Type of Short Story: Novelette
Summary: In July 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet may hold the key to turning General Lee's potentially catastrophic strategy at Gettysburg into war-deciding victory. One man's horrible tragedy can place ranks of the undead at Longstreet's disposal and turn the fate of the Confederate cause...if he dares.
June 29, 1863
East of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
General Longstreet hoped he could hear the wings of angels beating outside his tent, but he knew better. It was either the sound of the courier’s departing hoof beats or the pulse rising in Longstreet’s ears. There were no angels in this war.
He read the message from General Lee again.
George Meade has replaced Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Make all haste east. Your man, Harrison, reports two Union corps advancing north from Frederick, posing a possible threat to our supply lines. Converge with Hill west of Gettysburg.
Since defeating Hooker at Chancellorsville in early May, Lee had been itching to capitalize on his momentum into Union territory and take the war directly to Washington, D.C. Rumors of a possible peace settlement continued to swell, but Lee knew that having an unstoppable rebel army camped on Lincoln’s doorstep would yield far more favorable terms. The South was one major victory away from winning Britain’s recognition and ensuring permanent independence.
Longstreet didn’t care about victory. He only wanted peace. No, that wasn’t quite true. He wanted an end to the dying. The thought was always in his mind, low and monotonous, like a monk’s murmuring devotions. The sooner the dying stopped, the sooner they all might resume living.
The message fell from Longstreet’s hand and onto his map, obscuring most of Maryland. The plentiful fields of Pennsylvania had lifted the spirits of Longstreet’s First Corps, and they would need their full bellies for the twenty-three mile sprint to Gettysburg. Every West Point graduate knew that Roman armies were expected to march fifteen miles per day, but Confederate armies were barely managing twelve. Some of this had to do with the considerable length of their supply lines beyond the Confederacy, but another crippling factor was the followers’ camp.
Followers were the boon and bane of every army. These were soldiers’ women or family as well as bakers, hawkers, harlots, swindlers, tailors, smiths, cobblers, preachers, and every other manner of distraction a soldier might have in the field. Some would even creep into the battlefields under cover of darkness and pillage what prizes they could from the dead.
The uncontrollable randomness of a follower’s camp introduced one more unpredictable element near the field of battle, and the comforts they offered were often overshadowed by their dragging, debilitating presence. Still, followers were what kept many men sane and willing to fight on. There were thousands of them, and their train as they trailed the marching corps could span for more than a mile. Yet it was pointless to try and leave them behind. The soldiers would only slow down so that the followers could keep pace. Like every other general before him since ancient Greece, Longstreet tolerated these ragged hangers-on, but at times like this, when mobility and focus could literally win or lose the war, he felt that any distraction to his army was a threat.
The general pushed away from his table, rubbing his eyes, head bowed. He wanted air and to clear his mind, even if only for a few moments. Longstreet pushed through his tent’s door and tried to breathe in the muggy night. They had marched through 100-degree weather today, encountering a thunderstorm just before sunset. He could feel the camp’s restlessness as men tossed and groaned in the heat and humidity.
Longstreet resisted the urge to loosen his uniform collar, knowing that his two attending corporals would be falling into step only a few feet behind him. Instead, he found a barrel of drinking water, grabbed the wooden cup next to it, and scooped out three drafts. He closed his eyes, feeling the droplets wend through his beard. Not far off, someone was playing a flute, helping to distract his comrades from the stifling summer night.
Longstreet moved among campfires, giving nods and smiles to those who noticed him in the darkness. A voice rose up, somber yet clear, to sing with the tune.
If amid the din of battle
Nobly you should fall,
Far away from those who love you
None to hear you call.
Who would whisper words of comfort?
Who would soothe your pain?
Ah! The many cruel fancies
Ever in my brain.
Several more voices joined in for the chorus.
Weeping, sad and lonely
Hopes and fears how vain!
When this cruel war is over
Praying that we meet again.
A grim smile of pride and sadness came to Longstreet while he listened. All these men wanted was to go home, embrace their families, and work an honest day, just as he did. Only now, of course, there was so little of his family left. Of his four children, scarlet fever had claimed three last year over the course of eight terrible days. He could only imagine how hard it was for Louise to continue on while fourteen-year-old Garland, their only remaining son, begged daily to join the war with his father. If Garland left, she would be alone in their home, with no one to offer comfort save the other mothers of Richmond. Collectively, they had lost many dozens of children to that winter’s epidemic.
Yet those deaths were few. Thousands more might be waiting at the end of the First Corps’s impending march. He had felt a certainty of it building throughout the month. With that certainty came growing dread. This was no longer a war for some idea of Southern independence or even the Southern way of life. After so much bloodshed and the threat of so much more, this was now a battle for life itself. Longstreet wanted to save as many of those lives as he could. He may not have been able to save his children, yet somehow he might still be able to save his soldiers. He must. There was only so much loss one man could bear before breaking.
He wandered for a bit, almost forgetting his attendants, considering of all things the green onions and kale that had filled this field until his army’s arrival. The potatoes weren’t yet ripe, and the apple orchards Longstreet now found himself entering wouldn’t be ready to pick for another month. At least this particular farmer would have something to harvest in the months ahead. He would be luckier than many others they’d visited.
A voice called out not ten feet to his right, “Evenin’, General, sir.”
Longstreet started, and then felt foolish for doing so. He was tired, and his mind was elsewhere. As the man stepped into a brighter patch of starlight, Longstreet heard his attendants position themselves on his left and right.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” said the newcomer. “I didn’ know when or where else to fin’ you, and it’s a matter of...” He trailed off, eyeing the corporals warily.
The man was short, thin, and stooped with exhaustion. Making out his features was difficult, but he was clearly a private with several streaks of blood across his gray uniform.
“Of what, Private?” Longstreet asked, trying not to be harsh. “Be quick.”
“Sir, I must show you somethin’,” said the man, his small voice even more hushed. “Somethin’ terrible. I...I think it could win us the battle tomorrow. Maybe the war, sir.”
Longstreet’s first impulse was simply to bid the private good night and be on his way. With the many battles they’d all seen, it was hard for any man to keep his reason sound. But there was something in the young man’s bearing and his weary but urgent tone, something about his gentle secrecy, that intrigued Longstreet.
“What’s your name and rank, son?” asked Longstreet.
“Private Samuel Carpenter, sir, assigned to Colonel Lang, Second Florida Brigade.”
“One of mine. All right, son. Get to your point.”
“Sir, I –” Carpenter’s voice choked. Even in the mottled shadows, Longstreet thought he saw the man’s body shudder. “I can only show this to you. If I tell this to you, sir, you won’t believe me.”
“Show me what, Private?”
“A way to guarantee victory, General. Until you see, none of it will make sense.”
Longstreet hesitated. He knew that every minute he delayed meant a minute of sorely needed sleep lost. Yet Longstreet was sensitive to the morale of all his men, and he tried at every chance to treat even the lowest ranking of them with strength and compassion.
“I only have a moment, Private Carpenter.”
“Absolutely, General,” said the man, unable to hide his sudden relief. “Please, sir...back this way.”
Carpenter trudged deeper into the orchard and Longstreet began to follow. “Sir, I...” began Corporal Ferris, the soldier on Longstreet’s right. Longstreet nodded and waved away his concern, confident in the security of being surrounded by his army.
The shuffling private led Longstreet back southward through the orchard. The flickering of campfires to their west and north was gradually obscured by the endless ranks of apple boughs. Occasionally, other soldiers passed them as they walked, offering polite greetings and salutes. Soon, they were through the back rows of trees and into a clearing. Yesterday, this field had contained acres of squash. Now, the land had sprouted tents, carts, workbenches, and hitching posts. Civilians sprawled on the ground atop blankets. Some played cards or dice, others worked at their crafts by candlelight under the stars. Occasionally, harlots would whistle at them as they passed, and Longstreet bristled at their effrontery. One man was about bottling his barreled wine. His wife took a tentative swig, screwed her face up at the bitter taste, and then jammed a cork into the bottle, setting it alongside the rest of the batch. Longstreet knew that any wine fermented in this heat would produce results little better than vinegar. He also knew that his soldiers would buy every drop. His lips curled with involuntary distaste.
Carpenter led them to the back edge of the followers’ camp. Tucked under the cover of a group of black walnut trees, set a fair distance away from its neighbors, stood a battered pole tent. The canvas was ragged and heavily stained, and yellow lamp light bled through tears in the fabric.
Longstreet had been gone too long already and knew he should turn back. He had started with this man out of kindness and curiosity. Now a sense of uneasiness began to nag at his mind. There was no music here. The crickets were silent. He could hear no talking among the people or preparing of wares for the next day. Longstreet startled when three or four birds broke from the branches above them and flitted across the stars. The grating caww-caww from one confirmed the birds as crows, and the sound of their wings sent a shiver through his body.
Carpenter stopped them in front of the tent flap. Every day, Longstreet talked with hundreds of haggard men who dealt with deprivation and pain, yet something about this man was different, darker. Longstreet felt the urge to turn and hurry away. He could live with frustrated curiosity and an unfulfilled explanation.
Carpenter interrupted the general’s deliberation. “Before we go in,” he whispered, “I need to tell you somethin’.” The thin, little man took a deep breath, steeling himself. “My family, we’re from Georgia, ’bout 30 miles west of Swainsboro. We hadn’ seen much work since the blockade, and we’d been wanderin’ north for weeks, thinkin’ maybe there would be better odds that way. We were hungry. Augusta, Charlotte, Roanoke… We could never find more than a few days of work anywhere and jus’ kept comin’ north. Then I heard there was a chance for me to join the Army and earn pay. I didn’ ask questions. The four of us just grabbed our few things and set out for Richmon’.”
Longstreet shifted his weight impatiently, preparing to turn on his heel, soldier morale be damned.
“We’d almos’ made it to Lexington when there was a rumor goin’ ‘roun’ that Congress was goin’ to do away with lettin’ men hire substitutes for their conscription. Rich folks, fearin’ for their lives an’ findin’ that bribes weren’ workin’ so well anymore, were startin’ to pay up for substitutes. With lots of rich folks bein’ in Richmon’, I saw our big chance. I heard that some men were gettin’ a hundred dollars or more to serve someone else’s three years. We needed that money so bad, sir.
“The fastes’ way to Richmon’ was through Charlottesville, but the Vicksburg siege had all those lands occupied, an’ we heard that the North was sendin’ another army straight down to Charlottesville to cut off Richmon’ from the west. So we lef’ the road and made straight east through the Piedmont hills. It was about a hundred miles to Richmon’. I thought we might make it in a week, but people told us we was crazy. Not ‘cause o’ the distance. You see, not many people live in those hills, and folks was startin’ to say there was a curse in those parts put there by the slaves. A revenge of sorts, set near the Confederate capital.”
Out of patience, Longstreet raised a hand and gestured to the tent’s opening. “Corporal Ferris, if you would.”
Ferris brushed past Carpenter and ducked into the man’s tent. There was a gasp followed by a guttural moan from deeper in the tent. Longstreet’s other attending corporal, a man named Statton, moved closer to his general’s elbow. But there was no other sign of alarm. After a moment, in an uncharacteristically wavering voice, Ferris called, “I think it’s safe, sir.”
On guard, Longstreet pulled back the flap and stepped slowly through. He was entirely unprepared for the sight before him. A woman lay in the dirt near the center of the tent. A bloody rag filled her mouth, with another rag having been wrapped around the first and tied behind her head. Her hands were bound behind her back, and a rope securing her ankles ran up behind her to fasten tautly around her neck. She might have been in her 30s, but her pallid, sickly skin appeared greenish and desiccated in the dim lamp light. Her eyes sank into shadows behind damp, matted tresses. A dress that might once have been yellow and pretty hung on her emaciated frame.
That was when Longstreet noted the stench within the enclosed space. He put a hand over his mouth and nose, and then, as the woman’s eyes followed his motions, the horror and confusion registered in his face.
“She’s…” the general choked. “Sweet Jesus, what is this?”
“My wife,” said Carpenter quietly. “Flora. She died six days ago.”
General Longstreet, who had seen thousands die, stood shocked and speechless. A movement at the side of the tent caught his eye. A girl of thirteen or fourteen in a plain blue dress huddled there on a low stool. She watched Longstreet sheepishly but made a clear effort not to look at the bound woman.
“That’s our daughter, Laura,” said Carpenter. Longstreet could only nod at her.
“As I was sayin’, the four o’ us—me, Flora, Laura, an’ our li’l un, Stevie—we was comin’ on foot through a valley. This was maybe three weeks ago. Beautiful lan’, but not much sign o’ people. We hurried on fas’ as we could. There was a storm, rain fit to drown a…” The private broke off, closed his eyes, swallowed, and licked his lips before continuing. “It was almos’ dusk, and we were tryin’ to cut across to the far side of the valley an’ make to some higher groun’ before dark. But the valley started to flood, first past our ankles, then to our knees. Li’l Stevie is only six, an’ with the tall grass an’ scrub, he was havin’ a hell of a time. We were all carryin’ our thangs, and there was no way to carry him, too. I tried. I mean, I did...as long as I could.”
The woman whose name had been Flora moved. Her shoulders pulled back, and the cords in her neck strained. A gurgling, viscous sound emerged from her throat. The veins in her face and forehead stood out in shades of green and purple, and her eyes bulged as they stayed locked on Longstreet, vacant, lost, and so desperate.
“I don’ remember when Stevie tripped,” continued Carpenter. “We was rushin’ toward the hills, tryin’ to get out o’ the flood. I don’ remember the place exactly or the time or... I just remember the blood. Flora gave a shout. She thought Stevie had tripped. He’d fallen down, and the water was so deep that his head wen’ under. When she tried to reach down into the spot where he oughtta been, there was nothin’ there. She said somethin’ kicked her then. A foot. So hard she nearly fell herself. We called out for Stevie, but there was no answer. The rain was comin’ down so hard. We couldn’ see a thang, but we yelled and yelled for what seem’ like hours. That was when I spotted the blood. Just this patch o’ red slowly comin’ through the brown about twenty feet away.”
Carpenter paused, lost momentarily in the memory. Longstreet began to raise his hand and say, “Son, if you don’t want—” but the private shook his head vehemently. He took a deep breath and continued.
“Someone screamed. I think it was Laura. I ran over as fas’ as I could, callin’ Stevie’s name ‘til I thought I’d burst. I sank my arms into the water, trying to feel aroun’ through that spreadin’ blood, and my fingers closed on somethin’. I yanked as hard as I could, and it turned out to be the back o’ Stevie’s shirt. I pulled him up an’ outta the water. There was this giant gash...a bite...prob’ly several...taken outta the back o’ his neck. I could see some o’ the white of his spine, and the blood was pourin’ out. Then somethin’ tried to tug Stevie back away from me. There was a man’s han’ still holdin’ on to Stevie’s arm above his wrist. It was green and fat with water. I remember the nails had all fallen off. I grabbed Stevie aroun’ his chest and pulled as hard as I could.”
Carpenter made grasping motions with his hands and Longstreet realized that his own hands had balled into fists.
“The thang in the water, it slipped or let go,” Carpenter said. “We fell back, and Flora caught me. I looked up in time to see the han’ disappear under the water. And then we ran. Along the way, Flora somehow used Stevie’s shirt and tied it aroun’ the wound, but it didn’ help much. We finally made it to the hills, foun’ some tree cover above the water, and that’s when I set li’lStevie down. He was dead.”
Longstreet noticed that Flora had closed her eyes and bowed her head slightly, as if remembering the sadness along with her husband. Could that be? Could such an unholy aberration have feelings? Or was she only tired and resting from straining against her bonds? Before Longstreet could think it through, Carpenter continued.
“We cried ourselves to sleep. I remember thinkin’ that I’d bury Stevie in the mornin’ somehow, even if it meant diggin’ through the dirt with my hands. I think I knew what was abou’ to happen. I’d heard stories when I was young, but I wasn’thinkin’ straight. Not yet anyway. Things like tha’ can’ happen to your own.
“None of us could stay awake to stan’ guard, and I’m not sure if any of us cared much if we lived or died at that point. It seemed like we slept for days, but it couldn’ have been more than two or three hours. The storm had broke and the moon was still too low for the night to have gotten on much. I woke ’cause Laura was screamin’ fit to call the Devil. It was Stevie. He’d come alive, or whatever it was, and he’d crawled over to Laura and grabbed her leg. She said his mouth was open wide, like he was about to take a big bite outta her.”
From her stool against the tent, Laura let out a whimper. This elicited a strange keening sound from Flora. It was ragged but high-pitched, and it jangled his nerves like a knife scraping across porcelain. When she finished this muted wail, Flora strained at her bonds and fixated again on Longstreet. He thought the only word to explain the look in the dead creature’s eyes was hunger.
“Laura slipped away an’ ran. Stevie got to his knees and wen’ for Flora. I was able to pin him down, although his strength was.... It was like wrasslin’ with a full grown man, only in a li’l boy’s size. As he wriggled under me, tryin’ to free a hand, I could feel his shoulder pop. The arm jus’ came free of the shoulder. Any normal person would’ve howled in pain. Stevie seemed to feel nuthin’...nuthin’ at all. I must have called out then for him to stop, because he did. Jus’ wen’ still an’ quiet, like he was waitin’.”
“I brought the rope,” whispered Laura, barely audible above the blood rushing through Longstreet’s ears.
“That’s right,” said Carpenter. “We tied Stevie to a tree, jus’ to be safe, ‘cause all he seemed to wan’ was—” Carpenter paused at the memory, hunching his shoulders and rubbing his arms. “We couldn’ feed him anythin’. He’d chew it an’ spit it out, then try even harder to attack us ‘til I tol’ him to quiet down. For some reason, he’d only listen to me tell him simplethangs. But he didn’ need no food. Or sleep. Or anythin’ else. He looked…” Carpenter gestured hesitatingly at his wife, still crumpled on the floor. “He looked like her. At least until he died.”
Longstreet looked away from the woman’s wasted form to Carpenter. “Died? But you said your son had already died.”
The private nodded. “He did. But maybe four or five days after he, uh, came back, the curse started goin’ outta him. Whatever black magic had brought that man in the water back from the dead had gone into Stevie. But it don’ last, least not more than a week or so. Then God takes his own.”
Despite his amazement and revulsion, Longstreet still felt the urgent press of seconds. When Carpenter paused, the general nodded at Flora. He prompted, “So what happened?”
Carpenter looked at his wife, and he drew in a long, shaky breath. “We gave up walkin’. I guess we were jus’ waitin’. Steviewasn’ bein’ violent any more. He jus’ stared ahead, gettin’ thinner and thinner. His skin was turnin’ ashy.” He motioned toward Flora. “Like that. Finally, he couldn’ even stan’ no more. He was almost gone. We watched him for maybe half an hour, layin’ on the ground, movin’ less an’ less. Flora couldn’ take it anymore. She sat down next to ‘im an’ put his head in her lap. She stroked his hair and sang to ‘im. Her tears kep’ fallin’ on his cheeks. I don’ know exactly what possessed her then, other ’n compassion. But she untied the gag an’ took it outta his mouth. Jus’ as I was about to say how maybe weoughtn’ do that yet, Stevie turned his head an’ bit into Flora’s arm. It didn’ go to the bone. But it was enough.”
Longstreet shook his head. “The bite...killed her.”
Carpenter nodded. “She was dead minutes later, like she’d been poisoned. Stevie died right after that. But only a few minutes later, Flora came back.”
Still, the woman on the floor did nothing but crouch there, her dull, hungry gaze fixed on Longstreet. He wanted nothing more than to be away from this tent, away from the smothering heat and rotten stench, away from this soldier and his mad, infernal tale.
“Private Carpenter,” said Longstreet in a voice close to breaking. The mention of Richmond in connection with this man’s tale of his child’s death struck far too close to his heart. “I am speechless. There aren’t words for my condolences. But...why did you bring me here, son?”
The look of blind grief on Carpenter’s face gave way to incredulity. “You don’ see it, sir?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Private.”
Carpenter studied Longstreet for a moment, almost as if trying to read his face in a poker game. His brow furrowed, and he bit his lower lip. “A’right, then,” he said. “Can I see your sword, sir?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Longstreet, inadvertently taking a half-step back. The two corporals crossed their bayonets in front of their general.
Carpenter raised his hands, palms up. “I’ll do no harm, sir. But you won’ believe me ‘less I show you everythin’.”
Longstreet deliberated only for a moment. “Corporals, stand ready,” he said. Slowly, the general drew his slender saber from its leather scabbard. The lamp’s swaying flame glinted off the gilt hand guard. Carpenter took the saber slowly and respectfully. His mouth took on a hard, bitter set, and he turned to face his wife.
“Flora,” he said, voice cracking. “I’m so sorry. I have to do this.”
Quickly, almost as if he were trying to act before his mind could betray itself, he raised the sword point, pulled back his arm, and, taking two steps toward the woman, plunged the weapon deep into her chest. It entered just under her collarbone, slipping between two ribs. Longstreet couldn’t see if or where the tip exited, but the metal slid in far enough that the letters “C.S.A.” engraved high up on the blade disappeared into her breast. Her body jerked back from the force of the blow, her yellowed and bloodshot eyes straining wide. But the sound coming from her throat was not a woman’s scream or even a cry of pain. The gag in her mouth dampened a feral growl of rage.
Carpenter staggered as Flora fell back, her weight trying to pull the sword from his grip. He braced himself and pulled quickly. Longstreet had withdrawn swords from enough bodies to know how flesh sucked at a blade. Army swords lacked the groove designed to assist in such withdrawal because they were meant for slashing, not stabbing. But this time, the steel slid smoothly from Flora’s chest, and the blade came away dripping with a liquid that looked more watery and green than thick and red. Indeed, no blood at all gushed from the wound as Carpenter stepped back, and Flora did not fall over. She stayed crouched on her knees, the rabid fire ebbing from her eyes and fading back into a look of constant, empty hunger.
Longstreet realized that he was holding a hand over his mouth. “How...?” The words wouldn’t come because he couldn’t form any thoughts.
“No blood,” said Carpenter. “No life.” He wiped the sword blade on his pant leg, unable to hide a grimace of disgust. He handed the sword to Longstreet, who slid it slowly back into its scabbard more from habit than will.
“I grew up hearin’ stories about Vodou, brought over with the slaves,” said Carpenter. “I never thought there was more to ‘emthan ol’ women tryin’ to scare their kids into stayin’ in bed. But I remember my gram tellin’ me that thangs like this was possible an’ real. Said she’d once seen a Vodou queen bring a dead slave back as a zonbi after his master’d taken a week to cut ‘im to death. But the magic that makes a zonbi, the spell, has to be done jus’ right. The dead can come back only for a short while—a week, maybe two. But the magic is mortal powerful, an’ as you can see with Stevie and Flora, it can pass quick like to another person. I've kept her boun’ because I’m afraid it might spread like wildfire.”
Longstreet felt the world start to tilt, and he blinked several times, trying to right it. The crows were still circling outside. He could hear them high above, and he involuntarily shook his head, wishing the sound away. Carpenter saw the general’s dismay and put a hand on his arm to steady him.
“General Longstreet, sir,” said Carpenter with low earnestness. “The zonbi magic... Whoever possesses a zonbi can order it. That’s why they were made in the firs’ place, usually to do somethin’. Maybe to take revenge, like on a slave master. I remembered those stories when I realized I could tell Stevie what to do. I saw the legends come true with my own eyes. Look here.” Carpenter faced his wife. “Flora, lay on the groun’.”
The woman’s eyelids drooped slightly, and she cocked her head slowly, as if listening. Then the support went out of her body, and she fell over to the side, her shoulder and head striking the earth. She lay there, unblinking, eyes focused on Carpenter. Only then did Longstreet notice that her chest was motionless, as she had no need to draw breath.
“Flora, sit up.”
Shifting, squirming, trying to harness muscles stiff and unyielding, the woman twisted about until she lay on her belly, then she brought her knees up under herself. Slowly, she raised her torso back into its former sitting position.
“Where is the lamp?” Carpenter asked slowly.
The woman’s eyes moved and locked on the glowing hurricane lamp.
“Now, Laura,” Carpenter said, motioning with open hands for his daughter to be calm. “It’s fine. I’m jus’ showing the General, all right?” The girl cocked her head slightly, not understanding. “Flora,” he continued, looking back at his wife’s corpse. “Kill the person in this ten’ wearin’ the blue dress.”
Laura’s body went rigid, and a look of terror came over her face. Flora’s head snapped to her daughter. The woman’s eyes took one glance at the dress, as if to confirm its color, and then she began shifting her knees, putting each a couple of inches in front of the other, as far as her bound ankles would allow. She kept scooting toward her daughter, body jerking spasmodically with the effort. A strange whine, high-pitched and broken, came from deep in her throat.
A cry escaped from Laura. The girl spun from her stool and lifted it, pointing the legs toward her mother. “Daddy, no!” she said. The girl side-stepped away, her back to the tent wall.
“You see?” asked Carpenter. Then he said more firmly, “Flora, stop. Do not kill the girl. Jus’ sit there.”
Flora stopped and sat motionless, settling her weight back on her ankles.
Carpenter bit his bottom lip in worry. “General,” he said, “we won Fredericksburg. We won Chansellorsville. But the Yanks are comin’ back. They’ve almos’ taken Vicksburg if what I hear’s true. We need help—now. We have to finish ‘em while we can. An’ we almos’ have ‘em. Almos’.” He moved closer to Longstreet and whispered, “We have a chance to en’ the Army of the Potomac. Soon as I realized what I had, I made straight north ‘til I foun’ you. We can crush the Yanks and march straight on to Washington. Nothin’ could beat us. Not swords or guns or cannons. We could en’ this war an’ the South would be free forever. What has happened to my family, it’s...it’s terrible. God knows. But I wan’ it to mean somethin’. I wan’ to use it for good. The South, sir...” He paused and then ventured one more step. “The South could even take the North for its own.”
Longstreet could only stare. His eyes were large, his nostrils flared. His lips, buried in their nest of dark beard, stayed parted in amazement. Finally, he managed to ask, “Is this possible? Can such abomination be passed to so many people?”
“It passed to Flora easy enough. Stevie got it from that zonbi in the water. Who knows how many it came from before that?” Carpenter shook his head ruefully and sighed. “I don’ know how long or how far the spell will go. But imagine what you could do with a pack of soldiers like Flora, all ordered to kill their way through the Yank lines. Imagine how differen’ it’ll be.”
Longstreet needed to get out of this tent and think. How had this opportunity crossed his path? Was God sending him an answer to his prayers? So many good men in grey had fallen, soldiers by the hundreds, even thousands, who had been shot, slashed, crushed, and blown apart in the fight to keep their homeland free. Too many of them had charged to their grim deaths at Longstreet’s personal encouragement. And there would be more, so many more. Lee’s fierce intent to lure the enemy into a final trap felt too optimistic, as if he were trusting more in providence than prudence.
“Why me?” Longstreet asked quietly. “Why not go straight to General Lee?”
Carpenter offered a slight grin amidst an expression that was mostly apologetic. “Beggin’ your pard’n, sir, but General Lee... He has his own ideas on how to fight this war. I suspect somethin’ like this might...offen’ his sensibilities.”
The man was right. Lee was brilliant. There was no question of that. But in the last few months, a subtle, disturbing change had come over the army commander.
“They could be controlled?” asked Longstreet.
Carpenter nodded, as if having anticipated the question. “They seem to obey the last comman’ they’re given and nothin’ else. Watch this, sir.” He pointed a finger at the woman, making sure they made eye contact and he had her attention. “Flora. I’m goin’ to untie you. Sit still and don’ move.”
Watching her warily, Carpenter stepped behind what had been his wife and loosened her bonds. Longstreet tightened his grip on his sword and the two corporals took another half-step forward to protect him. The ball of cloth fell from Flora’s mouth, crumpled but still dry.
Flora did not move. She only sat patiently, her red-rimmed, yellowed eyes flitting between her husband and Longstreet. The general caught a scent of sulfur and rotting meat, perhaps from her open mouth.
“Flora,” Carpenter said. “Poin’ to the person here in the blue dress.”
Without turning her head, the dead woman raised her left arm out to the side. Her hand hung limply from her wrist, but the index finger arced upward, drawing the other fingers behind it. She pointed at Laura, still without looking at her. Nevertheless, the girl cringed.
“You see?” asked Carpenter quietly. “I don’ think there’s much of what was Flora lef’ in ‘er, but there’s...somethin’. Enough to listen, understan’ a bit. An’ obey a simple order like, ‘Kill every man in tha’ field wearin’ a blue uniform.’”
“I see,” whispered Longstreet. “I wish to God I didn’t.”
In the distance to the east, came a shout of “General Longstreet.” Another echoed it a bit to the south.
“I should have been back some time ago,” the general said. “I must go.”
Carpenter reached for the general’s arm, then caught himself as the two attendants closed ranks before him. “Sir, I miss my home,” he said. “We all do. An’ we’ve all given so much. Sir...” The private implored Longstreet, hand still outstretched. “My general. Can you really tell me tha’ you think we’re gonna win this war goin’ on like we have?”
The calls for Longstreet came again, this time a bit closer and with more urgency.
“Sir, we’re tired to the bone. I would fight for you forever, but I’m really scared that forever’ll en’ soon. For all of us...unless we do this.”
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