When the Great War ended, Jake Featherston had thought the silence falling over the battlefield as strange and unnatural as machine-gun fire in Richmond on a Sunday afternoon. Now, sitting at the bar of a saloon in the Confederate capital a few weeks later, he listened to the distant rattle of a machine gun, nodded to himself, and took another pull at his beer.
“Wonder who they’re shooting at this time,” the barkeep remarked before turning away to pour a fresh whiskey for another customer.
“Hope it’s the niggers.” Jake set a hand on the grip of the artilleryman’s pistol he wore on his belt. “Wouldn’t mind shooting a few myself, by Jesus.”
“They shoot back these days,” the bartender said.
Featherston shrugged. People had called him a lot of different things during the war, but nobody had ever called him yellow. The battery of the First Richmond Howitzers he’d commanded had held longer and retreated less than any other guns in the Army of Northern Virginia. “Much good it did me,” he muttered. “Much good it did anything.” He’d still been fighting the damnyankees from a good position back of Fredericksburg, Virginia, when the Confederate States finally threw in the sponge.
He went over to the free-lunch counter and slapped ham and cheese and pickles on a slice of none-too-fresh bread. The bartender gave him a pained look; it wasn’t the first time he’d raided the counter, nor the second, either. He normally didn’t give two whoops in hell what other people thought, but this place was right around the corner from the miserable little room he’d found. He wanted to be able to keep coming here.
Reluctantly, he said, “Give me another beer, too.” He pulled a couple of brown dollar banknotes out of his pocket and slid them across the bar. Beer had only been a dollar a glass when he got into town (or a quarter in specie). Before the war, even through most of the war, it had only been five cents.
As long as he was having another glass, he snagged a couple of hard-boiled eggs from the free-lunch spread to go with his sandwich. He’d eaten a lot of saloon free lunches since coming home to Richmond. They weren’t free, but they were the cheapest way he knew to keep himself fed.
A couple of rifle shots rang out, closer than the machine gun had been. “Any luck at all, that’s the War Department,” Jake said, sipping at the new beer. “Lot of damn fools down there nobody’d miss.”
“Amen,” said the fellow down the bar who was drinking whiskey. Like Featherston, he wore butternut uniform trousers with a shirt that had seen better days (though his, unlike Jake’s, did boast a collar). “Plenty of bastards in there who don’t deserve anything better than a blindfold and a cigarette, letting us lose the war like that.”
“Waste of cigarettes, you ask me, but what the hell.” Jake took another pull at his beer. It left him feeling generous. In tones of great concession, he said, “All right, give ’em a smoke. Then shoot ’em.”
“Plenty of bastards in Congress, too,” the bartender put in. He was plump and bald and had a white mustache, so he probably hadn’t been in the trenches or just behind them. Even so, he went on in tones of real regret: “If they hadn’t fired on the marchers in Capitol Square last week, reckon we might have seen some proper housecleaning.”
Featherston shook his head. “Wouldn’t matter for beans, I say.”
“What do you mean, it wouldn’t matter?” the whiskey-drinking veteran demanded. “Stringing a couple dozen Congressmen to lampposts wouldn’t matter? Go a long way toward making things better, I think.”
“Wouldn’t,” Jake said stubbornly. “Could hang ’em all, and it wouldn’t matter. They’d go and pick new Congressmen after you did, and who would they be? More rich sons of bitches who never worked a day in their lives or got their hands dirty. Men of good family.” He loaded that with scorn. “Same kind of jackasses they got in the War Department, if you want to hear God’s truth.”
He was not anyone’s notion of a classical orator, with graceful, carefully balanced sentences and smooth, elegant gestures: he was skinny and rawboned and awkward, with a sharp nose, a sharper chin, and a harsh voice. But when he got rolling, he spoke with an intensity that made anyone who heard him pay attention.
“What do you reckon ought to happen, then?” the barkeep asked.
“Tear it all down,” Jake said in tones that brooked no argument. “Tear it down and start over. Can’t see what in God’s name else to do, not when the men of good family”—he sneered harder than ever—“let the niggers rise up and then let ’em into the Army to run away from the damnyankees and then gave ’em the vote to say thank-you. Christ!” He tossed down the last of the beer and stalked out.
He’d fired canister at retreating Negro troops—and, as the rot spread through the Army of Northern Virginia, at retreating white troops, too. It hadn’t helped. Nothing had helped. We should have licked the damnyankees fast, he thought. A long war let them pound on us till we broke. He glared in the direction of the War Department. Your fault. Not the soldiers fault. Yours.
He tripped on a brick and almost fell. Cursing, he kicked it toward the pile of rubble from which it had come. Richmond was full of rubble, rubble and ruins. U.S. bombing aeroplanes had paid repeated nighttime visits over the last year of the war. Even windows with glass in them were exceptions, not the rule.
Negro laborers with shovels cleared bricks and timbers out of the street, where one faction or another that had sprung up since the war effort collapsed had built a barricade. A soldier with a bayoneted Tredegar kept them working. Theoretically, Richmond was under martial law. In practice, it was under very little law of any sort. Discharged veterans far outnumbered men still under government command, and paid them no more heed than they had to.
Three other Negroes strode up the street toward Jake. They were not laborers. Like him, they wore a motley mix of uniforms and civilian clothing. Also like him, they were armed. Two carried Tredegars they hadn’t turned in at the armistice; the third wore a holstered pistol. They did not look like men who had run from the Yankees. They did not look like men who would run from anything.
Their eyes swept over Jake. He was not a man who ran from anything, either. He walked through them instead of going around. “Crazy white man,” one of them said as they walked on. He didn’t keep his voice down, but he didn’t say anything directly to Jake, either. With his own business on his mind, Jake kept walking.
He passed by Capitol Square. He’d slept under the huge statue of Albert Sidney Johnston the night he got into Richmond. He couldn’t do that now: troops in sandbagged machine-gun nests protected the Confederate Capitol from the Confederate people. Neatly printed no loitering signs had sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. Several bore handwritten addenda: this means you. Bloodstains on the sidewalk underscored the point.
Posters covered every wall. The most common showed the Stars and Bars and the phrase, peace, order, prosperity. That one, Featherston knew, came from the government’s printing presses. President Semmes and his flunkies remained convinced that, if they said everything was all right, it would be all right.
Black severed chains on red was another often-repeated theme. The Negroes Red uprisings of late 1915 had been crushed, but Reds remained. join us! some of the posters shouted—an appeal from black to white.
“Not likely,” Jake said, and spat at one of those posters. No more than a handful of Confederate whites had joined the revolutionaries during the uprisings. No more than a handful would ever join them. Of so much Featherston was morally certain.
Yet another poster showed George Washington and the slogan, we need a new revolution. Jake spotted only a couple of copies of that one, which was put out by the Freedom Party. Till that moment, Jake had never heard of the Freedom Party. He wondered if it had existed before the war ended.
He studied the poster. Slowly, he nodded. “Sure as hell do need a new revolution,” he said. He had no great use for Washington, though. Washington had been president of the United States. That made him suspect in Jake’s eyes.
But in spite of the crude illustration, in spite of the cheap printing, the message struck home, and struck hard. The Freedom Party sounded honest, at any rate. The ruling Whigs were trying to heal an amputation with a sticking plaster. The Radi- cal Liberals, as far as he was concerned, played the same song in a different key. As for the Socialists—he spat at another red poster. Niggers and nigger-lovers, every one of them. The bomb-throwing maniacs wanted a revolution, too, but not the kind the country needed.
He peered more closely at the Freedom Party poster. It didn’t say where the party headquarters were or how to go about joining. His lip curled. “Goddamn amateurs,” he said. One thing spending his whole adult life in the Army had taught him: the virtue of organization.
With a shrug, he headed back toward his mean little room. If the Freedom Party didn’t know how to attract any members, odds were it wasn’t worth joining. No matter how good its ideas, they didn’t matter if nobody could find out about them. Even the damned Socialists knew that much.
“Too bad,” he muttered. “Too stinking bad.” Congressional elections were coming this fall. A shame the voters couldn’t send the cheaters and thieves in the Capitol the right kind of message.
Back in the room—he’d had plenty of more comfortable bivouacs on campaign—he wrote for a while in a Gray Eagle scratchpad. He’d picked up the habit toward the end of the war. Over Open Sights, he called the work in progress. It let him set down some of his anger on paper. Once the words were out, they didn’t fester quite so much in his mind. He might have killed somebody if he hadn’t had a release like this.
When day came, he went out looking for work. Colored laborers weren’t the only ones clearing rubble in Richmond, not by a long chalk. He hauled bricks and dirt and chunks of broken stone from not long after sunrise to just before sunset. The strawboss, of course, paid off in paper money, though his own pockets jingled.
Knowing the banknotes would be worth less tomorrow than they were today, Jake made a beeline for the local saloon and the free-lunch counter. He’d drawn better rations in the Army, too, but he was too hungry to care. As before, the barkeep gave him a reproachful look for making a pig of himself. As before, he bought a second beer to keep the fellow happy, or not too unhappy.
He was stuffing a pickled tomato into his mouth when the fellow with whom he’d talked politics the day before came in and ordered himself a shot. Then he made a run at the free lunch, too. They got to talking again; Featherston learned his name was Hubert Slattery. After a while, Jake mentioned the Freedom Party posters he’d seen.
To his surprise, Slattery burst out laughing. “Oh, them!” he said. “My brother took a look at those fellows, but he didn’t want any part of ’em. By what Horace told me, there’s only four or five of ’em, and they run the whole party out of a shoebox.”
“But they’ve got posters and everything,” Jake protested, startled to find how disappointed he was. “Not good posters, mind you, but posters.”
“Only reason they do is that one of ’em’s a printer,” the other veteran told him. “They meet in this little dive on Seventh near Canal, most of the way toward the Tredegar Steel Works. You want to waste your time, pal, go see ’em for yourself.”
“Maybe I will,” Featherston said. Hubert Slattery laughed again, but that just made him more determined. “By God, maybe I will.”
Congresswoman Flora Hamburger clapped her hands together in delight. Dr. Hanrahan’s smile was broader than a lot of those seen at the Pennsylvania Hospital. And David Hamburger, intense concentration on his face, brought his cane forward and then took another step on his artificial leg.
“How does it feel?” Flora asked her younger brother.
“Stump’s not too sore,” he answered, panting a little. “But it’s harder work than I thought it would be.”
“You haven’t been upright since you lost your leg,” Dr. Hanrahan reminded him. “Come on. Give me another step. You can do it.” David did, and nearly fell. Hanrahan steadied him before Flora could. “You’ve got to swing the prosthesis out, so the knee joint locks and takes your weight when you straighten up on it,” the doctor said. “You don’t learn that, the leg won’t work. That’s why everybody with an amputation above the knee walks like a sailor who hasn’t touched land in a couple of years.”
“But you are walking, David,” Flora said. She dropped from English into Yiddish: “Danken Gott dafahr. Omayn.”
Seeing her brother on his feet—or on one foot of his and one of wood and metal and leather—did a little to ease the guilt that had gnawed at her ever since he was wounded. Nothing would ever do more than a little. After her New York City district sent her to Congress, she’d had the chance to slide David from the trenches to a quiet post behind the lines. He wouldn’t have wanted her to do that, but she could have. She’d put Socialist egalitarianism above family ties . . . and this was the result.
Her brother shrugged awkwardly. “I only need one foot to operate a sewing-machine treadle. I won’t starve when I go home—and I won’t have to sponge off your Congresswoman’s salary, either.” He gave her a wry grin.
As a U.S. Representative, Flora made $7,500 a year, far more than the rest of her family put together. She didn’t begrudge sharing the money with her parents and brothers and sisters, and she knew David knew she didn’t. He took a brotherly privilege in teasing her.
He also took a brotherly privilege in picking her brains: “What’s the latest on the peace with the Rebs?”
She grimaced for a couple of reasons. For one, he hadn’t called the Confederates by that scornful nickname before he went into the Army. For another . . . “President Roosevelt is still being very hard and very stubborn. I can understand keeping some of the territory we won from the CSA, but all he’s willing to restore is the stretch of Tennessee south of the Cumberland we took as fighting wound down, and he won’t give that back: he wants to trade it for the little piece of Kentucky the Confederates still hold.”
“Bully for him!” David exclaimed. He had been a good Socialist before he went off to war. Now, a lot of the time, he sounded like a hidebound Democrat of the Roosevelt stripe. That distressed Flora, too.
She went on, “And he’s not going to let them keep any battleships or submersibles or military aeroplanes or barrels, and he’s demanded that they limit their Army to a hundred machine guns.”
“Bully!” This time, her brother and Dr. Hanrahan said it together.
Flora looked from one of them to the other in exasperation. “And he won’t come a dime below two billion dollars in reparations, all of it to be paid in specie or in steel or oil at 1914 prices. That’s a crushing burden to lay on the proletariat of the Confederate States.”
“I hope it crushes them,” David said savagely. “Knock on wood, they’ll never be able to lift a finger against us again.” Instead of knocking on the door or on a window sill, he used his own artificial leg, which drove home the point.
Flora had given up trying to argue with him. He had his full share of the Hamburger family’s stubbornness. Instead, she turned to Dr. Hanrahan and asked, “How much longer will he have to stay here now that he’s started to get back on his feet?”
“He should be able to leave in about a month, provided he makes good progress and provided the infection in the stump doesn’t decide to flare up again,” Hanrahan said. Flora nodded; she’d seen he gave her straight answers. He finished with a brisk nod: “We’ll shoot for November first, then.”
After giving her brother a careful hug and an enthusiastic kiss, Flora left the Pennsylvania Hospital. Fall was in the air, sure enough; some of the leaves in the trees on the hospital grounds were beginning to turn. She flagged a cab. “The Congressional office building,” she told the driver.
“Yes, ma’am.” He touched the shiny leather brim of his cap, put the Oldsmobile in gear, and went out to do battle with Philadelphia traffic. The traffic won, as it often did. Philadelphia had been the de facto capital of the USA since the Confederates bombarded Washington during the Second Mexican War, more than thirty-five years before. Starting even before then, a great warren of Federal buildings had gone up in the center of town. Getting to them was not always for the faint of heart.
“I have a message for you,” said Flora’s secretary, a plump, middle-aged woman named Bertha. She waved a piece of paper. “Congressman Blackford wants you to call him back.”
“Does he?” Flora said, as neutrally as she could. “All right, I’ll do that. Thank you.” She went into her inner office and closed the door after her. She didn’t turn around to see whether Bertha was smiling behind her back. She hoped not, but she didn’t really want to know.
Dakota, a solidly Socialist state, had been returning Hosea Blackford to the House since Flora was a girl. He was about twice her age now, a senior figure in the Party, even if on the soft side ideologically as far as she was concerned. And he was a widower whose Philadelphia apartment lay right across the hall from hers. He had left no doubt he was interested in her, though he’d never done anything to tempt her into defending herself with a hatpin. To her own surprise, she found herself interested in return, even if he was both a moderate and a gentile.
“Now,” she muttered as she picked up the telephone and waited for the operator to come on the line, “is he calling about Party business or . . . something else?”
“Hello, Flora,” Blackford said when the call went through. “I just wanted to know if you had seen the newspaper stories about strikes in Ohio and Indiana and Illinois.”
Party business, then. “I’m afraid I haven’t,” Flora said. “I just got back from visiting David.”
“How is he?” Blackford asked.
“They’ve fitted the artificial leg, and he was up on it.” Flora shook her head, though Blackford couldn’t see that. “Even with one leg gone, he talks like a Democrat.” She inked a pen and slid a piece of paper in front of her so she could take notes. “Now tell me about these strikes.”
“From what I’ve read, factory owners are trying to hold down wages by pitting workers against each other,” he said. “With soldiers starting to come home from the war, they have more people wanting jobs than there are jobs to give, so they’re seeing who will work for the lowest pay.”
“That sounds like capitalists,” Flora said with a frown. A moment later, she brightened. “It also sounds like a political opportunity for us. If the factory owners keep doing things like that—and they probably will—they’ll radicalize the workers, and they’ll do a better job of it than we ever could.”
“I happen to know we’ve urged the strikers to stay as peaceful as they can, unless the bosses turn goons loose on them or their state governments or the U.S. government move troops against them,” Blackford said.
“Good.” Flora nodded. Blackford couldn’t see that, either, but she didn’t care. Something he’d said touched off another thought. “Has Roosevelt made any statement about this yet?”
“One of the wire reports quotes him as calling the factory owners a pack of greedy fools,” the Congressman from Dakota said, “but it doesn’t say he’ll do anything to make them stop playing games with people’s lives.”
“That sounds like him,” Flora said. “He talks about a square deal for the workers, but he doesn’t deliver. He delivered a war.”
“He delivered a victory,” Hosea Blackford corrected. “The country was starved for one. The country’s been starved for one for more than fifty years. You may not like that, but you can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t so.”
“I don’t intend to do any such thing,” Flora said sharply. “The people were starved for a victory. I’ve seen as much, even with my own brother. But after a while they’ll discover they have the victory and they’re still starved and still maimed and still orphaned. And they’ll remember Teddy Roosevelt delivered that, too.”
Blackford’s silence was thoughtful. After a few seconds, he said, “You may very well be right.” He did his best to hold down the excitement in his voice, but she heard it. “If you are right, that would give us a fighting chance in the elections of 1918, and maybe even in 1920. A lot of people now are afraid we’ll be so badly swamped, the Democrats will have everything their own way everywhere.”
“A lot of things can happen between now and the Congressional elections,” she said. “Even more things can happen between now and 1920.”
“That’s true, too,” Blackford said. “But you’ve seen how many Socialists are wearing long faces these days. Even Senator Debs is looking gloomy. Maybe they should cheer up.”
“Maybe. The real trouble”—Flora took a deep breath—“is that we’ve never won a presidential election. We’ve never had a majority in either house of Congress. Too many people, I think, don’t really believe we ever can.”
“I’ve had doubts myself,” Blackford admitted. “Being permanently in the minority is hard to stomach sometimes, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, yes,” Flora said quietly. “I’m Jewish, if you’ll remember.” On the Lower East Side in New York City, Jews were a majority. Everywhere else in the country, everywhere else in the world . . . permanently in the minority was as polite a way to put it as she’d ever heard.
She wondered if reminding Blackford she was Jewish would make him decide he wasn’t interested in her after all. She wondered if she wanted him to decide that. In many ways, her life would be simpler if he did. With a large family, though, she’d rarely known a simple life. Would she want it or know what to do with it if she had it?
The only thing Blackford said was, “Of course I remember. It means I have to eat crab cakes and pork chops by myself.” His voice held nothing but a smile. “Would you care to have dinner with me tonight? If you like, I won’t eat anything that offends you.”
“I’m not offended if you eat things I can’t,” Flora said, “any more than an Irishman or an Italian would be offended if I ate corned beef on Friday. I’d be offended if you tried to get me to eat pork, but you’d never do anything like that.”
“I should hope not!” Blackford exclaimed. “You still haven’t said whether you’ll have dinner with me, though.”
“I’d like to,” Flora said. “Can we wait till after six, though? I’ve got a shirtwaist manufacturer coming in to see me at five, and I aim to give him a piece of my mind.”
“Six-thirty, say, would be fine. Shall I come to your office?”
“All right.” Flora smiled. “I’m looking forward to it.” She hung up the telephone and went to work feeling better about the world than she had in some time.
Reginald Bartlett was discovering that he did not fit into the Richmond of late 1917 nearly so well as he had in 1914. Fighting on the Roanoke Valley front and in Sequoyah, getting captured twice and shot once (shot twice, too, actually: in the leg and the shoulder from the same machine-gun burst) by the Yankees, had left him a different man from the jaunty young fellow who’d gaily gone off to war.
Richmond was different, too. Then it had been bursting with July exuberance and confidence; now the chilly winds of October sliding into November fit the city’s mood only too well. Defeat and autumn went together.
“Going to rain tomorrow, I reckon,” Reggie said to Bill Foster as the two druggist’s assistants walked along Seventh Street together. He reached up with his right hand to touch his left shoulder. “Says so right here.”
Foster nodded, which set his jowls wobbling. He was short and round and dark, where Bartlett was above average height, on the skinny side (and skinnier after his wound), and blond. He said, “I heard enough people say that in the trenches, and they were right a lot of the time.” He’d spent his war in Kentucky and Tennessee, and come home without a scratch.
After touching his shoulder again, Reggie said, “This isn’t so much of a much.” He’d had a different opinion while the wound stayed hot and full of pus, but he’d been a long way from ob- jective. “Fellow I worked for before the war, man name of Milo Axelrod, he stopped a bullet with his face up in Maryland. He wasn’t a bad boss—better than this McNally I’m working for now, anyhow.”
“From what you’ve said about McNally, that wouldn’t be hard.” Foster might have gone on, but a small crowd had gathered at the corner of Seventh and Cary. He pointed. “I wonder what’s going on there.”
“Shall we find out?” Without waiting for an answer from his friend, Reggie hurried over toward the crowd. Shrugging, Foster followed. “Oh, I see,” Bartlett said a moment later. “It’s a political rally. That figures, with the Congressional election next Tuesday. But what the devil is the Freedom Party? I’ve never heard of ’em before.”
“I’ve seen a couple of their posters,” Bill Foster said. “Don’t rightly know what they stand for, though.”
“Let’s get an earful. Maybe it’ll be something good.” Reggie scowled as his wounded leg gave a twinge, which it hadn’t done in a while. “Couldn’t be worse than the pap the Radical Liberals and the Whigs are handing out.”
“That’s about right.” Foster nodded. “Everybody who’s in is making noise about how he never much cared for the war, and everybody who’s out is saying that if he’d been in he never would’ve voted one thin dime for it.”
“And it’s all a pack of lies, too,” Bartlett said with deep contempt. “Why don’t they admit they were all screaming their heads off for the war when it started? Do they think we’ve forgotten? And when Arango ran against Semmes for president two years ago, he said he’d do a better job of fighting the Yankees than the Whigs were. He didn’t say anything about getting out of the war, not one word.”
The Freedom Party spokesman didn’t have a fancy platform or a fancy suit, which proved he belonged to neither of the CSA’s major parties. He stood in his shirtsleeves on a box or a barrel of some kind and harangued the couple of dozen people who were listening to him: “—traitors to their country,” he was shouting as Reggie and Bill Foster came up. “Traitors and fools, that’s what they are!”
“A crackpot,” Bartlett whispered. He folded his arms across his chest and got ready to listen. “Let’s hang around for a while. He may be funny.”
Somebody in the crowd already thought he was funny, calling, “By what you’re saying there, the whole government is nothing but traitors and fools. You’ve got to be a fool yourself, to believe that.”
“I do not!” the speaker said. He was an overweight, balding fellow of about fifty-five, whose fringe of gray hair blew wildly in the fall breeze. His name was Anthony Dresser—so said a little sign Reggie needed a while to notice. “I do not. I tell you the plain, unvarnished truth, and nothing else but!” His eyes, enormous behind thick spectacles, stared out at his small audience. “And you, my friends, you hug the viper to your bosom and think it is your friend. Congress is full of traitors, the War Department is full of traitors, the administration—”
Reggie stopped paying much attention to him about then. “And the moon is full of green cheese!” the heckler shouted, drawing a roar of laughter from the crowd.
Dresser sputtered and fumed, the thread of his speech, had it ever had one, now thoroughly lost. Reggie and Foster grinned at each other, enjoying his discomfiture. The speech surely would have been boring. This was anything but. “Not as easy to get up on the stump as the old boy thought, is it?” Foster said with a chuckle.
“You are all traitors to your country, for not listening to the plain and simple truth!” Dresser shouted furiously.
“And you’re a maniac, and they ought to lock you up in the asylum and lose the key!” It wasn’t the first heckler, but an- other man.
Dresser looked to be on the point of having a fit. Somebody reached up and tugged at his trousers. He leaned over, cupping a hand behind his ear. Then, with a fine scornful snort, he jumped down from his perch. “All right,” he said. “All right! You show them then, if you think you know so much. I can tell you what you will show them—you will show them you do not have any notion of what to say or how to say it.”
Up onto the platform scrambled a lean man somewhere in his thirties, in a day laborer’s collarless cotton shirt and a pair of uniform pants. He looked around for a moment, then said, “Tony’s right. A blind man should be able to see it, too. The government is full of traitors and fools.”
Dresser had been argumentative, querulous. The newcomer spoke with absolute conviction, so much so that before he caught himself Reginald Bartlett looked north toward Capitol Square, as if to spy the traitors in the act.
“Yeah? You can’t prove it, either, any more than the other jerk could,” a heckler yelled.
“You want proof? I’ll give you proof, by Jesus,” the lean man said. He didn’t talk as if he had any great education, but he didn’t seem to feel the lack, as did so many self-made men. “Look what happened when the Red niggers rose up, back at the end of ’15. They damn near overran the whole country. Now, why is that, do you reckon? It’s on account of nobody in the whole stinking government had the least notion they were plotting behind our backs. If that doesn’t make everybody from the president on down a damn fool, you tell me what in the hell it does do.”
“He’s got something, by God,” Foster said, staring at the new speaker.
“He’s got a lot of nerve, anyhow,” Reggie said.
“That’s why you ought to vote for Tony Dresser for Congress,” the lean man continued: “on account of he can see the plain truth and you can’t. Now the next thing you’re going to say is, well, they’re a pack of fools up there, all right, with their fancy motorcars and their whores, but they can’t be traitors because they fought as long as they could and the Yankees are pretty damn tough.
“Well, this here is what I’ve got to say about that.” The lean man let loose with a rich, ripe raspberry. “I know for a fact that people tried to warn the government the niggers were going to rise, on account of I was one of those people. Did anybody listen? Hell, no!” Contempt dripped from his voice like water from a leaky roof. “Some of those niggers were servants to rich men’s sons, important men’s sons. And the rich men in the Capitol and the important men in the War Department shoveled everything under the rug. If that doesn’t make ’em traitors, what the devil does?”
“He has got something,” Bill Foster said in an awed voice.
“He’s got a big mouth,” Bartlett said. “You throw charges like that around, you’d better be able to name names.”
Instead of naming names, the newcomer on the stump charged ahead: “And after that—after that, mind you, after the niggers rose up—what did the government go and do? Come on. You remember. You’re white men. You’re smart men. What did they go and do?” The lean man’s voice sank to a dramatic whisper: “They went and put rifles in those same niggers’ hands, that’s what they did.” He whispered no more, but shouted furiously: “If that doesn’t make ’em traitors, what the devil does?”
Reggie remembered Rehoboam, the Negro prisoner of war who’d shared his U.S. hospital ward after losing a foot in Arkansas—and after being a Red rebel in Mississippi. Things weren’t so straightforward as this new Freedom Party speaker made them out to be. The older Reggie got, the more complicated the world looked. The lean man was older than he, but still saw things in harsh shades of black and white.
And he contrived to make his audience see them the same way. “You want to put Tony Dresser into Congress to give the real people of the Confederate States a voice,” he shouted, “the working men, the men who get their hands dirty, the men who went out and fought the war the fools and the traitors and the nigger-lovers got us into. Oh, you can throw your vote away for somebody with a diamond on his pinky”—with alarming effectiveness, he mimed a capitalist—“but who’s the fool if you do?”
“Why the hell ain’t you runnin’ for Congress instead of that long-winded son of a bitch?” somebody shouted.
“Tony’s the chairman of the Freedom Party,” the lean man answered easily. “You promote the commander of the unit, not a new recruit.” He took out his billfold and displayed something Bartlett could not make out. “Here’s my membership ca
Excerpted from Blood and Iron (American Empire, Book One) by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2002 by Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.