Billy put his hand out to stop me, and then touched a finger to his lips for quiet. He squatted beside the dirt path, his dark blue uniform covered in grime from the fight, his sky-blue edged collar unhooked. He checked his Springfield rifle. I squatted next to him. Removing my cap, I wiped my damp forehead. All around us, vines hung from trees. I smelled a trace of smoke.
Ever since we found our sergeant mustered out—shot in the back by some craven Johnny Reb—the two of us wandered these cursed woods, hunting that gray-back coward. We must’ve strayed from the main battle, for the sounds of war long since dimmed. Billy pointed to the soft ground.
A footprint. I recognize that barefoot print. Dozens of them surrounded our fallen comrade. Johnny Reb had come this way. He probably knew we were looking for him.
I nodded, a grim smile touching my lips. We were close.
“That’s him, by god, I know it,” Billy whispered. “Look, blood. He’s injured from the looks of it.”
“Then, let’s find that uppity rebel no-account so we can get back to our unit.”
“He left the path here and headed through the woods.” Billy pointed into the thick woodlands.
“You’re the better tracker, you lead. I’ll keep watch just in case he’s waiting for us. No sense lettin’ him sneak up on us.”
Billy took off through the woods, thick with bramble while I keep my eyes roaming looking for possible sniper locations. The trail of bloody footprints wound through the woods. We went down a small incline and stopped at the creek at the bottom. Water splashed around the rocks.
Billy motioned back towards the woods.
“Let’s call a halt for a few minutes.”
“Sure thing. What’s up?”
We sat down behind a thicket of trees. But I keep my rifle ready. One could never tell about them rebs.
“Our sniper has met up with two others,” Billy spat in disgust. “One’s an officer from the boot marks. They went up the other side of the creek.”
“Their misfortune. Time for bayonets.” I slid mine over the end of the rifle barrel.
“At least I still have this,” Billy pushed aside his jacket to reveal the revolver he took off the body of the dead Reb officer.
“I still have his Arkansas toothpick.”
“This reminds me of a story my pa use to tell me about my gran’pa.”
“You mean that ghost story,” I shook my head. Not that camp canard again.
“Yep. My gran’pa went huntin’ one afternoon. There hadn’t been no injun problems for awhile. He came across a trail of bloody human footprints. He tracked them thinkin’ someone needed help. In fact, the prints crossed a creek just like that one. When he climbed the other side of the creek, the bushes rustled and out stepped something he always called a haunt.”
“Maybe he haunted some of those corn squeezings he made,” I joked.
Billy face darkened with anger. “Weren’t no corn squeezings that caused his hair to turn white. He was only twenty-three years of age at the time. That patch of white hair of his weren’t normal.”
“Okay. Hey, dusk is almost here. We best be looking for them secesh.”
We stood and studied our surroundings. The shadows had grown long in the time we rested. Time seemed to stand still. The stench of smoke thickened, and I swore I smelt meat cooking.
“Billy, as before. You track and I’ll keep watch.”
With caution and in single file, we crossed the creek and scrambled up the other bank. The risk of exposure to possible enfilading fire hurried us up the bank. We paused in the thicket at the top, peering through the vines. I saw no movement, except for the leaves dancing in the breeze.
Billy pointed to the thinning of the trees.
“Must be a clearing up ahead,” he said.
“Careful. Crossing an exposed field ain’t to my liking.”
“The footprints lead in that direction. From the looks of it, we can’t be too far behind them.”
“Let’s scout the clearing before we cross. What was that?”
Sounds of children’s laughter followed by a man’s voice issued from the clearing. Billy and I looked at each other.
“Could be a trap,” I said.
Billy nodded and followed the trail right up to the edge of the clearing. I knelt on the ground next him, and moved aside a branch. Such a strange sight met my gaze, had the people not been speaking a form of English, I would have thought I peered into another civilization. The hairs on my arm rose with the chill bumps.
The odd group appeared to be a family. The man stood taller than any I’d every seen. He wore a shirt with no sleeves, similar to a vest, but not quite the same. His pants looked to have been torn off above the knees. Must be a dead beat pie eater.
The woman stood nearly naked, not even clad in her unmentionables. My eyes stayed fixated upon her. Her upper garment consisted on nothing more than stings and two tiny patches of cloth revealing most of her torso. What woman would want to risk tanning her skin? She wore pants similar to the man’ but much shorter showing much of her thin legs. She stood by a black metal box supported by a black iron pipe jutting out of the earth. This device emitted the smell of smoke and cooking meat I sensed earlier.
The two young boys wore loose fitting clothes that could have come from a blind tailor. They tossed an odd shaped ball. Oblong and about a foot long, the brown sphere narrowed to dull points at both ends. Perhaps a weapon of mysterious origin unknown by the Union generals.
The woman called to the children and I gazed at her again.
Billy whispered, “There’s the rebel.” He point to edge of the woods on the far side of the clearing. “There, in the shadows, by that tall maple.”
My gaze, ripped from the tanned woman, followed to where Billy pointed. He drew the revolver. The Johnny Reb stood in the shadows, leaning on the tree. He looked played out. Billy and I stood in unison. I lifted my rifle, left arm held tight to my side, and took aim. Only then did I step out of the woods into the clearing. Several things happened simultaneously.
I pulled the trigger and my rifle fired, sending a lead Minie ball in the reb’s direction. He vanished from sight. The crunch of leaves to my back indicated someone snuck up on us.
“Hey, blue-bellies,” came a Southern drawl from behind.
Billy turned and cursed. He fired two rounds from the revolver. At the same moment, I heard two shots from behind. Billy’s head jerked back when a minnie ball smacked into his skull. Pain exploded in my back and ripped through my chest.
But the strangest event happened next.
The woman stared directly into my eyes, her face turning into a mask of fear. She let loose with a haunted scream and shrieked, “Ghosts!”
One of the boys looked at Billy and me and let loose with soul wrenching scream.
The other boy broke out into tears of terror and ran to his father who stood rooted to the ground.
Ghosts? Are they talking about me?
I faded. Everything went black. I floated in this blackness for a while, how long I couldn’t say. After an indeterminate amount of time, the blackness began to turn to gray. I saw woods.
Billy put his hand out to stop me, then touched a finger to his lips…