Sprays of soil erupted from the road below us as Silas and I dove into the ditch to escape the Federals’ bullets. Others of our unit jumped in the ditch behind us, but the buzz of the bullet flying directly over my head ended in a wet thok! as the man behind me fell to the road.

Silas and I lay flat on our bellies, below the line of sight of the enemy. Blasts of gun fire and the whirring of bullets continued. The ditch was deeper on this side of the road, and was why so many of our men were dashing across. One man tripped and fell into the ditch on top of me, and then wedged himself between me and the man to my right. I scooted closer to Silas on my left. He was my mentor and my comfort. He’d been in these situations before. I had not.

“Damn it! Hold off!” Silas yelled behind us. “We can’t fit no more over here!”

That didn’t stop more men from trying. I heard running on the road and looked in time to see the back of a man’s neck spray red behind him.

“Hold off, you bastards!” Silas yelled.

There were just under two hundred of us in the ditches to either side of the road, using either the ditch or the road itself as breastworks. We had spotted the Federals shortly after dawn, and engaged them in long-range harassment about an hour later. We had followed them while they retreated across the fields, crossed this road, and then took a stand in the woods about one hundred yards in front of us.

Our men finally stopped trying to dash across the road; too many of our unit lay dead and dying already. Every time I raised my head to position my rifle, a fresh salvo erupted from the trees. They couldn’t possibly be after me personally, but I couldn’t even move without bullets flying past or plocking into the dirt just inches from my head to shower me with sand. Silas had told me this was a man’s war. I tucked my hands under my body to hide the shaking.

“You’re awfully still there, Stretch,” Silas said and elbowed me. “Speak to me, son.”

“I’m all right,” I said. I’d seen plenty of men dead since the war started, but today was the first time I’d seen a man die. “Is it always this rough?”

“Hell, Stretch, this ain’t but a rear guard action,” Silas said. “The main Yankee army is probably a mile away. They’d have crushed us already if this was the main force.”

The firing died down to pot shots the Federals were taking at us crouching, pissing, and praying men in the ditches. Some of our men returned fire, but it was not as fierce as I had hoped and it was impossible to tell what effect it might have in advancing our cause.

My shaking slowed to where I thought I would be able to take up a firing position. I rose to all fours to peek over the edge of the ditch.

“Stay down, you fool!” Silas slammed his elbow into my ribs. I fell flat to my belly.

“Slither like a snake, Stretch,” Silas said. “Lead with your rifle, hands in front of you, and use your gun to part the grass. Only slither far enough so you can see what’s what and no farther.” Silas demonstrated and I followed suit.

Smoke lingered over the hay field between us and the Federals. Puffs of smoke appeared from the trees less than a second before I heard the crack of the powder. Each shot made me flinch backward into the ditch.

“Okay, Stretch,” Silas whispered even though our men and theirs cried out, some in rage, some in pain. “Can you see anything blue?”


“Give it time. Just keep looking and when you see a shot take it.”

It didn’t take long. A plume of smoke followed by a report came from one of the bushes. Blue flashed into my sight when the gunman sat back to reload. My hands started shaking again.

“Hammer, Stretch,” Silas said.

I cocked the hammer and took aim. I jerked back too hard on the trigger, sending the muzzle of my gun too high. The pop of the cap startled me, I jerked the gun up and my first shot in anger burst in my ear and sent the ball ineffectually into the sky and the butt of my gun painfully into my shoulder.

“Reload! Reload!” Silas shouted.

I tried to get onto all fours again to crawl backwards into the ditch, but a hissing ball flew past and sent me to my belly again.

“Roll onto your back,” Silas said. “Hand over hand, bring your rifle down over your body and reload while still on your back.”

I did as Silas said and was soon reloaded and slithering on my belly to look over the rim of the ditch.

The firing of the Yankees stopped. Before long our entire line was quiet, listening. Although we couldn’t hear any voices, the Federals made no attempt to hide the fact they were still there, as we could hear their footsteps in the leaves and the occasional clink of metal.

“What are they doing?” I asked. “Why have they stopped?”

“Mount your bayonet, Stretch,” Silas said as he reached down to unsheathe his. “I’m not sure, but I think they might—”

A bugle blew and the Federals charged from the trees, shouting and bayonets mounted.

I cocked the hammer and took aim.

“No! Bayonet!” Silas shouted. “You won’t have time for both!”

I fumbled with my bayonet as the Yankees charged. They came in a loose line with each man about ten feet from the next. The more foolish of our men stood to meet the charge, only to be cut down by the gunfire that rained across the field between the charging men. Silas and I remained on our bellies.

The pause before the charge had allowed our men to prepare and they now returned fire. I did not shoot, as I watched Silas out of the corner of my eye to make sure I did it at exactly the right time. He did not shoot and therefore neither did I.

Some of the Federals had fallen in the exchange, but a few kept coming. More gunfire came from the trees, and our men fired at opportunity. Only a few of the Federals made it to our position, and these were quickly eliminated by revolver, bayonet, or rifle.

Another bugle blew, and a second, but much smaller, line of Federals burst from the trees.

“What the hell?” Silas said. “That’s suicide!”

Indeed this second charge didn’t make it halfway across the field before their line broke amid gunfire from both sides, sending men hither and yon on the field.

I saw a lone Federal run toward our line, only to stop and then break for the trees behind him. He stopped after a few steps and turned to look at our lines. I took aim. He assumed the charging stance again, but then turned on his heel and ran for the trees.

The detonation of my cap was nearly instantaneous with the report of my powder, filling the palm of my hand with a satisfying recoil and a reassuring push on my shoulder. Without looking I rolled onto my back and, hand over hand, worked my gun over my body to reload.

The Yankee bugle blew again, and a cheer went up from our line.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They’re retreating, Stretch!” Silas smiled broadly. “We won this one!”

“Oh, thank God!”

Most of us sat tight while scouts were sent to be sure the Federals had indeed quit the field. They had.

We climbed out of our ditches and walked across the field. Any recovered weapons were to be turned in to the Quartermaster.

I looked back to where our line was, and then back at the trees. I checked one place, only to find nothing there. I compared our line to the trees again, and checked another place. A wounded Federal private lay in the grass, foaming blood oozing from the hole in his chest. He looked at me and grimaced in pain, his eyes full of confusion and betrayal.

Another Federal lay a few feet away, the back of his head missing and pink chunks laying in the grass where he fell.

I looked around the field, and several more wounded and dead Federals were being tended to or carried away.

“Whatcha looking for, Stretch?” Silas asked as he walked by.

“Something. Um, nothing.”

Silas cocked his head slightly and scowled. “It’s not nothing.”

I looked back at the chest-wounded soldier and then at the dead one. I couldn’t tell.

“Silas, do you remember your first one?” I asked.

Silas stared at me stonily and then turned away. “It’s been a long war, Stretch.”

“But do you remember it? Uh, him?”

Silas sighed and then looked back at me. “No, Stretch, I don’t.”

“I figured I’d be able to tell somehow.”

Silas turned to go but then stopped. He turned back to face me. He looked at me for a few long seconds and then drew in a breath to say something. His face exploded in a spray of bone, teeth, and blood.

“Sharpshooter!” someone yelled.

We all ducked as a Corporal ran to a tree on the edge of the woods and drew his revolver. One shot sent the Yankee crashing to the ground.

We stayed on our guard for a few more seconds, listening for more sharpshooter shots. There were none and the Corporal pressed a crew into service examining the trees for more.

I stepped to where Silas fell. There was nothing I could do. I took up his gun, powder, and supplies and took them to the Quartermaster back at the road.

“Silas’s gun,” I said as I handed it to him.

I was numb. I sat on the road and my mind went blank as the Quartermaster turned Silas’s rifle over in his hands. He rubbed his finger over the scratches on the stock, evidence of many hard treks over rocks and through fields, and brushed his hand over the parts where Silas’s hands had worn the finish. It had been a long war, indeed.

The Quartermaster flicked the cap off the nipple with his thumbnail and then worked the hammer and trigger to release it. The Quartermaster paused, looked at the gun and scowled. He brought the gun to his nose and sniffed the shiny nipple. He scowled again and brought the bore to his nose. He sniffed again.

“Nice piece,” the Quartermaster said. “Ain’t never even been fired, I don’t think.”

# # #

The Battle of Hutchinson's Crossroads by Chris J. Peterson
originally published in the Winter 2011 print edition



Chris J. Peterson’s fiction has appeared in Port Iris, Ruthless Peoples, and the Piker Press and at 365Tomorrows.com. He also has published 54 scientific articles in scholarly, trade, and popular magazines.

For more of Chris' work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2011:
Interrogate My Heart Instead

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