Ghosts of the Texians
The ghosts were playing an old French game known as
faro. Zebulon had learned it from a nameless woman
with feral eyes and sharpened teeth who swore she was
no vampire. He was pretending to deal non-existent
cards when a raspy voice asked, “Which of you
gentlemen is the taillèur?”
Four ethereal heads turned toward the saloon door. It
was just an hour past dusk, but
Goliad had been abandoned since the
Zebulon had happened upon the ghosts of
the three Texian soldiers wandering aimlessly on a
forsaken battlefield. He had calmed them down,
answered hours of questions and helped them understand
their new semi-existence. Then he had taught them how
to play cards.
The oldest Texian, a farmer-turned-soldier named
Jeremiah, glanced at Zebulon then charged the
black-cloaked stranger in the doorway. Although they
were invisible and incorporeal, the ghosts had
discovered they could instill terror in the living by
passing through their bodies. The weakest victims
sometimes even soiled their britches. The ghosts, save
for Zebulon, who had long since outgrown the trick,
Jeremiah flailed his wispy arms and yelled “Yeehaw” as
he rushed to pass through the lean stranger. Jeremiah
fell flat on his buttocks when the expected
fly-through turned into a collision. “What the seven
The stranger laughed as he offered a gloved hand to
Jeremiah. The remaining ghosts froze between flight
Zebulon had been a ghost for two dozen years, nearly
as long as he had lived. In death, as in life, he had
been an explorer, drifting across the continent,
haunting various forts and settlements, In the waning
days of 1835 he had ended up in Texas.
the dealer,” he said.
Neither short nor tall, the stranger lifted Jeremiah
back up and stepped into the saloon. He wore a black
cloak, clean but threadbare, and a felt hat with a
sturdy brim, also black. Despite the warm April night,
he did not shed his leather gloves.
With a faint nod, the stranger dropped his haversack
on the dusty floor with a clunk.
His face was impossible to discern in the darkness,
but his eyes glowed white, like coals in a worn-out
Jeremiah slunk backward, flanked by his fellow Texians,
all paler than normal.
“Have you a hankering to play a hand?” Zebulon
motioned to the table. The faro shoe was
genuine, but the cards were imaginary. The ghosts
couldn’t have manipulated real cards in any case.
Instead, they allowed Zebulon to make up the game as
he pretended to deal. This was the way with ghosts.
Cheating was an integral part of faro, but
Zebulon endeavored to deal his phantom cards more
honestly than a human
More fairly than the woman had dealt, cards or
“Mind if I deal?” the stranger asked. He retrieved a
deck of real cards from his haversack.
The men nodded, confusion on their faces. Hank, an ox
of a man with pock-marked cheeks, asked, “You a ghost
“He ain’t no ghost; he’d be Sam Hill himself,” mumbled
Jeremiah. His father had been a preacher.
The stranger chuckled as he pulled up a chair, “No,
I’m not exactly either. The Mexicans call me El
Coronel, when they’re not calling me El Diablo.”
He winked at Jeremiah.
His accent was distinctly New England, although he
pronounced the Spanish words perfectly. Zebulon had
spent time in a Mexican prison during his failed
attempt as an explorer, and was reasonably fluent
“Where do your loyalties lie, El Coronel?”
Francisco asked. “I am wondering in whose army you are
a colonel, Texian or Mexican?” He was the third
soldier, a frail Tejano youth who, in life, had had
the dark features of his Mexican mother and the blue
eyes of the Kentuckian who had loved her. His voice
had never deepened and his beard had yet to come in,
unlike Jeremiah and Zebulon. Not that beards mattered
a lick to ghosts. While the other two Texians had been
taken prisoner before being murdered, Francisco had
“Neither, as it were. I’m an American, from Boston, or
thereabouts. A patriot, or so they say. Yet this is
not to be my war.”
“A blame Yankee,” muttered Hank, with contempt. He
hailed from Mississippi.
“An American,” repeated El Coronel.
“At least he acknowledges the corn,” Zebulon said. He
had seen an amalgamation of sinister creatures in his
ghost form, creatures that he would never have
believed in while alive, Ghosts aplenty, a bloated
wight in a graveyard overlooking the Platte, and the
woman who was not a vampire down in Louisiana. But
this man, he was perhaps something from one of the
rings of hell, for those eyes burned. El Diablo
was not altogether that far off. Yet Zebulon believed
him when he said he was an American patriot. Quite why
Zebulon could not say.
“What happened to you gentlemen?” His voice was
friendly for man -- or demon -- with no face.
Zebulon started to answer, but Hank cut him off, his
phantom eyes glistening in rage. “We’d done
surrendered, but that lily-livered general in his
peacock uniform, Santa Anna, had his soldiers shoot
us. In the back.” He spat at the ground, or at least
made to do so, yet nothing came out of his mouth. He
spat a second time, exaggerating the noise as if to
Francisco made the sign of the cross as a tear formed
in the corner of his eye. “On
Domingo de Ramos.”
Jeremiah cursed under his breath. Zebulon reached for
a handkerchief, belatedly remembering that he had
none. It would be downright useless to a ghost in any
“Your murders will be avenged, that I promise,” El
“I will take you at your word,” Francisco said,
motioning for him to deal the cards. “Repartir.”
The four pale ghosts and the black-clad colonel, his
hat, cloak and gloves still donned, played faro
until dawn. Eventually the braying of a donkey
interrupted their game. It carried an old Mexican
woman on its back through the deserted plaza. El
Coronel rose and tipped his hat. They conversed in
rapid Spanish for several minutes. “La
the craven Texian army has retreated again. They are
halfway to Galveston by now.”
“That’s it then. We died for nothin’,” Hank said as he
faded from sight.
Francisco and Jeremiah were stunned; El Coronel
did not seem surprised in the least. Zebulon spoke
quickly, “Now lads, this here is how it is with us
ghosts. Young Hank has been through the mill, but he
done lost his purpose. I’ve always thought that we
were still here because we each have some mighty
unfinished business, be it for good or ill. Ain’t that
right, El Coronel?”
“I wouldn’t truly know, not being a ghost, but I
reckon Zebulon has the long and the short of it.”
“Then why am I still here?” Francisco asked. “I’ve
known my purpose since the second I died. To see
hell’s fire brought down on the Mexicans and de
bastardo Santa Anna.”
“That purpose may still have hope,” El Coronel
said. “General Houston and the Texians will have to
make a stand somewhere.”
“Damn right,” Jerimiah said, without an ounce of
“The Mexicans are unbeatable.” Zebulon had been an
Army officer once, although not a very good one. He’d
gotten himself blown to smithereens, along with thirty
of his own men. “Our Texians are outnumbered and
“And out of courage,” Jeremiah said, stamping his
boot, a hint of dust rising for a fraction of a second
beneath his feet.
“Too bad they don’t have a few ghosts for allies,
ghosts who could lead a heroic charge, ghosts who
could spread fear and havoc,” El Coronel said,
shuffling the cards. “Alas.”
Zebulon straightened his collar. He could almost feel
the coarse wool. “Whereabouts do you think this last
stand will take place?”
“They’ll be trapped along the San Jacinto River I
reckon, down where it empties into the bay. No place
left to run, and ghosts aplenty in the wake of the
“Allies,” Zebulon said, nodding. “Will Santa Anna be
“Perhaps.” El Coronel turned over the king of
“The cards say he will be,” Jerimiah said, his voice
shrill, pointing. “It’s that overdressed dandy of a
“I’ll castrate the thrice-damned son of a whore dog.”
Francisco waved his phantom hunting knife to and fro
before stabbing it down into the king’s eye.
The knife sliced through the card and slammed into the
old table. The handle quivered for a second, the point
sunk a half inch into the pine.
Jerimiah tumbled backward, a spindle in the back of
his chair breaking as it crashed to the earthen floor.
Zebulon sat still as an opossum, eying the knife, a
whiff of fresh dung wafting through the open door.
“One last hand,” El Coronel said. He dealt the
cards slowly, the brim of his hat pulled down.
“Have you ever played faro in New Orleans?”
Zebulon asked, not at all sure why.
“I learned the game there, as fate would have it,
yes.” El Coronel turned over the queen of
spades and held it out to Zebulon.
Those white eyes seared Zebulon’s skin as if he was
afire. He reached out tentatively, fingers trembling.
The card was firm to his touch, the backside coarse,
the front smooth. He slid it under his jacket. “It’s
Barely two furlongs outside of town, they found a
Tejano ghost hiding behind a fallen log at the edge of
a marsh, sobbing. She clutched a bundle to her bosom,
eyes wide with fear. Zebulon walked toward her, palms
out, calling to her in Spanish, attempting to calm
her. As he approached he could see that the bundle was
the ghost of a dead baby. She panicked and fled into
the swamp, the miasma so thick he could almost smell
No, not almost. Zebulon stopped. He could smell
it, even smell her lingering terror.
El Coronel spoke softly. “This you must do,
Jerimiah. You must talk to her, help her with the
“Pshaw,” Jeremiah said. “She’s nothing but a puta.”
“And yet the child is yours,” El Coronel said,
“I will help the woman,” said Francisco.
“You?” Jeremiah’s pale face almost had a red tinge to
it, his cheeks puffed out, his brow furrowed. “Even a
cheap whore deserves better than a coward.”
“A coward he is not,” El Coronel said. “From
what I hear tell, Francesco had a pair of brass
cojones that day at Agua Dolce, charging the
Mexican lines with only a bayonet.”
“He ain’t got no balls. He’s a whore himself, a
“Enough. Stand down,” Zebulon commanded.
“Will you help the woman and her baby, Francisco?”
El Coronel asked, but the Texian was already
striding into the marsh, the cattails undisturbed by
“Go boil your shirts.” Jeremiah stomped off the other
direction, fading to nothing.
“He done lost his purpose too,” Zebulon said, a
statement not a question. His eyes did stray briefly
down at his own translucent chest.
“Do you have purpose?” Those white eyes stared
Zebulon met El Coronel’s gaze, but could make
out no other facial features in the unnatural shadows
of the black felt hat. “Yes. To avenge the lads.”
“Good. Then I must take my leave.”
Zebulon felt like he was being thrown through the air
again, his body torn into a dozen pieces by that
exploding powder magazine. “But who will lead the
“You, Brigadier Pike.”
Zebulon jerked backward. “How is it that you know my
rank and surname?” He hadn’t used either in many a
in New Orleans.” El Coronel clapped Zebulon on
the shoulder, the firmness of his gloved hand
Zebulon sat on the moist ground, cross-legged, chewing
on a fresh reed, enjoying the faint tinge of miasma
from the swamp. But as he watched the black-cloaked
man trudge northward, the smell faded and the coolness
of the earth ebbed. The reed dropped soundlessly to
the ground, its gnawed end uncurling back to its
virgin state. Zebulon stood up, pretended to dust his
trousers off and headed eastward, humming an old-timey
song. Once his business in Texas was done, he might
have enough purpose left to mosey on to Louisiana.