The Lords Of Chickamauga
a story by
Private Israel Halstead stepped gingerly over the ashen forms lying around him. He had to watch his feet lest they fall with slippery uncertainty onto what were pieces of limbs or heads or the red, ropey strands of human innards scattered with grotesque abandon about the rugged terrain near Pigeon Mountain. These riven remains were all that was left of his platoon, already reduced to about twenty men and had Private Halstead not chosen to bivouac some distance away from them last night after a fit of the “skeedaddles,” he would have been amongst them. He would have been even further away had not the weather, bitterly cold and wet that night, compelled him to seek shelter under an outcropping of rock along a bend in the creek which lent its name to the great battle set to resume that day.
It was the morning of September 19th, 1863. Detached from Major General James Negley’s division, in the middle of what would become known as the Battle of Chickamauga, Private Halstead’s company had the unpleasant task of determining Confederate strength in a small area known as Dug Gap. The private had joined the cause of Union seven months earlier with thoughts of grand deeds, and to help restore the 11 stars that had been so rashly and unlawfully torn away from the colors. But this—this was madness. He was sick and horrified and angry that things could have come to such a ghastly conclusion. There had been no warning as he lay in his little granite lean-to, no sign of the carnage that had taken place so close to where he fitfully slept. But then the thunder and constant prattle of rain had provided likely cover for the hard sounds of death and dismemberment. The morning had dawned with a preternatural stillness as if the myriad bird and insect life, which normally provided an unceasing hum in the forest, were themselves shocked into submission by the extent of what had happened. He would have continued his clandestine exodus had not the bitter metallic smell of blood stirred a last remaining particle of duty to his comrades and forced him to return to camp.
His eyes searched for a horse, but either they were run off or the noises of battle, or the smell of powder, smoke, or death itself must have spooked them and God only knew where they were now. Just as he was about to retreat back into the woods a strange, guttural sound came to his ears—as of a heavy rasp being run across the bark of one of the many spruce pines which surrounded him. Almost as a reflex, he crouched behind a tree. Low on his haunches, he looked across the broken forms before him, their contorted torsos standing out Union blue and blood-red against the grass. In the middle, one heaved upward as he heard the gurgling rasp again. He wanted to run… to blot the whole damn scene from his mind, but his legs, so eager to disobey his head and save themselves last night, now disobeyed a second time and began to lurch forward toward the source of the noise. He stepped back into the field of death and approached a corporal, lying face up, eyes glazed, a horrible wound in his neck. A bolt, as from a crossbow, lay broken near him, stained with blood. The corporal sensed the private’s presence. A hand reached up, a hand missing two fingers with a third dangling from the second joint, leaving the forefinger pointing in damning accusation. The private recoiled instinctively.
“What in God’s Name happened?” Halstead asked.
The corporal’s words came out in a soft hiss. “They came out of the mist…they chopped us to pieces as we slept.”
It must have been a Rebel raiding party. But why hadn’t the pickets stopped them or at least given a warning? Halstead asked the corporal just that.
“Nothing can stop ghosts.”
But Halstead could clearly see that the life force was quickly ebbing from the corporal. A cloudy film had formed over his eyes and they began to sink into their orbits, becoming expressionless. His mouth went slack.
“Ghosts you say?”
Only a few words passed through blackening lips. To Halstead they sounded like, “Knights. In shining armor. Shining in the moon…” The corporal’s head lolled to one side, his eyes unseeing. A heave went through him and his last breath passed out in a great exhalation. A few tremors and he was gone.
Halstead looked upon the still form for a few more seconds then rose to his feet. Grasping his Enfield rifle until his knuckles blanched, he made his way once more to the copse of spruce, poplar, and sycamores bordering the southern end of the field. He pushed through the undergrowth and came to a small dirt lane that seemed to materialize only then between the trees. The morning fog was cold and flitted through the forest, leaving small pockets of mist where it collected in the swales and depressions of the forest floor. A sense of dread overcame him, smothering him like the fog itself. He began to quicken his pace down the lane, the sound of his footfalls muffled by the swirling mist. A turn, down a gentle slope, splashing through a stagnant creek, up a rise and down again. The woods grew thicker. Another turn. He found himself in a grove of yellow poplars, unmixed with any other kind of foliage, otherworldly in its pureness and in the yellow-green light that filtered through the canopy, bathing everything in a ghastly pallor. Halstead kept his eyes riveted on the ground before him. The fog was drifting in thick clouds here, by turns obscuring then revealing the road ahead. Something made him look up.
There, ahead in the road about a hundred paces, six human forms on horseback, their silhouettes crenulated, with pointed heads and pointed feet; a few grasped crossbows slackly at their sides. The others held what looked like lances and broadswords. Beneath them, horses but not horses, their shanks and necks articulated in outline like wooden toys. Halstead lurched one more step and froze, afraid to move. The forms faded to white, and back into view as the fog shimmered around them. The dying words of the corporal came to him. Knights in shining armor, Halstead thought. They materialized once more into the black silhouettes of armored horses and riders. One gave a start and turned his mount towards Halstead. Then another did likewise. His legs were finally cooperating with his brain, and did its bidding. He dashed from the road, knocked against a poplar, and dropped his rifle. He knew it was useless against apparitions anyway. He lurched through the grove, his eyes wild, his body senseless, his mind a runaway train of animal reason, pushing aside all thoughts but one: how to get from here to anywhere at the highest velocity possible.
Halstead’s fear began commingling with a new feeling: guilt. He thought of his mother’s rationale behind spirits. She was uneducated and had that strange mixture of common sense and superstition so common to women of her station. To her, everything had its purpose. Apparitions, ghosts, spirits, whatever one wanted to call them, they manifested themselves for a reason. They were the remnants of our spiritual and temporal transgressions and they served to set us once more upon the path of moral salvation and redemption. They were the tools of God, and to ignore them and run from them was to wallow through the stagnant stream of spiritual effluence that ran alongside the road of life.
A deafening flutter–a flock of wild pheasants exploded from the foliage in front of Halstead–sent him reeling on a new tangent, out of the poplar grove and into a denser part of the forest. Chivalry is not dead, he thought, it’s alive and well and pursuing me to ground. He became aware of a sound—the wheezing of his own breath, which he was rapidly running out of. There, up ahead—a clearing. Something whizzed by his ears and struck the ground ten or so yards ahead of him, furrowing into it with a little burst of earth. He ran out into the clearing, into the unblemished sun which had suddenly appeared through the broken sky, and became aware of men–men in blue who were emerging from the shadows of the forest at the far end of the clearing. They were raising their rifles and taking aim. At him. He was running into an ambush. They had discovered his transgression, his treasonous fear, and were going to shoot him dead. He dropped to the ground as the first volley exploded before him, sending its echoes careering through the valley.
New sounds smote his ears—shrieking horses and a strange clatter of metal on metal and metal on earth. The blades of grass pressed into his face. Another volley as a second line of men fired, and the sounds behind him began dissipating with whimpers and sighs. Now a third volley—not of bullets but of prattling voices as his compatriots advanced toward him. There was the sound of surprise in their murmuring. Slowly Halstead raised his head. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. He craned his neck around and looked behind him. There in a heap were the knights in armor, forming a single body of tangled extremities wrapped in metal, lying under the writhing bodies of their mounts.
Halstead turned his head back to see a captain slinking toward him, a new Spencer rifle in his hands.
“You all right, private?”
“How did you do it? How did you stop them?”
The captain went over to survey the mass of human and animal wreckage. “There ain’t much can stand up to a blizzard of .58 caliber minie balls.”
Then Halstead became aware of another sound… the bleating, despairing voice of an old man. “My young men. My young men…” he wailed. Dressed incongruously in 18th century breeches and buckled shoes, he tottered out of the woods towards the private and the scene of destruction, waving his arms in little despairing circles. The captain turned and ran toward the old man, catching him as he fell forward.
“I’m sorry, old feller. We had no choice. Another ten feet and they would have cut down that boy there, and maybe made mincemeat of some of mine.”
Halstead got up onto his feet at last. Again, that familiar sound of rasping on bark–with a metallic echo this time. He slowly made his way to one of the suits of armor, spilled from a dead horse, one foot in a stirrup. He raised the visor and saw the eyes of a boy, perhaps thirteen years old. A strand of straw-colored hair, matted with blood, stuck to his forehead. The glassy stare, the sunken eyes, the breath loud and sonorous, coming at longer and longer intervals until they finally stopped. He raised another visor. This one, perhaps eleven, already gone. Another… and another. All boys. All probably under fifteen years of age. The knights of old must have been small men, Halstead thought, his mind taking desperate, inappropriate diversions.
“My boys,” cried the old man again as the captain led him back to the company.
He turned suddenly to Halstead and scrutinized his face. “I’ll want to talk to you. Want to know what you’re doing so far from your unit. You have all the looks of a runner.”
Private Halstead, his legs shaking and tired from their independent thinking, followed the captain. They made their way through the skirmish line that was just now standing down and breaking ranks to the rear. Halstead found a tree stump and sat on it. Another private sat cross-legged next to him and pulled out a satchel of tobacco and a pipe, which he started to fill. “Poor old buzzard.” He handed the sack of tobacco to Halstead, who shook his head.
“Who is he?” A pause, and with a tired, sweeping gesture towards the dead, “and who are they?”
“Old feller is the superintendent of Troy Military School for boys. Just over the ridge there. Come looking for a bunch of cadets who raided the Armory museum of the school. Thought they’d help out the cause wearin’ their purloined armor. He been lookin’ for ‘em and I reckon he’s found ‘em. Poor old buzzard.”
Halstead heard something else before his thoughts turned to his fate. It was the sound of shovels meeting earth and the gentle muffle of that earth falling into growing mounds….
Ron Yungul’s inspirations as a writer range from the works of Ambrose Bierce to Robert Bloch. When speaking with Mr. Bloch one cold Hollywood night several decades back, and revealing that he, too, was a writer of horror, the master replied “Well, misery loves company…” Ron is also a screenwriter and has projects in development with Indiana Girl Productions in Hollywood. He lives with his wife and son in Burbank, California, and can be reached via rsyungul (at) yahoo (dot) com