The 14th fought again the next day at Gettysburg, and the next, one of the few regiments who saw action every day of the battle. In time, three monuments would be erected to them on that bloody site. Two thirds of the men of the 14th would be killed or wounded before the end of it.
Statistics on the fallen wouldn’t be compiled and analyzed until much later, and one statistic would never be counted, would never be known – how many of the enemy the 14th had caused to fall in their turn. Albeus knew the butcher’s bill was far higher for the rebs than for his regiment. He’d seen to that.
He was never accepted by most of the other officers. Because he had little care for traditional tactics, because he had little respect for rank, if rank was ill-matched to an incompetent occupant. He defied orders from his superiors, his betters, always knowing that when it got to General Meade, his only question would be, “And did it work?”
And of course he was an artisan, a workman, a…carpenter. A man with no classical education, no learning at all to speak of. The necessities of war had resulted in hundreds of brevet commissions, but other than Albeus, only one other enlisted man was known to have been brevetted. And then again, Private Frederick W. Stowe, brevetted a 2nd lieutenant, was no workman – he was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son, a man of “considerable social prestige.” The wonder wasn’t that Stowe was brevetted, but that he’d been a private at all.
Behind his back the other officers called him “Captain Jesus.” Not only because he was a carpenter, but because his men treated him like a god. They revered his ability to guide them down paths, across fields, through forests that should have been the death of them, would be the death of others not so lucky in their commander.
The men had another name for him now. They called him “Spartacus,” and the name fit – he was the natural born general, the canny strategist who would defeat the “noble” Romans of the slave power again and again.
But by the time the war came to the Spotsylvania Courthouse, it was Albeus’ way of fighting that had become the commonplace. At the Bloody Angle, men fought with anything at hand, progressing downward from their rifles and bayonets to whatever was at hand, until not thousands of years of civilization were erased but tens of thousands, as men beat each other to death with rocks like cavemen.
Albeus and his men had gone into combat with their regulation bayonets transformed into saw-tooth blades. To be caught with those was to be shot on the spot, no imprisonment no mercy – it was evidence that your goal was to cause as much pain as you could. By then that was his goal, to hurt, to maim, to kill, not even a pretense of civilization left in this conflict.
He was Goliath, he was a golem, he was the pale rider, and the enemy’s faces turned as ashen gray as their uniforms when he rose up to his full height, his blue eyes the cold flat discs you see in the mug shot of a captured serial killer, his face expressionless as he scythed you down with no more compassion than a farmer would have for a stalk of wheat.
Then, just like that, Albeus’ war was over. A few days after Spotsylvania, the 14th was mustered out, its service completed above and beyond the call of duty. Those who’d joined in 1862 were merged into the 5th New York, but the grizzled veterans, war weary and spent in their mid-twenties, were sent home. Inexplicably, impossibly, the angel of Death had passed over them, some invisible mark on their heads had spared them, what other explanation was there?
His brevet was undone, he was, to the satisfaction of many, mustered out a sergeant, for no other reason than spite. He could have cared less by that point.
It was unreal to Albeus, the homecoming to New York. The regiment was greeted at Fulton Ferry on 25 May 1864 by cheering crowds. The men could only stare at the wonder of it – people in new clean clothes, plump and prosperous, tall buildings with intact roofs and no bullet pocks, smells untainted by the whiff of gunpowder. Men burst into tears after years without them.
He was home, just like that, greeted by this festival, this tub-thumping band and its accompanying horns, this absurd spectacle. To him it was as if a jury had stood up and awarded a mass murderer a standing ovation instead of a death sentence.
And that was that. Welcome home, son, they said, as if he’d been someplace that hadn’t changed him into someone else entirely, as if his soul hadn’t been torn limb from limb. What “home” had been inside him in the moment before he shot his first man, had become a place littered with bodies, a place that had been shelled and shot and burned.
So he learned the lesson given to so many soldiers on their last day in the uniform, then, now, forever. Home was a feeling, not a place, and all those feelings had been shot in the heart, again and again, and now there was no such thing as home anymore.
Albeus stumbled out of the theater, his opium haze fading but the memories still lingering. He had been like an angel himself, hovering serenely over his memories, the opiates cradling his broken mind, stroking it, soothing it. Now the pain was coming back, and something must be done about that.
He never would have been lured into a saloon like this by the barker on the street, had it not been for the drug. His sense of danger was dulled, his instincts put to sleep.
He laughed at the bartender when he sniffed the drink on offer. “Ya think I’m a dumb hick from outta town? Try and slip me a mickey?”
It was common enough in places like this, to put a few knockout drops in a man’s drink. Then they’d take him out back and roll him for all his money and valuables, and leave him passed out in an alley if he was lucky. Or in a canal if he wasn’t.
The bartender grinned conspiratorially. “Ah, my pardon sir,” he winked. “My mistake.” And he replaced the drink.
Albeus nodded and tasted the whiskey. It was smoky, smokier than the usual crap fare in places like this, as if aged well in a fine cask. Had the man made a mistake, given him the stuff reserved for the Tammany Hall men, the cop on the beat come to take his cut, the Five Pointers who’d cut his throat soon as look at him?
The booze hit him, hard, and even in his fog he could tell, it wasn’t just booze. Whatever the smoky taste had been, it hadn’t come from the cask.
He felt sick to his stomach, as if he’d eaten something rotten. He got off the barstool and tried to head for the door, but a punch to his stomach brought up its contents then and there.
“Ah, shit,” Jimmy O’Neill growled. “Now look what ya done, Finley. All over my good shoes.”
Albeus looked up. Morrissey’s man was glowing. Around him was a pulsating aura, green and blue, but not the colors of grass and sky, no, like the colors of mold, bright with warning, poison, stay away.
Albeus was frozen then by the look in his eyes. Morrissey had blue eyes, same as himself. But not now. They were black, dead, obsidian chips. No wonder the man was such a champion fighter, Albeus thought absurdly.
“Now you’ll box for Mr. Morrissey, like it or not, Finley.”
He could only watch as Morrissey’s massive fist floated through the air towards his face, and it was like an artillery shell without the warning whistle, and some part of him was sure that all the metal, all the death, that he’d dodged all these years had found him at last.
But it wasn’t the half-there state of dreaming, that sense of falling through random bits of memory and fear and oddities. Where he was now, he was fully present.
It was Gettysburg. The battlefield was littered with corpses. There were no living men, no sound of man or machine, no birds, no wind. It was twilight, dawn or dusk, or both.
Then he saw it, on a ridge. The red wolf.
The memory returned to him, of a normal blue sky day with normal activity around him. He was cleaning his face, washing his shirt, and he could hear the men laughing, taking potshots. He smiled and went to join the merriment, one of those brief interludes of peace and joy found in the strangest places and times in a war.
His smile faded as he saw what they were doing. They were shooting at a wolf on a ridge, who was trying to get up to the tree line and safety. They’d shoot above him, and force him back down the hill, away from the ping of the bullet on the rock. Then they’d fire below it to drive him back up. The wolf yipped in fear at each bullet, looking up at the ridge with anxiety as if there was something there he must, must reach.
With a roar he shoved one shooter into the next, a row of three of them falling to the ground. He grabbed the rifle from the first and nearly smashed in the first man’s brains.
“What the fuck are you doing! Haven’t you had enough death today!”
Private Aldyne grabbed him by the arm, stopped him from completing the threatened motion. Captain Finley threw down the rifle and stalked away, disgusted.
But something made him turn, a battlefield sense that they were eyes on him.
The wolf was at the tree line now, watching him. And there was another wolf with him, a mate. He met the eyes of the male he’d saved, and could have sworn that…
No. He shook his head and looked again, and they were gone.
Now, in whatever strange half lit world he was in, the wolf was back. It loped down the slope towards him, across the field of dead, its bright intelligent yellow eyes locked on his.
He wasn’t afraid. He knew he was not its prey. It approached him, and he squatted down, holding out his hand as if to a dog, the ancient sign of friendship between man and canine, and man and lupine before that.
It licked his hand, and he watched as a bright light encased his arm, traveling up to his shoulder and spreading down his spine, across his other arm, through his legs, and then doubling back to his head.
He gasped. There was such clarity, such power in the light. His senses were alight, clean, clear. The ringing in his ears that had been with him for so many years now that he’d ceased to notice it suddenly ceased. The fog in his brain was lifted.
The wolf panted, its tongue lolling, the expression that looks to us so much like a smile, the smile that first warmed man’s heart to beast. Then it padded away.
He was alone on the battlefield, but now it was clear, that it wasn’t sunset but dawn. And the dead began to stir.
They got up, one then another then many, until all were risen. They turned to him. And began to sing.
It was a song with no words, a song from another world. It was a song of acceptance, of forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. They forgave him for his greatest crime, the one that weighed on him most of all.
That he had lived and they had died.
He wept, but they were tears of joy. The dead were with him, but not as a burden. The dead were his brothers, all of them, Confederate and Union, those he’d killed and those he’d led to their deaths. The sins of each man had been cleansed by death as Albeus’ own were cleansed now.
They sang, and then they turned, and they walked away, arm in arm, hand in hand, into the sunrise, as it grew brighter and brighter until Albeus couldn’t bear its brilliance any more.
He woke up in a dark room, cold and wet, sore and beaten and bruised and sick. But it didn’t matter. It was only a body.
The door opened. Jimmy O’Neill walked in, smashing one hand into the other. “Now let’s have another conversation, Finley, about your new career.”
The smile fell off his face as Albeus turned to him, his face alight in the dark.
“Yes, Jimmy, let’s have that conversation.”
And he rose up singing.