Agnes Canon's War by Deborah Lincoln

(Fall 2014, from Blank Slate Press)


Agnes Canon and Dr. Jabez Robinson struggle to keep their community and their lives from crumbling about them as they face the stark reality that whether it’s question of slavery and secession or the demands of social convention, the cost of freedom is too often measured in chaos and blood. This eloquent work of historical fiction chronicles one woman’s struggle for self-determination against the background of a community growing – and dying – in the Civil War era.

About Deborah Lincoln:

Deborah Lincoln grew up among the cornfields of western Ohio, the product of farmers on one side, doctors and lawyers on the other. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and doesn’t really care which one wins the big game. She and her husband have three grown sons and live on the Oregon Coast.

Here’s the first chapter:

1 – April 1852


Agnes Canon saw a woman hang on her way to the Pittsburgh docks.

The rope snapped taut, and a hiss rose from the watching crowd like steam from a train engine. The woman dangled, ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze. A sharp pang of sorrow shot through Agnes though she knew nothing of the woman’s story.

Rumor had it she’d bludgeoned her husband while he slept, and more than a few in the milling crowd muttered that he well deserved it.

The prison squatted beyond the road in a hollow of wasteland, stone walls lit by a streak of afternoon light breaking through a low overcast. Agnes and Elizabeth, perched on trunks stacked in the wagon bed, were level with the gibbet, and Agnes couldn’t tear her eyes from it. Most days, Elizabeth, Agnes’s cousin, had a flash about her like a hummingbird in the summer sun, but now she turned, wan and trembling.

“Agnes,” she said, her soft voice shaky. “Shouldn’t she have run away? Like you?”

Agnes shuddered as the woman’s body disappeared and the crowd roared. “Shouldn’t have married the man in the first place.” Her papa had accused Agnes of being selfish, but her act of defiance in rejecting a loveless marriage proposal now seemed pitiful.

Twisting around from the wagon’s bench, Sam Canon, another cousin, glowered at Agnes from under willy-worm brows. Sam took a dim view of Agnes’s venture and had expressed more than once the opinion that she should have stayed home and married Richard Wiggins. “There’s a lesson, cousin,” he said in his baritone. One of his longer speeches. He clicked to the mules, and the cart resumed its descent toward the harbour. Agnes rolled her eyes at Elizabeth and seized the wagon’s rail as it lurched downhill.

They’d bounced about in the back of the wagon, atop trunks and carpetbags and hundredweight sacks of rice, near ten hours. Seemed like ten days. Sam appeared to direct the wheels over the largest cobbles and into the deepest ruts for the entire thirty miles. The wagon listed to port, the iron-shod wheels were out of round, and altogether the two women felt well churned by the time they reached the Pittsburgh harbor.

Flatboats lined the docks like cows at milking, and steamboats puffed and pawed at the wharves. A stench of fish, burning coal, and animal waste laced the air as the shouts of stevedores echoed over the roar of steam engines. Under a lowering sun, their flatboat rode at anchor amid swarms of gulls and trash, a wormhole-riddled floating box that was to be their home all the way to the Mississippi River.

Children scampered underfoot and men tossed barrels and crates and wrestled animals while the women struggled to generate a warm meal in a rising wind. Agnes hauled and prodded the last of her bags and trunks into whatever nooks the others had not yet claimed, her status as spinster guaranteeing a crowded bunk below deck and forward with the children. Her height, unusual for a woman, would mean cramped nights. The river’s dampness invaded the tiny space, the water lapped just inches from her pillow. She thought it was the loveliest cubby-hole she’d ever seen.

Elizabeth, settled into a tiny cabin already furnished by her husband, Tom Kreek, fetched Agnes and in dimness of the evening, Agnes could see that her cousin’s face had not regained its color. She wondered whether it was the effects of the hanging or the smells of the boat that bothered her. Perhaps both, but she laughed and teased her for her daintiness..

They followed Tom to the stewpot and poured themselves hot coffee as evening deepened. Agnes’s legs and back ached with the journey, the fetching and carrying, but it was a satisfying weariness. The three of them carried their full plates to a row of hampers in the bow and watched the dimpled expanse of river fade into smoky promise downstream. A hundred lights, haloed with the softness of evening air, flickered into being on shore, while behind them they could hear the children squirming and complaining on their way to bed. A cob-webby mist rose from the water and settled on Elizabeth’s hair like dew on a black rose as Tom hung a tannin-stained hand across her shoulders. Elizabeth leaned into him and pulled her shawl close, her eyes lit in satisfaction.

Despite their differences—Elizabeth being a married woman of twenty and Agnes an aging old maid of eight and twenty—they were best friends. Elizabeth was Sam Canon’s niece and so Agnes’s cousin once removed. Favored with youth and beauty, Elizabeth journeyed in the company of her parents and siblings and that most prized of a woman’s blessings, a husband. But her domesticated manner hid a quick mind and an iron will, and she ruled her husband without his ever suspecting. She also sympathized with Agnes’s restlessness as none of her sisters had ever done, and Agnes treasured their friendship the more for it. Yes, Agnes knew the occasional spurt of jealousy which she tried to conquer with common sense, but she admitted to herself that she was not always successful.

Unlike Elizabeth, it was not satisfaction but impatience that clutched at Agnes. Impatience to put behind the tedious lot of an unmarried schoolmarm. Impatience to be gone from the plodding life that pinched like last year’s boots. Gone from the old farmhouse, weathered to the color of leftover porridge, its soul vanished along with her mother. Agnes longed to clutch the brilliance of the westering sun on the river, grasp the future, and pull it to her like a lover.

* * *

Agnes had buried her mother with her favorite Margaret Fuller. When it was her turn to step up to the casket, press her lips against her mother’s cold forehead and bid her good-bye, she slipped the small volume from the sleeve of her dress so no one would see —especially her father—and tucked it beneath the coverlet. It rested by her mother’s side, the side away from the infant who had killed her and who himself lay stiff and cold, cuddled in the crook of her arm.

Mother had given Agnes the book the year before, upon its publication. “Our secret,” she said, and it signified for Agnes that she truly was special to her of all the daughters. Agnes had torn out the frontispiece so she would always have the inscription: To Agnes. Be good enough and strong enough to give up corsets. She signed it, Your Mother, Ann Jones Canon, Christmas 1845. She was ill even then.

Agnes relinquished her place to the next sister in line and joined her father in the first pew. A weight pressed against her heart, as one by one, the remaining six sisters kissed their mother and took their seats. Their father glanced over them, then turned a stony stare to the casket. Seven healthy daughters, followed by three sons, none of whom lived to see his third year. And each one of those three seemed to steal the flesh from their mother’s bones, until she had no more to give. The last one took her, the wife Agnes’s father had loved but never understood.

Two days after the funeral, Agnes’s father gathered his daughters in the parlor and took his seat in his great armchair. “Let us understand one another,” he said. He was a big man, six and a half feet from foot to forehead, with shoulders wide as an axe-handle’s length. His voice thundered when the mule defied him or in church at the “amen,” but in the parlor his voice was soft, and that was when we knew they knew they must listen closely.

“I’ll be understood now she’s left us,” he said. “I aim to do my duty by you long as you lodge under my roof. Then you will marry, be obedient wives, give me grandchildren.” He fixed them one by one with a look they knew well. “Your ma held strange ideas, but she would be shamed if you was to do else.” At the time, the sisters ranged in age from mid-twenties to fourteen, and since none of them had yet received an offer, they were uncertain how they might please him.

As the years passed, the suitors did not materialize. One by one Agnes’s sisters left for nearby villages to take up teaching positions, the only profession open to them. Agnes alone attracted an admirer. Richard Wiggins. He taught with her in the academy at Union Town and pursued her for some months. His mind was not acute, he favored foods with a great deal of garlic, and he endorsed families of no less than a dozen children. He was short.

Somehow Agnes’s father learned of his interest, and after a family meal on a Sunday, called her into the parlor. She was apprehensive. Being alone in conversation with her father was a rare occurrence. He took his customary seat and pulled out a clay pipe. She sat, hands folded in her lap as she’d been taught, while he ministered to the pipe.

“I congratulate you, daughter.” He squinted through the smoke.

She looked up at him. “I’m not sure to what you refer, Papa.”

“Your marriage.” He pulled the pipe from his lips and glared. “I’m told you been made an offer.”

“No, I have not.” She twisted her hands and looked away.

“But you expect one.”

“What exactly have you heard, Papa?”

“Girl, don’t provoke me. Richard Wiggins has been courting you and if he ain’t already, he intends to make you an offer. Sure you reckon that?”

“Mr. Wiggins has been attentive, but I don’t believe he intends to make an offer.”

“He most surely does. He told me so hisself!”

That caught Agnes up short. For Richard to speak to Papa without approaching her was more despicable than she expected even from him. She took a deep breath.

“Papa, I will soon be twenty-eight years old. Well beyond the age when a man needs to approach a woman’s father for permission. He should have come to me first.” She could not look her father in the eye, so she gazed past his shoulder to the mantel. The fire roared, and she grew over warm. “If he had, I would have refused him.” A log tumbled and threw sparks up the chimney. “If ever he does offer, I shall refuse him.”

Her father said nothing, and the silence drew out between them. Then he leaned to the hearth and tapped the bowl of his pipe on the stones. The heavy scent of burning tobacco filled the room. He propped the pipe in its holder and stood.

“You will marry.”

She stood as well. “I will not.”

“You’re a fool,” he said, his voice so low she could scarce hear him though they were but a foot apart.

“Perhaps I am, Papa, but I will not marry where there is no love and less respect.”

“Don’t be addlepated, girl, that’s childish notions.”

Agnes said nothing. Her father puffed out his lips, backed up a step and ran his hand through thinning hair.

“Agnes, what’s a woman for but for children?”

For so many things, but there was no point in saying it. The disappointment in his eyes angered and pained her, and she looked away. He turned to go. When his hand was on the doorknob, she spoke. “Papa, would you deny me the love you and Mother had between you?”

Without turning, he said, “That ain’t enough,” and left the parlor, closing the door behind him.

In the fall of 1851 farm prices plunged, fields lay fallow, and livestock were slaughtered to save the cost of feed. Agnes’s cousins, led by Sam Canon and John Jackson, determined to sell out and set off for the rich, virgin farmland of the Missouri frontier. Elizabeth played the role of Agnes’s advocate with her father and uncle, and between the two women, they convinced the men that Agnes might accompany them. Agnes spent hours crouched by her mother’s grave talking to her about it, dreaming, and taking leave. And then she counted her savings, sold her treasured set of Walter Scott’s tales and packed her trunk. When she approached her father to tell him her plan, he stared at her long and hard as if memorizing her features, then turned his back and strode off without a word.

On a lovely April day in 1852, Sam pulled the wagon up in front of the house, and Agnes’s sisters crowded about with kisses, tears, and good wishes. Her father remained in the barn and did not wish her good-bye or God speed.

* * *

Agnes sighed at the memory and tried to let the anger and disappointment at her father melt away like the setting sun. Soon the clouds shifted, and a star appeared, then another and another. Elizabeth settled her head on Tom’s shoulder, and he kissed her temple. Agnes dipped her head and looked away and thought of the woman they’d seen hanged that day. Never again would she watch the stars blink on, feel the mist on her cheeks. She had no future.

Agnes did.