This entry is going to be a bit different. For the last few years, I have toyed with some fiction that I have mostly kept under my belt. During my recent vacation another story was born. It started in the solarium and the pool area of Disney's Beach Club resort. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have written a bit about a southern gentleman in a Panama hat.and several locales in the park had me picturing him appearing at any moment. The Beach Club was certainly Uriah's kind of place. This story, like Uriah's other adventures, is an alternative history that is built on the premise of changing the outcomes of the first weekend of July, 1863 and the preservation of Generals T.J. Jackson and A.S. Johnston - and therefore, changing the outcome of the war. I've enjoyed tinkering with this type of story because it opens new moral and ethical quandaries for the characters to deal with. Having heritage in the North and south, these are quandaries that I deal with myself. The challenge was to write a story that could stand alone while staying true to a history that Uriah has already developed over a couple of years. It's not very long but perhaps enough to introduce Uriah and see if anyone out there is interested in what else this guy might be up to.
I hope you enjoy it.
Sailboats cut across the harbor searching for the adventure of the open sea as families frolicked on the sand of the beach. Uriah Meigs leaned on the rail and gazed across the harbor at the boardwalk on the other side. He could hear the various sounds of summertime mirth as the New England sun glowed on the brim of his Panama hat.
He was out of his element.
He was surrounded by New England Yankees. His own life experiences added to the stories his grandfather had told him from The War left him distrustful of everyone he saw. The sight of the sea often stirred the memories of a boat voyage that transported him to his own war in Europe. The physical scars from that conflict were healing. He doubted the mental scars ever would.
He pulled out his heirloom pocket watch. The Seal of the State of Georgia on the hunter case cover wasn’t likely to expose him as a foreigner in a strange land. The seersucker suit was already accomplishing that goal. He was checking the time, hoping to discover that the man he was waiting to meet was running late. Really he was looking for anything negative about the man to justify the contempt that he held in his heart for a man he had never met. Poor manners, sloppy dress, disregard for punctuality, anything that might excuse him from passing judgment on a man based solely on where he was from.
“You must be Uriah Meigs.”
Uriah looked up from his watch with a start. He found himself face-to-face with a man wearing a straw boater and a neatly tailored suit. He was precisely five minutes early.
“I do hope I’m not running late.” The man continued, “The young man that was shining my shoes took a little longer than I suspected. I’m Elias Athern.” The man offered a handshake that seemed to wake Uriah from a trance.
Uriah closed his watch and accepted the handshake, trying to recover his own manners, “I am Uriah Meigs. I suppose I’m not very good at blending into this crowd.
Uriah’s mood wasn’t very cordial. The greeting was not like two old friends meeting on the dock after a long journey. It was the greeting of two strangers brought together by the necessity of business. But such an interaction was not typical of Uriah’s business dealings. He believed in friendly negotiations and cordial dealings. But his prejudice was being aggravated by his inability to find a flaw in his opponent. Opponent. He had never entered into a negotiation with an opponent. He was not off to a good start.
Elias suggested that Uriah accompany him to his billiard room over on the boardwalk, suggesting it as a better place to continue negotiations. As the two men walked around the harbor, Elias attempted to engage in small talk. But Uriah remained cold and distant. They arrived at one of the taller structures along the boardwalk and entered a narrow door beside a haberdashery and went up two fights of steps.
Elias unlocked a door and the two men stepped inside. The darkened room was not imposing. There were likely fancier rooms in on the three floors above this one. Elias turned on a lamp and then Uriah was able to see the paneled walls and leather furniture. There was a billiards table in the middle of the room. It was surrounded by leather furniture and a few book cases. Uriah noted that the books on the shelves appeared to be quality volumes – many were leather bound with gold leaf on the spines. He tried to hide the fact that he was quite impressed with the room.
Elias pulled a set of heavy drapes and then opened a set of French doors they had concealed. The doors led out to a small balcony that overlooked the harbor. The sunlight further illuminated the room and the salty breeze was refreshing in the stuffy room. “A little fresh air,” Elias announced, “a welcome thing on such a hot day.”
Uriah smiled. If the New England heat had been the least bit uncomfortable to hi, he would have never admitted it.
Elias was growing troubled at Uriah’s disposition. He had been told about Uriah’s pleasant personality and hoped it would lead to a friendly negotiation with beneficial outcomes for both men. He walked over to a table in the corner. He produced two glasses of ice and a brown bottle that Uriah found somewhat familiar. “Perhaps this will help us open our negotiations.” Elias poured a brown liquid over the ice and offered one to Uriah before taking a sip from his own.
Uriah watched him take the first sip as if he was fearful that his glass might be poisoned. He then raised the glass to his mouth and felt the rush of surprise. The man was well-dressed, on time, quite polite, a collector of good books, and was now serving him fantastic bourbon. The animosity was growing from his own disappointment.
“You didn't expect me to settle for some nasty rot gut just because of the Volstead Act, did you? This was brought to me from the backwoods of Kentucky by an old friend of yours. Mr. Thibodaux spoke quite highly of you.”
Thibodaux was an old war buddy. He had been a captain of a company of Louisiana troops. He and Uriah had saved each other’s necks more than once. Needless to say, the captain’s opinion meant a lot to Uriah. “He is a good friend. And he has impeccable taste in bourbon.”
"He spoke very highly of you.” Elias seemed to be choosing his words. “I have to say I was expecting a little warmer conversation. I hope I haven’t offended you somehow.”
Uriah took another sip of the bourbon and then responded, “You've been a most gracious host but I have to be honest, Mr. Athern, I’m not very fond of Yankees.”
Elias set his glass on the table with a bit of disgust, “Has it occurred to you, Mr. Meigs, descendant of the Georgia Delegation, complete with pocket watch, that Yankees are not very fond of you?”
The words hit Uriah hard. It wasn't the words per se, as he had never particularly cared what Yankees thought of him. No, what was bothering him was the fact that he had made judgments against this man before meeting him and then when he proved to be better than the initial judgment, Uriah had added that blame to the man as well, fueling further animosity. And then, possibly more troublesome, he had been ungrateful to his host. In that moment he could clearly hear the voice of his late grandmother, “Uriah Colquitt Meigs!” The middle name coming from her mouth was always an indicator of the gravity of the infraction, “Do not be so common! You act like you've got some sort of raisin’ about you. Use your manners.”
“Mr. Athern, I’m afraid I must beg your pardon. You have been most hospitable and, in return, I have been quite an ingrate. I hope that you will forgive my rudeness.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a delicate package and began to unwrap it. “I hope this will be a more appropriate way to begin our discussion. As he folded back the package, he revealed two exquisite cigars. These are straight from the Confederate port of Havana from a man that I’m sure you’ve never met before. His sister rolled these herself and I’m sure you’ll never find a better cigar anywhere in the world.” He then offered one of the cigars to Elias.
Elias took the cigar in this hand. He held it horizontally as he sniffed along its length. He seemed to be pleased with it so far. Uriah offered him his lit lighter and Elias turned the cigar in his mouth to light it evenly. The aroma filled the room and Elias smiled. He was quite pleased with the cigar.
Uriah lit his own cigar and the two men discussed the cost and value of the cigars and the bulk load of cured North Carolina tobacco – made without the use of slave labor, making it highly marketable in New England. The ink was still drying on the Bermuda Accord, a treaty that would finally allow trade between the two American nations. Uriah had been sitting on a ship in the harbor waiting for the news that the accord had been signed and that it was legal for him to come ashore and meet with Elias. Uriah was not above smuggling but it was not an option in this case.
Uriah walked over to look out the French doors. “My grandfather had a place much like this above River Street in Savannah. I remember sitting on a chair drinking Coca-Cola and listening to him and Generals Longstreet and Gordon tell war stories as the boats sailed past the windows. I loved listening to their old tales and that place holds so many memories.
Elias walked over to the doors and looked out, placing his hands in his trouser pockets. My Georgia war stories came from my grandfather and were about his stay at Camp Sumter near Andersonville. I guess I’m not quite as nostalgic about your state.”
“That’s why you and I aren't making any progress.”
“So if I’m to get a good price on my tobacco, I’m going to have to wax nostalgic for Georgia?”
Uriah shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying. We’re having trouble negotiating because we’re fighting our grandfathers’ war. A war that’s been over for over 60 years.”
Elias nodded. “Our nations have a very precarious peace. It seems the accord opened the door but until people agree to walk through it, nothing has really changed.”
Elias walked over and refilled the bourbon glasses and then began to rack the balls on the billiards table.
Uriah chose a cue stick, “I know what this deal needs. I was in New Brunswick a year or so ago and I had some real maple syrup at breakfast. Can you get me some of that?”
Elias was confused. “Right now?”
“No,” Uriah laughed, “Like a lot of it. Like shipping a load back to Savannah with me.’ He then sent the cue ball crashing into the triangle at the other end of the table, sending the other balls scattering across the table.
Elias smiled, “I can get you the best there is, straight from the mountains of western Maine. It’ll make that New Brunswick stuff taste like tar. I can have you a load by tomorrow.”
The sound of the billiard balls on the table accompanied a jovial conversation about Kentucky bourbon, Maine maple syrup, Cuban cigars, North Carolina tobacco, and the game at hand. Uriah found that he and Elias had more in common than he could have suspected and, as he had learned years ago in the trenches of France and the cotton fields of South Georgia, people are individuals that can’t be judged merely by the labels we assign them.
The games would continue as the men grew more cordial and worked their way towards a deal…or at least an understanding.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire