Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
People were out and about, seeming more relaxed than they’d been yesterday with a battle happening so near. No guns had sounded yet today, which was odd since Lee’s big counterattack had been scheduled for early morning. Having time to take in the city now, not being preoccupied with glamours and terror, I could see it for an attractive, well-designed place. Nicer than Washington City, though looking something like it with its red brick buildings and dirt streets, Richmond smelled better, a real good thing with my senses being the way they were.
I’d told everybody what had happened to me the day before. They all knew about Pluto’s Bane, though they didn’t have a clue who might want to be so brazen as to throw it around where normal people could see it. Ernie thought me being drunk was the funniest thing he’d heard all week, of course. Roberta seemed more interested in the dress I’d conjured up and how I thought she might look in it. That was an image I couldn’t quite make work in my mind, so I let it go.
Roberta and Ernie had explained why they hadn’t been able to keep in contact with us the day before. Although they had wanted to fly over us every couple of hours, or send another bird as a messenger, Lenny had warned them that he’d spotted a small flock of Merchantry ravens south of town. The buzzard had pretended to pick at a dead mule carcass while eavesdropping. He’d heard enough to know that they’d been sent after a scarlet parrot and a mouse. ‘Equity traitors’ had been the phrase to alarm Lenny. I knew now that the Merchantry’s spy network was thorough. My friends had spent the day dodging raven patrols, unable to trust a messenger, not even a robin, until they could find one that they knew served on our side. Around dawn the Capitol pigeons had steered them to Calliope, who’d lost an eye to Merchantry starlings and had no love for our enemy. She’d been the bird who’d told us how to meet our missing allies.
“That’s just peachy,” I grumbled. “There goes our aerial advantage.”
“I don’t know about that, shipmate,” Roberta squawked. “Our inky friends might just meet up with a few hundred seagulls in the near future. And Calliope has some husky owls on call, too.”
“No shortage o’ buzzards on a battlefield, neither,” added Romulus.
Ernie sat up and itched his long nose. “Well, ravens or no ravens, we still has to get to the
. Pitcairn sent a message that he’s stuck waitin’ for us where he was before. Can’t move out of that cove yet. Too many Union ships about, some with Merchantry crews. Goin’ south around Richmond does us no bloody good. Eats up time that your young friend don’t have. Plus, we’d end up on the wrong side of the James and the York Rivers, with McClellan’s whole supply train between us and our ship.”
“So we’re stuck movin’ north and east outta Richmond?” I sighed. “That’s where Lee’s gonna attack the Federals. How do we manage that without gettin’ shot up or caught? Plus, Tyrell’s out there someplace with his scary friends, huntin’ for us.”
Romulus stood up. “We kin work out how on the road. Time to go. If we stays here folks’ll wonder why.”
“Guess you’ll have to be Miss Mary Williams again,” Jasper said. “Pity. I really liked that Mahoney lass.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you did,” I said aloud, before I caught myself. Ignoring everyone’s puzzled glances, I shifting to thought. “I can just imagine what you wanted her to do for a magick charge.”
“Hey, girlie, don’t knock somethin’ if you haven’t tried it.”
“You know, I ain’t tried jumpin’ in front of a speedin’ locomotive, either, but I have no trouble knockin’ that, somehow.”
“Fine,” Jasper pouted. “Go through life bein’ Verity Dull-As-Dirt. See if I care.”
Roberta took off by herself, blending for a moment with a flock of flying pigeons to attract less notice until she could get high above us. Ernie climbed up onto Romulus’ shoulder for a good view. I tucked in next to the giant Marshal and off we went to the north, to search for a way out of our predicament. We hadn’t gone ten steps when an artillery battery opened up in the distance. Soon several others joined it. They were answered by other guns a bit further off. Musketry rattled in accompaniment.
“Figures,” Ernie said. “Oh, well, it’s not like we didn’t know it was comin’.”
Our glum little band made it out of town with no trouble. In fact, we left on the same road we’d come in on. A couple of miles out into the countryside Romulus jerked his head to the right. Overhead, Roberta also changed direction. Following down a path so narrow and overgrown that it might’ve just been an animal track, I wondered what he planned to do. After another half a mile I said so directly.
“Need supplies,” he told me over his shoulder, not slowing.
I threw my hands out, palms-up, to Ernie, who smiled all-smug at me. “The Equity ain’t survived all this time without bein’ prepared,” he said.
We forced our way through a thicket that masked a low spot in the ground. There sat a cabin, long unused from the look of it. If you hadn’t known it was there you could’ve passed twenty feet away and missed the raggedy thing. Romulus waltzed in as if he owned the place, which might’ve been true. Inside it looked bare. No furniture, no trash, nothing at all. Other than it being a nice shady spot, I couldn’t see why we were bothering to stop.
As if to answer me Romulus knelt down. Hopping off his shoulder, Ernie poked at the floor with his knitting needle spear. While he grunted with effort, one of the floor boards’ corners came up. Romulus stuck a broad finger beneath it and heaved. A six foot square section of the filthy floor squeaked and came up on a hidden hinge. With a slap the door landed on the empty floor, sending choking clouds of dust into our faces.
Coughing and waving my hands, I said, “Nice place. Come here often?”
“Never been here,” Ernie answered. “But we knew about it, just like we know about all of the others.”
Romulus hopped down the hole and vanished. I poked my nose in to see where he’d gone. His head lay only three feet below. Holding his hands up, he invited me down. When I’d landed beside him, fall broken by his brawny arms, I saw a tunnel full of goodies, just like the one beneath the house that had burned. Ernie dropped onto my head, then slid onto a shoulder. With a snap of a match Romulus lit a lamp.
“Boy, the Equity sure does believe in bein’ prepared,” I breathed. “Is this another Underground Railroad depot?”
“Sometimes they gets used fo’ that,” Romulus said, hunting around as if looking for something in particular. “Equity’s friendly wit’ the Railroad. But this here’s intended as a bolt hole fo’ the Marshals. Like dat other house.”
“Wait a minute. That house we stayed in, the one that the Legion attacked, that was an Equity hideout?”
Ernie poked me in the ear. “Hey, you’re smart for a human puppy, ain’t yer?”
“And you knew it the whole time?”
“Sho did,” Romulus admitted, rifling through a big oilskin wallet.
“Couldn’t let on with that Reb there,” Ernie said, sliding down my arm and diving into a barrel of hardtack crackers.
Romulus pulled out a printed map. “Why you think they tar an’ feather them folks? Merchantry saw to it that our agents paid fo’ helpin’ us. Just our good luck they hadn’t got ‘round to cleanin’ out the tunnel yet.”
I munched on a cracker that the mouse offered me. Well, not so much munched as worried at till a tiny sliver came off. The sliver might’ve been part of my tooth instead. Always tough to tell with hardtack. It came by its name honestly. Soldiers would break them up with their musket butts and soak them in boiling bacon grease to make them edible. “So you have lots of these places around?”
Ernie nodded, chewing on something he’d found. “All over the world, mate. Every city, large town, important road, river crossing, wherever we think we might need help in a pinch. Come in real handy, long as the Merchantry ain’t watchin’ the one you’re usin’.”
I thought of the ravens, and the snake that Herbert had caught. Who knew what else might be keeping an eye on us. Earthworms? Snails? The Stone wouldn’t alert us unless they used dark magick. “In that case, let’s grab what we need and go.”
Romulus was ahead of me there. He had two haversacks around his neck already and filled them with hardtack, salt pork, apples, whatever he could find. I did the same with my own sack, grabbing a spyglass, compass, more soap (
and several other handy items.I handed Romulus a big Bowie knife. That was all the weapon he dared carry. In the South a colored man with a gun soon swung from a tree.Grabbing a pair of woolen blankets, we rolled up stuff like spare socks and towels into them and wrapped the fuzzy sausages around us like Reb soldiers did. There was a well with a pump handle down there, too. The Equity thought of everything. We topped off our canteens and climbed out of the tunnel. After replacing the hatch careful-like and scuffing the floor nice and even so as not to give the entrance away, we headed back out to the road.
It was no ordinary chart that Romulus had found. Much more detailed than my
map, somebody had lovingly printed it from meticulous notes. It looked to have every individual outbuilding marked. Not even the Army’s engineer maps had so much detail. Neither did Jasper’s general knowledge of the land. Ernie explained that Equity birds with scribe spells had made them from the air. The one we had covered every square inch of ground from Richmond to the mouths of the James and the York. Without a doubt it’d help us choose a safe route to the ship.
But the map couldn’t tell us where Confederate forces would be. All the rest of the day we hid from them in ditches, holes, and hedges. While I still had my cover story about my imaginary brother, and had come up with a variation of it where we were hunting for his regiment since he hadn’t been in the hospital, I wanted to avoid people altogether. No telling who served the Merchantry and who didn’t. Plus, it wasn’t likely that they’d let us into a CSA regiment with a big attack going on. Probably just arrest us or send us away.
Or shoot us, nervous as they’ll be.
So it took till nightfall just to get a couple miles northeast of Richmond. There were hordes of Confederate troops around, all on the move in the same direction we were. Every road, trail, and Injun path had cavalry, artillery, and infantry on it. White powder smoke lay low to the ground everywhere as thick as cotton. We also saw black plumes of smoke farther away, beyond the trees, the kind of smudge caused when something other than powder burned. A hard fight boiled in the woods in front of us, though we hadn’t laid eyes on a single blue-coated soldier yet.
Lee must be pushin’ ‘em back like he planned. Followin’ his ‘Merchantry orders.
We ended up in a tiny limestone cave under the bank of a shallow creek. I hoped that the rain didn’t come back or we’d be flooded out of our hidey-hole. It made for a long cold night. No fire, no hot food, not much talking above a whisper. Like newborn puppies we all clustered in a heap to stay warm. A pair of thin blankets covered us all. I was the last to fall asleep, because Roberta snored.
My dream came back, just like the night before. The writing lady’s face stayed unseen. None of the words made any more sense than they had before. But this time something had been added. A cemetery, full of open graves. Not graves waiting to receive the dead. These had been in use, but their occupants seemed to have
crawled out from the inside.
I hoped with all my heart that it’d turn out to be symbolic of something else and not literally true.
The next day, Thursday the 26
, was more of the same. We’d walk a while, hide a while, walk some more, cower again. I must’ve sprawled my poor self in every ditch in Virginia. It got powerful tiresome. At least I’d learned my lesson and now walked shoeless. The high point was finding a broad ragged straw hat that just fit my head. It wasn’t stylish, but it kept the sun off my fair skin and out of my eyes better than my old cap did. This day, though, I used my witched ears to listen in on Reb conversations. We needed to know what went on and what might lie ahead. Piecing together bits and pieces, I got as good an idea of the situation as we were likely to get in the chaos of a battle.
The day before Lee had waited all morning for his great fighting general, Stonewall Jackson, to attack McClellan’s right flank from the north. That would’ve forced the Federals out of their defensive positions to meet a threat that headed for their rear. But Jackson’s men, the famous Foot Cavalry that had just whipped three different Union generals in the Shenandoah Valley, didn’t show. Cursing his name, another general had sent in a frontal assault on his own, which had failed with many dead Rebs as a result. That morning the blue troops had pulled back to another hill, behind Boatswain Swamp, just as Lee had hoped to hit them hard. Jackson still was nowhere to be seen. Lost on the wrong road, some said. Plain worn out from all that Valley fighting and then dashing to Richmond, others thought. Anyway, that explained why it was past noon and we’d heard little firing but had seen lots of men marching. Both armies were readying themselves for a huge battle that’d make the two days before seem like church picnics.
We gathered our group under a mulberry tree in some low ground away from prying eyes. I wanted to look at the map and see what our wisest course might be. Then Roberta could fly ahead and see what the armies were up to and report back. So many soldiers had trudged past us that I wanted to avoid the battle zone like the plague. Romulus spread out the map, which looked like it had been painted on tough parchment instead of paper, across a flat rock so we could all examine it and pitch in our two cents.
We saw no good choice. From where we sat, maybe four miles north and east of the capital, Confederate brigades were visible in every direction. If we tried going farther north, then cutting back east and south, we’d be blocked by both armies: Lee’s flanking movement and McClellan’s long line that occupied the whole peninsula between the two great rivers. On top of that, we’d be walking right into the worst fighting, as Lee sent everything he had at the Union forces. But backtracking would be worse. It would add untold days to our journey, days Eddie couldn’t afford us to lose. And at the end of the detour we’d still be faced with the same problem, getting through McClellan’s army to find the
on the coast. By then the entire battle might’ve shifted south if things went well for Lee. We could be walking straight into an unforeseen nightmare.