Corporal James Allen Baxter of the 19th Indiana, startled awake, disoriented and unsure where he was. As he blinked sleep away, his initial panic subsided somewhat when he realized that he was alone and not in any immediate danger. He remembered being in a dense forest, so it appeared he was still there. The trees that surrounded him took on an eerie appearance of dark sentinels as they faded from sight in the moonlit fog.
Where’s my unit? Baxter listened intently, stretching his senses for the slightest sound, but there was none. Not a whisper of wind, nor any rustle of leaves — not even the normal night sounds of crickets serenading one another. Have I gone deaf? He instinctively reached for his Springfield Model 1861 rifle, but the dew soaked leaves produced only a muted rustling sound, as he ran his hands over the dark ground all around him. Not deaf then, but where the hell’s my rifle?
It wasn’t just Baxter’s rifle that was missing. He was horrified to discover his entire kit was gone: knapsack, bedroll, canteen, cartridge box, cap box — even his bayonet scabbard. Damned battlefield scavengers musta thought I was dead and robbed me blind while I was unconscious. At least those corpse-robbers left me my damned pants and shoes. Hope they enjoy the fleas infesting my bedroll…assholes.
But the absolute worst was the loss of his hat. Col. Samuel J. Williams’s 19th Indiana, of Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s First Brigade, Fourth Division, V Army Corps was part of the famous Iron Brigade. They were sometimes called the “Black Hat Brigade” for the distinctive black Hardee hats they wore with the left side tacked up with a brass eagle pin, as opposed to the standard blue kepi worn by the vast majority of the Union Army. It was a distinctive badge of honor and its loss somehow hit Baxter harder than even his missing rifle and victuals.
As he sat in the limp, dew covered leaves, commiserating over the loss of his hat, he tried to remember how he came to be here. V Corps had crossed the Rapidan river at Germanna Ford and bivouacked for the night at the crossroads near the Old Wilderness Tavern on the evening of May 4,1864. The trees in this area of Virginia were heavily harvested during colonial days, to fire the forges of iron mines nearby. Now the area was covered over in dense secondary growth, with trunks ranging between four and eight inches in diameter. Heavy scrub brush beneath obscured vision and impeded movement to any impetuous enough to venture into it.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the new commanding general over all the Union armies, wanted the Army of the Potomac past this dense forest and back out onto open ground where he could maneuver as quickly as possible, so Gen. Warren had V Corps up and marching by 6 A.M., on the morning of May 5. They marched in column south towards Plank Road along what the locals called Parker’s Store Road, but was actually little more than a narrow farm lane through dense forest. Despite the encroaching forest that crowded the lane ominously from both sides, Baxter remembered it as a pleasant march, on as glorious a morning as he’d ever seen… without a single cloud to mar the bright blue sky.
The biggest problem with traveling in a forested area this thick was that vision was so obscured, things could just pop up suddenly out of the forest without warning. Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s First Division, which was trailing, was surprised this way by the sudden appearance of Confederate troops on his right, approaching from the west along the Orange Courthouse Turnpike.
Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, who remained in titular command of the Army of the Potomac under Grant, assumed those enemy troops were just a small, isolated scouting party so he ordered Warren to drive them off — not realizing that he had just inadvertently blundered into Confederate Lt. Gen Richard S. Ewell’s entire Second Corps. In response, to Warren’s order, Wadsworth ordered Fourth Division, including Cutler’s Iron Brigade, into line on Griffin’s left. They began advancing
through the thick brush in horribly disorganized fashion, as there was really no other way anyone could move through that snarl.
When Warren saw the Confederate position extended beyond Griffin’s right, he hesitated to attack, as that would mean his men would be subjected to murderous enfilade fire from the side. He reported the enemy was present in force, and requested a delay from Meade, until Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps could be brought up on his right, to extend and support his line. Frustrated at the continuing delay, at 1 P.M. Meade ordered Warren to proceed with his attack unsupported, before Sedgwick arrived.
As Baxter was once again forcing his way through the thick underbrush, he remembered hearing that eerie, warbling Rebel Yell coming from the direction of Griffin’s First Division, off to the north. The Confederates were advancing. But the Iron Brigade answered with their own wildly shouted huzzas as they struck an Alabama infantry brigade to their front, pushing them back in disorder.
Baxter’s initial elation at driving the rebels off in such obvious disarray was short-lived. Sgt. Major Joseph Irvin took a minié ball through the brim of his black hat during their charge, leaving Baxter in command of “E” company, 19th Indiana. Just as he was trying to get his head around what orders he should be giving to his disorganized men, who were continuing their headlong charge through the underbrush in pursuit of the fleeing rebels, that eerie, piercing Rebel Yell came again — much louder and much, much closer this time.
A fresh Georgia brigade under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon suddenly came screaming out of the thick underbrush like demons wielding bayonets, slamming into the 19th Indiana’s unprotected right flank and shattering the disorganized Iron Brigade completely. It was the one and only time during the entire war the Iron Brigade ever fled the field in panic. But Corporal James Allen Baxter of the 19th Indiana, never knew that.
He remembered trying to rally his panicking men, when he saw a sudden flash of red and experienced a terrific pressure that picked him up, and slammed him against a nearby tree. Then all was blackness, as sudden as snuffing a coal-oil lamp — like somebody just turned off the world. That was all Baxter remembered until waking to find himself alone in the middle of a dark, fog-enshrouded forest, whose only illumination came by the faint, dim light of the moon.
Baxter’s head suddenly snapped up, as a soft sound he hadn’t noticed before came wafting through the forest. It wasn’t any kind of sound that he’d have expected to hear in a dense forest in the middle of the night. It sounded for all the world like the soft tinkling of a chandelier in someone’s parlor room, when its crystals have been disturbed by a gentle breeze coming in through an open window.
Curious, Baxter got up and cautiously maneuvered his way among the dense trees, that dim memory told him were much too large for the wilderness battlefield he’d so recently fought in. Coming around a particularly large tree, Baxter stopped suddenly, his eyes bulging with the otherworldly vision before him. That strange tinkling originated within a column of brilliant blue-white light that illuminated an area of ground ten to twelve feet across — seemingly quite unaffected by the canopy of thick, green leaves overhead.
Baxter jumped back behind the tree and peeked back around at the strange sight there before him. He didn’t know where the damned Rebs might be, but he didn’t want that weird light catching him and making him an easy target for an alert sharpshooter. As he watched in fascination, the eerie tinkling sound seemed to grow a bit louder. That otherworldly vision before him was oddly mesmerizing, so it took a few moments for him to realize the tinkling light was moving… slowly moving right towards him.
Baxter didn’t know what the hell this strange apparition was, but with tens of thousands of nervous men with rifles scattered all around him, that strange sound and weird light didn’t seem to be anything that was healthy being close to. He backed away, feeling his way with his hands through the trees, as he retreated. With the density of the forest and all the fog, he expected to escape the thing after moving back only ten to fifteen yards, but when he glanced back over his shoulder, it was still visible and appeared to be gaining ground on him.
Aw Jesus, the fucking thing is following me! He couldn’t allow that whatever-the hell-it-was to illuminate him and give a sharpshooter a free shot, but he couldn’t just take off running helter-skelter through the woods to get away from it either. Drowsing pickets usually don’t react well to being startled, so blundering headlong into a picket line from either army in the middle of the night was a damned good way to get his uniform ventilated with minié balls. Baxter felt tension rising within him, as he tried desperately to maintain his distance from the apparition pursuing him, and yet avoid stumbling blindly into a hidden picket line. This fucking forest is haunted and it’s going to get me killed.
Andrew “Buddy” Fowler was running late and pushing to make up time. Fortunately this stretch of road was pretty much deserted at this time of night. He’d fumed at how long he had to wait to get that bad tire changed out at the truck stop in Orange, Virginia, but he’d been lucky they had any mechanics working at midnight at all.
Buddy was an owner-operator, in that he owned his own semi-tractor. Several years ago he’d bought his dream truck — a big square-nosed Peterbilt with a sleeper. Buddy was single and usually lived in his sleeper, driving long-haul, cross-country routes for many years. Over time, he’d “tricked out” his tractor with lots of chrome and accent lights, but his crowning glory was the big Confeder battleflag LED light display that now filled the big, square grill. Buddy was proud of his Southern
roots. He was an unrepentant redneck and he didn’t care who knew it. He even bought one of those blue, ground-light sets, because he thought it looked bad-ass when the ground beneath his tractor glowed in bright, iridescent blue light.
A few months ago Buddy had met a woman in a bar, after dropping off a load in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She promptly became the latest in a long line of irregular girlfriends he’d enjoyed over the years. In fact, he was enjoying this one so much he started taking short-haul routes out of Fredericksburg, just to experience the novelty of sleeping in a warm bed… beside an even warmer woman. Last night, he’d met another woman in Orange, which was why he was so late getting that bad tire fixed. Buddy smiled to himself at the thought of now having a girlfriend at both ends of his regular run between Orange and Fredericksburg — and of getting his candle burned at both ends as well.
Baxter was a veteran, but in spite of having fought in many previous battles, with the stink of cordite filling the air, men screaming in anguish as they fell all around him, and bloody chunks of men and horses routinely landing at his feet, he had never seriously thought about the real possibility of his own death. During battle, he was always too damned busy to worry about dying. Between battles, he was usually bored, sitting around repairing his gear and thinking about how damnably hot and itchy his wool uniform was — or too tired from marching all over hell’s half-acre and thinking about how damnably hot and itchy his wool uniform was. A soldier’s thoughts tend to stay localized in the here-and-now, focused on practical things like how incredibly miserable army life was, and conjuring up inventive, profanity-laced ways of expressing their displeasure with it.
At 23, Baxter’s free thoughts usually drifted back to Mary, a pretty blonde girl from his hometown, whom he’d been sweet on since first meeting her at age 12. As his mother died from consumption when he was six, he’d always felt awkward around girls. His tongue usually went into paralysis whenever Mary was around. He’d never found a way to tell her how he felt about her, before the war dragged him off to exotic places to meet new and interesting people… and kill them.
He kicked himself for never working up the nerve to approach Mary. Surely being rejected by someone you love couldn’t possibly be as bad as being stalked through a fog-enshrouded forest in the middle of the night by some kind of strange, tinkling apparition. Could it? Now, for the very first time, he seriously wondered whether he’d survive this terrible war, and whether he’d ever see Mary’s pretty face again. Hell, I wonder if I’ll even survive until daylight. He felt like he was being herded, caught between the need to avoid that thing that pursued him, and yet avoid the unseen pickets he knew were lurking, somewhere out there in the dark.
No, he couldn’t let it catch him. There was just something unnatural about the damned thing. It gave him the creeps. Getting shot by startled pickets was at least a somewhat natural demise. That manner of death was understandable. But that thing behind him? There was absolutely nothing understandable about that. Whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not, the approaching apparition generated an inexplicable, bone-chilling fear, deep within him. He shuddered to imagine that unearthly, tinkling light touching him. Baxter felt a distinct chill at the thought and unconscientiously increased his pace.
Buddy was hammer-down, traveling east on Virginia State Highway 20, barreling towards his turnoff onto State Highway 3, which would take him south into Fredericksburg. It was a fairly well maintained two-lane, straight-line highway that undulated up and down a bit ,as it passed over gentle swells in the landscape. The road took him right through the center of the old Civil War battlefield, where Lee and Grant faced off against each other for the first time, at the Battle of the Wilderness.
Heavily wooded, it was a beautiful drive in the daytime, but tonight there was a heavy, low-hanging fog that obscured the forest on either side. The fog really made seeing the road a challenge. Visibility appeared deceptively normal at the tops of the rises, but the road and surrounding forest almost disappeared completely where the fog clung heavily in the troughs between the them. Still, Buddy was getting to know this stretch of road pretty well, so he was running about 85 mph, despite the fog.
Baxter stumbled out of the forest, abruptly emerging onto a road that had to be the Orange Courthouse Turnpike. Wasn’t that the road the Rebs were coming down, when they surprised Gen. Griffin? If so, he must have been wandering north in his attempt to escape the thing that was stalking him.
He damned near fell on his face when the ground suddenly dropped from under him, into a shallow depression he figured had to be a ditch. The road itself was odd, too — harder than any road he’d ever seen, with the faint smell of tar. It was difficult to tell in the moonlit fog, but it looked like someone had painted lines on the road too. Why in the hell would anyone paint lines on a road, for God’s sake?
Buddy had taken to blowing his horn as he approached those fog-enshrouded dips in the road, just to be on the safe side — not that anything other than slowing-the-hell-down on this fog-enshrouded night, could have been considered anything remotely close to “the safe side.” As he plunged down into this latest patch of dense fog, he suddenly saw a flash of blue, right in the middle of the road.
As Baxter stood in the middle of the road pondering his surroundings… he was attacked by a monster. A gigantic, rumbling beast with blindingly bright, blue-white eyes topped a rise a short ways off and suddenly roared with a voice that sounded like the deepest bugle-call he’d ever heard. The ground glowed a hellish-blue beneath it, and on its nose was a brightly glowing Confederate battleflag. Rebs! He had no frame of reference to even speculate on how big that thing might be, but it appeared to be approaching unbelievably fast. Baxter stood frozen in sheer terror at this latest assault on his understanding of the world.
What Buddy “saw” in that instant was the outline of a man, dressed in dark blue — with great bloody wounds from large chunks of jagged wood, sticking out of his torso…
…with the lower half of his face missing — just a white grinning skull, where his lips and mouth should have been. Buddy screamed and jerked the steering wheel hard over, to avoid hitting the gruesome apparition.
Baxter dove face-first onto the strange tarred surface of the road, as the monster veered away at the last second… and its back buckled. When it did, the larger rear half went right over him, as it slid around in pursuit of its smaller front half.
With the truck’s wheels still in the hard-over position, the edges of the front tires impacted against the back of the ditch, causing the truck’s momentum to pitch the tractor’s nose up and around. Buddy only had time to get out half of his customary “oh shit,” before a very large tree embedded itself in his driver’s side door and Buddy’s world went dark.
Baxter heard a tremendous crash and then fire erupted everywhere. As he frantically scrabbled backwards away from the fire, he momentarily forgot about the thing that had been pursuing him through the forest… and he inadvertently scrambled right into it. Baxter did manage to finish his “oh shit,” when he realized that whatever that tinkling light was, it had caught him.
As he crawled to his knees, expecting to be shot at any moment, Baxter looked straight up into that brilliant shaft of blue-white light and experienced… Wave upon wave of pure, unlimited love washed throughout his entire being. Then softly, as though from afar off, he heard the voice of his long-dead mother, calling and welcoming him home.
Andrew “Buddy” Fowler startled awake, disoriented and unsure where he was. Then, a sound…a soft tinkling sound came wafting to him out of the forest.
Gibson Michaels lives in the area near Houston, Texas. His currently unpublished Sentience trilogy is a 340,000 word saga in three volumes; Storm Clouds Gathering, Defying the Prophet and Wrath of an Angry God are of the sci-fi / military space-opera genre.