Major Robert Morehouse let his eyes drift over the rag-tag troop of men in rough navy uniforms looking for something--anything--that stood out. They were mostly draftees or those enlisted as substitutes for draftees who bought their way out of the Union Army. Just from listening to them talk he knew that most were European immigrants, many of them recent, with heavy accents. Of all ages, but mostly young, too many of them looked scared.
Fear had its place on the battlefield, but would these men freeze in its face?
As he strode towards these men assigned to him and his handful of officers--men of his station and education--he wondered how he could convince these men, so very different from all in his experience, to follow him. Nearing them, he saw a few look his way but only one straightened his spine and fell silent. His eyes landed on the major, not insolent, but calm, waiting, and around him the men fell silent as well.
Hm, a natural leader?
Corky saw the man approach dressed in a uniform cut from much more expensive cloth than his own, boots polished, gleaming sword at his hip, and recognized him for what he was--their leader. No matter if he was a rich boy, spoiled by his father, having never worked a day in his life. He was still just a man and, to Corky, all men were equal. And they would have to rely on this man to guide them through the battles to come.
And they would come. Kevin Corcoran had no illusions there. After the sad failure at Manassas where the Union had been so cocky to think the war would end with one major battle, there had been a mad scramble for soldiers and weapons. The draft was hated by most of his fellows, but he was one of the few who had enlisted.
In America he'd found a country he could love and he hated to see it torn apart. So, he'd fight, and, God willing, survive.
Straightening his spine he met the Major's eyes. He'd give him initial respect and see if he earned more of it.
Robert tried not to despair over the men's ineptitude with pistols and rifled muskets. Oh, most could shoot, though few could hit a target, but they knew nothing of the care of the weapons. As he passed through the ranks, watching his sergeants trying to give instruction on cleaning, he stopped to watch one man do it with quick proficiency and ease. This was the man he'd seen that first day, who'd looked him in the eye and quieted the other men with just a glance.
Corky looked up, then started to rise to attention, but the Major waved him down.
"Where did you learn that?"
"What? Cleaning a pistol? My work. I'm a copper in New York."
Robert whistled. "A hard place to live."
Corky nodded and shrugged his shoulders. "I grew up there. It's home. I want to protect it."
"That's something we have in common with our enemy, I'm afraid."
"Men fight twice as hard when it's their home being threatened. I learned that in Five Points."
Smiling, Robert nodded. "Threats come from all kinds to all places. It's how we respond to those threats that tell what kind of men we are."
"What's your name, Private?"
"Kevin Corcoran, sir."
"Let me guess. They call you Corky."
Nodding, Kevin gave him a wry smile.
After every battle that he survived, Corky found a quiet place among the din of the wounded and dying and said a silent prayer while looking at the picture of his wife and daughter. He was determined to return to them, hopefully in one piece. After doing so this night, he sat before a fire with his companions, eating watery soup and trying not to itch at the lice in his beard. Time for another trip to the barber for a scrubbing with carbolic soap. Setting aside his empty tin, he reached into his coat and took out a well-worn letter. Most of his fellow soldiers couldn't read but his mam had made sure he learned and it paid off now. His wife Ellen's letters, though few, were treasured and read over and over. She spoke of the day to day in New York, of their daughter Maggie and how she fared, of the gossip and the news, but never her fears. He could see them in every sentence, though.
As his fellow soldiers grew raucus, celebrating their survival, he mumbled his exuses, took up his tin bowl and went to wash it, then headed back to the tent he shared with four others. While he was glad to be alive, he wanted a few moments of peace to bask in the warmth of his wife's words.
Passing the upper echelons's tents, he nearly collided with Major Morehouse and hastily excused himself.
"No worries, Corcoran," Robert said, his voice light, almost jovial. "Glad to see you made it. It was a hard fought victory."
"Hard to tell sometimes if we did win." Corky spoke without thought, then swallowed hard and waited for a sharp word in reply, but it didn't come. Morehouse gave him a soft look and nodded.
"The wages of war are paid by our blood." He gestured to his arm. Beneath the shirt sleeve, Corky could see a thick bandage.
"You were wounded, Major?"
"Cannon shrapnel. I was lucky. Lieutenant Ames, not so much. He lost too much blood."
"I'm sorry for his loss. He was a good man."
"We lost a lot of good man, of all ranks." Robert's eyes narrowed a bit shrewdly. "Rank doesn't matter to you, does it, Corcoran? Oh, you respect it, if we've earned it, but you don't defer to it."
"I came to America when I was barely four years and my da and mam raised me to believe in what this country stands for. That all men are created equal. They wanted me to better myself, saw to it I learned my letters, but also taught me I was no better or worse than any other."
"I wish my father saw it that way," Robert mused, then mentally shook himself and smiled. "It's good you survived the battle, Corky. I won't keep you longer."
"Major," Kevin nodded and waited for Morehouse to continue on his way before heading towards his own tent.
The Major was a good man and not one to hide behind the lines. He'd led many charges, including the one earlier that had caused his injury. Maybe Corky's father had been right, that all men really were the same regardless of their backgrounds, their education, their wealth.
Or, at least, maybe a few were.
Quietly walking through the hospital tent, Robert shielded his lantern to give him only enough light to guide him to the center where the worst of the injured lay. Many wouldn't survive the night. Trying to tune out the groans and cries of pain, he skirted a harried nurse and strained to see into the dim light. Spotting Corky he made his way over to him.
The man sat on a wooden crate, head bowed, hand wrapped around the remaining one of the soldier in the bed. Robert noted he'd lost his whole arm and his face was heavily bandaged. Cannons could do horrific damage. He knew that all too well. His own arm throbbed in sympathy from his wound months earlier.
A quick perusal showed him that Corcoran seemed uninjured, but as the man looked up, he could see the toll the battle had taken. Bloodshot eyes blinked into the lantern's light, his lips were drawn, his face pale beneath the soot. He'd lost weight, as well, but then they all had. Full rations were few and far between these days.
"Major," Kevin murmured, too tired to lift his hand to salute but he knew Morehouse wasn't one for ceremony.
"Is this a friend of yours?"
"Aye, Jonesie. Malcolm Jones. Just nineteen." He sighed sadly. "The surgeon says he won't live to see twenty."
Snagging a second crate, Robert sat so he wasn't towering over the men, and nodded solemnly at the young man under deep sedation or simply too far gone to wake. "I'm sorry, Corky. I'm sorry for all the ones we lost today. Way too many."
"The General's late charge was foolhardy."
Robert snorted. Over the year of soldiering together, he'd become used to Kevin Corcoran speaking his mind, regardless of possible consequences. Only the month before, he'd managed to save him from being whipped for what another major deemed insolence. Of course, Corky had been right that Major Taylor was an idiot. Neither of them had been surprised he'd gotten himself killed in an ambush a week later.
Silently he agreed with Corcoran about the General's plan, just as he found himself agreeing with much the man said. He had a singular view of the war. In another life, he might have made General himself. If he made it home from this conflagration, he deserved to be more than a beat cop.
"Hindsight is of little use." The Major's comment wasn't chiding, though, and Kevin simply nodded. "Our regiment lost more than half its sergeants today, did you know that?"
"I knew Chastain fell."
"Simmons, Saylor and Barlow the elder did as well. I saw you near the end of the battle, Corky. Your actions, at the risk of your own life, saved half a dozen men, including Lieutenant Meyerson."
Kevin shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise. "I did what needed to be done, sir."
"I'd never blame them."
"No, you wouldn't, but the men with you rallied to your side and pushed back through the Confederate line. If you hadn't been able to get them working for the same goal, you might have all died or been taken prisoner."
Feeling himself flushing and wondering where this was going, Kevin ducked his head and hunched his shoulders, turning his attention back to his fallen friend, then he jerked as he felt the Major's hand on his shoulder. Glancing over he saw stripes being pinned to his torn and dirty jacket.
Smiling, Robert finished his job and straightened the man's collar. "I was given permission to make field promotions to replace at least two of the lost sergeants. I couldn't think of anyone more deserving." He was pleased at the shocked look on Corcoran's face, and smiled. "Congratulations, Sergeant Corcoran." The smile twisted a bit. "It's only a half dollar more a month and a lot more responsibility, but we need men like you. I need men like you to keep the men of this regiment alive."
"Thank you, Major. I...You won't regret it."
"Oh, I'm sure of that."
Kevin kept vigil by Robert's side for nearly two days, barely allowing himself to doze, eating only dried beef he kept in his pocket and sipping stale water from his canteen, leaving briefly only to relieve himself.
Over the nearly two years of battling together, the Major and the Private turned Sergeant had become friends. It still amazed both of them and, for the most part, they kept it a private thing. Too many of the higher ups would look down on Robert for befriending a poor enlisted man, an Irish immigrant, and his fellow soldiers, while mostly respecting the officers, simply could never understand liking one as a man. The difference in social classes were too pronounced, even on the battlefield.
So, in public there were salutes and orders given and taken, but in down times they would sit and talk and, really, their hopes for the future weren't that different.
Corky wanted to return to wife and child, to hopefully expand their family, to be a good copper and make a difference in Five Points and New York City. He wanted to see what the future brought all of them.
And Robert wanted a wife and children, a quiet life with friends and family and maybe even work to keep him occupied. The future of the country was on his mind a lot as well, and he'd spoken of going into politics or, at least, working behind the scenes.
There they often differed, but respected each others opinions, even when their debates grew heated.
Robert introduced Kevin to some of the great literature of the day, spoke of plays he'd seen and museums he'd visited--and the one he wanted to fund with art from the Far East. Kevin taught Robert the songs of Ireland, the games played by immigrants in the slums of New York, and how money, while surely a nice blessing, wasn't everything.
And now Robert Morehouse lay still and pale, one leg missing below the knee. Kevin knew he was lucky. A few inches higher and the shrapnel would have cut through a major artery and Robert would have bled out on the field before Corky could get him away. He'd picked up the slight man--so much thinner these days as, unlike many of the officers, he didn't feast while his men hungered--and carried him through gunfire and smoke to the rear and the surgeons who had cut off the damaged leg and saved his life.
With his wealth, he would have the best care once he returned home--and he was slated to be shipped North as soon as he was awake and strong enough to survive the journey. Surely Robert would have a fancy fake leg and learn to walk again, but he'd never fight again. His battles were over.
Corky was just selfish enough to know he'd miss the Major. Their friendship was a surprise and a joy, only supplanted by his love for and thoughts of Ellen and Maggie. Once home in New York, Robert would have no reason to give a thought to a poor Irishman. Equals here, back home they were from such different places, even though their homes were only a few miles apart. While he believed all men were equal, it was a lot harder to put that into practice with the disparate social circles they moved in. The rich were rich and the poor were poor and rarely did they meet.
A cough brought him out of his musing and he blinked down to see Robert looking at him from glazed eyes.
"You were badly injured, sir. You...lost the lower part of your leg."
Robert's eyes widened as shock hit him, followed quickly by physical and emotional pain. He bit back tears and turned his head, then felt Corky's hand take his, rough, calloused fingers linking with his smoother, shaking ones.
"You'll live, Robert," he said softly. "You'll be going home and your life will resume as it was before the war."
Not the same, though. Not with only one leg. As he listened to Corcoran try to soothe him, all he could feel was a deep bitterness filling him. Time passed with him dazed--probably no more than five or ten minutes but it seemed an eternity--the buzz of his friend's voice in his ear the only thing keeping him from screaming, but finally he began to remember details of the attack, the cannon ball exploding at his feet, throwing him back, and the pain, and then the fear as he realized gray coats were running towards him, weapons drawn...but then...
Dragged out of his bitterness, Robert murmured, a bit wonderingly, "You came charging through the smoke towards me, a pistol in each hand. You shot two of the men aiming at me, grabbed my sword and stabbed another before...that's all I remember. You saved me?"
"I got you out of there, Major Morehouse. My duty." His words were solemn and respectful, for the benefit of the approaching nurse, but Kevin's eyes shown with relief. "And you're going to be all right."
"Thanks to you. Corky..." Fatigue swept over him and his eyes fluttered.
"Sleep. A nurse is here to check your bandages. I'll be here in the morning."
"Like a guardian angel?"
Corky chuckled, the tension caused by the fear he'd lose his friend releasing in an instant. "No one's ever called me an angel before."
Watching them tuck Robert into a wagon with several other mustered out wounded, Corky wondered if he should go up to him, bid him farewell. Would it look strange? Well, everyone knew he'd saved the Major's life. Despite his own desire to downplay that, he'd been celebrated by common soldiers and commended by several officers. Morehouse was very popular with his men and fellows.
Before he could question himself further, he was beside the wagon and leaning over to smile at the Major. "Have a safe trip, sir."
Robert reached out and took Corcoran's hand, squeezing it, tightly. He'd been getting stronger in the past week and was glad he was finally well enough to go home. Two years of war were enough. He hoped this whole mess ended soon for all of those remaining, especially this man. "I owe you my life, Corky. When you get back to New York, come see me at my father's house on Fifth Avenue. Anything you want that is in my ability to give you will be yours."
"I don't want or need anything, Major, but thank you, and I will come to see you. I'm sure you'll be robust and healthy in no time."
"See that you remain the same, and, I'm serious Corcoran. I owe you everything, my friend."
He was so serious that Corky found himself believing that their friendship would survive a return to New York society for Robert and, for him, the poverty of his life in the Five Points, and he smiled and nodded. "Again, safe journey...my friend."
Robert grinned and squeezed his hand once more.
Once he was well enough, Robert made a point of sending a man to the Five Points to see if Ellen Corcoran needed anything. Kevin loved the woman and their little girl so much. He looked forward to meeting them both and helping them leave the slums, even if Corky resisted and called it charity. He'd give him good work, a good life, and a future for his children.
After all, he owed his present and the fact that he had a future to the man.
But, to his shock, the man he sent to speak with the woman returned with a tale of great sorrow. The neighborhood was in deep mourning. The child had been murdered; Corky's wife had disappeared, possibly murdered as well. Corky had no other family and none of his neighbors or the local police knew exactly how to reach him.
Sitting down at his desk and absently massaging his knee, Robert took out pen and paper and, grimly drafted a letter to his friend. He didn't sugarcoat the news. There was no way to do so. He remembered too well his own mother's grief at the death by consumption of his four year old sister when he'd been but nine. To have a child murdered...could there be anything worse?
A second letter went to the Secretary of War, a friend of his father's, requesting hardship discharge for Corky to search for his kidnaped wife. Though some suspected, there was no evidence she'd been killed. Maggie's body had been left in their home and there'd been an obvious struggle. Someone had taken Ellen, and, while Robert waited for his friend to return home, he'd begin his own inquiries.
Excited to receive mail, as no letter had come from Ellen in over two months, Kevin was surprised to discover the fine vellum embossed with the Morehouse crest in the sturdy envelope. As he skimmed the words, shock, horror, and pain flooded him, and the next thing he knew he was on his knees, wailing like a babe.
The follow week passed in a haze of grief and misery. Without him even asking--not even knowing he could ask--he was granted his discharge and sent home on the next train with the wounded. The official reason was that his wife was missing under suspicious circumstances and, as so he had the right to search for her, but he knew Robert had his hand in the request, let alone the swift approval and execution of the paperwork.
The trip took several days, with several stops to load and unload men and supplies, and Kevin had a lot of time to think and worry, and mostly grieve, so that when he arrived in New York City, he didn't go to his empty home, the scene of his beloved child's murder, but to Robert Morehouse's door.
He needed that favor.
"Of course. Anything you want, Corky, and, again, I am so sorry."
Not even tasting the expensive Scotch Robert had poured him, Kevin gulped it down to keep the tears from stinging his eyes. "Thank you for...for the letter, for letting me know, for bringing me home."
Robert simply nodded and sipped his own drink, before reaching for pen and stationary from his desk drawer. "I know the police commissioner personally. You'll be a detective by the end of the week. With that power, the ability to take on your own cases, hopefully you will find who committed this heinous crime, and find your Ellen."
A detective. Before the war, happy to patrol the street of Five Points and stop petty crime, Corky had never thought that high, but, yes, he needed this, more than he'd ever needed the field promotion in the army. He'd find the truth this way. Putting those brains his parents had nurtured to good use, he'd figure out what had happened.
Then, hopefully, he could truly mourn with his wife in his arms.
Looking at the morose and broken man slumped in one of his father's leather chairs, Robert wondered if Kevin would ever heal. If he'd ever smile again.
He'd do his damnedest to make sure he did.
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