Preview of A Memory of Muskets: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #7
Written by Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books
“I want a fight,” Ralph Petty said.
Chloe started to protest, but remembered just in time that this was not her meeting, not her show. She closed her mouth and tried to look thoughtful.
Byron shifted in his chair. “We have some new ideas.”
The historic site director waved one finger—evidently brushing aside pesky new ideas with his whole hand would require too much effort—and peered over his half-glasses at Byron. It was a practiced gesture intended, Chloe was certain, to convey a literal sense of looking down upon ignorant minions. In this case the unworthy were Byron Cooke, Old World Wisconsin's curator of interpretation, and Chloe Ellefson, curator of collections. “Not just a fight. I want a battle.”
“Byron's developed some exciting alternatives,” she said. “I think - ”
“Miss Ellefson, why are you here?” Petty demanded irritably, stroking the tidy beard he'd probably grown to balance his retreating hairline. “This is an interpretive matter.”
“Here” was Director Petty's office. Although there was no place Chloe would less rather be, she'd promised Byron moral support. “Yes. But every educational program has implications for the collections, and - ”
“Actually,” Byron cut in, “Chloe is here because I invited her.”
Chloe beamed at Petty. He never knew how to handle that.
“I've never worked with reenactors,” Byron continued, “so I asked her to help plan and implement Old World's first Civil War event.”
“I'm always happy to help a colleague,” Chloe assured Petty earnestly.
Petty frowned. He was an misogynistic megalomaniac with a graduate degree in micromanagement. Chloe and he shared a mutual, strong, and barely disguised dislike. He'd already tried to fire her once.
There had been a time when Chloe simply did not care if he raised his metaphorical ax. But now she did care, a whole lot. For reasons both professional and personal, she'd made a commitment to the large living history museum. And she was painfully aware that her desire to stay employed, here, surrendered a whole lot of power to Ralph Petty.
Byron leapt into the breach before the stand-off became too pronounced. “We think that a thematic approach might best illuminate our state's experience.”
“Thematic?” Petty's expression suggested that someone had hidden a limburger sandwich under his desk.
“Looking at homefront challenges,” Chloe explained. “I'm sure that many people don't know there was a prison camp in Madison. Or, we can tell the story of the 1862 panic that swept through Wisconsin when Sioux people clashed with white settlers in Minnesota.”
Petty folded his arms. “The 1862 panic is a sensitive topic.”
Chloe sighed. Old World Wisconsin was a popular and respected historic site, owned and managed by the state historical society. What better place to explore challenging topics?
“We're proposing an enlistment scenario,” Byron said. “Programming could include recruitment rallies, mustering in, learning drill, differing political views among ethnic communities...”
“Women's activities,” Chloe added. “Sewing flags. Gathering relief supplies. Sanitary fairs. Shifting gender roles as men left for the front.”
“The draft,” Byron said.
“The draft riots,” Chloe said.
“Selling draft insurance,” Byron said.
“Buying substitutes,” Chloe said.
“I get the point,” Petty snapped. “But I don't see why you can't do some of that and still hold a mock battle. Lots of reenactors and a big, bloody fight. That's what will sell tickets.”
“Well, we don't really know that,” Chloe observed. “Since this will be our first foray into Civil War programming.”
Petty's cheeks were growing ruddy. “Miss Ellefson - ”
“Ms,” Chloe said for the hundredth time, and instantly regretted it. Petty undoubtedly persisted in the “Miss” stuff because it bugged her, and she'd vowed to stop reacting.
“Since it's already July, it's too late to plan and stage a battle this season,” Byron pointed out. “But we can do some limited programming.”
“That will give us a chance to make sure any unit involved is able to meet our standards,” Chloe added. “I know that's important to all of us.”
“May I remind you,” Petty said, “that there are many kinds of standards. You might not be so lofty, Miss Ellefson, if you received a call every Monday morning from the historic sites' division director, as I do. I report attendance and sales numbers, not educational abstractions. Program revenue keeps the gates open. Anyone who chooses to invest time and resources in experimental programming does so at his, or her, own peril.”
Had Ralph Petty just threatened them? Chloe really thought he had.
Petty twiddled a pen in his fingers. “I doubt if you can entice reenactors to come without offering a battle.”
Which shows how little you know about reenacting, Chloe thought. “Look, if we just - ”
“I'm finding this conversation very helpful,” Byron interrupted, making a big show of looking at his watch. “But Chloe and I are meeting representatives from a reenactment unit this afternoon. May we continue our discussion another time?”
“Very well.” Petty picked up a stack of papers and tapped the edges against his desk, which seemed to provide a sense of finality. “I expect you to discuss the possibility of a mock battle with the reenactors, Mr. Cooke.”
“Absolutely,” Byron promised.
He and Chloe made their escape. They left the euphemistically named Admin building—one of the small homes on a remote edge of the Old World Wisconsin's 576 acres, acquired by the historical society and forced into makeshift office duty—and headed to Byron's car. Once behind the wheel Byron slammed the door, leaned against the headrest, and closed his eyes.
Chloe slid into the passenger seat and considered her colleague. Byron was a few years younger than she was. He had unkempt brown hair and a tiny goatee, and wore prescription lenses in antique wire frames. As a talented interpreter and a conscientious educator he struggled to protect the best interests of the interpreters he supervised—a difficult slog when the site director had no experience in the interpretive trenches himself, and no empathy for those who did.
Byron straightened and eyed her bleakly. “Did Petty actually suggest that he'd fire us if we didn't draw a big crowd for our event?”
“He did.” Chloe exhaled slowly. “Do you have any idea why this particular conversation went so bad, so fast?”
Damn. “You may not have noticed,” she said, “but Ralph Petty really doesn't like me.”
“The mood might improve if I don't attend future planning meetings.” She looked out the window. Was she backing off to help Byron, or to protect herself? The latter possibility was infuriating. I need my job, she thought, but I will not scurry about like a frightened rabbit.
“We should have gone in pushing for a battle,” Byron muttered. “Petty would have been preaching the glories of social history in no time.” He turned the key in the ignition.
Chloe cranked down the window. The afternoon was all glaring sun and cloudless sky. She was tempted to hang her head out the window dog-like while Byron made the short drive from the Admin building to Old World Wisconsin's main gate. She had second thoughts when he hit the gas. Byron moved, and drove, at speeds clocked at “bat outta hell.”
She settled back in the seat. “Try not to let Petty get to you.”
“If we're going to do a Civil War event, I want to do it well.” He flicked on his blinker and turned onto Old World's entrance drive.
The landscape architects and historians who'd created the massive historic site within the Kettle Moraine State Forest a decade earlier, in the 1970s, had hidden the Visitor Center area from the road. The winding drive forced guests to meander, transitioning from modern life. Trees blocked the sun, and Chloe inhaled the cooler air hungrily.
Byron parked in the lot beneath towering pines. “We're actually early. I just had to get out of Petty's office.”
“Fine by me.” Now Chloe leaned back and closed her eyes. She'd had a short night. Way too short.
“Up late packing?” Byron asked. “When's moving day?”
“I haven't decided yet.” Chloe didn't want to think about moving day. “So. How did you connect with the reenactors we're meeting today?”
“You know Kyle Fassbender, right?”
Chloe thought back to the sessions about collections care she'd provided to the summer interpreters. “College kid? Long curly hair and a big smile?”
“That's him. He belongs to the 9th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, and says the group is a good fit for our mission.” Byron swiveled to look at her. “But...is Petty right? Will it take a battle to attract good reenactors?”
“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “We have three—three—working farms restored to the 1860s. Trust me, that alone will be a big draw.”
“I suppose so.”
“And we can prepare a big period dinner as a thank-you for the reenactors' time and contributions.” There were a dozen working kitchens among the fifty-plus historic buildings that had been painstakingly moved from rural Wisconsin to the historic site, and restored to dates ranging from 1845 to 1915.
“No problem.” Byron checked his watch and grabbed a satchel he'd tossed on the back seat. “We should go.”
Chloe put one hand on his arm. “Byron, have you ever attended a reenactment?”
“I've seen a few regiments marching in parades.”
“Well, here's the thing. Each unit has its own personality. They don't all have the same philosophy, and they don't all get along.” That was an understatement, but Chloe figured she'd ease Byron into the wonderful and messy world of Civil War reenacting.
“You're talking about their appearance?” Byron scratched one corner of his mouth. “I saw some guys who had fabulous impressions, and some who...” He searched for a polite description and settled for “...who didn't.”
“That's part of it. The trouble is that sometimes guys who look good aren't willing to engage with visitors. Sometimes the best educators wear polyester uniform coats. We need reenactors who look good, know a lot, and want to share with visitors.”
Byron nodded. “I won't make any commitments today.”
Chloe had done quite a bit of reenacting during her college and grad school years. She'd learned a lot, made dear friends, had some amazing experiences. She'd also met a few reenactors who'd gotten involved for all the wrong reasons.
She frowned. Stupid Petty. She really, really wanted to pull off a stellar Civil War event.
Maybe she just wanted to prove Ralph Petty wrong, and help stage a non-battle reenactment that left visitors satisfied, enlightened, and eager to learn more. Or maybe it was because recent life events were forcing her to reevaluate her priorities. She was trying to behave more like a responsible grownup, and less like a gypsy with an overactive imagination and a strong sense of wanderlust.
Whatever the cause, she decided to leave things at that. “Sounds good.”
As they walked to the Visitor Center green, Byron gestured toward a man in Union blue near the ticket booth. “There's one of our guys.”
Gunter Diederich was stocky, with blond hair and beard, maybe pushing forty. Behind period spectacles, his blue eyes glinted with animation. “So good to meet you!” he exclaimed, offering a firm handshake. “I started the 9th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment reenactment unit six years ago. My great-grandfather fought in the original 9th.”
“The 9th was composed primarily of German men, right?” Chloe asked. She'd been boning up.
“We have three Civil War-era farms.” Byron scratched a mosquito bite on his wrist. “Schulz is German, Kvaale is Norwegian, and Sanford was home to a Yankee family.”
“Excellent.” Gunter looked happy as a child at the zoo. “That will provide wonderful diversity.”
Chloe gave Gunter points for affability and interpretive focus. Now she sized up his impression: battered brogans, wool trousers tucked into heavy wool socks, a dusty sack coat with sergeant's bars on the sleeve. His sweat-stained shirt was an impressive linsey-woolsey repro. He looked good. Appearance: Check.
“Are we waiting for one more?” Byron asked.
“Steven—one of my pards—came early to see the site,” Gunter said. “His car's in the lot. I'm sure he'll be along.”
“Tell me more about your unit,” Chloe said. “Do you have a mission statement? Membership requirements?”
“We're open to anyone interested in learning about Wisconsin's Civil War soldiers. Our goals are to honor the memory of those who served, and to portray them as accurately as possible.”
“Do members have to be members of a firearms group? Or a certain political party?”
Byron looked startled, but Gunter merely shook his head. “No. We aren't a militia, and we avoid discussing modern politics.”
Check, check. “What kind of experience do you have?”
“We've done everything from big national events—ten, twelve thousand participants—to small living history presentations,” Gunter told her. “School programs. A few tacticals, military encampments at historic sites.”
Byron shot her a glance: Sound good to you? She gave him a tiny smile: So far, so good.
Gunter pulled an antique watch from it's pocket and opened the case. “Steven's fifteen minutes late.”
Everyone looked around. An old barn repurposed as a restaurant stood at one end of the Visitor Center 's grassy green, and an old barn repurposed as a gift shop and orientation center crowned the other. Visitors straggled toward the parking lot.
One family was picnicking. A young couple was snapping pictures with a disposable camera. No other Union volunteers were in sight.
Gunter shrugged. “Let's head out. He'll find us.”
They walked into the historic site proper, following a gravel road through the Crossroads Village. Organ music drifted from St. Peter's church, and a rhythmic clang echoed from the blacksmith shop. In the Hafford House yard an elderly woman in a blue plaid bustle dress supervised several children eagerly scrubbing laundry on a washboard. A young woman in a brown dress trimmed with lace walked briskly toward the inn, a basket over one arm.
I should come out on site every single day, Chloe thought wistfully. It was a magical place, one of the few living history museums in the country where it was possible to wander all day and still not see everything. She loved inhaling wood smoke, and the acrid tang of coal from the smith's forge, and the faint floury scent of native grass seed heads baking in the sun. She loved looking out the window of a period kitchen to see garden, and field, and prairie or woods beyond. She loved watching the seasons change—loved feeling them change, much as Wisconsin's early European and Yankee settlers had. Her responsibilities kept her indoors and behind the scenes all too often.
“Let's visit the German Area first,” Byron suggested. “The Schulz Farm has been restored to its 1860 appearance.”
“It would be wonderful if we could spend some time there during the event,” Gunter said eagerly. “Did you know that 1983 marks the tricentennial of the first German immigrants to land in America? They settled in Philadelphia.”
“Very cool,” Chloe agreed.
“What kind of activities do you have in mind?”
Byron and Chloe exchanged a glance. “Well,” Byron said, “perhaps a recruitment rally, and reenactment of the draft.”
Gunter looked chagrined. “If I'd known that I wouldn't have dressed campaign—style. But we can do early war. Most of the guys have a civilian impression.” They left the village and began down a hill. “And we could develop some wonderful vignettes for the guests. Have a few guys go to the German house looking for recruits, that kind of thing. I speak German, and I've been teaching the guys drill commands.”
Chloe was liking this guy more and more.
“Maybe invite visitors to muster in too.” Gunter rubbed his bearded chin with thumb and forefinger. “Kids love that.”
Byron smiled. Chloe could tell that he liked this guy too.
They passed a kettle pond, vestige of the last passing glacier, and started up the next hill. “So you're comfortable interacting with the public?” Chloe asked.
“Some of the guys are better at it than others,” Gunter conceded. “But when we're drilling or whatever, one person always hangs by the crowd to explain what's going on.”
Chloe wiped sweat from her eyes, glad she was wearing chinos and a short—sleeved shirt instead of wool. “Any women members in your unit?” she asked, before she could fall completely in love with the 9th Wisconsin. This was a very tricky topic.
“A few. Two have developed excellent farmwoman impressions. Sometimes they come into camp selling vegetables. And they know a lot about relief efforts. We've got several children who are great with period activities, too.”
Chloe caught Byron's eye: We can definitely work with these guys. He nodded.
At the top of the hill the Koepsell Farm, restored to its 1880 glory, emerged from the trees. Byron passed the beautiful farm by, stopping only when they rounded a bend. “There.” He pointed. “That's the Schulz Farm.”
Although familiar with the view, Chloe felt the spell. The land to their left was forested. Wheat rippled on their right. Beyond the field sat a tidy half-timbered home, and a stable and huge grain barn with thatched roofs. Laundry hung on a line. Oxen browsed in the pasture. It was a bubble moment—when everything looked and sounded and smelled and felt so real that for an instant, just an instant, it felt as if time had truly slipped.
Gunter stood transfixed. “We'd be honored to participate in programming here. This site is first-rate.”
“Schulz is very much a German farm,” Byron explained. “Unlike the farm we just passed, which is more German-American. In 1860 Charles and Auguste Schulz and their children had only been in Wisconsin for four years.”
“The architecture looks European.”
“The family came from Pomerania, in Prussia. Trees were scarce there, and the Old World house design minimized the use of wood. That explains the fachwerk.”
“Half-timbering,” Chloe clarified.
Byron nodded. “A clay-straw mixture was used in between the support beams to conserve wood. Wasting space on grass would have been inconceivable, so we've turned the front yard into a kitchen garden. Wood was plentiful here, but this is the style they knew.”
As they began walking again, an interpreter emerged from the back door. The young woman spread her apron and began shooing geese toward the stable. She wore a faded workdress, apron, kerchief—no fancy bustles or hoopskirts out here.
When several geese darted beyond the stable, she hurried after them. She stopped abruptly, half-hidden by a cart parked beside a straw pile. Then she turned and ran toward the house, skirt held high, scattering the honking geese. Noticing Byron, Chloe, and Gunter, the girl charged toward them, white petticoat and churning pantalets flashing, trampling wheat. “Byron!” she shrieked. “Byron!”
This was not good. Chloe and Byron began to run. When they reached the interpreter—Alyssa, wasn't it?—Chloe grabbed her arm. “What's wrong?”
Alyssa's eyes were huge. Her cheeks were white. She was one of the college kids, a summer hire with only a few weeks' experience. “Behind the stable—I—he was... Oh, God.” Her eyes welled with tears. “A man's hurt really bad.”
Chloe and Byron bolted. “Call 911!” Byron yelled over his shoulder at Alyssa. All of the historic homes had hidden emergency phones.
Chloe's skin prickled. Hurt really bad... The man might have had a heart attack after walking up German hill, or tripped and fallen against a farm implement. Chloe sent up a silent prayer: Please, please, please let him be OK.
Byron beat her to the stable, a two-story structure with an outside walkway on the second story. He ran around the mound of dirty straw—and stopped so abruptly that Chloe ran into him. She steadied herself, looked over his shoulder...and her heart plummeted like a stone tossed into a kettle pond.
A middle-aged man wearing a Union army uniform lay motionless on his back. The reenactor's head lay at an unnatural angle. His eyes were wide, vacant, staring at the sky. One arm was flung wide.
“Can I help?” Gunter asked behind her.
A vise squeezed Chloe's ribcage as she turned, blocking his view. Gunter shouldn't have to see his pard sprawled on the ground like a broken puppet. “I'm so sorry, but...I think it's your friend.”
Color seeped from Gunter's cheeks, and his eyes went wide. He took one deep breath. “Please. I was an army medic in 'Nam.”
Maybe I'm wrong, Chloe thought. Maybe Gunter can still help. She reluctantly stepped aside.
Gunter paused when he saw the body. Then he crouched and checked the carotid artery. “He's dead.” Gunter sat back on his heels. “But this isn't Steven.”
Byron's eyebrows shot skyward. “Then...who is it?”
Gunter shook his head. “I have no idea.”
A Memory of Muskets: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #7 © 2016 by Kathleen Ernst.