When the trouble started, O’Malley wasn’t a bit surprised. Corporal Fry had been on the men of the detail from the beginning, testing them for a weakness to exploit; for an excuse to take out his anger at someone. O’Malley was assigned to the gathering detail, since he couldn’t really chop or saw the larger wood with his still recuperating arm as it was. As such, he gave ‘Rooster’ a burning glance of warning and caution, and wandered into the brush along with the other men who’s injuries post or previous to capture necessitated such duty. He spied some good twigs and snapped them up; placing them in the sling he wore upon his healing left arm. It was a bit scratchy against his exposed wrist, but ensured he’d be able to bring back his quota without trouble. Corporal Fry was subtly teasing some of the men on the saw crew, his harsh voice made worse when he was speaking in a simple conversational tone. Ahead of him a short ways, O’Malley locked eyes briefly with one of Fry’s lads, who smiled crookedly and patted the butt of his musket.
“That’s right Yank, I’m here watching you. You wanna skin out, you go right ahead; I could use the practice with a moving target..” “O’Malley just resumed work and ignored the sentry, who just laughed to himself. He stood up from the collection of another twig when he heard ‘Rooster’ say in a firm, but calm tone--
“Why don’t you leave him alone, eh Corporal?”
O’Malley looked up at the sentry, who was already ushering the men of his detail back to where Fry and the others were working at slitting and cutting the larger chunks of wood for fuel. They were herded back into the clearing of scrub and lanky pines in time to see Corporal Fry turn and look back towards ‘Rooster’, who was on the split and maul crew.
“What was that? Who said that?” asked the Corporal as he spat at his feet. A recent arrival to the camp--a disheveled wreck of a man--stood nearby the saw, his head dropped into his breast looking miserable. It was clear enough what was happening. Fry had started riding the new man; and ‘Rooster’, despite warnings and orders to the contrary, had objected to the Corporal bullying the man. O’Malley swore beneath his breath, and watched Fry cast his beady eyes about the group of men before him.
“I said--WHICH one of you sick brained cowards SAID THAT?” Fry shouted this time, spittle flying before him. Inwardly, O’Malley prayed ‘Rooster’ would not be the hero; that he would listen for a change and keep his mouth shut. He knew better, and he was not disappointed.
“It was me, Corporal.” ‘Rooster’ said, stepping forward with a defiant look in his eye. O’Malley could see what was coming, and started to step forward but stopped when the guard nearest him slammed the butt of his musket into his injured shoulder.
“Where you going, eh?” said the guard with a sneer, as O’Malley’s whole side erupted in a plain like fire burning deep within his flesh. He gasped, his knees buckling a moment before regaining his place--just as Fry slapped his musket stock in a cross strike to ‘Rooster’; spinning the young man round in place before he fell flat. The corporal stepped forward and kicked ‘Rooster’ twice in the side, shouting--”You all don’t speak to what aint yours to comment on! Dirty little cuss, don’t you EVER speak at me again--you hear!”
“Rooster’ let out a grunt, and two of the other guards dragged him to his feet. He looked a mess, blood seeped from his nose and a nasty bruise and gash ran across left cheek; but his eyes looked more defiant than before. He spit at Fry when he came closer, and said loudly--’you watch your back Fry, cause you’re a dead man!” The corporal just laughed at him.
“Hear that boys? Insulting a superior rank, threats too! You shackle that cuss to the wagon bed, and when he gets back he goes straight to the stocks for punishment! And the rest of you--” Fry said rounding on the group of prisoners, “Form up to stow the wood! Detail concluded!”
The guards gathered them up roughly; collecting first the tools they had been assigned. Normally they would have counted these, but the corporal was now in a rage and no one seemed to want to slow the process of obeying his orders. O’Malley worried for his young friend, but what was done was done. In some ways, ‘Rooster’ had done good for the men there with his spirit and defiance, and it showed in the spring of their step as they followed after the wagon; now piled high with the gathered firewood and the battered young soldier who had been shackled hand to ankles. O’Malley caught the eye of his friend once, and nodded gently. ‘Rooster’ simply grinned weakly back, and hung his head. That boy will get himself killed, O’Malley thought. He will never be able to hold himself back enough around the likes of Fry; and I will end up burying him.
If Fry had his way, ‘Rooster’ would be locked into a makeshift version of the old fashioned public stocks situated out on the parade ground. In and of itself, this punishment wasn’t so bad, but what made it truly rough was the lack of shade. The longest O’Malley had ever seen anyone punished this way was three days; but they had been very hot without a break in the sun. By the end, the man was used up and spent the fourth and fifth day recovering in hospital. Besides, knowing Fry and his bunch, it wouldn’t JUST be the stocks; there would be more “unofficial” punishment after dark when ‘Rooster’ would be vulnerable. O’Malley knew his options were few, but he would do whatever he could.
When the detail returned to the great palisade that was Camp Ford, corporal Fry and two guards dragged ‘Rooster’ from the wagon and made their way to the small clapboard house that constituted the offices of administration. O’Malley and the rest went with the wagon to unload the wood they had collected into supply depot. As soon as he could break free, he made his way back towards the administration building only to run straight into corporal Fry and one of his bully-boys.
“How’s that feelin’?” Fry said gesturing to his arm. “Terrible shame if it went bad, an ended up havin’ to be chopped off.”
O’Malley nodded and smiled quietly. Fry frowned and started to move on, but stopped and poked O’Malley square in the chest.
“That little friend of yours, he done made a big mistake an he will pay for it smartly. I can tells you are lookin’ out for him, but it aint gonna help you none. You can’t watch him all night, and then he’s mine.” Fry smiled crookedly and continued on. Clenching his fists, O’Malley made himself continue on and found ‘Rooster’ bent over locked into the stocks just he knew he would.
“Well, now you’ve stepped in!” said O’Malley as he rounded to the front and knelt down to look his young friend in the eye.
“I suppose this was the sort of thing you meant when you said stay out of trouble, eh?”
O’Malley chuckled and slapped the top of ‘Rooster’s’ head. “A fair approximation, I should think.”
“I’m sorry Mick; I let him get to me.”
“Aye, ye did--an now you’re in a bad place. I aint too sure there’s much I can do for you either.”
He was silent for a long moment; ‘Rooster’ hung his head. Then at last, he looked up with a steely look in his eye. “I’ll take my licks, if it comes to that.”
So he KNEW Fry and his bunch would come back at him later, off the record. O’Malley nodded and decided to not underestimate the strength of this young soldier again.
“Make as much noise as ye can, it’s liable to bring the Colonel. Aint pretty, but it’ll get ye a reprieve if they go too rough on you.”
‘Rooster’ nodded and smiled. “I’ll remember.”
“Ye need water?”
He shook his head. “No, Colonel made them let me have a whole canteen before they locked me in. He seems an honorable sort--certainly didn’t like Fry none!”
O’Malley found his curiosity peaked. “Why do ye say so?”
“Colonel brought Fry up sharp when he saw how he dragged me in. Told him that if he kept abusing the prisoners he’d have Fry up on charges--even made them sit quiet while he asked me my side of how it went.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“The truth, Mick. He caught me off guard with his manner, and besides I enjoyed saying I would kill him to his face again without his being able to respond to it.” He chuckled to himself, his shoulders shaking with his laughter.
“I suppose you were for it either way.”
There was a long silence before ‘Rooster’ said clearly--
“This weren’t your fault. I lost my head, and let that bugger get me pitching thoughts as black as hate.”
“Well, ye accomplished it well.”
“Go tell the boys how I got myself, I want to start working on my new reputation and you can start the gossip but good!”
“You sure ye don’t need nothing’?”
‘Rooster’ nodded and flailed his hands at him in dismissal. Taking the hint, O’Malley rose and made his way back to their shanty. He talked up the incident of the day, and all the while worried for his friend. When the evening roll was done, ‘Rooster’ produced a mass snicker when he wiggled his hands vigorously to the sound of his name being called. Making his way back with the others for lights out, O’Malley cast a glance back towards his friend and found himself wondering if he would live to see the day.
O’Malley awoke with a start to the sound of a man crying out in pain. He looked about the shanty as other men sat upright, eyes glowing white in the darkness.
“What in blazes was that?” said someone with alarm.
O’Malley rose up, and went out into the dimness of the shanty street and noting how the lines of braziers from up the hill were flickering in a pattern. The guards were out, and marching along the streets to rouse the population. Others had shuffled into the street now with him, curious about what was going on.
“What a sound to wake to--you don’t--I mean, do you think that was ‘Rooster’?” asked Thomas Wentz, leaning close to O’Malley as the sentries appeared closer in the flickering light of the braziers.
O’Malley had worried the same when he first woke, especially after the advice he had given to the boy. But something in his gut had a definite and ready response for Wentz.
“No. I don’t feel it was our boy--but I think something has happened all the same.”
The column of sentries reached them, and a detachment remained in their area as the others moved along. As the butternut clad soldier, bayonets glinting in the light of the iron braziers reached them, a sergeant called out. “You men out of the way, and back into your places! I want the designated leader from each dwelling at attention in the street, ready to account for each man!”
The group turned and looked at each other, then made to obey. Had someone escaped, or been caught in the attempt? The only time they were made to account for their numbers previously had been in such a situation--did the sound they had heard relate to an escape? If so, then indeed this would probably not end happily. O’Malley ushered the men in his hut back inside, making a mental count. Everyone but ‘Rooster’ was there, but provided he had not somehow tried or made an escape, ought to be trussed up at the stocks. So O’Malley waited, all the while the brazier crackled and the count went on somewhere out in the darkness. As it turned out, he didn’t have long to wait. A captain accompanied by a corporal and a private approached him from the dark and stopped directly before him.
“Sergeant O’Malley?” asked the captain.
O’Malley saluted, and nodded. “Yes sir, I am he.”
“Follow me if you please sergeant.”
O’Malley wasn’t sure what had happened, but all the same his stomach became a sudden tangle of knots. The darkness seemed to crowd in, and the light from the braziers cast forbidding shadows. He felt the air become thick, and time began to crawl as he was escorted up the slope towards where he had last seen ‘Rooster’. Every step closer to the top of the slope saw his sense of dread grow; a gnawing sense of the impending horror of it. He likened it to the same sick sensation soldiers often felt as they approached the enemy across the battlefield, every closer, anticipating when at last the officers would give the command to fire. He steeled his nerves as best he could, fighting the fear--but like all soldiers he could still feel it even if he wrestled a modicum of control away from it. When they crested the slope at last, his heart was pounding in his chest. A crowd of soldiers and officers clustered near where the stocks where, blocking his view. His escort slowly parted the onlookers, and his first glance caught the sight of Corporal Fry laying spread eagle a short ways from the stocks. His throat had been slashed, and though O’Malley had seen many a gruesome sight in his days the violence with which the corporal had met still turned his stomach a bit. It was clear that whoever had killed Fry had done so with passion, and malice. Then, his eyes fell upon ‘Rooster’, standing under guard a short distance away. His friend looked at him with pleading eyes, and he stammered--”I didn’t do it Mick, I swear!”
O’Malley nodded and stepped forward. “Of course not--how could you locked up as ye were?”
But it wasn’t ‘Rooster’ that answered, but instead a strong and cultured voice. “The problem was--sergeant--your friend wasn’t locked up as he was supposed to be. My men first on the scene discovered him leaning over the body of corporal Fry; and given what had passed between the prisoner and the corporal earlier--well, you surely can appreciate how things appear?”
O’Malley turned, and found himself face to face with Colonel R.T.P Allen--commander of the camp. His grey eyes scanned the sergeant a moment, his drawn mouth turned down into a frown which seemed to project a sadness and fatigue under with otherwise jaunty mustache and goatee. At last, O’Malley spoke.
“I admit, circumstances are a bit poor for the boy proclaiming hisself innocent--but he’s all talk Sir, I promise ye Private Beyer never done such violence.”
The colonel stared back into O’Malley’s eyes quietly, and then cleared his throat. He looked over at ‘Rooster’ briefly, and then looked over at the captain who had brought O’Malley up the hill.
“Captain, I think we are able to send the men back to sleep now. Have the sentries stand down, and then have this prisoner escorted to the guard house. He is to be treated gently captain, understood?” The captain nodded, and they pushed ‘Rooster’ away towards the cells in the guard house. O’Malley caught his friend’s eye, willing him to know he would do whatever he could for him and hoping he had the sense to not give the guards any excuse to use more force than necessary. The colonel took a step towards the body of corporal Fry, and stood staring down at it quietly. Swallowing hard, O’Malley began to try to feel his way towards defending his young friend, despite the damning promise to kill the very man who lay dead now at their feet--a promise witnessed by not only himself but the colonel too.
“I don’t understand how Private Beyer could have freed himself,” said the colonel suddenly as he stared at the body at his feet, “and somehow come across a weapon--or would he had had it hidden upon his person perhaps--kill Fry, but then NOT flee to avoid capture?”
“I’m sorry sir? I don’t follow ye.” said O’Malley as he stepped forward to stand beside the tall, aristocratic man he somehow had a hard time seeing as the enemy. The colonel turned and regarded the sergeant a moment before continuing.
“Well sergeant, it’s a matter of logic. To begin with, Private Beyer was locked into the stocks, from which he certainly did not escape from without a key. One has only to glance at the locks to see they are whole, which means someone released him. Now, unless some of you men have stolen a key or found a way to copy one that suggests the private had help from someone from my administration.”
“Did the private make any suggestions as to who might have helped him?” asked O’Malley, suddenly intrigued with the mystery he had walked into.
Colonel Allen shook his head. “None. He stated only that some party unlocked the stocks from behind where he could not see them, and departed. He worked himself free from the look of the way the lock bars are situated.”
“And corporal Fry?”
“You cut to the heart of it, I approve. Fry--at least according to your young friend--had come to accost him, but someone drew him away. I must assume this other party stood roughly where Fry fell. Of course lying as he is, it is reasonable to think your friend neither saw the corporal’s attacker nor the deed being done. Hard to see to the right and behind of one when still stuck into the lock bars of the stocks.”
O’Malley stared at the colonel for a moment, and shook his head. “You already know he didn’t do it.”
“Yes sergeant, I do. But I also am painfully aware of the necessities for my men to feel that justice is done when one of their own--however odious to me--is murdered.”
Sergeant O’Malley hung his head, and stared in anger at the gravel. Colonel Allen’s meaning couldn’t have been any clearer. “So, ‘Rooster’ takes the blame then, an’ one of yours--what truly killed him and seems to have tried to make it look the boy done it--goes free just to protect morale?”
“Not if you find this man before the start of the trial I must convene, Wednesday morning at nine O’clock. I will do what must be done to maintain order and safety for everyone here sergeant; but if we can bring the proper party to justice I should prefer it. I did not join to serve my country so I might hang innocent men simply because it was convenient; despite what you might believe.”
O’Malley looked at the colonel and nodded. “I have your leave then to look into this--officially?”
“You shall, but don’t expect me to openly support you either. I suspect you understand the delicate nature and balance I must maintain.”
O’Malley nodded and Colonel Allen offered his hand. After a moment, they shook firmly. The colonel nodded to him, and then had the remaining sentry escort him back to his hut. The orderlies arrived as they were leaving, none too carefully tossing the remains of corporal Fry onto a canvas stretcher to carry him away. As he made his way down the hill with his escort in tow, Michael O’Malley began to consider the labors now before him. He still had to do his best to root out a possible traitor in their midst--at the request of a gathering of fellow prisoners the commander of Camp Ford would very likely disapprove of. Of course, he was also now commissioned indirectly and unofficially by that same commander of Camp Ford to find the real culprit behind the murder of corporal Fry--and if he didn’t poor ‘Rooster’ would serve as the sacrificial lamb in just two days time.
With a groan, Michael O’Malley began to wonder if perhaps he was cursed.
He realized that ‘cursed’ was indeed the proper term when the next morning O’Malley was accosted by Peel, whilst waiting in the chow line. The cold and accusatory manner of Peel was sharp, even for a man not known as warm and cuddly.
“So, you’ve met with Colonel Allen then?” he said with hard eyes, bumping roughly into O’Malley from behind and he cut into the line. It looked like the man who had been budged in line thought to make issue with Peel for a moment, but then thought better of it.
“Word gets around fast, don’t it?” responded O’Malley with a grunt.
“Oh yeah, don’t think we don’t know everything.”
O’Malley looked back at Peel. “Careful now lad, I might think ye are accusing me of something’! If you knew everything, you’d know why I met the Colonel and that I didn’t choose to do so--I was summoned.”
Peel frowned, but nodded in acceptance. “Well, don’t worry yourself. The committee has decided to suspend your investigations for now.”
“They did what? When did this happen?”
Peel grinned in a way O’Malley found curiously feral for a man he had never felt at odds with previously. “This morning, I’m afraid. It was thought that with young Beyer to worry about, and your private conversations with Colonel Allen--that perhaps it was for the best.”
O’Malley frowned but said nothing, realizing that their conversation was beginning to draw attention around them. He would take this up with Robinson later, and try to understand what was going on. What had made the Escape Committee believe he could possibly be up to something behind their backs? It had been they who had pushed for him to take charge of the investigation to begin with! He regretted the nagging suspicion which told him that Peel was in some way involved in this turn of events--but why? What had he done to draw such ire from the man? For now, he would have to ignore this new trouble; he had work to do in clearing ’Rooster’ of the murder charge. Peel wandered off, vanishing around the corner of one of the nearby buildings.
“That fellow seems an ass.” said the man behind O’Malley suddenly with a smile. O’Malley just nodded and left the chow line to visit ’Rooster’ in the guardhouse. He didn’t feel hungry anymore anyway.
The guardhouse was not far from the Colonel’s house, as well as the barracks where the soldiers that guarded them quartered. He was accosted several times by sentries seeking to know why he felt he had any right to see someone in the guardhouse--that is until he mentioned the Colonel. It would seem that although he suggested he was to be largely uninvolved, the Colonel had at least made it clear that if a prisoner--
Sergeant by rank and Irish by nationality--asked to see the man being held in the guardhouse, he was to be afforded respect and admittance. Smiling as a burly corporal opened the door to the small building which passed for a guardhouse, O’Malley walked in to find ‘Rooster’ a bit worse for the wear but otherwise well.
“How’d you get in here?” asked a surprised ‘Rooster’ getting up from the straw tick in the corner to greet him.
“Influence son, influence.” chuckled O’Malley with a wink. “Don’t get too excited yet though lad, you’re in trouble sure--an’ unless I can find them what done the deed, you’ll pay the piper!”
‘Rooster’ looked serious and nodded. He turned away towards the wall and leaned against it facing away from his friend. “I know, the corporal was telling me all about that this morning with breakfast.” O’Malley reached out and turned his friend around to face him.
“Then you know why we haven’t a moment to waste! Tell me what happened last night--everything you can remember.” For a moment ‘Rooster’ frowned, and then he sat down and began. O’Malley paced the floor as he listened to his young friends’ account of the events the night before. It seemed that indeed, in the dead of the night corporal Fry had turned up to harass him. Surprisingly, he had only taunted and cursed him, though ‘Rooster’ had been certain when he saw Fry he was sure to be beaten while locked up and helpless. After a few moments, Fry seemed to catch sight of someone just out of sight behind where ‘Rooster’ was tied up and called out in a loud whisper--”Here now, what do you want?”--before stepping out of the field of view afforded to a man locked in the stocks. Fry seemed to be gone for only some few minutes when ‘Rooster’ heard a strangled grunt, and then suddenly felt the lock bar of the stocks loosed behind him. He never saw another person, but experimenting with his suspicion of the bar being unlocked, he struggled for some minutes and worked his way free. He had literally stumbled over the body of Fry in the shadows, and realizing that the man was dead cried out in surprise. This seems to have been what had brought the guards who discovered him leaning over the body of one of their own and assumed, understandably, that they had caught him in the act. As to the identity of the person who had distracted Fry and clearly drawn him to his death, ‘Rooster’ hadn’t a clue. It was an awful situation, and though O’Malley felt serious despair over the lack of anything to suggest who actually had done murder on corporal Fry, he tried not to show it. It didn’t work.
“It’s pretty hopeless Mick” said ‘Rooster sitting down and wringing his hands, “I don’t know that there is much to go on.”
“Maybe, but I have to do what I can for you. I don’t know that it helps any, but that Colonel Allen knows ye didn’t do it--he as much told me so last night.”
“That will be a great comfort when they hang me, Mick.” O’Malley smiled sadly at his friend, but said nothing. What was there to be said? He clapped ‘Rooster’ on the shoulder, and called for the guard to let him out. Stepping back into the light of day, O’Malley shaded his eyes briefly from the sun, and turning his head saw Peel. At first, he thought that Peel was skulking around after him trying to dig up more dirt for the escape committee, and the sudden distrust the Iowan was fermenting against him. But then he realized with a shock that sergeant Peel was in fact making his way to the Colonel’s home; to the heart of the administrative center of the camp. O’Malley stood dumbfounded, realizing that Peel hadn’t seen him. As he watched, the man made his way to the sentry, spoke for a moment before being allowed forward. He walked up the short stairs and in through the wide door with an ease that did not suggest he had been summoned or even that this was his first time through that door. When the door closed behind Peel and he had gone from sight, O’Malley stood pondering. He felt a weight in the pit of his stomach, and a light queasiness washed over him. His mind buzzed with the theories, and possible meanings of all that had transpired. He felt a sudden sensation of overwhelming pressure, and inwardly he ranted that he should face such responsibilities. He had never claimed to be terribly clever; nor had he ever considered himself so. Now he faced the confusing motivations of the events at hand, and he feared he would not prove able to handle them. He forced himself to relax, took a breath and tried very hard to consider the facts at hand, one tangled string at a time.
Peel was a member of the escape committee, not one of the founding members but early enough along that it was very hard to imagine he had been deliberately planted amongst them by the enemy. There had been a number of escapes that had ended in failure since O’Malley had come to Camp Ford, but not all of them had had the blessing or assistance of the committee either. Men sometimes just tried their own luck, without going through the loose hierarchy of the organized resistance to their capture. As such he couldn’t imagine any easy way to look for any pattern that might point the finger towards an insider’s involvement in the committee. Sure, there was known to be someone within the camp that was aiding the administration; O’Malley’s short lived investigation had been about just such a person. But no one had ever considered the possibility that the leak was in the committee itself.
O’Malley scratched his chin, feeling the rough stubble, and hit a mental roadblock. Peel himself had been the one that had pushed fervently in the meeting that any traitor be silenced, and had even offered his assistance. Could that have been to keep himself abreast of O’Malley’s findings, and head off anything that might incriminate him? Or was Peel’s meeting with the Colonel simply unfortunate coincidence misconstrued as his own had been? Was Sergeant Peel simply misconstruing the conversation he had had with the colonel the night of the murder (where had he heard about that, he wondered? Camp gossip he supposed) as some complicity with the enemy, which would explain the Iowan’s sudden turn in opposition to him?
There we two things--O’Malley realized with sudden clarity--that he could do to begin unraveling this mess. He could wait for Peel to leave the colonel’s residence and then confront him directly. While the thought of the confrontation with the man who had besmirched his name gave him a slight feeling of joy, he also realized that if Peel was somehow involved with murder (and God knows what else) he would simply be tipping his hand. No, the smarter move would be to begin with the other members of the committee, where all of this had begun. With a sudden sense of confidence, O’Malley turned and set off towards the hospital.
“I don’t have time to talk to you right now sergeant, I have a man in there who has allowed a wound on his toe to corrupt and--” said hospital steward T.J. Robinson who was forced to abruptly stop when O’Malley placed his hand across the doorway blocking the other man’s path.
“I appreciate ye are busy, but this won’t wait.” smiled the Irishman. Robinson sighed, rolled his eyes and nodded in surrender.
“Fine, two minutes then. Come into the office.” The “office” turned out to be little more than a closet sized room with a small desk and two very wobbly old chairs, a makeshift shelf and what appeared to be the hospitals meager and guarded medicine stores. As soon as the door was closed, Robinson sat and gave O’Malley a look that suggested he intended to enforce the time limit.
“Well, what is so blasted important?”
“Why was I pulled from the investigation?”
Robinson got a sheepish look, and sat forward in his seat. “Sorry about that Mike, but we had to take precautions.”
“Ye all about shoe-horned me into that job in the first place, and then ye just shut me down because I got dragged off to talk to Allen on account my good friend seems a sure fit for a murder!”
Now Robinson looked confused. “We didn’t shut you down, we decided simply to postpone until this matter with Beyer is concluded. Didn’t Peel tell you that?”
O’Malley paced the few steps possible and kicked the leg of the empty chair. “Peel made out that you all had decided I was colluding with the enemy, and had pulled me for fear of my loyalties! Did you know that?” Robinson stood up and put a hand on O’Malley’s shoulder.
“No, no--I had no idea Mike! That wasn’t the point at all that the committee reached when we heard about Beyer! We thought the colonel might try to use poor Beyer’s situation to lean on his friends--looking for information on goings on amongst the prisoners in exchange for vague promises of clemency. To be honest none of us thought that likely with you, but we postponed the investigation to ensure everyone’s safety. Peel must have misunderstood.”
A sudden thought came into O’Malley’s head, and he scratched his head. “Wait--you pulled me from the investigation--”
“--right, postponed the investigation because of Beyer being accused of murder. Not because I met with Colonel Allen the night Fry was discovered killed?”
Robinson nodded. “Peel told us about that meeting, and that was when Felman realized the potential danger to us all if the colonel tried to put pressure on you using Beyer’s fate as leverage. Beyond that--as far as I understood--your meeting with Colonel Allen was understood to have been anything but clandestine.”
“Yet somehow, Peel came away feeling I was cooperating with the administration of the camp. Not only that, but he suggested that such was the opinion of the committee as well.”
Robinson looked uncomfortable, clearly putting together the facts and not liking how they seemed to fit. It wasn’t exactly enough to say for certain that Peel was up to something, but then it also raised enough doubts as to warrant a good sit down chat with him. “I’m sure he just misunderstood the situation Mike--but I think we need to have a talk with Sergeant Peel. Any Idea where he is?”
O’Malley hadn’t meant to hold this card until the end this way, but now he almost felt some pleasure in the surprise his words wrought. “Last I saw Sergeant Peel, he was going into the colonel’s residence.”
There was a knock at the door, and one of the volunteers that served as an orderly poked his head in. “Hughes is waiting with his toe. I think I could take this one, if you need me too?” Robinson nodded and smiled at the man.
“Thanks James, if you could I would appreciate it. I’ll need you and Bill to mind shop until I can get back--I have to tend to a serious case which the sergeant here has just brought to my attention.”
They left without a further word between then, and suddenly O’Malley felt a slight pang of unease. What if they were wrong about Peel, and it was just an odd pattern of unrelated coincidence? Maybe he had somehow insulted Peel, and this was simply a childish bit of mud slinging for some slight real or imagined. His doubts evaporated though when Robinson finally broke the silence between them, stopping briefly at the shanty that Smythe and Felman resided in.
“I wish I was more sure--I mean, what if we’re wrong?” said O’Malley quietly as they stopped before the door. The normally calm Robinson turned and shot a nervous glance towards O’Malley.
“It was Peel that we sent to spread the word of the false escape attempts with Lea and Borland. I need to be sure, but I think it may have been Peel who also originally floated their names as possible collaborators to Felman, who brought it to the committee. Felman will have his notes, so we can be sure.”
“What would that mean though?” asked O’Malley, trying to take it all in.
“It may well mean that you found our traitor after all Mike--and he might have been one of us all along.” Robinson knocked loudly three times, and kicked the dirt.
“But, why? I mean, what was the motivation?” asked O’Malley. Before Robinson said another word, Smythe opened the door and smiled in greeting. His smile fell away quickly though as Robinson’s expression made clear this wasn’t a social call.
“We need to discuss something Smythe, fetch Felman and his notes.”
“I surmise--from that fact that you are here at this time of the day when no doubt you were seen--that you have something important to tell me?” asked Colonel Allen as he sat behind his desk, tapping his slender fingers on the blotter. His guest smiled, but it was immediately apparent to Allen that this bravado was bluff. He was scared, plain and simple. The colonel sighed deeply, and turned his gaze at the plaster ceiling above. “Well, let’s have it then--what have you to tell me?
His guest looked around the office, a small but comfortable space. “I have information that you will find very interesting.”
Colonel Allen sat upright, taking in this spineless excuse for a man and hating himself for stooping to such levels to maintain the camp. He lamented briefly, as he so often did, that an officer of his quality should be reduced to such a posting. The place wore away at dignity and honor on both sides--and it seemed the harder you tried to stay above the petty, dirty requirements of running a prisoner camp, the more you resorted to the very same unsavory methods. Dishonorable approaches to duty such as informants; men willing to sell out their own comrades in arms to ensure they had a little more than everyone else. This man was no exception. But despite how he might feel as a soldier, Allen knew his duty very well. “Let me guess. I suspect you have names of those who have organized to support and promote escape from my post? I seem to recall asking if you had any knowledge of such a rumored group previously, and now you just happen to have found out something?”
His guest cocked his head to one side, and seemed to consider his answer before speaking. “I have my reasons colonel, and this seems a good time.”
“Well then, the names?” said the colonel, grasping a pen in hand and laying a clean sheaf of paper before him as he inked the nib and prepared to write.
“I need some assurances first colonel, and your word on the deal.” responded his guest firmly. Colonel Allen set his pen down, and considered the man before him. He was still trying very hard to mask a sense of urgency and threat to himself, and had not Allen the keenly honed instincts he possessed the act might have worked.
What was it then, thought the colonel. This man had been a reliable source of information for several months on planned escape attempts, allowing for safe capture of over 15 men without incident. He had given them names in a well organized theft and smuggling ring amongst some of the New Yorkers--the conclusion of which had finally explained where a steady stream of the officers mess supplies had been disappearing too. Those times, he had betrayed no emotion expect a veiled pleasure at reporting what he knew--like the tattle-tail sibling that catches out the normally puritanical older sister or brother. But not this time. What had happened to change his approach?
“I think I have always been true to my word with you,” said Allen nodding to the man.
“You have, but this time what I know is worth a lot more. If I tell you, I will need more than extra privileges. I will need some protection.”
Protection? Ah, so they know about you, or you suspect they know.
“Fear of reprisal then?”
The man nodded, but Allen felt sure it was even more than that. This fellow was in deep, that much as clear. Playing two sides against the middle? Clearly, he had conducted games for which he no longer felt disposed to pay the wager. The colonel debated his options, feeling reluctant to reward this coward for his duplicitous actions. Of course, those actions were in the ultimate service of the Confederacy, but Allen still could not fully reconcile himself with that.
“Perhaps I simply cut you loose, since an informant under protection is hardly able to gather further information. What use would you be to me?”
The man looked wide-eyed back at him, his lip trembling slightly. He looked around, as though someone might be watching, and leaning forward.
“I can give you the name of the man who truly killed your man Fry.” Now, he truly had Allen’s attention, but he had to be sure that this man wasn’t simply doing anything to save himself, suggesting he knew something he really didn’t.
“If that is so, you might know something about the particulars of the killing too.” responded the colonel calmly, staring into the mans eyes. “You’d know, for instance that the corporal was beaten with something heavy--dragged out before the stocks and left in the dirt.”
The man blinked, swallowed hard and shook his head.
“His throat was cut, with a shiv improvised from a mess spoon. I don’t know about after that, but when I saw him he was left where--where the fella I saw do it jumped him.”
Colonel Allen leaned back, his hands over his mouth and nodded. This man knew. Looking him over quietly, Allen nodded. “Alright, you have my word--I’ll find a way to protect you--but you will have to tell me everything. Agreed?”
A look of relief washed over the mans face, and he sighed loudly. “Of course, everything--anything you want.”
So, who?” asked the colonel impatiently.
“Sergeant Peel. It was Peel who killed Fry, I was there and I saw it happen.”
Allen let that awareness settle, then went on. “Why, what was his reason? Why were you both there?”
The man shifted uncomfortably for a moment, before answering. “We were on our way back from meeting a sergeant over in commissary--we had a deal with him for luxuries. We ran into Fry by mistake, but Peel wasn’t about to let the chance meeting go by--we used to work with him, but business with Fry had gone sour. Fry had started demanding a bigger cut from the proceeds for our operation--Peel went crazy and told him off. Fry threatened to blow our whole deal to you if Peel didn’t come around and gave him a couple of days to think about it. That’s how Peel lured him over to talk, when we saw him taunting ‘Rooster’ in the stocks. When he got close, well--Frank went crazy! He had Fry in his hands so quick I couldn’t believe it! He kept muttering that it was no different than cutting a hogs throat--I want to be sure he doesn’t find out I told you this. He’ll kill me, I know it!”
The colonel motioned for calm, and realized this man was being truthful. He stood, came over and patted the mans shoulder. “ We’ll see what we can do.”
At that moment there was a knock to the door, and his aide stepped in a short way. Colonel Allen looked over, straightening up to his full height.
“What is it, captain?”
Captain Saunders had the kind of face that never seemed to change in expression no matter what he said. “Colonel, there is a prisoner here with one of your passes who would like to see you.” Colonel Allen had issued numbered and personally signed passes to his few informants in the camp to allow them to make their way through the internal guard posts. This of course allowed the informants to secretly report to him after dark and avoid being discovered as traitors amongst their own people. With an uncomfortable shock, he realized that this was how Peel and the cowering man in his office now had affected their illegal enterprises which had ended in murder.
“Who is it Captain?” asked the colonel, suddenly trying to stifle his surprise as the waiting informant shouldered his way past captain Saunders and looked from him to the man seated.
Peel frowned as he looked from the colonel to the now blubbering man seated next to him.
“Oooh…..Frank…..I…I didn’t…..” babbled the man softly, but Frank Peel interrupted him.
“Well, hello colonel--Felman, what a surprise to see you here.”
“I haven’t seen Charlie since earlier today when Frank Peel was over.” said Smythe with a shrug.
O’Malley and Robinson looked at one another, while Smythe looked confused.
“Peel was here?” asked Robinson.
“He was, and not in the best of moods. Sometimes I think I know that man, and then he shows up like he did today! I’m surprised you two couldn’t hear them arguing!”
“Arguing?” asked O’Malley quizzically.
“Yes, Felman and Peel really got into it over something---I never did quite figure out what it was about--but whatever it was Charlie left here shaken.”
O’Malley sat back on the rickety wooden chair he had been offered inside the hut and closed his eyes. He was very tired, and his arm was stiff and painful. He was tired of this puzzle, and realized with dread that he still had no idea who had actually killed corporal Fry. It was Monday afternoon, and he was out of time. Robinson was groaning to himself, and O’Malley heard him stand up and start pacing.
“My God Smythe! Felman and Peel? I mean, is it possible?” said Robinson suddenly with a clear burst of exasperation. Smythe, for his part not yet acquainted with what any of this was about, said nothing. O’Malley opened his eyes and hung his head.
“We can’t assume nothing’ yet Robinson.”
“Can’t we?” rounded Robinson. “We got those names through Felman from Peel. Peel comes here earlier, they argue and now we cant find either of them. What is, those two were both working something on the side and needed Lea and Borland out of their way? Competition conveniently sidelined? Or, were they trying to throw us off the scent of the real traitors since they knew we in the committee suspected we had a leak?”
Now Smythe looked very attentive, and he clearly had begun to piece what they were talking about together for himself.
“Do you mean,” he said quietly, “that the Felman and Peel might have been giving information to the enemy all a long?”
O’Malley nodded. “Its looks so.”
“We have no idea really, but it’s clear they were up to something. We need to find them.” said Robinson as he took up a place on an empty chair. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and Fitzgerald strode in purposefully.
“O’Malley, there you are--Robinson too. You’re both wanted up at the colonels office, they didn’t say why they wanted either of you.” said Fitzgerald, looking a little nervous as his red hair nearly glowed in the dusky light of the hut.
O’Malley and Robinson look at one another, various thoughts of the possible reason for their being summoned running through their minds--none of them good. Smythe and Fitzgerald watched them go, wondering when they might next see their friends--and if there might be a summons for their names next.
When they approached the colonel’s house, it was clear that something was going on. There were extra guards on the front porch, and every one of them was alert in a way rarely seen day to day. The pair exchanged a look as they paused briefly, before starting on toward the last gate and entry into the administration compound.
“So, what do ye think it is they want us for?”
Robinson frowned as they walked on towards the waiting sentries.
“I don’t know Mike, though I am sure you are thinking the same as I as far as possibilities.”
“Yeah, that with Felman involved in something--an’ if that something be ratting to the enemy--the whole committee might be asked to join this little party.”
“We’ll know soon enough.”
The sentry stopped them at the gate of the unpainted picket fence and asked their business. When they gave their names, the sentry called out to another standing nearby and had them escorted to the colonel’s house. A sensation of tightness, as though he was being squeezed into a small space came over O’Malley as he passed the group of sentries arrayed on the porch. He began to say a silent prayer for all those he knew, and an apology to poor ‘Rooster’ for whom he felt at a loss to do anything now. They passed into the hall, with their escort behind them and suddenly both men were confused by what greeted them. The smell of blood was sickeningly apparent, more to Robinson who was used to such things in Hospital, but the tang of it stung O’Malley just as much. They passed into the office, and there matters became clearer and yet more confused. Peel was dead, having been shot through the head near the colonel’s desk. Felman too was here, slumped forwards over a chair nearby. They could not tell how he had died, but a cruel looking shiv laying nearby gave them a strong suggestion. A captain, judging by his uniform, lay along the wall near the door. He too had clearly been stabbed, and the gash across his throat was testament to the violence that had played out here. Their eyes fell on the colonel at last, who was sitting at his desk, a small pocket revolver laying before him amongst his papers. He looked up at them, taking his eyes from the body of Peel, and sat up straight.
“You may wait outside private.”
The sentry obeyed, and closed the door behind them. O’Malley and Robinson stepped forward, trying to avoid the dark pools of blood.
“Sad state of affairs, isn’t it?”
The pair looked about at the carnage, and for the first time O’Malley began to wonder if Colonel Allen had snapped and done this himself. But a close examination showed the pain and distress in the colonel’s eyes, and he realized that if anything Allen was more disgusted by this scene and perhaps close to breaking down.
“What, what happened here colonel?” asked Robinson looking around.
“The sins of a man come back to roost gentlemen, even if those sins are done in the service of his duty and with all honorable intent.” responded the colonel, before stepping over to a window and opening it wide to allow fresh air into the room. He stood there a moment before launching into the story of what had gone before.
When Peel had discovered Felman in the colonel’s office, he had gone mad and attacked his fellow conspirator before anyone could stop him. No one had thought to search Peel for weapons--because of the pass he carried given to him by the Allen--and so he made quick work of the blubbering Felman. Captain Saunders had fallen next, in trying to subdue Peel. Allen felt sure that surely he would also have joined the dead had he not withdrawn to his desk and produced his pocket revolver from the drawer. Even so, Allen said, Peel had charged with a wild look in his pale blue eyes. The shot had brought the sentries outside, but it was already too late.
“And so gentlemen, it seems that in the pursuit of my duty I have abated such monsters in my own camp. It was Peel, at admission from Felman that killed corporal Fry. I have ordered Private Beyer to be released, Sergeant O’Malley--hence the reason I summoned you.”
O’Malley and Robinson looked at one another, working through all that they had been told.
“Thank ye Sir,” said O’Malley, “and Robinson?”
The colonel looked at Robinson as though it was the first time he had seen him in the room, nodded and returned to his desk. “Oh, yes…the steward--I understood you kept a list of those who died within camp, and knew you’d want to be made aware of your men. Will you take charge of them? I will attach several men to assist you in moving them.”
Robinson did his best not to show his relief, and nodded. “Yes Sir, thank you very much.”
The colonel nodded in return, reached down amongst his papers and offered one to O’Malley. The Irishman stepped forward and took it, discovering that it was an order of release for ‘Rooster’. The colonel then scribbled a note on a sheet of paper and signed it, before waving Robinson over.
“Give this to the sergeant outside, and he will detail you the men to move these bodies. Tell him also I want a second detail to be made up to get this office cleaned up.”
“Yes Sir, thank you Sir.” Robinson saluted the colonel, and Allen returned it. The pair left the room, sighing relief to themselves. When they had gone, Colonel Allen opened a drawer and put the revolver away. From a second drawer he took out a small stack of passes, and examined them for a moment before tearing them in two and tossing their remains into the small stove across the room.
O’Malley smiled heartily at ‘Rooster’ when he came out of the guardhouse, covering his eyes from the light.
“I suppose this means I owe you now, huh?” asked ‘Rooster’ with a scowl which was quickly replaced by a smile.
“Ye can do me laundry for the next month, then we’re square.”
“Good, then at least I can be sure no one is stinking up the hut--I got used to clean upkeep whilst the colonel had me at a guest in the ‘Ford Hotel’ here.”
The pair laughed, and made their way through the ramshackle streets of Camp Ford. Somewhere, a crowd clapped and roared with laughter as they watched the Ohio boys in their newest show.