Gerard Fourie was lean in his old age but still fit as a man prone to wandering in the trekgees tradition of his South African Boer ancestry. He had walked alone many miles that night along the railroad tracks, but it wasn’t an aimless journey because there was a destination clear in his mind and with it came a purpose that was too pitiless for Heaven and too righteous for Hell. Gerard had been a fighter in his youth, a soldier during the Mexican-American War twenty years prior. His son had been born just after then ran off to join the fight against the Yankees when he could barely grow a beard. Union soldiers had killed his son, but not in battle. His son had survived the war to endure the poverty that came after the surrender. The sweet wife of his son had died that night. His boy had gone to the Kill Cavalry Blockhouse to summon the aid of a doctor. Fort Killpatrick the Yankees called it. Union soldiers guarded the rail depot from there and enforced the occupation of Virginia. They had murdered his son because he asked for a doctor to aid his ailing wife and their unborn child. What sport they had killing a Johnny Reb. They thought themselves untouchable. By human hands they might be. Some hands reach up from graves.
Splashes from a new bottle of whiskey gave Gerard’s worn black suit the scent of a drunkard. Gerard was a sober man and always had been. Fools believe what their heart’s desire; that is why the Billy Yanks put a sign on his boy’s body. The bloody and mutilated corpse of his son hung upside down from a gibbet out in front of the blockhouse. The sign on him read ‘rapist and murderer’. No Yankee judge would question the lie.
Gerard stood before his son, which left them barely visible in the torchlight that came from the palisade that flanked the gate. He took a totem from his breast pocket then kissed it before he placed it in his son’s mouth. The small ivory carving of a hyena had come from the Dark Continent. It had belonged to the father of his soul-brother Willy. Willy was a Negro born of that land. Like Gerard, he had arrived in America as just a boy. Nothing had changed since the emancipation since Willy had only been Gerard’s slave in name. Willy’s father had been a shaman, a sorcerer in his own land, a man both powerful and much feared who had taught his son secret things no man should ever know.
Singing ‘O, I’m a Good Old Rebel’ got the attention of the soldiers in the fort. They thought Gerard was drunk and a fool when he was neither.
I can’t take up my musket
And fight ’em now no more,
But I ain’t going to love ’em,
Now that is sarten sure;
And I don’t want no pardon
For what I was and am,
I won’t be reconstructed
And I don’t care a damn.
Four of the soldiers came out from the gate to beat Gerard with their rifle butts and they laughed with every blow. They pulled a dirty sack over Gerard’s head then dragged him inside to toss him in one of the blockhouse’s jail cells. Gerard took his beating without complaint and was even grateful to be behind the iron bars of a cell. There was no place that Gerard would rather be. It was the only safe place to be from what they had coming that night. Hell would come. His revenge would come. Not even the man who called it down could expect mercy from that smoldering hate men buried to try and forget. The dead never forget.
A night of hard drinking and wanton murder had the Kill Cavalry Blockhouse awake at such a late hour. The fort’s commander Captain Sharp strolled by the jail cells to have a look at their only prisoner. “You picked the wrong place to mock the victorious troops of the Union,” Sharp told Gerard. Sharp’s uniform was of new thread. It took a keen eye to see the smudges of blood that he had tried to rub away with a rag.
Gerard replied, “I didn’t come here to mock anyone. I brought you a message. Your doctor no longer has a patient. She died with her child some few hours ago.”
Sharp lost all amusement and narrowed his eyes at his prisoner, “He was kin to you then. I believe you came here to give me a message, only not the one I just heard. You will find it difficult to give me your real message from behind those bars. It will be even harder after you’re dead.” The captain took a step back when he saw the look in Gerard’s eyes. It was an expression that Sharp had seen before, a man in the face of battle with no fear of it.
“You will come to envy my bars soon enough,” Gerard promised with a vindictive sneer that hinted at a smile. “This iron won’t be any detriment to my message either. Even if you tell me why, it won’t make any difference, but I still want to know.”
“I have stared down cannons,” Sharp tried to bolster his own confidence because in truth, some part of him felt disturbed by the old man. “I don’t frighten so easily. He was your son I take it. I see some resemblance in your face and hear it in your voice as well. Why would I send my doctor to tend to the sicknesses of filthy rebels? The war may be over but the cleansing is far from it. I intend to see every man who wore the rebel uniform pay for his treason. You know what they say when you give a man enough rope.”
“He will hang you all,” Gerard did know the phrase. “You will soon find that you have come to the end of your rope. When your guests arrive, cannons will seem as friendly as lambs to your eyes.”
“An old vagabond like you?” Sharp laughed at the absurdity of the threat. “You couldn’t muster enough men to change a chamber pot. It’s time to show you that I am not quite out of rope yet. If it’s any conciliation, you will soon be reunited with your son. The crows will be grateful even if you’re not.”
Gerard cocked his head to listen.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Sharp said about the old man trying to scare him. He was wrong. The distant sound of a thump was barely audible. It sent a shiver up the captain’s spine. Sharp convinced himself it had been some coincidence, some aberration, but then the sound happened again.
“Gather your men and have them ready their rifles,” Gerard advised as he sat back on the stiff bunk. “They won’t help you against what is coming, but it will be better for me if you try. You will be begging me instead of God. I’ll hear you beg me to make it stop. Prepare yourself, captain.”
A lieutenant came rushing into the jail to give news.
“What is going on out there?” Sharp demanded. He used impatience to hide his nervousness.
“An old Negro, captain,” the lieutenant explained. “He has nailed a chicken to the gate, a spike through its head. The guards on the palisade say that he has run off into the night. Do you want me to send out a detachment to apprehend him?”
“Chase one old nigger in the dark?” Sharp mocked the suggestion. “I think we can survive one dead chicken. Double the watch and keep me informed if anything else happens.”
A great deal had already happened though no one but Gerard yet knew it. The war cemetery across the tracks at the edge of the woods was a hive of activity. Corpses of Union soldiers clawed their way up from the loose soil. Tombstones toppled. Birds, rats, and even insects fled the hallowed ground in a great exodus. One Col. Ulric Dahlgren was the first to rise. The fallen men of his ill-fated cavalry brigade crawled up to join him. Ulric had commanded a detachment from his division. Heavy were their souls over the disrepute that came of their valor. Brevet Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, their brigade commander had abandoned them. Kilpatrick was a well-known fool, once reckless then turned coward, the very man whose name cursed the nearby blockhouse fort. The Union had disavowed their mission. The Confederacy had named them dishonorable barbarian villains. Many a despicable act of guerilla revenge had spawned from their catastrophe. Restless was the graveyard sleep of such men. They had gladly answered the call of the old Negro necromancer. The undead brigade longed to punish any who disgraced what they had fought and died to uphold.
Captain Sharp drank shots of whiskey while he sat impatiently waiting to see if the threats of Gerard had any substance. He imagined that the old man had a few friends that skulked out in the dark, far too few to lay siege to his fort.
The first to die was one of the Union privates as he patrolled the palisade. The young man first smelled the stench of the grave then he foolishly leaned over the wall to strain his eyes against the night. One of the risen ghouls plunged the rusted bayonet on his decrepit rifle into the man’s throat. While the dying soldier gurgled and slowly drowned in his own blood, two more of the risen dead helped pull his body over so that a whole pack of them could pull it into gory pieces.
Soldiers the dead had been in life so soldiers they remained. Groups of them moved against the fort at every corner. The animate corpse of Col. Dahlgren led a band of ghouls against the front gate. The hate of the restless dead gave them strength beyond mortals even though they lacked grace or speed.
A hideous scream followed by a rifle shot shocked Captain Sharp up from his seat. For a delicious moment, Gerard had the pleasure of locking gazes with the captain who had murdered his son. They exchanged an instantaneous understanding. Captain Sharp finally understood that the old man’s warnings had been anything but some idle bluff.
Sharp’s first instinct was to run out to command his men in the defense. His courage failed as that first scream became twenty amid a flurry of gunfire. The reek of spilled entrails and rotting corpses became heavy in the air. Sharp had heard thousands of screams in his time, the kind that came from dying men, many with wounds that upturned the stomachs of seasoned surgeons. The horror in the voices Sharp heard that night were something altogether more terrible, more hopeless. They were screams like he had never heard before and they filled him with terror.
The soldiers of the fort were helpless against an enemy already dead. Some of the ghouls already had bullets in their heads. A new bullet to the brain was no handicap or discomfort. No bullet could do any worse than the worms had already done. Even if they were in pieces, the individual limbs would keep coming.
Sharp ran to the heavy door that secured the jail area. He slammed it shut even in the faces of his own men as they ran that way seeking safety. The captain barred the door then pressed his back against it. He drew his pistol from its flap holster then clutched it to his chest.
“You murdered my boy,” Gerard repeated his old accusation. “You murdered my daughter and my grandson. What sort of man is so cruel?”
Men under Sharp’s command pounded on his door. They begged for him to let them in and then they began to shriek as the ghouls caught up with them. There were a few gunshots followed by the purest screams of hellish agony as can only come from men being devoured by the undead.
“In God’s name,” Sharp shouted so Gerard could hear him over the screams. “What have you done?” The captain pointed his pistol at Gerard. It had a trembling aim in his shaking hand. “Put an end to this, damn you! Stop this or I’ll..”
“You’ll what?” Gerard mocked him. “You will take everything from me? You already did that. How much life could I have left? There is no stopping this now, not even if I wanted to.”
As tempted as Sharp was to shoot Gerard, he still somehow hoped the old man could uncast his spell. He feared wasting his precious bullets, especially since he already knew he might need one for himself.
The foul stinking creatures outside the door began to beat upon it. The impacts were so forceful that the door bulged and stressed to stay in its frame.
Sharp threw himself harder against the door to lend it more strength. As the barrier continued to break down despite his efforts, Sharp begged Gerard, “Please help me! I’m sorry! God forgive me!”
“God forgives,” Gerard replied with cold hatred, “not me.”
In that final desperate moment, Captain Sharp suddenly remembered the keys on his belt. He could lock himself inside the cells like Gerard. He could lock himself behind iron bars and those could be strong enough to keep him safe. As he relaxed his pressure that held the door so he could make his move, the rotting hand of Col. Ulric Dahlgren burst through the weakened timbers. The bony-clawed hand seized Sharp by the hair on the back of his head. Sharp accidentally shot himself in the foot with his own pistol such was his panic. The undying Dahlgren jerked Sharp’s head back so he could pull it through the hole in the door. Once it was on the other side, Dahlgren began eating Sharp’s face.
With the entire garrison dead, the ghouls broke down the jailhouse door completely then gathered at the front of Gerard’s cell to try and reach him too. They thrust their arms as far as they could into the cage hoping to grab him. Gerard had backed far enough away to be beyond their reach.
Willy the Negro could tell by the silence that the task was finished. He went to the hanging body of Gerard’s son so that he could recover the totem from the dead boy’s mouth. With but a single forbidden word, Willy put all the dead back to rest, a permanent one where their souls would no longer languish in torment. The animated bodies all just gave up their ghosts then collapsed never to move again.
After he wandered through the blood-drenched fort to find his friend, Willy unlocked the cell that held Gerard. Together, they found a small cart that they could use to take home the body of Gerard’s son. Willy knew that for Gerard’s family to have proper peace, they would have to have the bodies in the ground before dawn.