General Robert Toombs had lived a nondescript life. He served in the Confederacy with little distinction until the at Burnside’s Bridge. His men held that crossing against a vastly superior force and protected Lee’s right flank so Lee could concentrate on the main Union thrust. But a little after the battle at Burnside's Bridge, Toombs’s strategic position became vulnerable when Burnside’s scouts found a place to ford Antietam Creek. With his right flank threatened, General Lee ordered Toombs to retreat from the bluff above the bridge. Union forces pushed across the bridge and soon threatened the entire southern approach to .
Toombs’s men retreated and formed skirmish lines to slow the Yankee advance, but inexorably the Yanks drove them back toward the town.
“Jeeeesus Christmas!” Jasper’s hat flew off his head. He reached down into the hay stubble and retrieved it. Two neat holes had been drilled in it, front and back. Jasper wiggled his fingers through them and then put the hat back on his head. “Guess only one of us gets to be shot in the head.” He cackled and resumed leading Ethan through what little cover the farm terrain offered.
Bullets whizzed through the tall grass like maniac mice. Shots from half a mile away flew unimpeded across the flat landscape, striking men who hadn’t even been aimed at. Until they reached the town, no decent cover existed.
Ethan raised his voice. “Jasper, we get over that little rise ahead, we’ll be at the edge of town.”
“Let’s skedaddle then.”
Halfway up the rise, a small clump of sycamores offered scant cover. Jasper squinted at Ethan. “When we hit that crest, we’ll stick out like sore thumbs.” He cast a glance behind. Not far off, he saw blue uniforms against dun-colored fields. “Ethan, hand me yer rifle. Then you go first.”
Jasper aimed back the way they had come and loosed his first shot. He glanced over his shoulder. “What the hell you waitin’ for? Get over that rise. I’ll be along presently.” He fired another shot and Ethan headed uphill. He could barely stumble. His vision blurred and he thought he would vomit, but he kept struggling up the hill. Just as he reached the summit and saw salvation in the lee of the hill, Ethan leaned against a black-cherry tree to catch his balance.
His head rang like the crash of a sledgehammer on an anvil. Whirlpools of dizziness engulfed his vision. Suddenly, it felt like something bit him between the legs. He doubled over in pain and tumbled over the crest.
He now had pain between his legs that matched the fiery agony in his head. The .58 caliber ball that hit Ethan came from downhill. It had traveled over five hundred feet and had torn through the lower limb of one of the sycamores further downhill. Slowed by the impact, the heavy ball of lead, now misshapen, still carried a lot of momentum. It ripped across the top of Ethan’s inner thigh and tore away a testicle before continuing on.
It seemed like he laid on the hill for hours, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute before Jasper grabbed Ethan under the arms and dragged him into the outskirts of . Ethan passed out for most of the trip and awoke at the base of a stone wall that backed onto the yard of a house. Federals poured over the crest. Jasper dragged Ethan further along a dirt road until it intersected with the main street. He peeked around the picket fence at the corner and swore. “Goddamn bluebelly bastards is all over this town.” A column of blue-clad soldiers double-timed it up the street. “Get, down, act like yer dead. You got enough blood on you.”
“What about you?”
“I’m gonna take as many of these Billy Yanks with me as I can.” Jasper pulled two pistols out of his belt and huddled against the fence. “Put yer head down. Soon as this squad up ahead gets real close, I’m gonna start blastin’. It was nice knowin’ ya, boy.”
Ethan heard the clank of canteens around the corner. Bad as he felt, he couldn’t let this man who seemed to be saving his life hourly die while he huddled in the dirt like a coward. Ethan struggled to a sitting position and pulled out his revolver.
“You don’t show good sense, Youngblood.” Jasper cackled. “Guess I cain’t keep a good man down.” Jasper handed Ethan a second revolver.
Jasper cocked his revolvers. Ethan followed suit and breathed in rapid little breaths, trapped between the north and south poles of his body’s agony. They waited the last few seconds before taking on the brunt of the attack.
Jasper said, “Here we go.”