A Novel

P. T. Deutermann

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

APRIL 1865

They came out of the darkness, riding lean, hungry horses. The engineer put down his unlit pipe and reached for the shotgun in the cab, but then relaxed. The riders were Reb cavalry, not goddamned bluecoats. He could tell by their slouch hats, the mishmash of uniforms and weapons, and those big CS belt buckles gleaming in the engine's headlight. The officer who appeared to be in charge rode right up to the locomotive. The others slowed to a walk and spread out in a fan around the train's guard detail, who were lounging in the grass beside the tracks while the engine took on water. The riders were greeting the men with soft drawls and questions about what was going on up there in Richmond city.


The officer wore the insignia of a major, and he tipped his hat to the engineer with his left hand while holding the reins close down to the saddle with his right. He was wearing a dirty white duster that concealed the lower half of his body.


"Major Prentice Lambert, at your service, suh," he declared. He had a hard, hatchet-shaped face with black eyes and fierce eyebrows. "This the documents train?"


The engineer said yes, a little surprised that the major knew. There were only four cars behind the engine and its tender, three of them passenger cars stuffed to the windows with boxes of official records from the various government departments up in Richmond. The twenty-man guard detail rode in the fourth car, but they were all disembarked for a smoke break and calls of nature. The guards, who were an odd mixture of old men, teenagers, and even some walking wounded from the trenches at Petersburg, seemed relieved to see Confederate cavalry.


The major nodded, as if the engineer's answer were hugely significant. The engine puffed a shot of steam from the driver cylinder, spooking the major's horse sideways, but his rider held him firmly.


"Any more trains behind you?" the major asked, shifting his reins to his left hand as the horse danced around.


The engineer shook his head. "We heard ol' Jeff Davis took one south two nights ago, but ain't nothin' comin' down thisaway that I know of. Jig's 'bout up in Richmond."


"All right, then," the major said. He raised the big Colt Dragoon he'd been holding down beside his saddle horn, pointed it at the engineer's belly, and fired.


The engineer sat down hard on the steel grate of the engine cab, the wind knocked clean out of him and this awful, ripping feeling in his guts. He grasped his midsection with both hands and felt the blood streaming. He was dimly aware of more shooting now, as that arc of cavalrymen also opened fire, shooting down the stunned soldiers where they sat in the grass or leaned against trees, all their weapons still back on the train. He bent over to look down at his middle, lost his balance, tumbled off the engine steps onto the cinder bed, and then rolled into the grass. His knees stung where he'd hit the track bed, but then that pain faded and he relaxed into the sweet feel of that long, cool grass against his cheek. His middle was going cold now, and his legs were buzzing with pins and needles.


He looked back up at the train, his vision shrinking into a redhazed tunnel. He saw a single white face at the nearest window in the front car, a young face, no more than a kid, maybe fifteen, sixteen. One of the guards? He tasted salt in the back of his throat, and it was becoming really hard to get a breath of air.


Why hadn't that kid gotten off the train? What was he doing in there among all those boxes, while his comrades outside were being slaughtered like beeves?


One of the horsemen saw the kid's face and surged his horse forward, his black cap-and-ball pistol pointing at the window. The engineer heard the major's voice call out, "No. Not him. Leave that one be."


The horseman reined up. "That's your spy? That boy?"


"Train was right here when it was supposed to be, weren't it?"


"Yeah, but you said, now. No goddamned witnesses."


"There won't be," the major said, getting down off his horse, "but I need to know one more thing."


Then the engineer heard the other horseman swear. He realized he'd been spotted, eavesdropping on their conversation. He tried to crawl up the bank, trying to get under the locomotive, but his limbs had turned to rubber. He thought he heard the major say, "Oh, goddammit," and then a bolt of lightning exploded in his head and he was gone to see the Baby Jesus.


Copyright © 2009 by P. T. Deutermann
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press


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