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
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
“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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
The Yankee bugle
blew again, and a cheer went up from our line.
“What happened?” I
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.
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.
for, Stretch?” Silas asked as he walked by.
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
“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,
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
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.
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