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 old lady smiled as she gingerly poured another round of tea into antique cups. A trio of strangers in their early twenties, two men and one woman, sat across from her. Two heavy, red leather photo albums were laid out on the burgundy coffee table, and drops of tea were spattered perilously close to the yellowed photographs. In one of the photographs, a young girl wrapped in a white cotton dress sat in a porch swing. In the other, a group of uniformed men stood in a field in front of several flowering dogwoods.
Mike, a young man of medium build with light brown hair, glasses, and a distinctive chin, cringed whenever a dab of liquid threatened to overflow onto the table. “Are you sure you don’t need any help with that?” he asked as he watched the old lady’s hands tremble. His companions, an inscrutable young woman with dark brown hair and piercing eyes named Aurelia, and a short man with a pocket-marked complexion named Greg, did not pay the situation any mind.
The old lady did not seem to mind either. “When I was a girl, my mamma used to tell me a story,” she began, “which is why I asked you to come here today.” She paused, and Mike, Greg, and Aurelia leaned closer. In the hallway, a black and white spotted cat’s paw peeked from under a locked door and massaged its trim.
Several tense seconds passed while the old lady poured the last drop of tea. “When I was a girl,” she continued as the teapot clattered back onto the tray, “my mamma used to tell me about Great-Grandpa James Earl Chesterton II. Now, my mamma’s great-grandpa—my grandfather—fought in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.” She recited the name with great pride. “He fought from the Second Battle of Bull Run all the way to a place called the ‘Wilderness.’ Some folks say he even survived Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but some folks ‘round here will say anything.”
Mike pinched Aurelia, who had started to nod off. “Go on,” he urged.
The old lady smiled and her eyes twinkled as if she was hearing the story herself for the first time. “My great-grandpa was a dashing officer, but no matter how many fights he was in with Yankees, he fought even harder with his fellow officers. In 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, he and his regiment were ordered to escort a wagon through the Wilderness south to Richmond. No one knows exactly what was in that wagon, but it must have been valuable—artillery, ammunition, shoes—maybe even gold or silver bars. I know one thing: no one would have sent that many men to guard some supplies if they weren’t of great importance.”
“What happened to them?” Greg interrupted, suddenly interested.
“No one knows for sure, but my mamma always told me that the regiment caught the cholera in the forest and died, but before the illness took Great-Grandpa James, he managed to haul the loot to his family’s farm and hide it.”
“Where’s the farm?” Mike asked.
The old lady smiled, wryly. “We’re here right now. I wanted to buy this place for years and finally, when my Charles passed away, I did.”
“We’re not treasure hunters,” Mike said. “Why did you call us?”
Greg jabbed Mike in the ribs.
“Now, don’t y’all laugh,” the old lady said with a chuckle of her own, “but there’s an old pile of rocks and beams that used to be a barn out yonder behind the house. My mamma always said that’s where the wagon was buried, but my cousins done told me again and again that Great-Grandpa’s ghost guards that place. They’ve seen him there several times and that place scares me.” She paused. “It’s lucky my daughter works up in Augusta, Maine and told me about y’all. Y’all go to college up there?”
Mike cleared his throat. “We can help you,” he said, “but we need to agree on a few ground rules. One: each of us gets to keep one thing that we find, but not the most valuable thing. Two: you don’t tell anyone our names, how you heard of us, or that we were even here.”
The old lady nodded.
Rising from his chair, Mike took the old lady’s hand and shook it with a tender assertiveness. “We’ll start out by the old barn,” he announced. “That’s the most obvious place.”
As Mike, Aurelia, and Greg headed for the door, the old lady called after them, “Be careful of the snakes!” Her warning turned into a deep chuckle as the door slammed.
* * *
It was a beautiful autumn day, and the old Chesterton farm was laid out in front of the trio as they proceeded from the porch to the gravel driveway. The Chesterton farmhouse was situated on a hill overlooking a vast forest. At one time, this wilderness was uninterrupted aside from the occasional house, but today it was spotted with subdivisions and cut with paved roads. It was hard to imagine a battle had taken place not too far from that spot.
“What kind of impressions did you get inside the house?” Mike asked, turning toward Aurelia.
Aurelia, who wore a red and black striped tank top, a long black skirt, and dog-eared combat boots, did not hesitate to give her opinion. “The old woman seems honest, but I think she was holding something back. I felt like there was something else in the house—a spirit. It was curious about what we were doing there.”
“Do you think it followed us here?” Mike asked with a hint of concern. “Does it know who we are?”
“No. I felt like it had been in that house for a while.”
After walking about fifty yards, the trio came to a small creek that marked the border between the lawn and the woods. Just beyond the creek, cut into the hillside, was the foundation of an old barn. The walls, as far as they came up to the surface of the hill, were stone. Beyond that, thick timbers and cross-beams filled the pit that used to be the interior of the barn. Crab grass and brush poked out between the beams.
“I don’t get it,” Greg announced with his hands perched on his hips. “If there was something buried here, how come no one ever bothered to look for it? I mean, what are we supposed to do that no one else could have done after all these years?”
“This place is cursed,” Aurelia replied. Mike and Greg both turned and looked at her. “That’s what the old woman meant when she said it was guarded by a ghost. She wants us to take the fallout while she gets the loot.”
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.