Ethan sighted down the blued barrel of the Colt and lined up on an approaching figure. The twitch of a finger and a man would die. Ethan retracted his right index finger to the trigger guard.
It looked like the Union soldiers marched across the corn field on a Sunday stroll, a trick of perspective because they were running straight toward the bridge. A great blue tidal wave, they appeared out of the fog that had hung near the earth all morning, rolled across the lush ribbon of cornfield between the woods and the stream, and crashed upon the stones of the bridge. There, like storm surf along the , they boiled and frothed and spilled away into the creek, bloody tattered remnants of men. Some clung to the weeds along the bank, unable to pull themselves out of the stream, calling desperately to their comrades for help. Others drifted in the current, their blank eyes staring up into glowing fog.
“That stream’s so thick with bodies, them bluebellies could jest step across on the corpses,” Jasper shouted. The slow-moving water looked like red wine in the hazy light.
Rifles and muskets exploded around Ethan in a continuous, jarring roar that flamed inside his skull and set his teeth on edge. Clouds of gun smoke rolled down the hill, mixed with the fog, and occasionally blocked sight of the stone bridge. Dead grass along the embankment dried enough by mid-morning to catch fire from the gunplay, further adding to the pall that hung over the carnage.
In the distance above the fog, fat plumes of white smoke rose out of the woods from accidental fires started by cannon blasts. The Union forces began pouring canister over the Confederate lines. Jasper pointed up and shouted. “Never seed that before. Heard of it. Flyin’ posts. Look, Cole.” The canisters passed overhead at such speed, they created an elongated blur, like flying posts. They exploded further back from the hill face, wreaking carnage in the supply areas and among the Confederate cannoneers. Some rounds exploded short, raining shrapnel down on men and horses near Ethan and Jasper.
Jasper shouted, “Goin’ to the supply wagon for more powder,” as he disappeared into the smoke.
A black draft horse stumbled up to the rifle pit behind Ethan. Half its head had been shot away and the poor animal seemed only semiconscious. For a moment, Ethan forgot his own pain. He drew his revolver and began to take aim at the suffering animal’s head, when suddenly, red craters appeared all over the dark coat as over a dozen musket balls hit the horse, almost simultaneously. Half a ton of horse groaned and dropped so fast Ethan heard the snap of one of its legs breaking. Oblivious to the battle, a host of black horseflies descended on the corpse even before it stopped twitching, happy guests at the unending smorgasbord of war.
Ethan turned back to the killing field, that flat open farm that served endless Yankees onto the platter of the bridge where Death feasted.
With all his research into the Civil War, Ethan had never imagined this. One endless noise. The constant low, sonic vibrations through the ground made him want to vomit as Confederate cannons fired outward and answering Yankee lead and iron plowed into the earth all around them. Dozens of muskets fired every second, sounding like an endless ripping of canvas.
Men screamed, some entreating comrades to the attack, others begging for relief. Those flung into the open by explosions or their own foolishness lay helpless and unheeded until the rain of random lead eventually found them, finished them, and then continued to punch and move their bodies long after they had died.
This dance of twitching corpses seemed something that should only exist in a nightmare. Ethan’s finger pressed the trigger, then stopped halfway in its arc. He could take this life that sat in his sights. Distance and smoke reduced it to a faceless thing.
But Ethan’s finger couldn’t finish the arc, instead relaxing and releasing the trigger. He didn’t want to kill a man, but even larger issues loomed in his thinking than simple morality. He occupied a body that should have died. If he killed someone who would otherwise have lived, what would it do to his own future time? What if he killed the grandfather of a person who invented a miracle drug? He envisioned an endless list of catastrophes. Ethan felt locked in his own small conflict as the larger conflict raged around him.
“Waitin’ for Christmas, trooper?”
Lost in speculation, Ethan did not hear the question. A sudden sharp pain twisted him around to see a black boot digging into his ribs.
“Gun shy, Mister? Or maybe you just like Yankees.”
Ethan craned his head up from his prone position and squinted at the silhouette hunched behind him. “I...I’m feeling dizzy.”
The man drew his revolver. “Been watchin’ you. Ain’t fired a single round. Now you want to shoot or git shot?” Ethan felt the cold barrel of the revolver pushed into the side of his neck. “Now, you shoot somebody so’s I can see him fall.” The click of the hammer pulling back seemed disproportionately loud in Ethan’s left ear.
Ethan felt hot spray across his neck and the officer toppled over the edge of the trench and tumbled down the steep embankment. Ethan blinked. Why had the man fallen outward? Three seconds later, he had his answer as Jasper scrambled into the ditch next to Ethan, holstering his Walker as he settled into the earthworks. Over the din, Jasper shouted, “Leave ya alone fer five minutes and yer in deep shit agin.” He sighted his rifle, fired, and reloaded from the fresh bag of powder.
Ethan stared at the grizzled warrior. “Did you shoot that officer?”
“Damn right I did. Bastard. Sometimes ya need to thin yer own herd too.” Jasper pulled the ramrod out of his rifle, turned, sighted, and fired in one fluid motion, not even taking time to watch his target fall. “Cole, I know yer feelin’ poorly and that gun punchin’ into yer shoulder cain’t feel good, but every so often let loose a round so’s I don’t have’ta kill the whole damn officer corps.”