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Last Stand at Bitter Creek

Last Stand at Bitter Creek

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Last Stand at Bitter Creek

313 pagine
4 ore
Jun 24, 2016


For one battle-weary Union spy the Civil War is not over.

The bodies of an Army patrol carrying out a secret mission for the president lay in the blood-soaked soil of a remote ravine, victims of an ambush by soldiers of the same Army under the command of a rogue military leader.

Union spy Grant Bonner’s post-war undercover mission is compromised, exposing him to the danger of a cunning adversary who targets him for death. Forced on a run for his life, his journey takes him to a small frontier town where he uncovers an elaborate conspiracy involving a stolen shipment of gold and the heist of a priceless historical document. 

In order to stop it, Bonner enlists help from an improbable source and risks everything in a lethal confrontation between the hunter and the hunted.

Jun 24, 2016

Informazioni sull'autore

Tom spent more than two decades writing for print and broadcast media. In addition to magazine articles and a broad range of copywriting projects, he devoted several years writing radio and television news. He also served as correspondent and broadcast consultant for the Associated Press. He now focuses solely on writing fiction.

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Last Stand at Bitter Creek - Tom Rizzo




Elk County, Pennsylvania, 1863

The Union Army officer considered indiscriminate killing distasteful and not a part of his moral makeup, but expediency—and reward— often dictated the course of events, even when his mission involved ambushing soldiers of the same army for which he served and fought. He sat astride a black quarter horse, waiting for the soldier riding toward him.

They’re headed our way, Sir, said the approaching rider.

How long?

Half and hour, or so, I’m guessing. You’ll be able to see ‘em down where the road kinda curves, he said, pointing his finger.

The colonel swiveled in the saddle and scanned the timberland behind him where his handpicked band of cavalrymen positioned themselves along the hillside bordering the winding ravine below. He forged his reputation on the ability to surprise the enemy, a tactic at which his men excelled, a tactic that served as the linchpin for most of the victories he achieved.

The only difference today was the quarry—a small convoy his men had been shadowing for several days. Soon, soldiers of the same Union army would find themselves trapped in a valley of no return. The men waited, the snare in place, their backs against the sun.

Head up-top with the others, he told the soldier. Let’s get this over and done with and move out of here.

Lieutenant James Castleton rode out front, leading two wagons equipped with false bottoms, fortified by iron support frames to transport a hidden cargo across the rugged and untamed woodland. Flanked by towering black maples, the rocky ravine trail they followed for several hours narrowed, giving way to a sharp bend. As he slowed the wagons to negotiate the curve, the guide riding beside him raised a hand in a signal to stop.

We have company, Lieutenant, said the guide, motioning to the tree line above them. You expecting a special escort or something?

Castleton looked up and raised a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the sunlight. Union soldiers—he couldn’t tell how many— were fanned out along both sides of the gorge. A supplemental military escort made no sense since it would call unnecessary attention to the expedition. Eight soldiers seemed sufficient for this assignment. He turned in the saddle, ordered his men to wait, and then called out to the soldiers flanking the ridge above him.

Who’s in charge up there? he called out.

No one answered. Seconds later, he heard the rhythmic clicks of cartridges racked into the chambers of carbines. A chill crawled along his spine.

Hold your fire! said the lieutenant. We’re Union! Hold your fi—

Both sides of the steep ridge exploded in gunfire. Castleton yanked back on the reins, trying to steer his horse out of the line of fire, but the gunshots spooked the animal, and it jerked sideways, bucking him out of the saddle. A volley of bullets ripped into the earth beside him as he landed, and rolled into thick foliage, taking cover behind a piece of rotted timber. Three of his men sprawled face down in the dirt, bleeding. Another screamed as he toppled from the nearest wagon, holding his stomach, hands soaked in blood.

Castleton pressed against the ground, wishing he could disappear into it as the men above rained down more gunfire. Bullets ripped through tree limbs, scattering leaves that danced in the air before fluttering to earth. Baffled and frightened, he glimpsed the boots of another soldier running past him. Cowering at the sound of more gunshots, he watched the trooper spin like a tangled marionette before collapsing.

Somehow, he had to get away from this killing ground. He slipped his gun from the holster, crawled out of the bushes, and pushed himself along the ground, inching closer to one of the wagons where he could take cover. The crack of another gunshot startled him, but the bullet had already drilled into his thigh. The impact slammed him face down, and he choked out blood. Dizzy, disoriented, and battling off nausea, he hugged the ground, holding his breath, trying to stay motionless.

Seconds later, a stillness fell across the bullet-riddled ravine, the odor of gunpowder in the air. He heard what sounded like horses and wagons moving through the foliage, their hooves crunching against twigs and dead leaves. There were voices. Maybe help was near.

Get everything out of those wagons. I want us out of here by nightfall. The man spoke with authority—someone accustomed to taking charge.

You two, said the same man, search their pockets, satchels, saddlebags. You know the drill by now.

Perspiration soaked Castleton’s woolen collar. He wanted to scratch but stayed still. His thigh felt numb. He craved water; just a taste, a few drops. Anything. Seconds later, he sensed the presence of someone standing over him, so close he could sniff the man’s stale breath.

Sergeant Kincaid.

Yes, Sir?

Tell me, Sergeant, do dead men breathe?

Don’t think so, Sir, said the second voice, followed by a soft snicker.

Castleton kept his eyes closed and tried to hold his breath. For some reason, he remembered his mother once telling him as a child, What you can’t see can’t hurt you.

Make sure everyone here is dead.

Castleton froze, and his eyes snapped open. An inch from his face he saw a mud-splattered military boot and heard the sound of a hammer being cocked, followed by a distant click.



Union Encampment

Ohio-Pennsylvania Border, 1865

I need you to handle one last assignment—a routine but important surveillance, said Colonel Spencer Harrington, pressing the fingers of both hands together in front of his chin. Consider it a personal favor. I’m sure you can wrap it up in a week or two.

Grant Bonner, sitting across the table from the colonel, frowned. With the end of the war in sight, he decided it was the right time to resign as a spy for the Union Army.

"I’ve already done my last job, Colonel, and almost got myself killed in the process.

From what you told me, I’m not convinced an inexperienced corporal would have pulled the trigger.

With all due respect, Sir, you weren’t there.

His previous undercover mission took him into Richmond, the heart of the Confederacy, to spy on one of the South’s major munitions plants. He almost botched the operation when a young, frightened, and nervous soldier on guard duty corralled him at gunpoint. Only Bonner’s experience, coupled with a dose of quick thinking, enabled him to escape.

In any event, you survived, said Harrington. I do need you for something of critical importance.

The two men sat inside a wooden hut, on a bone-cold and gray February morning, at a campsite near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Bonner didn’t like what he heard. He wanted out. Another assignment was out of the question. After this last escapade, he questioned his level of confidence and ability to carry out yet another undercover assignment. But out of respect for Harrington, who recruited him, he would at least listen.

What’s the objective? Bonner asked, trying to conceal his frustration. The three long years interrogating slaves, military deserters and prisoners-of-war took its toll. On different occasions, he succeeded in infiltrating southern society posing as a newspaper reporter, clergyman, cook and handyman. He had no desire to return to a life where most of his time was spent looking over his shoulder.

The objective is a who. Colonel Marcus Steele.

Kind of late in the day to be chasing after Confederates, don’t you think?

Harrington, chief of intelligence operations, sipped coffee from a simple army-issue tin cup and raised his eyebrows.

He isn’t a Confederate.

One of our own? Despite Bonner’s initial reluctance, Harrington succeeded in arousing his curiosity and wondered why such a highranking Union officer attracted the agency’s attention.

All I’m asking is you keep an eye on him. Monitor his movements. Make note of anyone he meets with. But, and this is important, don’t engage him. It’s vital we not raise his suspicions in any way.

Who is he? What’s he done?

A couple of years ago, a squad of Union soldiers got ambushed and killed. Cold-blooded murder. But we don’t believe the Rebs had anything to do with it. We think Steele orchestrated the ambush, leading a band of renegade Union soldiers under his command.

Sounds more like a band of yellow-dog cowards.

The soldiers were escorting two wagons carrying a shipment of gold—military pay—to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

Why didn’t they use the train It would have been faster, and safer."

From my understanding, there was some worry about Confederate guerillas.

How much gold?

Two million dollars.

Astonished by the amount, Bonner felt himself being drawn deeper into the case. Despite his intent to resign, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to hear more about it.

Who knew about the gold?

Besides the president, a few bureaucrats, some military brass, and the lieutenant heading-up the convoy.

Why not just arrest Steele? It seemed such an obvious solution.

No proof. The army called in Pinkerton detectives, but they turned up nothing after more than a year of investigating. About the only thing we did learn was that Steele and his men happened to be the only Union squad in the area at the time.

Awfully slim evidence, said Bonner, puzzled by the sudden renewed interest in the case. And this seems like more than a routine surveillance.

Perhaps I understated it, said Harrington, and shrugged.

Anything more I should know?

Bonner watched as Harrington drummed his fingers against the tabletop, frowned, and then shook his head as if dismissing whatever he had been thinking.

Just keep an eye on him.

Where is he now?

He and his men are heading to a demobilization camp outside Cincinnati. We want you to join up with the unit in a few days and see what you can find out.

Harrington stood up, a silent and not-so-subtle message: discussion over. The stiff canvas around them snapped and fluttered as gusts of wind whipped across the valley surrounding them.

Can you at least tell me something about him?

A strategic genius, Harrington said in quick reply and sat back down. His war record caught the eye of General Sherman, who appointed him to his command staff—at least before he went rogue. A dangerous man surrounded by those who are loyal beyond question. Which will make your job that much more difficult.

Any particular cover I should use?

"Since this mission involves our own army, no need for the usual phony identities and backgrounders. Find yourself a uniform and the shoulder boards for a first lieutenant.

Bonner stood up and rubbed the back of his neck.

I can’t figure why someone of his caliber would kill his own. What’s he got up his sleeve?

Questions we’re hoping to answer, Harrington said.



North Carolina State Capital

Private Wesley Travers waited until after midnight and slipped through an unlocked side door into the southwest corridor of the three-story structure, an empty leather satchel draped over his shoulder. Based on the sketch the colonel provided, the caper should take no more than an hour. The building stood empty with no plans by the Federals to occupy it until morning.

Inside, an eerie stillness saturated the stale air. Almost too quiet. The fact a man of his rank and background could move unchallenged through these halls of political power struck him as both sobering and laughable. He edged his way past the governor’s office until the hallway opened into a vast rotunda, beneath a dome rising about a hundred feet above him. After conquering the three-story climb to the top floor, he referenced his map and pinpointed his destination.

The Gothic-style library seemed small and cramped because of the enormous quantities of material scattered throughout the room. Collections of books and papers—thousands of them—took up every available space. He spotted the exhibit indicated on the sketch and made his to the display case. When he looked inside the glass case, he swallowed, awed by the sight of the valuable document. Stealing was something at which he excelled, and this burglary would rank him among the best.

Given the implications of this high-risk theft, he should have pressed for more money. The idea of leaving the army with a more-than-adequate grubstake excited him.

He grew up surrounded by poverty. His family urged him to enlist in hopes the experience would lead to a better future. But military life was not for him. He hated the imposed discipline, and lacked respect for those of higher rank. This attitude led to several incidents of insubordination, which landed him in the brig twice.

The stockade is where the officer found and recruited him and arranged to have him released into his custody. The nature of the assignment sounded appealing, most of all because it represented an opportunity to flaunt military and civilian authority. But the real incentive was the money. The most ever earned for any job he ever held. Probably enough to share with his aging parents and two siblings and to show them he did make something of himself, despite their doubts.

Reaching inside in his jacket pocket, he removed a small vial of kerosene and poured it onto a cloth, which he used to smear around the edges. Using device about the size of a knife with a cutting wheel at one end, he rolled it along each side until he was able to cut the glass panel out of the way. He stared at the priceless artifact. After a brief hesitation, he removed and folded the parchment, slipped it into the empty satchel, and left the building, headed toward a rendezvous with the man who hired him.

When he arrived at the abandoned gold mine where they agreed to meet, a ribbon of sunlight stretched across the distant horizon. It wouldn’t be long now. After hiding the satchel, he sat down on a rock outside the entrance and leaned back against the timber frame, exhausted by the tension of the past few hours. Soon, he lost his struggle to stay awake.

Wake up, soldier, said a man in a voice loud enough to awaken Travers.

Travers opened his eyes and squinted from the glare of the morning sun.

The satchel? said Marcus Steele, now wearing civilian clothes.

I’m thinking, Travers said as he got to his feet, maybe we oughta take another look at the deal we made.

Steele stepped closer but said nothing.

I don’t have a lot of schoolin’, colonel, but I do know what I took is rare, and worth a small fortune.

Steele studied the man for several seconds and nodded.

What’s on your mind?

I was thinkin’ at least double—no, triple is more than fair, he said, unable to hide his cautious excitement.

You drive a hard bargain, soldier. Steele smiled.

Look, Sir, I didn’t mean to be greedy. I took an awful chance—

No need to explain. Very few men could have accomplished what you did. I need those kinds of talents in my organization. I’ve got something else lined up that I think you could handle if you have an interest.

What do you want me to do?

Get the satchel first so I can settle up with you. And then we’ll talk about the next job.

He watched Travers walk to a small pile of rubble near the entrance-way, dig the haversack out of the rubble, and wipe the dust off with the sleeve of his shirt.

Toss it here, said Steele.

Travers turned and saw Steele pointing a gun at him.

Wait a minute. What about our deal?

You tried to double-cross me.

Steele smiled and motioned Travers back with his gun hand until he bumped against a crude wooden gate, which guarded the gaping hole of the mineshaft.

Okay, okay, he said and dropped the shoulder bag at his feet. I’ll settle on what we agreed on."

Glad to see you’ve come to your senses.

Flames flashed from the barrel of the handgun. Bullets ripped into Travers’ shoulder and chest, the impact so powerful, it twisted his body in a half circle and slammed him back against the rotted barricade. The wood snapped, splintered, and buckled. In a spontaneous reaction, his hand shot out and seized a piece of fencing as he toppled into the shaft, thrashing in mid-air.

Steele listened to the soldier’s fading screams as he retrieved the satchel, mounted his horse and rode away.



Cincinnati Railroad Station

Be careful for God sake!

The warning came from one of the three soldiers struggling to transfer the last of five coffins from an army wagon into a railroad baggage car at the Cincinnati Railroad Station.

Bonner, who stood under the overhanging eaves of the depot to take refuge from a light rain, looked up in alarm to see the three men perform a kind of spontaneous dance trying to maneuver the wooden casket into the boxcar. The weight of the container appeared to have shifted inside and it slipped from their grasp and slammed to the ground.

He stuffed the cargo manifest he was reviewing into his belt and hurried over to the railcar, hoping the mishap didn’t generate unnecessary attention, although he noticed a few passengers staring out their windows.

Couldn’t help it, Sir, one of the men said. Damn thing’s heavy, lieutenant. Hell, they’re all heavy. No offense to the dead, but these guys must have died from overeating.

Bonner noticed the other two trade glances, trying their best not to laugh, but the comment about the weight of the coffins caught his attention. It was improbable all the dead soldiers were overweight— not in this army. His first thought was the gold. Smuggling it out in coffins struck him as daring, a possibility he couldn’t ignore. Somehow, he had to find a way to get a look inside those boxes. Retrieving a nearby lantern, he lowered it over the casket to check for damage.

Lieutenant. A voice, firm and laced with authority, echoed from the darkness beyond the railcar. Get over here. Now.

Oh, Christ, whispered one of the soldiers. It’s Colonel Steele.

Bonner took a deep breath and exhaled, his muscles tight. Although advised to avoid any direct contact with Steele, nothing was said about the colonel engaging him, and he couldn’t ignore a summons from a commanding officer.

Because of his rank, Bonner had no difficulty blending into the command of Marcus Steele. Gathering information about the colonel and his activities, on the other hand, proved elusive. But an unexpected opportunity surfaced. The colonel arranged for several bodies of slain soldiers under his command transported to their respective hometowns on the frontier and ordered an honor guard to escort the coffins to the train station. Thinking this might be a way to get closer to the colonel, Bonner volunteered to supervise the assignment.

Brushing a hand through his thick, sandy-colored hair, Bonner repositioned the forage cap on his head and turned toward the senior officer.

Leave the lantern, lieutenant.

Bonner instructed his men to get the last coffin loaded and await his return. Setting aside the lantern, he walked toward Marcus Steele, who stood in the dark a few feet beyond the railroad rails separating them. Before he reached the tracks, the senior officer stopped him.

Far enough, soldier. What is going on? This is a clear-cut assignment. But it appears you and your men are making a mess of it.

Steele’s sudden appearance at the railroad siding caught him off guard and struck him as uncharacteristic for a cavalry commander to demonstrate such a personal interest in that Bonner considered an unpleasant task.

An accident, Sir. No damage, he said, staring into the shadows, unable to see the colonel’s face.

I don’t believe in accidents, lieutenant. They’re caused by sloppiness. None of those coffins better be damaged, or I’ll have the four of you court-martialed and hanged.

The colonel’s snappish reaction startled him.

Bonner pulled the cargo manifest from his belt, hoping to divert the attention from the accident, and offered it to the colonel.

Sir, you may want to take a look at the certificate cards attached to the caskets. According to this manifest, there might be a few discrepancies.

The colonel crossed his arms and said nothing.

Sir, all five are being shipped to the same hometown out west, which seems improbable.

He figured that maybe a clerk, fed up with mundane paperwork, made a mistake. But, in his line of work, he learned to question anything that suggested a departure from the ordinary.

"It’s curious why this would interest you, Lieutenant. My advice is to pay attention to what you are doing, instead of what you are reading. Don’t bother poking your nose into matters of no concern to you. If questions arise, I will be the one to ask them. Not you. We clear?"

Bonner sensed a chill in his bones and worried he may have called undue attention to himself. Still, the colonel’s preoccupation

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