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.
It was dusk on the night of April 2, 1865 on the banks of Hatchet’s Run a few miles southwest of Petersburg. Major General Andrew Humphreys of the Army of the Potomac had hurled his II Corps at the remnants of Major General Henry Heth’s once feared Confederate division throughout the day. The Confederates, grimly determined in the midst of the smoke and thunder of battle, fought for every inch of ground. The smoldering orange embers of scattered fires crackled deep inside the breastworks and the timber. Blackened, barren trees sprawled over the land like a sea of twisted thorns, and small shapes scrambled under the cover of sulfuric smoke like mealworms. 10-inch siege mortars thundered in the distance and lit up the horizon with a sickening yellow glow.
In a nearby root cellar, a family whispered around dim candlelight and listened to the sounds of battle crawl near. A goat bellowed in the distance. Its cries were heard between the loud crashes of thunder, and then it was gone. William Gilmore heard it too, and he prayed for the souls of the men and boys who had spewed hot iron and lead at each other in the trenches around nearby Petersburg for almost a year. William had once felt the sting of battle, but now his hair was nearly white, arthritis crippled his hands, and wrinkles cut deep into his skin. Still, he clutched tenaciously to his grandson—as well as to his ancient Springfield flintlock musket—waiting until it was safe to go out.
* * *
The remnants of a battered Confederate infantry company hid in the forest above the farm where they waited for the enemy to come. They had been ordered to cover the retreat of Heth’s Division, and to protect the wagon train from attack, but their dirty and hollowed faces knew it was a useless gesture. The chain of command had disintegrated, and their once formidable force was reduced to fighting in lone pockets with a trickle of supplies and no hope of victory. They faced an ocean of enemies that threatened to wash over them at any moment.
A little more than two dozen of these men, Private Nathaniel Beverley among them, crouched behind makeshift piles of dirt and wood they had hastily thrown up that evening. At any moment, the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps was going to close in on their position, and it was their duty to delay it as long as possible. The group’s self-appointed commander, a middle-aged, grizzled veteran named Dixon, had put Nathaniel on watch that night, so Nathaniel’s eyes were trained on the creek in the valley below. He detected no movement in the growing darkness, but the smoke hovering over the valley did much to obscure his line of sight.
Nathaniel hadn’t slept in days. He was at the point of exhaustion and starving from a sparse diet of hardtack, horsemeat, and rotten potatoes that his unit had taken from the local farmers. They had no fire with which to cook, because the flames would give away their position. Already, the 88-pound mortar shells slammed into the riverbed below. Their report had lost their effect on Nathaniel long ago, and now the strangely rhythmic explosions seduced him to sleep. He struggled to keep his eyes open. It became hard to focus, and his cloudy breath warmed his face just enough to make the soft cradle of his arm inviting.
It was early morning, just before sunrise, and a violent explosion on the hillside woke Nathaniel. “They’re trying to cook us out!” he heard a nearby volunteer yell. He shook his head and peered over the edge of the embankment. The valley below was smoldering. He saw several large craters filled with opaque, clay-colored water near the creek, and he cursed for having fallen asleep at his post. Luckily, no one seemed to have noticed. Not having heard another explosion for several minutes, he got to his feet and looked for Sergeant Major Dixon.
Dixon was easy to spot. He stood, his face strained with anger, by the edge of the Hickory trees surrounded by a small group of subordinates. The closer Nathaniel got, the uglier the sergeant major became. He must have seen some heavy fighting, Nathaniel thought. He felt nervous as he approached. “Sergeant Major Dixon?”
The sergeant major was muscular and tense, and he turned and stared at Nathaniel from under thick eyebrows. “Yes?” he replied in a gravelly voice.
“I saw no enemy activity during the night, sir,” Nathaniel reported. If the sergeant major knew he was lying—that he’d really fallen asleep—he could have him court-martialed, or more likely, shot on the spot.
Dixon stared at him coldly. “Is that so,” he hissed. “Then maybe you can explain that trail of fresh blood leading into the woods.”
All the color that remained in Nathaniel’s face quickly drained. “Blood?” he choked out.
“Yes,” the sergeant major replied without emotion. “It’s very strange, don’t you think? That the Yankees could get behind our lines like this and just kill one man?”
* * *
The sun peeked over the horizon. William Gilmore crawled out of his root cellar with his grandson and a wooden bucket. The two headed toward a well, which was their only source of clean water, that was located in the woods above the farm. “Don’t run too far, Sidney,” he called out to his grandson, who dashed ahead.
William forced his tired muscles to move faster up the hill. When he came around a bend in the trail, he found Sidney inspecting what looked like the body of a Confederate soldier who had been badly mauled. “Come away from there!” William ordered. “There is something not right here.”
“What killed him, Grandpa?” Sidney begged. The boy backed away from the body and covered his nose with his hand.
“It was no man that did this,” his grandfather replied. “We must leave this place now.”
As William and his grandson prepared to leave, two Confederate infantrymen appeared out of the woods. Although the two had seen many fallen comrades, they stopped in their tracks when they saw this body. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” one hissed. “That’s Ellis.”
“You there,” the other barked at William and Sidney. “Did you do this? Come with us.”
The Confederate soldiers took hold of William and his grandson and led them back through the woods to a clearing above the banks of the Hatchet’s Run. William could see his farmhouse from that vantage point, and he hoped his family was alright. His grandson and he were led to a large man who appeared to be in charge of the group.
“We found these two near the body of Private Ellis,” Private Bobby Burns, one of William and Sidney’s escorts, reported.
The sergeant major inspected the two carefully. “You say Ellis was killed?”
“Yes,” Private Burns replied. “We found his body in a clearing and these two were standing nearby.”
“He was eaten,” William muttered.
“What?” The sergeant major snorted and turned toward the old man and his grandson. “What did you say?”
“Widjigo!” the little boy yelled before his grandfather could restrain him.
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.