Like a bird of prey, Ethan swooped into the time and place he had sensed in his mind, drawn by the emanating force of a panicked entity launching into the void.
For an instant, he thought of his body in the laboratory in . What if this time they couldn’t keep his heart going? What would happen to him here? Did it matter?
Pointless to second-guess now. He thought himself into the poor wretch before him. He felt a great whooshing roar that tore his senses to shreds. An unbearable rush of energy became a nova of light, a star furnace.
Someone was screaming.
The sound rang through Ethan’s head like a church bell smacked with a thousand hammers.
And pain. He had never known pain like this. It swept in fiery waves through every cell in his body, pulsing, searing, and forcing him to scream.
Suddenly, coolness and quiet flowed through him, but the pain continued. His head shrieked with it. He opened his eyes to a dim image of a face, hairy and desperate looking.
“Thought ya was dead, kid. Spooked the hell out of me, you caterwauling’ like that.”
Ethan’s mouth felt dry as ashes. When he tried to speak, his throat hissed.
“Here, Youngblood. Wet yer whistle.” The face moved to the side and Ethan heard metal clinking. A tin canteen loomed into view and, in a second, water dribbled into his mouth. He coughed and then swallowed, the muscles of his throat rebelling at this intrusion. He gagged.
“Here, let’s take a good look at ya.” Hands lifted Ethan’s head. Agony scorched through him. The dim world of trees and rocks spun in his vision and he reached out a hand to steady himself.
The pain focused in the left side of his skull. Ethan reached up with his left hand, but he had terrible control. The hand clunked against his head and a fresh wave of nausea ran through him. Sweat flowed from every pore. He tried again and this time the fingers of his left hand felt a hard crusty mass. What had happened to this poor devil?
The light rose quickly. Ethan heard birds chattering in the underbrush. The damp smell of rotting leaves and his own body odor combined into a sickening miasma. His left eye had swollen almost shut, but through his right eye he observed the short wiry man who squatted in front of him.
“Kid, I swear you stopped breathin’ last night. How you feel?”
Eyes as blue as a mountain lake peered out from a filthy face. Wrinkles mapped the tanned, leathery terrain around the eyes and down around the sharp beak of a nose that poked out above more beard than any face should be able to grow. The bushy blackness gave way to patches of gray around the mouth.
“Wheh’m I?” Ethan could barely shape the words.
“Don’t remember? Hell, I don’t blame ya. After the shit-kickin’ we got last night, I wish I could forget it too.”
Ethan kept fingering the left side of his head. It felt like a groove ran from front to back. “Here, let’s take a look-see.” The wiry man hunkered down. “Whooee. How the hell ya still alive, kid? Looks like a plow ran across yer head. Goddamn bluebelly bastards.” He touched gingerly at Ethan’s wound. “Ain’t bleedin’ no more. Guess that’s good. Quarter inch lower and yer brains would be in the dirt.”
In the rising glow of the pink dawn, Ethan examined his companion. Filthy and tattered jacket and pants hung from a gaunt frame. The square-collared jacket stood open, revealing long johns that once had been red, but that now sported a collection of dark stains. One lone brass button clung to the gray jacket near the throat.
“Cole, ya look like shit. Can ya walk? We best skedaddle afore it gets much lighter, get you a doctor.”
The wiry man stood and stretched and surveyed the area. They seemed to be alone in the world, except for the chittering of insects and the calls of blue jays. A breeze stirred the leaves of the surrounding maple woods to a rushing sound like stream rapids.
Then a sound not of nature punctuated the morning peace: a loud puff, muffled and indistinct in the distance. Another and another quickly followed it until a constant chuffing filled the air, as from a hundred steam engines. The sudden roar of a single explosion dwarfed that sound. Ethan felt the ground stir. Then more explosions ripped the morning calm.
“Goddamn Yankees don’t believe in breakfast.” Ethan’s companion unbuttoned the front of his trousers and urinated into a bush. He rebuttoned, then reslung his leather satchel over his left shoulder. From under its flap, the butt ends of two pistols protruded. He picked up a rifle taller than him, extended his left hand to Ethan, and said, “C’mon, Cole, we cain’t stay here.”
Ethan felt the man’s callused paw wrap around his right hand, then a dizzying pull that suddenly left him on his feet. The fresh new green world spun in his vision and Ethan almost fell. “C’mon, lean on me til ya git yer bearin’s.”
Muscles that had been dead rebelled against the first hellish steps. But slowly, Ethan’s new heart pumped and blood flowed and his new body began to respond.
In no time at all, the sun launched into the sky and the humidity under the trees grew stifling. Ethan’s shuffling gait slowly improved to actual walking and after half an hour, he no longer needed to lean on his companion. The overarching tree canopy broke and they found themselves at the edge of a muddy track. On the other side of the road a field sported tall emerald shafts of corn.
“C’mon, Cole.” They trudged into the field and became invisible among the broad-leafed plants. Ethan watched his companion’s nimble fingers shuck an ear of corn to expose big yellow kernels. The end of the ear disappeared into the cloud of beard and the blue eyes flashed. With yellow bits erupting from his mouth, the older man said, “Dive in. May not be so lucky tomorrow.”
Ethan yanked an ear off one of the larger plants and struggled to get his fingers to pull back the protective leaves. He had trouble with the dexterity needed to pluck off the fine strands of corn silk. By the time his companion had polished off two ears, Ethan had barely started on his first. As Ethan gazed up into the cloudless sky, his teeth raked into the tight kernels and an explosion of sweet juice erupted in his mouth. Had food ever tasted this good?
Ethan held out his free hand and saw long fingers at the end of a thin hand. His wrist protruded from a green shirt sleeve streaked with long runnels of dried blood, now dark brown in the sunlight. Threadbare denim trousers. Heavy brown boots, scuffed and mud-covered.
When the sugar from the corn hit his bloodstream Ethan felt giddy. All he had were the worn out clothes on his back – well, it wasn’t even his back, was it? In horrible pain and half-starved, yet he reveled in being alive. Munching corn under a blistering sun with sweat running down his back, listening to the sounds of battle in the middle distance, he was aware of how precious all of this was.
Somewhere in this place and this time he felt sure was near. But how to find her?
“What’s your name?” His unused voice rasped.
The blue eyes squinted. “Ya joshin’ me, kid?”
“I...I can’t remember anything.”
His hairy compatriot stopped chewing. “Ain’t shittin” me?”
“I don’t remember anything before this morning.”
He spat out his corn and crouched close to Ethan. He peered into Ethan’s eyes and then examined the wound on the side of Ethan’s head. “Spect you would have yer brains addled after gettin’ shot like that. My name’s Jones. Jasper Jones. Ring any bells?”
Ethan started to shake his head, but the pain stopped him. Instead, he said, “No. Sorry.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry about. You got that damnesia.” Jasper chuckled. “Sometimes I wish I could get it. There’s lots I’d like to forget.” He settled cross-legged on the grass that grew between the cornrows. “Let’s chow up and rest. Then we gotta make a beeline back to .”
“Where are we?” was only a few miles from Ethan’s farm.
“West slope of South Mountain.” Pointing to the west, he said, “Back where we come from is . We been holdin’ the road that cuts through this gap in till Lee gets set up in and Stonewall Jackson gets back from Harper’s Ferry. Then we’ll be ready to take on these bluebelly bastards.” He gestured back the way they had come. “But they don’t seem to be wantin’ to cooperate with our plans. They’re boilin’ up out the like red ants. Once they get through the gap, ain’t nothin’ can stop ’em til they reach Sharpsburg.”
“How’d I get shot?”
“We was down in the gap after sunset to see if we could pick off some officers in camp. They always stand around their fires like it’s a church social. Had a real good spot on a little outcropping. Could see all the way down into the valley. I picked off three of the bluebellies. You got two. Then some bastards rode up on horses and we skedaddled. We was runnin, they was shootin’, and one of ’em got lucky. You went down like a sacka taters. Some of our boys let loose from the trees and the Yanks backed off long enough so’s I could drag you out of there.”
“Damn good ones, too. Too bad you dropped that sweet Sharps rifle down a ravine.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m still a girl, Cole. Jes this side of fifty.” The beard parted enough to show yellow, beaver teeth.
“What about me? What do you know about me?”
“Met ya six months ago down the Shenandoah. Some of the lads was havin’ a leetle shootin’ match and you won. My friends started braggin’ on me and when I got back to camp, they drug me over. You don’t remember none of this?”
“Well, we commenced to shootin’ and we went at it all afternoon. Them damn camp sitters musta had a thousand dollars bet amongst ‘em. Crowd kept gettin’ bigger. Finally, General Longstreet hisself come over and watched us.”
“Hell, we both did. Longstreet got so impressed, he told us we was too good to be infantry. He made us snipers right on the spot. Had us report directly to General Bobbie Toombs. Toombs lets us wander all over hell an’ back, long as we keep makin’ vacancies in the Yankee officer corps. Hell, five boys are thankin’ us today for their field promotions last night. And we’ll get those five tomorrow.”
“But who won the shooting match?”
A corncob went back into Jasper’s mouth and he looked off to his right. He chewed as he spoke. “Seems I had some bad powder. Had a weak load and my shot fell short.”
“So, I won?”
“You should win, Youngblood. Yer half my age. Wait til you have’ta squint ta see.”