As the sun dropped below the horizon, its light flooded the underside of the cloud cover, turning the sky to brushed brass. The eerie light cast no shadows and made the landscape glow ruddy orange. Then the sunset quickly fell off to a grudging twilight.
Ethan set down his tin plate and the remains of the cold meal he and Jasper had culled from their meager stores. The Confederates had terrible supplies. At least a third of the men had no shoes. He and Jasper had avoided their assigned mess because they didn’t want to reveal that they still had corn they had picked earlier in the day. Most of the soldiers had far less to eat.
Jasper emerged from the woods with a handful of twigs. “Got something for ya. Chew on these willow branches. They’ll ease yer pain. It’s an old Indian remedy.”
“It won’t work for me, Jasper.”
“I’m not an old Indian.”
“That’s a good-un,” Jasper cackled as he settled against a rock he had pulled close to their fire. “You must be feelin’ better.” Jasper struggled to roll a cigarette, dropping more tobacco than he got into the rolling paper. “Damn, I wish I didn’t lose my pipe. Hate rollin’ these damn things.”
Ethan began chewing one of the soft willow twigs, remembering this folk remedy that would lead to the discovery of aspirin. “My head feels like a watermelon on a stick.”
“Flop yer head on that blanket and get some sleep. I’m stayin’ up. Got to stand watch at midnight. That will be a nice little piece of hell.”
Ethan said, “Jasper, we can’t stay at this bridge tomorrow.”
“Because you don’t know what hell is until you see tomorrow.” Ethan stared across the campfire for several seconds before making up his mind. “You’re going to think I’m crazy when I tell you this.”
“Well, Cole, it don’t come as no surprise. You ain’t been in a rightly way.”
Ethan paused, hesitant to open Pandora’s Box. “Jasper, I wouldn’t have gotten this far without your help. I owe you the chance to save your life. You need to get out of here. Tonight.”
“Desert? Hell, I reckon the war won’t last much longer. Think I’ll see it through.”
“It won’t end for two and a half years.”
Jasper cackled and spit out the black-cherry twig. “You becomin’ a seer now, Cole?” The crooked cigarette it had taken him five minutes to roll went between his lips. Using a burning stick from the fire, Jasper lit the end and inhaled deeply, a look of satisfaction softening his rough features.
Ethan mustered his most serious face. “I’m not Cole. Name’s Ethan. Ethan West. And I won’t be born for a hundred years. I grew up in this area, but off in the future.”
The older man’s stare lanced into Ethan. “You’re right. You’re crazy,” he said.
“I’m a farmer. Born in Boonsboro. We walked through there. That little detour I made was to see the house I will grow up in.”
“How’d you get here?”
“What’s it like in the future?” He said it matter-of-factly as if this sort of thing happened in his life every day.
“Fast. Everything is fast. We don’t ride horses anymore.”
“Donkeys then?” If there had been more light, Ethan would have seen the twinkle in the older man’s eyes.
“No, we ride machines much faster than horses.”
“You don’t say.”
“Jasper, I shouldn’t tell you too much. I don’t know what your knowing might do to things in the future. But I want to give you a chance to live through this.”
“Live through what?”
“Tomorrow will be the bloodiest day of this entire war.”
Jasper stared into the fire and inhaled from his cigarette. “I ain’t desertin’. If what you say is true, I want to see it.”
“Now, who’s crazy?”
Jasper gut-laughed and took another pull on the tobacco. “Youngblood, I cain’t believe yer story just by you sayin’ it. Can you tell me somethin’ convincin’-like?”
Ethan pondered for a moment. “Okay, two things. We’ll hold the bridge until about in the afternoon when we get flanked from the south. We’ll fall back into town and late in the afternoon we’ll get reinforcements when General Hill’s troops finally get here from Harper’s Ferry. And this should convince you: They’ll be wearing Yankee uniforms they took from the Union armory.”
“All this tomorrow?”
“Yes. . It’s in the history books. My history books.”
“Our boys in Yankee duds, huh?” Jasper puffed on his cigarette and tilted his face to the sky. “Christ it’s startin’ to drizzle.” He moved under the canvas tarp they had set up earlier and sat next to Ethan. Thunder growled in the distance. “See, no matter how bad things might be, they can always get worse. Plan on it.”
Lightning silhouetted trees on a distant ridge. Ethan scowled at the hated bolt.
“Yer quite a storyteller, Youngblood.”
“You’ll believe me tomorrow.”
“How you know I don’t believe you already?”
“Because if you did, you’d be crazier than you’re thinking I am right now.”
Jasper doubled over with laughter and almost choked on the cigarette in his mouth. He spit it into the fire. “Sanest thing you said all night.”