CHAPTER FOUR GRANT'S LAST TRAIN
Ulys was late for the train, and had to run to catch it.
No one watching the short, bearded man in a dirty blue jacket and scuffed bowler hat, would expect him to be Ulysses S. Grant. He was completely unremarkable in appearance, except for a stare that seemed to penetrate people, and the constant cloud of cigar smoke that hung around him. His first act, on gaining the train with the help of a magnanimous porter, was to light a cigar, and then clamber past the other, preoccupied passengers, stow away his rucksack, and sit down.
He read over the letter in his hand again; he'd been clutching it for so long it was crumpled and dirty, and torn in two minor places. It was from Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War. It read:
CONFEDERATES HAVE BROKEN POTOMAC ARMY AT GETTYSBURG. WASHINGTON UNDER THREAT. ARE TO LEAVE SHERMAN, COME EAST. TO TAKE COMMAND IMMEDIATELY.
Grant had pressed the note into Tecumseh's hand, and the man had read it with a face that became more solid and unmoving as he took it in. By the time he'd finished and handed it back his face was a wooden mask, all straight lines and angles.
"Congratulations General. If any can make a better situation of this it's you." It was the coldest thing Sherman had ever said to him.
He had had barely any time to put the army in order; the note said "Leave Sherman" and he read it to mean leave Sherman in command, and had set him up so. He'd accepted gracefully, but uncomfortably; Grant knew the man lacked confidence in some areas, especially with the press around, and they had swarmed the camp as he'd left. Neither felt right leaving the other on his own as the war entered it's critical stage, and both could feel it like ice in their minds, freezing any notions of an easy peace.
The train ride was unremarkable; twice gray calvary set upon it, but each time were rebuffed by the blue escort, riding in and on top of the train. When Grant reached Ohio he stopped for a while, bought a new box of cigars, and smoked solemnly and silently the rest of the trip. Most of the passengers wondered who this strange, smelly man was, to be riding so far so fast in comfort with them.
As he smoked he thought.
Meade had broken away from the engagement after Lee turned his flank at Little Round Top, this much Grant knew for sure. After, he had retreated beyond the Potomac to rest his men, resupply, and protect the capital. Lee had pressed him all the way there, with his precious horse-boy Jeb Stuart, and Longstreet remained with him, organizing a quick bridge over the river and setting up the initial defenses on the other side, so close to Washington. Meade had stepped back even further like a cowed dog, and was harboring in the city and throwing up earthworks and defenses at tremendous speed.
All this Grant had learned from intelligence coming West. What confused him was the vague and scarifying reports of traitors among the Army. Men had turned on each other during a critical bayonet charge, the word went, even dropping their weapons and turning on their friends with a horrible, satanic fury to bury their teeth and nails in the flesh. And the Union was not alone in this madness anymore it seemed. Lee had halted on the other side of the Potomac, giving Meade more time. Some believed he was marshalling his forces for a final push, but Grant knew Lee well enough in passing to know it wasn't the case. James Longstreet, his best man once, and enemy now, had spoken of the brilliant, agressive military mind in Lee once or twice before the war.
Lee wouldn't make a mistake that would let Meade recover and prepare. The alternate reports, both hopeful and bizarre, seemed truer. The same madness that had lost Little Round Top had gripped the Gray Army and spread among its ranks to stop the advance.
But Lee had cleaned house, and quickly too. Travellers -a rarer sight now by far - spoke of mass graves, where men still seemed to move, as if trying to escape. A spy among Lee's column had told of terrible brutalities visited upon the sick; nothing new, not with field hospitals Grant had seen (and thankfully avoided, he thought) but of isolated men left alone and then... burned.
Grant was half-asleep when the train stopped, blurred images of men gone mad, tearing into one another, troubling his mind. His head jerked forwar as the emergency brakes were applied, and cries of shock and fear echoed in the dim light of the cabin. An official-looking man with a large black walrus mustache stepped up and told everyone to be calm, and then left for the engine. Grant's eyes burned in the dark as he looked quickly around all outside; he felt something like a tickle in the back of his mind.
There were shapes in the darkness, man-shapes, flitting quickly between dark trunks and approaching the train at a reckless pace.
'Confederates,' he thought, but it could not be right, his puzzled head insisted. Leaning over the front of his seat he tugged the hair of a young soldier poised on his seat with a rifle in hand. The young man jumped and nearly cracked his head on the overhead compartment, and looked back at Grant, wide-eyed, breathing fast with panic.
Grant spoke in a low, calm voice and the man seemed more at ease as he came to realize who was addressing him. "Where are we?"
"Just past Chicago, sir. The conductor put in for a transfer route, so to avoid any more attacks by those rebs, well, you saw them sir, they were comin' at us all the time, it was a wonder we made it so far, and, and..."
Grant patted the boy's arm, straining to reach far enough to do it. He spoke to himself but the soldier listened with more attention than he gave the fast-moving shapes that began to disappear around the other side of the train.
"So we can't be hit by them... who?" Grant broke off as footsteps sounded on top of the train. A few shots rang out, and then screams filtered through the open windows, which everyone next to moved to close, fumbling and crying in their haste to jam them back up.
"Enemies then," Grant said, and nodded. He looked to the young soldier. "What's your name?"
"Alexander Gregg, sir."
"Stick by me Gregg. Keep your rifle ready, but don't shoot me. I wouldn't like to be shot now, by my own boys." Grant smiled and stuck a cigar between his teeth.
Gregg smiled. It was small and sickly looking, but there. "Yes sir," he whispered.
Grant pulled out his revolver and stood up. He moved for the door the official walrus had left through, when a lean, blood-slick figure burst through the door and screamed. It sounded like a scream; it might have been a laugh, but it was the most humorless laugh Grant had ever heard, and it was inhuman. A woman shrieked, and that saved him, for the figure had looked to Grant first, standing in the aisle. It leaped on the woman, batting aside her arms and digging into her neck with its teeth. Her cries trailed off, and Grant lifted his arm, which felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, and the gun another thousand. But the creature had looked up, was grinning at him now, bits of flesh and an earing stuck in its upper lip dangling from the mouth, and its eyes were hollow and black. A shot echoed in the cabin and smoke drifted from young Gregg's gun.
The creature fell dead. Grant grunted his appreciation to Gregg and took a long pull on the cigar to fortify himself, and then ran up the aisle and out the door. Dark, swift men ran all about, stopping to leap on some poor soldier where they found them, and from overhead more screams of pain and shock echoed in the empty land. Grant hopped down to crouch beside the tracks and heard Gregg mutter and swear as he came down with a louder thump. He ran along the side of the train and Gregg came limping behind.
A creature staggered up off the corpse of a fallen porter; Grant shot it through the eye as he passed, and the mouth went slack and a gush of blood poured out. Another creature rushed him, drawn by the sound of gunfire, and Gregg dispatched it.
But even more were eyeing them and charging, and Grant had barely any time to reload before the next was on him. He heard a scream from behind, and saw at first a midget biting Gregg on his arm - and then his mind caught up to his eyes and he realized it was not a midget but a torso only, raised up by its arms and chewing with wet, nasty crunches against bone. Gregg was flailing everywhere; Grant grabbed his shoulder, pulled a knife with his left hand, and stuck the blade deep into the abomination's skull. The teeth opened with an audible clack and the whole assembly fell onto the late evening grass. Grant and Gregg ran for it.
Gregg wrapped the wound with his shirt, pulling it off as he went, but it was strangely bloodless; he could see bone, but the dark flow congealed and hardened faster than could be. He filed it in the back of his mind, however, and covered the general as he rushed up the engine to the conductor's seat. Two monsters ran at Gregg, one loping on all fours like a hound, and Gregg shot them both. Even in his panic and fear, Grant's presence and fortitude comforted him, and he noted coldly, with more relevance than he had given even his arm, that they only fell when shot in head or heart.
Grant pulled himself up and was greeted by a conductor with no throat; but, still alive, he had eaten the official walrus, who stirred Grant's heartfelt sympathies for exactly one and a half seconds before he put a bullet in the conductor, bounded into the area, and called for Gregg. He tried not to notice the pieces of the walrus that had been swallowed, only to reemerge, freshly masticated, in the hideous conductor's face.
Gregg was in; Grant pulled hard on the switches and levers, thought of pulling the steam whistle, and then thought better of it, remembering how they had come in packs towards the sounds of gunfire. He leaned out as they began to escape, feeling a breathless fluttering in his chest and an exhilarated, angry rush in his temple. He cried, in a hoarse voice: "Ha! Basterds, get your meal or get off! Ha, follow then!" He felt wild, and blood thundered so hard through him he thought he must burst from the pressure. Gregg stared at him as if wary of what he might do. Grant gave him a smile that was more a show of teeth than humor, and swore as he dropped his cigar.