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Story 2

C. R. Hodges


C.R. Hodges writes all manner of speculative fiction, from ghost stories to urban fantasy to science fiction. Twenty-five of his short stories have been published in markets such as Cicada and EscapePod, and he is a First-Prize winner of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. When he is not writing or playing the euphonium, he runs a product design company in Colorado: Zebulon Solutions, which is (not coincidentally) actually named after Brigadier Zebulon Pike.

Ghosts of the old West and the soul who guides them. In a dusty, long-ago place where Honor and Sacrifice extend beyond life itself. That's the stuff of Ghosts of the Texians.


Ghosts of the Texians

C.R. Hodges


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 massacre. 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, loved it.

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 hells?”

The stranger laughed as he offered a gloved hand to Jeremiah. The remaining ghosts froze between flight and laughter.

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. “I’d be 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 fire.

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 taillèur. More fairly than the woman had dealt, cards or otherwise.

“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 too?”

“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 himself.

“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 died fighting.

“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 compensate.

Francisco made the sign of the cross as a tear formed in the corner of his eye. “On Domingo de Ramos.” Palm Sunday.

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 case.

“Your murders will be avenged, that I promise,” El Coronel said.

“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 señora says that 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 conviction.

“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 outgunned.”

“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 Mexicans’ advance.”

 “Allies,” Zebulon said, nodding. “Will Santa Anna be in command?”

“Perhaps.” El Coronel turned over the king of diamonds.

“The cards say he will be,” Jerimiah said, his voice shrill, pointing. “It’s that overdressed dandy of a general.”

“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.

Twackkk. 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 time, lads.”


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 it.

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 ghost child.”

“Pshaw,” Jeremiah said. “She’s nothing but a puta.”

“And yet the child is yours,” El Coronel said, even softer.

“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 Nancy-boy.”

“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 his passage.

“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 unblinkingly.

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 charge?”

“You, Brigadier Pike.”

Zebulon jerked backward. “How is it that you know my rank and surname?” He hadn’t used either in many a year.

“From the taillèur in New Orleans.” El Coronel clapped Zebulon on the shoulder, the firmness of his gloved hand comforting. “Farewell.”

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.




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