A Round Table
With apologies to Ambrose Bierce, this is my first attempt at the ghost story…
A Round Table
The road to Lexington through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley covers many miles. At one point, before the War, the landscape would have presented Langston with glorious vistas in every direction as he followed the wooded trail westward. As it was, he regarded the withered and dead land on either side of the road with sorrow at the loss of what once was so alive.
He detected little evidence of human habitation along the way, aside from a rotting shack or some detritus left by earlier travelers– a broken wagon wheel, planks of planed wood on the side of the road, the bones of horses and other livestock.
The absence of life, human or animal, made Langston grateful for the sound of his horse’s footfalls in the rutted road. They broke a silence that became more oppressive and unsettling with every mile he covered.
He was a tall man of solid if not stout build, confident in his own abilities, but was not as confident on a country trail as he was on the city street.
According to the map he studied before departing for the Valley, he was still miles away from any village or town when his horse got a foot stuck in a deep rut and twisted her leg.
A quick inspection revealed that the leg was uninjured but the shoe would have to be replaced and he didn’t have any idea how far he’d have to walk to find a farrier so he was delighted when a gentle wind carried sounds of civilization to him. Voices. Activity. The tolling of a bell.
He walked his horse down the road in the direction of the sounds and soon met three young men.
Though Langston took them to be unrelated to one another, the men carried many of the same characteristics. Each of them had dark, intelligent eyes set beneath a pair of bushy black eyebrows, wind or sun-reddened complexions, and the kind of lanky, wiry physiques developed over long hours in the fields or in the saddle. Each man wore rough, homespun shirts and breeches. Two of the three were barefoot.
They were lazing around a fence rail just off the road.
“Having some trouble with your horse, sir?” asked one of the men, the biggest of the three.
“I am,” replied Langston, “and I’ll be much obliged to you if you would point the way to a farrier.”
The large man introduced himself as Elihu, his barefoot companions as Caleb and Joshua, and offered to provide an escort into town.
“What is the name of this town?” asked Langston. “I saw no town on the map.”
“Langston. Will Langston.”
“The name of the town is Ambrose, Mr Langston, and I’m not surprised to hear it does not appear on your map. It’s no more than a hamlet on the road to someplace else.”
As it turned out, ambrose was in easy walking distance from the place where Langston encountered Elihu and his friends. The hamlet, as Elihu had called it, amounted to a dozen or so small houses and a store. A building with a low tower– a church most likely– could be seen in set back in the woods.
Ambrose was also home to a tavern called The Forlorn Hope.
“There’s a cheerful name for an ordinary,” said Langston.
“In the British army the first troops to assault a defended position was called the forlorn hope,” explained Elihu. “Forlorn because their chances of survival weren’t very good.”
“I’ve read of such things,” said Langston. “Fortunately, my own meager war experience was not so harrowing.”
One half hour later Langston was in the deserted town of Ambrose, hitching his horse to a post outside of the tavern.
It had been an eventful thirty minutes.
An offhand remark made by the city-bred traveler left Joshua feeling insulted. Insult turned to argument which in turn became confrontation and despite Elihu’s best efforts at mediation his companion demanded satisfaction.
Langston, who was as sensitive to the dictates of honor as any man of his time, accepted the challenge.
“I don’t see the point of waiting,” said Langston. “Where is the duel to take place?”
“There is a place not far from here that’s long been a field of honor,” said Caleb. He seemed to be the youngest of the three townsmen.
“And we’ll be venturing out there before too long,” added Elihu. “But first, as is our tradition in these parts, we drink. Together.”
Langston bit back the bluster that was about to fall from his lips and sighed instead.
The foursome then retired to the Forlorn Hope.
The tavern was a simple clapboard construction, rustic in its appointments, featuring several long common tables and two smaller round ones for private parties.
Both of the smaller tables were unoccupied.
It was not a cold night but a strong fire blazed in the fireplace.
Langston had seen nobody out and about in Ambrose but there were plenty of folks inside the Forlorn Hope.
Those assembled in the tavern appeared to Langston to be more aged than he expected to find. All wore the apparel of working men and women.
Every one of the tavern’s guests looked up to watch the stranger as Elihu led his party to a round table set next near the back of the tavern. Conversations ceased as they passed by.
Langston avoided eye contact as he walked. He felt more curiosity than hostility coming from the tavern’s denizens but he found their attention unnerving.
The table Elihu selected was sturdy and scarred. Langston took a seat that afforded him both a wall at his back and a clear view of the entire room.
There were shelves built into most of the walls on which the proprietor stored both his supplies and the tools of his trade.
By the time the party had been served tankards of bitter ale the other customers had resumed their conversations though many an eye and ear remained open to the goings on at the round table.
“Peculiar tradition you have here,” said Langston. “Damned strange.”
He reached for his tankard and ignored his erstwhile companions as they bristled.
“Whoever heard of such a thing?” he continued, “sitting down for a sociable drink with a man you intend to bleed before heading out to the field. Damned peculiar.”
Langston took a healthy swig from his tankard and set it down.
Elihu sat up straight in his chair.
“I’ll thank you to mind your tongue while you’re among us,” he growled.
Langston raised his tankard in silent apology.
“It’s not so strange, Mr. Langston,” said Caleb. He was seated to the right of Elihu.
“No, it’s not,” agreed Elihu. “There’s many a mother who hasn’t had to bury her son because of this ‘peculiar’ tradition. Two decent men at odds with one another sit at the same table, enjoy some of Mr. Branmer’s ale, and talk.”
“Oftentimes,” continued Caleb, “after a period of civil conversation two decent men agree that the quarrel that led to the challenge is petty and not worthy of bloodshed.”
Langston considered this in silence and then nodded his head.
“I will grant, sirs, there is wisdom behind this tradition of yours. I stand corrected on the point.”
He polished off his ale and wiped his mouth with on his sleeve.
“Can’t use just any old table either,” said Caleb.
“It must be this very table,” agreed Elihu. “In this tavern. The Forlorn Hope.”
Langston took another look at the table and noticed that what he took for lines and grooves of age were actually initials and names, many with dates beside them.
Pembroke, 1794. JJ, 1811. Warren Petry. Donnington, 1767. KLG, 1861.
And many others.
Caleb stood and, in one motion, drew a small knife from his belt and deposited it in front of Langston’s place at the table. The tip of the blade sunk into the soft wood.
Langston forced himself to remain still. He raised an eyebrow at Caleb as the young townsman resumed his seat.
“I thought you might care to sign our ledger,” drawled Caleb.
Langston looked to Elihu for a reaction and was disappointed so he put on a wry smile and pulled the knife out of the tabletop.
“Is this a part of your tradition as well?”
“If you so choose, Mr. Langston,” replied Elihu.
Langston found an unmarked piece of the table and began to carve.
Wm Langston, 1867.
When he was finished he handed the knife back to Caleb.
“In light of my acceptance of your traditions, gentlemen, I must know why the one man who regards himself as insulted by me has not uttered even a single syllable ere we set this table?”
That man, Joshua, sat stock still in his chair. He was the most unkempt of the three, with a shock of dark hair and a jagged scar on his right cheek. Only his fiery black eyes moved as he regarded Langston.
“There’s no need for words. Sir,” he said. “Tradition says that I must come here to the Forlorn Hope with you, sit down at this table, and talk. We are here. We have sat. We have talked.”
He put his rough hands on the table and stood half out of his chair.
“You’ve insulted me with your city sneer and your superior bearing. You’ve been churlish in your speech and boorish in your manner. By insulting my lineage you’ve insulted all of us and I will see the color of your blood for it.”
He sat back down and stared into the fireplace.
Elihu placed a calming hand on his shoulder but he shrugged it off with a grunt.
Langston fought to keep the smirk off of his face.
“So this is how you observe your own grand tradition? You, I, and every man at this table knows there’s nothing I can say to prevent violence.”
“But much you can say to hasten it along,” growled Joshua.
Langston laughed out loud.
“If that is the case, I no longer feel bound to be a part of this foolishness.”
He snatched his hat from off the table and rose out of his chair.
“You will not reach the door alive,” said Caleb.
Langston froze, disoriented by the sudden quiet surrounding him.
All conversation inside the Hope stopped. The crackle of the fire and his own breathing were the only sounds to be heard.
He glanced around the tavern. Each and every eye was trained on him. There was coldness in those eyes and menace in their silence.
It disturbed him to the point that he was almost thankful to hear the scraping of chairs from around the table.
The three men townsmen stood as one.
“We are finished here,” said Elihu. “If you’ll lead us out, Mr. Langston?”
Langston recovered and started walking to the door.
A burly red-bearded man in a long brown apron held the door open for them.
“Mr. Langston,” said Elihu. “This is Jakob Branmer. He owns The Forlorn Hope.”
Langston acknowledged the man with a nod and stepped out of the tavern. He turned around just in time to see Branmer hand Caleb a long wooden box.
“What the devil is that?” barked Langston.
“All in good time, Mr. Langston,” replied Caleb.
The heavy tavern door swung shut behind them.
Langston looked from Elihu to Caleb and finally to Joshua.
“Just the four of us then?”
“That’s right, Mr. Langston,” said Elihu. “We are enough. Please wait here with my friends while I retrieve our cart.”
The big man made his way into the darkness and disappeared from view.
Langston’s horse whinnied and nuzzled him. He fed her some sugarcubes from his coat pocket.
A light fog covered the woods and the road around the tavern and dark cloud cover obscured the gibbous moon.
No crickets sang. Nothing rustled in the underbrush.
No conversation or any of the usual sounds of habitation bled through the shuttered windows of the Forlorn Hope.
“Damned peculiar,” muttered Langston.
When Elihu arrived with his cart and team Caleb and Joshua clambered up into the bed without a word.
“You’ll be more comfortable up here with me, Mr. Langston,” said Elihu. He offered a hand to help him up onto the seat.
Once Langston was settled Elihu took up the reins and started off at a good gait.
The woods became more dense as they moved down the road.
“Are you frightened, Mr. Langston?” asked Elihu.
“Should I be?”
“You’re about to fight for your life. Concern for your well being would not be unheard of nor unexpected.”
“I told you,” replied Langston. “I was a soldier. I stood in line and received volleys of musketry and repelled bayonet charges. I survived.”
“You were in the War then?”
“Yes. I was. A terrible thing. Terrible. There is no glory in it.”
They rode in silence after that.
The clouds blew away over the next quarter hour. The landscape was bathed in pale blue moonlight.
Langston could just make out a wooden rail fence running along the road as they came out of the woods.
Elihu drove the cart to an opening in the fence and entered the property.
“What is this place?” asked Langston.
He could see a grand house in the distance. Two stories with a grand front porch. White columns supporting a veranda. The soft glow of a candle in every window.
Lush trees lined the walk to the house.
“Who lives in this splendid house?”
“No one of consequence,” said Elihu.
He drew the cart off the path and turned to the left.
On the other side of the line of trees was a bowling green. It extended out at least eighty yards and was ringed in on all sides by more trees.
Caleb and Joshua climbed out of the cart and walked a few yards into the pristine green field. Caleb was still carrying the wooden box.
“Who is to be my second?” demanded Langston as he climbed down from the seat.
“That duty belongs to Caleb,” said Elihu.
Langston made no reply. He hit the ground with a grunt and stepped onto the field.
Elihu hitched the team to a tree and went to join the others.
They stood in silence for several long moments and then Caleb set the wooden box on the ground. He opened it and then stepped back.
The box contained a pair of cavalry sabres.
The blades glowed rather than shone in the moonlight.
Langston bent to examine the weapons.
The hand guards were simple and sturdy, crafted for protection over appearance, and showed the nicks and dents of prior use. He shuddered as he looked the long, curved blades over. He remembered too well the kind of wounds those swords inflicted on a man. They were not designed for a simple, brutal thrust home. These were slashing weapons, made to slice flesh and rend muscle.
Elihu stepped forward, selected a sword, and handed it to Joshua.
Caleb knelt and removed the second sword and offered it to Langston.
It was as heavy as Langston thought it would be. The blade was worn but did retain a measure of lustre and was sharp enough to draw blood when he tested his edge against his thumb.
“I mean no offense, Caleb,” began Langston, “but how do I know I can trust you?”
“This is a matter of honor, Mr. Langston. I give you my solemn promise to stand by you on this field. Joshua is my friend of old but if he fouls you or in any way violates the conditions of the duel I will strike him down as I would an enemy.”
“Though it would pain you to do so,” said Langston.
“That it would. But you have my word. I am your man until this matter is concluded.”
Langston tested the heft of the sabre. “Thank you, Caleb. Your honesty and your candor are admirable.”
He handed the sword back to Caleb while he got his coat and vest off. He pulled his cravat free from his neck and then traded his garments for the sabre.
Joshua stood ready in the middle of the green with Elihu by his side.
Langston and Caleb walked out to join them.
“Gentlemen,” began Elihu, “this is your final opportunity to resolve this conflict without bloodshed. Does the aggrieved wish to grant pardon?”
Joshua snorted and gave no reply.
“Do you, Mr. Langston, wish to offer apology?”
“Apologize? For what? An imagined slight?”
Elihu turned to Joshua. “Will first blood satisfy you?”
“You know the answer to that,” spat Joshua. “I am to kill him, or be killed in the attempt.”
“So be it,” said Elihu. “Seconds will retire.”
Langston’s heart began to pound and he found that he was covered in sweat despite the night chill.
Joshua stood with his body in a relaxed posture and his eyes fixed on Langston.
Elihu and Caleb stepped away and the duel began.
Joshua’s onslaught was swift and vicious.
It took all of Langston’s agility just to parry. He was forced to give ground until he was backed up all the way to the trees at the edge of the green.
But, as Langston had told Elihu, he had been a soldier and once the battle was joined he threw himself into the fight.
He took advantage of a momentary flag in Joshua’s attack to unleash a flurry of blows of his own and pushed the younger man back into the green.
Joshua broke off contact and began to circle Langston.
Langston seized the initiative and renewed his attack.
The clang of sword on sword echoed off of the trees, making it sound like there was an brigade of men fighting on the bowling green.
Elihu and Caleb watched in silence.
The duel ranged back and forth over the green. After a quarter of an hour each man was bleeding from small wounds to their arms and hands.
Neither man heard the rumble of the thunder nor saw the flashes of faraway lightning as they fought and they only noticed the rain when they began to slip and slide on the slicked grass.
Langston and Joshua were both already soaked to the skin when a flash of lightning lit up the green. By the time the thunder shook the ground the rain was coming down in a furious torrent.
Lightning flashed again as Langston shot a glance at Elihu and Caleb to see if they were making any move to halt the fight due to the deteriorating conditions.
The two townsmen had not moved from where they stopped to watch the duel but for just a second Langston was certain he saw a pair of grinning skulls in place of their faces.
He blinked the rain from his eyes and looked again.
Joshua redoubled his attack while Langston was distracted.
Langston held his ground long enough for the lightning to once again illuminate the field, long enough for him to sneak another look at Elihu and Caleb.
They looked back at him, as human as when he first encountered them on the road earlier that day.
Joshua feinted and struck at Langston’s face.
Langston swore. His cheek was laid open to the bone.
Joshua followed his success with a wild lunge.
Langston evaded it and sent Joshua sprawling on the wet grass. Lightning flashed as Joshua bounced up to a knee and raised his sabre in defense.
Langston readied himself to strike a decisive blow but then froze.
The face that stared up at him was no longer Joshua’s. It was a fleshless, gleaming skull.
Langston’s lungs seized up with shock and he staggered backwards. His sword arm dropped to his side.
The ensuing thunder ripped Langston from his stupor but it was too late. Joshua, with his human visage restored to him, rose and thrust his sabre through Langston’s ribcage and into his heart.
Langston opened his mouth to scream but there was no sound.
Joshua drew his sword out of Langston’s chest and waited.
Elihu and Caleb did not move from their position by the trees.
Langston’s pressed a tremulous hand to the bloody wound in his breast. He sank to his knees and raised his eyes to meet those of the man who killed him.
There was nobody there.
The rain stopped seconds later.
Langston grew lightheaded and his eyes wanted to close but he forced himself to scan the perimeter of the bowling green.
There was no trace of the men he’d passed the evening with.
He wanted to cry out but found that he couldn’t. His heart slowed to the point that he could no longer feel it beating in his chest.
When he finally pitched forward he found it very odd that the grass against his face was dry and brittle.
Langston awoke to a foul odor and the sensation of something wet and warm tickling his face.
He opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn’t. The sunlight blinded him but he had seen enough to know that there was a large dog licking his face.
The dog barked and reared back as Langston sat up.
He opened his eyes again by small degrees.
He was sitting in the middle of a large field. The grass was tall and dry and colored in various shades of brown. The trees that ringed the field were barren and dead. Many of them appeared to have been burned.
His topcoat, vest, and cravat rested in a pile near the edge of the field.
The dog, a great black creature with friendly eyes and a wagging tail, barked again and demanded Langston’s attention.
He placed a hesitant hand on top of the beast’s head and rubbed.
“I see you’ve made a friend there.”
Langston started at the sound of the voice.
A wide man in a brown cloak and a slouch hat was making his way in from the edge of the field.
“Heel, Aggie! Leave the poor man alone, willye?”
The dog gave Langston’s face one last lick and then ran to his master.
“I’m sorry about that, mister,” said the wide man. “Caught your scent he did, I’m afraid. He’s a good one for it. Smells something that don’t belong and he goes right for it.”
“There are worse ways to greet the day,” said Langston.
He attempted to stand and made it on the first try. As soon as he was convinced he wouldn’t fall over he inspected his body and clothing. There was no wound in his chest and no blood on his shirt. There was no rent where he knew a sabre had torn through it. His arms were unmarked, as was his face.
Aggie’s master watched Langston with amusement. He dug into his cloak and came out with a flask.
“It’s early yet but have a wee nip. You need it.”
Langston took the flask, uncapped it, and took a quick snort.
“And where, if I may ask, am I?”
The wide man smiled. “Walk with me, friend, and I’ll tell you something of it. This way, so you can pick up your finery as we go.”
They walked and Langston retrieved his garments but the other man did not do any explaining until the three of them were settled in a rickety carriage that was parked at the end of the walk. The dog nestled itself between the two men.
Langston looked at the house in the light of day and was taken aback to see that it was no more than a burnt-out shell of what was once a grand country home.
“This is the old Lockwood property,” said Aggie’s master. He moved his hand to indicate the entire breadth of landscape. “As you can see, it used to be quite the place.”
“The War,” said Langston.
“Yes sir. The War. General Sheridan to be precise. The man was thorough in his work. You have to give him that. Scorched earth, my friend. Left nothing standing, nothing for us to live in nor subsist on.”
Langston nodded. “I read newspaper accounts of this campaign. They did not prepare me for what I’ve seen in my travels through the Valley.”
The wide man clapped him on the shoulder.
“Enough depressing talk of the past. I’ve had a bellyful of the War, as has any man with an ounce of common sense about him. Where can I take you, my good man? Where was it you were heading?”
“I’ve got business in Lexington but I’ll be obliged if you can just take me a little ways up the road and direct me to a reliable farrier. My horse needs to be shod.”
Aggie’s master nodded and made ready to depart.
“I left her in Ambrose,” said Langston.
The other man looked at him out of the corners of his eyes and stayed quiet for a solid minute.
“Ambrose, you say?”
“Yes. Ambrose. I left her tethered to the hitching post outside of the tavern there. The Forlorn Hope?”
Aggie’s master put his big head back and laughed.
“Ambrose! Forlorn Hope! Haven’t heard those spoken of in a long while.”
“Surely you know the place?”
“Of course I know it. Knew it, I should say though.”
It was Langston’s turn to fall silent.
The other man took up the reins and got the carriage moving down the road.
“I’ll take you there and you might even find your mount but what you won’t find is the Forlorn Hope– or much of anything else in what was once known as Ambrose.”
Langston kept his eyes focused on the road ahead of him. His mind was racing over the events of the preceding night.
“Ambrose was destroyed by fire, right around the time the Yankees rolled in. I’m not sayin’ the Yankees set the fire- some of ’em hung around to try and help put it out– but everyone who didn’t die in the blaze is long gone by now. About two hundred souls in all, including the three Confederate soldiers who raced into town from their picket line to sound the alarm.”
Langston took this revelation well. He face betrayed little, if any surprise at the man’s words. But his heart began to race.
When they arrived in what remained of Ambrose Langston climbed down and walked over to his horse.
She was still tethered to a post outside the Forlorn Hope but the tavern was nothing but a caved-in shell of a building.
The houses he’d seen the previous day were small piles of ruins and the church was nowhere to be seen.
He replayed the events of the night over in his head as he soothed the horse.
The man and dog in the carriage watched him with curious looks on their faces.
Langston took a calming breath and picked his way into the Forlorn Hope.
The round table was standing in its place by the back wall, warped by fire and neglect.
He willed himself to look and then closed his eyes.
It was there. Wm Langston, 1867.