by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 19 and part 20
appear in this issue
As if to seal their agreement, Lee fished a humidor out of his desk and withdrew two cigars. The tobacco smelled fresh and pungent and Edgar wondered at the expense.
“From our home state,” Lee said. “Care to join me?”
“Yes sir.” He didn’t often smoke, but like most Southerners, he was familiar with the ritual. Lee lit Edgar’s cigar with the stub of his old one, and then fired up a fresh one for himself. They sat together for another half-hour wreathed in aromatic smoke while making small talk about Richmond, the great state of Virginia and the Southern way of life in general, which Lee thought much superior to the Northern model.
“I personally find Southerners are warmer, more hospitable, and therefore more civilized than these pale, winter-dwelling ghosts of New York and New England,” Lee said, pointing his cigar like a pistol. “Don’t ever let these uppity Yankees make you forget you’re a Virginian first and foremost.”
* * *
As Edgar was leaving the Superintendent’s House, he had the bad luck of running into Thomas hurrying back from class, and his roommate was immediately suspicious. “What’re you doing in there?” he asked in his Indiana drawl.
“Aw, nothing,” Edgar said, flustered, and then quickly recovering: “My court-martial’s been postponed until January twenty-eighth.”
“Well, that gives us plenty of time to show ’em a thing or two,” Thomas said, brightening at the prospect. “Come on with me to the shed, we’ll make some fuses for those fire bombs. I’ll teach you how it’s done.”
The late-afternoon sky was already darkening, as it does in January, with lampblack clouds riding low over the barren trees.
“Looks like snow’s coming in,” Edgar said.
“A good thing, too. It’ll cover our tracks tonight,” Thomas said.
They were on the worn path behind the mess hall, and Thomas checked the back of the building’s stone walls for open windows, although it was far too cold for anyone to leave them ajar. Satisfied no one was listening in, he went on.
“Tonight, my friend, we burn down the Academy Building.”
“Surely you’re joking?”
“Keep it down, will you.”
“But the Academy?”
“We’ve got to do something dramatic to get rid of Thayer.” They were at the shed now and Thomas turned the key in the padlock. “We’ve got to make him look bad. If buildings burn, the generals in Washington — hell, the Secretary of War and President Jackson hisself — will take notice. Then we can get Captain Partridge back and build us a proper American military school. First thing he’ll do is throw the foreigners out, the frogs and the Hessians, and such like. ”
Edgar had to stop himself from telling Thomas he was a fool and that men were hanged for less. Instead, he let loose with a long, low whistle. “Jesus, Tom,” he said. “Maybe we should wait.”
“Nope,” he answered, chuckling and looking at the sky, which was blacker than before. “Tonight’s the night. Nobody’s ’specting anything like this. We’ll catch ’em off guard.”
He swung the shed door open and Edgar could smell lantern oil mingled with the earthier scents of decaying hay, sod and leather. Thomas went inside and squatted down as he fiddled with a lantern, trying to light it. The clay jugs of oil, some with greasy rags hanging from their mouths, were lined up against the far wall.
Whether it was inspiration or just plain common sense, Edgar knew what he had to do.
“Damn, it’s dark in here,” he said as a blue flame leaped up in Thomas’ lantern. With that, Edgar stumbled against him, knocking him sideways and out of his squat. The lantern fell out of his hand and spilled a blue wave of oil-fed flame across the floor. Thomas rolled away from the liquid fire, but it lapped up to one of the jugs and darted onto the fuse.
“Shit,” was all Thomas got out before he jumped to his feet and flung himself out of the shed. Edgar was right behind him and they hit the frozen ground as an explosion of light and heat went off behind them, sucking the very air from their lungs. They rolled across the ground, got to their feet and ran for their lives. More explosions followed, turning night into day as the flames expanded like a rampant sun.
Cadets were already pouring out of North Barracks when they got there and all around them people were running, shouting and pointing at the smoke and flames that rose from the shed, casting an eerie play of light and shadow across the Academy Building’s neo-classical facade. The low-hanging clouds threw back the fiery light like sheet lightning and the sky flared with every new explosion. One group of cadets had already manned a fire wagon and was pulling it toward the Academy.
“We better look like we’re running toward the fire, not away from it,” Thomas said, turning to look at the blaze. Edgar stopped, too. They were about midpoint between the Academy and North Barracks, and firelight bathed earth and sky. They quickly joined a bucket brigade that formed to hurl water on the back of the Academy nearest the shed to keep the main building from igniting. Another line of cadets was handing off leather buckets, one after the other, and heaving water on the flaming shed.
The fire shrank under the assault and then sprang back, only to be damped down again. Arcs of water gushed from the fire wagon’s cannon as crews of cadets pumped furiously. All around them, soot-smudged men cursed and yelled as others holding torches shouted orders. There was panic and he lost sight of Thomas in all the confusion, but the lines held and Edgar thought the cadets’ organization admirable. He even found himself taking pride in his part as he passed the bucket along — until he remembered he’d started the fire.
At length, the flames were brought under control and the Academy Building was no longer in danger. The shed, however, was a pile of charred and smoking timbers. Edgar wiped the sweat that trickled from his brow and his hand came away streaked with soot.
Someone passed him another brimming bucket and he handed it up the line just as Gant appeared in front of them. His face, too, was smeared with ash and sweat and he looked more like some savage at a ritual sacrifice than an officer for a civilized nation.
“You,” he said to Edgar. “Step aside.”
When Edgar hesitated, Gant pulled him roughly out of the line.
“That’s him, all right, sir,” a cadet standing behind Gant said. “He’s the one I saw running.”
“You’re under arrest, Mr. Poe,” Gant said. “And this time you’re under lock and key.” He motioned for his men to take hold of Edgar.
“I’m afraid not,” someone behind them said. They all turned to see Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, his face hard and bright in the torchlight as he sat astride a huge black stallion. Several Army Regulars stood next to him and two of them held Thomas.
“This man’s admitted to starting the conflagration,” Lee said.
“Is that true?” Gant demanded of the hapless cadet.
“It was an accident, sir,” Thomas mumbled.
He looked away when Edgar tried to catch his eye. There was an unwritten code among cadets that if one of them was caught in mischief, he would never report the others. Thomas wouldn’t tell Lee that Edgar was with him; he was the type of cadet for whom unwritten laws were far more important than regulations on the books.
“I don’t think so,” Lee said. “We have reason to believe this man was storing flammables in that yonder shed, and that he had some as yet undetermined plan for them. We’ve been watching him.”
“This man here saw Cadet Poe running from the fire,” Gant said, pointing to the cadet who’d identified Edgar, a fellow he only knew as Miller.
“I don’t know anything about that, lieutenant,” Lee answered dryly. “But I’ll be glad to interview him along with the others.” He cocked his head at his men. “Please escort cadets Gibson and Poe, and this other fellow, to my office.”
The Regulars didn’t worry about going easy on them, and roughly hauled them away. Thomas was baying incoherently about justice and freedom and Edgar heard him call his captors “you sons of bitches.” Then there were a couple of thumps, as though someone was whacking a ripe melon with a walking stick, and it was quiet.
Edgar was taken to a windowless room not far down the hall from Lee’s office. His guards pitched him inside and slammed and locked the door. He sat down on a wooden bench, the only stick of furniture in the room, and watched a fragment of candle gutter in an alcove on the wall. After what seemed an eternity of waiting in the dimly lighted cell, he heard footsteps outside and then a key turned in the lock.
When the door swung open, Lee stood silhouetted in a halo of light like a god just down from Olympus. As soon as Edgar’s eyes adjusted, the image changed to a more prosaic picture of Lee holding out a cup of coffee to him. One of the guards stood behind him with an oil lamp, the source of the beatific light.
“Something hot for you to drink,” Lee said handing the coffee to Edgar. “Come on back to my office.”
They walked the few yards together, the lamp-bearer behind them. Edgar felt dwarfed by the lieutenant; but standing beside him he saw that Lee wasn’t a lot taller. Yet, the charismatic officer somehow projected size and power, an illusion Edgar could only marvel at.
“I had to throw you in the lockup, give you the same treatment I gave the other feller,” Lee said as they went into his office and he dismissed the guard. “Gant followed us over and I didn’t want to make him any more suspicious. He’s gone now, though. Man’s a hell of a soldier. A real bulldog. I don’t mean to interfere with him, but there are larger issues at stake.”
He settled into his chair and shook his head. He didn’t bother to tell Edgar to sit, so he remained standing.
“This is a hell of a fix we’re in,” Lee said. “Your roommate, Gibson, is under arrest and faces a court-martial. He’s in the lockup for the night... By the way, you’re free to go as soon as we finish our discussion.”
“Yes, sir,” Edgar said. “But he didn’t start the fire. I did, sir. It was the only way I could prevent him from burning down the Academy building.”
“The Academy building?” Lee cut in. “We are dealing with madmen.”
“They are trying to tarnish Thayer’s standing with the government; they want it to appear that he has lost all control. They want Partridge back.”
“If what you’re saying is the truth, we must move quickly to bring these dogs to justice; I will see to that. But you, Cadet Poe, have served your country well, and I commend you.”
“Thank you, sir. I am only trying to do the right thing.”
“You are, cadet, you are.”
Lee’s manner was instantly sterner, which suggested Edgar be quiet and listen. “Gibson has clammed up. He’d rather leave the Point in dishonor than identify his confederates. That concerns me more than a little. It tells me the Helvetians are better organized than I thought. There’s a leader, someone who commands respect and loyalty, and probably fear. Someone they’ll follow. That’s a lot of power, and I still have no idea who that individual is.”
“It’s not Old Pewt, sir?” Edgar volunteered.
“No, there’s someone else. Someone here. Don’t get me wrong, these men obviously worship Partridge. But there’s a leader at the Academy, someone working to bring him back.”
“Can’t you arrest Partridge and put an end to this sedition?”
Lee laughed at the suggestion. “This is the United States of America. You just don’t go and arrest people without just cause. We did send someone up to Montpelier to talk to him. Old Pewt’s a tricky devil, though. There’s nothing linking him to this conspiracy.”
Lee shook his head. “Do you realize the temerity, the arrogance it took to establish the Vermont Military Academy? Do you know it was his dream to make it bigger than the Point? The entire grandiose enterprise was meant to show Thayer and the government that he’s better than both. I hear it’s failing, which would explain why he’s cast an eye on West Point. A man like that’s filled with enough hubris to start a war.”
Lee opened a drawer and took out a couple of cigars, offering one to Edgar, who turned it down. The lieutenant lit up his stogie before continuing.
“There’s something else going on here, Mr. Poe. Something beyond Partridge even. These murders, for instance. They don’t make any goddamn sense. And brutal?” He took the cigar out of his mouth. “What happened to Ridley and his lady friend was the work of a fiend. Not even the red Indians practice such unspeakable atrocities. What was the reason for their mutilation, I ask you? Well, there wasn’t any reason — it was pure mad-dog crazy.”
“Are you saying the Helvetians didn’t kill them?” Edgar asked.
“I don’t know,” Lee said, blowing a column of smoke toward the ceiling. “It’s likely the killer’s in the organization. And being part of it emboldens him to act with impunity. But there’s something different about him, something that sets him apart from the others, from the rest of humanity, for that matter. He has a taste for blood and a talent for spilling it and it makes him feel omnipotent. The Helvetians let him get away with his dirty work because it suits their larger purposes — or they’re scared as hell of him. I think the latter’s more likely.”
“Jesus,” was all Edgar could find the wit to say.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, cadet,” Lee rebuked him. “We’re going to need Him in this battle with the anti-Christ.”
“Yes, sir; sorry, sir.”
“We’re dealing with a very crafty and dangerous opponent. Someone who wouldn’t think twice about slitting your throat while you slept.” He flicked some ashes into the open desk drawer. “You armed?”
“Sir?” Edgar replied, unsure he’d heard the question.
“I mean, do you have a sidearm? If you don’t I’ll get you one.”
Edgar remembered the derringer he’d found in Henry’s overcoat, the one he’d used to scare off the killer in the cave when he’d found Eleanor, and later the thugs in the Five Points dive. But he was sure his brother had taken it with him when he left for Richmond.
“You think he might try to kill me?”
“After tonight, I think you are a marked man, Mr. Poe.”
Lee took a small blunt pistol out of the drawer and slid it across the desk. Edgar picked up the stubby little gun, which was heavier than it appeared. It was a percussion cap pistol of the latest design.
“Put it in your pocket. Trust me, I wouldn’t be giving a loaded weapon to a cadet unless I thought he needed it. These are special circumstances; you’re in the Army again.”
Edgar took that last to mean the pending court-martial was all taken care of, that Lee was campaigning behind the scenes for him.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. “I’ll be on my guard.”
* * *
After he left Lee’s office, he headed straight for Eleanor’s house. He’d been such a fool and should have looked after her sooner. If the murderer was out to harm him, what would prevent him from going back to finish her, or her entire family? Not even a giant like Zeb could stop the demon.
Dark as it was, his feet found the path through the woods and he kept the pistol in his hand the entire way. Zebulon answered the door when he knocked, but didn’t invite him in. Whatever grief Zebulon had felt over Ben’s death and Eleanor’s illness was now replaced by a drunken choler, and the smell of liquor was strong on his breath.
“She’s not here any more,” he said before Edgar had a chance to speak.
“Where is she, then?” Edgar said, his heart sinking.
“I can’t tell you that, her mother forbade it. She’s away from here, that’s all you need to know.” He started to close the door, but Edgar stepped up.
“Please. Where is she?” he said, trying to push inside. “I... I love her.”
Zebulon, who was at least a half-foot taller and a good deal broader, blocked the doorway and easily held him back with one giant paw. Impulsively, Edgar pulled the pistol Lee had given him out of his pocket and the next thing he knew, he was sailing backwards through the air. He came down hard, landing in a heap on the fieldstone walk.
When his head cleared, Zebulon was standing over him with a shotgun.
“She’s gone away,” he said. “Her mother don’t want you to follow. Wherever you go, there’s trouble.”
“I love her, don’t you see?” Edgar implored from where he lay on the walk.
“Get outta here boy, ’fore I get mad. You and Douglas ain’t brought nothin’ but heartache to this house.”
The door slammed and Edgar picked himself up. He found the pistol on the frost-hard ground and almost charged up the stairs to see if Eleanor was still in the house, but thought better of it. For one thing, Zebulon might kill him, or at the very least hurt him grievously. For another, she likely wasn’t there. It made perfect sense for the family to spirit her away from him; he was trouble.
Despondent, he walked back through the icy woods, stopping at one point deep in the forest to take Lee’s gun out of his pocket and hold it to his temple. Ever so gently he let his finger caress the trigger, the cold barrel against his skin as he stood there contemplating eternity. He saw the lead ball plowing into bone and brain, scattering forever all his fine and frightening thoughts. Then, from out of nowhere, Zebulon’s deep-throated bellow sounded in his head: “You and Douglas ain’t brought nothin’ but heartache.”
Douglas... Richard Henry Douglas. That’s what Zeb had said back there, when Edgar was on his ass on the ground.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott