The mule’s a stubborn son of a bitch. It refuses to carry him any farther, so he dismounts and walks it over the lawn to the large barn where he ties it to a nearby post. The grass of the lawn is a healthy green. He glances at the porch, but no one has come out to meet him. The mule stares at the post. The bright flowers around the porch move a little.
* * *
A small table between them. On the table a small pitcher of water with large ice chips floating in it. A pair of speckled glass cups. He tries not to stare at the ice but is unsuccessful.
“Would you like to ask me about the ice, Mr. Ackett?”
“What? No, ma’am, I…I am surprised to see it.”
“Yes, I debated whether or not it was worth the expense. Then one day I decided that if I must run this farm; if I must live in this godforsaken land called Ohio; if I must endure, of all things, a war—then why should I deprive myself of those few luxuries available to me?”
Stephen Ackett laughs. He thinks it almost sounds like a real laugh, the kind someone would make at a joke. From the polite smile on Mrs. Manding’s face, though, it’s clear she has heard better.
“You live only three miles from me, Mr. Ackett. Why is it we don’t see more of one another?”
“We’re both busy, ma’am. It takes time to keep things up.”
“I suppose,” she says. “Which makes me wonder why this particular Thursday is any different. You have obviously dressed for an occasion about which I know nothing, else I would not appear as I do.” Ellen Manding does not wear a dress. The brown trousers are dirty and too large for her. Suspenders keep them from falling down. Her shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, are grime-spotted and have a tear on the left shoulder. The open collar is something of a distraction.
Ackett’s hat is perched on his knee. It doesn’t fit well and he is glad to not be wearing it.
“Well, to get right to it…”
“Right. Well, you know about the conscription. And you probably know that a man doesn’t have to go if he, well, if he can pay the government some money.”
“Three hundred dollars, I believe.”
“Yes, ma’am. Three hundred dollars. Sounds like even more when you say it loud, don’t it?”
“Mr. Ackett, I can only assume that you are here for one of two reasons. Either you wish to write the office in—where would it be? Cleveland?—you wish to write to them in hope of obtaining an exemption from service, and require my help in composing the letter; or you want money.”
“I know how to write, ma’am.”
“Please speak up, Mr. Ackett, my left ear is not as strong as my right.”
“I said I know how to read and write.”
“Yes…I was afraid that was what you said.”
* * *
Earlier that morning, before he headed to the Manding farm, Stephen Ackett bathed and scrubbed. He even brushed the mule. His clothes were as clean as they were going to get. The brown hat he’d decided to wear was a little too small, but it was the nicest one he owned. It had only been worn once before, on his wedding day. Ackett left the hat on the table as he practiced his request in the kitchen. He tried it standing and he tried it sitting. The empty chair opposite him listened attentively.
* * *
She brings a knife to the table. The crusty loaf of bread requires a vigorous sawing.
“It’s my son,” says Ackett. “They want him, not me.” She nods and pours some water. Her hands, though dry and a little rough, still look delicate. Her dark hair is tied up into a kind of frizzy bun. A dog barks somewhere. “I didn’t know you have a dog,” he says.
“I don’t. Now, about your son…”
“His name’s Franklin. He’s supposed to report next week. I’ve gone to the banks, I’ve sold what I can…”
“Do you like the bread?” she asks. She tears a small piece off the slice she’s holding and places it in her mouth, looking at him closely the entire time.
“What? The bread’s good…”
“Do you ever bake bread, Mr. Ackett?”
“No, I…my wife used to…”
“Tell me, does your son actually wish to abstain from serving?”
Ackett stares. “What?”
* * *
Stephen left the boy at home to trim a tree while he was off to the Manding farm. The boy, named after a famous man from Massachusetts, would cut a tree limb down and pretend it was a rifle. Dressed in an imaginary blue uniform, Franklin would aim his rifle at the chickens pecking at the ground. Franklin would kill many rebels.
* * *
“My farm,” says Ackett. “That would be my stake.”
Mrs. Manding sets her cup down and the green glass clinks against the pitcher. The ice chips jiggle. “My murdered husband was considerate enough to leave me a farm. I assure you that one is more than enough.”
“Mrs. Manding, everybody knows…I’m sorry, I didn’t hear he was murdered.”
“Of course not. We are at war. It is called by other names.”
“Well…what I came here to say is…” It is hard to breathe. He clears his throat. “I know you don’t lend money. Everybody knows. You don’t wanna be taken advantage of, and I don’t hold that against—”
“No advantage is taken of anyone, Mr. Ackett, unless they permit it.”
Stephen’s shirt is sticking to him under his coat. He hopes he doesn’t stink.
“Please understand,” she says, “that my intention is not to be cruel. I sympathize with your situation. This conscription policy of Lincoln’s is foolishness.”
“Yes, ma’am. I feel bad for him takin all the blame, though. Everybody knows it’s Seward’s idea.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean—that man, Abe, the president, he might be smart but I doubt he has the intelligence, let alone the wherewithal, to dream up an atrocity of this magnitude.”
She cocks her head, studies him. She seems to have several things to say and is not sure which to say first. He worries his face is turning red. Finally she says, “I did not realize Secretary Seward was a man prone to atrocity.”
“Well it is him—even the papers say it is. Not that I swallow everything the papers serve up.”
“You have an unexpected way with words, Mr. Ackett. I never would have thought you a verbose gentleman, but clearly you require only the opportunity.”
“I can’t quite tell if that’s a compliment or not, ma’am.”
“Do you know that I’ve met Mr. Lincoln before?” she says. She’s looking at his hands, at the knotted knuckles. “Briefly, and more than a few years ago, but I have met him.He’s quite tall, you know. If I were you, I would not be so quick to dismiss his intelligence.”
“I’ll…I’ll have to consider that, ma’am.”
“Are you a sympathizer, Mr. Ackett?”
He wants to stand. His leg is cramping. “My boy doesn’t need to go get shot to keep people here who don’t want to be here.”
“But he wants to fight, does he not?”
“He’s a little simple sometimes. He thinks this is like fighting the British.”
“Except he would be the British.”
“He’s a little simple sometimes.”
“Mr. Ackett, our community here is not a large one. Your reaction to the president’s proclamation this past January was not what I would call discreet. My husband was an abolitionist. He and I were very alike in our views.”
“But—but I never owned anybody.”
“What about rifles, do you own any of those?”
“Rifles? A couple…”
“You will include those with the house. I will buy your property and everything on it.”
“Mrs. Manding, I think there’s a misunderstanding. I’m not looking to sell here, I built that house—and what I said wasn’t because I think it’s anyone’s right to own anybody else, that was not my meaning, there must be a misunderstanding here…”
“You said that already, Mr. Ackett. I understand that you labored hard to earn the money for your farm—”
“I’m just asking for a loan…”
“—although the state of your knuckles and hands does invite speculation about how you obtained that money—”
“…I’ll pay you back with interest…”
“—but there was never any guarantee you would get it, was there? Nor one that you would retain it. There is no guarantee your son Franklin will die if he puts on a soldier’s uniform. There is certainly no divine promise that he shall live if he does not. Suppose you keep him out of the army. Suppose a week later he is trampled by a horse in the field, or is shot by invading Confederate soldiers.”
“Mrs. Manding, please just—”
“Mr. Ackett, do you think you will change my mind? What can you possibly say that will convince me to save someone whom you yourself are unwilling to save?”
* * *
He sells her the farm. Thirty-five acres. Eight cows. Ten hogs. Fourteen chickens and a rooster. Two hundred forty pounds of grain. An elm tree he planted nine years ago with his wife, some thirty-four days before she passed. A two-bedroom house. A plow. An iron stove. Other things, too. All for four hundred dollars cash. Ackett asks to stay on and work the land for her. Mrs. Ellen Manding says she has other plans for the farm. She says he and the boy have four days to clear out.
Stephen and Franklin Ackett take their few belongings to Cleveland and pay the War Department three hundred dollars so that Franklin can remain in Ohio. They rent a room in the city. A couple mornings later, while Stephen is out looking for work, the boy disappears. The boy’s never been able to write well, so he does not leave a note. It’s several hours before Ackett realizes what has happened. He runs to the train station, cursing and praying, but the train with the recruits is long gone. A few gaunt-faced people stare at him. Later he finds himself standing on a dock, watching a boat of soldiers on the Cuyahoga River. The blue-uniformed bodies on it milling about, not a single face distinct, each a carcass-in-waiting. A feeling is growing in Stephen Ackett. He tries to ignore it, but it has been growing all day. His body aches from refusing it. He walks of the edge of the dock. No one has ever taught him to swim.
Two months later, on September 19, 1863, Union Army Private Franklin Ackett receives a shot through the left shin and another shot through the right cheek, which kills him faster than the other shot. He is in Tennessee, where he never expected to be.
They hired Ackett after only a few questions. It was a general store. He soon learned more about tea and thread and other things than he’d ever thought possible.
One day he asked the owner if President Davis ever came in and they looked at him like he was a bit touched. Ackett explained that he would simply like to ask Mr. Davis to stop the war. The owner’s wife kindly pointed out that it wasn’t Mr. Davis that started it. Ackett nodded, although wasn’t clear if he meant it.
* * *
“How on earth did you end up here, Mr. Ackett?” The former congressman has deep lines under his eyes. His beard is showing signs of gray.
“I went on a picnic, sir. With a woman.”
“Ah, a woman…That makes sense. Only two kinds of people come to Niagara Falls: lovers and fugitives.”
“Isn’t Niagara Falls a couple hundred miles from here?”
Clement Vallandigham eyes him a moment, then grunts. “That’s not the point, my friend.”
* * *
The store was one of many popular places for gossip in Richmond. Ackett listened but said little. He rented a room a couple streets over and sometimes went out to play cards. Once he spotted Jefferson Davis walking down the street and he walked over to talk to him but when he got closer it wasn’t Davis at all, but an actor who made his living impersonating the President. The man offered to discuss politics with him. Ackett’s face crumbled.
The lady came in once a week. Her hair was dark blonde and she wore simple necklaces. Ackett stumbled over his words the first time she asked him a question. The fourth week he’d been there, she stopped buying so much during her visits and started coming around every other day. She was twenty-three years old and a widow. Her name was Amelia. She and Ackett went for a picnic one Tuesday afternoon.
* * *
Clement Vallandigham removes his jacket and stands behind the desk in his vest. It’s a small hotel room, but the large window and the trees outside make it feel bigger. “How do you like Windsor?” he asks.
“This is my first time.”
“Were there any other visitors outside? Anyone waiting to see me?”
“I don’t think so.”
“A few months ago there would have been a line of them. Dozens of people waiting for an audience! But…but I did not win the election to be Ohio’s governor.”
Ackett studies Clement Vallandigham. This man was once the congressman from Dayton. This man once said, “My birthright, if I have it at all, is to speak plainly, because I was born a freeman and mean to die a freeman.” Now here he is, banished from the country for which he would gladly give his life. He’s a bit shorter than Ackett expected.
“Did you vote for me, Mr. Ackett?”
“I don’t live in Ohio anymore.”
“Every American should vote, don’t you think?”
The farmer clutches his hat tightly. The former congressman watches his face. It is not a handsome face.
“You’re in Windsor because of a woman. And I am in Windsor because I tried to make peace. Which do you suppose is the better reason?”
* * *
Amelia cried when he told her about his son Franklin. He hadn’t meant to tell her, but she asked. She said it was an unfair thing, what happened to Franklin. She said Stephen must hate Lincoln for making this mess.
“I can’t say your wrong,” said Ackett. “But I can’t blame him entirely. If I’d still had a farm for the boy to work, I could have kept him from running off.”
“You don’t think he would have run off anyway?”
“No, he promised his mother he’d stay and help me. Before she died. He promised.”
She squeezed his hand. “Why did you sell it?” She had a soft way of asking.
“I didn’t mean to. I thought it was the best thing…”
“You must miss him dearly,” said Amelia.
“Your son. Franklin.”
She traced the rough knuckles of his hand with her finger. Ackett changed the subject.
A month passed. He courted her. The general store’s customers became accustomed to his laugh. Then Amelia’s brother came to meet him. His name was Lewis. He worked for President Davis. Amelia had told her brother how intelligent Stephen was, that he was a sincere man. She had hardly told Stephen anything about Lewis. She did not have to; it was clear right away that her brother was the protective sort. Ackett could tell Lewis thought he was too old for her.
* * *
“Lewis says your son died in the fighting. In Virginia.”
“Tennessee. I’ve always had a wariness of Tennessee. It grieves me to hear that. Was he your only?”
“I have a son, Mr. Ackett. And a wife. I hope to see them again. Come, let me show you something. Step over to the window. You see the city across the river there? Do you know what city that is?”
“Correct. There are federal agents over there with strict orders to arrest me if I so much as brush against Michigan soil.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“You’re here because you are courting Lewis Farthing’s sister. For reasons beyond my understanding, or that of most men, she wants his approval. I aim to help you get it.” Clement Vallandigham points to a calendar on the wall. “You see the date circled there? That is the 24th of August. Do you know what happens on the 24th of August? Do you know where you’ll be that day?”
“Not in Windsor?”
“Chicago! That is where the Democratic National Convention is being held and Clement Vallandin intends to be there! I need people I can trust to accompany me. Lewis says—”
Ackett moves towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
“They’re gonna arrest you if you go back over. I don’t want any part of that.”
“Arrest? Nonsense, my friend, how can they arrest me if they have no knowledge of what we’re doing? It is not as though I’m sending them an invitation to our little excursion. We’ll travel through Ohio. Ohio loves me. There are safe places there.” The exile goes to his desk and takes an envelope from a drawer. He hands it to Ackett. “”This came for you yesterday. Mrs. Amelia Blessard, formerly Amelia Farthing, I believe. I’ve seen a photograph of her. She’s quite lovely. There is something in you that has touched her deeply, I daresay. I need a capable man, Mr. Ackett. Are you listening? I am trying to pay you a compliment. Lewis says you’ve performed valuable work for him. He says you’re the only honest spy he’s ever met. Is he right?”
“I’m not a spy.”
Vallandigham chuckles. “Oh, I think King Abe might say otherwise! So would a good number of Union soldiers and generals. The Confederacy might call you a patriot. Do you prefer that term?”
“Lewis is against the Union, Mr. Vallandigham. Are you for Davis, too?”
“Of course not. I am as I have always been. This war must end. We must find peace. Enough people have died, don’t you think? I cannot imagine the grief you must feel for your dead son. I’m sure he died heroically.”
“What would you like me to do in Chicago?”
“I need a bodyguard. It’s conceivable that I might be a candidate for the nomination. That’s an idea, isn’t it? Clement Vallandigham, attorney-at-law, defender of the Constitution, Ohio’s beloved son and now President of These United States of America. What do you think, Ackett? I know McClellan is the favorite, but maybe this old Copperhead can cause an upset. What say you?”
“No,” says Ackett.
“You won’t win.”
The exile snorts with laughter. “Please, Mr. Ackett, spare me these niceties! Speak the truth! My word, I see why Lewis is so fond of you. Yes…I’m curious, though: why do you suppose a Vallandigham campaign would be unsuccessful? Speak freely, please.”
Ackett looks straight at him. “It’s not in your face. It’s nothing you did or didn’t do, sir. It’s just not there.”
Clement Vallandigham’s mouth twitches.
* * *
They leave Canada without incident. Wherever they stop, he puts up posters denouncing Lincoln and his bloody war. In Dayton, where the former congressman is cheered, the Stephen Ackett speaks at a saloon about why the South has every right secede. Someone barks that the Constitution doesn’t allow that kind of treason. Ackett produces a copy of the United States Constitution, just a little booklet, and asks the man to show him where it’s written.
The next morning, Ackett writes to Amelia. Her last letter to him was brief. She must be have been worried about saying too much, in case the letter was intercepted. He almost asks her to marry him, but he supposes that’s not the sort of thing to be done by letter. He drips some ink onto his trousers and swears. Later, in the carriage, Vallandigham sits across from him and notices the ink stains. He tells Ackett that when they stop he should check Vallandigham’s luggage for a new pair of trousers. “We’re about the same size, I think.”
“That’s generous, but I can’t accept that,” says Ackett.
Vallandigham breaks out in a grin. “Oh, I think under these circumstances you can—consider it a wedding gift!”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I heard just this morning! I could only assume that you dashed off a letter in such excitement that you…that you dribbled a little.” Valladigham can see how perplexed his bodyguard is.
“Lewis sent me a telegram. He said his sister was engaged. I assumed that…How long has it been since you last saw her?”
Ackett looks out the carriage window and locks his eyes on some point far off and doesn’t answer. Nor does he ask to go back to stop the letter he posted. He focuses on the sound of the horses’ hoofs. There is a schedule to be kept.
* * *
They come upon the farm in the dark. Lanterns are lit inside. Stephen Ackett’s stomach lurches. “Why are we here?”
“This is a safe place, no worry necessary.” Vallandigham leans across; his voice drops to a whisper. “It belongs to a woman employed by both governments. She allows groups from both sides to stay here, no doubt in order to glean what intelligence she can. Lewis believes she is for the Confederacy, just as he believes I am. Lewis is bit simple sometimes, I think. The truth, which he must never know, is otherwise.”
“Sir, maybe you shouldn’t be telling me this.”
Vallandigham smiles in the dark. “Stephen, you are in need of a friend, and friends always tell one another the truth.”
There are two other men traveling with them, the driver and another hired bodyguard on a horse. They enter the house first. Ackett keeps his rifle pointed at the ground but his finger is on the trigger. After a moment, the driver appears in the doorway and calls Ackett and the former congressman inside.
Nothing has changed. Nearly a year later and everything is as Stephen Ackett left it. Four plates of food have been left on the table.
Vallandigham sighs and settles down to eat. “It would seem our hostess has decided not to join us this evening. That’s probably for the best. Stephen, would you like to hear my nomination speech? Stephen, are you feeling well?”
Stephen’s eyes are stinging. “I’m fine, sir. I think I’ll take first watch.”
“We are quite safe here, I assure you. A little place like this is hardly worth noticing.”
The driver comes in from tying the horses. “Damn but it’s dark out there. Anybody see an outhouse?”
“Out back,” says Stephen. “Twenty-six paces from the northeast corner.” Clement Vallandigham puts down his fork and sits back in his chair. Stephen doesn’t meet his gaze.
“Sir, I’d feel more comfortable keeping watch.”
“Of course, Mr. Ackett. I suppose I am paying you for that service.”
Ackett glances at him, then steps outside.
* * *
Just before dawn, he rousts everyone from their sleep. He tells them he heard a horse approach the farm, then gallop away quickly. He is sure more riders will be returning soon.
Stephen Ackett is the last out of the house. He slams the door shut behind him and jumps into the carriage and tells the driver to get a move on. Neither the driver nor the man on the horse nor Clement Vallandigham notice the wisps of smoke curling out from the beneath the house’s door and through the shuttered windows. They are nearly a mile away before the house is in full blaze.
* * *
August 23rd, 1864. Chicago. The corner of Michigan Avenue and Eleventh Street. Stephen Ackett was 25 years old the last time he was in Chicago. He stares up at the flag weakly fluttering over the Amphitheatre. Hundreds of conversations in the air around him. He’s wearing a clean shirt and a new jacket and his black trousers fit well. His shoes look the same as they did two days ago.
* * *
Ackett never imagined a life spent in rooms he didn’t own. He studies the platter of food. Vallandigham stands at the ash wood table and tries not to check his pocket watch. A pale balding man with dark eyes sits at the table. His gray-peppered beard does not cover his chin but reaches below it, to his neck, where it disappears inside a high white collar. The door to the room opens. A short, mustached man named George McClellan strides in carrying a saber. There is an unmistakable arrogance in his stride. Ackett has learned to hate hotels.
* * *
The saloon is busy. Ackett sits at the bar. He sighs when the man next to him turns into a newspaper man.
“You’re part of Clement Vallandigham’s party, right?”
The farmer smiles, only glancing up, and says, “My name’s Stephen Ackett.”
“Good to meet you, Stephen Ackett.” The bartender appears. A drink is ordered. “This your first time to Chicago, Mr. Ackett?”
“Not to be unfriendly, but I’m not in the habit of talkin to strangers.”
“We Democrats aren’t strangers! We’re brothers-in-arms, if anything. How come you’re not with Vallandigham? Is McClellan down at the hotel too?”
Ackett looks at the bartender but the bartender doesn’t look back.
“I’m not in the habit of talkin to strangers, friend. What’s your name?”
“Don’t get upset. I’m just being friendly. You look pretty down and I thought you might need an ear, that’s all. I’m guessing it’s not politics that’s got you on edge. Let me guess: is it a woman? Or did you lose someone in the war? I bet you did. I lost a cousin. Probably more than one. What about you?”
Ackett stares at his glass a moment before answering. “A son.”
“That’s terrible. I don’t have any children, but I can only imagine…That’s terrible. I’m truly sorry to hear that.”
“You’re truly sorry?”
“Not as sorry as Lincoln should be. Do you blame the president? Do you think the Copperheads have a chance at seizing this nomination? I know Vallandigham is hoping for it but everybody knows he ain’t got a whore’s chance in heaven. It’ll be a McClellan. How do you feel about that? Do you think McClellan understands your loss?”
“Why’s that? You don’t have to answer, but if you have something to say—you think the politicians in that room care? I just want to hear what you have to say. Why don’t you think McClellan understands?”
Ackett orders another. “Because if he had a son, and his son was killed, I suspect he would be full of…sorrow. What he wouldn’t feel is relief. He wouldn’t feel…he wouldn’t feel happy that he doesn’t have to worry about protecting him anymore. That’s why McClellan wouldn’t understand how I feel. Now leave me alone.”
* * *
Vallandigham gives him a look that is less than kind. “Where have you been?” he whispers.
“You reek of whisky, are you drunk?”
Ackett sits, wiping his hands on the backs of his pant legs.
The nomination negotiations have been going for more than an hour. Unfortunately for Clement Vallandigham, he was never under serious consideration. Now Vallandigham’s only role is to help George McClellan convince Horatio Seymour, the man with the enormous forehead and the neck beard, that it is in Seymour’s best interest to withdraw from the running. Ackett listens to the conversation for a fair bit, wondering why Vallandigham even wants him here and noticing from the occasional sideways glances of the other men that they have been wondering the same thing. He stares at Horatio Seymour some, and then at McClellan. He doesn’t have to look at Vallandigham to know his face. Ackett thinks about the weather, and wonders what the weather is like in Washington, and wonders if Lincoln notices the weather, and wonders if the tall man avoids windows for fear of being struck down by lightning.
“What is your opinion?” Horatio Seymour and his neck beard are looking at Ackett.
“Mine? Well, um, first I guess I should say good afternoon. My name’s Stephen Ackett, sir.”
“And what is your opinion on this matter? I have many supporters who insist on placing my candidacy before the party members. These two have made a persuasive case against that course of action, but I am not convinced, not entirely. Since Clement has for some reason deemed your presence here necessary, I would appreciate it if you shared your thoughts.”
“That’s precisely why I wanted him here,” says Vallandigham. “To offer an outsider’s—”
“Clement, you’ve talked enough. Give this man his turn. Please. Speak up.”
“Who are you?” asked Ackett.
McClellan snickers and continues eying the platter of food sitting just out of reach. Vallandigham sputters, “This is Horatio Seymour, Stephen, he was the governor of New York.”
“I assumed you knew me,” says Seymour.
“Right. The governor of New York? Well I’m not from New York,” says Ackett. “New York isn’t any of my business. It does strike me as something odd, though, that a man who wants to be president can’t handle a simple gestures of social decency. How can that be? A man doesn’t know you. You don’t know him. He introduces himself. What happens next is you introduce yourself or you don’t. You do the first one because you want to show consideration. Maybe it’s not respect, but it’s polite and it might even come across like respect, which is never a bad thing as far as I know. Or you don’t say anything and take on a real arrogant posture, which is hardly ever going to get you anywhere, ’specially if you want somethin.
“See, I was tryin to explain this to a reporter at the saloon. He had all sorts of questions—about me, my opinions, the dead I carry around—about all of you, right here in this room—and I introduced myself, so that we could have a proper conversation. He chose not to return the courtesy. He kept askin questions. Now I’m not gonna talk to a man who can’t even tell me his own name, even if he does work for a newspaper, so I walk out of there and he follows me like we’re friends. Even puts his arm around my shoulders.—You look a little pale, Mr. Seymour. I didn’t say nothin about what’s going on here, don’t worry about that. But I did take the time to explain to him why it’s polite to meet an introduction with an introduction. Somebody can take just about everything away from you if they want to. They can’t take away your manners. That means something to people. It’s a show of respect, even if it’s only half-true.
“If you wanna know my opinion…None of you are gonna beat Lincoln. Lincoln won’t let anyone else win. The only way Lincoln loses is if he’s dead, and President Davis has a clear policy against that as I hear it. So unless you all are set to nominate somebody to put a bullet in him, this conversation and this whole goddamn convention’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
There’s a knock at the door. Two policemen are looking for Stephen Ackett. There’s a man with a swollen, bruised face behind them. McClellan seizes this opportunity to have a snack.
* * *
1865. February 11th. Harper’s Weekly reports that Congress has voted to amend the Constitution of the United States of America. It is to be the thirteenth such amendment. The newspaper also reports that failed Democratic presidential nominee General George B. McClellan and his wife set sail for Europe on January 25th. They intend an absence of six months. The majority of that time will be spent in Rome.
The next week, on February 18th, Harper’s reports that three commissioners appointed by “the rebel authorities” have entered the United States to negotiate with Secretary Seward and President Lincoln. These negotiations last 16 hours before collapsing. No mention is made of how Stephen Ackett, one-time farmer of Ohio, petitioned President Jefferson Davis to be one of the commissioners. No mention is made of whether President Davis even considered this request. Perhaps if Stephen Ackett had been able to secure a recommendation from former congressman Clement Vallandigham, his petition would have aroused more interest. Harper’s, though, is concerned only with what has happened, not with what might have been.
“You volunteer for this?”
“Not exactly,” says Ackett.
“I guess you’ve been doing a lot of this.”
“We don’t have to talk.”
“You a farmer?” asks the spy. He fidgets in his saddle. “You look like a farmer. The Yankees take it?”
“I’ll get you where you need to be. The less we talk, the better. We’ll stay on schedule that way.”
They ride a little in silence.
“You know what I heard?” asks the spy. “I heard some woman got made a doctor up in Massachusetts last year.”
“Keep your voice down and your mind on the road. We got a schedule to keep.”
“The road’s just fine, my horse knows where she’s goin’, don’t ya girl?”
Ackett and the spy’s horse exchange a look.
“The real crazy part,” says the spy, “ain’t even the fact that she’s a woman, but that her skin’s about as dark as a pile of cow shit. You believe that?”
“Rebecca Clemens,” says Ackett.
“That’s her name. Rebecca Clemens. It was in the paper.”
“Who cares what the bitch’s name is?”
Ackett stops their horses. Today’s schedule will not be kept.
* * *
He and the hog stare at one another. It must be 200 pounds. A great, wrinkle-eyed pinkness washed clean in the rain. Ackett’s hat is soggy. The hog is not impatient because the hog, unlike him, is not waiting for anyone. The hog looks over its shoulder a moment, at the fields hidden by the night, then back at the ugly man leaning against the fence. The fence feels good to lean on. He imagines that he is not waiting for anyone. He imagines there is no owner of the house who is away and who will, inevitably, return to tell him some city. Tell him some name or address. Someplace else to go, someone else to guard.
Ackett imagines the house door opens. He goes inside and hangs his coat on a hanger and shuts the door behind him and stomps his feet on the floor and locks the door because everybody’s already home, safe, and no one else is coming.
The hog imagines something else.
* * *
“What the hell happened, Ackett?”
“What are you talkin about, Lewis, I left him there. He was close enough.”
“You were supposed to take him to the house.”
“He was close enough, he didn’t need…”
“Is it a hard job, Ackett? Do you have trouble understanding what you are supposed to do?”
“Lewis, the man was insulting.”
“He insulted you?”
“Not me particularly.”
“Did he generally?”
“Others he did. He said some things about a woman. I took exception to them. I let him off no more than a couple miles outside the city, that was plenty close. How’s Amelia doing? Is she—”
“What? Do not ever say my sister’s name, Ackett. Not ever, you understand me? And don’t you be worryin about her, worry about this. Worry about gettin paid. Worry about me puttin’ a bullet in your worthless ass. Our man is dead, Stephen. He was recognized. Somebody knew.”
“I’m…I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Did you two fight?”
“He’s dead? I am sorry. He didn’t deserve that.”
“You better answer me. Did you two fight?”
“Report I received was that he was bruised all to hell. Is that why I got you out of jail, so you can beat on my men? The gunshot sure didn’t do that to his face. Hey! You listening to me?”
* * *
He rides his horse up to the porch and ties it to the rail there. He hasn’t been in Richmond in some time, and it’s his first time on this street. The grass of the lawn is brown in parts. His knees ache. His turkey lunch is not sitting well. He glances at the front door of the house and feels something peculiar and not altogether pleasant run up his back and neck. No one comes out to meet him. The flowers around the porch move a little in the breeze.
* * *
Guns have never been Ackett’s talent. He carries one mostly for show. He’s seen the revolvers that officers on both sides use. Once or twice he’s wondered if he would be a better shot with one of those than with a rifle. There isn’t enough money in his pockets to buy one. He stares at the revolver through the shop’s window. The storekeeper on the other side is watching him closely. There’s a look on Ackett’s face that’s making people uneasy. In the eyes, mostly. The look only gets stronger when he spots her in the glass behind him, coming out of the general store across the street with an umbrella. He watches the dark yellow dress approach in the glass. She walks towards him as if their meeting an hour ago had really been the first time they’d ever met, as though he had not once upon a time sat in her kitchen and listened to ice clinking against glass. “It will surely rain,” says Ellen Manding. She opens the umbrella and twirls it.
* * *
Later, on the road:
“This isn’t the way…”
“I’m supposed to get you there safely, Mrs. Manding. Union soldiers are blocking the roads into Pennsylvania.”
“But this is west…”
She turns to point at something and he hits her in the head with the rifle. He tried not to hit her too hard. He checks her breathing and then checks the rifle butt for cracks. He ties her up and keeps her covered in the wagon. He drugs her with laudanum while she sleeps and doesn’t share the news with her a few days later when he learns about General Lee’s cessation at Appomattox.
* * *
Towns are to be avoided. Ackett engages no strangers, offering only the barest of cordial greetings. Mrs. Manding is bleeding the way a woman does. For some reason he can smell it and it makes him nauseas. He is not willing to untie her and offers to clean her up. She stares at him groggily as he lifts her dress and wipes her with a cloth. A few hours later, when he does it again, she kicks him in the jaw.
* * *
“Why have we stopped?”
His eyes chew the landscape.
“What is your next move, Mr. Ackett? Drug me again? Cave my head in with a rock?”
“There’s a question I need to ask you.”
“No, you need to take me to Philadelphia. That is what you must do. It’s urgent.”
“Why couldn’t you help me?”
“That’s what this is about?”
“Your question is impossible to answer, it is completely illogical.”
“If I’d been someone else…if I hadn’t said the things I said…”
“I did help you, Mr. Ackett. I bought your damnable farm. You had the money. You had more than enough. What happened afterwards is not my fault. I promise you, I would return it to you now if I could, but some maniac burnt it down.”
“Someone burnt it? I entrusted it to you…”
“No, you sold it to keep your idiot son out of the war. Has he proven himself worthy? Has he ruined some poor girl’s life yet and brought another Ackett into the world?”
There’s a knife in his hand. The afternoon is bright and cloudless.
“You fooled a lot of people, Mrs. Manding.”
“Stephen, please keep your distance.”
“You had to pick a side, I guess. But picking both sides…”
“The war will be over soon, Stephen, you and the other Confederates will be pardoned, I’m sure. Philadelphia is not necessary, you can take me to Cleveland, or Chicago…”
“You told me you met Lincoln. You met him once.”
“When you met him…could you tell he would do all this? Did he look like the kind of…I don’t even know what a murderer looks like.”
“They look like you, Mr. Ackett.”
* * *
Friday evening. They are headed south. She rides next to him in the wagon. The two horses are in no hurry. Her wrists are still sore but getting better. She stopped hours ago trying to persuade him to turn back to Cleveland. He said she could walk if she wanted. Then he lied and told her that while she was sleeping a couple days ago, he heard that Lee had turned Grant back and was marching on Washington. She was quiet a moment, then asked how that was possible. He told her that Grant was a drunkard.
Ellen Manding glances toward the pistol hidden in her bag just behind the wagon seat.
* * *
The land is flat here. A few low hills unseen. The road continues into the forest. The cottonwood trees high and painted black by the new moon. Ackett keeps on. Mrs. Manding asks if they should stop for the night. He says he wants to get out of Ohio. If she wants to sleep, she’s welcome to do so. If she wants to eat, there’s some bread in the bag. Mrs. Manding insists he light a lantern. He says he can see in the dark. She tells him to stop being childish.
* * *
There is no stopping. Eyes begin to droop. Ahead there’s a figure. He slows. More people. No uniforms, no guns. A lantern or two and a few torches. Some wagons. Light and dark faces. The horses slow. Ackett blinks rapidly, shakes his head a little. The woods thin ahead, a wide path chopped to cross the road. Railroad tracks. People milling about. He tells her to keep quiet and holds his rifle in his left hand.
* * *
“—but you can pass through if you’d like. Could be a bit of a wait.”
“What do you mean ‘assassinated’?”
“That’s just what I mean,” says the woman. “Some actor snuck up on him in a theater. Shot him right through the head.”
The woman nods and rejoins her husband near the tracks. There are close to forty people gathered. A few faces continue to emerge into the light of the lanterns.
Ackett’s back is to the wagon and Mrs. Manding. His hat is dark gray in the light. She reaches into her bag and finds the revolver, a gift from the United States Department of War.
He looks up at the sky. The stars are out. Someone asks if anybody heard that. A few people say they did and nobody moves for a minute or so until the train sounds again. The woods too thick and the night too dark to see anything far off, let alone around the bend. The sound draws closer. “You should be pleased,” she says. “You know all I have to yell is Johnny Reb. These people will lynch you. They will lay you across those tracks and sacrifice you to their dead president.” Sitting right beside her on the wagon seat Stephen Ackett doesn’t move or answer and even though she whispers more words she can’t see his face and she wonders, for a moment, if he’s been struck deaf. He gets down from the wagon.
* * *
It’s upon them suddenly. Perhaps it only seems so. A metallic and thunderous sound. The black engine emerging in the gathered light, slowing a bit. The gleaming cowcatcher at the front of the locomotive, two black-fringed flags like guards on its right and left. The engine’s light washing the tracks in front of it. The new moon turns the green of the locomotive’s spokes to the color of ash. The cars follow, their skins decorated with black garlands. The presidential railcar, an opulence constructed by Virginians and destined to burn on the prairies of Minnesota, is hearse to the bodies of a son and a father whose son never grew to be a father.
Mrs. Manding has stepped down from the wagon. She draws back the hammer on the revolver, her thumb numb to the feel of the metal, and approaches the farmer’s turned back.
Fifty or so gathered faces watch the engine and its train pass in the torchlight. Stephen Ackett removes his hat and holds it with both hands and watches with the others. The warmth from the torches brushes the side of his face and neck. His lips are moving. His chin touches his chest. Words are lost in the clamor. The engine proceeds. Ackett’s eyes are closed and he is oblivious to the dissecting looks of others.
Then it’s gone.
Wagons leave. As quietly as they appeared, the mourners melt away.
Ackett stands watching after the train, breathing in the smell of metal and oil that lingers. He turns. The wagon is nowhere to be seen. He stands there a moment, staring at the spot where the wagon had been, still holding his hat. The puffing of the engine fades. Ackett moves slowly to the track, until gravel crunches under his boots.