Freebie Short Story – DOG MEAT

I’ve lived in Richmond, Virginia since I was in the first grade. The historical significance of the city is abundant and enthralling; however, as a child I (of course) was blissfully ignorant of the secrets my new home city held.

When I was in middle school I briefly visited Belle Isle for the first time. It’s an oddly beautiful place surrounded by urban sprawl. The island is surrounded by the rapids of the James River and you can only access it by way of a long suspension foot bridge that hangs under the Robert E. Lee Bridge or by a rickety road access bridge on the southern side of the banks.

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The north bank is protected by swift rapids while the south has slower streams that cut through an amazing obstacle course of boulders and rocks. Once you’re on the island it’s hard to believe such a place can exist so close to the state capital. Rising from the center is a nearly mountainous area with jungle-like trails. Throughout the island you can find ruins of what it once was in times that aren’t too distant. Abandoned factory buildings reduced to shells of their past are painted with decades of graffiti; they beckon exploration like an unearthed cave with drawings left by primitive man.

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Needless to say, I was captivated from my first visit. In high school I began to learn more about the Civil War and the events that took place in the surrounding area during that time period. That’s when I started to see the true ghosts that haunt the island and captured my thoughts: Belle Isle was one of the most ruthless Confederate prison camps in the war. This small island that is now a park frequented by children and families was once crammed with Union prisoners who became the victim of things us in the horror community cannot even begin to fathom.

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My history teacher told me about an urban legend, of sorts, from Belle Isle’s past. When the island was most crowded there was no way their guards could keep all of the prisoners in line by themselves in such a small area. To remedy this they used giant Russian guard dogs to terrify the inmates into compliance (from what I have read, this much is true). The legend is that they occasionally fed a prisoner to the dogs to ensure none of the Union prisoners would rise against them. Whether or not this part is true may never be known… but that didn’t stop it from remaining in my thoughts all these years later.

Dog Meat was written for a very unique anthology of Civil War horror that unfortunately never came to fruition. I did tireless research on the language and culture of the era to ensure that dialogue was appropriate and accurate. The men featured in the story were real Union soldiers that were imprisoned on Belle Isle. Due to the delays in the anthology (that never happened) I unfortunately lost the websites that I located information about their stay including a day by day diary of one of the men. He may have only wrote a sentence or two a day but he did so chronicling the horrors he went through which I used to form the short story.

The pictures you see here that have my ‘logo’ on them were taken by me during various visits to Belle Isle. Richmond.com was the source of the sign picture above. The title page featured on the story page was taken from one of my favorite blogs – please go visit http://vintagerva.blogspot.com/ for a breathtaking look into Richmond’s past. I chose the picture as the title page because it is one of the only known pictures of Belle Isle during the war, specifically of the northeast bank facing the city (it looks quite different now).

Belle Isle is a special place to me and to Richmond. I take my children there. I fell in love with my wife there. I still find fascination and terror there. If you’re ever in Richmond drop me an email and I’ll be happy to show you what it has to offer! Now that you have some background I hope you will read and enjoy the short tale…..

DOG MEAT by Nathan Barnes

DOG MEAT by Nathan Barnes

Eli flinched at the sudden appearance of a plump parasite skittering across his goose-fleshed skin. He swatted it away but lacked the energy to do much else. It wasn’t the first time body lice feasted upon him; it undoubtedly won’t be the last.

Twelve withered men huddled together beneath the Sibley tent. This conical bubble of stagnant air is all that separates the men from the brisk late November air. These men of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry had seen their share of cold nights. Two dozen weary eyes did their best to imagine anything other than the hellish truth was on the other side of the canvas wall.

Clearing his throat, Eli found words to break the grueling silence. “I thought nothing would smell worse than when we was burying those dead horses in early spring.” He said. Across the room, Eli’s cousin, Elijah, recoiled at the lousy invader that had been smacked away.

A nasty bout of diphtheria made the man sound raspy. If anyone other than his cousin Eli had been talking, Elijah would have ignored the conversation completely. “But it was you H Company boys that did most of the handlin’.” Elijah said, “All of us in E Company came along just in time to throw dirt in the hole.” Tired chuckles echoed from the gathering of warriors.

Honor alone holds these wretched souls together. It was honor for God and Country that pushed the men of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry towards their path to Hell. They prepared, waited, fought and faltered under the guise of honor. Now the consequences of war pale in comparison to their afflicting squalor.

            The sporadic sounds suddenly ceased. Outside, another threat echoed into the mix. Every weakened warrior inside knew what was drawn to their tent. None would have claimed to fear dogs prior to being captured. However, the coming beast that heard their banter could hardly be considered a dog at all.

Then a wet, circular indentation depressed the canvas wall. Hot breath steamed out of two nostrils. A visible darkening of the abrasive fabric swelled from the heat-emanating snout. If any of the Federal Soldiers were able to muster enough courage to approach the intrusion, they would be met by the beast at the navel. But no one dare stand against their canine overseers. Fortunately for the prisoners, the Rebels entrusted guard duty to beings with a short attention span.

William, another cousin of Eli’s, broke the unpleasant tension first. “I heard the Reb’s didn’t even think we was worth getting watched by Sunday Soldiers.”

“Did you hear the story about what they let the hounds do?” said Elijah.

“I heard they been lettin’ them eat us when we die.” William responded in a monotone voice. He was simply too tired to show his fear. But moreover, he was terrified by the possibility the stories were true.

“That’s enough out of the lot of ya.” Eli commanded. “It don’t matter what the dogs do after we die. What matters is that we’re still alive. I’m too hungry to worry about it. Now get some rest. We can talk tomorrow over the ration of corn bread and old beef they feed us at noontime.”

Elijah scoffed. “If they really want their hounds to make a meal out us they’d best feed us something better. I bet I taste like peaked mule.” The twelve men chuckled weakly.

Several tents down, another group of men whispered amongst themselves about the hounds. The rumors discussed by William and Elijah had come up in every tent at some point. However, these men put more weight in their fear. One of them trembled with anxiety. He was certain that the dog was coming for him next, alive or dead. The terrorizing thought of being eaten while still alive broke what little sanity he had left.

The beast approached slowly. All of the guard dogs were large, but this one was a leviathan. This was the only creature on the island that made the rumors of feeding on the dead more than just hearsay. It had feasted upon the dead, and nearly dead, on a few occasions. Such a horrid practice is one that was reserved for the pride and joy of the camp’s Lieutenant.

Few of the human guards favored the act. Most turned away from the sight of a man-sized dog tearing into a corpse. But the Lieutenant knew it was a loathsome tactic that ensured control over the thousands under his watch. There were enough Federal troops caged here in the open that a riot would become instantly volatile. He imagined the prisoners rising up and setting fires. Not even the torrent clutches of the James River would be able to protect Richmond from such an insurgency nearly within its city limits. The General told him, “If the Confederacy is to prevail, you must control these men. Any discrepancies in moral turpitude can be concealed by the rapids of the river. “The evil is acceptable,” the Lieutenant told his men, “For the protection of our capital city.”

So the dog fed as the grey-clad soldiers watched as the creature tore through the withered corpse of a man. In life, the fallen soldier of the Union Army was a brave soul. He fought valiantly before capture. At Belle Island, he offered some of his rations to weaker soldiers. While attempting to aide his fellow man, he was exposed to Typhus. It was this combined with severe dysentery that quickly ended his fight. Parasites he’d contracted from tainted rations rampantly added to the man’s discomfort.

After feeding for several minutes, it stopped to hock up a swatch of faded blue uniform. It then retreated to the door of the Lieutenant’s quarters and fell fast asleep. Two of the guards picked up the remains and effortlessly offered them to the James. Immediately after, one heaved over, losing his dinner ration. None of the men spoke. All of them knew that they would be forced to endure this scene again.

Now, over a month later, the hound hungrily patrols its camp grounds. Inside, it festers with parasites and disease. Every ounce of human meat the beast has ingested boiled within his bowels. Unbeknownst to the human coconspirators, this diet would rot the dog from within upon the first sign of weakness. Outside though, he has grown muscular and thick. A child would be able to mount him like a horse if the Lieutenant so ordered. The ravenous nature it has embraced is still kept in check by loyalty to his owner. It won’t feed on a human unless his master gives the command.

Inside the Sibley tent, the group of men continued to discuss their plight. Through their shared suffering, these Federal soldiers found strength to get by in knowing they weren’t alone. But the man closest to the tent flap felt completely isolated. Repeated stress from the toils of war ravaged his sanity. Trembling from the mental toll over the cold, he sat listening for the approaching dog.

The dog smelled something different. It stopped, snorting curiously. A plume of hot breath filled the gap between his snout and the cone of canvas. There were no human guards in the area. Sounds from the churning rapids isolated the scene. Darkness concealed everything else. Hunger and the remembrance of flesh tested him. Beyond the hungry dog was a tent filled with men he wanted to eat. However, no meal would be had without the order from the Lieutenant. He snorted again and moved to abandon the curious gathering of people.

Any of the prisoners would call what the man was thinking, suicide. In the soldier’s shattered mind, it was a desperate plan to survive. Then the tent flaps exploded outward. The broken man lunged towards the massive dog. Knowing something was awry, his four-legged target moved to intercept. It wanted to devour the man so badly. At the very least the dog knew a welcomed bout of violence was at hand.

Jaws, the length of a man’s forearm, opened eagerly. Steamy drool dripped down from a hunter’s mouth. It met the soldier’s dive, sinking inch-long teeth into his shoulder. The man howled. His scattered mind already knew the bite would occur. In fact, the plan would only work if the dog did bite him.

Sounds from the clash of man and beast caused every tent in the area to empty. Prisoners flocked to the scene, standing aghast beyond the moonlit battle. Eli, Elijah, and William ran over quickly to see what caused the ruckus. The observing Union soldiers knew that guards, both human and otherwise, would arrive shortly. They also knew that when the Rebels arrived, all present would inevitably be punished. Regardless, the Federal soldiers watched in awe. They were awestruck because the scene before them was not another act of Rebel oppression, but one of premeditated attack.

Blood oozed from underneath the beast’s gnawing jaws. The man winced and bit his lip hard enough to taste bitter iron in his mouth. He shot a left fist over and gripped the dog’s thick scruff. Eli expected the man to be fighting back with all his might. Instead his right arm was curiously hidden by the darkness. All the while, the hell hound salivated from the taste of meat.

Looking the creature in its black eyes, the soldier let out a sanity-curdling shriek. His right arm rose up to reveal a piece of driftwood. Days ago it was retrieved from the James and worn down further into a pointed club. Silence overcame the onlookers. Of all the unholy things they have witnessed, this ranked among the worst.

The club rocketed down, then back up again. It fell upon the beast repeatedly. The clapping sound of constant impacts echoed off the tents and earthworks. All the while, the hound never released its jagged clamp on his attacker. It shrieked in pain for the first few hits. After that, it became as entranced as the human crowd. The shrieking of the man combined with the rhythmic impacts to form a vengeful melody.

William was unnerved by all he witnessed. A rotten pit formed in his empty stomach as a result of seeing the horrible act. Now the three men from Ohio’s Volunteer Infantry glanced at each other with a worried look of premonition. They knew that darkness would grow from the ghastly scene. “Boys,” he said while clutching Elijah’s collar, “I think we best keep our distance from this bad egg before they’s seeing us as bad eggs too.” Eli and Elijah didn’t need convincing. The trio faded towards the mouth of their Sibley. Sounds from the madness were muted by the James, but the sight of it all was not.

Three guards pushed their way through the crowd. Any prisoners remaining close by immediately realized their morbid curiosity would likely backfire. The group tried to disband, but shouts from their grey-clad overseers halted the effort. They arrived to see the bloodied man still striking the dog.

He dropped to his knees and slouched onto the pile of fur. Lifeless jaws had become imbedded in his bone. The crazed man looked up at the approaching guards. Crimson from the fallen beast trickled down his face like drizzled rain. Animalistic desires unearthed within drove him to attack the guards as well. If it were not for the beastly carcass anchoring him down, the soldier would have launched through the air at the advancing Rebels. Instead, he flailed around the ground in a stomach churning display.

A cringe of sheer disgust overtook the face of each guard. The third of this trio decided that the scene couldn’t go on any longer. He slapped the brass butt plate of his Richmond Rifle against the prisoner’s blood-speckled temple. Eli jumped from the cracking sound that was heard over the droning of the James. The man looked to have been knocked out or killed from where he stood. His skinny form slumped over on the heap of motionless fur. Something wasn’t right. They should have taken refuge inside the tent but none of them could pry away. All eyes remained locked away until a new sound from the opposite direction was heard.

Like a ripple in water, men scurried back into their tents. The stone that sent waves through the lousy congregation was Belle Island’s Lieutenant. Jingling from his keys always gave away the man’s approach before prisoners saw him. In a sea of enemy soldiers most people would try to remain inconspicuous. But the Lieutenant had nothing to fear. Protection always came from the men under his command. In truth, he had no need for men. All it took to control a prison population over three times its intended occupancy is the fearsome reputation of his faithful hounds.

Elijah yanked his friends inside. They watched through the canvas slit as the Lieutenant passed. Fury, like nothing the Federal soldiers had ever seen, burned through his eyes. Once he passed, they peered outside to see what fate would befall them all.

The proud prison warden waved his arms angrily. He gestured towards the dog carcass. Then he pointed exaggeratingly at the tent belonging to the assassin. A nearby prisoner met the immediate wrath of a furious backhand.

William whispered to Eli, “He’ll have us all wearing barrel shirts for jus’ being here. I didn’t want this winter to be my last.”

“You and I both know they ain’t got enough timber to make barrels for us all.” Eli said after hushing his cousin. He knew that there wasn’t any way the guards would hear them, but paranoia was difficult to ignore.

“What’s gonna happen then?” Elijah asked.

Eli gritted his teeth from the line of helpless questioning from his kin. He’d always been seen as an authoritative member of the family. It never bothered him before the war. Holding this status bothered him now because he didn’t know what to do. In the camp it had always been words of encouragement for survival. Help would come for them: the war might end soon, or prisoner trades could ramp up and they’d be exchanged for some Rebel POW’s. This time though, Eli didn’t know what fate held in store. He opted to deliver an appeasing lie, “The mutt-killer was just a blister. I’m sure we’ll all get extra work details and that’ll be the end of it. Now quit the conniption fit before we get our rations cut for talkin’ too much.”

No one had time to respond. Outside, the Lieutenant showed rage through his movements. He pointed at the tent furiously. Raised voices could be heard but were incomprehensible over the river. Then the well-groomed Rebel stomped over to the tent’s mouth. His arm shot through the opening and grabbed onto something. A prisoner inside the tent must have been peering out just like the cousins. The warden’s fist gripped onto the timid man’s hair and yanked.

With hands clasped in prayer, the prisoner wiggled like his life depended on it. The Lieutenant threw him down over the silenced madman and corpse of his deceased dog. Just then the Wildman sprang up. Foam spewed from his mouth. Meanwhile, the fallen beast’s vice-like jaws remained clasped onto its killer. The yanked prisoner tumbled away from where he’d been thrown.

Only hesitating for a moment, the Lieutenant yanked his Bowie knife free from its belt scabbard. Seeing the glimmer of an exposed blade did nothing to deter the madman. He let out an unholy yowl. It echoed off the earthworks, bounced off the conical tents and drowned inside the rapids.

In the Ohio Volunteer Infantry tent nine men pressed their hands against their ears. The sound wasn’t as loud as it was haunting. At the mouth of the Sibley tent, the three cousins were too awestruck to move. Everything was happening so quickly that it became slowed to an infernal crawl. They watched evil unleash.

The Lieutenant plunged his blade towards the Wildman in an underhanded, yet upward angle. Silver vanished within the man’s foaming mouth. Ten inches of steel punched through bone and flesh. Another audible crack punctuated the act as the blade’s hilt connected with crooked brown teeth.

Everyone and everything froze. The act was so violent that even the Rebel guards held their breath. Gripping the blade, the Lieutenant found no solace to his ire. All attempts to shake the weapon loose were in vain. Lifeless and oozing, the rabid man’s corpse and its attached hound jostled with the shaking arm of the warden. After releasing his grip, the bodies fell to the cold dirt.

Angry gasps of air heaved the Lieutenant’s shoulders up and down. Now he turned toward the man he’d just pulled by the hair. He pointed at the man, shouting incoherently. A frantic hand motioned at the man and the tent then finally at the dog. The desperate Federal shook his head. Tears streamed down the prisoner’s grime-caked face. Then the commander turned his attention to the guards.

Muffled orders were barked out. All three men stood in shock. The guard that had previously used the gun butt plate as a club shook his head much like the prisoner. Any hint of dissidence ceased when the Lieutenant pulled out his pistol. Half a second spent looking down the barrel of a gun brought compliance. Hesitantly, the trio of guards moved over to the tent. They went inside and came out with the ten remaining occupants. All were ushered to the site of the massacre.

Then the angry, polished looking commandant began waving his pistol around. The Ohio men held their breath when they saw the gun move to the mouth of one of the weeping prisoners. Thousands of observing eyes waited for a shot that would end the man’s miserable existence, but that shot never came. Instead, the weapon was used to prod him down to the cold ground beside the fallen hound.

He contorted his body around, trembling. The Lieutenant screamed downward. Hot breath plumed visibly in flickering light from a torch-equipped guard. Nearby, the nine other inmates shielded themselves and shook. They stood in a wobbly line behind the carcass. “Where will this en…” Eli’s words got cut off by the sound of a gunshot.

Like lightning from a cannon’s barrel, the flash killed all darkness for an immortal second. Every war-hardened man jumped inches at such an explosive climax to the tense scene. Point blank proximity made the weeping prisoner’s head shatter. Skull shards peppered the bodies of the murdered man and beast. It was a gruesome garnish to inconceivable violence.

“It’s over Eli.” said William. He pulled on his cousin’s sleeve. All he wanted was to fall asleep and pretend this night didn’t happen. It was bad enough that they would likely be forced to clean it all up in the morning.

Eli remained defiantly still. “No,” his words came out choked to a whisper. “Something else is going on.”

The screams started then. Nine of their fellow fighters howled for mercy. The guards joined a line led by the Lieutenant. At the end of both knife and barrel, the men were forced to their knees. “They can’t execute them!” Elijah mumbled in horror.

            Leading the madness was the Lieutenant. He seethed with enraged worry. “How am I to protect my city if they do not fear me?” said an inner voice that overpowered his reason. “They will fear me.” The voice bumbled outward to audible words. His men turned their heads towards him. None of them knew what was happening. Each Rebel guard felt the same fear of the irrational man as the prisoners beyond them. “These Federals will FEAR THE CONFEDERACY!”

            Back at the Ohio tent everyone was paralyzed. They could not hear the words of the maddened warden. All that could be heard was a jumbled mix of angry shouts blended with sorrow. There was no rhyme or reason to it – until one word was screamed.

            “…!”

            William gasped. “Did he just say?”

            The chant continued now from all the Rebels. Four men chanted together, “. . . T!” Each time it became clearer back at the Ohio Volunteer Infantry’s Sibley tent. “. A T!

            Eli couldn’t even find words to react. Hell must have found a place on Earth. Men could not possibly demand this of other men. But the shouts grew louder.

            “. A T! E A T! EAT!

            Nightmare solidified into reality. The nine men bowed to the hound’s bloodied corpse and fed. One of them dry heaved and fell over. A musket ball fired from one of the guards ended his pain. His body fell to the side, over the beast’s tail. Another senseless murder drove the remaining eight deeper into the frenzy.

            Men everywhere tried to disperse. Guns quickly turned from the abomination and redirected their attention. It was clear that the Lieutenant would have control of this prison camp. Above this unholy attempt at control, the man would avenge his fallen servant.

It was never the man’s intention to allow his canine friend to feast on the living. All of the corpses it ate were long departed. He reasoned that in death, the fallen Federals were protecting the best interest of their fellow soldiers. Now, lessons must be taught. “Men behaving like dogs will be treated as such.” The Lieutenant said to a nearby discontented guard. A wry smirk cracked across his shaven face. Inside he felt joy from the despicable act. The embattled self-loathing he felt from this realization caused his clean picked teeth to grind together.

            Not a single member of the feeding clan could suppress their nausea. At some point during the feast, each keeled over and lost whatever rancid meat they had ingested. The Rebel guards saw this as unacceptable defiance. They jabbed at the vomiting men and forced them to eat again. Eventually, eight miserable stomachs retained some amount of the festering dog meat.

            At the Ohio Sibley, Eli didn’t wait for the feast to finish. He closed the flaps in a futile attempt at sparing him and his cousins from the horror sprawled beyond. The cousins returned to their cots. They were the only ones in the tent that got a full view of what transpired. For everyone else inside, the unknown factors made the night all the more terrifying. Neither William nor Eli could bring themselves to speak. Elijah summed things up enough for the nine curious soldiers. It didn’t take much for the horrified men to cease their questioning.

            Within the span of an hour all activity stopped. The only sounds emanating from the camp were occasional groans and coughs. Eli tried to hear something from the dog meat tent. Hearing the victimized tent was impossible over ever-present hints of weeping from one of the conical gatherings of men. It was frustrating to know so little about what was going on around them. The ever present droning of the James River added to his frustration. Eventually, sleep ceased his wonder.

            The next morning a scream jolted William out of his nightmare. He shot upright and tried to rub the sunlight away from his eyes. Then the boom of a musket somewhere on the island brought him to unsteady feet. “Elijah!” William shouted, “What the devil is happening?” No one answered him. Another scream outside sent his stomach into his throat. He darted his eyes around and saw that all the cots were empty. “Where?” Before the words left his mouth, William heard the sound of someone cough inside the Sibley.

            Looking around frantically, he saw movement under a blanket near the far wall. Stumbling over other cots he fell next to the sound. “Eli!” William shouted with relief.

            The drowsy cousin sat up and batted him away. “Lord Almighty William!” His words were slurred from a deep slumber cut short. “I was dreaming of your Pa’s farm. What in the devil would make you wake me from such a rarity as a good dream?” Then the memories of last night’s evil picked their way into his mind. Eli’s happiness faded away. He looked around and saw that their tent was missing ten people.

            Another musket boom made them both jump an inch. Screams like that of the Wildman last night hollered back at the gunshot. William began to whisper, “Something ain’t right here Cousin. I just woke up same as you and they’s all gone. All I’m hearing from the yard is battle sounds.”

            A pit grew in Eli’s stomach. He remembered it as the same feeling he had when the Lieutenant started pulling the men out. “We need to get out of here and find something to fight with. I’m sure that’s what Elijah and the others left to do.”

            “Do you think General Grant broke the lines and made it down to liberate the camp?” William asked. Such hopeful undertones were a rare occurrence on Belle Island.

            More distant screeches broke through the river’s roar. Nausea joined Eli’s gut. “That don’t sound like no rescue I ever heard. Hell, that don’t even sound like men…”

            The two cousins quickly gathered what few things they had. Before Eli could move to the tent flap, William motioned for him to hold. He moved over to one of their Federal brother’s cots. After a moment of thought, he eased his hand under it and felt around. “Look Cuz, we ain’t got time for this. It sounds like hell out there!” Eli muttered impatiently. William paid his cousin’s pressuring no mind and continued searching. Then his hand shot up like an eager child that just found candy. In his grip was a dirty folding knife.

            “I always knew that son of a bitch was hiding something!” He said with a smile. Eli grabbed it from him for closer inspection. Flipping the blade open, he ran a finger over it to test the sharpness.

            “Well I wouldn’t use it for shavin’,” Eli whispered, “But it’ll do if we need it.”

            William yanked it back. He moved over to one of the cots and kicked the blanket off. Circling the blade around, he stabbed it down into the fabric and yanked. Eli was too intrigued by the action to question. After slicing along each side, William kicked down and broke the wooden ends. He slid the fabric off and retrieved the two long wooden poles. “Don’t know ‘bout you, but I ain’t going out there unless I got something to beat the Rebs away.”

            Eli took the pole with a nod. They stepped over to the tent flaps and peaked out. The river blanketed the outlying parts of Belle Island with fog every morning. Inner parts of the camp could be bathed in sun while the borders still remain shrouded in mist. The Ohio Sibley was right at the fringe of this zone. To their right was an area illuminated in the cool morning sun. To their left was an unknown blur. Inside the blur was the place where last night’s unholy feast took place.

            All looked to be clear in the vicinity of the tent. Slowly, the two cousins stepped outside. William tried to examine the sunny region. Their line of tents is at the end of a sharp turn that stops at the earthworks. This turn prevented him from seeing much of what was going on to the right side. Eli was fixated on the foggy area. “Come on Eli,” William whispered, “No reason to go that way.” Then he heard something from the tent across the walkway.

            Eli sprinted over into the fog and towards the tent. “Eli! We got to go!” William shouted to no avail. He ran after his cousin and tripped almost immediately. After regaining his footing, William looked back to see what had caused the spill. Horror gripped his heart and nausea weakened his knees. It was an arm, a raggedly severed arm with a grey uniform. Gore of this variety wasn’t uncommon on the battlefield. However, seeing a severed enemy arm in the confines of an enemy camp terrified the man. Then he realized that he couldn’t hear Eli. What he could hear was an unsettling moaning. Between the moans were sounds like wet impacts on mud.

            Tiptoeing a few feet farther, William finally saw his cousin. Eli stood motionless at the entry flaps to the tent. Before William could talk, his attention was directed to the canvas walls of the Sibley. Crimson spatter changed the fabric’s color completely. There was no order to it; it was like someone went crazy with a bucket of red paint inside. Eli then pointed at one of the flaps. William’s eyes squinted, seeking clarity. He saw he was being directed to a gore-smeared handprint.

            The moaning inside stopped. Eli used his bedpost staff to open the tent flap. Pooled blood totally imbued the few blankets strewn around the tent floor. So much had been spilled that a puddle formed on the compacted soil between blankets. The coagulating clues led to a twitching leg. Attached to the leg was sprawled out body. Two men were knelt at the midsection of this ravaged cadaver. “What the hell happened here boys?” William said.

            Two heads shot up from their place over the body. One of them wore a faded Federal uniform. The blue clad monstrosity still chewed a mouthful of his human feast. Viscera hung down from his gnawing jaws. The other man was missing his left ear and much of the scalp around it. He wore a Rebel uniform. It was soiled with blood that trailed down from a circular removal of flesh on his neck. Dual sets of blackened eyes opened wide with excitement.

            “What in the Devil!” William could barely choke out the words.

            The pair of feasting ghouls screeched. Eli and William covered their ears from the unnatural sound. They have heard all manner of death voice itself on the battle field; however, nothing has come close to this unholy duet. Seconds later the murderous men jumped up from the ground. The intestine chewing devil never released his clenched jaw. Like a ball and chain tether, the tough bowel tissue unraveled then snapped taught. It caught the eager creature off guard and yanked him to the ground. The rag doll corpse also jerked forward from the tug. Now on its side, liquid innards oozed from a rib-laden opening.

William vomited immediately from the stomach churning sight.  Eli swung his staff wide towards the single attacker. If William hadn’t keeled over, the swing would have hit him in the temple. A crack equivalent to a long rifle’s shot echoed off the tent walls. The impact reverberated through Eli’s arm so hard he dropped the weapon. Fortunately for the confused pair, the attack also put the rabid man down.

Pain in his throbbing arm distracted Eli for a dangerous moment. William regained his composure as the Federal soldier released his intestinal chew toy. He grabbed the fallen staff with one hand and his cousin’s arm with the other. They ran away from the tent and towards the sunlit area. Competing moans and screams followed behind them. “William,” Eli said through panting breaths, “What the hell happened to those men?” He wanted to look back but couldn’t bring himself to.

“I don’t know but one of them was Reb Bushwhacker from last night. The other looked like one of the boys they made eat on the dog. If it’s the one I’m thinking then I talked to him once by the banks. That boy hated the Rebs – he wasn’t no Copperhead.” William passed the staff back to Eli. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the folding blade.

“You think something in the dog meat made them like that?” Eli gasped.

He responded, “If you’d a asked me that yesterday I’d a called you a goat. But after seein’ them chew on that poor bastard like he was morning rations… well I don’t know what to believe anymore Cuz.”

This whole experience made Eli feel like he’d lost his position of authority. He couldn’t even bring himself to thinking about where Elijah and the others went to. All he could think about now was getting William away from the evil they’d just witnessed. “We should head for the north bank. It’s closest to the city and has the most guards. I doubt they’ll be too happy to see us running out of the yard… but I’ll take it over getting eaten. Hopefully the Lieutenant won’t be on the guard tower. Far as I’m concerned, that devil caused all this.”

The pair rounded another corner. Blood-painted drag marks were all over the path. Collapsed tents and sounds worthy of nightmares lined the walkway. Panic had driven them so fiercely that most of the horrible details were overlooked. True panic set in when they reached the wall of fog at the next bend.

William sighed hopelessly, “We can’t go through there! You know how the river fog can be – one moment you see and the next you’re completely blind.”

“We’re almost there. Just a little farther up and we should make it to the field that surrounds the north bank. If we can make it there then we won’t have to worry about blind corners from the tents or trees.” Eli reasoned.

Shouting back at his cousin’s preposterous calm, “Ain’t you notice that we haven’t seen anyone else moving other than those two bastards back by our tent?! What could make a couple thousand men up and vanish? For all we know the whole lot of them could be waiting inside that fog. I’m not fittin’ to be dinner, cousin. No Rebel or Federal will be treatin’ me like rancid dog meat.”

A screech emanated from the bend they had just cleared. The two men peered at each other. Eli looked fearful. William’s face was stricken with sadness. They turned to the fog and threw themselves forward. The James River was notorious for patches of cloud-thick mist. Whisking contrails of blindness swirled around them. Sounds of pursuit grew closer by the second. Panic ravenously consumed their caution.

Looking over, Eli realized his cousin was no longer running alongside him. “William!” he shouted while stopping so abruptly that momentum nearly introduced him to the ground. Fog in the area was thick enough that Eli had to practically feel his way around. “Where the hell are you?!” He continued to plead. Then his blind search halted with a tumbling fall.

“Ouch!” William yelped. “Tarnation, Eli! Didn’t ya see me down here?”

“I thought I’d lost you. Didn’t you hear me calling? In my mind I saw you gettin’ eaten like the boy at the tent. Come on we got’sta go before we end up as brunch!” said Eli in a loud whisper.

Listening to his commanding cousin, William mustered a heavy sigh. The pain that radiated up from his left leg was hard to ignore. A typhoon of emotions brought on by everything they’d seen this morning dampened the effects of his new wound. It all blended together to make him feel numbly acceptant of this confusing fate. They had been through so much on the battlefield. His motivation had been to fight for God and country. With the help of his cousins and the rest of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, William knew the atrocious acts of violence they committed were meant to restore right. However, there wasn’t anything right with what occurred at this camp. Wrong permeated long before those men fed upon the tainted dog meat. He came to the conclusion that it was that feast that turned wrong into walking evil.

Eli knew then that his cousin couldn’t walk. He got closer and saw bone protruding from a compound fracture in William’s leg. Their flight had taken him over an old bean hole. His foot became trapped but the rest of him continued. By the time the spill stopped William’s leg hyper-extended ninety degrees. “Get on to the shore. Tell the guards I’s back here with a red badge of courage. If they got anyone left hopefully they’ll get a surgeon back to me.” As he spoke the gravity of the situation became clearer. William knew that help would never arrive before the tainted men reached him.

“I ain’t gonna leave you here. The cannibal men will get to you if I do.” Eli fought tears as he spoke.

William flipped the folding blade open and mustered a smile. “You tellin’ me I can’t take on a few sick Rebs?” He followed the comment with a light chuckle. Behind them sounds of rabid creatures grew closer. “Go on now. I’ll be waiting here.”

Tears streamed from his face. Eli hoped the fog would conceal his sorrow. After a second of hesitation, he nodded and turned the other way. The mist enveloped his path once again. Looking back he saw no trace of William. All sound muted under the oppressive pounding of his pulse. Between breaths, sounds of the surging rapids grew louder.

Back on the cold ground, the wounded soldier longed for relief. William rubbed his temples trying to remember what things were like before the war. Time becomes skewed under wartime squalor. It had become difficult to recall what it was like beyond the confines of Belle Island’s earthwork-laden banks. He forced images of Elijah, Eli, and the others into the forefront of thought. An eager parasite then skittered inside his pant leg. Instinctively, William swatted at the louse not thinking about his injury.

Pain seethed from his twisted leg. The soil around the bean hole steamed from William’s blood. It oozed from the spot where ragged bone protruded from the pant leg. Lightheadedness started coming in waves. He didn’t know if the feeling was a result of blood loss or that his weakened body simply could not cope any longer. Acceptance of fate’s deranged conclusion formed a veil around the man’s will to fight. Suddenly, closing his eyes and taking a morning nap seemed like a delightful idea.

Moments after closing his heavy eyelids, a nearby growl brought him back to reality. Frantic scans of the immediate area showed nothing but more fog. Then there was another groan in front. To the west echoed a gurgling moan. William knew the monsters had found him. An eastern shriek startled skips into his rhythmic heart rate. The sound was inhuman, even evil in nature. A duet of human and animalistic agony cut through the hazy landscape, but there was something about the human side that William recognized. He desperately tried to place the familiar feeling. The dreadful realization of what approached hit him suddenly. Mustering a shout he said, “Elijah… is that you cousin?”

Elijah stumbled out of the water vapor wall. Seeing his lost family member again felt wonderful. But William knew that something was wrong. The shambling man took a few more uneven steps forward. “Come on Elijah! Talk to me! The other company boys with you? Eli and I seen some crazy things lookin’ for ya’ll…” A breeze swirled the fog between them. When the air current settled, William finally saw Elijah for what he had become.

The mangled shell of Elijah cocked his head to the side and yowled. He leapt forward and descended upon William. Five other ghouls swarmed from out of the fog and partook in the attack. Four creatures wore blue while one was clad in grey. Fatal disfigurement joined them all under the same horrid uniform.

Closer to the banks, Eli heard a scream echo out from where he left William. His feet stumbled to a halt. He screamed back, “William! I’m almost to the guard tower so just keep fightin’!” Another shift in the wind moved the remaining fog away. Eli braced against a tree and stared in the opposite direction. Helplessness, like none he’d ever felt in battle, weighed down upon him like an anchor on his weary soul. “The Rebs gotta help us.” He said, grumbling to himself. “If they’s still human then they can’t leave us.”

Simultaneous moans flipped him around towards the James. He was shocked to see that the fog had cleared. Sunlight bathed the area in a condemning light. Thousands of creatures clogged the area around the tower. It was like the entire camp joined at the structure for Sunday mass. Their frantic jerking motions reminded him of ants marching onto a picnic feast. Eli’s presence was immediately noticed. The excited shrieks reminded him of a bothered beehive.

Eli turned and ran like hell to the southeastern bank. He was prepared to swim across the James if that’s what it took to escape this madness. The rabid soldiers paraded after him. Peering over his shoulder to see how many were giving chase, Eli saw a flash then heard a gunshot above the horde. In the distance he saw the Lieutenant’s lifeless body slump over the guard rail. Blood and brain matter dribbled down to the writhing mass from the self-inflicted wound on his head.

The rapids were in view at last. Then Eli saw the plumes of smoke rising from Richmond’s outline. His heart sunk deeply knowing that this evil had already permeated the city. There was no salvation to be had. With a whisper he said, “This is Perdition. God forgive us.”

Biting cold water greeted his tired feet. Eli looked back and saw the wave of festering men eagerly shamble closer. He recognized the lead creature as one of the men who fed upon the dog meat. It was like the ire that radiated in the man’s face last night had started a fire that burned the life from every man it touched.

The James River swallowed up his sorrow. Eli’s head bobbed out of the water for a moment. He looked back and saw waves of feral men spilling into the river. On the opposite side he saw the black clouds forming above the cityscape. “Richmond will burn. Richmond will burn and all be judged for the atrocities we have committed against each other.”

An accepting smile cracked across his face. Water filled his lungs. Numbness of mind, body, and soul encompassed Eli. He closed his eyes and thought of home. William was there. Elijah was there. Their fallen brothers waited proudly. Death was all the reward that valor could muster.

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