As the American Civil War rages in the summer of 1862, Cage Carew is a professor of English Literature, living just a few miles north of the Ohio River. The river is the border between North and South, and is called the River Jordan by the many slaves fleeing bondage on the Underground Railroad, some with the help of Cage’s family and friends.
A self-admitted Bohemian and soft handed academic, Cage remains breezily disinterested in the growing War even as massive casualty counts are coming in from battlefields. Books are his first love, and inside their pages is where he likes to be. Cage’s tranquil indolence is disrupted when an escaped slave crosses the Ohio and uses his barn for shelter. Francois Devol, his personal hired assassin, seven-feet-tall Ashok Behram, and an ominous group of slave catchers soon arrive in hot pursuit, making accusations and issuing dark threats.
Devol, born with a club foot, is a product of the Louisiana bayous and a desperately poor household filled with beatings and abuse. Subjected to cruel teasings and tauntings, even from slave children, Devol has grown up hating. After taking brutal and drastic measures against his tormentors, Devol comes of age in the 1830s New Orleans waterfront underworld where finds a back alley abortionist and faith healer who is able to correct the abnormality. Grateful, the strapping young teen joins a the good reverend and doctor in his criminal enterprise, which ranges from grave robbing to kidnapping.
Young Devol’s remarkable physical strength and lust for violence do not go unnoticed, and he is befriended by a slave owning grand dame of New Orleans, Delphine LaLaurie and her maniacal husband. Devol has plantation master aspirations, but he is uneducated and crude. Soon, Devol is dispensing ruthless punishments to Mme. LaLaurie’s slaves and she is teaching him reading, writing, and high society deportment. Bright and ambitious, Devol rises rapidly to become the foreman of a slave auction business. By 1846, he is a wealthy slave dealer, driving coffles of illegally imported slaves up the Trinity River into Texas cotton country. On one such venture, he discovers Ashok, the son of Thug Behram, leader of the Thuggee murder cult of India, living amongst a tribe of Comanche in the Texas plains. Ashok had fled India as a child, after Queen Victoria’s soldiers had vanquished the cult and executed his father. After four years of living as a Comanche slave and then warrior, he has become a voracious and remorseless killer. Delighted at the hulking youth’s propensity for cold-blooded, savage cruelty, Devol hires him on the spot.
When Cage’s fiancee, Ardent Donegan, arrives from out of town in August of 1862, Cage discovers she has had violent and suspicious encounters with Devol in the past. She dismisses Devol’s presence as coincidence, even as Cage and her friends warn her she’s in danger. When two young women are found viciously murdered, the townspeople are outraged.
The immediate suspect is Devol, but he has vanished into Dixie. Cage vows revenge, and joins his friends who have already been planning to join the Union army. Concluding their best chance of locating Devol in the South is with the Army, the men enlist in the Gallant Dan McCook‘s 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment. Col. McCook has sworn his own vengeance against a Confederate bushwhacker, Frank Gurley, who murdered McCook’s defenseless brother.
The Ohio men are assigned to the Company of Captain Lyman Dunnock, a career officer in the British East India Company Army. Twenty-five years earlier, in an attempt to escape his wretched life in the hellish flashhouses and rookeries of the Victorian London Slums, street orphan Lyman had accidentally killed his lecherous apprentice-master. At age 13, using forged papers, Lyman joins the British East India Company Officer Training Academy and flees the country. By the age of 15, Lyman is a combat tested 2nd lieutenant in the British East India Company Army, fighting Pashtun warriors in the Hindu Kush mountains outside Kabul in 1841. After colossal British Military blundering, Lyman becomes the sole British survivor of the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army in the mountain passes in January of 1842.
After a lifetime of narrow escapes against real life warlords Wazir Akbar Khan of Afghanistan 1842, Nana Sahib in The Indian Rebellion of 1857, and The Imperial Qing Dynasty of China in 1860, Lyman retires from the military and moves to the U.S. looking for a fresh start and a less dangerous vocation.
When the Civil War begins, Lyman, having little career luck as a civilian, joins the Union Army as a captain in Col. Dan McCook’s 52nd Ohio Infantry, Army of the Cumberland. Across his decades of fighting in the BEIC Army, Lyman has seen firsthand the pointless carnage of outdated military tactics in the face of murderous new weapons. He is an expert in guerrilla warfare and close combat. With the blessing of Col. McCook, and the assistance from the long range killers of Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooter‘s, he arms the Ohio men with Sharps Breech loading rifles and transforms them into an elite company of deadly scouts and snipers. Cage surprises himself, and all those around him, when he performs bravely and fiercely in his first battle.
As the War progresses, the Ohio men are assigned to eliminate the murderous roving Confederate raiders in the wild, remote mountains of Tennessee and Georgia. Lyman forms an especially close bond with Cage, and melds him into an efficient, cold blooded warrior, ferocious against the Rebels at the killing fields from Perryville to Chickamauga to Kennesaw Mountain.
Cage and the Ohio men are relentless in their pursuit of Francois Devol, who now leads a band of the worst bushwhackers taking their terrors deeper into the Southern Heartland. Devol and his guerrillas prey on Union Sympathizers, and the Ohioans follow his trail of murder and depravities, which are cloaked in the brutal partisan warfare roaring through war ravaged Tennessee countryside. There are several close calls, but each time, Devol slips away.
As the battles and armies grow ever larger, the Ohio men rub elbows with iconic Union generals William Lytle, John Wilder and Phil Sheridan. They experience the flush of combat, the horror of its aftermath, and the monotony of a common foot soldier in the Civil War. The men escape the drudgery and hardship of the campaign any way they can, visiting Nashville’s notorious Smokey Row, or one day shooting at Private Sam Watkins and the Maury Grays of Company Aytch, 1st/27th Tennessee, and the next day sharing a cool swimming hole and hot coffee with them.
By the spring of 1864, as Cage and the Army of the Cumberland march deeper into Georgia, Devol has risen in rank to Colonel in GEN. Nathan Bedford Forrest‘s cavalry. After Forrest is injured when his horse is shot from underneath him, Devol leads the charge at the Battle of Fort Pillow. A few months later Cage and the men of the 52nd Ohio make the climactic assault up Kennesaw Mountain.
In April 1865, as General Robert E. Lee and his Army flee the Confederate Capitol of Richmond and the city falls into drunken mobs, fires, and chaos, Devol abets Confederate President Jefferson Davis as Davis empties the Confederate banks of their gold. Meanwhile, Cage, survivor of many battles, Andersonville Prison, and the Sultana disaster, returns home and tries to restart his life.
After a letter comes telling Cage that Devol and his gang have assembled in the Okefenokee Swamp, he heads off to the massive, untamed swamp for one last battle. When he arrives, he is surprised to find Seraphine Passibone, a beautiful New Orleans octoroon, who has long planned her own vengeance against Devol. Seraphine’s family had been struck by Devol’s evil when she was just an infant, and she has nurtured her hatred of him for two decades. Groomed by notorious New Orleans voodooienne Marie Laveau, Seraphine has assembled a small force of freedmen, veterans of Andre Cailloux’s 1st Louisiana Native Guards, and has plans for the millions of dollars in Confederate gold Devol is guarding.
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