They held the bridge against what seemed like endless tides of northern troops. The butchery sickened even the most ardent Yankee haters. Hundreds of bodies and pieces of bodies lay on the bridge, in the water, on the banks of the creek, and scattered across the now-leveled cornfield that filled the flat land across the stream. Mixed among the men lay numerous horses, some still twitching and screaming in high-pitched wails. The chorus of the dying horses held more horror than the groans and pleadings of the men. Nobody considered a horse an enemy, but when cavalry hit the bridge approach, the Confederates had no time for the delicate marksmanship necessary to peel the rider from his mount. Far easier to shoot the horse, then pick off the dazed and sometimes injured rider.
The shooting diminished in early afternoon. For long intervals, the Confederates could reload and restock their powder and ball as the northern forces regrouped in the woods. In one of those quiet periods, when only sporadic shots punctuated the activities of marksmen picking off those foolish enough to break cover, Jasper said, “What kinda generals they got over there? They don’t care how many die?”
Ethan’s mind drifted. Dazed by the shocks to his system, he could not focus on the battle. Exhaustion crept through every cell of his body.
“Cole, in case you didn’t notice, them fellers is shootin’ at us. Think maybe you could fire back?” Jasper loaded his rifle, aimed, and fired before continuing.
“I can’t shoot these people, Jasper.”
“You think you really have a choice?”
The pain in Ethan’s head rang like a cathedral bell.
Yes, I do have a choice. I can stand up, get shot, and die so I can leave this place and try again.
In his weakened condition, Ethan operated more from instinct than thought, which was fortunate or he might have missed the tugging twitch he felt deep inside. As if a tunnel had opened through the random energies around him, Ethan sensed just a flash of Beth and then it disappeared. He could not be sure if he had felt a piece of the future or the past.
“Youngblood, how ’bout you jest load and I’ll shoot? That way you won’t have to shake yer head up.” Jasper handed Ethan the spent Colt rifle.
Ethan pondered this suggestion. So far, he had seen no changes in the future from his activities in the past. And even if changes happened, what did it matter? If he was trying the impossible, it couldn’t happen. But it was happening, so it was possible. Probably what made up his mind was the desire to help Jasper stay alive.
“Yeah. Okay.” Ethan pulled a powder bag next to his leg. Crouched in the ditch, he measured black powder into all five chambers of his new rifle, pushed in tiny bits of rag for wadding, then dropped a .44 caliber ball into each. With the ramming tool he seated the lead balls tight against the powder. He slopped lard over the front of the cylinder to prevent chain firing and snapped primer caps onto the ignition nipples at the rear of the cylinder. He handed the rifle to Jasper and took the single-shot rifle in return.
“What?” Ethan said, looking up from his reloading.
“Blew that feller’s arm off at the elbow. Lousy damn shot.” Jasper sighted Ethan’s rifle again.
Ethan squinted and followed Jasper’s aim. The smoke parted and Ethan had a clear view of a man writhing on the ground behind the low fence that bordered the road on the other side of the creek. The man fought his way to a crouch and then hunkered away from the bridge on unsteady legs.
“C’mon out from behind that wagon... There.” In a cloud of smoke and fire, the Colt hurled another slug. It spun through the air until it hit Jonas Jeffries above his left ear where the soft lead mushroomed to the size of a plum and drove Jonas’s brains out the right side of his skull.
“Now he won’t be suffering without that arm.”
The old veteran cackled. “Jes keep that shot a-comin’. I like havin’ a loader.” He turned, aimed, and fired. Another faceless northern son died for his country.
An hour later, Union forces regrouped for another assault. Fifteen minutes of cannon volley against the Confederate high ground put several Confederate cannons out of action and detonated one of the supply wagons like a Fourth of July piece, setting dozens of small fires throughout the Confederate line. Bluish-white smoke rose from the fires and sifted among the trees. A light breeze pushed this acrid curtain down the hill and over the rifle pits.
“Damnation!” Jasper wiped his stinging eyes. “Cain’t see, cain’t shoot.” He set down his rifle as ragged coughs racked his wiry frame.
The pungent smoke seared into Ethan’s lungs and he too began a series of retching coughs, each one setting off a ringing explosion inside his damaged skull.
Jasper’s coughs turned to scratchy laughter as he lay back in their ditch, filtered sunlight dancing off his blue eyes. “Ain’t this jest lovely?” He cackled again. Then he squinted downhill and immediately began reloading his rifle. He muttered, “Didn’t think them bluebellies was jest gettin’ rid of excess ammo. Here they come agin.” He pointed to the southeast.
Ethan squinted. Through the pall, sunlight glinted off a thousand bayonets. Within moments, Ethan saw distinct forms, men in blue, row after row of them.
“Youngblood, you load as fast as you can. You hear me?” Humor had left Jasper’s voice.
Ethan nodded. He didn’t dare speak. His Adam’s apple seemed lodged somewhere under his tongue as he watched the Yankee troops resolve out of the smoke. For a moment, Ethan did not feel his pains, did not hear the shrill ringing in his head. This was it. Panic almost engulfed him, but Jasper fired and reached for the loaded Colt rifle as he threw his Hawken at Ethan.
Taking up the five-shot rifle, Jasper aimed and pulled the trigger again and again. Ethan couldn’t see where he was aiming or if anyone dropped, so massed were the Union troops. Around them, the tempo of firing increased to a steady roar, like the drawn out rippling thunder of a summer storm.
When the front line of Yankees hit the bridge, the Confederate Parrot guns opened up with chain at point-blank range. The first volley hit the line and at least fifty men went down in pieces. Those behind stumbled over the dismembered corpses, half dazed by the sudden appearance of a butcher shop at their feet. Their hesitation allowed the riflemen to get a bead and more Yankees fell in heaps on the bridge. Burnside’s Bridge now looked like a rummage sale of old clothing heaped and thrown by frantic shoppers.
Massed troops scrambled over heaps of bloody meat and hit the path at the foot of the hill. They fell, they screamed, they died, but slowly, inexorably, they pushed up the path and up the hill itself in the face of withering fire. The supply of troops seemed inexhaustible. More pushed across the bridge.
Ethan couldn’t believe that men could die so fast and in such numbers. And still they came.
The Parrot guns opened up again and sliced the soldiers ascending the wagon path to howling ribbons. This gave the men in the rifle pits a chance to concentrate their fire on the Yankees who scrambled up the steep face of the hill. Some approached the top.
“Youngblood, make sure yer revolver’s loaded. This is gonna get close.”
General Robert Toombs rode through his meager forces astride a gray stallion. When he cantered to the edge of the bridge overlook, he almost fainted at the sight of so many Union soldiers crawling up his fortified position. One of his captains shouted up from the ground, “We need more men, General.”
“Got no more men. We need ’em on the western line. It’s worse’n this over there. Use that hill, Captain. It’s all you’ve got.” Toombs turned and rode back toward , lead whizzing past his retreating form.
A canister shell exploded at ground level at the top of the ridge, splitting open the three sharpshooters to the right of Ethan and Jasper as if they were melons. None of the shrapnel hit Ethan or Jasper, but now they knelt alone in the elongated rifle pit. “Grab their guns, Youngblood. The pistols.”
Ethan scrambled to the jellied remnants and tugged three revolvers from the dead men’s belts. Just as he returned to Jasper’s side, a blue cap emerged over the edge of the rifle pit in front of them. Jasper punched his rifle butt into the bridge of the Yankee’s nose and the man fell back and tumbled like a rag doll a hundred feet down to the foot of the embankment. “Not wastin’ no powder if I don’t hafta.”
Two heads popped up and Jasper emptied two chambers of his revolver point blank into their faces. Ethan saw motion to his right and turned to face two more Yankees scrabbling over the edge of the rifle pit. They had been fighting all day at a distance but now the battle loomed so close Ethan could smell the mildew on the Yankee uniforms. Ethan watched in horror as one of the Yankees got his leg over the lip of the pit and raised his musket. Ethan could not move.
Jasper hopped around Ethan just as the first Yankee’s musket ranged on the younger man. Jasper drilled the young attacker’s forehead, then put his last two shots into the chest of the other climber. Spinning back like a dervish, Jasper tossed the empty revolver to Ethan as he yanked another one from his belt. “Get loadin’, Laddie. Got us a job of work to do.”
With Ethan loading as fast as he could, Jasper emptied all eight of their revolvers to clear the area around the rifle pit. Then, using the rifles, he worked on the Yankees farther down the slope. When the Parrot guns opened up on the bridge again, the stream of Yankee troops got cut off, leaving those who had made it across on their own. The riflemen focused on these stragglers, downing them at a steady rate until they cleared the hillside approaches of any threat. They then fired at the opposite shore, deep into the ranks of the attackers until, finally, the Yankees lost their stomachs and retreated into the trees, their backs to the golden slanting light of the afternoon sun.
And the history books called these “opening skirmishes,” thought Ethan. The main battle is coming up. Hell would cross that bridge soon.