by Larry W. Chavis
This story, in a slightly different form, first appeared in Crime and Suspense Ezine.
The Reverend George Mayfield suppressed a shiver as a cold blast whipped in off the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, cutting right through the threadbare greatcoat he wore. The old coat had worn out long ago, but it was the last thing his dear Melissa had given him before the influenza took her away. He had no heart for a new one.
He turned up his collar, jammed his hands in the roomy pockets and began limping down Virginia Avenue toward the church. Across Washington City, bells tolled tidings of the Lord’s Day, calling forth the faithful; yet the bells’ music failed to resonate within him as it usually did. The bitter wind carried an insidious dampness that seeped into his bones, caused his old Mexican War wound to flame up, radiating burning pain upward and outward from his once-shattered left hip. The wound was his keepsake from the assault on the walls of Churubusco, which ended his march with Winfield Scott’s army. He’d have died that day, had it not been for an old friend, a friend who now wore Confederate gray instead of Union blue. A friend who had sent word that George would see him today.
The prospect brought Mayfield no pleasure.
Painfully climbing the steps to the front door of Harmony Baptist Church, George unlocked it and entered. The war had taken its toll not only in men, goods, and treasure, but in manners and morals, and even in safety at home. In pre-war days, no church would have locked its doors at any time; now, none would dare leave them unlocked. The horrors of the battlefields were reflected in the city, encompassed on every side by army camps. Wounded soldiers, malingering deserters, and army camp-followers infested the city. Scarcely a month passed without a military execution for some unspeakable crime, murder or worse. Even with the patrols of the provost guard prowling the streets, no one’s safety was assured.
The church was cold, its plain, unadorned interior furnished with only a carved pulpit and pews fashioned of finished pine slabs. No fire burned in the cast iron stove that squatted in the center of the room.Harmony Church’s congregation had dwindled away to almost nothing, but even so, old Brother Henry Walford would have already kindled a fire in the big black stove had George not sent word ’round that the morning worship would be canceled this week. Henry would likely have been the only member in attendance anyway, given the frigid weather. George built the fire himself, and then settled in a cane-bottomed chair nearby to read his Bible and wait. His surroundings, the holy day, even the Bible in his hand, all seemed somehow incongruous, given his expectations for the meeting. He had closed his eyes, praying, when he heard the door open and the wooden floor reverberate to the tread of heavy boots.
Opening his eyes, George saw a slight figure bundled in a Union officer’s greatcoat, cavalry boots, and black slouch hat. The face was nearly covered in heavy brown beard, shot with gray, but it could not disguise the pale blue eyes and aquiline nose of Col. Jeremy Worth, formerly Second Lieutenant Worth of General Winfield Scott’s Mexico City expedition.
“Merciful God, Jeremy! Can that really be you?”
“None other, George, old friend.” The newcomer strode quickly across the floorboards to George, and, though outweighed by a good fifty pounds, lifted George from the chair in a bear hug.
“I have heard of your exploits with Stuart’s cavalry. How …”
“You are much behind the times, George. For almost a year now, I’ve been on other duty.”
George stood back and gazed at Worth. The years had been kinder to his former lieutenant. He looked fit and well, only a touch of gray in his still-thick brown hair. In spite of the stories that came back from the front lines about half-starved, barefoot soldiers in the Confederate armies, Jeremy appeared to be well fed.
“Wearing Union blue…I surmise you are a spy, Jeremy.”
Worth grinned. “I’m a soldier, George, serving in the Confederate Signal Corps. Fighting the war in the most effective way I can.”
“What brings you, here, Jeremy? Not just to Washington City, but here, to me”
Worth sat back, crossing a leg over his knee. “George, I think I know where your heart lies in this war.”
“Ah. And how would you know that?”
Worth smiled. “I know because I remember our long talks about home and hearth, and family while we marched on Mexico City. Even your years amongst the Yankees couldn’t have materially changed the Southern boy I knew. But, more than that, I know you were a Knight of the Golden Circle.” The society of Southern sympathizers, formed before the war, had attracted many who opposed the war in the North, as well as the attention of the military authorities.
“So I was, and much difficulty it caused me, too,” George said. “Do you know of my imprisonment, however brief, at the hands of these…people? For nothing more than my opinions?”
“I do. That’s another reason I came. George, do you want to see the South victorious? These Northern interlopers put in their place? To see the bloodshed stopped and peace descend on both sides?”
“Jeremy, it is my constant prayer that such might be so. The Lord, I fear, may have other plans. Since the summer’s calamities in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, the feeling here in Washington is that in but a matter of months the “rebellion,” so-called, will be put down. And I fear for the Southern people should that prove true.”
George opened the cast-iron door of the stove and placed another two sticks of wood on the fire. “And, yet, Jeremy, I cannot help but feel that all of us, North and South–both nations– are reaping the fruits of our sins. You know that I have never believed in the institution that holds men in bondage, as the property of others. It is a great evil.”
“Ah, yes, I remember that, too, your singular views concerning the ‘peculiar institution.’ But surely you agree that whatever is to be done about slavery must properly be done by the States, George? That the Northern government has usurped powers not belonging to it, and set itself up as a tyranny? One need only look to the suspension of habeas corpus this very year. George, you need look only to your own case.”
There was a measure of truth in what Jeremy said, George knew. It was undeniable that the Lincoln government was growing more tyrannical by the day. The radical Republicans that surrounded the president held the power, at times even overruling Lincoln himself, so it was said. And George held no illusions as to the fate of the Southern states should they lose their bid for independence. Already, the unscrupulous and greedy were forming their plans for plundering a defeated South.
“And what would you have me do, Jeremy? I am but a half-crippled Baptist preacher already under suspicion.”
Worth sat silently for a moment, contemplating the unvarnished floor. Then he straightened up on the chair, placing both hands on his thighs.
“What can be done, George? It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. You noted, yourself, the surge in Yankee confidence. But, George, if we can strike a blow at their very heart, we can deflate such arrogance. Early in the war, old General Scott called his plan to squeeze the South the ‘anaconda plan.’ George, the anaconda is truly squeezing out our life.” He paused, stood, and paced slowly to a window, fogging now as the cast-iron stove’s warmth spread. “What if we can strike the head off the snake, though?”
“Meaning?” George prompted. “What can be done other than to resist in the field? The armies are doing so, valiantly.”
Worth turned from the window. “Meaning, George, we decapitate this tyrannical regime. We remove the tyrant.”
“How? Commit murder? You would kill Lincoln? Monstrous!”
“He has killed us in great plenty, George. Such an end would not be unwarranted. But it might not be necessary–were he in our possession he would make a splendid bargaining chip, don’t you think? Having Lincoln in our grasp could force even the abolitionist zealots to negotiate a peace.”
George frowned and shook his head. “I believe you are mistaken in that, Jeremy. To kidnap or kill their president can only harden them in their resolve to crush us! To say nothing of the dishonor it entails. I cannot believe the Confederacy would stain its cause by resorting to assassination or abduction as a tool! An evil tree cannot produce good fruit.”
Worth angrily slashed the air with his right hand. “A wave of defeatism has rolled over Richmond! There’s little but backbiting and recrimination amongst the generals, the Congress and the President are at odds, the Vice President has retired to his Georgia estate. The debacle in Pennsylvania has tarnished even General Lee! Some say it has sapped his will to fight.” Worth paced back and forth in front of the stove.
“If this current situation prevails, I fear we cannot win. But…” Here, he stopped and crouched over George, his eyes shining with an almost fanatical light. “But if the circumstances could be altered, if the money-grubbing shop-keepers of the North can be shown, forcefully and convincingly, that the war is not almost over, that it will exact mountains more of their gold and silver, shed rivers more of their sons’ blood, they’ll be forced to the table. The capture of Lincoln, or his killing, will do it, George! And our own leaders, too, will regain their determination to see our cause through to success, by God!”
George ignored the profanity, though to hear it in the house of the Lord brought a shudder.
“Then you are not acting on orders? This is some scheme of your own?”
“Not just mine, George, not mine alone! There are others with the fortitude to do what must be done. Some are here in Washington, itself.” He pulled his coat closer about his small frame. “We want you with us, George. I want you with us.”
He fell quiet, eyes wide and fixed on George, who still sat by the stove, head bowed as if in silent prayer, as, in that moment, he was. After an interval that stretched out in a silence broken only by the popping of wood in the stove, George raised his head. “I’ll need time to consider, Jeremy. Time to think, time to pray.”
Worth strode to the door. “I’ll meet you tomorrow evening, in front of Ford’s Theater. There’s another there you should meet, after the play. We shall win this fight, George. You shall see!” Flashing a grin, he stepped out into the street, vanishing into the rain.
George was immobile for some time after Worth’s departure. Now, he didn’t pray; his Bible lay unopened in his lap. He reflected on duty, and its pitiless demands. Groaning, he lifted himself from the chair. Major Norris, chief of the espionage service in Richmond and George’s immediate commanding officer, had been, most regrettably, correct. Jeremy had become a fanatic, a renegade. Should he and his associates try carry out his mad scheme, the whole Southern people would suffer even more horrors than heretofore.
George would meet him at the Ford Theater. They would watch the play together, no doubt share memories of the time when, both young and invincible, they marched into Mexico. They would savor old times and afterward, George would kill his friend and the other conspirator as well, if he could. As he limped toward the door, the words of Caiaphas, the ancient high priest of Judea, kept running through his mind:
“…that one man should die…and the nation perish not.”
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