Sunday, June 15, 2014

First Shot (1)

“Perfect day for a war.”

It was the kind of droll remark people who knew Leicester County's retired Hippy Judge were accustomed to hearing from him, but he wasn't necessarily among friends at the moment. His son, Blow, hadn't recognized any of the other spectators within earshot. He glanced quickly to either side of the Judge and Lila, but none of the others seemed to have noticed. His father looked toward him and Blow saw the familiar grin that might have been a sneer were it not for the display of upper teeth and the merry laugh lines around the older man's blue eyes.

“Were such a thing conceivable, morally, that is,” the Judge added, his voice more confiding, smile still teasing.

“Well it's only a reenactment,” said Lila Moreau, the Judge's friend.

“That is true in a sense, my dear, but it's really not even that. You see, the actual battle was fought across the river around Yorktown. And these folks, well, although they might well look the part with their muskets and their colorful martial costumes, aren't even trying to replicate the tactics used in the battle back then. If they weren't shooting blanks at each other they'd really be no different than a bunch of marching bands rehearsing for a Super Bowl halftime spectacle.”

“Let me ask you something, honey...” The voice came from the Judge's other side but a sneering face leaned far enough around that Blow could see its squinting eyes, gray mustache and balding, conventionally barbered bullet head. The questioner's lip curled even more as his glare rested a moment on his target's platinum ponytail before homing in on the Judge's face. “If this bores you so much why did you bother to come out here?”

The Judge rotated his head to face his accuser, but Blow could still see that the quirky grin stretched even further. He knew his father's naturally large, aggressive eyes, which had intimidated many a lawyer who'd appeared before him in court, were now fixed upon the other and that the man likely was regretting his impulse to slip the “honey” into his question.

“I'm not bored and I'm not criticizing them, my friend.” The Judge's voice was strong but cordial. “I was merely stating a fact. I do find this highly entertaining.”

Blow could see that his father's grin held steady as the man's sneer gave ground, although the squinting eyes remained stubbornly locked on target. Finally the man offered a quick nod and the face pulled back out of sight. Blow heard a woman's chuckle in that direction.

“Why are they over here, Dad, instead of at Yorktown?” Blow knew the answer and he knew Lila did, too, but he lobbed the softball to give his father a chance to show off a little, move the discussion onto less contentious terrain.

“Park Service won't let 'em shoot their muskets. Somebody was killed a couple years ago at a reenactment.”

“Accident, wasn't it?”

“Oh, I'm sure it was. Would've been big news if it wasn't.”

“Hard to imagine how an accident like that could happen. I mean if they're not carrying any projectiles. Can't they inspect them to make sure they're not carrying any?”

“You'd think so, Son. I guess they just don't want the responsibility. A lot of reenactors at these things. Not enough park rangers.”

Lila piped up, “Do they have anybody inspecting them here?”

“Good question, Lila. I doubt they have the resources to do it, either. Maybe have the participants sign some kind of hold-harmless release.”

“Couldn't the Park Service do the same thing? I imagine they're losing a lot of tourist money with everybody coming over here.”

Blow said, “Probly all about image for them. Congress is always looking for excuses to cut budgets.”

Conversation sputtered out as it became apparent the action was moving their way. A block of soldiers wearing white pants, navy blue coats and three-cornered hats had broken off from the main body of troops and was marching across the field of corn stubble toward the side where Blow, his father and Lila were seated on folding chairs they'd brought from home. A smaller group of troops on horseback, swinging sabers over their heads, rode toward the marching soldiers at a gallop.

The mounted troops' uniforms were fancier than the foot soldiers', most noticeably the hats, which, on the horsemen, were so plumed with feathers or fur they looked like the kind worn by drum majors or Buckingham Palace guards. As the horsemen drew within shouting distance of the foot soldiers the front row of infantrymen suddenly raised their muskets and fired a volley in the direction of the horsemen.

Fire blossomed orange amid clouds of blue smoke that burst from the ends of the musket barrels an instant before a rapid series of concussive pops reached the ears of the spectators alongside the field. The horsemen wheeled and galloped away in full retreat as the second rank of infantry fired over the heads of the front troops, who had dropped to a knee and begun ramming new blank loads into their musket muzzles.

“One of their hats came off!” someone shouted. Lila saw it before the Judge and Blow. She pointed at the black bushy beehive helmet lying on the field behind the retreating horsemen. Then all eyes moved to the hatless horseman. He was easy to spot among the others, swaying in his saddle as if searching the field for his missing headpiece.

“Look how red his face is!” came a voice further down the row of spectators. A scream followed, and then more screams and shouts rose into the cold October air as the hatless rider slid off his horse, shoulders hitting the ground with an audible thump but then kept bumping along under his galloping mount, raising even more dust than the horse's hooves. “His foot is caught!” someone shouted.

Blow could see that one of the white-clothed legs remained in the grip of a stirrup. The horse, evidently knowing something was wrong, lagged behind the others, slowing and tossing its head in confusion. Spectators rushed through gaps in the makeshift fence onto the field where, continuing to shout, they chased after the riderless horse and its frightful burden.

Several children ran toward the fancy helmet, which was partially hidden by the corn stubble. They slowed and crept forward cautiously as they neared the furry black lump. One of the first to reach it was a girl who looked older than the others. She leaned over it briefly, then abruptly straightened and turned to the other children. Her hands waved wildly before she put them over her face, covering a mouth that gaped in horror. Her shrill voice resembled a fife when it reached Blow and the others. It took a moment before he could make out what she was saying. When he did a sudden nausea welled up from his intestines.

“It's a head!” the girl screeched. “The hat has a head in it!”


  1. Great read, Matt. Might I suggest you do domething similar with Custer's ladt stand from the Indian POV? If you havent already, read "Black Elk Speaks" he was 9 years old st the bsttle and libed to be nesrly 100.

    1. Thanks, Kate. Good idea. I've read excerpts of Black Elk Speaks. Powerful stuff.