from a new novel set in Niagara Falls during the final months of Civil War.

August 1864 – Niagara Falls, New York
             The Suspension Bridge that spanned the Niagara River was actually two levels, one layer sitting over top of the other. “A grand wedding cake of construction,” Mother liked to say, but I remembered it as something more beguiling and dangerous than anything of true beauty.
             The top level supported the railroad that went from the small town of Niagara Falls on the American side to the smaller, yet arguably more picturesque village of Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. At the U.S. terminal, a larger rail line went south to Buffalo and the way back east to Auburn and New York, or one could go in the opposite direction from there, sweeping along the southern edge of Lake Erie toward Cleveland and Chicago.
             This Suspension Bridge’s upper realm, of locomotive and the sky, was indeed something to behold. From this vantage point, the enormity of the Niagara Gorge opened up beneath the structure and when crossing over the abyss the mist from the Falls would sometimes hang like a giant curtain in the air. When those clouds did part the distant smoke from the factories closer to Buffalo could be seen. Off to the other side, the Niagara River flowed north past sheer cliffs until it emptied into Lake Ontario. In the early morning, mist would hug those shale-green walls like ghosts from some forgotten cemetery.
             After checking into the Cataract Hotel, I decided to walk over to the vista point for the American Falls. Even here, beholding the famed wonder of the world, the region was parceled out and broken into contrary pieces. The American Falls are smaller in size then their Canadian counterpart, due to Goat Island and the necklace of Three Sisters Islands that stand like a small fortress in the middle of the Niagara River.
             As I walked along the fast-moving river, I remembered the summer, only a few years before, when Mother came here and brought Frank and myself along with her. Ostensibly she came to work at the hotel. Assistant supervisor of the cleaning staff. Actually, she was here at the request of Harriet Tubman, her friend from back in Auburn. In the time before the war began, Mother did all she could for Miss Harriet and the Underground Railroad.
              All of that was a swirl in my mind as I made my way along the river and toward the Suspension Bridge, which rose up like something from a madman’s portfolio in the distance. Soon enough I’d cross over to the other side. It was expected for the work I was now doing. Spy work. But on this afternoon, the day of my return, I watched the train chug across on the top level and remembered that day, almost five years ago now, when Mother decided we wouldn’t wait for the next train. Instead, we crossed on the bridge’s lower level, in a hack from the hotel.
             As we approached the Suspension Bridge that afternoon, I got our first true look at the bridge’s bottom rung, which rolled out as a long dark tunnel, an opening of shadow and malice. Framed by the wooden beams overhead and down along both sides, the lower level traveled directly beneath the railroad tracks, with only a few feet overtop for clearance. At the entrance, Mother paid the few pennies toll as men in long coats and wide-brimmed hats eyed our rig.
             “Bystanders,” the cabbie muttered. “Looking for no good.”
             “Looking for what?” Mother asked.
             “Anyone they decide shouldn’t be crossing, ma’am.”
             Before we could ask anything more, the cabbie gave the reins a flick and we were off.
             Gaps in the wooden frame allowed us to see much of the river below us and the mist that billowed up from the Falls. It was an extreme, even disjointed landscape, so unlike the rolling hills and tranquil long lakes near Auburn.
             We were almost across when a commotion broke out behind us. A moment later, a man, a black man, ran past the carriage and I edged forward for a better look.
             “Make room,” shouted a white man atop a horse standing at least seventeen hands high.
             After he passed by, I climbed up alongside the driver for a better look.
             “Missy, you’re better off back where you belong,” he warned.
             “What’s this about?” I demanded and once he saw that I had no intent upon returning to my seat next to Mother he nodded at the black man running as fast as he could for the far side of the bridge.
             “Another runaway,” the driver said. “The Bystanders back at the toll must have tipped them off.”
             I turned to see more figures moving about at the entrance to the bridge’s tunnel-like passageway.
             “He’ll be safe if he makes it to the other side,” I said.
             “But that ain’t going to happen, young miss. Not today.”
             Indeed, the man on horseback was soon pulling up alongside the running man. With a practiced motion, he tossed his lasso high into the air and it settled over the slave’s torso. With a tug, the man tied the rope to the saddle horn, and when the horse braked the black man toppled to the ground like a small tree going down in a windstorm.
             “He was nearly to the other side,” I protested.
             “What of it?”
             “The boundary line must be in the middle of the bridge, right over of the heart of the river. By that measure, he had already made it to British Canada.”
             The cabbie chuckled. “Nobody has ever fully sorted out such things, let alone drawn a proper line down the middle of the Suspension Bridge. You know how the slavers work. They always hedge things in their favor when it comes to the fugitive laws.”
             Soon afterward the poor creature, his hands now tied behind him and pulled along by a second rope around his neck, was led back to the American side. Back to captivity.
             That was years ago, I told myself, and so much has changed since then. War now raged across the country and President Lincoln had declared the slaves to be free. Still, as I gazed past the rising mist, toward the Suspension Bridge, I saw the buggies and carriages crowding the adjoining streets, even the so-called Bystanders still milling around the entrance to the tunnel-like passageway, and I knew I had once again fallen into a world where the past and present can swirl like the raging waters of the Niagara below. While history may march on, as learned men like Secretary Seward like to say, this part of the world can conjure up more ghosts than any philosopher or scholar or statesman can explain away.
             When I returned to the Cataract Hotel, taking a quick glance upward at the sky, which one was prone to do in these parts. Due to the proximity of the two Great Lakes, the Erie and the Niagara, the weather could change in barely a glimmer. Barely a glimmer? How did that expression of my mother’s somehow fall into my head?
             Approaching the hotel’s front entranceway, the wide porch that took up one entire side of the building, with the three stories overhead, I sensed that someone was watching me. Another glance upward and I saw a face gazing down at me from one of the upstairs bedrooms. Yet she disappeared before I could determine whom it really was. Inside the front foyer, I appeared to be alone until a soft whisper, called out to me.
             “Miss Rory? Is that you?”
             It was the face from the upstairs window. Her eyes now studying me from the half-open doorway to the stairs off the entranceway.
             “Yes, ma’am,” she said edging briefly into the foyer. But then she stole a look around before backing toward the stairwell. “You’ve returned. But why?”
             Why, indeed, I thought to myself.
              “We heard about your mother’s passing,” Sissy continued, and I had little choice but to take a step closer, to better hear her. “Such a sharp loss.”
              “I’m just visiting,” I said, and the older woman only smiled at this.  An escaped slave herself, Sissy had been working at the Cataract long before we arrived that summer. She was a maid under my mother’s direction for our time here. As adept at helping lost souls escape across the border to Canada as anyone, expect for Mr. Douglas.
              “And what of Frank?” Sissy asked and I shook my head.
              “Dead. Gone with the war.”
              For an instant, Sissy’s eyes welled up. Still, within a breath or two, she somehow composed herself. “Such a fine lad,” she said. “A good one he was.”
              This was already becoming too much for me and I was ready to leave.
              “Is it all right if I tell the others, Miss Rory?” Sissy asked, briefly resting a calloused dark hand on my forearm. “Cesar, Aran and, of course, Mr. Douglas?”
              “Yes,” I said with some reluctance. “Tell them we’ll talk soon.”
              With that she excitedly clapped her hands together, quick and fast, one-two. For being an elderly woman Sissy Morris still carried a youthful enthusiasm about her, especially when the world delighted her, even in a small way.
              “Oh, they will be so happy to hear that, child,” she said. “So happy.”

Tim Wendel is the acclaimed author of 14 books, including Cancer Crossings and Escape from Castro’s Cuba. A writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University, his stories and columns have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, National Geographic, Esquire and Gargoyle. His website is