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“Death at Germantown” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“Death at Germantown” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.
Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017
“The general don’t know what he’s doin’,” Adam whispered to the man next to him. They were supposed to be as quiet as the night around them, but as his frustration grew, he couldn’t contain his mouth.
“I can’t see nuttin’,” Tom said under his breath from behind him. Through the long night and into the pre-dawn, as the sun should have been lighting the sky, there was nothing except the gray expanse of fog. He could barely see the man in front of him.
“Adam?” Tom said after a moment. He hadn’t heard the man’s steps. Actually, most of the steps around him had quieted. Had a call to halt the march been sent out and he had missed it?
The night was cool, the air harsh on what was left of his clothes. His boots had long since worn away, so he was now barefoot in the brisk October night.
Looking around, Tom saw the fog getting worse, making it hard to follow the soldiers in front of him. Now he couldn’t see his friend, Adam, who had joined the militia with him. They had kept close as the column of troops moved in. Everyone was under strict orders to be silent so as not to alert any enemy patrols, but who could hear a whisper if they were right next to one another? If someone were that close, they would be able to hear the marching men anyway.
“Adam?” Tom tried to whisper, but fear crept into his voice.
They had made it this far. As hungry and tired as they were, they were still alive. Since joining the revolution, they had suffered through many hardships, but Tom and Adam had held their heads high. They all fought for their independence…not that their country made it easy for them.
He tried to deny what he had seen when they marched through towns and farms. While the army barely had bread to eat, their clothing becoming torn rags, those they fought for had food every day. They had to march in bare feet to fight battles against British soldiers who had uniforms and boots. They had to use bayonets against a force that had muskets, gunpowder, and more ammunition than their mere nine shots.
But it was for freedom, pay, and the opportunity to own land, something Tom had never thought he would be able to attain. He couldn’t read. He knew how to use a hammer and an axe, but no matter how hard he worked, he never had a way to support a family. He barely made enough to cover the cost of his drink and tobacco, let alone somewhere to sleep. If he were to find a woman, how would he pay for her?
Joining the militia was Tom’s way to make due. He was determined to change his circumstances. This country was his home. He would own a part of it. He just needed to live until January, then he would have served his enlistment time of one year. He would be a land owner, rich with opportunity.
But while he knew he had to fight, he never thought he would die from hunger. So many of those around him had fallen to disease, frostbite, or starvation. His own stomach called out, the pain of hunger cramps as familiar as his own right hand, and his feet had grown numb an hour into their march. Tom was thankful he couldn’t see them, fearing they would be black. That would be just his luck. He’d get a piece of land and not be able to work it.
The fog was so think, he didn’t see something in his path until he tripped over it, falling. Looking over his shoulder, he barely made out the outline of a man. He rolled out of the way, knowing it wouldn’t be long before another soldier would come upon him. Once he was out of the path, Tom grabbed the man’s shirt and pulled him to the side. He heard more troops marching closer as he tugged the thin body, the man’s skin cold, the clothes covering him stained with dirt and grime. He got him off to the side before the next soldier lumbered by. Tom couldn’t see who it was, but saw the dark feet shuffling along, moving with barely enough energy to lift them over the uneven terrain.
He gasped as he settled back, the corpse he had pulled from the path lying across his legs. Now that he was close, Tom could see the face and the unblinking eyes of the boy he grew up with. Adam was the latest to fall in this war, another casualty of the lack of help from the country he fought to protect.
“Oh, Adam.” Tom’s voice was lost in the fog as he fought to hold back tears. There was no time for them.
He continued to hear more soldiers walk by. Occasionally, he heard another one fall, not being able to take any more, pushed past his limits.
“Come on, Adam. Get up.”
He shook his friend, as though he were just asleep, caught in some dream.
This war was going to be the death of them all. They had to fight, but was it ever going to do any good? The British were going to win. What did it matter if they died out there? They were just farmers against an army that had greater numbers and men who knew how to kill.
They were all going to die out there. In the fog that surrounded them, they wouldn’t even be able to see the enemy. Maybe they were already dead and this was hell’s battlefield, their souls lost in the endless torment.
The gray swirled as a soldier collapsed next to him. The man was still breathing, but barely. Each breath sounded like a struggle as he fought to find the strength to pull air into his lungs.
Tom could feel the cold getting worse, making him numb. If he didn’t move, he’d join the men collapsing around him. He had to get up or he’d be one of the lost. Who was he kidding? He was already lost, pulled deeper into the endless gray mist around him.
He pushed himself up, but not because he thought he could struggle, fight, and live through another day. If he were going to die today, he was going to take a few of those evil cretins with him. A soldier passing by saw him and startled, bayonet at the ready. Tom was certain the young man, who looked like he wasn’t over the age of sixteen, was going to run him through. Letting out a breath when he recognized Tom, the man reached out a hand and he grabbed it.
“Thanks,” Tom whispered.
“No problem. We gotta keep moving or we’re going to be dead in the dirt like these poor saps.” The kid nodded at Adam, Tom biting back his anger as he fell in line behind him.
“How much longer until we reach the Brit’s camp?” Tom asked.
“In this soup, we might end up in Philly before we ever find them red-coated devils.”
“Quiet down!” a voice barked from behind them, a ghost in the mist.
Tom kept marching. Not being able to see anything around them, the woods made its presence known only when he stumbled over a root or when the kid moved a branch and it swung down at him. It was impossible to know how far they had come. Even a man familiar with these woods would be lost in the fog. Familiarity was lost, a shadow to be taken away with the absence of light and dark.
When there was a sudden explosion all around them, Tom covered his head. Glancing up, he saw lights screaming through the woods, roaring with a sound like he had never heard before. They swam through the mist, one nearly striking him as it went by at a speed faster than he could fathom. He could feel it, the wind swirling around him.
For the briefest moment, he saw it. It made him think of a carriage, but he saw no horses. They were loud and vicious monsters, supernatural demons that took to the night like ravenous beasts. Just as he knew the Devil was the master of lies, he knew these things were his creation there to tear them down. Lucifer himself wanted them to die, taking the British for his pleasure.
It passed him quickly. Just as fast as the lights had come, they were gone. The swirls of mist calmed, the soldiers around him screaming out, the silence erupting in chaos. Men yelled for help, some claiming they had been hit. Fallen soldiers around him cried out in pain from broken limbs. Then there were the sounds of the dying gasping for breath, men who couldn’t scream trying to do so.
He turned away from them, spinning around, no longer sure which way he should be facing. No one seemed to know. He kept spinning, not able to stop. If he didn’t, he knew he would flash the hash all around him, but the moment he did stop, he had a feeling he’d be hunched over, dry heaving.
Then a hand caught him, turning him around. Adam stood before him. He knew it was him, but not from what he could see in the face. What stood before him was the dried remains of a rotted corpse. his clothes hung in rags, the eyes pure white, the rotten teeth exposed. Parts of his skull were missing, and worms crawled out of holes in different parts of his body.
Tom took an involuntary step back as the stench of the creature struck him. The rotted flesh smelled worse than the refuse-filled ditches at camp, pushing him farther back. Within a few steps, he lost sight of the thing. He spun around, his feet getting caught in tangles of weeds as he scrambled to get away.
“Move forward. March! March!” he heard someone yell from horseback as they raced by. How the officer could ride through this muck at such speed would have usually impressed Tom, but he fought not to fall as more weeds grabbed at him. He didn’t know if that thing were still behind him, but he wanted to get some distance.
Bushes clawed at his flesh, the thorns pulling at his rags. His dead friend was out there somewhere, and there were probably more. Each tug caused him to swirl, expecting to see those dead eyes staring into his own.
“Quiet down. We’re getting close!” another officer yelled in the distance, his voice barely able to be heard. In the thickness of the mist, Tom didn’t know how far away the officer was.
How were the officers oblivious to the chaos around them? Did they not hear the other soldiers? Tom could tell he wasn’t the only one scrambling through the woods. The trees had the life of the scared running through them.
Maybe the officers thought it was the enemy? Tom couldn’t see them, which meant they couldn’t see him. They might not know about the dead around them, the ghost faces haunting their troops.
It didn’t matter, though. Tom had seen them, and he didn’t want any part of it. He wanted his independence, he wanted that land, but it was not worth losing his soul for. If it were the dead fighting them, they had already lost. This battle was cursed, and damn that Washington for bringing them out there.
He just had to get to the top of this hill. That would take him far enough from the path, then he could double back. He just had to fight his way up through the dark, the mist, the bushes and trees he couldn’t see until their branches had hold of him. He had to fight through all that and get away.
He felt it before he knew what had happened. The pain as something snapped in his foot when it slammed into a root or stump, making him stumble forward, the thorns of bushes cutting into his face and arms as he fell. It was excruciating. His vision went blurry as wetness mixed with the dirt around him ran into his eyes.
“Over there!” someone from below yelled. They must think he was deserting. Washington’s orders rang through his head, remembering how the general called the deserters “cowards”, saying that anyone caught doing so during battle would be shot.
Would they waste the gunpowder?
The dirt he felt kick up a few feet away from him answered his question. He heard more reports as firing broke out. The woods became a cacophony of noise around him, shots seeming to come from everywhere. The ground around him rose and fell as musket balls slammed into the leaf-covered dirt, some of the remnants showering him, mixing with the flowing blood getting into his eyes.
It seemed the world was now fixated on making him one of the many ghosts in the mist. The sound felt like an echo of insanity inside his head. His eyes burned as he clenched his teeth, fighting to keep from screaming in pain, trying to wipe away the moisture on his face. Each time he brought up his muddy fingers, it just made the mess worse.
“Ah!” It was more of a cry than a scream as he felt his coarse fingers digging into him. He could feel the throbbing in his foot getting worse, hurting like nothing he had ever felt before. As he thrashed around, it felt like hot needles up to his toes, then he felt nothing. When he pulled his foot back, there was only numbness.
“Over here. I think I got one,” he heard someone yell above him.
He had to wonder if they weren’t only going for him. The army must have spotted the British and were now trying to send them all straight to hell. He wished to God he were there with them. He wanted to make them pay for Adam. If they weren’t ruthless bastards, his friend might not have died. Why didn’t they just go back to their own country and leave them alone? They had no right to think they could tell them what to do.
He tried pulling the faded rag that had once been a shirt up over his head. He ignored the smell of the cloth, feeling it rip more, the fabric long since worn to the point that it was falling apart. His fingers having lost feeling to the cold long ago, he struggled with it. He was finally able to pull it free and wrapped it around his hands, then rubbed it along his face, removing the muck. He ran it along his forehead, feeling where it had hit the ground. The pain caused him to clench his jaw harder, feeling as his teeth began to crack.
Some of the shooting had tapered off. He could now hear boots coming nearer.
He held his breath and stayed still. Why was he even trying to wipe the blood from his eyes? He couldn’t see anything in the mist anyway. He needed to focus, listen. Someone was getting closer. There weren’t shots near him anymore, and it sounded like much of the fighting had moved farther down the line. He was able to get a sense of where the British soldier was as he made his way toward him.
No, there were two of them. He heard another set of boots a little farther away. They walked in a line, though, spaced out next to each other. The leaves on the ground were dry and brittle, their footsteps loud. There might have even been a third and fourth one out there. The British loved their formations, and Tom could mentally see them stomping through the woods in a line as they hunted for his brothers.
They would be on him soon. What could he do? He didn’t remember dropping his musket, not that it would have been useful with him trampling through the woods and falling over himself. There was the bayonet, but that would require getting too close to the enemy. He would have had to sneak up on them…but he couldn’t even see them.
But that meant they couldn’t see him, either. Unless the fog had cleared out in the last minute, which he knew it hadn’t, they were just as blind as he was. He had to stay quiet and listen. He ground his teeth to hold in his pain-filled scream as they drew near.
He heard a boot come down near his head, unsure if he were about to feel the fire of a musket shot or the sharp blade of a bayonet. He knew he had to do something before that happened.
Using his good foot, he dug into the dirt, launching himself in the direction of the soldier. He guessed he hit him around the knee when he heard something pop, followed by a scream. Tom’s momentum caused them both to fall, Tom landing on top.
The man fought beneath him, his hands flailing, fishing around. Whenever he brought them down, he brought them as fists. Some blows hit the man’s body, and some came down on solid earth.
At first, the soldier had been shocked. Tom had probably looked like a corpse coming out of the mist below him. Now that the shock had worn off, though, the man squirmed, trying to pull himself away. When Tom landed a hit to something solid, the man started spitting. Good. He’d nailed the jaw. Damn British bastard deserved it. He hoped he had knocked out a few teeth.
Tom could hear other soldiers working their way toward them, but he was more focused on the one cursing below him. He brought down his fist a few more times, glad when the man started slowing down.
When the soldier stopped, Tom started to feel around the ground for the man’s rifle. Finally feeling metal beneath his hands, he felt along it until he found the end holding the bayonet. He brought the blade down into what he hoped was the black heart of the evilness below him.
He had gotten one. With the dead walking around him, and his own men dying, he had managed to kill one of those damn British bastards. It wasn’t much, but he would take it.
He heard more running toward him, getting closer. He knew he would die soon, but he had done his part. He’d take one of them down with him. And who knew? Maybe he would get lucky. Maybe the ghosts around him would take some more.
He wasn’t going to go down without a fight. With bayonet planted firmly in the body, he used the stock of the musket to pull himself up, pushing down the pain in his foot as he did so. Judging from the noise, there were two men coming from his left and one from his right. He pulled the musket up, having to fight to pull it free from the corpse below him, and turned to the one on his right.
They weren’t calling out like the others had. What if it weren’t the British? What if it were more of the dead? What if they were all around him, surrounding him, wanting to take him down to hell?
“You damn British, die!” he called as he fired.
Then he felt pain on the back of his head, his world fading.
* * * * *
“Captain, what happened?! I trusted you with two columns of troops, but you lost two-thirds of them!”
“We were attacked, sir. We were attacked and fought back.”
Tom heard the voices nearby as he felt himself wake up. His head and body hurt. He opened his eyes, knowing all he would see would be the fog, all he would feel would be mud and drying blood caked over him. He was surprised to find that he was back at camp, lying with others as their wounds were tended to.
He was alive. Somehow, he had survived.
He saw General Washington walking among the injured, his captains and aids around him. He didn’t look happy.
“You were attacked? How many British did you kill? How many!?”
The captain lowered his head as they walked by him.
“It was the dead, sir. The dead attacked us. We drove them back to hell,” Tom whispered, barely able to get his words out.
General Washington turned to look at him, a sorrowful look on his face. Tom had never been so close to the general before. He saw the haunted gaze of the troubled man, the pitted cheeks, the eyes that seemed to bore straight into his soul. But Tom had seen the dead walk, so this gaze could no longer make him turn away. It was Washington who looked away first as they continued down the line.
“Did you know it was your own men you were firing upon?” the general asked his captain, not acknowledging Tom.
Maybe he was dead, but just didn’t know it. He had seen walking corpses out there, but he’d also seen something else. What had been those lights, that loud noise? Something had been out there. Tom wasn’t sure what world it was from, but he was certain it wasn’t this one.
When sleep took him, he drifted into the nightmares that would never leave him. From now on, every time he closed his eyes, he would always see his friend, his corpse of rotted flesh smiling, calling for him to join him. Tom knew he would wake screaming…until the one time he didn’t wake at all.
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