October 15, 2012

The Cavalryman's Saber


The Cavalryman’s Saber
by C.R. Hodges

Turquoise frogs, Japanese earthenware, and today an antique sword—all items I’ve delivered to an eccentric grandmother. She was a regular customer and I didn’t ask questions. With the economy in tatters and my skin being the wrong color, I was glad to have a job, and it was hard not to like Granny Hooper.

She stared for a full minute at the oblong package before she ambled, with spryness that belied her age, into the back of her shop to fetch a pen. I’d given up on convincing her to sign electronically. She doesn’t do technology; hell she doesn’t even own a phone. Not that this was incongruous with her shop, which sold potions, artifacts, rare herbs and even vials of blood. Her clientele was stranger still: I’ve seen a foxy blonde with a war axe and a green-skinned dude, three feet tall, max.

“Everything okay?” I asked, as she signed all eight pages. A sword wasn’t a surface-to-air missile, but it was still classified as a weapon for international shipping.

“Yes and no, young man, yes and no.” A long suppressed accent darted into her words. She opened the package and pulled out the weapon, long and sleek with a slight curve. A thin line of blood appeared as she drew the blade across her wizened palm.

“Uh, nice sword.”

“It’s a saber, Jerome, not a sword. A cavalryman’s saber.” Her red eyes locked onto mine.

I bristled for an instant—nobody has called me Jerome since I got out of juvie—before forcing a smile.

“My… she passed away last month. The saber, it was hers. Ours. We fought a war together.” A solitary tear dropped from a red eye, half hidden by a wild lock of gray hair, onto her wrinkled cheek. “The Great Rebellion.”

“Sorry?” Which rebellion did she mean? Tough to ask without looking like a twenty-two-year-old high school dropout, which in fact I was.

Perhaps she can read minds among her other peculiar talents, because she added, “The American Civil War, as it’s called, these days.”

That rebellion I’d heard of. “How can you be—?”

“So old?” she cackled. “Yes, dearie, I am old. But I was young once, and she was too.”

She must have known that I would stay to listen, for she brought in two cups of fragrant tea. Her tea is special, as smooth as water from an ancient river but with the kick of two-week-old tequila. I felt my body relax and my mind stray. Granny started to speak, and I drifted off into a swirling darkness.

* * *

I found myself in another place and time, looking down on two girls huddled behind a log in a dense forest. I had no body, no voice, but my senses were on overload. Acrid smoke clogged my nostrils and incessant thunder assaulted my ears. An explosion seared the air just behind me, scalding my throat. That wasn’t thunder: I was at ground zero of an artillery barrage.

Where was my truck? I’d be screwed if my truck got blown to Kansas.

The two girls, perhaps fifteen years old, hugged the ground as it shook. One of the girls was dark with a shaved head, her skin the color of the bark of the maple tree she was hiding behind. The other was fair, with auburn hair cropped brutally short. Both could have passed as young men, dressed as they were in patched trousers and gray jackets, rifles by their sides, but somehow I knew they were not. Several rounds landed close enough to kick mud onto their backs, shrapnel flying inches above their heads. As night fell the cannonade decrescendoed.

The dark skinned girl whispered, “It be over, mistress.”

“Don’t you call me that, Sarah. I freed you,” said the auburn haired girl. Her tone softened. “Do you think so? That was the worst yet.”

“Yanks don’t have the grit to fight past nightfall, and them Tennesseans you so proud of will be tuckered out.” Sarah laughed, then softly added, “Twilly,” as she rose to her knees.

A single thump punctured the gathering calm. The air buzzed, and Twilly threw herself at Sarah, snarling. They tumbled into a shallow gully as a mortar round obliterated the trunk of the maple tree. Splinters the size of kitchen knives pulverized the ground where they had lain.

They huddled together in the gully but the barrage was indeed over. “Tis done,” said Sarah, uncertainly.

Twilly nodded. “How many new ghosts tonight, you reckon?”

“Lots dead on both sides. Least a dozen. The Yank ghosts will flee north, so we’ll only find our Rebs.”

“Perfect.” I caught a glimpse of Twilly’s eyes: deep red, unnatural in her shop, and just as unnatural here. Suddenly I understood. Granny.

Sarah whistled softly and moments later an opossum appeared, its fur singed and darkened with soot. It shook in fear when it saw Twilly, but bravely faced Sarah, prehensile tail draped over a log. Sarah stroked its fur, talking in squeaks and grunts.

“He’ll go scout no-man’s land for us,” she said.

Five minutes later the animal returned, squealed at Sarah and scampered off.

“Plenty dead and more wounded.” Sarah’s voice wavered as she added, “Too many to save.”

“The Yankee guttersnipes ain’t worth saving, but we can help our lads.”

“Too many still.”

The girl-soldiers slung their rifles and scuttled toward the front. Somehow I followed. The lingering smoke was suffocating; the rank smell was unbearable, and increased as we closed on the trenches. Worse yet were the screams of the wounded. Sarah and Twilly carried three canteens each, clunking as they half-ran. Twilly scouted to see whom they could save; Sarah applied herb poultices to their wounds and offered them water.

Most of the soldiers were grateful, but one young private from Mississippi spat at Sarah as she tried to stem the blood flowing from his chest. “Get ‘way from me you filthy—”

He never finished his sentence. Twilly kicked him in the groin and motioned Sarah to move on.

The blue-coated casualties they ignored, except for an obese sergeant who staggered up, bayonet in hand. Sarah shouted a warning even though the man was moving slower than a hedgehog.

Twilly spun and shot the man in the gut, her face contorted in an unnatural snarl. She stepped aside as he fell, then split his head open with the rifle butt. “For Pa,” she growled.

They continued tending the Confederate wounded as best they could. Sarah had been right—they were too many. She did slip some water to a few dying Federal soldiers when Twilly wasn’t looking, but it was futile. When their canteens ran out they abandoned their healing efforts, but continued to search the battlefield. From ahead came a series of shrieks. I cringed and reached for a weapon I didn’t have, but Sarah smiled grimly. “Our ghost.”

Thick smoke still enveloped the forest, reeking of gunpowder and death. I spotted a soldier trudging through the haze, but then to my shock I realized it was a specter, human in appearance but as translucent as the smoke from which it emerged. A pale corporal, clutching his severed leg to his chest, rolled over and over through the mud. He wailed as he attempted to get clear of the ghost’s path.

“Hallo, Johnny Reb,” said Twilly, as the ghastly soldier’s uniform became clear.

The rebel ghost stopped, fear on its own translucent face. “Who goes there?” it moaned.

“I’m Tabatha Wilma Reynolds, but you can call me Twilly. Everyone does, ‘cept them who call me Lieutenant.”

The ghost looked even more stunned. “You… I…”

“Yes, I am a girl; yes, you are a ghost.”

“You be one of the lucky ones,” added Sarah. “You get to be ghost dead. Better than plain dead.”

“Your slave girl c-c-can see me too?”

“She ain't my slave. I freed her.”

Sarah nodded, shoulders back. “I—”

Twilly cut Sarah off. “What’s your name and unit, soldier? Just 'cause you’re dead don’t mean the war is over.”

“Corporal Beauregard Lashalle, Nineteenth Louisiana.”

“Well Bo, please sit a spell. Louisiana needs you still.” Her command voice softened into that of a woman’s, smooth and flirtatious. “Ghosts, you see, make great spies.”

“Me, a spy? I'm clumsy and my eyes ain't no good. Never could shoot straight.”

“Don’t matter,” chimed in Sarah, “no one will see you. They may feel you go by and get all scared like, but won’t matter if you clumsy ‘cause you walk right through tree roots.”

“What if I done get lost?”

“I’ll send that there ‘possum with you. It can’t tell blue from gray but it’ll bring you back to me.” Bo looked bewildered at this.

“She can talk to varmints. It’s a trick she learned from a sangoma,” said Twilly.

“Tis a ritual,” said Sarah, proudly. “My mammy was sangoma of our village, back in Africa. One day I’ll be a sangoma too.”

“Big battle today; even bigger one tomorrow I reckon,” said Twilly. “General Bragg needs to know which units are moving where; which units are hurtin'; and what in Sam Hill that blasted General Rosecrans is planning.”

“General Bragg?”


“Why, he commands the whole dang Confederate army.”

“We’ve been scouting for him, telling him where the Yanks are and where they ain’t.”

“And sometimes we like to move their soldiers ’round a bit,” added Sarah with a grin. No one could mistake her gender when she smiled.

“ ’Specially General Wood’s division. We almost had him hornswoggled today; got him to stop when he should’a done go,” said Twilly. “We’re still working on him—there’s a special place in Lucifer’s basement for that man.”

“That hell is right here on the Chickamauga,” added Sarah, jaw set like a marine.

“What did ol’ General Wood do to you?” asked Bo, slightly scared. Funny to see a scared ghost. Ass-backwards.

“He killed my pa and took his saber. I want the Yankee bastard dead,” said Twilly.

“We be wanting the saber back too,” added Sarah, head down.

“What do I do?” asked Bo.

Twilly smiled. She had a recruit. “You march back through those lines and find General Wood’s camp. I’ll come with you and help you find em’. You just waltz on in, plop yourself down on a log and listen up. They can’t see nor hear you. Then skedaddle back.”

“How you gonna go with me? Them Yanks would as soon hang you as a spy as piss on you, ‘less they found out you was a girl, then it be worse.”

Twilly didn’t answer, and Sarah just grinned. Bo looked confused as Twilly’s whole body started to shimmer, like ripples on a moon lit pond. Unselfconsciously she stripped off her shirt and trousers. For a moment her modesty was compromised, and any remaining doubts about her womanhood vanished for Bo, and for me as well. By the time she stepped out of her filthy undergarments, gray fur was growing all over her body, and her ample breasts, so splendidly displayed seconds earlier, diminished. Most remarkable were the changes to her face. Her auburn hair turned gray first, then curled. Her nose grew long and pointed, snout like, and her eyes, always close together and slightly slanted, moved closer and grew bigger. Wicked teeth appeared, although her smile was still discernable.

In minutes she had become half fox and half woman—no, make that seven-ninths fox—covered in fur, muscular and beautiful in both an animal and a feminine way. For a moment I was in love twice over, but then the tail appeared. Unnaturally long, with a nasty barb on the end. She yipped at Sarah, then turned to the ghost and growled, low and coarse.

“What voodoo queen spawned her?” Bo’s ghastly pallor worsened, his hands trembling.

“She calls herself a kitsune,” said Sarah, laughing. “A highfaluting term for fox witch, or so I hear tell.”

Twilly—the kitsune—paced on all fours in front of Bo, the barbed tail lashing back and forth. When he did not move, she sat on her haunches and curled her lips back, revealing jagged teeth a shark would have envied.

“Is that a smile or a glower?” Bo asked, his pale lips frozen like a ventriloquist’s.

“It be both, I reckon,” said Sarah, gently. “Follow her. She’ll lead you to General Wood’s camp; then you go on in and do your spyin’.”

Bo nodded his head slowly. The kitsune yipped and stood up, stretching first her forelegs and then her back, the barbed tail again swaying behind her.

“Just don’t betray her or you’ll wish you were dead dead—she can get wrathy,” added Sarah.

The ghost reluctantly trailed Twilly into the smoky haze, while the young sangoma sat cross-legged on the ground and chatted with a pair of mockingbirds.

An hour or so later, they returned. The kitsune grabbed her clothes in her vulpine mouth and headed behind a tree, sparing Bo’s ghost the sight of her reverse transformation. When Twilly reemerged, buttoning up her wool jacket despite the heat, she quickly asked “What is that twice damned General Wood up to?”

“Guess he got yelled at real good by General Rosecrans for not moving out. Madder than a hunted fox, he was—” Bo stopped. Twilly motioned for him to continue, accompanied by a faint growl.

“He told his captains that next time he’d march his men into a swamp if that’s what the no-account Rosecrans told him to do, rather than get cussed out again.”

“Pshaw! We’ll show him a swamp.” Twilly pulled a map out from her knapsack and spread it on the ground, with Sarah looking over her shoulder. They seemed to have a good idea of where all the Confederate units were and many of the Federal units as well; apparently they had many ghost spies collecting such information. Furthermore, Twilly had a head for tactics, undoubtedly learned from her father the cavalry officer. They devised a plan in minutes. Twilly carefully wrote out a set of orders.

“We’ll pull General Wood’s unit out of the line and send them up yonder.” Twilly paused for a moment, scratching her ear. “Corporal, search the woods hereabouts for a dead Yank officer. We’ll be needing a blue uniform.”

Bo nodded and zipped off. Ten minutes later he returned, and led the girls to a body lying face up in the dirt, eyes staring unblinkingly at the sky. He pointed at the twin silver bars on the blue collar. Twilly was working on the dead captain’s boots when Bo hollered. She looked up to see blood-encrusted hands wrapped around Sarah’s throat. Twilly dived toward Sarah but his knee jerked up, blocking her chest. She snarled, low and coarse, just as his leg fell back to the ground.

Sarah stood up slowly, a collar of deep bruises around her neck. She dropped a jagged rock next to the man’s fractured skull.

As Twilly gathered the captain’s uniform into a bundle and turned to head back, Sarah said, “No. We bury him first.”

“The bastard almost—”

“We bury him.”


Cavalryman's Saber 2

After a hasty burial under a cairn of rotten logs, they headed back toward the Confederate lines, the ghost following them. “Now to find us our boy,” whispered Twilly.

As they neared the Confederate pickets, Twilly paused to straighten her jacket, dusting off the collar so that the single silver bar was visible. She grunted the password when challenged at the picket, and the guards waved Twilly—as Lieutenant Reynolds—and her slave through.

Bo whispered to Sarah, “How’d she know that there password?”

“Twilly really is General Bragg’s spymaster.”

They moved quickly to surgeon’s tent. The groans of the dying mixed with the cries of anguish as the overworked surgeon removed limbs with a dull saw. Twilly and Sarah quickly made their way through the rows of wounded, searching as they went. They finally selected a lanky private named Hooper. Twilly addressed him in a low voice, manly enough for a young lieutenant in an army which took all comers at this stage of the war.

Sarah knelt before him and tended to his mangled leg. She rubbed a bag of herbs on the wound and drained a black flagon into his parched lips. Within minutes the leg had healed enough for Private Hooper to stand up and walk. Twilly spoke to the distraught surgeon who quickly agreed to let this obviously healthy patient go. They led the bewildered private off into the darkness.

“You well enough to fight?” asked Twilly.

“Uh, yes sir, I reckon so. How did you learn your slave boy about them herbs? I was 'fraid I’d be Zebulon One Leg from here on out.” He smiled. Even I could tell he was a man with a killer smile. Sarah just mumbled but Twilly flashed a brilliant smile back. She corrected her mistake but not soon enough. “A girl! And I thought you was a Nancy,” he exclaimed.

Twilly recovered quickly. “We girls just saved your life, so hush your mouth, private.”

Zeb laughed but his face hardened. “Go boil your shirt.” He stood up.

Twilly smiled again, but this time she allowed hints of her vulpine features to morph with her face. The effect was dramatic and alluring. Her hair turned silver gray but she kept her very female form. Even in a wool coat and trousers, her body radiated an exotic sensuality. Poor Zeb never had a chance. His face lit up. “For you I’d fight all the way to Gotham.”

“Why thank you Zeb Hooper,” replied Twilly seductively. I recalled Sarah’s fox witch comment—I’d now seen the witch part.

Sarah hissed at Twilly, “You shouldn’t have done that. Tain’t right.”

Twilly ignored her and smiled at Zeb. “I need your help.”

She explained her plan. It was simple, devious and, given their unique skills, likely to succeed. Zeb was to dress in the purloined Federal captain’s uniform. It was too short but no matter: ill-fitting uniforms were the norm. With Bo’s help they would smuggle him through the lines, where Sarah would summon an orphaned horse, all too common on the battlefield. Zeb whined that he did not know how to ride, but a smile from Twilly and an assurance from Sarah that she could “calm a stampeding buffalo so your momma could ride it in petticoats” eliminated his protests.

They crept back into no-man’s land, easily avoiding the exhausted Confederate pickets. Captain Zeb continued on through the Federal pickets, with Sarah trudging behind them, carrying his gear. Bo weaved through the woods, passing through as many tree trunks as he could, a grin on his pale face. I had to wait with Twilly, who promptly found a tree to lean against and slept.

“We done did it,” said Sarah when they returned just after daybreak. “We gave old General Wood his new orders.”

“I’ll go tell Bragg. Time for our boys to see the elephant.”

When Twilly reported to General Bragg, he was drinking by himself, his gray tunic splattered with mud. “What do your cussed spies have for me?” His face was drawn and his words were chopped.

“General Wood is planning to pull out of the line and hightail north.” She made no attempt to affect a male voice.

“Why in tarnation would old Rosecrans issue such an order?” He slammed his whiskey tumbler down on the map table. “He may be an all-fired Yankee, but he’s not stupid.”

“He didn’t.”

“Then who in blazes did?” General Bragg set his whiskey glass down on the map table. “On second thought, perhaps I don’t care to know.”

She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and then pointed at the map. “Their departure will leave a hole in their line the size of Texas.”

He smiled. “Your pa was a fine cavalryman. He would have been plum proud.”

* * *

With the dawn came the cannonade from both sides, and the war resumed. Twilly, Sarah and Zeb retreated back to a hill to watch the battle develop. Bo scouted in ghost form, delighting in adding a little extra terror. As General Wood’s division pulled back, the Confederates poured into the breach. The Chickamauga ran umber that day: blood, soot and mud in near equal proportions. By dusk the Federals were in retreat.

“Let’s find General Wood and the saber,” said Twilly.

Sarah summoned yet another opossum, with a stump for a left hind leg, as a guide. Not unlike the humans, this one soldiered on as well. They crept through the lines, still under fire. This time I followed. At one point Zeb, still in his Federal captain’s garb, had to pretend to march the two girl-soldiers as prisoners, but in the chaos of the retreat they were never challenged. With help from Sarah’s forest dwelling allies, they located the remains of General Wood’s unit, and at dusk they found the general. He sat slumped on his horse on a rock covered hilltop with an orderly and five exhausted soldiers.

Zeb prodded Twilly and Sarah with his fixed bayonet. “Caught me a Tennessee weasel, sir.”

The Federal general looked up, distracted but with recognition on his face. “The orders you delivered this morning were ill received, Captain. I’m to face General Rosecrans’s wrath. Again.” He waved to his orderly. “Search the prisoner. Set the negro free.”

Zeb looked as pale as Bo at this, and when a soldier approached to search Twilly, he fired his rifle, missing completely. The soldier charged, impaling himself on Zeb’s bayonet.

The general and his men were slow to react. Twilly grabbed the fallen orderly’s rifle and used it as club, whirling like a madman. Mad witch. Her countenance changed as she fought, her kitsune tail whipping about, bursts of fire emanating from the barbed tip.

Bo flew into the fray, his ghastly presence panicking the ambushed soldiers. Sarah retreated a few steps and started a low chant. Zeb yanked his bayonet from the dead soldier’s body and charged the general, only to be waylaid by a Federal private who had his own bayonet in hand. They sparred ineffectively.

Twilly bashed in the head of the nearest soldier and then sprang at the soldier threatening Zeb. Her hair blazed gray and fur covered her face as she snarled. Half woman, half fox, Twilly fought off the remaining pair of blue-coated soldiers, using her purloined rifle in two hands like a mace as she parried the bayonets, knocking one soldier into a tree.

Sarah finished her chant and the General Wood’s horse reared, throwing him onto the rocks. “Gut him,” Twilly yelled as she lunged at the last soldier.

Sarah raced nimbly to the fallen general. She snatched the saber from the general’s hand, blood oozing from his head. Sheathing the saber in her belt, she turned and walked toward the Federal lines. “Goodbye mistress— Twilly. I be goin’ to New York, then on to Africa, like I promised Mammy. Home.”

“He killed Pa.” Twilly bludgeoned the last soldier to the ground. “Why’d you let the son of a bitch live? Give me pa’s saber!”

“He was my pa too,” Sarah said, without looking back.

“That’s cockamamie bull.” The barb on Twilly’s tail slashed the soldier’s face from temple to chin.

“Tis true.”

“Pa could never have loved your ma, he—”

“He took her,” Sarah said, turning back to face Twilly, “with this.” She held the saber across her own throat momentarily. “Thrice.”

“Who told you that boldfaced lie?” Her tail snapped through the air like a whip.

“He did. When he tried to take me.” She backed into the shadows.

As I fell back into the swirling darkness, I saw tears streaming from Twilly’s fox eyes.

* * *


* * *

Light, dim yet harshly artificial. The smell of stale tea mingled with car exhaust. I had collapsed on the table, my head throbbing as if I had been clubbed. All I could see were my two clenched fists.


A wizened hand touched my brow, and strong arms helped lift my chest up off the table. I swiveled and looked into Granny Hooper’s red eyes, tears flowing like they had a century and a half before. Her fox eyes.

* * *
C.R. Hodges lives in Colorado, near the ghost town of Altona, with his wife, three teenage daughters, a dog and no ghosts that he knows of. When he is not writing, playing the tuba or coaching youth softball, he is a clean-tech entrepreneur. He has short stories published in The First Line, Bards and Sages Quarterly, On the Premises and an audio publication forthcoming in EscapePod. He can be found online at http://www.facebook.com/C.R.Hodges.Author.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Typically the ideas for my stories are synthesized from my travels, books and news articles, and a hyperactive imagination. “The Cavalryman’s Saber” resulted from memories of a visit to the Chickamauga battlefield some twenty years ago, two books on the Civil War—one on female combatants disguised as men and another on the espionage advantage that the South had—and a more recent visit to South Africa, where I got the idea for Sarah, the sangoma character. Having lived in Sweden for a couple of years, I’ve populated other stories with Swedes and set stories in Lappland; having grown up in the middle of the space race with a father who worked for NASA, the moon and the planets and crazy rocket scientists slip in here and there. As for the ghosts, well, this is fiction.