Jacob Unger awoke with the ringing still in his ears. It wasn’t from the Howitzer explosions or the musket retort, all of that had stopped long ago; a horn had been blown. A heavy darkness now laid claim to the land, smouldering flames flickered here and there, filtering through a mixture of fog and heavy smoke which blanketed the many horrors that lay underneath. Men who had, only a few hours before, been singing the songs of Dixie as they marched in celebration on their way back from the Virginian front.
A stiffness had molded itself to Jacob and only after a focused third attempt was he was able to sit up. He pawed the ground around him until he found his rifle, it lay powder packed and prepped, a testament to the suddenness of the assault. Evasive memories attempted to push forward only to scurry away, leaving Jacob lost in a maze of unsequenced events. One memory did manage to linger…the clearing.
An open field had stood before them, its knee high grass rippled like the hypnotic waves of a green sea, whispering an untrustworthy welcome in the early summer breeze. First one man then another stepped out of the tree line like the leaders of a frightened herd of deer. After a few moments Jacob was forced to follow.
Two hundred and fifty yards of uncovered terrain lay between them and the awaiting comfort of the oaks on the other side. A fifteen minute journey at best, due to the the four cannons that rolled slowly behind. A few feet in front of him sat Colonial Graves on his chestnut mare, her slow gait was matched by Corporal Collins. A short man with a face stuck in a perpetual sneer, his double wide shoulders slumped into freakishly long arms that almost scraped the ground like an ape. Collins was the son of one of the largest slave owners in Virginia. He had handled the human brokering of the family business. The best times of his life were spent delivering young negro girls on long trips to their new owners. For him this war was a threat to his perverted desires as well as his pocket book.
The spiral began with a well placed shot that blew out the back of Colonial Graves head, knocking him off the rear of his horse. It was soon followed by a thunderous roar as hundreds of muskets fired at once. Soldiers fell by the dozens as those who survived dropped into the grass trying to find a target. The shots seemed to be coming from everywhere, causing the men to scream out in confusion as the musket balls whizzed overhead. Jacob frantically began to belly crawl back to the tree line.
A sudden shattering of the earth just to Jacobs right lifted him up and tossed him ten feet to his left. Struggling to get to his feet he ran for the treeline, beginning a race fueled by adrenaline and his will to survive. The once welcoming grass now acted like a turncoat enemy, entangling his oversized boots, forcing Jacob to kick himself free. Just over a hundred feet away a large cottonwood tree stood, its large trunk signalling like a beacon.
Behind him the shrieks of the dying chorused with the wind whipping past his face. A stitch deep in his side gave a relentless stab as his lungs began to burn for mercy. Jacob ignored it all as the large tree grew closer.
The thunderous roar came again. Deeply paved bark from the cottonwood broke off, spinning in all directions. Jacob stumbled and regained his footing just as a molten force pushed him from behind, knocking him to the ground.
It was then that the memory scurried away. Now, alone, his attention was drawn to the orange smouldering embers just a few feet away. He covered the short distance over to it and began to check himself for injuries, starting with his head and stopping at a hard lump on the right side of his chest. The skin was undamaged except for the nickel sized knot. There was no pain, no feeling at all, except for exhaustion.
How long had he been lying there? The glow from the pit had become brighter, a single flame had taken hold, its erratic dance demanding attention. Encapsulated within the mist, Jacob resigned to watch and wait.
Far away in a cabin an old lady would be praying for her only surviving son. Not just for his life but for the forgiveness of the choice he had made. “You fight for the right of men to own men,” she had said. “No man has that right.”
For Jacob’s Quaker mother, slavery was the abomination of man. A sin of morality that allowed the wicked to feed off of the helpless. “God knows what they are doing,” she had said. “And his judgement will come soon enough. Don’t get caught on the wrong side when it does.”
The truth was that slavery had hardly entered his mind when he first received the hand-me-down gray uniform. Countless cold nights had found Jacob wrapped in his deerskin blanket reading The Iliad by candlelight. It had been the promise of glory, not the rescue of Helen that had made Achilles a legend for the centuries. A fact that his mother would never understand.
And then came Wilmington. It was there that he saw for the first time shackled humans auctioned off like cattle. A maliciousness that sickened him as crying mothers were separated from their terrified children. The cold laughter of his fellow soldiers as they marched by the scene had scared Jacob more than the thought of his first battle. This was what he was going to be fighting and possibly dying for? This is what he would eventually be judged for?
“Don’t get caught on the wrong side,” she had said.
“Unger, is that you?”
Startled, Jacob looked up to see a soldier standing just inside of the orange glow.
“Yeah,” said Jacob.
“Well I’ll be damned,” said the soldier. “I thought I was the only one left.” The man moved closer. The soldiers face was missing part of the cheek on the right side, leaving the charred bone exposed. Shattered teeth peeked through like broken glass hung in a rotted frame. A singed, scabbed over socket was all that remained of where his eye used to be. But his height and voice was enough for Jacob to figure out that Corporal Collins had survived.
Collins sat down next to the pit. “They got us good, boy,” he said. “Did you see ‘em?”
“I didn’t see anything,” said Jacob.
“Yeah, well I did,” said the Corporal. “They was ‘coons. Can you believe that? The fuckin’ Yanks got niggers fightin’ for em.”
Over the last three months Jacob had tried to avoid this man. Collins’ stories of abuse had drawn to him a small following of lower ranked degenerates. Each one trying to outdo the other with tales of repulsion. For them hangings were just a pastime, a moment for friends to come together. Rape had only added to the excitement.
“Did you see what happened to Colonial Graves?’ said Collins, hardly containing his laughter.
“His head blew up like a rotten melon.” He did laugh then, slapping his knee. “My God what a day! Ain’t no one back home going to believe this!”
Jagged flesh hung loose around ripped muscle, flicking drops of blood onto his dirty uniform and yet he yammered on as if nothing was wrong. Occasionally Collins would pause mid sentence and poke his tongue out of the gash on the side of his cheek, like a mouse peeking out to check if the coast was clear. “They must’ve had five cannons pointed at us,” the Corporal continued. “Like they knew we was coming.”
The evening was cool but not cool enough to numb an injury like that. A strange and unexplainable feeling had come over Jacob. Something was very wrong.
“Niggers,” said Collins shaking his head. “Taken out by a bunch of slaves.” Jacob felt his stomach turn. A strong urge to get away from this man suddenly washed over him. It wasn’t just because of his dislike for the Corporal, he had dealt with that for months. A fear, unexplainable and without reason, sent a shudder down his spine.
A scream interrupted Collins. An agonizing shriek that came from very far away. Pain and paralyzing terror echoed for a few long moments until being abruptly silenced. Within seconds another scream shattered the night. This one was closer. Flames could be seen fighting through the fog, becoming brighter…much brighter, until both scream and fire disappeared.
“What the hell was that?” said Collins. The Corporal was now standing, his one eye dancing from left to right in a panicked waltz. His chest heaved in an uneven rhythm as he struggled to unholster his revolver with a trembling hand.
A THWUMPing, like a giant slow moving windmill, broke through from above, hovering just over the dark canopy of mist.
“What the fuck is that?” said Collins. A crack like breaking bones came from the fire sending both men diving for the ground. The air had changed; becoming thicker. A strong odor, like sulphur, enveloped the two men, tightening their throats. The soft glow of the fire intensified, becoming so bright that Jacob had to cover his eyes with his hands to give them time to adjust.
THWUMP… THWUMP… THWUMP
“What’s in that fire?” Collins choked out. Jacob moved as close as he dared to the pit. The flames were now climbing higher, shooting up and then fanning out as if bouncing off of a ceiling. The blinding light revealed the terrifying truth; they were enclosed. A dome of moist air and smoke sat like a tomb around them; an unnatural structure that Jacob somehow knew would be as solid as a brick wall. The pit burned as if being fuelled. Perhaps a shell had gone off, igniting dried brush or limbs from a tree…but there was nothing. The fire just burned.
“It’s empty,” said Jacob.
“What’re mean empty?” said Collins.
“I mean there’s nothing burning in the fire at all,” said Jacob.
“We have to get out of here!” Collins cried out turning away from the flames. He paused for a second and then sprinted for the encircling wall only to be knocked roughly to the ground.
The Corporal lay motionless, his revolver still held in his left hand, and began to sob. There would be no running from this…whatever this was. The THWUMPing from above had become louder as if punctuating the point. Collins began to fire his pistol blindly in the air causing small flashes of blue light where each of his bullets hit. “Get outta here,” he shrieked. “Leave me alone!”
Suddenly thin transparent wisps slowly snaked their way out of the wall. One, two, three and on and on until hundreds of vapor appendages weaved their way towards the fire, creating an impassable web. Collins rose to his knees and began to crawl towards Jacob.
“This ain’t real. This ain’t real.” he said. From behind him a lone strand slithered, pausing and adjusting, like a blind constrictor following the scent of its prey. Within seconds it struck, throwing itself around both of the Corporal’s ankles, pulling his legs back violently. Collins, now lying prone on his stomach, rolled over and grabbed at the murky noose around his legs. Again and again he tried but his hands came back with nothing. He then swat at the long thin tendril with the butt of his pistol but it passed through as if he were striking a ghost.
Jacob watched all of this in horror, surrounded and too afraid to move. The thing that had Collins began to methodically work its way up the Corporal’s body, throwing ring after ring around the struggling man until both his arms were tightly pinned and useless. His undamaged eye bulged in disbelief as his grotesque jaw pumped up and down fighting for air.
At first it seemed as though Collins had managed to jump, his body scooting slightly then stopping. Only when he began his steady slide did Jacob realize that the Corporal was being pushed towards the fire. Desperately the man tried to break free, squirming to the left and right as he dug the heels of his boots into the ground.
“Help me,” Collins gasped. As if hearing him, a strand whipped out to within inches of Jacobs nose, sizzling the air. The message was clear. There would be no helping the Corporal. A gurgling escaped from Collins as the chord noosed itself around his neck strangling him until he lay motionless.
The dome was beginning to rotate with a slow spin that increased as it began to collapse. A sudden updraft of wind flooded the small open area around the fire pit, kicking up loose dirt like a small prairie twister.
The Corporal teetered at the edge of the pit, his face completely masked by the constricting vapor. Without a sound he was pushed into the fire. The smell of burning flesh as it cracked and fell away from his blackening bones did not come. Corporal Collins was simply gone.
Hundreds of ethereal strands criss-crossed over and beside Jacob as the wind continued to whip around, sand blasting his face. With little else to do, Jacob folded his arms over his knees and put his head down. He hoped that his end would be quicker than that of Corporal Collins.
THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP
The end did come, though not the eternal one he had expected. The sky was now clear, freeing up the tireless light of a thousand stars. An iridescent shine of a rising Comanche moon crept its way over the dark horizon. The only sound was a soft breeze sifting it way through the silver prairie grass.
A few feet away lay the remains of the pit. Jacob could see no evidence that a fire had ever burned. He reached out with a shaking hand and touched the soft Malika weeds that ran around its cool outer edge. The ground was soft and ash free.
It must have been a dream. The swirling fog, the raging fire… The Corporal. It had to have been a dream. A nightmare produced by whatever had happened to him when the Yanks had opened fire. Suddenly a gleam attracted his attention. Reaching over he picked up a revolver. Afraid to look but unable to stop himself, Jacob checked under the grip. Etched at the bottom was one word: Collins. He threw the pistol out into the field.
Across the clearing lay countless mounds. The once flat field now looked as if it were the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. How many had fallen? How many men now lay looking up with unseeing eyes at a moon that could care less?
A moving silhouette brought a sudden bolt of fear to Jacob. A small shadow fluttered next to where the pistol had landed. A tattered flag clinging to a broken staff leaned against “the mound”. Slowly Jacob stood up and made his way towards the flag.
The soldier lay face down, one arm wrapped tightly around the broken staff while his other arm lay a few feet from his body. Jacob knelt down and considered rolling him over but grabbed the banner instead. Just to his right sat Collins’ pistol. A shiver seized him and without another look he rose and quickly made his way back.
Sitting again by the pit Jacob knew that at some point a decision would have to be made. Going back the way he had come seemed to be his safest bet; the one with the least amount of risk. He studied the distant treeline. The comfort it had offered earlier in the day had been replaced by a threatening void that reminded him of an oncoming storm. He would wait. The sun would have to be up soon.
The flag lay spread over his lap, its tattered gold edging frayed and knotted. The homespun cotton separating from its red base. Again his mind reluctantly went to his dream, for a dream it had to have been. Collins did not, could not, vanish into a phantom fire. Fog was not made of brick and whatever had “hovered” above him …well that just proved it was a dream.
“Don’t get caught on the wrong side .”
A sudden blast sent tremors across the field, a low piercing sound reverberating with the power of an oncoming steam engine. Another scurrying memory fought its way forward; this was not the first time Jacob had heard this sound. Instinctively he knew it was a horn..The Horn. Jacob let the flag drop and stood up quickly. He gazed out beyond the fallen one-armed soldier into the silver topped prairie, its low light revealing no more than it had before.
The bone chilling shriek continued for a few moments until trailing off like the distant roll of dying thunder. The night again fell into silence. His unsteady breathing was making more noise than he would have liked as he pushed down the panic. The Horn had blown. An obvious signal. But a signal for what? A sudden gust of wind burst through the ominous treeline.
THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP
It was back. The twinkling stars lost all of their comfort as a shadow raced across the sky. Jacob threw himself down hoping that he had not been seen. The shadow continued at a bullet’s speed toward the field, losing itself in the night.
The time had come to leave. The direction now seemed clear enough; the opposite way of whatever that thing was had gone. Jacob got to his feet. He quickly searched for any supplies, finding a half full canteen and his forgotten rifle. It would have to do. With the canteen clipped to his belt Jacob tossed the damp strap of the gun over his shoulder and turned to leave when something moved. Not from the sky, but out in the field. A dark shape slowly weaved its way around “the mounds”. An unsteady swagger that went a few feet one way and then stopped. Further off Jacob could see that it was not alone as the field had suddenly come alive. Dozens of outlines now paraded slowly within the darkness.
At first they moved in all directions. Some took a few steps one way, then, as if unsure, turned around and went back. Others roamed aimlessly for a few feet and froze. Then in unison, as if following an order, they slowly made their way towards him.
It was then that the one armed soldier suddenly rolled over onto his back and sat up. Jacob felt a bolt of fear electrify him as he jumped back only to trip over his own feet, his teeth clashing together as he landed hard on his backside.
The soldier pushed himself off the ground with his remaining arm. Trying not to breathe, Jacob watched as the man stood, shoulders slumped with his arm hanging loose at his side. An endless amount of time seemed to pass as he stood with his head bowed as if in silent prayer. Then, as if hearing a noise that only he could hear, he turned towards Jacob.
An awkward first step was followed by a long pause. The next three came rapidly. Soon he towered over Jacob, blocking out the night sky. The tattered remains of where his arm had been still drained as he stood in silence. Without warning he knelt down and picked up the remains of the flag. A muffled groan escaped from his throat as he rose slowly to his feet.
Jacob backed away quickly, preparing to run as far from this nightmare as possible.
In the distance the outlines had become much closer. Men, butchered and mangled, creeped steadily forward, some dragging themselves, unaware of their missing legs.
“That’s far enough,” a voice said. The legion stopped. The one-armed soldier stood motionless, flag still clutched in his hand. From the frozen ranks a silhouette came forward. There was nothing stiff or slow in his movement as he casually weaved his way through as though he were walking on a busy street. He knelt down at the pit and within seconds a fire burned.
Jacob watched all of this without making a sound. An older black man in a union blue uniform now sat just ten feet away from where he was hunkered down in shock. The man seemed to be unarmed, his uniform was dirty with a rip running down the right sleeve. A thin gold braided rope ran over the man’s left shoulder that was attached to an old dented bugle. It rested on the man’s lap as he sat staring into the flames.
“She’s dead you know,” he said suddenly. “Your mom, that is.” Jacob let out a gasp. “Come on over here, boy, I ain’t gonna hurt you and these guys…well their hurtin’ days are over. Besides we gotta talk and times a runnin’ out.”
“What do you mean she’s dead?” said Jacob.
The man looked at Jacob, his dark skin sporadically marked with time-lined crevices, thick eyebrows sat like shade coverings over unsettling sharp eyes, a tilted union hat struggled to contain his dark curly hair that was graying on the sides.
“Yep,” he said. “Four days ago. Stood up after breakfast and fell over deader than a two day old Mayfly. Your neighbor Jenkins found her while he was looking for his runaway slave.”
“Mister, you don’t know me.”
The man gave him a sideways smile and said, “Oh Jacob Unger, son of
Joshua Unger, I know you.” Then arced his hand around. “I know all of you. I know where you’re from and, more importantly, I know where you’re going.”
“Who are you?” said Jacob stepping out into the light. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a corn cob pipe, he then took out a small bag of tobacco from another pocket and began packing it. He grabbed a burning stick out of the fire and held it to the pipe until the tobacco began to glow, after inhaling deeply he leaned casually back on one elbow.
“Who am I?” he said. “Well that’s an answer we really don’t have time for right now Jacob, but you can call me Gabe. Now let’s talk about you. Who are you?”
“I thought you just said you knew who I was,” said Jacob.
“Oh I do know,” said Gabe, smoke streaming out of his mouth as he spoke. “But do you?” Suddenly a cry rang out across the field, very distant, followed by another from even further away. Growing up in the foothills Jacob had heard many different kinds of hair raising howls in the dead of night; wolves, owls and a few mountain lions, all in search of their next meal, but this was different. A sense of agonizing hunger mixed with deprivation could be felt within those calls.
“Yep,” said Gabe. “We’re running out of time.”
“What was that?” said Jacob.
“Listen to me good, Jakey boy,” said Gabe. “These men were caught on the wrong side and soon those things you heard are going to come for them and they’re going to rip them to pieces and then each of those pieces will be devoured in a most unpleasant way, and then guess what?” He paused to inhale from the pipe. “They just might be coming for you.”
The surreality of being surrounded by the walking corpses of hundreds of men and the threatening calls that had rang out just seconds before could still be discarded as a nightmare; an injured man’s feverish dream. But those haunting words.. ‘caught on the wrong side.’ It’s oracular meaning shattered any denial. And it wasn’t just that he had said it, but how he had said it. His voice had become different, higher and for a second… known. A familiar voice that Jacob had listened to for all of his life and then chose not to.
A wave of sadness washed over him cleansing away any hope that had remained. His mother was dead, he was sure of it. She had died with a fear, provided by him, still weighing heavy on her heart, she had died never knowing if her son would ever come home again. She had died alone and now it seemed as though Jacob would be dying soon as well, only he wouldn’t be alone, he would be one of the hundreds ripped to pieces and devoured, all because he had been caught on the wrong side.
Gabe seemed to be watching with amusement as Jacob floundered in these revelations. His corn cob pipe repacked and lit as he sat patiently while the young man struggled within himself. A thought suddenly charged its way forward and planted itself like an unmovable mountain and it was terrifying.
“Does this mean I’m dead?”
“Oh most definitely,” said Gabe off-handedly.
“How? I’m not hurt! I mean look at him!” he said, pointing at the one-armed man who stood slack jawed with his wound still dripping in the grass. Then he remembered the odd knot in his chest. He again felt the round object, a solid tumor that, as of yesterday, hadn’t been there. Quickly he unbuttoned his coat, taking it off. A hole, the size of a quarter, sat at the shoulder. It rested like a nucleus surrounded by the dried irregular pattern of its protective overlay…blood.
Jacob let the coat drop to the ground.
The baying came again, sounding much closer. A hiss escaped from the one-armed soldier, Jacob barely noticed. Instead he looked out at all of the motionless men, some standing, some laying down in the grass, but all of them dead. A multitude of doomed souls helplessly waiting for these… Devourers to come and rip them to pieces. Were these the sinners doomed to hell? Was he?
His attention was brought back to the old black man who sat watching him intently by the fire. If indeed he was a man at all. Gabe had walked with these dead soldiers, led them, right up to this very spot with nothing more than a bugle…a horn. The Horn?
It all fit. At least as much as one’s acceptance of their own death could allow. The dead had risen with the horn. Jacob had risen with the horn; Gabe’s horn…The Horn of Gabriel. Could this be him? This thin black man who sat smoking his pipe in a ripped Union uniform? Could this be the archangel Gabriel? The right hand of God? A black man?
“It’s time, Jacob,” said Gabe, pointing at the shrouded treeline. “They are here.”
Jacob looked towards the low hanging cloud. At first it was as if his mind were playing tricks as a quick flash of dark red blinked and was gone. Then it came again; two roving dots, flickering off and on as they floated closer to the edge of the woods. From behind it another pair of shining points illuminated their way forward, only to be followed by another and then another, until the darkness of the forest looked alive with crimson fireflies. Within the void restless growls rumbled as the orbs twitched up and down and left to right as fallen limbs snapped underneath the restless stomping of whatever had stopped just short of the open field.
Abruptly the outline of a man could be seen as he smashed his way into the clearing. He stumbled forward a few feet and collapsed to the ground. With an obvious effort, he struggled back to his feet and stood turning from one way to the other; confused and lost like all of the others who now decorated the prairie. After a moment he started for the fire. The whimpering was interrupted only by the dry heaves of an uncontrollable sobbing as he approached the pit. Saliva hung off of his shattered face as his tongue relentlessly jabbed through the gap of his missing cheek, like an anxious snake trying to find its way. Corporal Collins had returned.
“Jacob!” he cried out. “You’se gotta help me! They’re all niggers, Jacob! All of them!”
Jacob gave Gabe a quick look but the man just sat calmly by the fire, his pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
“Didn’ya hear me?” said Collins. “They’re right behind me…hundreds of them! Thousands!” He pointed back to the tree line. “They’re right behind me!” All that Jacob could see were the burning orbs chaotically dancing as they hovered in the shroud. An occasional snort was now added to the low growls.
“Don’t you see them, boy?” said the Corporal. “They got the little girls with ‘em but they’s all rotted dead! I know that they’re dead! They keep yelling my name!” Collins then began to scream. “What the hell is going on?” he wailed. “God help me!”
The corn cob pipe, now burnt out, lay at Gabe’s feet, his dark eyes narrowed in disgust as if he were looking at a mange ridden, rabid dog that was foaming at the mouth. “You ask for God’s help,” said Gabe. “You? The killer and rapist of children? Tell me Collins, did you wait for God to answer all of those girls’ cries as you strangled them? As you stabbed them and threw their little bodies away like used pieces of trash?”
Collins looked over at Gabe as if noticing him for the first time. He then looked at Jacob, his one eye wide with a sudden fearful revelation. A candle had been lit in his deteriorating mind and it showed him a truth that was so far from what was actual that Jacob had to take two steps back in disbelief.
“You’re with them!” said Collins. “You’re with the coons!” At that Gabe exploded with laughter, his hat sent flying off his head as he rocked back and forth. The humor was lost on Jacob as Corporal Collins began to move towards him. “You set us up!” he said. Jacob backed away towards Gabe. Collins had either forgotten about the black man or no longer cared, his attention was now only on the traitor. The runt punk that had cost him his eye. The coon-loving weasel that had sent a warning to a bunch of slave wannabe soldiers. The saboteur of God’s natural order. Collins would set it straight, he would set it straight with the very hands that had maintained the natural order with so many others.
Jacob backed away towards Gabe. Collins was moving faster, a maddening until suddenly lurching for Jacob’s throat, missing by a couple of inches. Jacob circled around Gabe, putting him in between himself and the crazed Corporal. Gabe seemed to be watching this with returned amusement as Jacob ran around him and Collins followed. The night suddenly came alive with sound of ice-tingling howls; dozens of angry, hungry cries that stopped both Jacob and Collins.
“Enough,” said Gabe in that searing voice. The man stood up and walked over to Collins. “Take your place.” Collins paused only for a second and then, as if in a trance, turned and walked calmly out into the field.
The orbs were bouncing like ornaments in a windstorm. The growls strengthening in both length and volume until a climax of blood-chilling cries rang across the forest edge. The one-armed soldier began to shake, his once expressionless face twitching uncontrollably as if he were fighting for his right to scream. Moans could now be heard across the field as other soldiers struggled against the paralysis that held them captive in its invisible iron grip_._
Gabe turned towards Jacob. The black man’s face was now carved with deep lines that ran like a road map over ancient brown paperlike skin, his eyes sparkled with the light of two stars in mid-supernova. He reached down and grabbed hold of his bugle. The horn now appeared to be different…longer and brighter. Not so much a bugle but a trumpet. “You must listen to me Jacob,” he said. “Eternity for some of us comes down to a single choice and tonight you might have to make such a choice and what it is, even I don’t know. I can only say that when it comes you must decide quickly. You won’t get another chance.” A snap like the breaking of a leg made Jacob wince as a pair of wings sprouted suddenly out of the black man’s back. Silver feathers gleaming like hardened, polished steel, fanned out to a scimitar’s point as they began to fold in and out, the synchronized THWUMPing building speed as Gabe slowly lifted off the ground. Swirling bits of dirt bounced off of the waving blades of grass, shooting under his hovering weather-worn boots. Higher Gabe rose, the horn now held up firmly to his lips. The Horn was blown.
The crash of a typhonic squall line rattled the forest as the contained pack was suddenly released. Crimson orbs traced across the field like meteors as they raced towards the soldiers. Shrieks could be heard as one by one the Devourers fell on the now awake and very aware men, each one as helpless as the next as their limbs were torn from their bodies. Some tried to run but were quickly taken down by the massive beasts, their cries cut short.
The one-armed man jolted to life, he looked out at the massacre in the field and then at Jacob. His eyes revealing the hopeless terror that had been awakened. “Not this way,” was all he said. From behind him, a crouching outline was creeping closer, fire red eyes squinting with the concentration of a killer. Suddenly it leaped, its front claws extended like a pouncing cat, only this was not a cat or dog or anything else that walked on the earth. Its long muzzle was wrapped in layers of smouldering skin as it opened up to reveal a throat that burned with radiating heat. Thin streams of smoke drifted out between long, blackened serrated teeth. Yellowish spikes protruded from every joint, ending in glistening daggers that stabbed their way through the thick matted hair which clung to its body. Acrid rotten flesh and feces saturated the air, contaminating each breath with disease.
Nausea struck Jacob like a hammer, he buckled over, retching as the Devourer lunged forward seizing the fleeing one-armed soldier by the throat. As if from a guillotine the man’s head fell severed to the ground rolling to a stop at Jacob’s feet. The beast continued with its carnage; ripping off the remaining arm and chomping down as the skin sizzled in its mouth. On it went, ripping and devouring until nothing remained.
The Devourer turned to face Jacob. It stood higher than shoulder level with its sunburst eyes narrowing as it focused on the trembling man. A low rumble echoed within its chest as its breath of putrid vapor escaped from its gore-ridden muzzle.
Was this the choice? To run or to stand? The creature twitched in place as if waiting for his answer. The screams from the field penetrated Jacob’s ears, sending waves of adrenaline to every trembling muscle. Instincts for survival quickly argued their case in his mind. To stay would be certain death..certain painful death. Better toat least try and escape and have a chance. But what chance was there really? He had seen first hand the brutal speed which these unnatural things were capable of.
And yet it waited. The creature took a restless step forward and stopped, causing Jacob to jump back and kick the corn cob pipe that had been left by Gabe. The pipe tumbled end over end, first bouncing off of a small stone, only to stop by the severed head.
And then it came to him. It wasn’t after Jacob at all…it was trying to finish the job. With his eyes locked on the creature Jacob slowly reached down, his fingers spidering around until he felt the strands of tangled, greasy hair. The Devourer moved back as Jacob rose to his feet. He held the head of the soldier out to his right as the creatures ears suddenly perked with attention, like a dog waiting for his master to throw a ball. Jacob would not throw it. Not yet.
The pipe still sat, its long stem pointing towards the field where the screaming continued. He would give the Devourer its prize and risk the coming consequences, but not before he held Gabe’s pipe…The Pipe of Gabriel. Even in his own head it sounded ridiculous…this wasn’t the Lance of Longinus after all, or even the Sword of Charlemagne, it was an ordinary corn-cob pipe. Still, it was something that he recognized, a ‘rational’ object in a world where the word could not exist.
The Devourer had begun to scrape its claw in place as Jacob reached down and clutched the pipe. It was still warm, the bowls chipped varnish tickled the palm of his hand as he wrapped his fingers around its base. A strange feeling of comfort did come over him then; not the promise of hope necessarily, but of acceptance. He tossed the head towards the Devourer. The beast leaped up, snatching it out of the air as it wobbled into its downward arc, devouring it faster than the time it took to reach him. It again glared at Jacob, but only for a second, with a low growl it turned and rushed back out into the field.
The fire was almost out as the endless night dragged on. The screams from the open prairie were becoming further away and less frequent. Unconsciously, Jacob reached up to his chest and felt the metal tumor snuggled between his broken ribs. You were caught, it reminded him. The pipe had now grown cold and almost dull to the touch, he placed it in his pocket as he stood up. What should he do now? Where should he go? A solid gust of wind came from the woods, whipping his hair over his face. Jacob combed it back with his hand as he looked at the dark tree line.
The void still stood as ominous as before. It was from there that the Devourers had come. It was from there that Corporal Collins had returned with a company of unseen soldiers nipping at his heels. And it was there that he would go now. The reason was unclear, perhaps because it was where he was going before the reminder in his chest had struck. Or maybe it was simply that it was the last safe place he remembered.
Jacob made his way towards the forest. The trip did not take long and he soon found himself standing near the old cottonwood. The giant towered over him, chunks of its jagged skin scattered around its wide trunk. Jacob walked by, careful not to step on any of the pieces as he moved further into the woods. There was light under the canopy, not much, but enough to make sure that he didn’t walk blindly off of some foliage-hidden cliff. An undisturbed silence had found its home here, everything was dull and still, as if he had walked into an old oil painting that had lost its sheen.
Deeper into the woods he went, avoiding the twigs and occasional logs that rose up like spying weasels. An owl’s hoot stopped him momentarily, a welcoming assurance that at least he wasn’t completely alone. The owl called again and Jacob decided to follow it. After walking for a few minutes he was startled by a silent shape gliding just over his head. It sailed for a few feet, landing on the gnarled branch of an old oak tree.
The tree sat alone, the thick grass that carpeted the forest floor stopped abruptly ten feet away from its withered base. Its trunk forked into two separate runs, each twisting their way higher and multiplying as they went. A few wilted leaves fought to hold on as if dangling off of a cliff.
The owl studied him from its arthritic perch, its head bobbing up and down with round, knowing eyes that seemed to produce a light of their own. For a second a strong urge to run struck like a wave. An instinctive feeling of dread suddenly turned his stomach, unexplainable but impossible to ignore. The Devourers had brought a brutal and paralyzing fear, but this was different; it was like an illness that spread its way out from deep inside, a slow moving poison saturating every inch until its host had nothing left to offer.
Voices suddenly rang out followed by the sharp snap of breaking limbs as something forced its way through the woods. The owl released it grip and disappeared into the shadows as an orange light eerily faded in and out of the trees.
Jacob dropped to the ground, his heart pounding like a hammer as four men approached the base of the oak. One of the men had his back towards Jacob and was wearing Confederate gray with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. A chain trailed behind him which was cuffed to the wrists of another man. The bound man stood shirtless, with his face hidden under an old cotton sack, his black skin streaked with layers of pink rippling scars.
The other two men could have been twins, both having paperwhite faces under slicked dark hair which was parted in the middle. Each of them sported pencil-thin moustaches swirled to a point at each end. Identically dressed in black coats with low rolling collars over white vests wrapped around lavender shirts that matched the pantaloons tucked into dirty leather hunting boots. Jacob had never seen men dressed in such a dandy fashion, they were obviously very important.
“You’re going to die as a ‘coon,” said one of the nicely dressed men. “And to think, after all of this time… you going out like this. Fitting, don’t you think?”
“Just look at him, Mr. Setane,” said the other finely dressed man. “I do believe he’s pissed himself!”
“They all piss themselves,” said the man holding the chain. “Ya’ll shoulda seen the one last time. He shit himself before I got the rope around his neck.”
“My, Mr. Collins,” said Mr. Setane. “You sure know how to pick them!”
Jacob froze. The man turned his head enough for the torchlight to reveal the charcoal colored bone protruding through pale, jagged skin. “Pick ‘em?” said Collins. “I didn’t pick him! You did, and I’m glad that you did. This nigger tried to set us up! Had us runnin’ all over the place, said he was servin’ God. Can you fuckin’ believe that? Well, time to to teach him about God’s natural order.” He then gave a swift kick to the man’s groin, doubling him over. “Get me a rope.”
“I’ll get one,” said Mr. Setane. Jacob muffled a gasp as a rope was suddenly there, appearing in his hand from nowhere.
“Go on,” said Collins. “Toss it over that branch.”
“You’re the boss,” said Mr. Setane, underhanding the rope.
“What’d ya say your name was?” said Collins leaning down to rummage in his bag.
“I didn’t,” said the other man pleasantly. “But you can call me Abby.”
“That’s kind of a weird name for a guy,” said Gabe. “Well Abby, tie a noose on that end hangin’ by you.” The noose, like the rope, appeared. Oblivious to the magic tricks happening just a few feet away, Collins continued to fumble around in his bag, first pulling out a long Bowie knife, he held it up for a second and then tossed it to the side and continued with his search, he next pulled out his missing eye with its long gooey chords still attached. “There you are,” he mumbled placing it back in the bag. Finally he had found what he was looking for; an old bugle, its once polished brass finish darkened green with blotches of red patina speckled across the dented bell tube.
“A deal’s a deal,” said Collins holding the bugle up to the men. “Now put my eye back.”
“Well, Mr. Setane,” said Abby. “What do you think?”
“I think he needs to finish the job,” said Mr. Setane, giving Abby a glare that made the man step back.
“Of course he does,” said Abby sheepishly.
“Now wait a minute,” said Collins throwing the bugle to the ground. “The deal was to catch this ‘coon and bring him here and you would give me back my eye.”
“But you now have your eye,” said Mr. Setane. “It’s in your bag.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with it?” said Collins incredulously. “Put in a jar?”
“That’s really none of my business,” said Mr. Setane. “Like you said, a deal’s a deal.”
“Isn’t there something he can do?” said Abby. “I mean he’s one of us.”
Mr. Setane looked thoughtfully at Collins for a moment, twisting one end of his penciled moustache and said, “Perhaps there is something he could do.”
“Name it and I’ll do it!” said Collins.
“You are very good at what you do,” said Mr. Setane. “And you’ve always enjoyed your work, so here’s the offer. Hang this nigger and you will once again watch all those girls you love to strangle die with both eyes.”
Collins opened his mouth to answer but stopped as a warning suddenly shouted in his head, a rare moment of clarity that crowned briefly over his skewed madness. It wasn’t his conscience chiming in, he had really never had one, it was more like an invisible line had now been drawn. A proceed with caution and watch your step uneasiness that came with Mr. Setanes tit-for-tat offer. Hanging the ‘coon was not a concern, he had hung dozens, hell, maybe hundreds over his lifetime, but this one was special. He knew that…but he couldn’t remember why. Or maybe he did know why; because Mr. Setane had said so…but still. Mr. Setane and that one with the faggoty name seemed unwilling to get within five feet of this man, much less touch him, as if they were…afraid?
“Well?” said Mr. Setane. “We really don’t have all night.”
“Who is he?” said Collins, the slow moving gears in his mind still trying to turn.
“A thorn in your side,” said Mr. Setane. “A cancer in God’s natural order, don’t you remember? You chased him for miles and miles, you said so yourself.” Collins memory fluttered by in distorted waves, yes he could remember something about this man but the details seemed watered down and slippery and the harder he tried to grasp something solid the more it crumbled into a million diverse pieces.
Collins jerked the chain causing the man to stumble forward and noted how both Mr. Setane and Abby jumped back as if they had both stumbled upon a coiled rattlesnake. Mr. Setane glared at Collins, hands curling and uncurling, his pale face now scarlet. “Do that again and all deals are off,” he said. “Past, present and future.”
“Perhaps he just needs some motivation,” said Abby now sounding not so pleasant. “Perhaps a little reminder of what can happen if he continues with this game?”
“Yes,” said Mr.Setane. “You might be right there. Maybe he’s forgotten just how many times he has fallen down the ladder, and who was always there to catch him when he did.”
Jacob didn’t notice the child until she was almost on top of him. She could be no more than seven or eight. A decayed cotton dress hung off of her narrow shoulders that had been ripped in the front revealing cracked, gray skin. She wore one shoe that clicked off her heel with each unsteady step that she took. Briefly she paused, turning her head towards Jacob with dirt packed cavities where her eyes should have been. Slowly she raised a mouldy finger up to her shrivelled, deteriorated lips, “shhh.”
The girl moved on leaving Jacob frozen where he sat. Collins began to shriek as she lumbered into the atrophied ring of the oak tree. The clicking of her shoe continued until she came to stand next to Mr. Setane. The man gave her a smile and took her hand. Whatever wheel that was slowly spinning in Collins mind had come to a grinding stop. The shrieks turned to sobs as he fell to his knees.
“Look at her, Collins,” said Mr. Setane. Collins knelt with his one good eye buried in his hand.
“I said look at her!”
Collins shoulders were shaking uncontrollably as his hand trembled its way down, his tongue darting in and out of the side of his face as if trying to break free and escape.
“You do recognise her, don’t you?”
Collins answer came in a stuttered yes.
“Should I bring out the others?” said Mr. Setane. “I’m sure they’d love to see you again.”
“Please no!” cried Collins. “I’ll do it! I’ll hang him!”
Collins rose to his feet, his whimpering continued as he led the man over to the rope. After the noose was thrown over his head Collins pulled the knot tight and walked over to where the other end drooped off of the branch, he gave it a quick tug causing the man to be thrown momentarily off balance.
“I’ll need help getting him off the ground,” said Collins. “I can’t lift him by myself.”
“That’s what Abby’s for,” said Mr. Setane. Abby shot a surprised look at Mr. Setane and said, “I don’t think I can.”
“Oh I think you can Abby,” said Mr. Setane. “I think you have to.”
“But Mr. Setane, what about the rules?”
“The same rules that we’re breaking just by being here?” said Mr. Setane. “I think it’s a little late to worry about that now, besides it’s all part of the plan.”
Abby shrugged his shoulders and walked over behind Collins to grab the rope. Together they began to pull. The first tug lifted the man up to his toes, his head kinked in an awkward position as the knot burrowed its way into the side of his neck. The second pull was much harder and lifted the man six inches off of the ground.
“Wait!” said Mr.Setane. “Put him down.” The man dropped, landing hard on his knees. “Take that sack off of his head Collins.”
Jacob crouched outside of the ring, helplessly watching as Collins made his way over to where the doomed man sat unmoving and silent. Far away an (the?) owl called again. For a moment he had an urge to find it, to throw rocks at it or even just scream at it. Why would it bring him here? Did it lead him here just so he could watch a man be murdered? A sharp stabbing spread across his chest, his hand flew to the lead ball protruding from his ribs, his reminder. And remind him it did. He was the same; no different now than the little girl that stood decayed at Mr. Setane’s side. No different than the sniveling Corporal Collins with half of his face gone, who was now reaching for the sack that covered the poor man’s head. They were dead. They were all dead and they were all here.
Collins reached for the sack but quickly pulled his hand back, rubbing it with his other as if he had been burned. The little girl gave a small giggle that sounded like it came from outside of a closed door.
“We’re waiting,” said Mr. Setane. Collins again reached for the sack, quickly grabbing and tossing it to the ground. A muffled scream escaped as he jumped back with his hand whipping around as if he were trying to put out a fire. The little girl suddenly let go of Mr. Setane’s hand, “I don’t want to play anymore,” she said, as muddy tears tracked their way down her sunken gray cheeks. “I wanna go home!”
The burning of Jacob’s reminder exploded into an unbearable pain as he grabbed at the hot coal lodged in his chest, desperately trying to dig it out, raking his skin with his fingernails. It spread like boiling water being slowly poured over his body. The forest floor was littered with broken sticks as he fumbled around in search of one with a sharp point until his eyes suddenly stopped on the ivory handle of the Bowie knife that lay just a few feet away. Tears flooded his vision with kaleidoscopic rays as panic began to overwhelm him. Then as quickly as it came the pain was gone. Jacob sat, chest pumping as the cool air blanketed his sweat covered body. Strands of hair lay plastered over his eyes, he brushed it away with the trembling back of his hand and saw…
“Gabriel,” said Mr. Setane. “How long has it been?”
The man lifted his head, his dark eyes shimmering under heavy brows met Mr. Setane’s with disdained equanimity. “How far will the fallen fall?” he said.
“Very good,” said Mr. Setane. “Slap him, Collins.” Collins jumped at hearing his name, his eye rolled around to Mr. Setane.
“Please don’t make me do that,” he said, his hand still throbbing from pulling off the sack. Mr. Setane’s fist struck faster than a cat, sending two of Collins’ already damaged teeth tumbling out of his misshapen mouth.
“Shut that shit up,” said Mr. Setane as he raised his fist again.
“I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” screamed Collins, quickly reaching out and smashing his open hand against Gabriel’s face, the sound of the impact made Jacob flinch.
“Oh Collins, you really are reaping what you have sown,” Gabriel said, nodding towards the girl who stood quietly crying beside Mr. Setane.
“You shut up, boy,” said Collins. “You just shut the fuck up!”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Setane calmly. “You tell that nigger how it’s going to be. Him and all the others just like him who are trying to disrupt the way things are. Because that’s what they’re doing Collins; trying to change the way things are. They want our money, our homes, they even want to pleasure our women.”
Jacob felt his stomach turn as Mr. Setane skillfully injected his hate with the continuous rhythm of a warped Archimedes screw. Collins listened as if he were at a Sunday sermon. Any clouds that were blocking his resolve were soon lifted, vanished into the comforting nothingness that allowed Collins to go back to being what he always had been…better. With other white folk this could never be; his inadequacies had repeated themselves for so long that they had become calloused. But not with them. No colored man was ever going to be better than he was, and no colored man would ever have his power. Because Collins power came from God’s natural order and he would do with it what he saw fit…at least to them. And it only took a strike from Mr. Setane to remind him.
“All better?” said Mr. Setane.
The answer was clear as Collins quickly moved back to stand next to Abby. Together they stood with the rope in hand, waiting for Mr. Setane to give the word. Mr. Setane approached Gabriel, his expression showcasing both contempt and triumph. With a short laugh he reached down and picked up the bugle that Collins had dropped.
“What do you think Gabriel?” said Mr. Setane holding up the horn. “It’s surely seen better days. I wonder it will work for me after you’re gone?”
“I think you know the answer to that.” said Gabriel.
“True,” Mr Setane said sardonically. “But it will look good in my trophy room. I think I’ll put it next to those thirty pieces of silver.”
“You can stick it up your ass and it might work then,” said Gabriel. A burst of laughter came from Abby. Mr. Setane cut it off with a look. “Always so witty, I wonder if those little bursts of humor can still find their way out of that mouth when you’re hanging three feet off of the ground. Let’s see, shall we?” He pointed at Abby and Collins and together they began to pull.
The scratching of the rope as it scraped its way over the rough textured bark sent a shiver through Jacob like steel nails on a chalkboard. Gabriel was lifted off of the ground with the first tug, the second pull took the man up another six inches.
“Look at the great Gabriel now,” said Mr. Setane, and Jacob did with horror. No sound came from Gabriel nor did he struggle as he rose higher with each brutal pull. Legs that should have been kicking in a panicked frenzy hung limp as if paralyzed. Malformed expressions of suffocating panic should have been running rampant over a swollen face that, instead, remained serene, except for the eyes. They had locked onto Mr. Setane’s with the blazing glow of the rising sun.
Collins and Abby were tying off their end of the rope as Mr. Setane stood with a grin made for a wanted poster. The dead little girl continued to cry as she stood watching a dead man commit murder while another dead man watched from the shadows. The thought carried with it a freakish sense of freedom. Life had its price, and everyone had to pay in the end. Jacob had already paid that price and now found that he owed even more for being caught on the wrong side. Before him an angel was being murdered. Gabriel was dying and Jacob would try to save him.
The ivory handle of the Bowie knife glimmered from the grass like Excalibur planted in its solid stone. It sat out in the open just inside of the oak’s ring, he would have to move fast. An image of not being able to lift it was briefly frozen like a photograph in his mind as he rushed towards the blade.
“How long’s this going to take?” said Collins.
“Quiet,” said Mr. Setane. “Did you hear that?”
The knife had come away in his hand without a struggle. Jacob scooped it up mid-stride and then burst onto the ring knocking Mr. Setane to the ground.
“Stay back!” Jacob said with the Bowie knife pointed at Mr. Setane.
“I’ll be damned,” said Collins. “It’s the coon lover!”
“Stay back Collins,” Jacob said. “I’ll fucking stab you, I swear I will!” Collins looked at Abby, unsure of what to do next, Abby just stood motionless.
Jacob began sawing at the rope that suspended Gabriel, his arm pumping back and forth like an overheated steam engine about to explode. The three men did not move as Jacob cut through the last strand. Gabriel tumbled to the ground like a sack of potatoes, unconscious but still alive.
Mr. Setane stood up brushing his lavender pants off. “Well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.”
“Just stay back,” said Jacob. “I’m taking him and we’re getting out of here.”
“Really?” said Mr. Setane. “And where will you go? Do you even know where you are?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jacob “As long as it’s away from you!”
“I’ll stop him,” said Collins, suddenly moving towards Jacob.
“You will do no such thing,” Mr. Setane snapped.
Gabriel’s head lolled to the side as Jacob knelt down and slid his arm around the man’s shoulders. The reminder in his chest began to flare up as he struggled to drag the man out of the ring, the deadweight stretching the muscles in his back until he was sure they would snap.
“Where will you go?” said Mr. Setane, his voice sounding sincerely concerned. “It’s very dangerous out there but I think you already know that.”
A darkness had fallen beyond the ring, its cold emptiness surrounded Jacob like a heavy blanket. A familiar howl suddenly came from the distance as two fire red orbs could be seen approaching. Jacob froze.
“Ah,” said Mr. Setane “I see that you already know what that is.” Jacob was stuck, unable to move and barely able to breathe. “I’ll make you a deal,” continued Mr. Setane. “You just leave that horn-blowing fool there on the ground and I’ll let you walk away from this.”
The air had suddenly become very hard to breathe as an invisible vice began constricting Jacob’s throat. Tiny spots streaked in front of his vision as he fought against the panic that was overwhelming him, unaware that his trembling arm had released its hold on Gabriel.
“Very good,” Mr. Setane. “I expected no less.”
The Devourer entered the ring coming to a stop at Mr. Setanes side. The man stroked the filthy matted hair as nauseous smoke filtered through the beast’s mouth.
“All you have to do is leave,” said Mr. Setane.
Jacob looked out into the darkness, his arm falling limp at his side with the Bowie knife still held by his numb fingers. Mr. Setane’s offer repeated itself over and over again in his head. “All you have to do is leave.” There would be no dishonor in this retreat, Jacob was up against something that was well beyond him and he knew it. A pained moan escaped from Gabriel. The sound shattered the spell that had Jacob taking his first step into the void. He brought the knife back up. “I won’t leave him,” he said.
Mr. Setane gave Jacob a quizzical look and said, “So be it. Take him.”
The Devourer lunged with the speed of lightning. Jacob had just enough time to point the knife at the the beast as it flung itself onto him, tackling him to the ground as rending claws carved bloody ravines into his body. But the knife had found its mark, burying itself deep into the Devourer’s chest until only the ivory hilt remained.
The morning spread little very light on the mystery of the field. The Union soldiers waded through the bodies, trying to solve a puzzle that revealed few, if any clues. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers lay scattered between two treelines, their cannons’ wheels tangled in the tall prairie grass. Messages had been sent and received, each as vague as the next. There had been no soldiers garrisoned here nor were there any soldiers within fifty miles of the location. Perhaps a rogue battalion had acted on its own.
Captain Riley read the correspondence from his tent with incredulity, his chiseled face on the verge of cracking. The reports streamed in as his scouts continued their search. One Private rushed in, his face flush with excitement.
“Sir,” he said. “You have to see this.”
The Captain looked up from his heavy oak desk, the desk his men affectionately called the ‘The Back Breaker’, and said, “What is it, Private?”
“You have to see it, sir” said the Private.
Captain Riley thought about giving the excited man a direct order to speak but decided against it. They were entering the fourth day of a seemingly futile search and something out of the ordinary was a welcomed change. He followed the Private through the obstacle of corpses as swarms of angry flies buzzed by. A few feet ahead a group of men huddled together as if trying to keep warm. Captain Riley pushed his way through and suddenly stopped, his jaw dropping almost to the ground.
“Who is he?” said the Captain.
“He didn’t have any identification on him,” said the Private.
A young man lay face down, dried crimson crusted around the hole where a musket ball had hit him from behind, giving the deep blue of his Union coat a purple hue.
“What was he doing here?” said the Captain as he gazed out at the scores of bodies dressed in gray scattered in the field.
“I don’t know,” said the Private. “Maybe he was a spy.”
“In uniform?” said the Captain “Did he have anything on him?”
“No weapons, no letters, just this,” said the Private, holding up an old corn cob pipe.
The Captain studied the pipe for a second and then turned to make his way back to his tent. A report would have to be filed, the strangest damn report he had ever had to make.
by Eric Neher