Shades of Gray: Two Dozen Cartridges

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

The roar of muskets nearly drowned out the shouts from frantic officers as they tried to get their infantry back into formation. Several men clad in gray and butternut collapsed into the tall grass, and Wilson leveled his nine-pound musket at the blue line several yards away. A flash erupted and smoke poured from the barrel. The Federals answered with their own volley, and the man next to Wilson dropped to the ground. Behind the lines, several young women wearing white cotton shirts and ankle-length skirts, carrying canvas bags, roamed the battlefield, checking on the fallen. Wilson reached into his ammunition pouch, but he grasped at air.

Suddenly, a bugle blew and the shouting tapered off. Applause erupted from the crowd on the nearby bleachers.

“What is going on?” Wilson’s colonel spat angrily. “It’s been what, ten minutes? We hardly got in a half a dozen volleys.”

“No wonder the crowd was so small this year,” another man said.

“I swear, if they don’t get their heads out of their—”

The parade had started. Wilson, a tall man with a graying wisp of hair and a closely trimmed goatee, shouldered his replica Enfield Rifle-Musket and joined the line behind the other men in his unit. His friend Carl, who had sprawled onto the field moments earlier, picked himself up, brushed off the dirt and a few blades of grass, and fell in line. They marched past the bleachers, raising their hats and cheering, while the crowd waved miniature American and Confederate flags in response.

The heat was nearly unbearable, and Wilson chafed beneath his cotton uniform. Fortunately, he had stuffed ice in his hat before the reenactment began. The ice cubes were virtually all melted at that point, but the cool water dribbling down his scalp was a relief.

Wilson knew that many of the men in his regiment, which numbered a few dozen at most (far less than even a company in the real Civil War), were frustrated by the battle time allotted by the reenactment’s organizers. Wilson was not bothered. The reenactment took place not even half a mile from the real Chancellorsville battlefield. Not very many reenactors got to come that close to hallowed ground. In his opinion, there was no better way to spend an afternoon.

* * *

There was a dance that night located between the Union and Confederate encampments. The dance was closed to everyone but reenactors and their immediate friends and family. Held under a large pole marquee surrounded by bales of straw, it was structured by the social etiquette of the 1860s and featured polkas, schottisches, and promenade dancing. Wilson sat on a bale of straw next to his friend Carl, and his eyes searched the crowd for any sign of Emily.

Emily was a five foot eight-inch firecracker who was one of the young women who checked on fallen soldiers on the battlefield. It was their job to distribute ice they carried in canvas bags to the reenactors, and to find out if someone was only pretending to be dead or if they had passed out from heat exhaustion. Emily’s hair was flaming red and she wore a period dress like she had just stepped out of a time machine. Still, Wilson had yet to work up the courage to ask her to dance.

“You’re thinking about it too much,” Carl said, interrupting Wilson’s thoughts. “Just go up to her and ask.”

“It’s not that simple,” Wilson replied, slightly annoyed that his friend had broken his concentration and he had to begin his search all over again.

The string band struck up a cheerful tune, and Southern belles, Yankee soldiers, dashing Confederate officers, and even children traded arms and spun under the decidedly un-19th Century electric lighting. Every once in a while, Wilson caught a glimpse of Emily as she promenaded through the crowd.

Carl interrupted Wilson’s thoughts again. “Just go ask her to dance, for cryin’ out loud!” He shoved his friend toward the dance floor, and Wilson came to a stop inches away from Emily, who was dressed in a floral printed ball gown, as she skipped to her left and nearly collided with him. Taken aback, her face never the less maintained a bemused smile, and she curtsied.

Carl froze for a moment, and then slowly, he forced out a few words and hoped he hadn’t made a fool of himself. “Y—you wanna dance?” He winced and braced for rejection.

To his surprise, Emily nodded in the affirmative and took his hand.

* * *

A dozen songs and about forty-five minutes later, the reenactors and their guests began to say their goodnights and slowly filtered out of the marquee. Wilson had lost sight of Emily after the second to last dance, but he never felt happier or more confident.

Seeing the smile plastered across his friend’s face, Carl slapped Wilson on the back as the two caught up to each other at the edge of the marquee. “What did I tell you? All you had to do was go up and ask.”

The pair began to walk back to their camp. The rest of their regiment was no doubt swapping stories of past reenactments, or Tom, a gregarious man whose waistline matched the size of his personality, was in the middle of a polemic against taxes or the incumbent politicians back home. Their tents were set up just outside the tree line on the far end of the Confederate encampment, so it took a few minutes before they could see the crackle of their campfire and the outline of Tom’s arms as he waved them wildly to accentuate a point.

Wilson’s hand brushed his ammunition pouch, and he stopped. “Shoot, I forgot in all the excitement,” he said. “I ran out of blanks today. I have to go back to the car and get some.”

Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.

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