One last tear…
One last drop of blood…
One eyelid opened.
Climbing Boy 23:
December 24, 1843
“Whaz’zat?” Johnson looked at the door. “Who the bloody
The door rattling with the force…
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Rousing himself from the chair and the warmth of the
fireplace, jarring the table he caused the empty gin bottle to
roll onto the bread. “I ‘ears ya! I ‘ears ya!” he yelled, then,
muttering under his breath, “It’s gotta be bloody Marcos or
that bastard Archie.” Trippingly making his way around the
table and the few feet to the door, “Ya, got’s ya…” pulling it
open, “bloody ner…” His voice trailed off as a gust of frigid
air blew through the shack.
The candle on the table flickered and went out.
Sputtering, the flames of the two candles on the mantle
extinguished and smoke flowed from beneath the mantle,
dulling even that futile light.
Standing within the doorframe, filling the doorway was the
silhouette of a tall, heavyset man wearing a bulky coat and
a sheepskin hat.
In the deep shadows, on the far side of the room,
Zachariah’s eyes opened slowly. Turning his head, he looked
at the dark figure in the doorway.
“Johnson!” the figure in the doorway repeated in a deep,
solemn voice. “You’re Johnson, the sweep!” This posed not
as a question but as a statement.
Startled, Johnson took a step backward.
Smoke stinging his eyes, rubbing them, he tried to
sharpen his vision.
The stranger stepped into the room, forcing Johnson to
retreat another two steps.
The close proximity of the stranger frightening him,
moving even further to the rear, Johnson backed into the
table, jarring it. “Yeah,” swallowing his fear, “I am Johnson!”
He squinted, trying to see the stranger’s face. “An’ who might
Coming further into the shack, “It’s no matter to you
who I am.”
Moving hastily to the far side of the table, Johnson used
it as a barrier between himself and the stranger.
Following him to the table, placing his gloved hands onto
the edge of the beaten wooden surface, saying nothing, the
stranger stared at Johnson.
There was the wind outside.
There was the creaking of the shack.
There was the crackling of the fireplace.
There was Johnson’s harsh, labored breathing, but…
There is silence…
Looking for a means to escape, although not sure why,
Johnson’s eyes darted from side to side, but knowing there
was no place to go, and wanting to see who this stranger
was that was frightening him, peering into the dark area
beneath the stranger’s sheepskin hat and bulky, upturned
collar, he saw only blackness, and in the place of eyes, the
reflected pinpoints of the sputtering fireplace light—and so
quickly looked away.
Zachariah watched the two men: the blanching figure of
Johnson, facing him, and the back of the black shadow of
The coat, made of fur, reached to the stranger’s ankles.
The oversized collar of the coat was turned up, covering his
lower head, while the upper portion of his head was hidden
within the sheepskin hat.
Shaking his head, his Adam’s apple moving up and down
in his throat, Johnson swallowed, and no longer able to stand
the silence, with an attempted show of bravado, curling his
thin upper lip into a sneer, he glanced briefly into the black
void of the stranger’s face, then again quickly averted
“Enough of this!” Though trying to be forceful, his voice
quivering, “Who are ya, an’ wha’d’ya want?”
His flesh crawling, his scalp tingling, Johnson felt the
stranger’s eyes probing into him.
“Who are ya?”
Finally, the stranger’s voice sounding hollow, as though
coming from the inside of a drum: “I’ve come for the boy.”
Said as a simple, unemotional statement.
“The boy?” For a moment Johnson didn’t understand,
then, his eyes flickering to the shadowy figure against the
far wall, “The boy? Ya be the law?” His besotted voice
quivering, “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!”
“What you’ve done wrong is between yourself and your
maker,” the stranger said in a harsh, accusing tone. “No,”
speaking in a softer tone of voice, he said, “I am not the law.”
Shaking his head as though trying to clear the cobwebs,
Johnson briskly rubbed his hand over his face in an effort to
remove at least some small part of his drunkenness, as at
the same time, needing a drink, he looked over his shoulder
at the mantel, but the one remaining bottle was not there.
Panicking, he couldn’t remember where he’d left it. “If ’n ya
ain’t the law, what’d’ya want?”
“Zachariah!” the voice of the stranger boomed, again
startling Johnson, causing him to jerk backwards. “I’ve told
you, I’ve come for the boy!”
Zachariah? Johnson thought. Who is this man, and ‘ow’s
‘e know of Zachariah?
Looking beneath the table, “Sir,” Johnson breathed a sigh
of relief because the bottle was there, but it was lying on its
side, half empty. Straightening, looking across the table
again, “If’n ya come for the services of a chimney sweep,
then you’ve come to the right ‘ouse.” Crouching on hands
and knees, his head bumping on its edge, he reached under
the table. “Just gi’me your address an’ me’n the boy…”
standing, holding the bottle in his hands, looking at the
stranger, he held it forward and, receiving no response,
shrugging his shoulders, lifting the bottle to his mouth he
drank deeply. “Ahh! Um, me’n the boy’ll be to your ‘ouse or
‘stablishment bright ‘n’ early tomorrow.”
Johnson would say anything, do anything to be rid of
“I did not come for you,” speaking with strong emphasis,
“or your service!”
Tiring of this, “I know! It’s that’s bastard Archie!
Archibald sent ya! Didn’t ‘e?”
“Or the lady! That do-gooder lady on Broad Street! She’s
the one what sent ya, huh?”
The wind. The creaking. The crackling…
Knowing he’ll want it all, need it all, silently berating
himself for allowing the bottle to fall from his hand and
drain onto the floor, taking another drink, looking at the
stranger as he brought the bottle to his mouth, “Who are
ya?” he asked again.
Then conceding, “I am who I am.” The
Once again the stranger’s words came as though from
far away, and again, thinking the liquor had affected his
hearing, which it very well may have, Johnson shook his
head. “Ya are who ya is, eh?” Flustered, frightened… more
than frightened. “Well, I knows who ya are!” Hoisting the
bottle, trying to marshal his courage, Johnson took another
drink. “Archie sent ya, or that lady, or maybe even fish-smelly
Marcos! An’ one of ‘em tol’ ya ‘bout the lad bein’ a good
worker an’ such. Well, if’n it’s just the boy ya be wantin’,
then that’s all right, an’ I’ll be sure ‘e’s at your place nice an’
early tomorrow! Dawn’s all right?” he asked hopefully.
“Tomorrow is Christmas.”
Speaking sadly, softly, Johnson craned his neck forward
in order to hear the stranger.
“Would you work the boy on the day of the birth of
“Oh! Oh no, no, no!” Putting the bottle on the table, he
held his hands forward, as though in supplication. “I forgot
what day’s tomorrow. No, never! I wouldn’t never be workin’
the lad on Christmas! What kind’a man you think I am?
Christmas! I forgot! What I’m meanin’ is, ‘e’ll be by at your
‘ome or ‘stablishment first light’a next day.” Swallowing
nervously, turning, squatting, he picked up a piece of cold
charcoal from the fireplace floor. Turning back to the table,
pulling the chair closer, sitting, Johnson brushed off a corner
of the rough-hewn table as though preparing to write on it,
then looked up. “Now, Mister…? Ehh, if you’ll just be givin’
me the address of the place ya want me to send the boy.”
In shadow yet, vaguely considering that this, too, might
be caused by the copious amount of gin he’d consumed on
this day, still, Johnson saw no more than the reflection of
firelight in the black hollow of the stranger’s face and now,
his thought process progressing, remembering, having
acquaintance with more than one person who’d gone mad
from drink, Johnson felt a quaking within his stomach that
he knew did not come from the liquor… or maybe it did.
Swallowing, ‘e’s got no face! ‘e ain’t got a face! His befuddled
mind reasoned, It’s the devil ‘imself what’s come callin’!
Looking away, lifting the bottle, Johnson took a long,
Long seconds passed, then, “His contract,” the stranger
Looking into the void again, “What?”
“The boy’s contract. I will buy Zachariah’s contract.”
Buy? The word clearing a portion of his dotty brain,
squinting, he again looked closely at the shadowy figure,
but still seeing nothing of his face, turning on the chair,
taking up the poker he stabbed at the fire, sending a fountain
of sparks up the flue and, in the process, lighting the room.
Turning back, looking again, he did see something of the
stranger’s face and, although he did not know from where,
the face did look somewhat familiar, and by having a face, a
somewhat familiar face, the stranger appeared to be human
and less foreboding.
“So ya wanna be buyin’ me ‘prentice’s contract do ya!”
Johnson certainly did like money, but he needed Zachariah,
and also he’d had more than enough of this man. Even as
drunk as he was, he felt foolish for allowing himself to be so
terrified, and now that he could see some portion of the
stranger’s face and knew that he was dealing with just a
man—in his own home yet—overcoming a small bit of his
fear, “Ya got’s ya nerve comin’ into me ‘ouse in the dead of
night scarin’ the bejesus outta me an’ the boy.” Looking
towards Zachariah, “Ya wanna be buyin’ me ‘prentice’s
contract, ya says to me. Well, I ain’t got no contract! An’
even if I did the boy belongs to me an’ will till I lets ‘im go,
or he dies… Why, the lad’s like me own flesh an’ blood,” he
said sarcastically. “I loves him, I do. Now, I want ya should
get out’a me ‘ouse!”
The stranger did not move.
“I says to ya I wants ya outta me ‘ouse… now!” Reaching
forward, grasping the handle, standing, pulling the knife
from the loaf of bread, Johnson held it menacingly in front
of himself, sharp edge up, his thumb on the haft. “No! We
won’t be speakin’a the boy’s contract!” Moving the tip of the
blade in a small circle, “We won’t be speakin’ at all! Out
with ya!” He motioned with the knife. “Get out’a me ‘ouse!”
The light of the fire again sparkling from the stranger’s
eyes, leaning across the table with a motion so fast it was no
more then a blur, the stranger slapped Johnson’s hand.
The knife sailed through the air… and stuck, quivering,
into the far wall.
His eyes following the knife’s flight, Johnson’s mouth opened in amazement..