We have it on reliable authority that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. We are equally aware that the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet both sword and pen pale before the power of that most wondrous and ingenious instrument of our modern age—the telegraph. And tonight, that power is putting me to a test I would rather be spared.
My name is Timothy Gladstone, but to the good folks of Silver City in the territory of Idaho, I am simply the "key tapper." Others style me the "brass pounder." By either title, I am a telegraph operator.
It is nigh on an hour since I was roused from a comfortable slumber in the warmth of my feather bed. Now I sit in frigid darkness, astride a well-mannered sorrel named Sunflower, riding the course of the wire that links Silver City to Boise City. My mission is to seek the cause of its sudden, mysterious inability to convey messages. Indeed, the line fairly overflows with a torrent of mad, undecipherable electrical impulses.
I fear this will be nothing as mundane or easily remedied as a line break, or a cracked insulator, or improperly filled battery jars. In the dozen years of my career—which began in the War as a greenhorn telegrapher with the Army of the Potomac—I've never witnessed anything so bizarre as this sudden aberration. Furthermore, the safety and security of tomorrow's outgoing silver shipment teeters in the balance. For, although the wagons will be escorted by the usual retinue of armed guards, only the telegraph can provide the sheriffs of the two counties along the route with timely notice as to the shipment's departure. And only the telegraph is able to track its progress through the towns along the way. Thus, the line must be fixed, and I have no recourse but to answer this call to duty.
I am grateful for the company of a quick-witted Nez Perce messenger boy of sixteen who rides a sturdy, Dalmatian-spotted Appaloosa. My companion's English name is Darius. His horse's name I cannot spell and am but poorly able to pronounce. I am pleased that Darius aspires to the key tapper's vocation. Already, his fingers are able to tap out the Morse code with the swift certainty of a mountain goat scaling the granite spires and ramparts of the nearby mountains.
The undulating wagon road before us roils with ghostly shadows cast by the miner's kerosene lantern clutched in my left hand. A bone-numbing December wind howls like a pack of wolves hailing the light of a full moon. But this night there is no moon. The sky is a black velvet carpet upon which a cache of diamonds has been strewn. The planet Mars glows red like a railroad switch lamp—or one of those red lamps of a different purpose I have witnessed, from a prudent distance of course, in second-floor windows on the backstreets of my hometown in New Jersey.
Darius calls to me, his voice raised against the wind. "The silver shipment to Boise City must be mightily urgent. Else why would the Black Jack Mill not wait to dispatch a lineman to do the job tomorrow, in daylight?" The lantern light sets Darius's dark, Nez Perce eyes to glimmering.
I shrug to fend off the chill. "Our orders are to ensure the line is working by noontime."
"Timothy, you are a telegraph operator, not a lineman."
"Duty calls," I reply. "Tonight, I will be a lineman."
Darius lifts his gaze to the stars. "The moon sleeps. Perhaps another time would be better."
Indeed, I muse, how welcome a bit of moonlight would be.
"I've been through worse," I mumble. My mind casts an inward glance to a time a decade ago and a place two thousand miles distant—a swamp on the periphery of Richmond, Virginia.
* * *
I am clinging to the branches of a bendy oak. Shrieking hornet-swarms of Rebel bullets shred the leaves around me. I am but sixteen years of age and am stringing a line at General Weitzel's orders. Upon a wilderness floor drenched in scarlet, a dozen men moan prayers and epithets with their final breaths. I continue my work, for a glorious victory for our Union Forces hangs by this thin wire.
From behind a row of bushes, a rifle barrel glints in the sun. "There he is!" a Southern voice shouts. Another joins in, "It's the Yankee brass pounder!"
The rifle muzzle slews toward my direction. "Kill the bastard!" one of the voices bellows.
* * *
I shake my head to cast away the memory, murmuring a prayer of thanksgiving that the Rebel gunman had missed, before he himself was felled by a Union bullet.
"Yes, I've been through worse," I say again to Darius.
We move on, up the side of one hill and down the next, passing one telegraph pole then another, always straining to glimpse the occasional sparkle of lantern light on copper wire. This line connects Silver City to Boise City—and to the world. By this means has mankind harnessed the lightning bolts of Zeus for the noble purpose of rapid communion among the peoples of the Earth. And sadly, as I learned in the War, for far less peaceful endeavors. The wire is barely six months old, and until this night, it has been beset by remarkably few troubles. So far as Darius and I have been able to discern, the cable is in fine fettle—save for having gone mad.
Somewhere over the near ridgeline, a coyote lets out a blood-chilling screech that metamorphoses into a prolonged, wavering banshee howl. In a moment, it is joined by a ghoulish chorus of coyotes.
With one hand, I haul back on the reins and Sunflower slows, then halts. She whinnies and swings her head, side to side. She would rather launch into a full gallop, plunging into the black abyss, anywhere to flee the diabolical choir. I briefly let go the reins and feel for the hand grip of the Colt revolver in my holster. Its touch is reassuring.
I look to Darius. His unperturbed eyes convey a conviction that Coyote, true friend to humankind, is simply being playful tonight. Yet he doesn't smile. "Humans," he says, "they are the true menace. Nature is animated by neither greed nor deception."
Underneath my legs, Sunflower snorts and strains against the reins.
"If we aren't looking for a break in the line," Darius says, "then what do you expect to find?"
"The line's not dead," I reply. "If anything, it's too much alive."
"With gibberish. You said that earlier." He jabs a finger toward the strand of copper above us.
My eyes narrow. "Yes, gibberish. Like nothing I've ever heard."
We continue on the road, our horses progressing gingerly, skittishly.
"It's a long way to Boise City," Darius replies. "And the wind is angry."
I attempt to reassure him. "No doubt, other linemen will have left Boise by now, searching in our direction. At worst, we'll meet them halfway, in daylight."
Suddenly Sunflower lurches to the left and thrusts her head sideways. Her eyes are wide with terror. She tries to run, but I check her, my knees jammed tightly against the saddle. Her hooves scar the frozen ground and she jerks to a halt at the roadside. She protests with a mournful, gargled grunt.
"What's the matter, girl?" I call, as soothingly as I can. The swaying lantern sends devil shadows dancing through the sagebrush.
Suddenly a dark specter races wildly across the road, averting a collision with Darius's horse by mere inches. Then it is gone.
"Antelope," Darius says, shaking his head. "Spooked . . . Sunflower heard it coming."
I swing the lantern around and find no other creatures in proximity. I rub my horse's neck and murmur gentle things to her. Then, slowly, haltingly, we continue.
"Antelope don't spook without reason," Darius says. "Something is amiss—something beyond our ken."
The road dips and we pass through shallow snowdrifts. Instinctively, I sense that, in the wire high above us, the rogue electrical pulses continue insanely to surge and rattle. No dots and dashes, no intelligent message. Not the bolts of Zeus, harnessed and benign, but rather the malevolent darts and curses of his daughter Eris, the goddess of chaos. I think it again, The line is beyond inoperative. It has gone mad.
Without warning, the blackness overhead lightens to slate gray. "How could that be?" I murmur. "There's no moon, and dawn is hours away." Beneath the woolen collar of my coat, the skin crawls on the back of my neck.
Cresting a ridgeline, we pull up next to another telegraph pole. My mouth hangs open, as does Darius's. Far to the north, the sky above the mountains writhes and swells in streaky waves of phosphorescent green. Could it be the depths of hell have opened before us? I hear the echoes of Darius's warning—Perhaps another time would be better.
"Heaven help us," Darius finally mumbles, his face distorted by the ghastly glow of the phantasmagoria.
"Has the Aurora ever come this far south before?" I ask.
"I've never seen it."
"One could read by this light," I say, with but little exaggeration.
"It is a sign," he says. "The heavens themselves are angry. Even the animals are fearful. We must go back."
I am inclined to agree. However, the call of duty gnaws at the very foundation of my soul. I dismount.
"What are you doing?" Darius asks.
"I'm going to tap the line."
His expression says, Have you lost your mind?
"With this light, it'll be much easier than in the dark." I hand Darius the lantern, whose light is feeble in comparison with the Aurora. I open my saddlebag and fish out a wire-cutter, a hammer, a pouch of large nails and a coil of wire. I cut a several-yards length of wire and stash it in my coat pocket.
Darius watches in tight-jawed silence.
"This won't take but a few minutes," I say. "I was one of the best wire-tappers in the Army. At times, I knew as much about Rebel war plans as did their generals in the field."
"Nevertheless," Darius says, "we should come back in daylight."
I am already pounding a nail into the pole. A moment later, I hoist myself onto it. By the light of the gyrating green sky, I pound a second nail. As I work, my thoughts turn to tomorrow's silver shipment to Boise City. This telegraph line is essential to its safety.
Soon I am hugging the top of the pole. Below me, Darius's shadow dances to the silent auroral rhythm. Over my right shoulder, in a distant valley invisible from here, Silver City sleeps peacefully.
I remove my right glove and drop it to the ground. I grasp the cutter.
Wire-tapping is a simple matter, I remind myself as my heart races. With proper care, there is no danger, as the electrical voltage is too small to cause harm.
The coyotes now howl without pause, answering the call of the strange green heavens. Sunflower whinnies.
"You're fighting Nature," Darius calls. "Don't do it."
I shake my head.
He continues, "Whatever it is that brought the Northern Lights here is also what has possessed the wire."
I must admit this possibility makes a modicum of sense, but I give no reply.
"Don't challenge the spirits of the night realm," he pleads.
"You're being superstitious," I shout over the wind. With one arm, I embrace the pole. With the other, I lean and stretch toward the wire.
"No, Timothy!" he shouts.
"You said it before—Nature isn't the danger. There's no greed or deception in it."
"Listen to me!" Darius implores. "The Sun is restless, the Darkness is in distress. Ghosts will be on the prowl."
"Don't bother me now." I steady my boot's heel between the pole and the top-most nail. My right arm strains as trembling fingertips reach for the wire. Darius's mouth gapes in anticipation.
Suddenly the wire snaps. A shower of orange sparks blinds me. Goddess Eris has flung a thousand darts into my flesh, and every nerve in my body rings with the gibberish of the rogue wire. The world around me becomes hazy and I am filled with a sensation of being drawn into the thin copper strand.
* * *
How much time has passed? Seconds? Minutes? Perhaps hours? I struggle to force my eyelids open. The devilish green Aurora is gone. I am in daylight. I am clinging to the upper branches of a young oak tree. Darius and the horses are nowhere to be seen.
Gradually, I realize I am no longer in the mountains of Idaho, but rather in a Virginia swamp. The breeze is pungent with smoke and death. Richmond is burning.
Below me, a few paces distant, a blue-jacketed soldier gasps his dying breath. A voice shouts to me, "Hurry, boy, hurry! We need that line now!" It is General Weitzel.
Clutching an uncoiling length of telegraph wire in my right hand, I reach to fasten it to a branch.
A rustling in the bushes thirty yards away commands my attention. From out of the cover, a rifle barrel glints in the sun. "There he is!" a voice shouts. It is a Southern voice. Another joins in, "It's the Yankee brass pounder."
My hand tightens around the wire. Through bare fingers, without even the aid of a telegraph key, I feel the gibberish within it.
The rifle muzzle slews toward my direction. "Kill the bastard!" one of the voices bellows.
The gun belches yellow flame and white smoke.
Before the sound of the blast reaches my ears, the impact has already rammed into my left shoulder. I fall through space, still clutching the wire.
* * *
I am in a strange bed in a strange room. Unfamiliar voices mutter. I draw in a raspy, labored breath. The warm air is heavy with the smell of ether. My body is wracked with pain, from crown to sole, and my immediate impulse is to return to the nothingness of slumber.
However, a softly-spoken entreaty halts my retreat. "Can you hear me?" Unlike the others, this voice is familiar. I blink several times, until I am able to associate the person's slowly emerging image with his voice. It is Darius. He is standing a few paces away, his hat in his hand.
"Where am I?" I croak.
"In the infirmary," he says. "In Silver City."
"Not Richmond?" I reply.
Darius seems quizzical. "Richmond? No."
Gentle hands lift my head and press a water glass to my lips. I sip.
"What day is this?" I ask.
"Monday." Darius steps closer. "You have been unconscious for two days and three nights."
My left leg is afire, and my chest feels as if it has been trampled by a wild horse. "Did the silver shipment make it to Boise City?" I ask.
"Yes," Darius says.
"Good," I reply, struggling to roll to my side. I am unable to do so, for my torso is tightly bandaged and my leg is splinted.
"Your leg was broken in your fall from the pole," Darius says. "The doctor assures us it will heal in a month."
"You saved me," I murmur. "Thank you."
Darius smiles. "There's something you'll be pleased to know," he says.
"What?" I ask, signaling the nurse I need more water.
"The telegraph line is working as if nothing had ever happened."
My eyes become wide as an owl's at midnight. "What about the gibberish?"
"It's gone," Darius says, laying a hand on mine. "Not a shred is left."
"Gone?" I moan.
"Yes, and there is an explanation for it."
I nod for him to go on.
"Telegraph operators from many nations experienced difficulties that night. There is much chatting about it on the wire today." He pauses for me to comprehend.
"And?" I ask.
"An astronomer in England swears it was the result of a disturbance of the Sun—some kind of storm on its surface."
My nose wrinkles and I groan. "A storm on the Sun? Hogwash!"
"They say it's happened before," Darius says, "seventeen years ago. It wreaked havoc with telegraphs—operators suffered electrical shocks."
I shut my eyes against the pain.
"In addition," Darius continues, "it caused an impressive southward migration of the Aurora Borealis."
The twin images of orange sparks and the hellish green-and-black sky threaten to overwhelm me. I blurt, "How could there be a storm on the sun? It has no clouds."
"How am I to know?" Darius replies, shrugging. "I'm just a key tapper, not a scientist."
The nurse offers me more water. Its coolness is calming. "Nevertheless," I say, "the English astronomer's assertion is . . . intriguing. As even hogwash can be."
Darius's grin brings me a glimmer of comfort.
"If what he and you say is true," I continue, "then there was a natural cause for all we endured that night." I sigh at the thought and relax a bit more. "And Richmond . . . was nothing more than a very bad dream."
"Regardless," Darius interjects, "tapping the wire was unwise."
I sneer. "What are you getting at?"
"You challenged the spirits of the night realm."
I sense my face is flushing. "That's superstitious nonsense!"
My companion continues, his eyes now brimming with unwelcomed pity. "We were alone on the hill that night, you and I. And I couldn't have done it—you can trust my word. It had to be the spirits . . . "
"You're making no sense," I say.
Darius fidgets with his hat. "It was the spirits, all right." His voice is calm and reverent. "I find no other logical way to explain it."
"Explain what, for God's sake?"
Darius points to my left shoulder. "Your bullet wound."