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Jasper danced a jig on the berm of the rifle pit. Then he leaned over and slapped his ass in the direction of the Union troops a few hundred yards away. In answer, a flash of light and a puff of smoke appeared at the tree line across Antietam Creek. Jasper dropped to the floor of the trench as the Yankee bullet chuffed into the earth berm, followed by the sound of the shot. “Damn good shot there, boy, but now I seen where ya live.”

Jasper hoisted his Hawken, rested the barrel on the edge of the rifle pit. He sighted to the right side of the beech tree where the flash had occurred and calculated the range. He pulled back the rear trigger. “Okay, I got the bead on that Billy Yank bastard. I need your Colt.”

Ethan handed Jasper his new rifle as he eyed the Hawken Jasper set against the pit wall. “Two triggers?”

“Rear trigger takes up all the spring tension, makes the front one a hair-trigger. More accurate that way.”

Off in the distance a Yankee soldier dropped his drawers and bent over. “He’s mooning you, Jasper.”

“Not fer long.”

At sight of the Colt’s flash, the Yankee slipped behind the beech tree before the bullet could traverse the intervening distance. The instant after Jasper fired the Colt, he dropped it and picked up the more accurate Hawken. Only a heartbeat later Jasper fired again, at exactly the same spot.

As soon as Jasper’s first bullet hit the beech tree, the Yankee soldier stepped back out into the open, his britches still down to continue his mooning. He had not looked for a second flash. He had no idea a second bullet was hurtling through space faster than the sound that would have warned him. Jasper’s second shot plowed into the base of his spine and came out through the top of his head. The soldier died before he hit the ground.

Jasper cackled. “Damn fool thought I was reloadin’. Them bluebellies better be a mile out afore they try such tomfoolery. And even then, I cain’t guarantee their safety.”

As Jasper reloaded his Hawken, Ethan said, “Jesus, Jasper. That thing’s a cannon.”

“Used to shoot buffalo with it out on the plains. Four-legged and two-legged as I recollect.”

Ethan hefted one of the lead balls from Jasper’s shot bag. “Big round.”

“Sixty-eight caliber. If it don’t kill ya, ya wish ya was dead.”

“Jesus, Jasper.”

“Jest thinnin’ the herd, Youngblood, jest thinnin’ the herd.”

The low sun behind them penetrated the tree line across the fields on the other side of Burnside’s Bridge, sparking gold off Yankee uniform buttons. Ethan and Jasper had taken station at the top of the steep cliff that backed the bridge on the west side of Antietam Creek. Five hundred Confederate soldiers had thinly spread across the cliff top with a commanding view of all approaches to the bridge.

All day they had watched Union troops position themselves in the trees and around the small hill to the east. Jasper said, “They charge the bridge and it’ll be like shootin’ fish in a barrel.” Ethan wondered what he would say if he knew that the assembling forces outnumbered them thirty to one.

The sharp edge of Ethan’s pain had dulled to a throbbing ache that could flare into dizzying agony if he moved suddenly. Most of the afternoon he had sat in the shade and watched the men dig the trenches that would cause the northern forces such hell tomorrow.

“What they waitin’ fer? They coulda waltzed right in here this afternoon afore we got dug in.”

“Jasper, you forget who we’re facing. McClellan. If he had all of God’s archangels lined up and Christ himself as his general, he’d still ask for reinforcements.”

“Gotta hand it to Bobby Lee. If he comes up against you with fifty men, he makes you think you need archangels. Gave us time to dig in. How long’s McClellan gonna wait?”

Ethan said, “Tomorrow. The seventeenth.” It just spilled out. He cast a sidelong glance at Jasper, but saw no untoward reaction to the conviction in his voice.

I need to be more careful.

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