July 3, 1863
Chunks of earth, rocks, metal, and men flew through the air as though he’d run straight into the middle of a Missouri tornado. Sam stumbled, almost fell, and took several staggering steps to regain his footing before he was able to continue his race through the open field. Following an impotent, late morning artillery barrage into the Union lines, thousands of Pickett’s Virginia men and Archer’s 14th Tennessee Volunteers had stood shoulder to shoulder, proud and brave, before starting up the gently sloping field toward the small copse of trees that marked where the Union forces were entrenched behind a rock wall in front of the tree line.
Sam’s rifle was clenched so tight he was sure his fingers would have to be pried away when he put it down—or it was taken from him. Sweat rolled in plump rivulets from his dirty forehead, down his nose and into his eyes, to sting and blur his vision, down his cheeks and neck, soaking his collar and shirt. More than once the concussive blasts of the Union artillery threw him backward like a rag doll being shaken by a giant fist then thrown away before he could regain his balance and start up the slope again. The air was thick with spent powder in low-hanging clouds over the battlefield and impeded the men’s vision as they ran toward the enemy like sheep herded toward slaughter. The smell of burnt flesh and the metallic scent of blood and gore lodged in Sam’s nostrils as he charged toward the split-rail fence where so many men lay strewn across it, their bodies contorted in death, having fallen to the body-shredding cannon and heavy rifle fire from the stone wall up ahead. All around men shrieked and thrashed as cannon balls tore through legs, arms, and bodies, spreading men across the field of battle like the waste of crows, leaving empty craters where good men had stood, gone in an instant in a red smoke of death.
Somehow Sam made it over the fence and kept running with the others. Ben and Jack were on his right, the two brothers inseparable since finding each other. Jack let out a Rebel Yell and Ben did the same. Sam couldn’t, his throat so dry he thought he’d cough up his insides if he tried.
He ran blindly, up the hill toward the wall where the Yankees waited—to kill him—and still he ran.
He gripped his rifle and took a gulping breath to settle his nerves. He made it to the far left side of the wall and over, but so many others lay dead or dying on the open field behind him and at the base of the wall. He whirled in a circle, trying to get his bearings, the fighting so close he looked right into the faces of the men he killed—or who tried to kill him.
He dove to the right when he spotted a man aiming his rifle at his head. The bullet whizzed over him before he lifted his own rifle and blew a hole in the man’s shoulder. The man fell to the ground screaming, blood flowing across his chest and down him arm. Sam ignored his screams. He was a soldier, doing his job. And that job was to kill the enemy.
Sam pushed back to his feet, exhaustion cloying at him while adrenaline raced through him. He sucked in a breath and ducked in time to miss being clubbed by a Yankee’s rifle butt. Out of ammo, Sam turned his own rifle around and swung the stock as hard as he could. He caught the man in the side of the head. The Yankee’s eyes glazed with knowing.
“You killed me, Johnny Reb,” the man croaked before he dropped his rifle and crumpled to the ground.
Sam swallowed, but couldn’t dwell on who he killed or how many. His only quest was to stay alive. He had Molly to think about. That was all that drove him. Surviving this damnable war and making it home to her.
He fought like a mad man, despite the fact he was so much older than most of these men. Sweat soaked his clothing, exhaustion threatened, but he would not die. He wouldn’t let that happen—couldn’t let that happen. He whirled, went down on one knee, and reloaded as fast as he could.
Sam stood up, his rifle loaded, and scanned around him. The battle was waning, but there was still fighting so he had to be careful. He was about to turn around when a bayonet was thrust into his thigh from behind. He dropped to his knees, screaming in anger and pain before he whirled and shoved his own bayonet into the belly of his attacker. From his knees he looked up at the man he’d impaled with his blade. He stood only a foot away, a young boy whose eyes held the shock of what was happening. Sam watched the boy’s life’s blood ooze from the wound in his belly, a wound no man survived, as he jerked his bayonet from the boy’s body. Pity almost overwhelmed him—until he remembered his own son, killed by a damn Yankee possibly no older than this one, and his pity slid away like water off a rock.
Sam sucked in a deep breath. He had to stop the bleeding or he’d join the boy on the ground beside him whose eyes were already glazed in death. He grabbed his leg and gritted his teeth, felt the blood draining from his clenched lips in his effort not to cry out. The battle was almost over, he could tell by the sounds around him—or lack thereof. The artillery fire had stopped; the pop of muskets and pistols became sporadic. What he heard was mostly the moaning of the wounded still on the battlefield. He had to stay quiet; they had to think he was already dead if he had any chance of surviving the day. If they thought he was still alive, one of those Yanks might just shove a saber into his chest to finish him off. Water, he needed water so bad, but none would come until the battle was over—and if he was still alive. He opened his mouth just enough to suck in another deep breath, trying not to scream at the pain tearing through his leg, up his spine and into his brain. Pain that exploded in white hot light like a lightning strike with each life-giving breath he took.
He lay stone still, listening. His leg burned like fire and he had to stop the bleeding. Men were all around. Some stumbled through the dead and wounded, and some screamed and cried in agony. Many lay beside him still and silent, even though he felt them there. Others ran down the hill, shouting as the battle lessened. Where was the rest of his company? What about Ben and Jack? Had they fallen, too, now dead or waiting to die like he was? Waiting for one of those damned blue bellies to finish them?
The smell of death rode the wind, along with spent powder, blood, sweat and fear. Agonizing pain tore up his leg again, reminding him he was alive, for now. If he didn’t stop the bleeding, it wouldn’t be for long. He had to see what was going on around him. Could he crawl away? Make it to the bushes he’d seen to his left? He had to know. He opened his eyes and took a last breath as he stared up into the eyes of the man who stood above him, poised and ready to thrust a bayonet into his chest.