by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 22 and part 23
appeared in issue 192.
“Alas! The grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful ... they must sleep or they will devour us — they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.” — Edgar Allan Poe
It’s a little-known fact that Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from the military academy at West Point in 1831 after only six months as a cadet. To this day, the reasons for the 21-year old’s court-martial are sketchy. This historical suspense novel fills in the missing pieces.
The snow was nearly half a foot deep when Gant and his men led their horses to the stable at the Brattleboro Inn. It was none too soon, neither, far as he was concerned. He’d worried they weren’t going to make it the last few miles in the snowstorm, which came up without warning. The country hereabouts was wild and they hadn’t seen a domicile for miles. Men froze to death in these God-forsaken Vermont woods all the time.
Goddamn, how he hated this frost-bite cold. On the other hand, it was a good and remote place if you wanted to train an army, which was why Partridge was up here and why he was taking his men to Montpelier to join him.
Partridge had been plotting his comeback for more than a decade, and now he had some help in Washington. The climate down there had changed since President Jackson came into office. Everybody knew that Old Hickory hated Thayer. For starters, the superintendent had the nerve to discipline Jackson’s nephew while he was at the Point a few years back, a ballsy breach of etiquette and common sense. The boy deserved it, no doubt about that, but he told his favorite uncle — the president of The United States, for Christ’s sakes — that he’d been grievously mistreated. Thayer, of course, didn’t give a good goddamn.
Thayer. Well, he was done with that fool and all his cockamamie plans for the Point. What did soldiers need to know of mathematics and engineering and science, anyway? It was all tripe. Give him a few boys with character and he’d whip ’em into shape, into real military men, men who were handy with a gun and a horse and a blade, men who knew how to fight and conquer, not pansies studying algebra and poesy.
Partridge understood; there was none of that nonsense at his Montpelier academy, only common sense and competency in the arts of war was taught there. No blasted machines, neither. There was no future in those assemblages of Godless metal. Nothing but junk! Men were the future, not soulless contraptions.
Gant was still fuming as he and his men tied up their horses and went into the inn, where a fireplace burned hot as a furnace. All four shed their outer garments and sat down at a table near the bar, ordering hot rum and roast venison. The room was crowded with locals who pretended not to notice them as they drank and talked among themselves. Vermonters were a taciturn lot, in general, and Gant was glad they were so good at tending to their own business.
About halfway through his dinner, he found his eyes drawn to a stuffed mountain lion, a catamount, on display at the front of the tavern. Its teeth were bared and an artful taxidermist had supplied it with piercing yellow glass eyes. The effect was one of pure malevolence, and he thought of William.
What a scary fucker he was. A born killer, and crafty, too. Gant had never seen a man with such unquenchable blood thirst, not even on the battlefield when he fought for Jackson down in New Orleans. What Weird Willy, as he’d taken to calling him, did to Ridley and his whore was way beyond anything Gant had ever seen before. Ridley had to go, of course, but lord, that kind of bloodshed was unholy. And now the little monster was going out west where he could murder all the redskins he wanted. If God was just, they’d get him first — and good riddance.
The bartender, a balding man with a fringe of hair to his shoulders, saw him staring at the big cat and called out to him. “That there’s the female,” he said from behind the counter. “The male’s even bigger. Haven’t got him yet, though. He’s been sniffin’ round here nights for his mate.” He swabbed a pint glass with a dirty towel. “Some say he’s a man-eater.”
Gant was assessing the cat again when three more travelers came in from the storm, bringing a gale of wind and snow into the room. He took one look at the newcomers and sat bolt upright.
His men saw the change in him and looked over to find the new arrivals pointing guns at them. One of the men was Robert E. Lee, and he crossed the room with a pistol aimed at Gant.
“Show your hands or lose your heads,” Lee ordered and motioned for one of his men to search Gant and his confederates. “In the name of the United States government, you’re all under arrest.”
Two other men with rifles came into the inn and they trained their guns on the table. The inn was quiet now, and the locals made no attempt to interfere, or even ask for an explanation as Lee’s men patted down Gant and his companions for weapons and took them into custody. When they were in manacles, Lee pulled Gant aside.
“Where can I talk to this man in private?” he asked the barkeep, who showed him to a storeroom.
When they were alone, Lee put his pistol under Gant’s chin and forced him against a wall.
“What are you and that turncoat Partridge hatching? Tell me before I splatter your brains on the ceiling.”
Gant only smiled. “Might as well kill me, lieutenant, because I don’t know what you’re yammerin’ about.”
Lee cocked the pistol and held the hammer with his thumb for a full minute. “Damn you Gant,” he said finally, and pulled the pistol away.
“Didn’t really think you could bluff an old soldier, did you?” Gant taunted.
“This isn’t a game. You’ll hang when I get you back to Washington.”
“We’re a long way from there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lee said, restraining himself from pistol-whipping the man.
Years ago, when he was just a fresh-faced plebe, Gant had taught him how to properly swing a saber. Now he was arresting this man who’d once had so much authority over him, and it made him uneasy.
“We know about the plot to bring Partridge back to the Point,” Lee said. “That’s not going to happen. He’s cooperating with us; that’s how we found you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Gant said. “And if I’m not mistaken, your Thayer is none too popular down Washington way.” He paused before slyly asking, “You sure you’re betting on the right horse?”
“Partridge is a traitor and a buffoon,” Lee answered.
“You are wrong, sir; he is more soldier than Thayer ever dreamed of being. When Old Pewt comes back, he’ll change the direction of this country. He’ll restore order.”
“So, we’re going to hell in a hand-basket, are we?”
“Thayer and the foundry have hijacked our future,” Gant answered.
Lee was truly baffled. “Make sense, man. I haven’t a clue what you’re going on about.”
“Think about this, then: a future filled with Godless machines. Steamships, locomotives, who knows what other stinking, crawling, misbegotten creations. They’ll replace the cavalry and infantry first, then they’ll have no need for soldiers at all. No need for men like me — or you, for that matter. We’ll all be servants who exist only to tend machines.
“Already the Navy’s machinists are designing dreadnoughts that will race across the oceans and engage us in wars with who knows what mongrel races. These damn contrivances mean the end of our world.”
Lee didn’t know how to respond to his fantastic conjectures. They were interesting, and maybe there was even some truth to them, but it was all so far off, who could tell how things would actually turn out?
“You see I’m right, don’t you?” Gant said, lowering his voice. “It’s not too late for you to join us, Lieutenant. We could use a man of your abilities. When we’ve restored Partridge, there’ll be a place of leadership for you. You’ll do well in our organization, I promise.”
Lee laughed out loud at the thought of joining these pathetic rebels. Then he stopped and opened the door to the main room. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
Gant took a step toward him, leaped into the air and kicked him square in the chest. The force knocked Lee into the other room, and Gant dove toward a back door in the kitchen, hurtling through it into the storm. Even with his hands manacled before him, he somehow managed to stay on his feet to slog through the deepening snow.
By the time Lee had picked himself up and made it out the open door, Gant was gone. He followed for a few yards but the snow was blinding, and his chest and ribcage were on fire where Gant had kicked him. When he thought he heard someone running up ahead, he fired a shot and then plowed ahead another ten yards or so into the blizzard, stopping only when he realized he’d soon be lost if he kept going. Already, the inn behind him was disappearing into the seething snow. Gant could wait. They’d look for him after the storm; he wouldn’t get far.
* * *
Gant was already celebrating his escape and thinking about surviving the storm when he heard the pistol shot and his right shoulder took a Minie ball. He pitched forward but stayed on his feet and kept running, leaving telltale streaks of red in the snow.
The wound was bleeding profusely now, drenching his shirt and he was cold and tired and had to stop to lean against a sturdy maple. Damn, that was a lucky shot. Damn, he hated the cold; he didn’t even have a coat on, for Christ’s sake. The blood running down his arm was warm against his skin, the only warmth he felt and he had to stop it. He made a vain attempt to tear off part of his shirt for a tourniquet, but found he was too weak. Damnation!
Blood soaked his shirtsleeve and steamed in the frigid air. Drops of it fell at his feet, staining the snow crimson as he fought an irresistible urge to sleep. He was so tired. Maybe a few minutes of rest would restore him. He closed his eyes and slid down the trunk into a sitting position, his legs under the snow.
A throaty purring woke him. The sound came from some cedars just yards away, but the falling snow obscured the source. Even in his woozy state, he guessed it was the male catamount the barkeep had mentioned; it was hungry and smelled blood.
”Go away,” he tried to yell, but it came out a mumble. He wasn’t cold any longer, but he was too weak to lift his hands.
There was a snarl from somewhere nearby and when he shifted his weight for a look, his head bobbled on his shoulders like a newborn’s. The snowfall was heavier now and at first he couldn’t see the cat, everything was so damn white. But then he saw its eyes burning like flames among the sheets of snow. The taxidermist had got them right, too; they were a merciless yellow.
Edgar spent the first few days of February trying to keep warm in his drafty room, hardly moving from his bunk. With Thomas in the lockup he had the place to himself, which was just as well. His appetite was gone and he ate only some hard biscuits he found in a tin. He slept through reveille most mornings, occasionally waking up in a panic, thinking he was late for class or some foolish military activity. Then he’d remember he was no longer welcome at parade and go back to sleep. If someone knocked on his door, he shouted at them to go away and they did. Room No. 28 became his redoubt, and he hid there with the books he wanted to read: Blake, Coleridge and Byron were his fellow infantrymen now.
As the days wore on and his appetite returned he began making quick, clandestine jaunts to the mess for an occasional supper, at all times avoiding his friends, even leaving if he saw any of them at the tables. He’d go to the library, too, where he’d pilfer newspapers to read back in his room.
The broadsheets were full of breathless debates over a coming solar eclipse. According to the doomsayers, on February 12th the sun would be snuffed out like a lantern wick and the Earth plunged into perpetual night. Others, most notably astronomers and men of science, railed against the ignorant and superstitious who feared the eclipse was the end of the world. These pundits explained the phenomena with the rationality of their kind, and the papers contained rigorous illustrations showing the alignment of the earth, moon and sun.
But the men of God were the most entertaining, especially the preachers who used their columns as pulpits to rain fire and brimstone down on readers. The eclipse, they said, was God’s doing. He was showing His displeasure with mankind, and this was only a warning; next time the lights would go out for good.
For Edgar, who read every word, there was something fascinating and dreadful about the upcoming event. He worried, despite his education, that it was an omen signifying his own demise. The gods were telling him he was a doomed man, what else could it mean? Oh, he’d taken enough geometry to understand how the eclipse worked. The moon would glide in its orbit between earth and sun, and Luna would cast her dark penumbra across the land. That was simple. But why were these celestial bodies sailing into alignment now, even as his life had broken from its usual orbit? Therein dwelt his fear — and a premonition that his own destiny was somehow wedded forever to darkness, to tenement alleys and cheap flophouses, to the opaque ramblings of madness, to the loss of everyone and everything dear.
Some days, he was too downcast to even venture out for a bottle. He’d lost his taste for liquor, temporarily, anyway. A week and some days after his trial, though, he was feeling good enough (and hungry enough) to go to the mess hall for breakfast. As he sat by himself spearing mouthfuls of gristly bacon, he overheard cadets at a neighboring table whispering about him. He didn’t hear much, just “there’s Edgar Poe. Did you hear he’s been tossed out?”
He threw down his fork and the next thing he knew he was standing over their table. There were seven of them and they looked up at him with a mix of consternation, pity and foreboding. After all, he was that crazy Virginian who was apt to do just about anything. Edgar wasn’t even sure why he was there and then it came to him like a revelation: He was going to be a writer, and a writer needs a book. These greenhorns were going to help him get published.
“Listen, brothers,” he said. “You all know I’m out of the Academy, right?” He looked around the table into their blank faces; they all seemed so much younger than he was. “Well boys, most of you also know I’m a poet of some reputation. You’ve heard or read some of my jottings. I’m thinking specifically about the piece on our beloved Lieutenant Locke. I know you all liked that. Remember?”
One of the boys, whom he recognized from French class, recited the comic rhyme: “John Locke was a notable name;/ Joe Locke is greater; in short,/ The former was well known to fame,/But the latter’s well known ‘to report;’.”
The others broke into laughter. Everyone knew Lieutenant Locke was a hidebound fool who relished reporting cadets’ violations. He took his duty seriously, no matter how inconsequential the offense and it was hilarious to hear such small-mindedness get tweaked. Edgar took advantage of their mirth, just as he’d seen a hundred snake oil salesmen do on Richmond street corners.
“What you boys don’t know is that I’ve a whole trunk full of such verses just waiting to be published. And, for say a dollar subscription from each of you, I’ll dedicate it to the U.S. Corps of Cadets. Won’t that be a fine joke?”
There was more laughter at the table and five of the men each gave him a dollar on the spot. The two others promised to bring the money by his room. He was in business; he was going to publish.
By the end of the day, he’d collected forty-seven dollars and mailed a letter to a publisher in New York inquiring about rates. During the next few days he knocked on barracks doors and lingered in the mess hall at breakfast and dinner, selling subscriptions. After doing some calculations he upped the amount to a dollar and twenty-five cents, but the cadets continued to pay. They’d all heard he had a load of bawdy, irreverent verse that lampooned most of the officers at the Point, and they wanted to see them in print.
At night he went back to his room and assembled the work he wanted to publish, mostly from his earlier pamphlet “Tamarlane and Other Poems,” which he’d signed “by a Bostonian.” But this new book would be bound in boards and would bear his name and it would make him famous. After that, he’d make a living as a writer in New York City — unless that damnable eclipse really was an omen.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott