99 Coffins

David Wellington

For Alex


She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.

Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance


Fifty thousand men had died or been wounded on this broad valley, Montrose told himself. It must have been a scene out of hell—the injured lying sprawled across the corpses, the cannon still firing from the top of one hill at the top of another. The horses screaming, the smoke, the utter desperation. This was where the country could have fallen apart—instead, this place had saved it from utter ruin.

Of course, that had been a century and a half ago. Now as he stared out over the dewy Gettysburg battlefield all he saw were the trees shimmering in the wind that swept down between two ridges and stirred the long green grass. The blood had dried up long ago and the bodies all had been taken away to be buried. Off in one corner of the field he could just make out the scrupulously period-authentic tents of a band of reenactors, but it looked like even they were sleeping in.

He rubbed his face to try to wake himself up, forgetting for the third time that morning that he still had kohl daubed around his eyes from the previous night’s clubbing. Jeff Montrose was not a morning person. He preferred to think of himself as a creature of the night.

Of course, when Professor John Geistdoerfer called you at sixA.M. on a Sunday morning and asked if you’d supervise a student dig until he could arrive, you made your voice as chipper as possible and you got dressed in a hurry. The professor was the hottest thing going in the field of Civil War Era Studies, one of the most influential people at Gettysburg College. Staying on his good side was mandatory for a grad student like Montrose, if he ever wanted to have a career of his own someday.

And when the student dig turned out to be something special—well, even the most hard-core night owl could make an exception. Montrose ran down through the trees to the road and waved at the professor’s Buick as it nosed its way toward him. The car pulled onto the side of the road where Montrose indicated.

Geistdoerfer was a tall man with a shock of silver hair and a neatly combed mustache. He climbed out of the car and started up the track, not waiting to hear what his student had to say.

“I called you the second we found it,” Montrose tried to explain, chasing after the professor. “Nobody’s gone down inside yet—I made sure of it.”

Geistdoerfer nodded but said nothing as the two of them hurried toward the site. His eyes tracked back and forth across the main trench, a ragged opening in the earth made by inexpert hands. At the bottom, still mostly buried in dark earth, was a floor of decayed wooden planking. The undergrads who excavated it had come only for extra credit and none of them were CWES majors. They stood around the trench now in their bright clothes, looking either bored or scared, holding their trowels and shovels at their sides. Geistdoerfer was a popular teacher, but he could be a harsh grader, and none of them wanted to incur his wrath.

The site had been chosen for student work because it was supposed to be of only passing interest to history. Once it had been a powder magazine, a narrow pit dug in the earth where the Confederates had stored barrels of black gunpowder. At the end of the battle, when the soldiers had beat a hasty retreat, they had blown up the magazine to keep it out of the hands of the victorious Union troops. Geistdoerfer hadn’t expected to find anything in the dig other than maybe some shards of burned barrels and a few whitened lead minie balls identical to the ones you could buy at any gift shop in town.

For the first few hours of the dig they hadn’t even turned up that much. Then things got more interesting.

Marcy Jackson, a criminal justice major, had been digging in the bottom of the trench when she uncovered the magazine’s floorboards about an hour before Geistdoerfer arrived. Now Montrose motioned for her to step forward. Her hands were shoved deeply into her pockets.

“Marcy hit one of the floorboards with her trowel and thought it sounded hollow. Like there was an open space underneath,” Montrose said. “She, um, she hit the boards a couple of times and they broke away. There was an open space beneath, maybe a big one.” Which meant the site was more than just another powder magazine, though what else it had been used for was anybody’s guess.

“I just wanted to see what was down there,” she said. “We’re supposed to be curious. You said that in class.”

“Yes, I did.” Geistdoerfer studied her for a moment. “I also told you, young lady, that it’s traditional, at a dig, to not destroy anything before the senior academic on-site can have a look,” he said.

Montrose could see Jackson’s shoulders trembling as she stared down at her shoes.

The professor’s stare didn’t waver. “Considering the result, however, I think we can let this one slide.”

Then he smiled, warmly and invitingly. “Will you show me what you found?”

The student bit her lip and climbed down into the trench, with Geistdoerfer following. Together they examined the hole in the boards. The professor called up for Montrose to fetch some flashlights and a ladder. Geistdoerfer went down first, with Montrose and Jackson following. At the bottom they waved their lights around with no idea what they might find.

The powder magazine had been built on top of a natural cavern, they soon decided. Pennsylvania had plenty of them, though most of the big caves were north of Gettysburg. It looked like the Confederates had known it was there, since in several places the ceiling of the cave was shored up with timbers.

Jagged stalactites hung from the ceiling, but some effort had been made to even out the floor. Their flashlights did little to cut through the almost perfect darkness in the cave, but they could see it wasn’t empty. A number of long, low shapes huddled in the gloom, maybe large crates of some kind.

Jackson played her light over one of them and then squeaked like a mouse. The two men turned their lights on her face and she blinked in annoyance. “I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting a coffin.”

Montrose dropped to his knees next to the box she’d examined and saw she was right. “Oh my God,”

he whispered. When they’d discovered the cave he’d assumed it would hold old weaponry or perhaps long- rotten foodstuffs and general supplies. The thought it might be a crypt had never occurred to him.

He started to shake with excitement. Every archaeologist at heart wants to dig up old burial sites. They may get excited about flint arrowheads or ancient kitchen middens, but the reason they got into the field in the first place was because they wanted to find the next King Tut or the next stash of terra-cotta warriors. He waved his light around at some of the other boxes and saw they were all the same. Long, octagonal in shape. They were plain wooden coffins with simple lids held on by rusting hinges.

His mind raced with the possibilities. Inside would be bones, of course, which were of great interest, but maybe also the remains of clothing, maybe Civil War–era jewelry. There was so much to be done, so much cataloging and descriptive work, the entire cavern had to be plotted and diagrams drawn up—

His train of thought was derailed instantly when Jackson reached down and lifted the lid of the nearest coffin. “Hey, don’t—” he shouted, but she already had it open.

“Young lady,” the professor sighed, but then he just shook his head. Montrose went to take a look.

How could he not?

Inside the coffin lay a skeleton in almost perfect preservation. All the bones were intact, though strangely enough they were also completely bare of flesh. Even after a hundred and forty years you would expect to see some remains of hair or desiccated skin, but these were as clean as a museum specimen. Far more surprising, though, was that the skull was deformed. The jaws were larger than they should have been.

They also had more teeth than they should. Far more teeth, and none of them were bicuspids or molars.

They were wicked-looking triangular teeth, slightly translucent, like those of a shark. Montrose recognized those teeth from somewhere, but he couldn’t quite place where.

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