9

By five-thirty that evening, they were ready to start out on their camping trip.

Olivia was, naturally, taking Shiloh and she was glad to see that Drew had chosen Chapparal for Dustin. The two seemed well-suited to each other. Dustin was obviously familiar with horses and had riding experience.

The horses were all in use except for Martin, and he’d remain behind with Sydney. If for any reason someone needed to be reached quickly during the night, Sydney knew where they’d be and had Martin to get to them.

Mariah led the way on Pixie as they rode out, not starting her spiel yet, since they were riding single file on the forest trail.

They moved deep into the trees. Eventually they came to a clearing in the forest and Mariah reined in, allowing them all to break and dismount for a few minutes. She directed them to a little path that led deeper into the thickness of the woods, an area where the dying sunlight now brought about an eerie green darkness. Everyone had a penlight, while Drew, Aaron, Mason and Sandra carried lanterns.

Mariah said, “In a few minutes, we’re going to visit one of our small Confederate graveyards. You have to remember that when you go to a national cemetery, you won’t find any Confederates, unless they were pardoned and joined the Union army after the war. Confederate dead have their own cemeteries, or else they were returned to their hometowns. And certainly many soldiers—North and South—remain in unmarked graves on the fields where they died. While it was incredibly important for both God-fearing men of the North and South to retrieve their dead, it wasn’t always possible. They died on bloody fields that had to be abandoned, or they were beyond recognition by the time they were found.

“A side note of interest—what we celebrate now as Memorial Day was begun by Confederate women who decorated the graves of their loved ones. Many places lay claim to having the first true ‘Decoration Day,’ but most historians agree that the widows and other grieving women of the South began what became our national holiday before the end of the Civil War—or, as we were sometimes taught to call it, the War of Northern Aggression.” Mariah grinned. “No one get mad at me for getting my history wrong tonight, huh? Remember, Tennessee was always a divided state and we’re all darned glad we’re one Union now!” Mariah stopped speaking, reaching for the water bottle attached to her saddle. She looked at Olivia. “Want to take it for a minute?”

“Sure,” Olivia said. “Mariah was preparing you for the first step in the ‘ghost’ tour part of this. We’ll tell more stories when we’ve made camp. But right now, we’re in a little graveyard begun by locals who found their own boys, and other dead soldiers, left behind after the Battle of Nashville. In some instances, those who lived in this area stumbled upon the dead and did their best to bury them in accordance with whatever identification they found on the bodies—you know, sometimes they got them back to their states or buried them here with others from their homes or regiments, Feds or Rebs. Sometimes the dead they found were their own. Some of them were brought out here for burial.

“During the Civil War, the forest was different from the way it looks now. There’d been a farmhouse just up the ridge, and this had been land that belonged to a George C. Turner. George and one of his sons were killed in the battle, and when Mrs. Evelyn Turner discovered the bodies—and those of others—she got the local preacher and a stone carver to create a little cemetery. Actually, Evelyn Turner herself wound up in this little burial ground. It’s said that on a misty evening she can be seen walking through the trees, searching for more dead, determined that they be given a Christian burial. She’s buried just down that path with her husband and her son—and our area’s most famous ghost, General Rufus Cunningham. So we’ll take a walk down the path, pay our respects and then go on to the campsite. Once we’re there, we’ll set up our tents and start a fire, cook our dinner—and settle in for some good stories.”

She glanced back at Mariah, a question in her eyes.

“You want to lead them through with Mason? Drew, Aaron and I can watch the horses,” Mariah said.

“Let’s go, then,” Olivia urged. She noticed that Brent looked frightened.

“You don’t have to come,” she told him. “You can stay with Mariah and the guys and watch the horses.”

Brent shook his head. “I—I want to go.”

Dustin walked over and slipped an arm around his shoulders. “I’m a little scared, too,” he said. “We’ll go together.”

Olivia smiled at Dustin. “Well, then, we forge ahead.”

She accepted a lantern from Mariah and started through the pine-and leaf-covered trail. The others followed. They entered a small graveyard. Perhaps twenty stones remained, some broken, most at an angle, all shrouded with lichen. The break in the trees allowed the last light of the day to seep through, but it cast an aura of something mysterious, perhaps sacred, over the stones.

“Here!” Sean called. “Here, right here! I found Evelyn Turner’s grave—and her son’s grave and…here’s the dad!”

The other boys rushed over. Holding the lantern high, Olivia saw that Dustin—Brent close at his side—had come upon the most famous grave, the one with the largest stone and flowers strewn upon it.

“General Rufus Cunningham,” Dustin read aloud. He went down on his knees to study the writing on the stone. “‘Hero of the Battle of Nashville. To save lives, he gave his own.’”

Sean let out a creepy sound. “He’s here! I can feel him. Can you feel him? He’s here with us!”

“Where? Where?” Brent asked, alarmed.

“It’s all right, Brent,” Dustin said. “If his spirit’s still around, he doesn’t mean us any harm. He was an exceptional man who wanted the best for everyone.”

“Don’t mock the dead!” Joey snapped at Sean.

“Oh, come on, Joey,” Sean said. “Have some fun!”

Olivia hadn’t seen the general among them; Malachi had told her once that it didn’t really make sense for a spirit like Rufus Cunningham to hang around his grave. Malachi believed he still watched over the living. But just as she opened her mouth to speak again, she saw him.

He was on foot.

Maybe ghost horses couldn’t make it through the dense growth of trees and brush that now surrounded the little burial ground.

But the general was among them. He wore his uniform, passing by the others, pausing to give Sean a stern pat on the back of his head.

Sean jumped a mile high.

Matt burst into laughter. “Scared?” he demanded.

“Who did that? Stop it—that wasn’t funny!” Sean yelled.

“Neither is disrespect for the dead,” Dustin said quietly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Can we go now? I’m starving,” Sean muttered.

“Everyone okay with that?” Olivia asked.

“One minute. Can I take just one minute?” Brent looked up at her.

She nodded. Brent went down on his knees and bowed his head, hands folded in prayer.

One by one, the other boys joined him. Olivia held the lantern and watched, deeply touched.

When they started back, Matt asked her, “How come we can read some of those stones so clearly?”

“Because volunteers come out now and then and see that the headstones are kept clean,” Olivia told him. “Some of the graves were known, and some weren’t after time took its toll, so the carving was scrubbed on all of them.”

“But everyone knew the general, right? And they knew about Mr. and Mrs. Turner and their son.”

“Right,” Olivia assured them.

When she reached the end of the trail and the boys had gone on ahead of her, she looked back. She could see the general; he stood in a military position, watching as they left.

She smiled. He was still keeping guard over the land. But then her smile faded. She’d seen him when Marcus died. What had he been trying to tell her? Had he come upon Marcus too late?

“Liv? You ready?” Mariah called.

“Coming.”

Brent was riding Battle-ax, a truly big boy, although gentle. She went to give him a boost up but Dustin was already with him, helping him onto the horse.

As they rode, she noted that although Dustin was keeping an eye on Brent, he was staying close to her.

He was also watching everyone riding with them—and the forest around them, as well.

Soon, they reached the open ground that led to the stream and the bluff that forded it, where they usually camped. The rocks created an overhang that had been useful whenever they were surprised by rain. Tonight, however, promised to be beautiful.

They pitched the tents, the work going well, everyone helping. Sean now seemed subdued; he looked over his shoulder frequently—and kept close to the others. Aaron sent the boys to gather wood for the fire. They used the camping area often and had a fire site ready. It was on clean, swept soil and surrounded by rocks to prevent the fire from spreading.

Within forty minutes of their arrival, the tents were pitched and the fire was blazing. Aaron quickly had coffee going, while Mariah and Mason set up the grill. They’d brought hot dogs and beans and the makings for s’mores. Everyone seemed hungry, and it wasn’t until they’d eaten and had gorged themselves on the s’mores that Joey asked Mariah when she was going to get to the ghost stories.

“Ah, well, now!” Mariah smiled at him and gestured grandly. “Now that the moon is high, and the mist will soon gather and rise on the moor!”

“Is this a moor?” Joey asked.

“No, not really. It’s a field in the foothills, but close enough,” Mason said.

“Remember, I don’t just tell ghost stories. A ghost story doesn’t amount to anything unless you know why the ghost stayed behind,” Mariah said. “And that means knowing the history.”

“So you’re going to tell us about General Rufus Cunningham, right?” Joey asked excitedly.

“With a little help from my friends,” Mariah said. “Liv, you want to start?”

“Okay, if you’d like,” Olivia said. She looked around at all the boys, and forced herself not to smile. Brent was sitting on Dustin’s left side.

Sean was on his right—sitting even closer than Brent.

“The best stories always come with truth and time,” she began. “And to understand what brought about a ghost, you first have to understand some history, just like Mariah said. As I’m sure you already know, Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy. That happened on June 24, 1861. As soon as Tennessee seceded, it was like Nashville had a target painted on her. Because the city was a major shipping center and had a major port on the Cumberland River, both sides saw Nashville as extremely important. Battles couldn’t be fought without supplies, without a way to keep soldiers clothed and fed. And, of course, Nashville was also the capital of Tennessee. It was important for the Union to take a capital, because that affected morale. One thing we learn in therapy of any kind is that morale can dictate what happens. We can create self-fulfilling prophesies—believe there’s no choice but to fail and you will. Believe you can make it and you will.”

Joey cleared his throat. “Uh, Olivia, the South did lose the war.”

“Yeah, didn’t you hear?” Matt asked her, giggling.

“Okay, it doesn’t always work.” She smiled. “Hard and bitter as that defeat must have been for the Confederates, time has shown us that we’re better and stronger as one country. To many people living in the nineteenth century, the main focus was states’ rights, and, okay, that was connected to slavery—and the economy. But one of Lincoln’s great triumphs was that slavery was abolished. Today, we can look back and wonder how any human being believed he could own another human being.” She paused to let the boys think about that.

A moment later she continued. “But, as I said, it was important for the Union to hold the city. Protecting Nashville was Fort Donelson, which fell on February 16, 1862. As soon as the fort fell, Union troops came in and the federal occupation of Nashville began. And Nashville became the first Confederate capital to fall to the federal government. Again, something that was actually good for some—the Unionists—and not so good for others—the ardent secessionists. Remember, we were divided on the matter of secession. The state government moved to Memphis at that time. But the Union sent in a military governor. Anyone know who that was? I’ll give you a hint. A future president.”

“Andrew Johnson!” Matt called out.

“Gold star for that boy,” Olivia said. “Okay, so there was a Union Army of Tennessee and a Confederate Army of Tennessee. On December 2, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee came to face off against the Union Army south of the city. On December 15, the Union Army arrived and started the Battle of Nashville. While the Confederates fought hard, they were badly defeated and had to retreat.”

“And that’s where we get our famous ghost!” Mariah said, beaming.

Matt set his flashlight beneath his chin so the beam would give him an eerie look. “General Rufus Cunningham!” he moaned.

“Hey, stop it!” Sean said. “Remember—we respect the dead.”

“Exactly!” Mariah then took over the story. “General Rufus Cunningham had a daughter and she was married to one of the Union lieutenants with the troops occupying Nashville.”

“Wow, the girl was kind of a traitor, wasn’t she? Ooh—maybe she hated her dad!” Sean suggested.

“No, no! It was very sad,” Olivia said. “The whole war was tragically sad. Many of the men—the foot soldiers and ranking officers—were good friends or relatives of the soldiers they fought. Cunningham’s daughter was named Eliza. She married Nathan Randall in 1858, and she met him because her father had been his commanding officer at the time. Many of the men went to West Point or other military academies together. Many of them had fought together in Mexico. The thing is, General Rufus Cunningham loved his son-in-law. But even if he hadn’t loved him, he would have tried to save him. He’d ordered that any man who’d been injured—whether wearing blue or gray—was to be given medical attention.”

“So,” Mariah continued, taking up the story, “Nathan Randall was injured. Seeing him—although he was already in retreat with his troops—General Cunningham stopped. In saving his son-in-law, he was caught in the crossfire between the advancing Union and the retreating Confederates. He died not far from where we’re camping tonight and he’s buried in the tiny Confederate Cemetery we just visited, where you saw his grave.”

“And,” Joey added, “it’s said that General Rufus Cunningham still rides these hills, watching out for those who are in danger, trying to save lives.”

“Yeah, well, he failed with Marcus, huh?” Matt said. His words were followed by silence.

“I’m sure he would have helped if he could,” Olivia said.

Brent rose and sat next to Matt. The tough guy smiled at the Down syndrome boy and placed an arm around his shoulders.

“Hey, there’s a romantic story, too,” Olivia quickly offered. “The beautiful stream we can hear trickling. Know how that was formed?”

“Someone’s tears?” Joey asked.

“You bet,” she replied. “There was a beautiful maiden called Little Deer. She was in love with a warrior named Soaring Eagle. This was during a terrible time in our history when we were land grabbers—and we forced all the eastern Native Americans west, toward Arkansas. The two of them were torn apart because Soaring Eagle was with a peace delegation sent to argue out terms. He should’ve have been back before Little Deer was forced to leave. But the army was determined to get this done. There was a horrible mistake in communications. Soaring Eagle was only trying to reach Little Deer, but he was shot down because an army lieutenant thought he was trying to create an uprising. Little Deer heard the shot from miles away. She cried this stream that runs from the river down to the hills and plains. Sometimes at night you can hear the two of them calling to each other.”

“And,” Aaron said, rising, “sometimes at night, people go to bed. I say we call it a day and we’ll get an early start tomorrow. Then we’ll argue with the black rock!”

Dustin glanced over at Olivia. She wished she didn’t feel herself tense every time he looked at her now. Or that, in the middle of a group of people, she could tell him she didn’t give a damn what happened in the future, she’d like one night with him. Just one…

“The black rock is a natural boulder stuck out here, and it’s black because it’s aged,” she explained. “Okay, maybe it’s more of a dirty gray. The kids tell it everything they’re angry about—and throw water balloons at it. Believe it or not, it actually seems to help.”

“And it soothes the old soul,” Mason said. He stood, yawning. “I do have to say it feels great to be out here, huh?”

“Yes, and may I remind you all…bathroom visits demand clothing of some kind,” Mariah said sternly. “Boys’ bushes to the left—girls’ to the right!”

“Who wants to help rinse off the plates and pots and pans?” Olivia asked. “You can grab your toothbrushes and we’ll get water for face washing at the same time.”

Joey, Matt and Brent said they’d come with her.

Sean no longer seemed willing to be by himself and refused to leave a crowd.

The boys helped her with the dishes. When they returned to the camp, everyone was settling in. Brent, Sean and Joey were in a large tent with Dustin, whose sleeping bag was closest to the entrance—closest to where she was, in the second tent with Mariah and Sandra. Aaron, Matt, Nick and Drew were in the third.

“You think this was too soon?” Mariah asked worriedly as she lay on her cot. “I mean, too soon for one of these trips—after Marcus died?”

Sandra, ready to turn down their lantern, sighed. “Mariah, we have to go on as usual. You’re just telling stories that you grew up with. It’s fine.”

“I guess,” Mariah murmured. “What do you think? Did they all like the little cemetery?”

“They seemed to,” she said.

“No one ‘saw’ the general?” Mariah asked.

“Oh, we all see him one way or another, don’t we?” Olivia said.

“No,” Mariah told her. “I never have. I wish I could see him. I should see him. You can trace my family back in this area for two hundred years! You’d think he’d appear to me.”

“He’s an image in people’s minds!” Sandra said impatiently. “Let’s get some sleep!”

The tent went dark. The night was lit by an almost-full moon and the remnants of the fire in the clearing. Olivia lay still, listening to chirping of insects around them. There were coyotes in the hills, but they’d never bothered them, not here at the campground. The cows were sometimes in danger—the Horse Farm dogs occasionally came back with a piece of beef that hadn’t been processed. But there was really nothing to fear at their campground during the night.

She’d never felt edgy before.

That night, she lay awake in her sleeping bag.

Through the canvas walls of the tent she could see the shapes of distant trees, making giant shadows that waved and moved in the breeze, looking like monsters that might reach into the tent and drag someone out. She told herself that was a childish fantasy, but couldn’t quite dispel her nervousness….

She was just staring at the trees when she became aware of something moving outside—coming toward the tent.

She bolted halfway up, glancing over at the other women.

Neither Sandra nor Mariah was in the tent. She hadn’t heard them rise; maybe she’d dozed off, after all.

Whatever was coming toward her seemed to grow large with menace—as if a tree had uprooted itself and become a monster stretching its skeletal fingers toward her….

She jumped to her feet, ready to rush out and scream an alarm. But even as she did, she heard someone speak sharply. She recognized Dustin’s voice.

“Aaron!”

There were no monsters and trees didn’t uproot themselves to attack.

She hurriedly left the tent to see what was happening.

Aaron was out there.

And Dustin was right behind him.

“What’s wrong?” Dustin asked.

“Nothing—I think,” Aaron said. He looked at Olivia. “I heard something rustling over here. I wanted to see if you three were okay. We should’ve put the women in the middle tent.”

Sandra came walking out of the woods. “Aaron Bentley! You employ extremely capable women. I had to make a dash to the powder room, so to speak.”

“Where’s Mariah?” Olivia asked.

“Well, she must have taken a bathroom break, too,” Sandra said.

“I don’t like this,” Aaron muttered. “I want to make sure she’s in her tent before I go back to sleep. I thought…”

“What?” Dustin demanded.

“I don’t know. I thought I heard someone prowling around.”

“You did! Us. So much for privacy,” Sandra said, shaking her head.

“How long can a break in the bushes take?” Aaron asked.

He probably meant it as a rhetorical question, but Joey emerged from the tent, saying, “Um, it takes as long as it takes, doesn’t it? Especially for women…”

Aaron ignored that and walked toward the bushes. “Mariah!”

She didn’t answer.

“Mariah!” he shouted louder.

“Hey!”

They heard her call back to them. Her voice didn’t come from the bushes. Olivia saw that she’d been down to the stream; she’d apparently filled her canteen. Her face was damp and she was smiling. “What’s wrong?” she asked quickly, her smile fading.

“Nothing.” Aaron let out a sigh. “I was just worried about you.”

“Oh, Aaron, I’m sorry,” Mariah said. “I went down to the stream for some more water. And it was so beautiful in the moonlight! I was looking across the water—hoping maybe I’d see the general on his horse on the other side.”

Somewhere, far in the distance, a coyote howled at the moon. The sound was so forlorn, so chilling—and foreboding.

“Well, we’re all here now,” Sandra said with a shrug. “Let’s get some sleep.”

“Dustin, you’re going back in the tent, right?” Joey asked. As he spoke, Brent, too, came out. He looked frightened. Brent was a joy to be around, always loving, but he was also easily frightened when things weren’t precisely as they were supposed to be.

“Livia?” he said worriedly.

“I’m here, Brent. We’re all here. Everything’s fine,” she assured him, going over to give him a hug.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Sandra said. “We’ve got to get some sleep!”

“Okay, okay, everyone back where they belong.” Grinning, Aaron joined Olivia and put his arm around Brent. “It’s all good, buddy.”

Brent nodded solemnly. “The general is watching over us,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s right, Brent.”

“He is watching us. I saw him. I saw him—he was on the other side of the stream. I saw him with Livia when we were washing the plates,” Brent said.

Sandra shook her head. “I’m not so sure we should’ve brought him,” she whispered.

“He’s fine,” Olivia said. “Half the world sees the general.”

“He thinks he really saw him,” Sandra snapped.

“Come on, buddy, back to bed,” Aaron said.

“Yeah, come on, we’re all going in,” Joey added kindly.

“Good night, all,” Aaron said, and, ducking through the entrance, escorted Brent back into the tent. Joey followed.

“I’m going to sit by the fire awhile,” Dustin said. “You all go back to sleep. Sorry. I’m just restless. I like to watch the dying embers—helps me sleep.”

Sandra went back in. Mariah waited for Olivia, then returned to the tent. Olivia fell into a deep sleep.

She awoke to early daylight—and the sound of a high-pitched scream. Bolting out of bed, she collided with Sandra as they both tried to get out at the same time.

Drew was already outside, looking around wildly, trying to ascertain where the scream had originated.

“Stay here!” Olivia ordered Sandra. “Watch the boys. Drew, come with me!”

It wasn’t really her place to give instructions, but Olivia hadn’t thought it out. She started running into the bushes, assuming the scream had come from the women’s side of the “bathroom” area. But when she saw a glimmer of light through the trees, she realized it must have come from farther back. Olivia kept running, with Drew on her heels. They burst into a little clearing. The gray skies of dawn made it hard to see clearly.

To her astonishment, Olivia found Dustin there—bending over Mariah, who was crouched on the ground. His small flashlight didn’t reveal much detail but did show her horrified expression.

“What’s going on?” Olivia shouted.

Drew barely managed to stop himself before colliding with her; she felt his hands on her shoulders.

Mariah rose, shaking, clinging to Dustin. “Oh, Lord, I am sorry…again!”

Olivia frowned at Dustin.

He shrugged. “I wake easily and run fast,” he said.

“What’s going on?” Olivia demanded a second time.

“I—I thought I saw…oh, this is so stupid!” Mariah apologized. “I thought I saw the general when I went to use the, uh, bathroom, and I tried to follow him and I got here and…” She stepped aside, displaying what she’d stumbled on.

The torn remnants of cow’s hindquarters lay there, blood trailing off into the bushes.

“A coyote got a cow,” Olivia said calmly. “Unfortunately, it happens.”

“I know, I know. I just wasn’t expecting it!” Mariah groaned.

“Let’s get the hell back now,” Drew suggested. Olivia could feel him close behind her—and she could tell that he was shaking. “The others are going to be worried.”

“Yes, let’s go!” Mariah said. “Oh, Lord, I’m going to have to apologize to the kids and tell them what an idiot I am!”

They walked back. By then, the others were milling around by the fire, waiting wide-eyed.

“What happened?” Sandra asked anxiously.

“Freakiest camping trip ever!” Mason said.

“Cool,” Nick murmured.

Sean jabbed him with an elbow. Mariah went into her explanation, but before she’d finished Dustin interrupted.

“Where’s Aaron?”

They looked around; Aaron wasn’t among them.

“He must be…I don’t know, in the bushes, too?” Mason asked.

“With this much commotion going on?” Dustin demanded.

“We’ll all go look for him,” Joey said.

“No, you boys stay here. Drew, you, Sandra and Mariah stay. Mason, check out the bushes. I’ll try the stream. Liv…” His eyes were on hers.

He didn’t want her alone with any of them, she realized.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. “We can cover most of the stream that way.”

They headed off together.

When they reached the stream he stood dead still for a few seconds. Then he swore and ran straight in.

Olivia saw why.

They’d found Aaron.

He was floating facedown in the water.

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