and I will reward you dearly.”
The old man stepped aside and Thomas staggered through the doorway.
“Take a seat,” the old man said, pointing toward a table with four large oak chairs.
Thomas plopped down in a chair. The old woman of the house – a petite Black woman with smooth, cocoa skin and white locks that fell to the middle of her back - placed a cup before him. Thomas inhaled. The contents of the cup smelled pleasantly of honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. Thomas took a sip. The tea warmed and relaxed him.
Suddenly, heavy footsteps came from the back of the house.
A shiver crawled up the back of Thomas’ neck.
The twin, ebon giants sauntered into the room.
“Have a seat, boys,” the old woman said. “Tom Morgan got a story to tell.”