by Steve White
After the Civil War, the United States government destroyed
all records of the espionage activities of Mary Elizabeth Bowser,
who had spied for the Union while a servant in the household
of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Thus there is very
little hard evidence of the details of her story.
But it is generally believed that in January, 1865, facing
imminent discovery, she fled from Richmond after an
unsuccessful attempt to burn down the Confederate White
House. Afterwards, she disappears from history. It is not
even known when or where she died...
The commotion grew fainter behind her as she hurried along Clay Street through the chill night. They must, she thought, have put out the fire. Her upbringing at the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia did not permit her to curse.
Even if it had, she wasn’t sure she would have. At least not whole-heartedly.
She bore the Davis family no particular malice—certainly not the children. She had wept when five-year-old Joseph Evan had fallen to is death in April. And she had no desire to harm nine-year-old Margaret or her little brothers Jeff Jr. and William, much less the adorable toddler Winnie. But Thomas McNiven, the baker whose deliveries had been her means for relaying information, had been found out as a spy, and with suspicion certain to fall on her next, she had hardened her heart and done the one thing she could to cause disruption in the Rebel government before fleeing.
But she had failed. All that was left to her now was flight. She would somehow make her way north to Philadelphia, and her husband.
The thought of Wilson Bowser caused her concentration to wander for a moment as she turned right onto Eighth Street, and she barely managed to spot a pair of patrolmen in time to duck into the shadows before they could apprehend her for violating the Black Code by being abroad after curfew. Forced to remain motionless while they passed, she felt the cold bite into her. It brought home to her how much she needed help.
One place she could not turn to for it was the Van Lew mansion on Church Hill, where she had been born a slave. Elizabeth Van Lew, after her father’s death, had freed the family’s slaves. She herself owed Miss Van Lew her education as well as her freedom, for it was that spinsterish lady who had sent the young freed slave girl to Philadelphia, having recognized her potential. And now, even though her anti-slavery and anti-secession views were well known here in the Rebel capital, no one took Miss Van Lew seriously, for she was quite evidently cracked—“Crazy Bet,” everyone called her.
And all the while the harmless, dotty old maid was running a spy ring that included clerks in the Confederate government, guards at Libby Prison... and a certain former slave of hers, whom she had arranged to have employed in the household of the Confederacy’s First Family.
Being black, the new servant girl had been assumed to be illiterate. She had reinforced the impression by seeming slow-witted. Thus she had gone even more unnoticed than most servants. No one had thought to conceal confidential documents from her, any more than from a piece of furniture. And she had always had a phenomenal memory...
But now she could not contact Elizabeth Van Lew, lest she bring suspicion on her benefactress’ head and wreck her entire fragile structure of espionage. The uncovering of Thomas McNiven was bad enough. No; she must go nowhere near Church Hill.
But there was one place where she could, and would, go.
Even as she resumed walking, drawing her heavy shawl more tightly around her slender body against the January night, she smiled to herself as she reflected on the layers of secrets that comprised her life. There was, of course, the whole cloak of secrets under which she had lived her life in the Executive Mansion. Only Elizabeth Van Lew knew the truth about that... all the while never dreaming that there was yet another layer, of which she was as ignorant as Jefferson Davis was of the first one.
It had always gone against the grain to conceal anything from the woman to whom she owed so much. But there were things that Elizabeth Van Lew didn’t need to know, and couldn’t be allowed to know.
Things that no one not a member of the Order of the Three-Legged Horse could be allowed to know.
And yet... Her thoughts went back to mid-December, when a certain Confederate cavalry captain—or so he had seemed—had appeared with his men, and revealed knowledge he shouldn’t have possessed. She dismissed the always-disturbing thought, for it wasn’t what she needed to concentrate on just now.
Yes, she thought, quickening her steps as she went northward on Eighth Street. I’ll go find Gracchus.
* * *
Rectortown was a tiny hamlet in Fauquier County, alongside the Manassas Gap Railroad. It was well within the vague boundaries of what people called “Mosby’s Confederacy,” where Union forces came and went but the Partisan Rangers led by John Singleton Mosby, the “Gray Ghost,” owned the night.
It was ninety miles north of Richmond as the crow flies. But crows didn’t have to skulk about, traveling by night whenever possible and avoiding all contacts by day, sheltering with free blacks whenever she could find them. It had taken her weeks, and the cold seemed to have seeped into her very bones. But now, at the end of January, she sat in a shack behind Rector’s Warehouse, warming herself by a small fireplace and sipping the blockaded South’s ersatz “coffee.”
“Gracchus ain’t here now,” the aging black man named Marcus explained, “but Ah got a pretty good idea of where he headed. Y’see, last month, just a few days ‘fore Christmas, some men came here that Gracchus had told us to expect—even though they was dressed up like Rebel cavalry.”
She looked up sharply. “Was their leader a captain? And did you say Gracchus told you to expect them?”
“Yes and yes, Miss. The captain, he called hisself ‘Captain Landrieu’ like Gracchus had told us he would. Gracchus didn’t say how he knowed they was comin’. But you know Gracchus. He got some uncanny ways.”
“Yes, he does,” she said absently, deep in thought.
So the mysterious grey-coated men she had directed to this place had come... and just as they had inexplicably known about Gracchus, he had also known about them.
She knew she shouldn’t be surprised. But she couldn’t simply accept things the way Marcus could. She found herself envying him for that. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering.
She, like Marcus, was part of the Order of the Three-legged Horse, but not one of its inner circle who had brought the Order from Jamaica, the source of the legend of the beneficent supernatural being which gave the Order its name. So she did not know the innermost mysteries. But she knew of the demons who had, ages ago, deceived men into worshiping them as gods. (Although she had often thought, from certain things she’d heard, that they weren’t really demons—which her Quaker education disinclined her to believe in anyway—but beings of another mortal race than man, of flesh but a horribly different flesh, come from the stars.) And she knew to beware of the evil, unnatural men who sought to seduce black people into worshiping those demons with unspeakable rites, even including human sacrifice and cannibalism.
But Gracchus, the leader, knew other things—things no man had any business knowing. Things her mind would simply reject lest they destroy it, he had once told her when she had timidly tried to draw him out. A chill had run along her spine, and she had asked him no more questions.
And yet she continued to wonder...
“Anyhows,” Marcus resumed, “they talked about things Gracchus said me and my family was just as well off not knowin’, so we waited in the shed. Then, at dawn the next mornin’, another of the captain’s men rode in—young feller named Angus Aiken, with the reddest hair Ah ever did see.”
“Yes,” she said, mostly to herself. She recalled that one of the enigmatic men who had shown up on Clay Street had stood out from the others by his carrot top.
“He was wounded, and he told the captain that another man who’d been with him had been captured.” Marcus’s eyes flickered in the firelight with superstitious dread. “Now, Ah don’t rightly understand just how, but the captain knew that his captured man was bein’ taken toward Ashby’s Gap. So he and the rest of his men rode off that way, leavin’ Private Aiken here to get better.
“But time went on and the captain never came back. So young Aiken, he couldn’t stand it no longer and headed out to find the others, even though there was Yankee cavalry comin’ through lookin’ for Mosby’s boys. But he never did find ‘em, and a little over a week later, the day after New Year’s, he was back here. He wanted to stay in these parts in case the captain turned up, which Ah could understand. What Ah couldn’t understand was that he has to stay alive ‘till exactly April 5, and after that he’ll be safe. So he decided to join up with Mosby’s Rangers, who he already knew.” Marcus chuckled. “That didn’t go over none too well with Gracchus! But anyhow, that’s where he’s been ever since.”
“But,” she prompted, “what about Gracchus? You said you know where he’s going now.”
“He came through here just a few days ago, on his way to the Valley. Mosby’s Rangers is raidin’ over there, up Harper’s Ferry way, and Gracchus needed to find Private Aiken and bring him back to Ashby’s Gap, because he needs his help.”
All at once, the gleam was back in Marcus’s eyes. “Gracchus couldn’t tell me much, Miss. But it’s somethin’ to do with the evil men we’ve been warned of. They’re up to somethin’ up near Ashby’s Gap. And Private Aiken, like all of Captain Landrieu’s men, knows things about them—things nobody else does.”
She shivered, for she recalled what “Captain Landrieu” had said to her: We have our own war, and it’s with the people Gracchus and his organization are also fighting. People far worse than the Secessionists. People who want to inflict something even more evil than slavery.
Marcus gave her the kind of deferential look he often did, for he was in awe of her education. “Miss, do you know what’s goin’ on?”
“No, but I’d like to find out.” She called to mind a map of this part of Virginia she had seen, and therefore remembered, as she could remember everything. “Ashby’s Gap, you say? Gracchus and this Private Aiken ought to be getting back there soon. I’m going to go there and try to meet them.”
Marcus’s eyes grew round. “You sure you want to, Miss? It’s liable to be pretty dangerous up there.”
She smiled. “What isn’t, these days?”
* * *
Ashby’s Gap lay about eight miles northwest of Rectortown, by very crude roads. At its eastern end was the town of Paris, even less impressive than Rectortown though nestled in a striking locale at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She skirted the town and began to ascend the gap, climbing into regions where a dusting of snow lay on the ground, stopping frequently to draw deep breaths of the thinner, chillier air. At least the day was brilliantly clear, and the sun plus her exertions had made her almost warm by the time she reached the crest of the Blue Ridge.
She paused, catching her breath and trying to decide what to do next, for there had so far been no sign of Gracchus or anyone else. Ahead, to the northwest, lay the valley where the silvery Shenandoah River snaked among the winter-denuded forests. On either side of her rose wildly wooded slopes. She noticed a trail to her left, leading uphill along the crest. For some reason she could not define, she decided to follow it.
She had followed it for some distance when the ground seemed to jump under her, and a crash like nearby thunder assaulted her ears. Stunned with surprise, she looked around wildly in a moment of near-panic. But nothing could be seen but the slopes and woods that hemmed her in on either side of the trail. Seeing a relatively clear area to her left, she scrambled up a rocky slope. It took her a while before she emerged above the timber line onto a small outcropping where she could look out to the north.
Below and to the left, she saw where the trail came to an end, at a level clearing with a large log cabin to the left, at the base of an overhanging crag. To the right of the clearing, directly below her, was a shallow depression. To the right of that was a sparsely wooded slope, rising up to another clearing, separated by only a narrow wooded area from the trail she had been following—she must have passed close to it. In the center of that clearing, smoke was still rising from the crater of a terrific explosion, surely the one she had heard. It wasn’t easy to tell at this distance, but she was sure she could make out a sprawled, motionless human body not far from the crater. She also discerned four horses tethered to trees at the outskirts of the clearing, near the trail, which was unsuitable for them.
Motion at the log cabin caught her eye. Five figures emerged, running. Three of them paused and threw things back though the doorway, then ran even faster for a few seconds before throwing themselves prone on the ground.
She had no time to puzzle over their behavior before the cabin erupted in a rapid-fire series of shattering explosions that blew its walls out, leaving the roof to collapse with a roar. She fell to the ground and made herself as small as possible, even though she was certain no one would think to look up here in this direction, and that they wouldn’t see her if they did. She remained huddled into herself until the noise had ceased, wondering what kind of nightmare she had wandered into—and what Gracchus might have to do with the things she had seen and heard.
When she finally dared to look again, there was a smoldering pile of rubble where the cabin had stood, and the five men were running across the dry creek bed at the bottom of the depression and ascending the slope to the clearing where the first explosion had occurred. There they looked about, as though searching for something. Then they found the trail leading down the slope and hastily followed it.
Without knowing why, she was certain she must follow them.
Going back down the rocky slope to the trail was even more awkward than ascending it had been, in her long, heavy dress. Patches of unmelted winter ice didn’t help. She was less than halfway down to the trail, slipping and sliding and frequently having to grasp tree limbs to save herself from falling, when she began to hear gunshots off to the right, in the direction the men had gone. She hesitated only a moment before resuming her hazardous descent. She managed to reach the trail uninjured save for minor cuts and scratches. Then, after pausing to catch her breath, she turned right and followed the trail downhill, following the sound of the guns, which presently ceased.
Soon she rounded a curve in the trail... and immediately stepped back and took shelter behind a tree trunk, peering out cautiously at the scene before her.
Three men in Confederate uniforms lay dead. But she barely noticed, for two men had stepped out from behind a large fallen tree—and she recognized them. One was white and Confederate-uniformed, and topped with the flaming red hair of Private Aiken. But it was his strongly built black companion who caused her heart to leap, for he was Gracchus. They stepped forward to greet five white men, surely the five she had seen flee the cabin before destroying it. One of them lay on the ground, wounded, and another was on his knees tending to the wounded man. All five had the look of castaways, for they wore the filthy tatters of Confederate uniforms, and their hair and beards had obviously been neither cut nor tended for several months. One, whose shaggy mane was very dark and who seemed to be the leader, shook hands with Gracchus and Aiken, who was clearly amazed and relieved to see him. It was too far for her to make out their words, but there was something about the dark-haired man’s quality of voice... Come to think of it, there was something teasingly familiar beneath the almost wild look...
Then, with almost physical force, it came to her. This was Captain Landrieu—or whatever his real name was—whom she had met in Richmond, well groomed and nattily uniformed, in mid-December! And now, knowing what to look for, she could also recognize his men. But what could have turned them into these savage apparitions in a mere month and a half?
They spoke for a few moments, and she detected a sense of urgency. Then they seemed to wear the aspect of men making their farewells...
And with absolutely no warning, and no sound save a kind of soft pop, the five grimy, wild-haired men vanished.
All the education that had taught her to disdain childhood superstitions abruptly went whirling down into a howling vortex of primal terror, for she knew she had just witnessed magic. Of its own accord, a scream burst from her lips.
Gracchus and Aiken whirled toward the unexpected sound and came running. “Mary!” exclaimed Gracchus. Then he grasped her by the upper arms and held her tight. She vaguely realized she was trembling uncontrollably. He held her until the shuddering subsided.
“Mary,” Gracchus repeated gently in his deep, strong voice that held a remnant of the lilt of his native Jamaica. “What are you doing here?” Aiken stared, clearly recognizing her. His expression seemed to reflect several things, one of which was worry.
She gulped several times before she could speak calmly. “I had to leave Richmond—they had come to suspect me. I needed help, and I didn’t have anywhere else to turn, so I came up here looking for you. And...” Suddenly she was shaking again, and she pointed unsteadily toward the place where five men had disappeared. “Gracchus, what happened to those men?”
Aiken’s face grew even graver. “So you saw...?”
Gracchus turned to him. “Angus, would you let me talk to her in private for a moment?”
“Oh... sure.” The red-headed young man moved away, just out of earshot.
“Mary,” said Gracchus, “I’m going to tell you things that you’re not supposed to know—things known only to a very few of the Order’s innermost circle. And I’m going to tell you why you must never reveal those things to anyone.”
More secrets, she thought with a mental sigh. But she nodded.
“You’ve been told of the evil men our order exists to combat. What you haven’t been told is that these men are called Transhumanists, and that they’re even more evil than you think, or can imagine. The demon-cults they try to establish among us are merely a means—and only one means out of many—toward their real goal, which his to transform the human race into something God ever intended. To do that, they have ways you’d probably think are magic but in fact are perverted science. And these sciences are unknown to us because, you see, the Tranhsumanists come from the future.”
“Come from the future?” she echoed uncomprehendingly.
“A little over five hundred years in the future. Don’t ask me how they travel in time, just take my word that they do. They’re trying to change the past in ways that will make their victory in their own day inevitable. But one of them—a woman in Jamaica two hundred years ago—turned against her leaders, and founded our Order to try and undo the evil she had been made to do.
“But there are people from their time whose job is to hunt them down and stop them. One of them is the man you know as ‘Captain Landrieu’ but whose real name is Jason Thanou. Between us, he and our Order have just foiled one of their schemes. And what you just saw was them returning to their own proper time.”
For a moment, she could only try to assimilate all this. “But,” she finally said, pointing to Aiken, “what about him? Why didn’t he vanish into thin air?”
“It was just explained to me, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Aiken was the only one of them who escaped capture by the Transhumanists, who’ve been holding the rest of them in a... place where time is different. For them, more than three months have passed since mid-December. Aiken is here for the real three months. That’s the best I can explain it.”
Her mind was too numbed to form questions. She could only listen as he continued in a graver voice.
“But for now, what matters is that you saw them disappear. Nobody in this time is supposed to have seen anything like that. And now you know things that nobody is supposed to know. So now you’re under the same curse as those of us in the Order who do know them. History, as written in Jason Thanou’s time, says these things didn’t become generally known in 1865. So if you tried to reveal them, history wouldn’t let you. And no, I don’t understand that either. But something would prevent it. Maybe something that would kill you. So you must promise me that you’ll keep the secret.”
“Oh, yes,” she said with a tremulous smile. “I’m good at keeping secrets.”
Gracchus gave her a sharp look, as if unsure that she fully grasped his words. But what he saw seemed to satisfy him. “All right. Let me go over and talk to Angus—reassure him. And then we’ll go. We’ve got an extra horse for you. Two extra horses, in fact; that’s how many of my men have died. Then we’ll split up. Angus will rejoin Mosby’s Rangers.” He smoothed over his reflexive sour look. “And I’ll arrange to get you up to Philadelphia.” He went to talk to Aiken.
So, she thought, it’s yet another layer of secrets. I’d thought I had plenty.
And it is enough. More than enough. That’s why I’ll keep my promise to Gracchus, even though I understand none of this.
Gracchus and Aiken walked over to her. “All right, Mary,” said Gracchus. “Angus is sure we can rely on you.”
And what would he have done if he wasn’t? she wondered. She decided she didn’t really want to know.
And, she reflected as they set off along the trail, they really could rely on her. She would never reveal any of this to anyone, not even Wilson. And this would be the last secret. She was through with them. There would be no more secrets for Mary Bowser.
Copyright © 2014 Steve White
Steve White is the author of upcoming Jason Thanou times travel series entry Ghosts of Time, in which milieu this story is set. Including to the Jason Thanou series, Steve White is the author of twenty novels with Baen Books. He is the coauthor of the Starfire series novels, including, with David Weber, New York Times bestseller The Shiva Option. His other Baen series include the Prince of Sunset series, the Disinherited Series, the Stars Series, as well as science fiction novels as Demon's Gate, The Prometheus Project Saint Antony's Fire.