But They’re Not Really Dead: Mystery Short Story

May 15, 2021 | 2021 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Radine Trees Nehring

This story was first published in the anthology Solving Peculiar Crimes.

The constant “pock-pocka-pock” of the muskets wasn’t so bad. The boom of the cannons—from this distance at least—was endurable, especially for someone who had listened to rock drummers turned up loud. But the wind was sending black powder smoke straight toward them and, in this heat, that was awful. The whole idea was stupid. She was hot, sweaty, and she’d had enough.

Out on the field, men were playing at dying. You could hear their screams and moans above the other noises of battle. They were certainly realistic about it. Just a few minutes ago, as a charge was surging forward in front of them, there had been a sharp crack—an odd sound for a musket, she thought. Before that there was an almost female-sounding cry—the name “David.” Surely a name wasn’t what she really heard.

After the shot, a man right in front of them dropped to his knees and collapsed on the ground, too hard, too realistically. Ouch! These men got way too wrapped up in play-acting at war. Idiot. He might have cracked his head open.

The man was still there, of course. No medics were around during the heat of this battle. She stared at the fallen soldier, not twenty yards away, with the grey cap tilted sideways over his eyes. He was in full sun, probably risking heat stroke. Playing at war wearing wool uniforms in Arkansas in July was beyond stupid. It might be authentic, but it was stupid.

Quite a few of the casualties were choosing to fall in the shade of the pasture’s trees. That showed some degree of sense, at least. Maybe this soldier’s captain, or general, or whatever the man running this re-enactment was called, had suggested where and when he should die. She wondered what would happen if, without instructions, every single soldier here decided to be shot at the same time and the whole army toppled over. Would some of them have to get up, say, “Oops, my mistake,” and begin their forward charge again? Perhaps they had been given slips of paper saying who was to be wounded, and when and where that should happen. But that would assume they all wore watches and could look at them.

Carrie straightened the straw hat balanced on her grey curls, shifted position in her green canvas folding chair, and glanced over at the two people sitting next to her—her husband, Harry, and their daughter, Susan. They wouldn’t care if she left. She could walk over to the Sutler’s Camp area. She didn’t need any 1860’s style merchandise, but sutlers and their battlefield supply camps were a part of Civil War history too, and they had to be a lot more interesting than soldiers playing at dying in heat and smoke.

Henry, her husband, would understand if she left. In fact, he might be wishing he could leave too. He’d told her only yesterday that his military service and long career in the Kansas City Police Department had cured him of any interest in gun battles, including those copying the Civil War. Even when she and Henry got involved in their “Ma and Pa Kettle detective work,” which was what her son Rob called their avocation, Henry rarely carried a gun. He said they’d leave firearms to the licensed law.

The only reason Henry had come here today was because his daughter, Susan, was here. Susan was here because her husband was out on the field, helping re-enact the 1862 Battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Ah-ha. Carrie decided she could ask him about who died and when after all this was over.

She fanned vigorously with her program and looked back at the Confederate soldier lying in the grass in front of them. Well, he might have to bake in the sun, but Carrie McCrite did not.

She reached over to put her hand on Henry’s arm. “I’d like to get away from this for a while and walk over to the Sutler’s Camp. Want to come along?”

He looked down, laid his hand over hers, and squeezed lightly as he smiled. “Go shopping? No thanks. I’ll stay here with Susan. You won’t get lost? There must be several thousand people here.”

“The program says this battle will last at least another hour, so I can be back before the end.” After pursing her lips to send him a silent kiss, which he returned, she popped out of her chair and headed toward the camp area.

As she walked through the coarse pasture grass that smelled of heat and dust and—faintly—of cow, Carrie pictured the rows of soldiers marching across here early this morning. It was amazing how many bellies bulged against uniform buttons, and there were quite a few heads with grey hair. All men, of course. Surely no woman would choose to hide her identity in a wool uniform and play soldier in this heat.

Still, if they wanted to, it should be allowed.

She knew that some women, masquerading as men, had fought beside brothers and husbands on real Civil War battlefields. But now?

She had to admit it might be fun to see if she could pass as a soldier—in cooler weather, of course. But she’d probably have to cut her hair. The springing white curls would ruin it for her, as well as…she looked down at her breasts pushing out the front of her Arkansas Razorback t-shirt. Well, maybe wearing heavy wool would flatten her front enough to pass.

Ah, well, on to the Sutler’s Camp. Playing war was for younger women. They should be allowed into re-enactment groups as soldiers if they wanted to be there, but even nowadays it wasn’t always allowed. Susan said her husband’s group wouldn’t admit women as soldiers.

Phooey on them.

She trudged on behind rows of spectators’ chairs and eventually came to a line of white supply tents that stretched for more than a blocks’ length on each side of the makeshift grassy main street. Women in traditional 1860’s dress were everywhere, and children in overalls and straw hats, or miniature full skirts and bonnets, played with hoops and balls and rag dolls, filling the street with color, motion, and happy shouts. A few spectators, evidently bored with the battle as she had been, were roaming about. This was certainly going to be better than the noise and smoke and play-like death going on behind her.

horseWandering from tent to tent, Carrie looked at canned goods with 1860’s labels, iron cooking pots, blankets, guns, and trappings for horses. She lingered in one tent that displayed women’s period clothing, fabric, dress patterns, and some amazingly nice antique-looking buttons and jewelry. Leaving, she came to a small tent with a closed flap. Odd. She wondered what was inside and was tempted to open the flap and look inside. She stood there, staring at the closed tent flap, and thinking about the displays of goods for sale she had seen.

Of course there had been no peddlers at the real Pea Ridge battle in March of 1862. The men fighting there had marched for days through sleet and snow. Their supply of food was almost gone. Most of the Confederates were teenaged southern farm boys, poorly dressed for winter in the Ozarks, since wool uniforms were not available for all back then. Some of the soldiers wore shoes with holes, others had no shoes at all, just rags tied around their feet. When they could, Civil War soldiers stole shoes, coats, and food from the dying and dead—whether enemy or comrade.

For a moment, Carrie shut her eyes and thought of those long-ago boys. An icy day. Little or no sleep. If they rested, there was only frozen ground with patches of snow. Nothing to eat. Their commander, Major General Van Dorn, had marched them too far ahead of their supply wagons in his hurry to get behind the Union lines for an attack.
Someone touched her arm. “You feeling faint, lady? Too much sun? Come in the tent and sit.”

Carrie turned to see sad blue eyes behind round, brass-rimmed spectacles. Beard. Overalls with a strap twisted over one shoulder. He’d apparently dressed in a hurry. A sutler. He pointed toward the small tent with the now-open flap. “Come on in and rest.”

“Goodness, thank you, I will. But I’m all right. I was just thinking…back.”

He nodded as he led the way into the tent. “Oh, yes, I see. Gets to you. You can understand why sometimes re-enactors are so carried away they hurt each other. Medics occasionally treat real wounds from bayonets, swords, knives. Thank God they don’t have actual bullets out on the field. All those guns…”

He pointed at two folding chairs but said no more after they were seated. Facing him, Carrie thought his eyes seemed to be watching something miles away.

Then the dreamy look vanished, and he waved his arm in the direction of the battle noise. “Did you know there was a woman here then? Mary Whitney Phelps. The only woman known to be at the Pea Ridge battle other than a teenage girl hiding in the basement of Elk Horn Tavern. Used the tavern as a hospital. It’s said blood dripped through the floorboards on that poor girl.”

For a moment the sad eyes turned icy, reflecting , but it passed, and he went on.

“Mary Phelps came south from Springfield with a wagon load of supplies for her husband’s company. He was Colonel John Phelps, leading the 25th Missouri for the Union. Later he’d be Missouri Governor Phelps.

“How Miz Phelps made it here with supplies through all those bands of loose soldiers and guerilla warriors only she could tell us. But she did it, then got cut off when Van Dorn’s Confederates attacked from the north. She stayed right in the thick of things. She could shoot, and it’s said she did. The story told is that she fought, nursed, passed out food and supplies from her wagon, even tended her own husband after he was wounded.”

Carrie repeated the name slowly, “Mary Whitney Phelps. I’ve never heard of her, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a woman like her wasn’t recognized.” She stopped, testing his reaction, but he was staring into space again so, to bring him back, she asked a question. “What did Mary Phelps wear here?”

The question surprised him and brought his eyes back to her face. “Oh, well, I don’t know. No pictures of her have been found, if any ever existed. I’d guess a mid-length, plain skirt over men’s trousers. That’s what nurses often wore. No hoops or extra petticoats. A jacket, much like the men wore, and a shirtwaist. Probably men’s boots. Don’t forget she was driving a team pulling a loaded wagon.”

“A true she-ro,” she said. “Thanks for telling me about her.”

She hesitated a moment before going on. “So there weren’t, as far as anyone knows, women who fought here other than Mary Phelps?”

The man’s expressive eyes showed he didn’t like her question. “Well, I really wouldn’t know about that.”

Carrie pressed ahead. “What about today? Could there be any women masquerading as men out on the battlefield today?”
In the silence, the eyes behind the round lenses spoke of fear. Why? After all, he had brought up Mary Phelps, a woman in battle. Carrie wasn’t asking him to reveal secrets that would hurt anyone.

But he said nothing, and, sensitive to his mood, Carrie changed the subject. Waving her hand around the shelves of magazines, books, and paper goods in the tent, she asked, “You do this as a business?”

“Only on re-enactment weekends and during the summer. I’m a high school history teacher in St. Louis. My wife kept up our stock before she was killed last March. Auto accident.”

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

“Yes.” The blue eyes disappeared behind closed lids. “A wreck. She was in a car with a man who was driving drunk. It spun, went in a ditch, and she was killed.”

There was a pause, and while Carrie wondered what to say next, the man spoke again, whispering, “He had only a few bruises.”

After murmuring, “Terrible, terrible thing,” Carrie waited through a long silence until, not wanting to simply walk away from this sad man, she returned to a subject that seemed to interest him most.

“I have heard that Pea Ridge was a decisive battle win for the Union.”

“Oh, yes. It was about who would control St. Louis and the Mississippi River. If the Confederates had won here, and they almost did, this part of the country might be the Confederate States of America now. At the time, there was not much between here and St. Louis to stop them. The Confederates had won the battle at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri in August 1861.”

Two women in wide, swinging skirts came into the tent and asked to see letter paper. The sutler nodded to Carrie and turned away to help his customers. The conversation was over.

She stayed in the tent for a few minutes, watching the man as he pulled out boxes. He seemed to be such a gentle, sensitive person. What beautiful, wavy hair he had. Carrie loved touching Henry’s wavy, grey-streaked black hair, and she often noticed other men’s hair. The sutler’s hair was white-blond. His above-the-ears hair was mashed flat in a band that circled the back of his head. Hat hair, Henry called it. Too bad. The brim imprint on the sutler’s head spoiled the flow of pale, silky waves.

After a last glance at him, Carrie moved on.

There was a revival-sized tent across from the small canvas shelter where the history teacher sold his 1860’s paper goods. The big tent’s flap was wide open, and wooden forms displaying various military uniforms stood on either side of the opening. The forms were fully dressed, even to white gloves. Carrie, curious about uniforms, went in.

There didn’t seem to be anyone minding the tent, and, after a quick scan of the area, she began to browse, lifting stacked uniforms to look at buttons and trim, inspecting the construction of jackets and pants. A few pairs of pants had modern zippers. Carrie knew purists would reject these, but why did it matter? Surely no man would be unfastening his pants in public. She would go for convenience every time.

Carrie was looking at fancy braid on an officer’s jacket when she heard someone come into the tent. She was behind a clothing rack, so she pushed jackets aside to peer through.

Well, now. It was the sad-eyed history teacher, and he was laying a folded Confederate uniform jacket and hat on the counter. That was all he did. By the time Carrie had taken a breath and opened her mouth to speak, the paper goods sutler was gone. As he left, Carrie heard a male voice just outside the tent say, “Hey there, Simon. Good crowd, hm? Selling a lot? Hey, I was sorry to hear David only got probation. Doesn’t seem right, does it!”

Her spine began a familiar tingling. David? A soldier’s uniform?

Well, none of her business. Henry said curiosity about things that did not concern her could lead to trouble she might not be equipped to handle. But then, it could also lead to interesting treasure hunts.

She sighed. This wasn’t the time or place to suppose some kind of mystery that did not concern her.

But, who was David?

Shaking her shoulders to quiet her spine, Carrie left the tent.

She continued along the grassy street, then, glancing at her watch, decided she had time to see the army encampment spread over rolling hills beyond the sales tents. Rows of small tents covered this area. There were campfires for cooking, but at least the wood smoke was fragrant. Women and a few soldiers were scattered about, sitting quietly on blankets or stools, talking, caring for equipment and guns, or, in the case of the women, often doing needlework. Since it was nearing noon, several were bending over lunch-time campfires. Flags marking the camp locations of various fighting units fluttered in the breeze.

Children responded to her greeting but, for the most part, men and women ignored her, keeping at their work or conversation as if they were actors in a play—which, on a massive scale, they were. It was easy to get lost in history here—easier, really, than it had been next to the battlefield. Here, history surrounded her, women’s history that she understood. Here, movement was slow, relaxed, and relaxing, quite unlike movement on the battlefield.

Voices, many of them revealing southern accents, were slow and relaxed too. Carrie paid no attention to the words, but was content to move among the soothing murmur. Then she was out of the busy area and walking past tents that were obviously empty. So, only various groups of male re-enactors stayed here, and all of them were in this morning’s battle.

A fair-haired soldier came through the trees bordering the battlefield and hurried down the row of tents. He looked pre-occupied and seemed not to see her or hear her spoken greeting. Well, of course. Soldiers playing a part here wouldn’t speak to a woman wearing an Arkansas Razorback t-shirt. But his hurry was such a contrast to everything else in this encampment that she turned her head to watch him. Just before ducking to enter his tent, he took off his grey cap to expose long hair falling in white-blond waves.

Carrie continued to the end of the tent area, turned around, and began walking back. There was motion inside the soldier’s tent, a swishing of fabric. The tent flap parted, and a face looked out, ducked back in. It was a woman wearing a blue, sprigged-print gown.

Carrie had arrived back among the cooking fires, playing children, and women with their needlework when a woman in a blue, sprigged-print gown and matching blue sunbonnet swished past her, headed toward the sutler’s area. She held her skirts up on both sides so she could move more quickly. Carrie wanted to bet she was heading toward the paper-goods tent.

She’d have won the bet.

Pausing outside the tent, Carrie decided she needed some unique letter paper for a Christmas gift. Stepping as quietly as she could, she walked through the open flap.

The woman was facing away from the tent flap, the man was in profile, his head slanted toward the back wall of the tent.

“It’s over. I’m glad I was there. I was pretty sure you could not pull the trigger against him. But we both wanted assurance that the drunken devil was never going to kill another person.”

The woman’s voice softened. “It’s better this way Simon. You are such a good man, too good for messing with this sort of thing. Being with him may have been Carol’s choice, but he was still a murderer. Don’t forget that. Don’t grieve for him.”

The man’s face was so pale it almost faded into the white tent behind him. He put his hands up in protest, then moved them over his face.

She was almost whispering now, “David is gone. It’s ended.”

Carrie slowly backed up the few steps toward the tent opening, then turned and hurried toward Henry, the green folding chairs, and the soldier lying on the ground in front of them.

Had real medics looked at that man yet?

And Henry was so right. There were some things better left to the licensed law. Some things Carrie McCrite just wasn’t equipped to handle. Henry was going to have to help her understand what to do next.

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Radine Trees Nehring writes Crime and redemption in the To Die For series and has published a large print anthology called Solving Peculiar Crimes. You can learn more on her website.


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