Friday, February 8, 2013

A Character You Might Love To Hate

September 14, 1829

Hatred was never a motivating passion for Joe Johnson. He could dislike another person but he was sincere when he claimed he never hated another man. Even the negroes and speculators he mainly preyed upon would concede (had any survived their encounters with him) his treatment of them was not motivated by hate. Like love, it was an emotion that simply did not exist or was, sadly, missing from his character.

Greed, however, was another matter. Johnson was a man who could not keep his fingers off the property of others. This failing had developed along with a bullying nature during his boyhood in Sussex County, Delaware. Being larger and stronger than his companions, it had developed unimpeded until it was an ingrained part of his nature by young manhood. From there it had expressed itself in a variety of unrepentant forms. Stealing neighbor’s chickens to feed a greedy stomach had led, progressively, to the theft of hogs, horses and cattle for profit and, from there, to exploiting human flesh, robbery and murder.

But it was neither of these emotions that brought him to Schlusseltown.

That had been the eventual result of unplanned, expeditious flight necessary to save his miserable life.

That was the nature of life, he had decided long before. Just as one began to feel content, satiated with a full belly, plenty of grog and coins to clink together, fate would snatch the rug from beneath one’s feet and it would become necessary to begin all over again.

Still, once he was a safe distance from the gallows, he began to rejoice in his freedom and set to work sniffing out new opportunities.

Once he was sufficiently distanced from the immediate danger, there was no great need to hurry. With the money he had managed to snatch before absconding he could afford to travel at his leisure, sucking the marrow from the bone of each day. As he crossed Maryland there remained the possibility of pursuit but he was not the type to look back over his shoulder and the prospect only added to the exhilaration he felt.

Subjectively, his peregrinations were based on a desire to escape; objectively, he had no specific goal toward that purpose. He thought he might distance himself from danger by going to Canada or, perhaps, the West.

From Baltimore, he headed up the Susquehanna into Pennsylvania. He knew his money would not last indefinitely and so his sharp ears were ever tuned to the conversations of others, his eyes ever watchful and his other senses attuned, alert to the chance which would allow him to increase his resources.

Johnson was skilled at ingratiating himself with others. Perhaps it was his long history of cozening others or his exuberance and disregard for convention as something they subconsciously desired for themselves; he drew them like a mirror but the reflection they saw was him magnified.

Still, it was a false image they saw. No one beheld the real Joe Johnson; only the image he projected. He was no Alonzo Jump (there was a bit of irony in the choice of the unusual name since the real owner was the sheriff who had put an end to Johnson’s nefarious Delaware enterprise), a Virginian ostensibly on a horse-buying expedition but who appeared more interested in drinking, carousing and gambling.

It was in a tavern near Harrisburg that the impostor Alonzo Jump first heard of Captain Isaac Schlussel. The latter was fast becoming a legend. It was alleged he had single-handedly carved out an empire in the coal country wilderness to the north where he manufactured gunpowder, operated sawmills, farms and various other enterprises. Aside from the visions of this man’s wealth and plots for grabbing a share of it, the thing that impressed itself most upon Johnson’s fertile mind were accounts of the man’s passion for horses which equaled the lust of ordinary men for nubile young girls.

As luck would have it, a farmer who bred racing horses was stopping at the tavern. After examining them and being assured of their quality, Johnson staked the last of his money against a string the breeder was taking down to Maryland on a card game that night. So obsessed was he with this opportunity, Johnson resolved that if he did not win he would follow the man and steal the horses.

“I’m not much given to cards,” the horse dealer said when pressed.

“Then what sport might entice you to wager?” Johnson asked, unwilling to relinquish his goal.

The man studied him a moment, tugging at his goatee. “I might consider rasslin’ you for the string,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile twitching at his lips.

Johnson laughed. “Sure you would. You’re taller and you outweigh me by a good twenty pounds.”

“Whadya got to be scairt about?” his adversary pressed, stepping close and squeezing Johnson’s arm muscle. “I’m older than you and you don’t look like no weaklin’.”

It wasn’t fear of the other’s size that put Johnson off. He’d done his share of brawling and, at one point, had earned his living as a slave-breaker, pummeling recalcitrant blacks into submission. He knew size alone was never a consideration in that pursuit. Still, wrestling was a slippery game and one could never be certain of the outcome. Besides, shrewd judge of character that he was, he already had arrived at a better means of achieving his desire with less effort. He was amazed at the beauty of the idea and how it had come to him like a flash of lightning across a summer sky as he thought about Schlussel’s major enterprise.

“You want us to sit on kegs of gunpowder?” the other asked, his eyes already bright and swollen with fear.

“That’s right. We’ll each plunk down on a keg and light the fuse with one of these,” he said, proffering a stogie. “First one to hop off loses. You haint scairt, are you?”

Johnson had judged his victim correctly. Eyes darting like bugs on a pond, already perspiring and wheezing, the farmer gave in, unable to back down in front of his neighbors. “Haint no braver man in Dauphin County,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I’ll outlast you, you Virginia cockadoodle.”

Two kegs of powder with fuses attached were quickly procured from a teamster whose wagon was parked in the yard and who had been a witness to the conversation. It was of no consequence but Johnson was unaware the driver was carrying a cargo from Schlussel’s factory to Harrisburg.

“I’ll thank you to take your sport outside,” the worried tavern-keep told them.

It was a bold stunt, though no true test of Johnson’s courage. In the sunlit yard, he calmly perched upon his keg, puffing his cigar, but hardly had time to work up a sweat of anxiety before his foe leapt up and stomped out the fuse of his keg which had burned barely an inch. “You win,” he cried. “I may be a fool, but I haint crazy.”

As well as print formats.) 


  1. Interesting concept, and filled with suspense from the sound of it. I'll have to look into your book.
    Marja McGraw