A soft mist hugged the ground and hung in tatters from the trees. The soft smell of death and rot ruined the sweet smell of grass and the early morning air, damp with the exhalations of the forest which began a mile away. The birds sang, their early morning song trilling above the shattered corpses, some of which were no longer still.
"My God, man," the captain murmured. His bushy mustache trembled in outrage. "My God, that's grotesque."
"Yes, sir," answered the sergeant. His dull eyes registered no surprise or shock. His first taste of battle had been at Antietam. The captain was young and fresh. He'd joined the lines right after Sherman captured Atlanta.
A young soldier with half his lower jaw missing, his battle tunic crusted with dried blood, stumbled toward them. The sergeant waited until it was nearly within arm's reach before firing his pistol into its forehead. Its legs collapsed and it fell in a heap, its hands twitching.
"My God," the captain growled. His face was white. "Why do they rise?"
"I don't know, sir," the sergeant answered. "Don't let them get too close. They will attack you and bite the ever-loving bejesus out of you." He pointed across the field. "Look. There must be a hundred of them. We have to leave now, sir."
A crowd of shattered soldiers, all dead, staggered in a line toward them. The rising morning breeze carried their scent. The battle had been yesterday afternoon, so the corruption was not yet overpowering, but it made the sergeant feel dirty. The captain fought back his gorge. He was not yet used to the smell of human rot.
"I'll raise a squad of men," the captain vowed. "This is an abomination. These men must be put back down."
"No, sir," the sergeant answered. "If I may, sir, I would strongly advise against it. In another hour, there will be a thousand of these unfortunate dead men walking about. It's best that we leave now."
"But what about them?" the captain asked. His red-rimmed eyes rose above his white face. Outrage fought nausea in his breast and he thought he must either scream or vomit until something ruptured.
"Leave them," the sergeant answered. "The birds and the coyotes will finish most of them. The rest will meet their ends near about."
"It's not right," the captain said, wiping a dirty sleeve across his mouth. "They were men once."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant answered. "If we stay any longer, we will join them. With all due respect, sir, I am leaving now."
The sergeant turned and strode toward their mounts. The captain stood a moment longer watching the company of dead men struggle forward. He shook his head and muttered a vehement curse. Then he turned and trotted after the sergeant.
Overhead, large black turkey buzzards wheeled in the sky. They settled lower and lit upon the marching dead. The dead men flapped their arms uselessly against the carrion birds.
The sergeant turned in his saddle for a last look. He saw the dead staggering about in circles, overwhelmed by the birds flapping their wings for balance. A corner of the sergeant's mouth twitched in what might have been a smile in other circumstances. He twitched the reins and turned his back.