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Shades of Gray: Abraham Milestone’s Revenge

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.

FBI Agent Annetta Nixon stood with her cell phone pressed against her ear at the crest of a hill near an abandoned Baptist church just outside of Norfolk. A sprawling cemetery rested a few yards behind the white, clapboard church, and a large neo-classical mausoleum sat in the middle of the cemetery. The setting sun painted the sky orange.

“I’m here,” the agent said. “I don’t see any activity.” She ran her free hand through her short, brunette hair and scanned the area with her well-trained eyes. “I’m going to proceed to the church—will report back if I find anything.”

She slapped her phone closed, slid it into her pocket, and moved that hand over the grip of her pistol just in case. Cautiously, she headed toward the church doors. Before she could determine whether the rusted chain around the handles was locked, the sharp wail of a siren pierced the air and a searchlight fell against the dirty white walls of the tabernacle. She sighed in frustration.

Two squad cars, one blue and one white, pulled up the driveway to the summit of the hill. Virginia Beach Police Department was painted on the side of the blue cruiser, and Norfolk Police Department on the side of the other. They stopped just behind Agent Nixon’s car, blocking her exit, and two uniformed men got out. One of their doors struck her vehicle, but neither police officer seemed to notice.

“Good evening ma’am,” the lead officer, who wore a dark blue shirt, said as he approached the church. The officer that followed wore a tan shirt, but the pair were both noticeably overweight.

Agent Nixon readied her badge. “My name is Annetta Nixon, FBI,” she said with authority. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

“We got a call about some vandals up here,” Kipp Leet, the lead officer, informed her.

“No one is supposed to be up here after dark,” the other officer, Ron O’Dell, a local Norfolk policeman, added.

Agent Nixon glanced up at the sky, which was still illuminated by the last rays of sunlight. “I’d say it’s a little early for a trespassing charge, isn’t it?” she asked with a touch of sarcasm. There was no response from either of the two police officers, so she continued. “I’m here to investigate the possible site of a meth lab,” she said. “If either of you would like to assist me that would be fine, but otherwise please stay out of my way.”

“Excuse me, but who gave you the authorization?” Officer Leet demanded. “This is a city matter. You don’t have jurisdiction here.”

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Shades of Gray: The Lost Regiment

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.”

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Shades of Gray: Widjigo

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.

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Shades of Gray: Nothing Will Keep us Apart

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’s freezing outside, Luke thought as he pulled his windbreaker tighter and walked along an old, empty boulevard west of the Rapidan River in Fredericksburg. His parents and he had moved to the city two days ago, and he thought it would be a good idea to wander the town and get his bearings. It was late in autumn, so the wind blew sharply and bit at his cheeks. The houses on either side of the street were all over a hundred and fifty years old, and emitted a pleasant, aged perfume he could smell even from out on the sidewalk. Grand porches stood empty as though not a soul was home.

The future was on Luke’s mind that afternoon. He would be starting school late into the year, and he had a hard time making friends. His was a military family, and his father had been recently stationed at Fort A.P. Hill, a few miles southeast of town. This was their third move in four years. His mother assured him this would be their last for a while, but he could not help but harbor doubts.

As he walked south past Kenmore Park, he caught a glimpse of a person standing beside an old maple tree. The figure, at first obscured by shade, slowly morphed into a young woman with long brown hair that was tied up in a delicate, black snood. The breeze teased the few strands of unrestrained hair neatly away from her eyes, and as Luke got closer, he noticed she was staring at him. He continued walking, knowing it was rude to return the stare, but he could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about this mysterious woman. She smiled at him as he passed by. He felt a chill run through his body and he hurried toward Cornell Street.

Luke turned north down Cornell and then continued south on Washington Avenue. After a few yards, thick bushes marked the end of the residential neighborhood and a tall brick fence appeared on the right-hand side of the sidewalk. Beyond it, white, granite headstones peppered the sun-bleached field. The sea of graves stretched south and constituted the Fredericksburg City Cemetery and the much older Confederate Cemetery. Luke felt very alone, but he also felt drawn to the graveyard. As he neared the Confederate section of the cemetery, the strange feeling increased until every part of him tingled with nervous anticipation. Not even an animal seemed to stir. He opened the creaking, rusted gate, and stepped inside the cemetery.

Even the trees appeared dead as their long, barren branches sadly swayed in the autumn breeze. Luke speculated that they must have stood there at least a hundred years. He imagined women in black hoop skirts carrying parasols, and men dressed in top hats and black suits with coat tails, coming to the cemetery to mourn their loved ones. He was transported back in time at this place, and a sense of despair hung over the area, as if the cemetery itself longed for bygone days. All of that was gone now, and Luke stood alone under the chestnut trees among the faded gravestones.

He did not know what caused him to turn around, but when he did he was surprised to see that the young woman from the park was standing right behind him. He had not heard anyone coming, and he wondered how it was possible for her to have gotten there in such a short amount of time. She was wearing a long, white dress that was yellowed with age. Her skin was pale and moistened with sweat, as though it was the month was July instead of November.

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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.

* * *

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Civil War Ballads: Muleshoe

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. “Muleshoe” refers to a salient in the Confederate breastworks at the Battle of Spotsylvania.

As Yankees fixed their bayonets to charge the Muleshoe
they laid their knapsacks and their bedding down
With death so close beside them they weren’t goin’ very far
In a moment there’d be life’s blood on the ground

Carved in blood-red soil rebels built their fortress well
Like a lion with its pride they vowed to fight
And their earthen scar would prove to be a grave for Yankee blue
Raw courage was their armor inside the Muleshoe

Place the ring upon your finger and the laurel on your head
And the golden star upon your crisp lapel
If only for a moment just inside the Muleshoe
The price was paid for glory by the gray and by the blue

Like a dagger poised in darkness Federals waited for the call
To slash into the rebels in their way
Like a ninety-nine pound hammer Yankees charged down at the pines
And the searing flames of rifles sent the rebels to their graves

Battle of Spottsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup

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