Bewildering Stories

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You Play, You Pay

by Gerald E. Sheagren

Newt Cummings strolled along the Pennsylvania Monument for the third time that day, his eyes eagerly scanning the hundreds of names inscribed on its bronze plaques. He found his own, tracing each letter with a forefinger, his thoughts returning to those three fateful, horrific, sweltering days in July of 1863. It was getting dark, and, by this time, most of the tourists had retired to their places of lodging or were crowding the restaurants and souvenir shops in town. Looking out over the battlefield that sprawled around him, he could see a few diehards still prowling amongst the cannons and monuments.

He was one lucky ghost, one lucky ghost indeed. Whereas his closest spirit friends had drawn duty at lesser, more out-of-the-way battlefields, old Newton Cummings had received the juiciest assignment of them all; to haunt the national military park at Gettysburg. Little and Big Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Triangular Field and the Valley of Death were all at his disposal; his own little playgrounds where he could do pretty much as he pleased. Sure there were rules of ghostly conduct, but rules, every so often, were meant to be broken. And once the tourist season wound down and the weather became cold and snowy, he could seek refuge at any number of historical sites, fraternity houses or campus buildings in town. Oh, yes, indeed; it couldn’t get much better than this!

Newt began to whistle a medley of Bob Seger tunes, swaying his body to the rhythm and snapping his fingers. When he grew tired of that, he switched to the lyrics of a war song that he had been fond of in the old days.

I want to be a soldier, and go to Dixie’s Land,
A knapsack on my shoulder, and a gun in my hand;
Then I will shoot Jeff Davis and Beauregard I will hang,
And make all Rebels tremble throughout our glorious land.

“There weren’t a Yankee born who could make me tremble. Not by a devil’s mile.”

Without turning around, Newt knew exactly who had spoken. “Well, Job Prescott, you ol’ bag-of-bones. How you farin’ on this fine summer’s evening?”

“Surprisingly well, considerin’ I hafta share this battlefield with the likes of you.”

“Yer ghostly powers must be a might better than usual. I didn’t hear ya creepin’ up on me.”

“How could’ja, singin’ that foolish Yankee ditty of yours? An’ I weren’t creepin’.”

Sighing, Newt turned to find Job Prescott studying him from no more than a few feet away, his eyes mere slits in a face as creased and brown as old saddle leather. A scruffy beard, hanging to midway down his chest, was all greasy looking and clotted with dried-up bits of tobacco juice. His butternut tunic and sky-blue trousers were in a terrible state of disrepair, a hodgepodge of flannel, wool and gingham patches, and his shoes were so frightfully worn that he might as well have gone barefoot. A huge, nasty-looking Bowie Knife hung in a sheath at his side. The fabric of his tunic was stained with dried blood where a musket ball had struck him, piercing his heart. Newt had to admit; what Job lacked in personal appearance, he more than made up for with a look of pure ferociousness.

“Gawd aw’mighty, Job! You are a sorry sight to behold. Shucks, if you think about it, you shouldn’t be hauntin’ this hallowed ground in the first place. This is Pennsylvanny, Yankee territory.”

“In case you’ve forgotten; I died right here at Getts’burg.”

“So did I.”

“Oh, sure, from dysentery.” Job cackled a laugh. “What an inglorious end.” He pointed a gnarled finger in the direction of the High Water Mark. “Me, I died right o’er there, kilt in Pickett’s Charge. Dang near made it to the stone wall wit Gen’ral Armistead. So don’t you go tellin’ me I don’t belong here. Don’t you dare!”

Ho-humming the rebuke, Newt walked off a few paces, whistling a Bruce Springsteen number.

“Yes, sireeee! This battlefield’s as much mine as it is yours.” Job cocked an ear, his anger subsiding, a look of puzzlement spreading across his gaunt face. “That’s a might catchy tune. What is it?”

“‘Born in the U.S.A.’, by Bruce Springsteen.”

“Bruce who?”

“Springsteen. During the winter months, I sometimes hole up at Stevens Hall in town. The college kids, there, listen to a lot of what they call ‘rock and roll’. I know a good many of the tunes by heart.”

“Stevens Hall, huh? Does the Blue Boy still spook the place?”

“Whenever he gets the ghostly urge.” Newt’s eyes wandered over the nearly deserted battlefield. “Talkin’ about spookin’; I think it’s about time that I tried my hand at it. It’s been a long time.”

“Don’t you go an’ do somethin’ stupid.”

“What’s ‘stupid’ about it? That’s what ghosts are supposed to do, isn’t it?” Newt watched an elderly couple from afar, poking around the monuments near the High Water Mark. “I think that I’ve found myself some likely candidates. I’ll jus’ give ‘em a little chill, is all.” Still whistling, he headed off in their direction, his body slowly swirling off into a bluish-gray vapor.

The elderly couple, who were caught up in their fascination with the battlefield, were reading each and every word on each and every monument, seemingly unaware that it was nearly dark.

“Emma, stand over by that cannon and I’ll take your picture.”

“Oh please, Henry. Not another cannon.”

“Humor me. At our age, I seriously doubt we’ll ever get back here.”

“Oh, all right. Be sure to catch those fields in the background. Pickett’s Charge came from that direction.”

”My intentions exactly.”

As the old lady primped herself for the picture, Newt suddenly appeared at her side, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She glanced at him, blinked, and returned her attention to the camera, her brain not registering what she had seen.

”Don’t worry, Emma; ghosts don’t appear in pictures. Say ‘cheese.’”

Emma’s head snapped back in his direction, her eyes growing as big as saucers. With that, she groaned. Clutching at her chest and taking a few tottering steps, she collapsed in a heap at her husband’s feet.

* * *

Newt sat hunched in a chair, his nervous eyes taking in every minute detail of the room in which he had spent the last forty-five minutes. A mist, the color of pea-soup, was swirling all around him, like a fog bank stirred by a stiff breeze. It was cold, bone-chillingly so. Ulysses S. Grant, clad in his usual rumpled uniform without the benefit of insignia, was speaking from a podium on an elevated platform. The room had a stench to it; something like rotting vegetables in an old root cellar.

A six-spirit tribunal sat behind a long table to Newt’s immediate left. Resting before each of them was a leather-bound book entitled “Rules and Regulations of Ghostly Conduct.” There were generals Irvin McDowell and “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Ambrose E. Burnside, with his bald head and bushy side-whiskers, and the vainglorious George Armstrong Custer with his curly locks. The little bantam rooster, George B. McClellan, and the stern-faced George Gordon Meade. Dang bunch of uppity fools, thought Newt. If anything, he should be sitting in judgment of their follies and there were plenty of them. Oh, and not to forget good old U.S. Grant. How many ill fated strategies had he planned while tippling from a hideaway flask?

Grant arched his neck, squinting. “Private Cummings! Are you paying attention to these proceedings?”

”Uh... yes, sir, General.”

“Are you, sir?” Grant waved high the book of rules and regulations. “I presume that you’ve read this fifty-page endeavor from cover-to cover.”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Then why, may I ask, have you forgotten a good portion of it?”

“It was a foolish thing that I did, sir. And I’m truly sorry for it. Believe me; it will never - ever – happen again.”

“Indeed it won’t, Private Cummings. Please stand and hear your sentence.”

Newt stood on wobbly legs, his eyes shooting daggers at the six men who had decided his fate; whatever it might be.

“Newton James Cummings, you have been found guilty in the near death of one, Emma C. Burdock, and it is the decision of this tribunal that you...”

* * *

Newt peered out of the small, fly-specked window at the distant Green Mountains, yawning, and idled his way along the shelves of dust-covered books. Ho-hum. Another long, meaningless day in the backwaters of Vermont. Vermont was beautiful enough and all, but this little Civil War library was about as boring as boring could get. No one ever paid a visit to take out a book and the donation box near the front door hardly held enough change to buy a plug of tobacco.

Peeking around the end bookshelf, Newt spotted Helen Tibbits ensconced behind her roll-top desk in the far corner of the room. Shriveled and wrinkled, her skin as thin and yellowed as ancient parchment, Helen looked to be older than the oldest book in the library. As he watched, her lips were moving as though she was carrying on a conversation with her very best invisible friend. Then, releasing a long, weary sigh, the old bat removed her spectacles and stuck a third pencil into her snowy-white bun.

Smiling wickedly, Newt placed his hands around his mouth and unleashed a bone-chilling howl that would have raised the short hairs of the most fearless of people. Indeed, it was, by far, the very best he had ever conjured up. Absolutely nerve-jolting!

Helen’s head snapped in his direction, dismissing the ghostly extravaganza with a wave of her bony, liver-spotted hand. “Hush up, you nasty thing, or I’ll call in a priest and have you exorcised! Shooo! Go away!”

Groaning, Newt gave another yawn and trudged off toward a small storage room at the rear of the library. As he passed a thick biography of Ulysses S. Grant, he snatched it from the shelf, giving it a resounding raspberry, and flung it into a nearby trash receptacle.

Copyright © 2003 by Gerald Sheagren