Gardner stepped down from the wagon and stood in a pool of blood. The stench of shit and decay hung heavy in the early morning mist.
“I don’t know that I can do this, Mr. Gardner,” said O’Sullivan, frozen in his seat.
“Aye, you can.” Gardner removed the grey raincoat he’d purchased just before leaving Glasgow and placed it in the wagon. He gestured toward a tree a few yards away, directing O’Sullivan to tie the horses to a low-slung branch.
There were still hundreds of casualties strewn about, not all of them dead. Bodies stirred and soft moans floated across the meadow, begging to Christ for a bullet to the head.
Gardner had privately noted this particular spot on the battlefield the day before, when the artillery and cannon fire had driven him to seek refuge back along the perimeter of Gettysburg. Here, two ledges of granite met to form a sharply angled corner. Someone had piled small rocks in the gap between them, creating a wall tall enough to allow a sharpshooter to take aim at the rebel soldiers on the ridge below.
O’Sullivan unloaded the box camera and equipment from the wagon as Gardner stepped gingerly around the bodies, sometimes squatting, cocking his head to gauge angles and perspective.
“Come here, Timothy,” Gardner finally said. He guided his assistant around to stand in front of him and placed a hand on the back of O’Sullivan’s neck. Leaning in to the young man’s ear, he said, “Tell me which one.”
O’Sullivan turned his head away from the clusters of dead men. He stared through the fog, back toward the encampment.
Gardner squeezed O’Sullivan’s neck. “C’mon, lad, bear up. We’re blessed with a break from the rain, but it’ll surely be starting up again, soon enough.”
The assistant turned back and swallowed. “Him. That one there.” O’Sullivan pointed. “He has some blood, but not too much. His eyes are open. And he hasn’t been dead long. He’s not stiff yet.”
“Aye. Good man.” Gardner slapped him on the back.
Gardner strode over to the body, waving for O’Sullivan to follow. Taking the dead soldier’s feet and shoulders, the two men rose together and shuffled toward the stone wall. Off in the distance, they heard the soft pop of a single rifle and indistinct shouting.
O’Sullivan’s face was pale and his arms trembled as they lay the soldier on his back, the heels of his boots scraping against the bottom of the wall. Stepping away, he watched as Gardner arranged the soldier’s arms to give the effect of having fallen backward from a shooting position. Gardner lifted the head and turned the face toward the camera. He pried the mouth open but placed his thumbs over the eyelids, pressing them shut.
“A haunting image is needed but we musn’t take it too far,” he said.
Gardner returned to the group of casualties, picking up a cap, a tin cup, and a leather ammunition bag. “Looks like the officers have already gathered up the guns, Timothy,” he said, scattering his chosen items at the base of the wall, “Please get the rifle from the prop box.”
He took his time placing the gun, leaning it against the wall at an angle pointing heavenward. He walked back and slid the glass plate into the opening at the rear of the camera. Making a slight adjustment to the wooden tripod, he removed the lens cap.
“Fourteen seconds, I should think,” he said to himself, studying the sweeping hand on his pocket watch.
O’Sullivan noted the absence of a uniform on the dead man. “I wonder. Is he Union or Confederate?”
Gardner said nothing until the exposure was complete. “He is what the viewers want him to be,” he finally replied as he replaced the lens cap and pocketed his watch. “Mr. Brady’s orders are for images with broad impact, in order to attract the most viewers to his gallery. And that is what he shall have.”
The back of the wagon groaned as the assistant stepped into the portable darkroom to develop the plate. Gardner walked back toward the rocks and squatted next to the soldier. He slid his hand inside the coat and found a small, half-carved wooden horse, which he first took to be a child’s toy but soon realized was a chess piece, a knight. There was also a sealed letter, addressed to a Miss Clarice Turnbow of Hopewell, Pennsylvania. He returned the items back to where he’d found them.
Gardner checked to make sure that O’Sullivan was still in the darkroom, then walked to one end of the rocky ledge. Leaning over with his palms against the stone, he vomited up the meager breakfast he’d eaten at daybreak. He spit into the dirt. “Good God, Marie,” he whispered in anguish to his faraway wife. Wiping his mouth against the back of his hand, he straightened and made his way back to the wagon.
The mist was lifting and thunder rolled over the ridge by the time O’Sullivan finally climbed into the wagon. Reaching for the reins, he handed Gardner a horseshoe. “Toby threw a shoe on the way down the hill,” he said.
Gardner felt the heft of the iron in his palm. “’Tis a fine job you did this morning, Timothy.” He took one last look at the sharpshooter lying there as O’Sullivan steered the horses and wagon around to head back up the rise. “This afternoon, if the rain holds off, you shall take charge of choosing the next setting.”
“We’ll need to stop by the camp blacksmith on our way back, before lunch,” O’Sullivan said, clicking his tongue at the horses to get them moving.
Gardner straightened his back and closed his hand around the curve of the horseshoe. “A landscape setting, I should think. A few men, a building or two, and a cannon. Mr. Brady will definitely require a cannon.”
This story was written as a flash fiction exercise (less than 1,000 words) suggested by Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. Four random items were chosen from a list and were to be integrated into an original story. I chose a chess piece, a child’s toy, an unopened letter, and an iron horse shoe. If you’re interested, you can read what other writers came up with by clicking on the links in the comments of Chuck’s original post.
© Copyright 2013 – Michele Nelson