“Halt.” Two young troopers appeared from behind the trunk of a huge sycamore.
“Sorry ta wake ya ladies.” Jasper kept walking at his steady gait.
“Hey, I said stop.” The taller of the two pickets stepped forward and hefted his musket.
“Young’un, don’t strain yerself on my account. You might bust a gut liftin’ that piece of iron.”
“You give me the password, old man, or I’ll blow yer damn head off,” he said, the musket now at his shoulder.
Jasper stopped and took off his grimy hat. He scratched his scalp through a mat of black, oily hair and then replaced the hat. “Boy, you best be savin’ that powder for when the Yanks come over that hill back yonder. You’ll get all the shootin’ you ever wanted.”
The young man’s eyes darted back to where Jasper pointed. In that instant, the old warrior took two quick steps forward, grabbed the musket barrel and directed it skyward with his left hand while his right hand pressed his Walker .44 Dragoon into the picket’s chest. Ethan blinked and the other picket stood dumbfounded.
“Boy, never let a man get that close to ya when ya got the drop on ’im.” Jasper released the musket barrel. In the quiet, hot air, the click of his revolver seemed overly loud as he lowered the hammer. “The password is ‘garter’ since ya asked.”
Jasper holstered his and picked up his rifle. “Where ya from, boy? Yer lingo sounds like down way.”
“Close enough. I studded my way through them parts twenty years ago. So show some respect. You could be the bastard son of a bastard son.”
“Yer a crazy old coot.”
“Rightly so. All the more reason to show some respect. Never know when I might blow my top.” Jasper turned and clapped Ethan on the shoulder. “C’mon, Cole, let’s let these fellers get back to their beauty sleep. They need it. ’Specially that one.”
Two miles ahead, billows of dust towered like cumulus clouds in the still air. In the distance, horses and men scurried around with no apparent purpose.
“Damn, they’re pullin’ out. They be General Hill and Longstreet’s boys.”
Ethan knew this place on the western slope of South Mountain. Without thinking Ethan croaked out a word. “Bolivar.”
Jasper’s blue eyes squinted at Ethan. “Memory comin’ back?”
Ethan had to be careful. “Don’t know.”
The men and equipment in the distance began moving to the southwest. “Must be fallin’ back. We do a lot of that,” Jasper said. “You won’t be seein’ a doctor soon, Cole. Not til we get to .”
Ethan’s head had cleared a bit. “Jasper, what’s today’s date?”
“Hell if I know.”
“Do you know the month, the year?”
“September in the Year of Our Lord 1862.”
Ethan almost fainted. He had grown up in this valley. He knew the stories handed down by the old-timers. He had read dozens of books on the Civil War. If he and Jasper had engaged Union troops last night, today had to be September 16. Tomorrow, the Battle of Antietam would start, the single bloodiest day of the whole Civil War. Thirty thousand casualties.
“My God, what have I gotten myself into?” He barely muttered it, but Jasper heard.
“Yer in the middle of a great big war, son. American style. Men fightin’ for ideas, some fightin’ for money, some jes fightin’ cause it’s better than pushin’ a plow. And ever damn man that dies is an American. We gotta be the craziest people on the face of this green earth.” Jasper cackled and then spit out the twig he’d been chewing.
It felt as if someone had drilled a hole in Ethan’s forehead, then driven in a railroad spike. An unwavering shaft of pain scorched across his skull, front to back. He gritted his teeth until the pain abated a little.
A chestnut mound of hair lay in the sun at the edge of the road. Only as they drew close could Ethan make out the distended shape as that of a horse. A million flying emeralds danced across the carcass, glinting in the sun. As the pair approached, the brocade of flies shifted but they would not rise from their feast. A hum like a dozen beehives filled the air.
As the pair passed downwind of the bloated thing, they stepped into an unbreathable wave of stench. Both men grabbed their noses and quick-stepped for twenty paces until the horrible breath of decay was replaced by the loamy odor of the churned earth kicked up by the footsteps of the thousand men who had tramped this road and the adjoining fields not an hour earlier. They still heard the hum of the feasting flies.
Ethan felt road grit in his mouth. His skin itched from the dirt caked on it and the sweat that poured from his body. The coarse fabric of his pants rasped across the raw insides of his thighs. This body had done a lot of walking.
The light was real. The death was real. Though it pained him to move his head, Ethan peered around himself. He saw details of reality etched into every mote of being, every leaf on every tree, every ragged wisp of cloud. He knew he was not dreaming.
I am in a different place and I still exist.
They trudged down the until they came to Boonsboro at the intersection with the , where they stopped and slouched in the cool shade of a silver maple tree. The sun outside their shelter created heat shimmers even though the day had barely started. All around them they saw signs of hasty retreat: shreds of newspapers, burlap sacks, smoking cook fires. “Long walk to . Let’s wait here and see if we cain’t secure some transport.”
They settled on their haunches with their backs against the cool gray bark of the massive trunk. “Even them stupid federals won’t have trouble trackin’ this army.” Jasper gestured to the trampled land around them. “Flies and horseshit. Just a highway of horseshit to wherever we are.”
Booming cannons sounded like thunderstorms in the dense air. Townsfolk passing along the road shot furtive glances in their direction, but said nothing to these bringers of war with the rumbling backdrop that was their calling card. The citizens of Boonsboro, some of them for the rebels and some against, suddenly cared nothing for politics. They just hoped it would all pass them by as it had for a year and a half.
After resting fifteen minutes, the pair began the trek to , passing along the edge of Ethan’s home town. Looking across the farmland, he marveled at how the countryside looked almost exactly the same as in his own time. Different trees, but the land’s contours seemed as familiar to him as his own yard. He knew some of the houses, but in this time they were only exposed logs and chinking, not the aluminum and vinyl sided facades that he remembered. The stone houses remained exactly the same, just newer, the mortar bright and clean. He half expected to see someone he knew along the road. He had a wild notion to find his own house.
A dirt track led off to the right. Ethan could not stop his feet from heading down it.
“Hey, Youngblood, the road goes thisaway.”
“Jasper, it’s a little detour. Stay on the road if you want.” But the tough little man followed Ethan.
Ethan recognized his land, saw what would become his house in the distance. The brick addition had not yet been built, but the core of the structure looked so familiar. With a sense of foreboding, he gazed up at the hill behind the house. He heard Beth’s laughter as her dragon kite navigated the air currents of that afternoon so long ago. The hill grew hay, just as in his time.
“Jasper. Mind waiting here for me?”
“I know this family. I just want to say hello.”
“Don’t take long.” Jasper settled on a stone and tugged an ear of corn out of his satchel.
Without thinking, Ethan’s feet wove through rock outcroppings on their way to the barn. The tree. Where was it?
Looking nothing like its bonelike remnant, the oak spread out at the edge of the corral behind the barn. In this time a healthy tree, deep green and fully leafed, it stretched thirty feet high with a trunk two feet across. It would more than triple in size by his time.
With almost fearful slowness, Ethan passed under the shadow of the oak’s lower limbs, approached the trunk. He pressed his fingers against the gray bark and willed himself inside the tree, deep into its roots. He wanted to hide there, away from this mad time.
Ethan stood motionless under the shaded umbrella of the oak and peered up. Tiny razors of sunlight sliced through the moving leaf canopy, disappearing and reappearing in a random flicker show.
The coolness of space touched him. Without thinking, Ethan felt outward with his power. He could feel the currents of time buoying him along. He willed himself to stand like the oak, defying time, defying the interwoven forces that held him in their skein. For an instant, the motes of light became motionless, particles of dust and pollen suspended in their individual shafts of illumination. Sounds Dopplered down the spectrum to a low rumble.
Frozen, like an ant in amber, Ethan’s body stood as motionless as everything else. He looked around himself using the power, the awareness that had been his since birth. For once it was not random, not an image thrust upon him. He controlled it. He felt the intersection of time and space in this exact instant and he gained a tiny fragment of understanding of how they fit together.
This is the place.
He wanted to stay in this place and wait however long it took for Beth and the lightning to arrive. He wanted to let the world flow around him so he would be here when she needed him. He would think of something to do to change her fate.
I don’t know how.
He pulled his fingers away from the tree trunk and felt a vast emptiness rise in his soul. His “now” began to move. He stepped back into the stream of time, allowed himself to be swept along. And he suddenly felt very weak, as if he had run a mile. He leaned his back against the oak and slid down to a sitting position, trying hard not to faint.
“Hey there, what ya doin’?”
Groggy, Ethan looked up. A tall man in bib overalls and not much else hobbled across the dappled grass toward Ethan. Though he wasn’t brandishing it, a revolver hung at the end of his right arm.
“You all right, feller?”
As the old man got close, Ethan felt a lurch in his chest. That face. Ethan’s eyes went wide in shock.
The face of his father.
“Lord Amighty, what happened to you?” The old man stood close now and his eyes locked on the trench of scab along Ethan’s skull.
“That’s an understatement.”
Ethan’s eyes stared into the old man’s face. Even his timbered voice sounded like Ethan’s father. “What’s your name?” Ethan said.
“Caleb. Caleb West. And what’s yours, young fellow?” Though solicitous, the old man exhibited caution.
“Ethan. I…I mean Cole.” He caught himself. “Ethan Cole.”
“From your clothes I’d guess you were a southerner, Ethan Cole, but you don’t have the twang. Where you from?”
Ethan almost laughed. “From very far away, Mr. West.”
Caleb West squinted his dark eyes, but let it pass. “You feelin’ poorly? Want a sip from the well?”
“That would be very nice.” Ethan struggled to his feet and took a few unsteady steps. Then his head cleared and he started to walk. Separated by fifty years of age, the two men’s movements looked amazingly similar as they shuffled through the dust and around a corner of the barn. One shuffled from age, the other from injury.
They ambled around the left corner of the house and Ethan saw the pump exactly where he remembered it. Next to it stood a thin wisp of a woman, no more than a girl, struggling to lift a heavy wooden bucket to her hip and turning toward them. Her shiny chestnut hair drifted in soft waves to her waist, in dark contrast to the pale blue shift she wore.
Her green eyes met Ethan’s and a small cry erupted from her. The bucket dropped and water splashed across her calves as her two thin hands flew to her mouth. She stood motionless, her eyes lit with fright.
“Girl, don’t stand there gawkin’ like you saw another one of your ghosts. Help this man get a drink.”
In that instant of recognition, Ethan knew what she had seen. He tried to ease through the moment by grabbing the pump handle and levering it several times. As cool water flowed out the spout, he cupped his hands under it and lifted water to his mouth. He repeated the process several times until he slaked his thirst. Then he filled the canteen at his belt. The young woman’s eyes never left him.
“I best be on my way. Thank you for your hospitality.” Ethan had to get out of there. His head spun from the heat and the realization of who these people were. He had to get away before he did something that would affect their lives. He knew that look. This had to be one of his great-great-grand mothers. She had seen who he really was. She was a witcher too.
Ethan turned and shuffled away at his fastest speed, ignoring the hammer that beat in his head. He wanted to run, but he couldn’t. In seconds, his pulse speeded and sweat poured out of him. He could feel the girl’s eyes burning into his back.
When he rounded the barn and got out of her sightline he felt relieved, but he did not slacken his pace until he was through a stand of trees and saw Jasper lolling at the edge of the road.
“Look like ya saw a ghost.”
Ethan almost said that he was the ghost, but thought better of it.
“They kin to ya?”
Able to manage a faint smile, Ethan said, “Yes. Very distant kin.”
Ten minutes later a stout wooden wagon hauled by a skinny brown horse trundled up behind them. Jasper stepped out into the middle of the road and waved his arms. “Hey, there, can we git a ride ta Sharpsburg?”
The beady-eyed farmer swallowed his Adam’s apple. He clearly didn’t want anything to do with them. He eyed the proliferation of weapons Jasper carried. The tone of his voice belied what he said. “Part way. Hop on.”
The empty cart tossed and vibrated from ruts in the road. Dust poured up between the planks of the cargo bed. Jasper hung his legs over the rear and Ethan stretched out on his back. After a few minutes, the jouncing felt so bad Ethan had to sit up. A cloud of flinty-tasting grit clawed into Ethan’s throat causing a cough that rang like a canon through his head. Ethan retied the bandana that he’d noticed around his neck so that it covered his mouth and nose. He tried to cope with the daggers that sliced through his skull with every unexpected lurch and prayed he wouldn’t cough again.
Why here? Why this place, this time?
He tried to go back to that moment of contact with and relive that nanosecond of recognition. He had felt her twisting into a place. He had re-approached that moment a hundred times, trying to glean some information on how the movement, the displacement, worked. He had jumped through time enough now that he had a feeling for it more than an understanding. Just as he couldn’t explain exactly how he rode a bicycle, he couldn’t put exact thoughts to this experience, but somehow, deep inside, he was getting the sense of it. That feeling had brought him here. But what should he do now?
Would he have to live out decades of life in this body trying to find her? Or might he be in the wrong place altogether?
Ethan sensed some different understanding just out of his grasp, like hearing a conversation from down a long hallway, familiar voices and words echoing, but distorted to incomprehensibility. A magic word that hung just out of reach could cut his tethers and fly him to a better understanding. But for now he had to slog minute by minute, hoping.
At the edge of town, Jasper grabbed Ethan’s arm and pulled him off the moving wagon. “Over this way.” Walking felt much better that riding after the jarring Ethan’s head had gotten. Now mid-day, the sun baked the hardscrabble road into a reddish dust that rose with each footfall and clung to their boots and pants. Twenty minutes of trudging along high corn and hay fields brought them to a small valley on the far side of which horses and men scrambled. Here they saw intact uniforms that, in contrast, made Jasper and Ethan look like rag men.
They followed a dirt track through a stand of trees and suddenly stood at the foot of a stone bridge over a wide shallow stream. Above it rose a steep ridge. Men and supplies snaked across the bridge. Soldiers dug gun pits along the ridge top. With all the bustle, nobody took notice of Jasper and Ethan.
It took all of Ethan’s strength to climb the hill. His head pounded at each step. At the top, a long line of trenches wrapped around the plateau.
Sweet Jesus, I know this place. I know what happens here. He had hiked the area with Buzz many times. Burnside’s Bridge.
Soldiers stacked powder and ball at intervals along the trenches. Ethan recognized Pennsylvania long rifles, Hawkens, Colts, and an ancient Brown Bess that must have been handed down since the Revolution.
They trudged on through the hot sun, until they smelled sooty traces of camp life. As they got closer, wood smoke formed a blue haze and all manner of sounds drifted through the trees: the ring of an anvil, a wave of laughter, the snorting of horses. And coughing. Great staccato bursts of coughing caused by the inevitable colds and fevers that close quarters always caused. It even had a name that Ethan remembered: the army cough.
At the edge of the camp, they passed a Zouaves squad bedecked in loose purple and green uniforms. Dried mud clung to the legs of their wide tarboosh pants. Sweat grimed their red silk shirts. What had been exotic costumes months earlier were becoming colorful rags. They looked more like gypsies than soldiers.
In a low voice, Ethan said, “Why do they dress like that? They think this is a party?”
Jasper snickered as he chewed a black-cherry twig he had torn from a tree. “The federals have units like that too. Some damn French idea that became the rage a couple years back. Units in jest about every state. I cain’t figure it. When the shootin’ starts, nobody can keep track of their colors, so both sides blast the hell out of ’em.” He flipped the stick into the corner of his mouth and said, “Jes shows there’s no corner on insanity. They do look good on parade, though. Die pretty too.”
“If you reckon all this is crazy, Jasper, why don’t you just leave? Go out west, chase some gold?”
“Already done that back in ’49.” He chewed on the stick for a minute. “Y’know, Cole, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Ethan cocked an eyebrow at the older man as they pressed on.
“When else in your life will you be able to wander round the countryside, take whatever you want from anybody you want to, and with a pull on yer trigger, kill any bastard gets in yer way? Without a war, we’d be outlaws. Now we’re heroes.” The stub of black-cherry wood disappeared inside his beard.
The smell of burnt meat and garbage and tobacco assaulted them as they pushed into the encampment. “You figure these boys know the federals are only a few miles away?” The uniforms got cleaner. “Officer country. Youngblood, set yerself down here and get some rest. I’ll go see what’s what.”
Ethan needed no further persuasion as he settled under the thick limbs of a white oak. In minutes he half-dozed in the humid, woozy air, that seemed far too hot for mid-September.
Then suddenly his body froze. Patches of snow littered the hard ground and the sky turned a fierce blue. A volcano erupted in Ethan’s chest and he couldn’t move his body. Ten feet away, Beth’s limp form lay on the ground, bright blood soaking into the front of her coat.
This was real. It was going to happen. What did he have to do or not do to prevent it?