The Dawn of Pythias

It was April 19, 1865. The remnants of a cold winter breeze swirled around a dull streetlamp standing vigilant on a dark road in Washington DC, framed by old crumbling houses packed tightly together, shutters closed. No light cast from a lamp traveled farther than a few meters. Dusty cobblestones rang with footsteps, muffled by the night, as a dark figure walked quickly down the street, his face obscured by a wide brimmed hat as he pulled his long overcoat around him. At his side hung a peculiar sword, its ornate cross-guard glinting silver in the glow of the streetlamp. Unlike the standard issue officers’ saber, it was long and thin, like a rapier, tapering down to a needle-sharp point. A breeze blew up a corner of the man’s hat, for an instant revealing a thin face and long moustache. Dark eyes glinted like obsidian. The man came to a stop in the shadow of a dark alley, and pulled out a tarnished silver pocket-watch. It was 11:30. Much bolder footsteps rang out in the silence, and the man drew back into the shadows, one hand on the hilt of his sword.

The somber glow of the streetlamp revealed a figure bent over, his head twitching from side to side, his hand clutching something hidden beneath his long duster. He had more trouble than the first at staying unheard, his heavy boots ringing loud in the night. The tall man stood rigid in the shadows, the only movement his eyes as they followed the nervous figure, who came to a stop about ten feet from him, listening. The bent man glanced around quickly, his muscles tensing as if, like the rabbit stalked by the cat, he could feel something in the air, something which didn’t bode well for him. The man in the shadows must have sensed his agitation, for he stepped out boldly.

“Waiting for someone, Altzerodt?”

The nervous man whirled around, his eyes wide with terror, whipping out from beneath his duster a Colt revolver.

“Who are you, and how do you know my name?!” he cried.

The tall man stepped forward.

“My name is Colonel William Arden. I doubt you have heard of me, but you, George Altzerodt, are famous nationwide, you and your friend John Wilkes Booth.”

Altzerodt’s pale face drained of any color remaining in it; in the dusty light of the moon he looked like a dead man. He lifted his pistol with a shaking hand.

“I had no part in that.”

Arden looked at him derisively. “No you didn’t, but you would have, had you the courage. We already found Powell; he told us your part. You were to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, were you not?”

The look on Altzerodt’s face sufficed for an answer. He hefted the revolver. “Listen here Yankee,” he warbled. “I’m the one with the weapon. Get out of the way if you value your life.”

“Oh, you’re not going to shoot me,” Arden said.

“And why’s that?” said Altzerodt, attempting a sneer.

“Because you don’t want to alert the guard. But you’re are too late—I already have.” A shout echoed down the street and as Alzerodt turned, his hand dropping for but a moment, Arden drew his sword in one fluid motion.

Altzerodt howled in pain as the blade slapped his wrist, the Colt clattering to the ground. He blinked the tears out of his eyes and felt a prickling sensation at his throat. He looked down and swallowed. The needle sharp tip of an elaborately engraved rapier pricked his neck. The calm in Arden’s eyes had been replaced by unpitying disdain.

“Do you see those three letters engraved on the blade, Altzerodt?” said Arden. “F.C.B.; Friendship, Charity, Benevolence; the motto of the Knights of Pythias. When I heard this war was over, I thought maybe we would stop fighting and start working on rebuilding this country. It’s people like you who make that impossible.” The tip of the blade pressed against Altzerodt’s throat just a little harder.

“What do you want from me?” he gasped.

“I want the location of John Wilkes Booth. I know that he broke his leg after jumping off the stage. I know that David Harold aided his escape. What I don’t know is where they’re headed, and that is what you’re going to tell me.”

“I don’t know a thing!” Altzerodt cried. “Harold abandoned Powell after hearing shots fired! We didn’t know he’d followed Booth!”

“Time is ticking, Altzerodt,” said Arden. “The guards will be here soon.”

“Booth was planning on riding over the Navy Yard Bridge out of the city and into Maryland, where he would rendezvous with Harold,” said Altzerodt quickly. “They had weapons stored in Surattsville. They were going to cross the Potomac River and escape to the South.”

Arden looked at his pocket watch casually.

“That’s all I know!” cried Altzerodt. “I signed up for a kidnapping, not for an assassination!”

Arden stared at the watch pensively. Then he closed it with snap, tucked it away, and sheathed his sword.

“Thank you for your patriotism.” He turned his back on Altzerodt and began walking away.

“You’re going to let me go?” the man asked, bewildered.

“Oh, it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught,” Arden called back over his shoulder. “You’d better start running, Altzerodt, before the guard finds you.”

 

 

It was April 26, 1865. A flurry of frenzied hooves beat down a worn country path south of the Potomac River. The dim light of the moon revealed two steaming horses, their riders spurring them on as if the Devil himself were at their heels. Icy rain swirled around them as they charged on, the wind whipping their faces. Bound to the saddle of the latter horse was a peculiarly engraved rapier, on its hilt the gilded letters F.C.B. A low-hanging branch struck the rider’s face, but he never slowed his relentless stride.

Colonel William Arden’s breath came in ragged gasps. He’d lost his hat long ago to the stinging winds, and his cheeks burned with cold. He knew his horse could not keep this pace much longer; steam billowed off its flank into the frigid air, as it galloped wildly over the uneven path. Arden kept his eyes riveted on the man in front of him; Sergeant Boston Corbett. It was he on  whom Arden depended to lead him.

Arden’s acquaintance with the Sergeant had been made very recently, under circumstances that prohibited excess conversation, the result being that Arden knew next to nothing of thrr man riding before him. He had been interrogating an innkeeper in Surrattsville when Corbett burst in, soaked with rainwater and wild eyed, demanding a Colonel William Arden.

“We have Booth,” were the only words he said, and in one hour they had crossed the Potomac River.

 

A large barn loomed up out of the haze before the riders, its windows flickering with the light of fire. A closer look showed dark figures, some on horseback, darting around it, circling constantly, never halting their vigil.

Arden leaped off his steaming mount as they drew near the barn, mud splattering his coat. He stumbled, his knees refusing to bend properly. An officer hurried toward him. He cast a critical eye over Arden’s bedraggled uniform.

“Are you William Arden?” he asked. “I’m Lieutenant Edward Doherty. We have John Wilkes Booth and David Herold cornered in that there barn. I heard you were responsible for giving crucial information about their whereabouts.”

“That’s true, sir,” said Arden, buckling his sword to his belt. “Have you arrested them yet?”

“Herold surrendered when he saw he was cornered,” said the Lieutenant, “but Booth refuses to come out peacefully. We set the barn alight in the hope of drawing him out.”

Behind them, the barn groaned as fire leaped up to the roof. Shingles cascaded to the ground in a flurry of sparks. A private took the reigns of Arden’s horse and led it away.

“We can’t afford to let Booth die without a trial, Arden said.

“I give you full access to my resources,” said Doherty, “But we don’t have much time. Do you have a plan?”

“You can be sure I have a plan,” Arden said. “Someone has to go in there, sir.” He began walking towards the barn.”

“It’s too dangerous, Colonel!” cried Corbett. “If the fire doesn’t kill you Booth will!”

“War is dangerous too, Sergeant,” said Arden, his face now a mask of calm. “Cover all the entrances. If he makes a break for it, try not to kill him. Remember, he has a broken leg; he can’t get far.”

“Are you sure of this, Colonel?” said Doherty. “He’s heavily armed.”

Arden stared at him. “Of course I am, sir.”

 

 

Arden walked slowly into the barn. The door was hanging off its hinges, flames licking the frame. Arden braced himself against the heat. The barn was not yet fully ablaze; he would have to be quick about his exit should the fire get too intense. He walked over the dirt floor, his hand on the hilt of his blade. He was glad for the rain; his wet clothes helped ease the heat. Water dripped into his eyes, and he wiped his brow with an absent hand, staring into the wavering, fire-lit darkness.

He stepped warily toward the center of the barn.

“Come out Booth!” he shouted. “It is over! You’ve lost!”

A shadow detached itself from the opposite wall. As it drew nearer Arden could discern a face; the face of a handsome man, with a strong jaw and dark moustache. The man held a carbine rifle by the barrel, gripped in one hand like some prehistoric club, while the other rested on the pommel of an elegant cavalry saber. The man limped toward Arden, favoring his left leg. A pistol was tucked into his belt. His face was ghostly pale, his cheeks hollow. His eyes looked like dead holes in the glittering firelight, staring unblinkingly at Arden.

He smiled.

“Is this a parley, Yankee?”

Arden tried to stare him down, but the dark eyes offered no foothold. “An offer. Come out while you can, Booth, and get the justice you deserve.”

“Justice! Ha!” Booth spat bitterly. “What justice is there in a country who slanders her liberator?!”

“How can you expect gratitude after you’ve killed her leader? It’s a poor country that thanks the assassin of her president.”

Booth’s eyes blazed so suddenly that Arden fought the instinct to step back. “Her tyrant! I saved this country from a tyrant! And what do I get in return? A place at the gallows, to be hung like a common criminal!”

“Dying with your dignity is better than being hunted down and trapped like a rat” said Arden. “Our justice for your crime is giving you one last chance to prove yourself a brave man.”

“Brave,” Booth limped forward. The rage in his eyes was gone, replaced by frigid calm. “What do you know of bravery, Yankee. You have never been alone as I was, facing my country alone, the last man with the courage to fight the tyranny swallowing it. You’ve never seen your friends abandon you, one by one—yes,” he continued, staring piercingly at Arden, “George talked, did he not?” Booth let out a mirthless bark of laughter. His eyes glittered like coal. “I should have known not to trust a coward like him.”

“It’s too late Booth,” Arden repeated. The muscles around his neck tensed. His fingers itched. He was sharply aware of the sword at his hip. “It’s over. Come out and get the justice you deserve.”

“Yes,” mused Booth. He looked down. “I was too late. I should have seen that killing one man couldn’t hope to cleanse this country. The whole of the North is corrupt.” He relaxed, but it was but the calm before a hurricane. His eyes rose, fire of their own flashing forth, and Arden reached for his sword without thinking. “Drag my body from this barn if you can, Yankee, but you’ll never take me alive!”

Booth drew his saber and leaped forward with a strength that should have eluded his broken leg. The men’s two swords clashed in a flurry of sparks, ash raining down around them. The ring of steel was lost in the groans of the burning barn, now fully alight, flames roiling around the two duelists as they fought. Outside Sergeant Corbett stood anxiously, trying to see inside. His hand crept towards the loaded Whitney revolver on his belt.

Booth was a magnificent swordsman, Arden could see. As the swords clashed again Arden could feel the curved saber seeking a means through his defenses, twisting like a serpent. The heat grew more intense by the second; Arden could feel it sapping his strength, the sword-hilt growing heavy in his hand. Booth seemed likewise effected, his breath coming out in sharp snarls, his sword-tip dipping towards the ground, though his eyes never left Arden’s own.

Arden backed up step by step, the heavy slashes of Booth’s sword battering his defenses. Out of the corner of his eye Arden saw a flash; his blade rose in an instant, deflecting the vicious swing. He stepped back as Booth attacked again; Arden’s foot slipped on the dirt and he fell to one knee, leaping back just in time to feel the saber brush his chin. He stabbed desperately, and Booth slapped the blade away. Arden retreated again before Booth’s furious onslaught, and felt his back against one of the barn’s supporting beams. Flames lapped against his jacket; he cast it off without a thought, scrambling to avoid Booth’s saber. Steam billowed off his wet clothes in the heat. His lungs felt as if they were burning.

Booth feinted with his sword and Arden raised his blade, only to see the carbine in Booth’s other hand swinging on his left side. He blocked it, the weight of the blow almost throwing him off his feet. He stumbled back, his legs almost collapsing beneath him. He couldn’t get enough air in his lungs; he felt himself growing weaker by the second. His sword dragged in the dirt as he backed up, and in a flash of firelight he saw the three letters, glinting on the cross guard like a brand.

Booth came at him again. Suddenly, heat surged into Arden’s legs from the dirt floor, coursing into his arm. With a cry, Arden swung the sword with all his strength; for that moment, his wrist was of steel. The blades met; sparks flashed like lightning, steel clashed like thunder, and Booth stumbled back; suddenly his wounded leg seemed to be taking its toll. His dark eyes met Arden’s as he struggled to maintain his posture.

Arden lunged, fire surging through his arm. Booth deflected the blow away from his chest, but the blade still plunged into the muscle of his shoulder. Booth dropped his saber, blood blossoming on his shirt. Arden raised his sword, ready to deliver the killing blow.The blade hung, tarrying for but a moment in the gleaming firelight.

The heavy carbine came from his left, gripped in Booths off-hand.

The rapier was flung from Arden’s hand as he fell, his ribs aching. Booth had but a moment to savor his triumph before a shingle fell from the crumbling ceiling, hitting him in the shoulder. His injured leg collapsed beneath the sudden weight, and the man tumbled to the ground with a cry of pain. Arden scrambled over to where his sword lay amidst a pile of burning wood, the engraving on its blade flaring orange in the heat. He scooped it up, ignoring the searing heat of the pommel.

Somehow, Booth had managed to pull himself to his feet. He bellowed like a wounded bear as the blazing steel struck his hand, the letters F.C.B. flaring bright in the fire. The carbine fell to the ground.

“Give it up, Booth!” Arden roared, his energy flagging. His sword tip dipped to the ground. “You’ve lost! Its over, damn it!”

“You fool!” snarled Booth. He glared at Arden. “You don’t understand, do you, Yankee? We’ve all lost! No one wins in the future of tyranny you’ve guaranteed us! The country is burning!” Suddenly he rose to his feet, framed by the blazing inferno. With inhuman strength he pushed Arden back; the blade tumbled from Arden’s exhausted hand. Booth drew the pistol from his belt, pointing it at Arden’s chest. “And you shall burn with her!”

Arden struggled to his feet with the last of his strength. He looked down the barrel of Booth’s revolver.

He took a deep breath, the burning air searing his lungs.

A solitary shot rang out through the night. For a moment all was silent; even the roaring flames seemed to halt their demonic ritual.

Then Booth fell to the ground, the pistol tumbling from his hand. Arden turned. Across the barn was a small patch of darkness and through that window, his hand outstretched, stood Sergeant Boston Corbett, his eyes wide, holding a revolver. His lips mouthed something, and he disappeared in a flurry of sparks.

Arden dragged Booth towards the exit, the fire clutching at his limbs, flaming beams and shingles crashing down around him as the barn buckled. Smoke filled his lungs as he stumbled out the door. A shot was fired and a bullet skimmed his leg, but he paid it no heed. He could hear the Lieutenant shouting at whoever fired on him as an officer ran over to help carry Booth away from the crumbling barn.

Booth had all the appearance of a dead man, but closer inspection showed that he was breathing. A medic came and knelt beside him.

“The wound is one inch lower than President Lincoln’s,” he declared. Arden took a canteen from one of the officers and trickled water into Booth’s mouth. The man coughed and spat it out, unable to swallow. Booth was paralyzed. He whispered something so low that Arden had to bend in to hear it.

“Tell mother I die for my country” he gasped.

Arden took out his watch. The tarnished silver was battered and dented beyond recognition, its glass face completely shattered. His only notion of time was provided by the dim pink glow permeating the eastern skies.

Booth whispered something else.

“Show me my hands,” he gasped. Arden held them up for him to see. In the pale sunrise, Booth’s tortured, ash-streaked face looked translucent. Arden could now see that his eyes were brown, their defiant light fading as the sun rose. Booth gazed upon his hands with infinite bitterness.

“Useless,” he whispered. “Useless.”

 

Dawn broke over three weary soldiers kneeling around a broken man. More men encircled the trio silently like statues, unmoving. Inside the smoldering barn gleamed the sword, forgotten, its blade shattered into three pieces. The ray-skin wrapped around its hilt had crumbled away, leaving only charred wood. The fine engravings had been smeared with ash, their features dulled by heat. Only three letters remained intact in the pale light of day.

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