Walking The Line
By Paul Mannering
The Sharps rifle is the finest weapon ever invented by man. The .50 calibre shot can be fired by a competent marksman at a rate of up to ten rounds per minute, with deadly accuracy. I would humbly declare, without word of sinful pride, that I am such a marksman. I walk the line between the world of the living and the Badlands of the revenant, checking the fence along the twenty miles between Fort Brannan and the Skogee encampment where the river boats unload essential frontier supplies and buy up the few strips of tanned Revenant leather available before heading back to more civilized climes.
It’s been ten years since the Great Uprising, when the deceased got back up and shattered this nation of ours. The army built the fence, shooting revenants and putting up the barbed wire and hewn fence posts from North Dakota to Texas. I been walking the line since those first days, started out as a sharpshooter for the army, earning five cents for each revenant we took down. Hell I shoulda retired a wealthy man, if it weren’t for the drinking. I saw things in those days that kept me from sleep and only whiskey could drown out the noise and the sights. I worked long days, six days a week, shooting until my trigger finger cramped up. Let me tell you, there’s things stranger’n revenants out there in the Borderlands. Things that even a Sharps rifle can’t defend against.
O’ course we had orders. Wouldn’t done what we did without orders. It was August 23rd when those orders reached us all the way from Washington DC…
I slept sober in those days, my Sharps rifle cradled in my arms like a beautiful woman when the signal came through the camp. A shrill whistle, which meant a rider was a coming. We got up from our bedrolls and waited, breathing mist into the chilled, pre-dawn air. The horse was about done in, sweating and blowing, her eyes rolling white and shocked. Reckon it’d be a blessing to put her down, and the fresh meat would be a welcome change from the dried tack and beans we’d been eating for the last month.
Her rider weren’t in much more of a fit state, having the look of a man who’d ridden himself near to death. We helped him down and got water in him and then got him in front of Colonel Bale, the man in charge of fence building operations along this stretch. I stood near enough to the Colonel’s tent to hear the conversation.
“What can I do for you son?” the colonel said.
“Sir,” the courier said, “I bring word from Washington. Executive orders, sir.”
I heard the sounds of a courier opening his satchel and the rustle of papers. There was a pause while I assumed the colonel read the letter.
“Thank you,” the colonel said. “See to it you get fed, watered and rested.”
“Thank you, sir,” the courier answered, “but I can’t stop. I have a long way to go and more bulletins to deliver today. If I could trouble you for a fresh horse, sir?”
“Wilkes!” the colonel roared.
I jumped to attention and double timed it into the tent.
“Yessir?” I asked, snapping to attention.
“Organize this man a good riding horse.”
“Yessir.” I gave a quick salute before turning about and marching out of the tent, the rider trailing after me.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked as we boosted him into the saddle.
“Revenants have broken through the lines,” he said. “There’s retreats and mass casualties from the Dakota’s to Kansas. The Texas Rangers are holding their own, but the word is that no one crosses this line.” The rider whipped his horse and galloped off into the morning mist.
I never saw him again.
Bale strode out of his tent, suited up in his uniform and bellowing orders for us to fall in. The sergeants scrambled and barked like hunting dogs. We formed up and stood in silence, waiting for the word. The Colonel walked along our ranks, eighty-five of us, now shy of our full company by fifteen men.
“Pedites,” he called us in his usual way. “We have orders from Rome!”
I considered the colonel to be an educated man, although he had a strange way of referring to us as soldiers. He weren’t crazy or nothing, he just had a manner about him that was eccentric.
“Effective immediately,” he continued, “any creature, living or dead that attempts to cross our line is to be put down. Man, woman, child or beast. Construction of the border fence is to be continued as quickly as possible, with no loss of quality and security in the construction! All able bodied soldiers of the republic are to act without mercy, or hesitation in the preservation of the security of the designated safe zones to the east. We are the last line of defense against a terrible foe. Go about your duties now and may God bless us one and all.”
We got to work, the Negroes digging the post holes, and running the spools of barbed wire. Not that cattle fencing wire you see back east neither. These was more like a twisted strip of metal, cut into diamond shaped blades and sharp enough to cut through leather and slice off a limb. The workers wore gauntlets of heavy hide with steel riveted plates on the palms and fingers. Still there were more than one missing a finger, or with a ragged scar on the chest, throat and face from where a tightly wound strand snapped up and laid their flesh open to the bone.
Me and the other men were lookouts, but not guards. Even the Negroes were on a wage now, so we weren’t charged with watching over them. Down in Texas, they used convicts to build their fences, and they were guarded. We were there to shoot dead folks that’d come crawling out of the brush. Further north we’d tried burning a break through the brush and woods. Give us some clear land to range in on and see the revenants coming. We learned pretty quick that a big fire brought them down on us, the light shining like a beacon and calling the dead home. We mostly kept an eye to the south and the west as the eastern states had been declared safe zones. Free of infestation and outbreak. Revenants might still get through the blue line of soldiers and come up behind us, but it weren’t common.
The diggers and the fencers worked from dawn till dusk. Us shooters worked day and night and this week I was on the day shift. A fellow by the name of Shylock would be sleeping in my bedroll through the morning, rising in the late afternoon to eat and then back on the night watch. We did a week’s turnabout, days then nights. The nights were the worst. Every sound and crack of brush seemed amplified, like a horde of the stinking dead coming lumbering towards us. All it took was one man to shout, or fire at a shadow, and the whole camp would erupt. If it were a mistake, we’d give him a good rousting, which meant throwing a bucket of nightsoil over the poor fellow and heckling him for a few days. Officially you’d never get punished for a false alarm. Colonel Bale reckoned it was better that we alert the camp to a hunting raccoon than stay quiet and doom our comrades for fear of his wrath.
We talked amongst ourselves about the new orders; prior we had always quarantined any live folks fleeing the dead. They were escorted to Fort Brannan under armed guard, where they stayed in the stockade for a week. Way I heard it, if any of their party showed sign of infection during the quarantine, they’d all be shot. The flood of refugees had slowed somewhat. We still got the occasional homesteader, dour German and Irish stock. Men with flocks of kids and wives with faces like carved stone. Most of ‘em were fired up and demanding we go back with them and clear the land they’d just fled. More’n once we just saw the kids, or the wife and a few young uns, widows and orphans whose husbands and elder sons had stayed behind to buy some time for the others to flee.
“It’s gotta be a mistake,” Cole, a young man from Kansas, insisted. “They can’t want us to shoot anyone who’s not infected. We gots the quarantine for that.”
“Orders is that we shoot anyone and anything that approaches the line from the west,” said Sergeant Muldoon. “Once the fence is up, they’ll have places like Fort Brannan where folks can pass through and get checked.” Muldoon was a grey haired, grizzled and dour old bastard with Mexican blood in his veins and Irish fire in his heart. Together they mixed to make a fellow quick to anger and as hard to put down as a charging bull once his fuse was lit.
But he knew soldiering and I’d followed him through the chaos of the panic that came with the Uprising and the slow and determined drawing of the line upon which we now stood.
“Anyone of you bastards don’t shoot the first face you see coming at you, I’ll put you down myself,” Muldoon growled. He’d do it too. I once saw him beat a corporal unconscious for cowardice. “Now bow your goddamn heads and pray for the Lord’s mercy.”
We obeyed, sweeping off our hats and fixing our eyes on our boots. Muldoon recited the Lord’s Prayer, we all muttered amen and moved out along the line. The way that worked best was for us to take a position where we could see the next man in line, but not so close that we were covering the same ground. No one talked, or sat, or looked bored. We kept our eyes on the brush and few surviving trees that hadn’t fallen to the fence builder’s axes.
The first of the dead showed up after two hours. I’d just buttoned my fly after taking a leak when the shot rang out two men to the south. I had my rifle off my shoulder and ready, looking towards the shot, but keeping a weather eye on my own patch too. It was a woman, long dead, her naked breasts swollen with rotting juices and the skin peeling in that way old wallpaper will yellow and hang off a wall. She wandered into Cole’s arc and he fired again, this shot punched through her neck and her head toppled over to hang down her back. The body staggered and then fell. We waited for the rest of them to show up. Revenants travel in groups. Muldoon reckons the stink of one attracts the others and they follow each other until they rot so bad they can’t walk.
The bushes shivered with the touch of cold flesh, I readied my rifle. A head came into view when the dead sap got his self caught up on a low hanging branch. The twigs tangling in his hair and he got to gnashing his teeth and twisting. I shot once. I only ever had to shoot once. The rev’s head popped like a melon and he dropped out of sight.
“Slow and steady boys!” Muldoon shouted. He marched down the line behind us, shouting orders and berating anyone who fired more than twice. Some of the less experienced started to panic when more than one dead man was in sight. The sergeant came down hard on them, yelling, “Breathe! Aim! Squeeze that trigger! You’re doin’ the Lord’s work now! So by God you’ll aim straight and give thanks for every dirty rev you put down!”
It worked, sure as hell the shaking stopped and the men fired round after round. We laid the things to rest, every crawling corpse and shambling moaner. I counted twelve; eight men, two women and a couple of kids. One of the little ones was blind, his eyes had been chewed or clawed out by something. It didn’t matter none. We put them down. The crackle of fire petered out down the line. We stared through the gun smoke with watering eyes until one of the younger fencers came with a coffee pot and a string of tin cups ringing like a dinner bell.
The murmured prayers of the fence builders sounded like a burbling stream. Any attack on the line got the workers pepped up and set them to driving posts and laying wire like it was a burning dynamite fuse. Muldoon strode up and down behind us, reminding us to reload, and keep a steady hand. Towards sunset, with the sun in our faces, it got hard to see. I’d just moved down another hundred yards, staying ahead of the fence making its way south when the brush twenty yards in front of me started shaking. I raised the Sharps to my shoulder and took a slow breath. It was a child, blood stained and stumbling. I dropped my aim an inch and fired. The shot hit the kid in the chest. I worked the lever action and fired again. This shot took him in the head. It was only then I realised the little one had been screaming.
“Sergeant!” I yelled, without taking my eyes of the corpse.
Muldoon came bustling up behind me. “What in Hell you yelling about Wilkes?”
“I shot a kid.”
“You put down a rev. Since when is that worthy of my personal attention?”
“No sir, the kid was alive.”
Muldoon scowled and raised the eyeglass he sometimes used to catch anyone down the line not paying attention. “He’s dead now.”
“Yes sergeant. But he was a live kid.”
“Exactly what part of Colonel Bane’s orders did you not understand Wilkes? If anything comes out of the west, you shoot that sonnovabitch.”
“I know sergeant, but it was a kid.”
Muldoon grabbed me by the collar and jerked me to my feet. “You going queer on me Wilkes?” He scowled into my face.
“No sergeant.” I swallowed hard, not looking at Muldoon until he shook me loose and stalked off. I sighed and went back to watching the brush. I had an uncomfortable feeling I was being watched. The trees whispered in the breeze and when the sun slipped below the horizon I moved from foot to foot, shaking the stiffness from my legs.
“What’s the report?” Shylock said.
“Just a pack this morning, and … a single rev a while back.”
“Get some chow,” Shylock said.
I nodded and started walking back towards camp. I couldn’t shake that watched feeling. Glancing back I made sure I was out of sight of Shylock, Carter was somewhere up ahead, squatting in the grass, watching the line, or already back at camp tucking into the evening’s chow. I heard a twig snap out there in the trees and it stopped me cold. The sentries were meant to be closer at night, and no fires. We need to keep our eyes attuned to the darkness. I watched, looking for movement, looking for a sign that would be enough to raise the alarm.
The voice came as a whisper, so faint I wondered if I’d imagined it. With the rifle ready to go I stepped closer to the trees, looking deep into the growing darkness and trying to see between shadows and the moving branches. Muldoon would have me whipped if he found out I’d left the line and walked into the borderlands.
That voice again, soft like a woman in love, or a child.
“Who goes there?” I asked.
I turned slowly, reading the shadows. A pale ghost flitted from one trunk to the next. I lunged forward, finger already tightening on the trigger, but the opportunity was gone. I crouched behind the tree and peered out, my eyes growing wide and seeing more in the gloom. The ghost moved again, so pale it almost glowed in the dark. I was ready for it this time and gave chase. We ran through the trees and the deadwood, the ghost looking back at me and ducking under low branches. I could see it was a girl in a dress and running like the devil himself was on her tail. In a sense, I suppose I was. It took a few hundred yards to catch up with the girl and I was plumb beat when we came out of the trees into the remains of a camp. I stopped short, breathing hard and looking for revs. The signs of them being through here were everywhere, the chewed meat, the shredded canvas on the covered wagon, the few belongings strewn about. The girl stood near the wagon, her chest heaving as she watched me.
“Mister …” she said again, her whisper carrying in the still night air.
“What the hell are you doing out here girl?” I asked. But I knew what she was doing. She was running away from certain death, or worse. Looked like her family hadn’t run fast enough or soon enough.
“Momma’s sick,” the girl said, and gestured towards the busted up wagon.
“She bit?” I asked. The child didn’t answer. I took a few careful steps towards the cart, it smelled bad. Like puke and sour shit. I used the muzzle of the rifle to pull back a hanging flap of cloth. “Ma’am?”
A low coughing rattled a blanket in the back of the wagon.
“Ma’am,” I repeated. “You bit?”
“Lou-Ann?” she asked. The voice that came from under the blanket was a husky rasp. The voice of someone bit, and on the end of the fever that comes with the infection. The blanket slid aside as a woman pushed herself up on one elbow. “Lou-Ann?”
“No ma’am, but she’s safe. She’s out here.” I gave a quick glance to where the child still stood, silent and watchful.
“Don … don’t hurt my little girl.” The woman’s eyes were bright with fever. Her hair plastered to her head like she’s been out in a rainstorm.
“I ain’t hurting no one,” I said, backing up a step as she twisted on to her hands and knees and crawled to the back of the wagon. Her skin glowed with fever and dried flecks of dried spit blistered on her lips. “You bit?”
“No. Scarlet fever. My husband … did you see him?”
“Momma?” Lou-Ann asked. She had climbed up on the wagon wheel and peered in at the woman inside.
“Momma’s here, baby girl,” her mother said. She tried to smile, but the shine on her face gave her the devil’s look. “Lou-Ann, where’s the other children? Where’s your brothers and sisters?”
“They ran away when the bad men came Momma,” Lou-Ann said. “Poppa told us to run and hide, we did, we run all over the place.”
“Where did they go? Baby where did they go?” The woman struggled to pull herself out of the tangled nest of blankets. “Where did Poppa go, Lou-Ann?”
Lou-Ann started to cry. I took another glance around the campsite. Torn clothes and chewed lumps of glistening flesh.
“Ma’am,” I said. “I think your husband died defending your campsite.”
The woman crumpled as she absorbed the news.
I felt bad like I had socked her one in the belly. “How many kids you got out here?”
“Four in all,” she said. “Billy, Thomas, Lou-Ann and Sarah. Oh Good Lord, you don’t think they …?”
“I don’t see no sign of it ma’am.”
“Oh thank God. Mister? Please, find my children.”
“Ma’am, there’s miles of brush-land and forest out here. Your little ones could be anywhere.”
“Nu-uh,” Lou-Ann said brightly. “We did what we Poppa told us. Run for a count of one hundred and then climb a tree. Count to another hundred and then if you don’t hear nothing, you come creeping back.”
“Is that what you did?” I regarded the child with a new respect.
“So where’s the others?”
“Maybe they don’t count so good? Or maybe they got lost? Or maybe the bad men is still out there?”
We all took a look around at that. The darkness outside of this small clearing was absolute. There could be anything crawling, or shuffling its way towards us right now.
“I’ll go look for them,” I said. “Lou-Ann can you show me where they went?”
The girl nodded and we headed out into the darkness.
The woods at night is scary as hell. It’s dark and the wind sounds like the scrape of revenant against trees. Things creak and moan, owls sometimes call and panic rests its cold hand on your shoulder in a way that is as far from comfort as you can get. The girl seemed to know where she was going; she ran and I jogged along behind. Ducking and weaving around trees and snagging branches, the girl fairly skipped through the trees. I felt like a lumbering ox trailing in her wake.
She stopped all of a sudden and pointed to a mid-sized pine.
“They up there?” I asked, and she nodded.
“Billy?” I whispered. “Sarah? Uhh …. Tom?” There was no reply, only the wind whispering mournfully deep in those pines. “You sure this is the tree they climbed? How come you got back and they didn’t?”
“They’s up there mister,” she said. “You just need to climb up and find them. Tell them to come home.”
The tree was easy enough to climb, I guess a rev couldn’t do it though; they’re focused on sniffing out fresh meat more’n climbing trees. I slung my rifle over my shoulder and jumped for the first limb. Pulling myself up I picked my way through the rough branches and mats of brown needles that had gathered in the tangles of twigs I climbed twenty feet until my hands were sticky with sap and all I could smell was the sharp scent of crushed pine needles.
“Billy? Tom? Sarah?” I called as loud as I dared.
“Mister …” Lou-Ann whispered beside me.
I nearly leapt out of the tree in fright. She pointed and then I saw them. They looked like a jumbled pile of small branches in the darkness. Pine needles had drifted over them and their clothes had rotted away to rags, exposing the four small skeletons huddled together in the high platform of the tree.
“Jesus Christ …” I whispered. My heart nearly stopped and I couldn’t breathe.
Lou-Ann vanished like a puff of smoke in a breeze.
I gathered the bones and put them in my army coat, wrapping them up, they way you’d wrap a child against the chill. Getting the bundle down from the tree weren’t no easy task but I managed it. On the ground, sweating in spite of a deep chill, I gathered up the package and made my way back to the clearing. The wagon was as old as the bones, the grass’d growed up over everything, even the canvas on the wagon had gone, leaving only the bones of the wood frame and the iron stays. I found the bones of Lou-Ann’s momma under a rotting blanket. There was as rusting shovel in the scattered remains of their supplies. I dug a hole, laid all five of them in it and covered them up. I didn’t have no words, so I said the Lord’s Prayer and lashed a cross together with deadfall and bark strips.
The sun was rising as I walked back to the line. I shoulda been dead tired, but every time I blinked I saw Lou-Ann and her momma. Waiting. Waiting for Lord knows how long for someone to come and bring the children home.
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Paul Mannering is an award winning writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. Paul has published dozens of short stories and radio plays in a range of genres across many different international markets. He has edited a collection of horror fiction, published his own collection and his first novel.
In 2007 he co-founded BrokenSea Audio Productions, which podcasts free audio drama each week to an audience of millions. Paul lives with his wife Damaris and their three cats, one of which is a seal-point Siamese with Aspergers.
You can find him on the web at: www.brokensea.com