Ethan waited outside the Hawley house until well after midnight, shivering badly until he could take no more and finally trudged back to the general store. He left the back door unlocked and buried himself in blankets, hoping that Beth might show up in the wee hours.
Just after dawn on Thursday, roosters awakened Ethan. He forced himself to get up and shuffled into the barn behind the store. He hitched two horses to the supply wagon and drove to the front of the telegraph office where George Hawley and three of his men stood stamping their feet against the cold. Jasper’s head lolled against his chest, as if he was still asleep. Hawley’s men manhandled Jasper into the Anspach wagon. For George Hawley’s benefit, Ethan made a great show of roughness in tying a heavy leather thong around Jasper’s wrists. But he didn’t cut off Jasper’s circulation. The old trooper wouldn’t be comfortable, but he wouldn’t be in pain. With a stout yard of rope, Ethan fastened Jasper’s wrists to an iron ring in the side of the wagon.
Hawley inspected Ethan’s handiwork, grunted, and heaved himself into the wagon’s front seat. “Let’s go, boy.”
Something about Hawley caused Ethan’s hair to prickle. He was used to Hawley treating Billy like a field hand, contempt just under the surface for the young man that Hawley blamed for his step-daughter’s pregnancy. But something else hovered there this morning. Smugness, even a touch of concealed joy. Why? What did he know? Had he been aware of Beth’s planned escape? Ethan fought hard to keep his face normal.
Just as Ethan was reaching to unhitch the wheel brake, the wiry figure of Newton Chiles hustled out of the telegraph office. Only in shirtsleeves, he hunched his shoulders as if that would keep him warm against the morning chill. “Billy, could you take this to the post office in Fredericktowne?” offered a flat, paper-wrapped bundle tied with rough string.
Because had no official post office, Billy often took letters and packages back and forth on his trips to Fredericktowne. As he reached for the package, grabbed Ethan’s arm and pulled him lower. Not much above a whisper, he said, “Careful with this, Billy. It’s important.”
Ethan glanced at the black, spidery writing in the center of the parcel addressed to the Department of War. “What is it, Mr. ?”
“My two boys found it. It’s a dispatch case, from the battle. Has papers for General McClellan.”
“Where’d they find it?”
looked down for an instant. “They didn’t just find it yesterday.” He gave Ethan a knowing nod. “Don’t want no trouble here, Billy. Just want to get this back in the right hands.” slapped Ethan’s shoulder and ran back to the warmth of his office.
Ethan tucked the package under his seat.
The day started clear and, though still chilly, markedly warmer than the previous week. As they bounced out of , Ethan noticed that icicles along the fronts of houses had begun melting. Patches of earth showed through the snow. He’d had enough cold wind to last a lifetime.
Over his shoulder, Ethan said, “So, tell me, soldier, where you from? Got the sound of Charleston in your voice.”
Ethan glanced back and got a weird look from Jasper. So much for coded messages.
Hawley half turned on the seat and glanced at Jasper. “Tryin’ to make a friend, Billy? It’s like you that the only friend you can make is a worthless reb soldier.”
The first hour, they remained silent. Then, as they ascended the heavily rutted trail into Turner’s Gap, Jasper called from the rear of the wagon. “Hey, I need ta shit. Think we can stop for a minute?”
Hawley laughed and said, “Shit in yer pants for all I care.”
Ethan said, “If he does, he’ll stink to high heaven the rest of the trip. Why don’t you hold a gun on him and I’ll untie his wrists?”
“Untie his wrists? No. Those wrists stay tied ’til we get him to Fredericktowne.”
“You want to pull my drawers down, wipe my ass for me? That’s fine by me,” drawled Jasper.
Hawley growled, “Hold it ’til we get up the hill. At the top we need to rest the horses anyway.”
They rode in silence for ten minutes. Hawley barked, “Stop the wagon. Pull into this clearing on the right.” Hawley drew his Colt as Ethan released Jasper’s hands from the iron ring. “Let’s go down in this brush over here.” As they walked, Ethan noticed that the snow and dead leaf cover had been churned up recently by a horse’s passage. At the end of the hoof prints, human footprints had packed down the snow. Who had ridden a horse this far off the road? And why?
A large copse of mountain laurel stood out in lush green against leafless trees. Behind them, the land dropped off, revealing the stretched in patches of brown and white and tan. Jasper said, “I’ll jes’ go behind there. Won’t take a minute.”
Hawley growled, “No. Keep walking.”
Thirty feet farther, they came upon a gorge in the earth. The underlying rock had parted into a deep chasm only three feet across. Jasper squinted and looked back and forth at Hawley and Billy. “Jes’ give me two heavy tree limbs to stretch across there and that’ll be the finest latrine I ever used,” Jasper cackled.
“Reb, thirty seconds from now, the last thing on yer mind will be the latrine. Now, you want I should shoot you first, or you just want to jump down in there?”
“You shut up, Billy.” Hawley waved the revolver in Ethan’s direction for a second.
Jasper craned his head over the edge of the gorge. “Looks like a hundred feet down. Man could get pretty busted up fallin’ in there. I think you better shoot me first. Or mebbe you ain’t got the stomach for shootin’ a man? Rather I just make it easy fer ya and jump?”
“You Reb bastard. I don’t care how we do it.”
Ethan’s face twisted in shock. “Why are you doing this?”
A grin sliced open the red jowls of George Hawley. “Getting’ even, Billy. Nothing in the whole world feels better.”
Jasper’s calm voice carried through the clean air. “I’ll turn around. If I was runnin’ away, you’d have to shoot me in the back.”
Hawley spun his weapon back toward Jasper. “You die no matter what, you scum, so shut up.”
“Getting even for what?” Ethan said. “He never did anything to you.”
Hawley’s eyes glinted. “This reb is just a tool, Billy. I’m gettin’ even with you.” He leveled his Colt at Ethan. “This piece of scum tried to escape, grabbed my gun and managed to shoot you, Billy, before I could overpower him. In the fight, I got hold of my gun and pushed him into the pit. Good story, huh? The town will eat it up. All my problems go away.”
“How am I your problem?” Ethan said.
Hawley’s eyes got their most piggish. “They say you lost your memory, Billy. Don’t remember who shot you. You don’t remember the duel?”
Ethan frowned. “What duel?”
“To make you pay for gettin’ Katherine pregnant, for not marryin’ her. How you think you wound up in the creek? We had a duel. You lost.”
Ethan shook his head. “No, it was that Ethridge. He’s the one I saw riding away.”
“He was your second. I was the one who shot you. Though I do owe some of my success to Ethridge.” Hawley swelled like a balloon. Now that he had started, the boasting felt too good to stop. “Ethridge made sure you didn’t get lucky. When he loaded your pistol, he palmed the ball. You only fired powder and wadding at me. So now I have the pleasure of shooting you again. Only this time, you stay dead.”
As Hawley lifted his pistol to sight at Ethan’s chest, Jasper jumped into the gorge. Hawley instinctively turned his aim toward the movement, fearing an attack. In that moment of confusion, Ethan drew a Colt .44 from inside his coat. Time slowed. Ethan smelled wet earth wafting up from breaks in the snow. He heard a woodpecker hammering against a tree trunk. The sun that filtered through the bare branches warmed his face. Where the sun struck the barrel of his revolver, it formed a bar of light that pointed directly at George Hawley. Beyond the muzzle, Ethan watched Hawley turn away from the gorge, his arm swinging toward Ethan again. With no haste, Ethan thumbed back the hammer, sighted along the bar of light, and pulled the trigger.
A ball of fire and smoke roiled out of the big Colt and wrapped around Hawley’s chest. George Hawley’s eyes opened wide and a great groan rumbled out of him. With a mind of its own, Hawley’s big fist arced up again toward Ethan, but before his revolver could fire, another ball of flame hurled into George Hawley and he toppled backward. Ethan walked the few steps needed to stand over the heaving body. Hawley’s legs thrashed as he sucked great lungsful of air into his damaged chest.
Ethan thought of Jasper’s body now crumpled and broken at the bottom of the gorge and he fired again, taking pleasure at how the jellied mass quivered from the impact. Still that great body battled death, but blood began to flow out the sides of Hawley’s mouth, bright blood, like barn paint in the sunshine, thick and shiny.
Ethan had always thought of himself as a peaceful man, but something in him snapped. He emptied the Colt into that black heap of cloth that just wouldn’t stop moving. Finally, George Hawley looked like a beached whale left behind by an ebbing tide.
Ethan stood with the Colt hanging in his fist. Life after life he just saw pain and more pain and greed and the wreck of human lusts run wild. He had leaped through the cosmos, had seen stars born, yet here he stood with a smoking gun and another dead body. He now knew why someone had left a boy to die on cold ground. Knowing the answer gave him no pleasure. He looked down on the corpse with scorn.
“‘Nothing in the whole world feels better?’ You stupid bastard.” Ethan looked up into the sky. “God help me.”
“Maybe God could help me too, feller, ‘cause it don’t seem nobody else is fixin’ to.”
Ethan thought he had lost his mind. He hurried to the edge of the gorge. Six feet below the edge, standing on a boulder wedged into the cut, Jasper squinted up, his beaver teeth yellow in the sun. “Sure could use a hand.”
“Jasper, you old bastard.”
Jasper blinked. “How you know my name? I never told my real name.”
Ethan smiled. “It’s me, Ethan. Or Cole, whichever you choose. Can you get your hands in front of you?”
“Yeah, hold on.”
Jasper crouched and worked his bound hands under his bottom and then under his legs. He muttered, “Don’t rightly care what yer name is long as you get me on outta here.” He stood.
“Hold your hands up.” Ethan reached down with his jackknife and cut the leather. “Okay, here goes.” With Jasper bracing his legs in crevices in the rock wall, Ethan hauled him up over the edge where they both collapsed. Ethan felt Jasper whirl and then he felt a tug at his coat. As Ethan sat up, he faced the business end of his own Colt as Jasper scrambled to his feet.
“Jasper, my gun’s empty. You must be tired. I thought you could count better than that runt of a highwayman.” Ethan sat back on the rock and folded his legs, waiting.
“How you know about that?” Jasper craned his head back and forth to examine Ethan’s face. He quickly checked the Colt.
“Jasper, go over there and get Hawley’s sidearm if it makes you feel better. I know having less than a half dozen guns makes you nervous.”
The old campaigner’s eyes shifted toward the corpse and back to Ethan. Those blue orbs scrutinized every detail of Ethan’s face.
“Jasper, it won’t do any good. I won’t look like Cole. This is a completely different body.”
“I don’t know how I can believe this.”
“I’ll prove it to you.” Ethan pointed north. “Up there is where we started, above Turner’s Gap. We ate green corn that morning. Then we walked down through Bolivar and Boonsboro and caught a ride on a cart to . You drew your on a sentry from . I got my nuts shot off in the battle and I showed you these streams contain gold. We holed up under a barn. You shot that highwayman who killed two men and two horses. The third horse you gave to a slave family. Isn’t that enough? Who else could know these things?”
Jasper shook his head as he brushed himself off. “You know, Youngblood, a few months back when you spun this yarn, I thought you was like half the men in this war. Tetched. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. But I must be tetched too, ‘cause even though I’m lookin’ at a different face, I do believe it’s you.” He shrugged and shook his head and let out one of his cackling laughs. “What shall we do with this tub of guts?” Jasper handed back Ethan’s revolver. He leaned over and picked up Hawley’s Colt and let down the hammer. He tucked the revolver into his belt and picked through the dead man’s pockets. “I vote we throw him in this gorge since he liked it so much.”
Jasper took something from Hawley’s vest and rolled it in his hand for a few seconds before looking up at Ethan. “Here, Youngblood, I think this was for you.”
Ethan extended his hand and felt something heavy drop into it. The gray lead glowed dull in the morning sun. Ethan rolled the pistol ball between thumb and forefinger, examining it. Scratched into its surface he saw a date: . Calculating back, Ethan said, “Bastard scratched the date of the duel on this damn thing.” He pursed his lips and dropped the bullet into his pants pocket.
“Whoowee.” Jasper stood up and held out his hand to Ethan. “Lookee here.” Seven disks of fire nestled in Jasper’s palm. “Double eagles. Mormon twenty-dollar gold pieces. Ain’t seen one of these since I was out west. This day is lookin’ up. We can go a fer piece on this kinda money.”
“I won’t be going with you, Jasper. I’m going back.”
“What? They’ll hang you instead of me.”
“No. I’ll tell them we got ambushed by deserters. They grabbed Hawley and the wagon, but in the commotion I jumped off and ran into the woods. They shot at me, but I wasn’t hit. Last thing I know, they were headed up the road to Myersville. That way if anyone ever finds Hawley’s body, it won’t get put on your shoulders.”
“That’s a real fine story, Youngblood. But why go back and have to tell it?”
“I found her, Jasper. Bethany, my wife. She’s back there in . She’s young, I’m young. We can live a life together.”
Jasper cackled and danced a little jig. “Good fer you, Youngblood. Good fer you.”
Together, they struggled to push and drag Hawley’s big carcass to the hole in the earth. When they got him to the edge, Jasper said, “Mind if I do the honors?” He stood straight, saluted, then kicked the corpse hard. “See ya in hell, ya bastard.”
Two seconds later, a loud thump echoed out of the pit.
Ethan commented, “So, another fellow for you to meet in hell.”
“Yeah, my dance card’s gonna be pretty full.”
“Jasper, why didn’t you get out of here? I thought you would be gone months ago.”
“Once winter came on, I didn’t care much for tromping across the countryside to head south. Had plenty of food and that barn was kinda comfortable.”
Ethan lifted an eyebrow and teased, “Had nothing to do with leaving the gold behind, did it?”
The old scout snickered and tugged at his beard. “Well, maybe a leetle bit.”
Ethan stepped closer to Jasper and held out his revolver. “Here, it’s not a , but you may need this. Give me Hawley’s.” Jasper swapped guns and smiled so wide his beaver teeth showed. Ethan threw Hawley’s gun over the edge of the cliff.
“Hey, that was a damn nice gun.”
“Yeah, Jasper, with Hawley’s initials engraved on the barrel, what do you think would happen if you got caught with it?” Ethan shrugged out of his greatcoat and handed it to Jasper. “Here, take this too. Your uniform is beat up but it still sticks out like a sore thumb.” Jasper donned the big garment. Then Ethan said, “Take the horses and the wagon. I have to walk back to town for my story to work.”
Jasper leaped up onto the wagon’s plank seat and reached down his right hand. “Good luck to ya, Ethan. Thanks fer gettin’ me out of this jam.”
They shook hands. Ethan said, “I thought you needed a latrine?”
Jasper’s blue eyes twinkled. “Nah. Was jest lookin’ to get somebody to make a mistake so’s I could cut loose.”
“You fox. Hole up in some place like until the war is over. Lots of southern sympathizers in Baltimore. Then I expect you’ll be a rich gold miner a couple years later.”
“You get half my share. I’ll deliver it personal.”
Ethan laughed. “You do that.”
“What name you got now so’s I can find you?”
“Billy Anspach. The father is Calvin Anspach. He owns the general store in . But if things work out, Jasper, you won’t find me there. Beth and I will be long gone.” Remembering something, Ethan said, “Almost forgot. Hand me that package under the seat.”
Jasper fumbled around and then caught hold of the package twine. “What ye got there?”
“I don’t know. Now, you get out of here, Old Timer.”
“Don’t you ‘Old Timer’ me, you little pup.” In answer, Ethan slapped the nearer gelding’s rump and the wagon lurched ahead. He watched until Jasper disappeared among the naked trees. Then he turned and followed his shadow down the hill. Ethan faced a long walk, but he needed time to go over the story he would need to tell.
After an hour, Ethan stepped off the muddy road and settled on the thick trunk of a fallen oak to rest his feet. The sun warmed his face as he cut the string from around the parcel. As he pulled off the paper wrapping, the sun caught the scarred surface of a leather dispatch case. Ethan unfastened dull brass buckles and opened the flat case. Inside he found several folded papers and one large envelope. He unfolded the papers and saw manifests, listing supplies and provisions in neat columns. Ethan set those back inside the case and pulled open the stiff, brown envelope.
Ethan had always been a student of history, had spent long hours in the library during his youth. In later years he had hiked all over and , exploring the sites of great and small Civil War battles. But that had all been abstraction compared to this moment. Ethan realized he was in history. A glow ran through him as he fingered through the documents.
He read battle orders from General McClellan to his subordinates with scribbled replies from each. He perused hand-drawn maps of and the surrounding countryside. Amazed, he handled orders from Robert E. Lee. Someone must have intercepted a Confederate messenger.
He had seen such documents in museums, but they had been yellowed and tattered with the ink faded by sunlight and blurred by water. These documents had clean surfaces, the writing crisp. Ethan riffled through the packet, reading letters and notes until he came to one document that took his breath away.
His attention telescoped into single-point focus as Ethan read these words: “Dear General McClellan, though I have pushed and prodded you to engage the enemy over these past months, my heart quells at the sight of the product of these exhortations. I stand here now in the church at , some miles in the rear of your position. My aides will not let me proceed further than this toward the front. Hundreds of young men lie here in this makeshift hospital, under the eyes of their God as they expire in silence and with a courage that humbles and rebukes me. Though my sense of duty urges me to see the fighting first hand, to know the consequences of my decisions, some part of me finds relief in knowing I will not be allowed to view the Horseman of Death as he scythes through the fields of . Know that my good wishes and prayers ride with you and your men in this hour of calamity. Yours, in God, Abraham Lincoln.”
As Ethan’s gaze wandered up to the china-blue sky, his vision blurred. As vast as he knew the universe to be, he marveled at how the actions of one being on one small planet in one average solar system could ring through eternity with such compassion and humanity.
Ethan carefully folded the letter and placed it back into the larger envelope with the Lee and McClellan papers. This he tucked into a pocket in the inner lining of his coat. The remaining papers Ethan tossed to the wind. As he stood, he flung the dispatch case spinning into the trees. Then he continued his trek back to Sharpsburg.