High Stakes Poker on the Mississippi

9 May 2663
by Dr. Isaac Franklin
Temporal Anthropologist with the University of New Orleans

This is an original, never before published article by the last temporal anthropologist to work with Dr. Wendell Howe in the Field.

2660 to ‘62 were a horrible years for all Temporal Anthropologists. Losing one of our own is always hard, but losing nine in a couple of years--that was down-right horrific. What made it even harder for me was I lost two “brothers” and good friends in that time.

Dr. Henry Darrell was my mentor. He was the one who went with me on my first time trips into the past. He came from a long line of cowboys, so he had decided to study 19th century America. I remember him in that Stetson hat of his. I think he slept in it. He was always eager to help me if I had a problem. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor.

Dr. Wendell Howe studied the Victorian world. He posed as a gentleman scholar of independent, if modest, means. He had an easier time portraying someone higher on that social scale, rather than down. Wendell came off as rather stuffy, even snobbish, but in truth he was kind-hearted and patient, and had a dry sense of humor.

It’s Dr. Howe I want to talk about. I could never tell this story without getting him in trouble, but now that he’s gone, I feel I have to tell you all. This is the real Wendell Howe no one knew.

Maybe I should tell you who I am first. My name Dr. Isaac Franklin. I’m a Temporal Anthropologist with the University of New Orleans. My family has been musicians for longer than anyone can remember. Is it any wonder I am fascinated by the roots of jazz, blues and rock? The fact that much of that history is missing makes it all the more mysterious and alluring.

It’s why I became a Temporal Anthropologist. I knew it would be dangerous, but I had no idea how dangerous. I mean I had read about the racial prejudice of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it’s hard to comprehend when you were raised in the 27th. The “color” lines were very distinct back then for people actually believed there was more than one biological race among humans! My complexion is dark enough that I am accepted by musicians of African descent, but it makes me an outcast in the dominant “white” society of the time.

That really hit home when I decided to go to Missouri in 1859 to record the work songs along the docks on the Mississippi. The work songs and the spirituals of the slaves were the roots of the blues. Even though I was posing as a freeman rather than a slave, that offered me no safety. One night, a couple of ruffians kidnapped me and took me “down river” and sold me to a plantation!

I kept protesting I was a freeman and they had no right, but I was beaten for complaining. I realized my only recourse was to play along. I knew when my time machine returned to the Institute of Time Travel without me in it, the Enforcers would come looking for me and rescue me--if I could just stay alive.

While I waited I took the opportunity to study the songs the slaves sang. Since I had lost my recording equipment, I had to memorize them. It might be genetic, since I do have musician’s blood, but I have always had an ear for picking up tunes and memorizing words.

The days went by slowly. I had suffered some injuries and was sicker than a dog. I needed medical attention, or I wasn’t going to last much longer. The overseer were indifferent to my suffering. The other slaves tried to help me, but they were untrained and had no medical supplies.

Just when I began to fear the worse, the Institute of Time Travel Enforcers came to my rescue, but not in the manner I had expected. Rather than a covert midnight breakout, they wanted to try something less apt to effect history. They had enlisted Dr. Henry Darrel to pose as a bounty hunter and Dr. Wendell Howe as a slave owner. He could pull off the rich plantation owner better than Henry could have. Their story was Henry had traced me to this plantation and Wendell wanted to buy me back. He told my enslavers I was a birthday present from his "mum" and had sentimental value.

My “master” was all too happy to sell a sick slave at top price. I was rescued without a hitch. They took me back to the 27th century and a decent modern hospital. My family is pretty tight, so needless to say they were there by my bedside. I had heard horror stories of how some families reject family members who become Temporal Anthropologists. We just get changed too much, so we can fit into the period we study. I might have been turned into a “primitive” 19th century man, but my family still loved me. After all I was still a musician and kinfolk.

When Henry and Wendell showed up to check on me, my family immediately adopted them for saving their own. I used to tease them after that, calling them both “bro.” Henry would call me “bro” back, but Wendell never did. Instead he called me “little brother” in that formal tone of his. I’m sure this was in reference to my age, and not to the fact that I was a couple inches shorter than him.

After that the Institute refused to let me go to America until after the Civil War. That was a real blow to my project. Finally we reached a compromise. I could go if I took another Temporal Anthropologist to pose as my master, thus offering me some protection from kidnappers. I wasn’t real happy about being babysat, but saw no other choice.

I went back with Henry. The cowboy could hardly pose as a rich plantation owner, so posed as a farmer with a slave farmhand. Problem was Henry was looked down upon as “white trash” so our mobility in society was limited.

I traveled back with Dr. Tobias Leach, whose persona is a Victorian English gentleman of leisure. Tobias is studying brothels, which allowed me access to recording early “honky-tonk” music played by forgotten black musicians. However I think he enjoyed having a slave a little too much. He’s not well liked by the other Temporal Anthropologists, and he knows it. He commented it was nice having a Temporal Anthropologist wait on him, and it was a pity I wasn’t an English butler. At first I thought he was insulting me, but I think he was just wishing it was Dr. Wendell Howe that was waiting on him. I’ve no idea why he dislikes Wendell.

The best man for the job was Wendell. He could come off as a higher class than Henry and he was easier to live with than Leach. Wendell however was hesitant. He said he didn’t like having servants. I pleaded with him that it was him or Dr. Leach. Wendell reluctantly agreed if only to save me from having to be any more humiliated than need be.

Wendell would pose as the youngest son of an Earl who came to America to try his hand at cotton farming for his brother’s English cotton mills. I was to be his slave valet. On this trip we traveled by riverboat down the Mississippi so I could record the songs of the dock workers. Wendell said the University of Liverpool was also interested, since it is believed these work songs had an impact on sea shanties. There were a lot of “negro” sailors in those days.

The incident I’m thinking about happened only a few days into our trip. Our riverboat stopped at a small town to load cotton from the local plantations. Wendell leaned on the railing, watching the slaves carrying the sacks of cotton. He had that usual poker face of his, but his eyes looked sad.

A steward walked by yelling out. “Port call. Please disembark. We will be spending the night here.”

There was still plenty of light, but we both knew why they stopped here. Next port was probably too far away to reach before dark. The Mississippi River meanders, literally, its bed shifting and sandbars forming quickly. Navigating it was tricky enough during the day. Only a fool captain would take a steamboat out after dark.

“Let’s go, Isaac,” Wendell told me.

I picked up his tea chest and my flour sack that served as my luggage in one hand. I picked up his carpetbag with my free hand. “Yes, massa.”

Wendell looked at me and winced. He knew this act was necessary in public, but I knew he didn’t like it. “I have you loaded down like a pack mule,” he whispered. “Let me at least take the tea chest. I’ll say it’s too valuable and I don’t trust you not to drop it if anyone says anything.”

“That ain’t necessary, but all right, if it will make you feel better.”

“It would.”

I let Wendell take it, just like I let him wait on me at night when we were alone. I’m sure I was the only “slave” that ever had his own English “butler.”

We disembarked like everyone else and got a hotel room where we dropped off our luggage. The town wasn’t much more then a couple of hotels and a few eating establishments. It was obvious this place would be gone tomorrow if the wharf moved up river.

We came out of the hotel and Wendell looked around. “Are you hungry, Isaac.”

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“It’s a pity we can’t eat together. They make you eat in the kitchen while I sit at a table.”

“The kitchen help are all ‘black,’ bro. I probably eat better than you do.”

Wendell fought back a smile. “I could hardly blame them if they spit in my plate.”

“Nah, I tell them you’re a decent master.”

“If I was decent I wouldn’t be a slave owner, now would?” Wendell raised his eyebrow. “Would you like to go down to the wharf and record some songs?”

We went down to where a couple of riverboats were docked. The plantations’ wagons were bringing in sacks of cotton.

“I thought they were suppose to be in bails?” Wendell asked.

“Probably take them down to New Orleans to be ginned and then bailed. From there they ship them elsewhere.”

“I wonder if this load will wind up in some mill in England?” Wendell said. “Brits abolished slavery and yet we are still prospering from slave labor.” Wendell looked down at his shirt. “This shirt was made in England, but it probably started on a slave plantation. How can we turn a blind eye?”

“Why are you saying we? This is another time. The Britain you were born in ain’t around yet.”

“These Britons are my ancestors. Their blood runs through my veins.”

I was hoping to record some work songs, but no one was singing. So much for the romantic illusions. All you could hear was overseers yelling and cussing.

Suddenly, there was a crack of a whip behind us. I knew the whip wasn’t for me, but it made me feel sick. I had the doctors back home leave the whip scars on my back from the time I was kidnapped, using my own body as a historic record of this sick practice.

Wendell turned around like it took a lot of effort and pulled out his glasses. I knew he had his camera in them. He just stood, his face stony.

“Why you want to watch that?” I whispered.

“For their children’s children.” He whispered back. “The folks back home need to see this. We have to show the good and the bad. If anyone ever decides to enslave another people we stumble upon, I want them to see this and know it is evil.”

I noticed Wendell said “another people” instead of “aliens from another planet,” but I know that’s what he meant. Temporal Anthropologists have to be careful what we say, least we be overheard.

Luckily, the overseer was only cracking the whip as a threat. However, by the reaction from the slaves, he was not all bluff. I wondered if any of those weary, hopeless men were my ancestors. I wanted to go over a take away the whip and beat the overseer with it. Of course, I couldn’t. That was against the rules of the Institute of Time Travel.

Then the overseer looked straight at me. “What you looking at, bo-wah?”

Wendell stepped in front of me. “Isaac is my man-servant. He is attending to me.” Wendell gave the overseer that imperious look he used on low-class ruffians. The 19th century was still a class society, even in America.

The overseer looked to be on the bottom rung of white society. He took out his frustrations on those a notch beneath him. Shoot, my servants clothes were much nicer than his tattered and faded outfit.

Wendell stared the man down. The humble Englishman could make himself look as haughty as a Duke when needed.

The overseer took off his beat-up hat and clutched it to his chest. “Begging your pardon, sir. I can see you are a gentleman of high standing. Can I do anything for you, sir?”

“No, thank you.” Wendell said curtly, then turned on his heels. “Come along, Isaac.”

I followed after Wendell. He deflated down to his normal humble self, but seemed deep in thought. He walked along on auto-pilot, then stopped and looked about. “I say, we seem to have run out of town.”

“Not much town here. Blink and you miss it.”

Wendell gazed down the dirt road lined with oak trees draped with Spanish moss. “Shall we go for a stroll?”

“Yes, massa.”

He frowned at me. “Go somewhere where you can drop the act,” he whispered.

We walked down the road a piece, getting away from the people. When we were alone I grinned at Wendell. “Whoa, bro, you sure had that cracker fawning you.”

“Yes, I don’t like doing that except to bullies. If you act haughty enough they think you’re rich and powerful in this day and age.”

“Acting haughty would get me killed, most likely.”

“Yes, you have to have the right skin tone and accent for it to work.” He gave me a sad look.

“I wanted to thank you, Wendell. I appreciate you coming with me. I know you aren’t enjoying this.”

“No, I don’t enjoy playing master. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would. I understand the plantation owners sleep with pistols under their pillows, living in fear of their slaves, who have every reason to see them dead. The slave owners are slaves, too--slaves to their own greed. They don’t have to live like that. Those very people that hate them, would love them if they did the right thing.”

It was hard watching your ancestors being abused, but it must be even harder watching your ancestors as the abusers. “I’m sorry I dragged you here.”

Wendell looked over at me, and gave me a crooked smile. “And leave you to the wolves, little brother? Like I said, we have to record the bad, too. I’ve seen child labor, exploited workers, filthy slums, beaten women, abused animals. I have to keep telling myself that we will grow up and this will all be a bad dream. Fortunately, this is the age when people are starting to wake-up and try to do something about the suffering and injustice. I just wish I could be a part of it.”

“We can’t get involved, but you know that. We could change history, probably for the worse.”

“Yes, we can only watch.”

A wagon rolled by, kicking up the dust. I closed my eyes and covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve. Wendell, ever the gentleman, produced a white handkerchief with an “H” embroidered on it, to cover his.

“I say, let us get off the road.” He pointed at a path into the woods.

We followed the track. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by marshy pools. The place wasn’t a full blown swamp, but it would have taken way too much work to turn this into any proper sort of farmland. Being this close to the river, it probably got flooded a lot.

We at last came to a little shack about ten foot square. It was obviously abandoned, too dilapidated for anyone to live in. Probably built by a naïve homesteader who quickly realized his mistake.

Always curious, Wendell opened the door hanging on one hinge and peered in. He immediately closed it like he had seen a ghost.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing. Just a dead opossum. Quite grizzly.”

I heard the sound of distant dogs baying.

Wendell spun around and yelped. He sat down and grabbed his ankle.

“What’s wrong?”

“I appear to have twisted my ankle.” He rubbed it.

The sound of hounds got louder. “Listen.” I cupped my ear. “That sounds like hunting dogs. I wonder what they are hunting?”

“Haven‘t the foggiest.”

“I think the hounds are getting closer,” I suggested. “Maybe we should head back. We don’t want to get shot accidentally by hunters who have had too much moonshine.”

“No, I don’t wish to try walking on this ankle just yet. Please, let me rest for a little bit.”

I shrugged and sat down on the lower step.

Wendell suddenly stood up, and took a pouch from his frock coat. He took a few steps and sprinkled the contents on the ground. Then, he limped back and sat down.

“What did you just sprinkle on the ground?”



“Libation to the local spirits to cure my ankle.”


“Fairies. Victorian England is big on fairies now. Not sure if it’s part of the Spiritualism Movement or the Celtic Revival.”

I was about to ask Wendell if he really believed in fairies, when we were interrupted. Out of the underbrush crashed a couple of men with bloodhounds on leashes. They carried rifles and something else--they had chains slung over their shoulders. They wasn’t hunting possum. They were hunting runaway slaves!

The hounds sniffed the ground until they came to where Wendell had sprinkled his libation to the fairies. They started sneezing, then snuffled some more and sneezed again. The dogs mournfully raised their heads, looking confused.

“Goll dang! Hounds lost the scent!.” The biggest of the men yelled.

“Maybe they went down this trail.” His partner pointed.

“Maybe, or maybe they’s hiding in this here shack!”

Wendell hadn’t moved or shown any surprise at this rude interruption. He had lifted his head and taken on the arrogance of the King of Calabogie himself.

The two men walked up, doffing their filthy, shapeless hats. “Begging you pardon, sir, but might we look in that shack.”

“No.” Wendell’s voice was quiet but firm.


“No, I turned my ankle.”

“I am right sorry to hear that, sir, but we is tracking down some runaway slaves.”

Wendell turned to me, looking very stern. “Let that be a lesson to you, Isaac. If you ever run away I shall hire these diligent fellows to hunt you down!”

“Yes, massa.” I bobbed my head. I decided to follow Wendell’s lead. He had been a temporal anthropologist for fifty years after all and this was only my sixth.

The slave hunter looked confused. “Uh, thank you, sir, but what I was trying to say is they might be hiding in that there shack you is sitting on the stoop of.”

“No, I can assure you they are not.”

“Well, they might be.”

“No. Not more than three minutes ago I looked in this building. Only thing in there is a dead opossum. Trust me, there are no slaves in there.”

The ruffian nodded. “I’ll take your word for it, sir.”

“Maybe they were headed for the river.” His scrawny partner scratched his neck.

The redneck nodded. “Or they is going to stow away on a steamboat headed up river.”

“Yeah, using a back trail to get there rather than the main road. They could follow this path to the river, then follow the bank back into town. They’ll probably try and sneak on tonight.”

“We’ll be waiting for them darkies. Come on, Jeb.”

The two headed back down the path. The sound of the barking hounds and the cursing men faded away. It was then I heard what sounded like a muffled sob come from the shack. I turned to Wendell. “Okay, what was that? That didn’t sound like a dead possum. Do you have slaves in there?”

“Of course not. Do you see any plantations around here? Most likely just an estranged wife and her lover meeting where the jealous husband would never think to look.”

“Then why didn’t you get up and let those crackers look?”

“Racists like that think all people of African descent look alike. Besides you know too well they would have had no qualms about dragging freemen into slavery.”

“You were helping the people hiding in here. You know we can’t help people when we are in the Field.”

“I did no such thing. I simply did not help the bounty hunters. It was probably us that led the hounds here. The noise we made attracted them. We would be the cause of these innocents folks being hauled away into slavery and changing their history. I, of course, could not allow that. That would be against the rules.”

“You never turned your ankle. That was a ruse to block the door and keep me out. Why didn’t you just tell me what was in there? I wouldn’t have told the slave hunters.”

Wendell studied me a moment. “You know we are not allowed to change anything. We need to make split-second decisions as to how we should proceed to have the least impact. If our ‘travel agents’ did not agree with my decision, I wanted you to be completely ignorant and innocent of any perceived poor judgment on my part.”

I stared at him with my mouth open. “Why, you were protecting me as much as these people, weren’t you?”

“That’s why I’m here, little brother. Besides I would hate to tell your mother I got you into trouble. She is a very nice lady, but I think she would thrash me to an inch of my life if I let her little boy come to harm. Big brothers have to look out for little brothers, now don’t they?”

A couple of months later, Dr. Wendell Howe would be the first temporal anthropologists to disappear. I don’t dwell on that. Whenever I think of Dr. Howe, I remember him leaned against that rotting door, with that poker-face of his and twinkle in his eye.

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