Birds pressed in on John Ambrose from all sides. Their dirty, snapping beaks bit at his hair and their wings slapped at his face, their screams crowding all thoughts out of his mind. He could barely see the ground through the flapping haze; his boots seemed to devour the miles beneath him with unnatural speed. He knew that if he stopped, he would die.
He waved his arms until they were tangled in birds—birds bent and folded over his hands, over his face, smothering his last moments away.
Ambrose sat up in bed, a wordless shout dying in his throat, his upper body tangled in his quilt. He scraped the blanket away and swung his feet over the side of his cot. He sat with his stocking feet on the bare plank floor.
The dream never stopped feeling real, no matter how many times he had it. He had experienced his own death thousands of times over the years.
And he knew why.
* * *
"Mama, come and see! The birds are stuck in the sky!"
Mrs. Webster did not look up at her 8-year-old son. "Willie, you can see that I am busy with Mr. Cooper," she said, gesturing at the dry goods merchant, who was tallying her bill.
"William Webster." Her tone held all the warning and correction needed.
The child made an impatient sound and trotted back out the door and down the steps of the dry goods emporium, resuming his place in the packed dirt road.
It was a full five minutes before Mrs. Webster resolved a minor mathematical dispute with Mr. Cooper, emerged from the store, and saw a group clustered around her son, gazing at the cloudless blue. "Willie?" she called, a note of uncertainty in her tone.
"Mrs. Webster—did you see?" It was Jake Longley, one of the young men who worked at the stables, turning back from the crowd and waving her forward.
Mrs. Webster shifted the packages in her arms and joined the group. At first, she saw nothing. Then, as she shielded her eyes and they focused against the sunlight, she could make out a dark spot near the horizon that slowly coalesced into several distinct spots. "Just birds . . . " she said hesitantly.
"Watch 'em for a spell," Jake urged.
Mrs. Webster glanced at him and looked again. She waited for the slight movement that should be just visible at this distance. After several moments, she began to frown, then placed her thumb in her field of vision just below the birds, closing one eye.
When she dropped her hand and opened both eyes, Willie was standing in front of her, staring up expectantly. "I said they were stuck," he said.
"Come on, now." She took her son by the hand. "It's mighty strange, but we have tomatoes to harvest and chickens to feed."
As mother and son trekked in the opposite direction, back into the maze of homesteads to the west, they passed a lanky man with a gray beard and piercing brown eyes. They didn't speak to him, but then, no one really did. Mr. Ambrose (was it his Christian name or his surname?) had so assiduously ignored everyone for years that it had become common to return the treatment.
He seemed incapable of offense. The townsfolk advised newcomers not to bother trying to engage him.
"That's just how some folks are," Mrs. Webster's father-in-law had explained patiently when she was offended upon first encountering the old man. "Everyone's been through something. There's no reason to try and force a body to be friendly."
He came to town every other Tuesday to trade, walking straight to the mercantile, conducting his business in a mutter, and walking straight home. Now, on this strange, silent morning, as the crowd stared at the sky together, Ambrose slipped in silently to stand with them.
* * *
A group of men—anyone who didn't have immediate business in town, really—agreed to walk out together and investigate. One of the farmers speculated that the sight was a mile and a quarter away, not a long walk.
The men moved forward together, discussing the strange sight before them. Jake, who had explained the odd scene to Mrs. Webster, led the way with his friend Charlie.
"I've never seen old man Ambrose go anywhere without being asked or forced," Charlie said, glancing back at the old man.
"He caught cold a few winters ago and wouldn't let my ma bring him a tureen of soup," Jake replied. "She said she was trying to help him—he'd die if it took to his lungs—but he told her it weren't his time yet. We didn't see him for two weeks; my pa finally rode out to his old shack, and he was out front milking his goat like nothing ever happened. Didn't even bother to tell my folks he was well, let alone say thank you for the concern."
Jake cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder at Ambrose and was relieved that the man didn't seem to notice. "My pa thinks Ambrose is an old army man. After everything Pa saw when he was a chaplain, he says it's best to just pray for him and leave him be, but I still think he's an old loon."
Charlie didn't reply. They had drawn much closer now and could distinctly see the outlines of the individual birds—seven, in all—spread out in a sloppy row.
Around Jake and Charlie, the older men began to discuss the pattern of the cluster, which way they appeared to be headed, why in the world they looked so still. They were hovering for some reason, one man speculated. Must be.
The talk died away. They were so close now, they could see the birds trapped in eerie stillness above. Buzzards—the sign of death.
One of the men drew a pistol from his belt, and the others dropped back as he aimed. He fired once; nothing happened. He tried a second time, then a third. He was the best shot in town; no one needed to remind anyone else of that. Not one of the birds moved.
"That's unholy," Charlie muttered, and Jake did not contradict him.
* * *
No one knew what to do. How could they? Groups trekked out to the edge of town throughout the afternoon to gawk, throw rocks, shoot. Nothing made a difference. The children were innocently excited to see something so strange, but the adults were disturbed by the sight.
Finally, Parson Longley spoke up—everyone should come back to the church for a prayer meeting, he urged. This could be nothing but an omen, and such a dark thing should be prayed against.
The fiddler played hymn after hymn, and the parson read the scriptures, and the men took turns standing to pray, uncertain of what to ask for. As the sun sank below the horizon and the crickets' song began, a low sound started in the distance—a hum of wind that rose and rose. Murmurs moved through the room as the fiddles died away.
Longley hesitated, then walked up the aisle to open the door and look out into the night.
"I need to get home," one of the farmers said, and there was a general murmur of assent among the congregants.
"Wait." Longley put a hand up. "It could be a twister. We may be safer here."
"The weather ain't right for that," one of the men pointed out. "A twister don't come up out of nothing, middle of the night."
As the room buzzed with discussion, in the back row, old Ambrose stood up and slipped out the door. Only the parson noticed, and he headed outside to follow the old man.
Longley glanced around, his eyes adjusting to the low light, and saw a figure moving slowly, steadily in the direction of the birds. "Ambrose?" he called. He crossed the stretch of road between them. "The wind seems to be getting worse. Come inside and wait it out with us, why don't you?"
He was close enough now to see that Ambrose was looking him in the eye. After 20 years of the man's downcast gaze, it was unsettling.
"Go back inside," Ambrose replied. "The danger will be past soon enough."
Parson Longley wanted to say something. He wanted to take the old man by the arm and guide him inside, to light and safety. But something in the man's eyes stopped him. He watched Ambrose walk away and wondered if he'd ever see him again.
* * *
Captain John Ambrose walked to the vultures, and ghosts walked with him. Young men, wide-eyed Union soldiers who had never seen battle before. He was supposed to lead them. He was supposed to set the example.
The memories hung on his back like a load as he walked: the flares of rebel guns, the ground-shaking percussion of the cannons, the wild, too-close faces as the enemy bore down upon them.
The memory was as fresh as if it had just happened last night. In a way, it had—every night for 20 years. Ever since the day he led those boys into battle, saw the buzzards frozen in the sky, and knew it was his time to die.
And so he ran. The branches slapped and scratched at him as he tore through them and deep into the underbrush. He heard the shots behind him, screams that he knew were his men dying.
He couldn't have said how he knew, but as his men crouched in the brush waiting for their foe, he saw the buzzards and knew they were there for him.
Would his men have lived if he had stayed and fought alongside them, if he had allowed the birds to take his soul? They had all stood and fought, and they all died—every man in his platoon, to a one. He had learned this long after, as he lay low in a faraway town. Perhaps death, enraged at finding that its prey had escaped, had taken all of his men as payment.
He ran west, trying to forget. For the first few years, he moved from town to town, like a creature pursued. Every day might be the day that death returned for him. How would it feel when he saw that sign in the sky once again? How would he answer this ultimate test that he had failed so long ago?
He walked in the windy dark, trying to remember all the names of the men in his unit, all those young lives that ended in one day. Instead, he could only see the faces of the townsfolk, the neighbors he had lived alongside for two decades.
At last, he reached the birds. He swallowed hard and stepped forward, directly beneath them, and looked up. The wind quieted, and he heard the rustling of their wings, saw their forms moving against the starry sky.
He looked back at the town. Then he turned and followed the birds beyond the town's border.
* * *
The next morning, as soon as the sun was high enough in the sky to see, the men of the town headed back to the edge of town. They could see something there in the sky, but they soon realized they could see movement this time. As they drew near, the birds descended.
Moments later, they were near enough to see the buzzards preying upon the fallen form of John Ambrose.