Bethany West stared at endless repetitions of a leaf pattern set in squares that spread to the edges of her vision. They made no sense. She had been running through the rain, laughing and then she woke up here.
She was lying in a soft bed and staring at a stamped tin ceiling.
A face loomed over her. Pleasant enough, with wide-set brown eyes and raven hair pulled back off the high brow, the face was nonetheless that of a stranger.
“Where am I?” did not recognize her own voice.
“God above, Missy, I thought you had passed.”
tried to sit, but a river of pain flowed up through her body. She gasped.
“Now, don’t you move, Missy. You been shot real bad. Your father’s out tryin’ to find Doctor Robert.”
“Ethan?” she mumbled. Where was she? Hadn’t she been with someone? Someone named Ethan? She remembered running through the rain, racing to a barn. Had she been dreaming?
“No,” Emily said, misunderstanding. “He went for Doctor Robert. You lie still, now.”
Beth stared at the pattern in the ceiling, following its repetitions over and over, trying hard not to scream.
“I ain’t puttin’ no more of this whiskey on yer bandages, Youngblood. You need it in yer stomach, not on yer head. Here, you drink this.” Jasper handed Ethan his flask, then threw more branches on the campfire.
Ethan didn’t argue. The liquor lessened the pain. Ethan had more than his fill of hurt. Since entering this body, he had felt nothing but agony. “You used my real name.”
“In town. You called me Ethan.”
The campaign veteran stroked his beard. “Everything happened jest the way you said it would. Cain’t deny it.” They sat silent in the flickering firelight. Then Jasper said, “If you’re Ethan, what happened to Cole?”
“Jasper, your friend died. He’s gone on somewhere else. I just slipped into his body because it was available.”
“Available? How can a man do such a thing?”
“You a religious man, Jasper?”
“Naw. Though I do use the Lord’s name right frequent.”
“We do have a spirit that goes on after our bodies die. I think we get born into a new life and we forget the old.”
“How come you remember?”
“A fluke. I don’t know why. Maybe because I didn’t go through the shock of death to get here. I was prepared. I remember everything I did as Ethan.”
“You have any of Cole’s memories?”
“So, when you die, how will you keep lookin’ for yer wife?”
“I’ll find a way. And I won’t die. This body will.”
“I must be as tetched as you ’cause I believe you.”
“It won’t be long, Jasper. I don’t think I’ll last the night.”
“Nonsense. A man don’t die from gettin’ his nuts tore up.”
“I’ve lost a lot of blood. And I’m not sure I want to go on as Cole. This body is pretty damaged. It may be better to move on.”
“Sorry I got you shot. I’ll miss havin’ Cole around even if it ain’t Cole.”
“You didn’t get me shot. Bullets were flying all over the place. I just got unlucky. Don’t feel bad. I’m not really going to die. I’ll just move on.”
“You didn’t make no deal with the Devil or nothin’ like that?”
Ethan started to laugh, but the pain stopped him. “No. No deals. Someday you’ll understand how this works, Jasper.”
From somewhere in the darkness behind them, the plaintive notes of a banjo rose from the murmur of voices and cooking. Unsure at first, the notes ascended slowly, but then the picker caught his rhythm and his fingers began the sweet, emotive melody, Lorena.
Ethan did not notice the start of the music, but halfway through the first refrain, he realized he knew this song and its sound struck deep into his heart. The cook fires, the soldiers, the war; it all suddenly felt so familiar. Without thinking, he said, “John Ford really knew what he was doing.”
“Heh, Youngblood? What’s that?”
Ethan looked up with a start. “Nothing, Jasper, just a movie director.”
Dammit, I need to watch what I say.
“Long story.” Distract him. “Who’s playing the banjo?”
Jasper sat silent a few seconds, listening. “Yep, sounds like Jimmer. Told that boy if he wants to be carryin’ extra weight, he should strap on another Colt, ’stead of that banjo.” He cocked his head and listened. “Sure plays sweet, though.”
At the start of the second chorus, several men joined in, raggedly following the banjo with gruff, out-of-tune voices. The picker slowed to let them catch up. Then through the inky depths, Ethan heard other voices raised. From across the Antietam. Yankee voices. He turned his head to be sure his ringing ears weren’t playing tricks on him. Sure enough, from across the creek, a growing chorus took up the song. How could voices sound both mournful and joyous at the same time? As faceless soldiers joined the growing tide of sound, Ethan stared into the blackness. Eerie energy quivered through him.
A single alto soprano rose through the chorus, providing a rallying point for the other voices. The banjo thrummed at full volume and soon the night came alive with the dreams of men, far from home and the women they loved, but buoyed for this moment by the soulful romance of a song. Lorena was the wife, the mother, the lover for whom they hoarded scraps of paper and to whom they scrawled notes with pen and ink if they could afford it, with charcoal from the cook fires if they couldn’t.
The last strains of music swelled up to the pearly clouds that fought to cover the moon. When the song ended, the night seemed more silent than before as if every man held his breath, hoping the banjo picker would break into the chorus once more.
A gruff voice broke the silence. “Private, you play that damn song one more time, you’re on report.” Men groaned all through the camp.
Jasper cackled. “Captain Tipton. Gave standin’ orders not to play Lorena.”
“Last time the kid played it, three hundred men got so homesick they deserted.” Jasper picked at his teeth with a stick. “If Tipton had half a brain, he’d send Jimmer down to the edge of the creek and have him play so’s more of the Yanks could hear. Might even the odds for tomorrow.”
“Jasper, there won’t be any tomorrow. This battle is over.” The nearby fire crackled as a log settled, sending up a column of exploding sparks. “Do yourself a favor and get out of this army.”
“It’s all I got, Cole, er, Ethan. I’m gettin’ old. Cain’t start a career now can I?”
Ethan pondered for a minute. “You said you were a forty-niner?”
“Hell, yeah. Had a damn good claim up near Grass Valley in California.”
“So, why aren’t you rich?”
“Poker. Young jackass that I was, I bet to an inside straight. Lost the whole she-bang. Other feller lives in a big house in ’Frisco on Nob Hill now.”
“Jasper. There’s gold here.”
“Here? What are you talkin’ about? Ain’t nothin’ here ’cept flies and horseshit.”
“It’s not as thick as in , but it’s here. From this area all the way down to . A few years from now, someone will sink a big shaft just a mile or two north of . Couple hundred thousand ounces will come out of that mine.”
The older man’s eyes glowed like hot coals. “You feverish, Ethan?”
“Don’t take my word for it. Find a stream in the morning. Make like you’re washing your mess kit. Pan the bottom. You’ll see black sand. Go deeper and you’ll find flake gold. Real fine, but it’s there.”
Jasper’s brow creased. “Only somebody who found him some gold would know about the black sand.”
“Stop fighting and go find the gold, Jasper. Nothing you do will change the outcome of this war.”
Firelight danced across the bearded face. Jasper’s sharp eyes stared at the coals long after Ethan fell asleep.
The next morning, Jasper tugged Ethan awake in the half-light. “You sweet bastard. You was right!” Jasper held a piece of wet denim. “Lookee here.” Against the dark blue background, a dozen fine flakes of gold converted the dawn’s cold light to .
Ethan could not believe he still survived. Every part of his body ached. As he rolled over to look at Jasper’s find, he felt like retching. But he had little in his stomach to lose. Clenching his teeth, he squinted at Jasper’s gold and struggled to sit. He said, “You let anybody else see that and the war will end right here. Soldiers from both sides will get gold fever and Lee and McClellan can finish it with a game of chess.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“Yeah.” Ethan leaned forward.
Jasper carefully folded his rag and tucked it into a rear pants pocket. “You feelin’ any better this mornin’?”
“Well, don’t start spittin’ like a wet cat this early in the day. I jest asked.”
“I’m angry because I didn’t die.”
“Then maybe you’re gonna make it. You heal up and you’ll have a pretty decent young body. Jest won’t be no family man.” Jasper cackled for the first time that day.
Ethan looked up. “You’re in good spirits.”
“Certain metals do that to a body. Yes, they do. This time I won’t lose my claim. This time…”
“This time what?”
“I’m gonna have a house. With a bathtub. A big damn bathtub and all the hot water I ever want. I’ll take a bath every day and I’ll go to the barber shop and sit in a barber chair and I’ll get a shave. Every day. And I’ll have new clothes. I’m sick of bein’ filthy. Tired of lookin’ like a beggar.”
“That’s your dream?”
“It’s a good dream.”
All around them, men packed their belongings and moved southwest to a rallying point.
“What’s happening, Jasper?”
“Lee’s movin’ us around in case the bluebellies attack, but he’s pullin’ equipment back toward the in case we have to get out fast.”
“Why aren’t you packing?”
“You and me’s gonna get lost. You cain’t travel in your shape anyway.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Let’s jest say I found a place to hole up and we’re takin’ yer advice.”