Today was one of the stories no one ever tells because there are none who would believe save for those who bore witness. We were pressed by the rebel forces, penned down behind our meager fortifications of fallen trees and farmer’s fences. Shots rang out on all sides and a haze filled the air. That was when I saw the figures step in to fill out our ranks. They were clad in blue, same as my own Massachusetts regiment, but these men were a breed apart. The man beside me put a hand on my shoulder and grinned at my surprise, for he was my own great-grandfather, decades gone to his rest. Bolstered by the numbers of this greatest generation of soldiers, we rallied. I swear to you, the sound of horses was in our infantry charge and I saw a tall man astride a white horse in the vanguard, his saber raised high. The rebels broke and ran, leaving the day to us. But none will ever believe, I fear. Even now as I commit it to paper and ink, it sounds like a flight of fancy. But I will never forget.
The only sounds in the night were his feet thumping the pavement and his breath coming hard and heavy. Somewhere behind him, he could hear the roar of the truck’s engine and Michael knew he had to get off the streets. The muscles in his legs were burning. They were hooting and hollering just behind him, but he could see a refuge of sorts. There was a park ahead. Well, it wasn’t a park, really. It was one of the old battlefields, but they wouldn’t drive into it and he could probably find somewhere to hide. He was fifty feet inside the bounds of the battlefield when he heard a voice.
“Come on, boy! Get past the line and we’ll cover you.”
Looking up, he saw a line of men in dark blue uniforms with rifles held on the level. He froze for a moment and one of them stepped forward, waving him on.
“Don’t just stand there. I can hear them Rebs coming. They sure were hot on your heels.”
“Y-yeah. Yeah, they were.”
Michael didn’t know what to say, all he knew was that he wasn’t going to look a gift ghost in the mouth. Especially not one that was going to protect him. He dove behind the line gladly and one of his saviors handed him a canteen.
“Drink up. You look like you need it.”
Figures were running towards them out of the darkness and Michael knew it was the men from before.
“Steady, boys. Make sure you can see ’em before you fire.”
One of the younger men near the front laughed.
“They might even turn tail and run when they see us.”
“Too right, too right.”
The first of them came into sight then, a look of shock on his face when he saw the line of soldiers arrayed against him. Then he turned and ran back the way he’d come.
“Looks like that’s it then.” The man in charge of the unit nodded once and then smiled. “You see any more problems like them, you come find us. We take Mr. Lincoln’s words seriously around here.”
Michael nodded, still not sure that any of this was real.
“I will. Thank you.”
“So, you must be Amery.”
The boy nodded slightly, trying to fall through the floor. He wore the cleanest jeans he had and a plain white shirt, largely at his mother’s insistence. It was his first day at the museum, after all.
“That’s me. Um, Sir?”
The older man chuckled, reaching to pat Amery on the shoulder.
“Call me Bobby, Amery. I’m going to be your training ranger until you get the ropes. Sound good?”
Amery scuffed one sneaker against the floor and shrugged.
It was hard to be less excited than the summer camp groups being paraded through the museum, but Amery was managing it. Bobby, though, he was entirely different. He was excited to have someone else there, someone new to share his love of this place with.
“First thing’s first, let’s get you a hat and a vest so folks know you’re one of us now.”
Bobby walked off like a man with a purpose, Amery trudging after him.
It was a few days later that Bobby called Amery to one of the back storage rooms.
“Today, you get to be my demonstration.”
Amery’s eyes went wide and he took a step back, thinking about what he’d helped show the camp groups already.
“I am definitely not okay with amputation!”
Bobby just laughed in that way he had.
“No, no. It’s a’right. Promise. We’ve got some Union uniforms in the back, but they’re not gonna fit me anymore.” He patted his gut and laughed. “You, though, you’re about the right size. Go get dressed and meet me outside. We’re leading a walking tour today.”
Amery found a uniform in his size without too much trouble and started changing, grimacing when he realized it was wool. He was going to roast alive. This was so not worth minimum wage. Shouldering the musket that had been left nearby, he opened the door again to go find Bobby.
He blinked a few times. How was he going to find Bobby when he couldn’t even find the museum? He was standing in an open field on the edge of a town. He could see the rolling hills, the farms nearby, the roads that all led to Gettysburg. His breathing started to speed up. He could hear the drums and the cannons. Then he heard it. The sound that made his blood run cold and his hair stand on end. The Rebel yell. With one look behind him, he realized they were coming right at him. Some scattered, frantic part of his mind realized what he was seeing. Screaming, Amery turned and ran as fast as he could towards where he hoped the Union lines would be.
An arm grabbed him and pulled him down into the Union position.
“What are you doing, Boy? Take your position. Where’s your cartridge box?”
He opened and closed his mouth a few times and then finally squeaked out.
The man shoved a fist full of cartridges and balls at him.
“Keep your head down and your musket loaded.”
The battle was like nothing Amery had ever experienced. The sound of musket balls whizzing past him, the screams, the explosions. He could barely figure out how the musket was supposed to work, but he did his best to copy the others and keep himself out of the line of fire. He didn’t want to know what would happen if he died before he was born. Everything was going to chaos around him. He could hear some of the men yelling for a retreat. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with a man in a gray uniform and the stock end of a musket slammed into his face.
Amery woke up again on the floor in the storage closet. Bobby was standing over him with a smile on his face.
“Enjoy the demonstration, Amery?”
He reached to offer Amery a hand up.
“What-what was that?”
For the first time that Bobby had seen, Amery was excited, interested. Good.
“Exactly what you think it was. Not exactly my finest hour, mind. But a good solid lesson.”
“Not exactly your…”
“I was on the other side back there. Had to, for Virginia, you understand.”
Bobby smiled slowly.
“Now then, come on, we’ve got a tour to run and folks to teach.”
And as they walked off, Robert Lee slung an arm around Amery’s shoulders and whistled an old war song never forgotten.
The moon was rising and Mattie stepped out into the backyard. The rules for the summoning ran through her mind. Never give your real name. Have gold in your pocket, just in case. Never say thank you, but be polite. She had a small box of supplies to work with, and her Granda’s knife slung to her belt. Kneeling in the grass, she started by spreading a circle of salt around herself for protection. Next came the candles. Those, she placed on small rocks to keep them above the grass. It took a few flicks of her lighter before she could light the candles. In the flickering glow, she placed a small piece of paper with hand-written words. It was meant to be Gaelic, but she’d had to write it phonetically. Probably Liam could have helped her with it, but she didn’t want him to know. Taking a deep breath, she drew the knife out of the sheath and began to speak. Her words came slowly and carefully, focusing as hard as she could on making sure she said everything correctly. Reaching the end of the first repetition of the chant, she drew the knife across her palm carefully. Just the top layer of skin, just the top layer. Don’t cut anything important. It stung and then burned, blood welling up. She set the knife aside and held her hand just outside the salt circle, making a fist and squeezing. Then she repeated her chant. The quality of the air changed. It felt thick, heavy, almost like you could lean on it and stay standing. After a long moment, she heard hoofbeats sounding across the ground. Looking up, she pulled her hand back inside the circle. The figure riding towards her was shrouded in black leather armor and astride a skeletal horse.
His voice was like nails on a chalkboard and Matt wasn’t entirely sure where it was coming from at first since she couldn’t see his head. Then she realized he was carrying it tucked under his arm.
“Speak English, if you can.”
“I can. Why do you call me, woman?”
Mattie bristled at that but held herself together. Be polite. Be polite. She took a breath.
“I am told that you can find anyone, no matter where. I need you to find Captain Henry Wirz.”
She heard the door slam behind her and bit her lower lip.
“I will do this for you. Then I will be released.”
The rider started to wheel his horse and Mattie silently prayed he would be gone before Liam said anything.
“Matilda O’Halloran, what in God’s green earth are you doing?”
Her stomach dropped and the rider’s eyes locked with her’s. He knew her name now. She could hear his laughter echoing as he reared and then charged off into the night. Fear overtook her and Mattie buried her head in her hands, trying to stop the tears. She heard the knife getting jammed roughly back into its sheath but still didn’t look up.
“We need to clean your hand. Bandage it.”
Liam’s voice was distant, distracted. Matt whirled around, standing in one fluid motion. For a moment, she glared at him.
“I’ll deal with it,” Mattie growled low as she stormed back into the house.
Mattie put her feet up on the dashboard and looked over at Liam. His eyes were on the road and his expression unreadable.
“So…you haven’t said. Where are we going first?”
“I’ve got some supplies I need to pick up from my cabin. Then…we need to plan the next step.”
They drove on in silence for a bit longer before Mattie looked over again.
“How’d he escape? And where?”
“I don’t know.”
“Any idea where he might go?”
“Don’t know that either…”
His shoulders slumped slightly and Matt leaned over to rest a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, it’s gonna alright. We’ll figure it out.” His cap was sitting on the dashboard and she picked it up, looking at the old regimental insignia. Then it hit her. “He’s going to stick out. You had time to adjust, he didn’t. He’s going to still be acting like it’s the 1860s.”
That got a snort of laughter from Liam.
“Lass, so’s half the south.”
She shoved him lightly.
“I’m being serious, Granda.”
“So am I, Mattie.”
Liam turned down the old dirt road, past the beat-up, old mailbox that said O’Halloran on it in shaky letters. They could both hear the baying of a hound as he pulled up in front of the small cabin. Sighing, he looked the place over.
“I keep meaning to give it a fresh coat of paint but…”
“I know, Granda, I know. It’s not like you have to impress me.”
She opened the door and jumped out, looking around for the hound dog she could hear running on the gravel. She turned just as the dog jumped up to wash her hands thoroughly.
“Her name’s Lady,” Liam grinned slowly. “Looks like she likes you.”
The dog was a tawny brown hound of indeterminant breeding with long floppy ears and a violently wagging tail. Mattie knelt to give her a good rubdown.
“She’s a good dog.”
“Get her up into the truck. I’ll go grab my bag and we can hit the road.”
Liam started to walk away and Mattie frowned.
“Granda, we still don’t know where we’re going. Why not slow down a minute and think?”
He turned, his expression almost harried. But then he shook his head and sense took over.
“You’re right. Of course, you’re right. Come on, Lady. Let’s get inside and I’ll put on a pot and we can think this through.”
The whistling of the old teapot startled Mattie and she nearly fumbled her tablet.
“Granda, the tea’s up!”
She could hear him yelling his response from the basement.
“Can you grab it, lass? The tin’s in the top left cabinet. Honey’s up there too.”
She stood, getting what he’d asked for. A moment later, he came back up with something in his arms wrapped in old canvas.
“I’ve got your tea. What’s that thing?”
He set it down on a side table and carefully unwrapped it. She’d been half expecting a musket, one of the old rifles he would’ve been issued back during the Civil War. Instead, he revealed something completely different. It was certainly a rifle with a long wooden stock and a metal barrel, with a bayonet wrapped in next to it. But it was no Brown Bess musket. Liam picked it up, grinning like a school boy.
“The best damn rifle I’ve ever owned. They gave me this little fellow when I went over to Europe the second time. They call it a carbine rifle.”
“What are you planning on doing? Shooting him? He’s a ghost, isn’t he?”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?”
Mattie laughed and then turned the tablet towards him.
“So I have a few ideas for finding him. We could try looking through the news for any kind of encounters with a man who seems out of touch with time, but odds are he’ll just get scooped up by a hospital and locked in. But I found this…spirit? It’s called a Dullahan and it looks like they can track anyone, anywhere. Nothing stops them. We could try to summon-”
Liam grabbed the tablet, ripping it out of her hands.
“Don’t even think about it. Those things’ll kill you, Matt. You, me, and everyone else around.”
“Have you got a better idea, Granda?”
He turned away.
“Don’t fight fire with fire. We’ll find another way.”
Rain cascaded down the glass, obscuring her vision but it didn’t matter. She knew he was still out there with his eyes on the house, on the window, on her. Sarah had never regretted more than now extracting the promise from Jacob that nothing and no one would ever prevent him from returning to her from the war that threatened to split the country in twain forever, that tore brother from brother and tore men limb from limb. Now Jacob stood out there in the rain with his once crisp uniform stark with his blood and ragged. His held his head under his arm and stared with unblinking eyes up at the house. Backing away from the window, Sarah tried to think, tried to focus on anything but those unblinking eyes.
His cry hung in the air like the keening of a banshee and her hands began to shake. She had done this to him with her foolish crossroads oath. This was what happened when she tried to tempt fate.
“Sarah! Why won’t you let me in? I’m so cold, Sarah…”
She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders, tears running down her cheeks. She leaned heavily against the front door, hearing him shift on the front porch just beyond.
“Jacob… Oh, my Jacob.”
“Sarah, I kept my word. I came home just as soon as the fighting was done for me. Now we can wed.”
She choked on a sob, throat tight.
“Jacob, love, we-we can’t. You died.”
The door shook as he slammed his fist into it and Sarah screamed.
“You wrote it at the crossroads at midnight, Sarah. Just the same as I did. And I’m here, just as I said I would be.”
Her blood ran cold and her whole body was shaking. She fell back away from the door as the knob began to turn.
“You promise me. You promised if I came back and let no one and nothing stop me. I didn’t even let my own cold grave stop me from coming back to you.”
She looked up from where she knelt and he stood there, still holding his head and looking at her with those wide, unblinking eyes. He knelt before her and she tried to scramble back.
“Do you remember when we were children and they told us never to make a promise you don’t intend to keep?” He brushed freezing fingers against the warm flesh of her cheeks as she cried. “You don’t get a choice in keeping this one, my dearest. The crossroads knows.”
As he said the last, fear and pain together gripped Sarah as a feeling like a hot poker lanced through her chest. She labored to breathe and then fell to the floor, unmoving. As her ghost rose, Jacob left his own broken body beside hers. Once again whole and handsome, he reached for her hand. Sarah only looked once at the two bodies lying together on the wood floor before she took his hand and they walked into eternity together as husband and wife, both regretting their deaths and a midnight trip to the crossroads to make a deal.
A week before, and Matilda O’Halloran, called Matt by most of her friends and Mattie by family, would have told you that the strangest thing that ever happened in her life was finding out that Granda Liam was actually more like her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather despite looking like he was younger than her mother. Now, she was working on packing up a duffel bag to go on a road trip with him to hunt a soul that had escaped from Hell. She heard heels clicking on the wood floors of the apartment and looked up.
Ashley stood in the doorway of their bedroom, eyes huge and worry etched on her face. Mattie finished folding a shirt and tucked it into her bag.
“Ash! You’re home early. I was going to stop by the shop to see you before I left and…” She paused then, realizing what the look on her long-time girlfriend’s face was. “Ash, it’s okay. I’m not leaving. I promise. Family stuff came up and I have to go on a trip for a…while. But I’ll be home after.”
Ashley looked uncertain for a moment and then moved quickly to come and hug Mattie tightly.
“Everyone was saying you were leaving town with some…some guy and…”
Mattie kissed her gently.
“Ash, he’s my cousin.” She fell back onto the old family lies so easily, even now. “You remember my Granda? The one who writes all the time?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“He needs some help so we’re going out to see what we can do. I’m…not sure how long I’ll be gone.”
“You’d better call.”
“I will, I will.” Mattie was laughing now as Ashley looked at her, mock stern. “I love you, Ash. Maybe I’ll bring you back something fun.”
“Mattie, love, you’d better not. I still haven’t figured out what to do with the pile of musket bullets you brought me last time.”
“Musket balls.” She corrected automatically. “Well, maybe I’ll find something that’s your kind of fun.”
“Maybe.” Ashley looked at the pile of things on the bed. “Here, I’ll help you pack. Are you taking your laptop?”
“Just a tablet, I think. Travel light and all that. Liam’s got a truck, so we don’t have a ton of room.”