“Wake up, Youngblood. I found ya a doctor. Did some dickerin’ and got you a new Colt’s revolver rifle too. Took off the body of a Billy Yank. Ain’t as good as that Sharps you lost, but it shoots five shots without reloadin’. One of ‘em oughtta hit what yer aimin’ at.”
Ethan dredged himself out of the syrup of time, wondering at the snowy images he had dreamed.
Jasper set the new .58 caliber rifle across Ethan’s lap. Then he dropped next to Ethan a canvas bag of shot and another of black powder. “Should test it out, see how true them sights is.”
“Jasper, last thing on earth I need right now is an explosion near my head.”
The beard parted in a smile. “’Spect yer right. You ready to walk?”
“We’ll get you a doctor, then we report to down at the stone bridge we crossed. Yanks come up that way, it’ll be like shootin’ fish in a barrel.”
Ethan struggled to his feet.
“Not far to go.”
Ethan kept his head level, breathed steadily, and tried not to think about his wound. It suddenly frightened him that if were here during the battle, might she be killed again? Might he waste a lifetime looking for her?
Activity swept through the dusty streets of as residents realized what was about to happen. Union troops had begun lining up across Antietam Creek, massing like hungry crows. Lines of barefoot Confederates streamed east from the , filling the town and its surroundings with cannons and horses and men wearing every variety of clothing, but all wearing the same grim face. Residents with bundles tried escaping west toward the , but like trout migrating upstream, they fought against a raging flood of Confederate troops pouring into town. They could seldom use the road, instead having to struggle through ditches and underbrush at its sides. Others cleared shops of provisions and holed up in their cellars and in the woods.
As he trudged through , Ethan thought it would take only a second for him to step away from Jasper and be lost in the crowd. Even with the rifle, Ethan’s clothes blended in with the townsfolk. But Ethan discarded that thought. Weak and disoriented, if he made the wrong move, he could wind up either as a deserter or a prisoner of war. Better to stick with Jasper and use Ethan’s foreknowledge of events to try to keep them both alive.
As unthreatening as Ethan looked, Jasper presented another matter. Nobody could mistake the battle-hardened veteran. The three pistols he normally carried in his leather satchel now stuck out the front of his belt. A fourth rode in the holster slung to his right thigh. Those who passed closely stared for a second at the crust of blood on Ethan’s head, but they averted their eyes from Jasper, this heavily armed man with the wild blue eyes.
Ethan thought it ironic that in his own time he had crisscrossed the streets of Sharpsburg and the rolling hills around it, trying to visualize the titanic forces that had washed across this peaceful hamlet. Now, a hundred thousand men lined up to kill each other. Ethan’s curiosity would be slaked. He would see the carnage first-hand.
At the southwest end of town, a scream rose from behind a stand of sweet-gum trees, dropped to a moan, and then died off.
Jasper cackled, “Always easy to find the field hospital.”
The field hospital sported a few fly tents which would soon become totally inadequate. Wounded soldiers had trickled in from the battles at Crampton’s Gap and Turner’s Gap and orderlies arrayed them in the tall grass under the trees. Some of them sat on camp chairs, with cotton bandages on heads or limbs. Others lay flat on the ground on blankets. Under the fly tents, a few soldiers secured planks across sawhorses to make more operating tables. Four surgeons in leather butcher aprons hurried through their grisly work. As Ethan and Jasper watched, orderlies lifted one soldier off the planking and hauled him to a place in the grass, another orderly sloshed a bucket of water across the vacated table to clear the blood and bits of flesh, and then more orderlies hoisted the next groaning soldier onto the table. Ethan watched this production line of pain.
Just off from the tents, in a small defile, a buzzing frenzy rose like the sound of angry hornets. Ethan glanced down the embankment as they walked past. Green shiny poison ivy vines grew thick in the hollow and hid most of its contents, but the stench of rotting meat had enough potency to make Ethan and Jasper gag. A pale hand beckoned from the foliage. A foot with only three toes stuck up in the sun. The leaves, the air, the very ground itself teemed with flies feasting on discarded body parts.
Jasper spat. “Now you know why they call doctors sawbones.”
Off to the side of the surgery, they approached a narrow-faced man in a bloody butcher’s apron. “Sit down, soldier. Let me look at that.”
Jasper said loudly enough for all around to hear, “Watch yer head, Youngblood. He’s fixin’ ta ampeetate.”
The doctor pointed to a bucket. “How ’bout you make yourself useful and go down to that creek yonder and fill that bucket with water. I’ll need it for your friend here.”
“Yessir, Doc. Jes don’t cut nothin’ off him afore I git back.”
Ethan submitted to an examination, while thinking that the doctor looked much too young. Until he looked into the man’s eyes.
“Seen it all, eh, Doc?”
A thick, brown eyebrow canted up over the young man’s left eye. “There should be pleasure in saving lives.”
“I’ll be real pleased if you save mine.”
“Why? So you can go right back out there and get another bullet in you? In the past three months, I worked on a damn fool lieutenant three different times. Three different battles, three different bullets.”
“What happened to him?”
“Amazing. They all healed.”
“So, why so glum?”
“Two days ago, his horse shied away from a squirrel in the road. He fell off the horse and broke his neck.”
Jasper returned with a bucket of water and set it at the doctor’s feet. Then he settled against the base of a giant oak and tipped his hat over his eyes.
The doctor cleaned around Ethan’s wound, but left the main scab alone. “This scab is protecting your wound like a bandage. I don’t want to disturb it. You have any whiskey?”
“How about your friend over there?”
“Don’t know. Hey, Jasper, you have any whiskey?”
Jasper pushed up his hat brim with a finger. “I might have a tetch.”
“Why am I not surprised? Bring it over,” the doctor said. He took the proffered tin flask and poured liquor on Ethan’s wound. Then he wrapped a bandage around Ethan’s head like a turban. “Leave this bandage on. Keep out the dirt. Twice a day, pour a little whisky on the bandage to fight off infection.”
“Doc, that’s sippin’ liquor. Don’t seem right pourin’ it on someone’s head.”
The doctor raked his gaze up and down Jasper. “Anything keeps it out of your stomach has to be a blessing to everyone around you. Think of it as your civic duty to western civilization.”
“Hey, Doc, they got a library in this town?”
“I think I jes’ been insulted, but I need a dictionary to find out.”
“You two get out of here. I have work to do.”
Jasper elbowed Ethan. “He’s got work to do. Real eager for it, ain’t he? They musta got a new shipment of saw blades.” Jasper cackled and led Ethan away.