Read an Excerpt
She said she would be the short, dumpy blond woman carrying a thin, green leather valise. He told her he would be the tall, skinny man wearing rimless glasses and an Indiana Jones fedora.
There she was. There was Rebecca Fentress of the Marion County, Iowa, Historical Society. And here he was, Don Spaniel of the National Park Service. He had guessed, from the sound of her voice on the phone, that she could be somewhat elderly, as old as seventy possibly. But fifty-five or even less was his best estimate now upon seeing her in person. Not only did she talk older than she was, she was dressed that way in a two-piece dark blue cotton dress with a skirt that fell a good two inches below the knee.
“Doctor Spaniel, I presume,” she said to him.
“Ms. Fentress?” he said, removing his hat.
A friend had given him the fedora two years ago as a thirty-fifth birthday present. It was meant as a joke because Don, like Indiana Jones, was an archeologist. But Don so loved the hat that he had made it part of who he was, wearing it routinely. Reg Wom- ach, his laid-back Smithsonian anthropologist friend, often called him Harrison, as in Harrison Ford, the actor who played Indiana Jones in the movies. That didn’t bother Don. He figured there were worse things in life for a skinny guy in glasses to be called than Harrison Ford.
“I have always wanted to say something like ‘Doctor Spaniel, I presume,’ ” Ms. Fentress said.
Don Spaniel smiled at her. His impression was that here was a woman who was as pleasant as she was plain and who most probably, in his instant analysis, was very smart. He was prepared to like and admire her even more if the private Civil War papers of the late Albert Randolph of the Eleventh Connecticut Volunteers were in that green case she was clutching to her body.
They were standing just inside the main entrance of Washington’s majestic Union Station—a six-foot-four gawky man leaning down to a speak to a five-foot-four solid woman who was looking almost straight up. In silhouette, they could have easily passed for a Norman Rockwell painting, possibly a small-town high school English teacher speaking to the basketball coach about a star player’s D2 theme on a Charles Dickens novel.
Rebecca Fentress had called Don from Union Station less than twenty minutes earlier to announce her surprise arrival in Washington, D.C., and to arrange an immediate meeting with him. He had suggested she get in a taxi and come to his office, which he assured her was barely ten minutes away in an area called Potomac Park. She said she really would rather not leave the station. All right, he said. How about meeting me in front of the huge electronic schedule board at the main entrance of the train station?
It was three in the afternoon. There were many people going to and from trains and milling about the many shops in Union Station, which had been very successful since being rehabilitated into a retail center as well as a train station a few years ago. He noticed the several open restaurants there in the main rotunda were not crowded and he suggested they find a quiet place in one.
“I don’t fly on airplanes,” Ms. Fentress said to Don. “It takes a long time to get from Iowa to here by train, it really does. You have to go through Chicago, for one thing; Pittsburgh, for another.”
Soon, they were seated in the quietest corner of a place which, according to its menu, offered at least one food specialty from each of the fifty states.
“I’ll bet the one from Iowa has something to do with corn,” said Rebecca Fentress. “Corn is what people think of when they think of Iowa—corn and pigs.” She was right. Iowa’s representative was listed under side orders: corn on the cob.
She ordered a piece of pecan meringue pie, a specialty of New Mexico, and a cup of Maryland coffee, which appeared to Don to be like any other kind of coffee.
He didn’t want anything now except what might be in Ms. Fentress’s valise, but, to be polite, he got a simple no-state’s Diet Coke.
“I have brought you Xerox copies of the Albert Randolph materials,” Ms. Fentress said before she made even a move to touch anything.
Don wanted to reach across the table and hug Rebecca Fentress. But all he did—all he thought that was appropriate to do—was say, “Thank you very much. I really do appreciate what you have done.” He came close to speaking on behalf of some long-dead men from a Connecticut regiment of volunteers with names such as Kingsbury, Griswold, Allbritten, and Mackenzie. But he thought better of it. That, too, would have been over the top.
“The originals are under lock and key at our local bank, and there they will likely always remain,” she said. “No one will ever again be allowed to read them.”
Don, in his state of hyperhappiness, didn’t quite get it. What was she saying? “Why? What’s the problem?” he asked.
“The problem is only that the board of trustees of our historical society decided our purpose was only to collect and preserve things from the past, not to stir them up.”
She was no longer smiling as she took several bites of her pie and a sip of coffee.
“How do you plan to use the information contained in these papers, doctor?” she then asked.
“I’m not sure, to tell you the absolute truth. I am not sure, of course, what is in them to begin with. . . .”
“I told you on the phone that they were sensitive and that they were definitive. I am confident you will find them so as well. They will undoubtedly clear up any questions you might have about what happened at the bridge at Antietam on September 17, 1862.”
“I’m delighted and excited at that prospect.” Delighted and excited said only half of it. His very soul swung and swayed with the prospect of finally knowing exactly what had happened.
She pushed away her pie plate and coffee cup and reached over to her green case, which she had placed on the table to her left. She moved it in front of her and zipped it open.
Don Spaniel began to feel as if he were some kind of mysterious operative, here amid the cover of a crowded train station, receiving from Courier Fentress of Iowa the secrets, the goods—the magic.
“Here,” she said, handing him a sealed white envelope. It looked thick. There were several pages of something inside.
Don took the envelope and said, “Thank you, Ms. Fentress. I promise you that I will not—”
“No promises, please. None is necessary. I did this of my own free will to satisfy my own needs and beliefs.”
She zipped the valise closed, looked at her watch, and stood. “Now I must go catch my train.”
Don was on his feet. “Where are you going?”
“Home, doctor. Home.”
“But didn’t you just get here?”
“I came here to hand you that envelope personally. I felt it was too important to leave to the vagaries of the U.S. mails or one of the private express firms. My mission accomplished, I am going home.”
Don left a ten-dollar bill on the table. She started walking; he fell in beside her.
“Your luggage? Where is your luggage?”
“A redcap took it when I got off the train. He’s probably now, as we speak, putting it in my compartment on the new train. That is what I asked him to do, at least. I love traveling in those bedrooms. Have you ever done that?”
“No, ma’am, I haven’t.”
“It’s tight for two—are there two of you?”
“No, ma’am. And at the rate I’m going there may never be more than me—than one.”
“There are worse things,” she said with a clip in her tone.
Message most definitely received, Don said, “My problem is that my job is pretty much my life—too much, say the women who come and go. I’m accused of living too much in the past.”
“That’s what some people say about me, too.”
They passed a boutique hardware shop and a bookstore and a model-train emporium and several more eating places and were now nearing her gate for Amtrak’s Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh and Chicago.
He told her how much he had enjoyed meeting her, again thanked her, and again praised her for what she had done to help him resolve a 134-year-old mystery.
“It must be quite satisfying and fulfilling work you do as an archeologist, particularly on the Civil War.”
“Extraordinarily so, yes, ma’am.”
Ms. Fentress extended her right hand, and he took it in his. She said, “What I do is also satisfying and fulfilling. Few people at home understand why I would be content to run a historical society in my small town. I, frankly, can no longer imagine not doing so.”
“I’m the same exact way,” Don said.
She had more to say: “Please let me know once you have decided what you’re going to do with the Randolph material.”
Don promised to do so. He was suddenly eager for Rebecca Fentress to get back on her train. He wanted desperately to tear open the envelope and read the Randolph papers. Onward, please. Good-bye. Have a nice train trip, please. . . .
But there was one last thing. “Doctor Spaniel, I trust you are prepared to deal with the consequences of telling Albert Randolph’s Antietam story?”
“I believe I am. . . . Yes, ma’am.” It was, in fact, something to which he had not given that much thought. Most of what he had considered thus far had to do specifically with Jim Allbritten and Fred Mackenzie, two present-day descendants of the men in Randolph’s story. But first, he had to confirm conclusively what had occurred in the heat of battle on an Antietam hillside 134 years ago. Then he would deal with what to do about it—what to say to Allbritten and Mackenzie, among others.
“Opening up graves can sometimes lead to an unleashing of old demons and to unexpected consequences,” added Ms. Fentress.
“I know. Yes, I know,” said Don, barely able to conceal his readiness for her to leave. But he owed her an answer. “I believe that those consequences, whatever they are, are part of the history. Whatever is meant to be, will be.”
She seemed about to respond but then apparently thought better of it and did finally go.
But from the way she flicked her head to the right and squinted her eyes, Don read a message of disagreement from Rebecca Fentress of Iowa.
Whatever. Don watched with great pleasure as she showed her Amtrak ticket to the gate attendant and then disappeared in the direction of Iowa.
He spotted a section of deserted chairs by a train gate not then in use and raced for them, ripping open the envelope as he ran.
Once seated, he carefully removed the papers.
The first page was typed. It appeared to be a list of items, signed by a sheriff. Then there were an official army document, a copy of a newspaper clipping, a black-and-white photograph, and, finally, several pieces of white copy paper folded over in thirds and held together at the top by a large silver paper clip.
Don unfolded the pages. There was handwriting on them. It was a letter. He removed the clip.
He could feel his heart beating, his pulse quickening, his breath shortening—his soul leaping.
The handwriting was large, clear, and clean.
In the upper-right-hand corner of page one, in neat script, was the date. “September Seventeen, Eighteen Hundred and Seventy Two.”
Ten years to the day after the battle of Antietam!
Then Don began to read the text:
I, Albert Randolph, here now render terrible words of con- fession. I have addressed them to no particular person or persons because I do not know who will ultimately read them. I have written them mostly for myself rather than for others. I have written them because I have no choice but to write them; my troubled soul and my angry God permit no other course.
I was party to one of the most heinous crimes the darkest side of the human spirit can generate. It was committed on a day ten years ago near a Maryland town named Sharpsburg on a creek called the Antietam.
I render this confession on this day because the anniversary memories are acutely painful to my being. That pain, unbearable and unrelenting, provides the force that moves my pen across this page.
On that morning of September seventeen, the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty-two, I was serving as a sergeant in the Eleventh Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. Assigned to the Second Brigade of the Third Division of the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, we were a proud and worthy unit of men, dedicated to fighting for the preservation of our hallowed Union and for the glory and reputation of our beloved birth state of Connecticut.
We were on that day given the mission of seizing access to and control of the Lower Bridge across Antietam Creek, which was in the State of Maryland not far from the Potomac River and the State of Virginia. We were part of a large and determined force under the leadership of General George McClellan that had as its ultimate mission to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee.
There were no questions in any mind or heart among those of us in the Army of the Potomac that we would be victorious.