“Comfortable over there?”
Sullivan shrugged. “Fairly. Yourself?”
Potter nodded and leaned his musket against a nearby tree, taking up his canteen and gently tipping back a slow sip. Sullivan coughed and spat, wiping his face in his sleeve.
“So do you think them fancy horse-boys will find trouble?” asked Sullivan gesturing out before them.
“I fear it is likely so.”
“Ya, well--” responded Sullivan with a grin, “you’d say that! You bein’ one of them what saw them dust clouds.”
“You don’t think we ought to be sure of any contact or possible sign of the enemy?”
Sullivan shook his head. “I didn’t say that now--what I mean is I don’t think it’ll amount to much is all. It‘s been a day now, hasn‘t it? Seems a long while if it were somethin‘ truly serious.”
“I suppose it’s possible--still it does seem that every time we are sure it’s nothing--” said Potter laying a finger beside his nose, “--it proves to be something!” As if on cue, there came a challenge from somewhere to the right of them along the picket which was answered in proper fashion. Sullivan and Potter sat silently, straining their senses to hear any carrying conversation. They caught little but the faint creak of saddle and dull clink of accoutrements. “They are moving at a good pace.” said Potter, breaking the silence in hushed tones.
“When don’t they though?” quipped Sullivan with a smirk. Both men jumped when Sergeant Hedley’s voice sounded close by in a harsh whisper. “Will you both please lower your voices and kindly attend to your duty!” he said as he materialized from underbrush without a sound. The sergeant moved to Sullivan’s position and beckoned to Potter to join them. Sullivan was clearly a bit overawed by the sudden appearance of the sergeant, and whispered, ”Are you part Indian or something?” The sergeant settled his musket in the crook of his arm and considered Sullivan a moment before shaking his head. As Potter joined them, Sullivan muttered more to himself than anyone, “well, you certain sure are quiet!”, and said no more. Hedley frowned, having heard all the same.
“Yes, and you gentlemen need to work on being so--I assume you do understand the purpose of being on the picket line? Stay alert now, both of you--no more noise.” Both men nodded sheepishly, and Hedley seemed satisfied. “I came to inform you both that you’ll be relieved in an hour--alright then?” They assented and the sergeant turned and vanished down along the line, soon lost from sight amongst the foliage.
“He’s something, isn’t he?” whistled Sullivan, taking position. Potter only nodded and returned to his spot, wondering what news the troopers had to report. They hadn’t long to wait for their answer as it turned out; the news spread quickly and was eagerly reported when their relief arrived. Rebel cavalry was encamped five miles from their position along the east road (known locally as the West Falls Spoke), and clearly probing forward of something organized. There was no sign of infantry as yet, but word had it that the troopers felt the signs were clear enough to suggest some body of the enemy was moving this way.
“I wonder how many it will be” asked one of the men in the gathered group waiting in line for their rations. Potter and Sullivan stood together quietly, Haimer a little way ahead of them looking eagerly for his share of the overcooked offering. “No sense to drawing it out--” said Sullivan with a grin as they watched Haimer wander off with his food, “--you were right about them rebels being close by.”
Potter shrugged. “I wish I hadn’t been!”
“Maybe them buggers won’t come by this route?”
“NO Sir!” Interjected someone from the back of the line who had clearly overhead them, “we ‘aint never been that lucky!” “Lucky?” added someone else, “Why, let them bastards come! We’ll lick’em good!” This was met with a cheer, though Potter couldn’t help but notice that some of the voices were half-hearted. Corporal Brooks called for quiet, and the group returned to the business of their meal. Potter wondered if this might not be the last good rest and meal they would have for a bit--if indeed the enemy was coming.
By late afternoon there was no doubt that a significant force of the enemy was moving in their direction, as further forays in reconnaissance by the cavalry had found. The report set off a flurry of preparation at the post, both in the improvement of defenses as well as the dispatch of mounted couriers to the posts to their North--South--and back to headquarters. “Word has it that it’s infantry supported by cavalry,” said Billings as he tossed a spade full of dirt from one of the hill side entrenchments. Another man added he had heard it was dismounted cavalry, and another a full division of those Hell-mad Texans. “Either way, we’re in for a heap of trouble!” shot out a man down the line.
Joe Dodge spat, and dug his spade deep. “We only have to hold ‘em--and then only a few hours. What with the hill an’ all, we should be able to stack ‘em up the whole damn day!”
“It’s three hours,” spoke up Sergeant Hedley as he appeared amongst them, “for the courier to ride gentlemen. The report has then to be read; considered and discussed--assuming it goes straight to the General and isn’t waylaid by his staff for some reason. If they choose to move immediately, it will take at least an hour to outfit and assemble a portion of the army--longer if they decide to move en masse.” The sergeant had them in thrall and he knew it, wandering amongst their works with a look of fire in his eyes. “You all marched from headquarters to this post--” he looked around hard into their eyes then before going on, “--and know the distance to be traversed. We mustn’t fool ourselves gentlemen; this day will prove taxing and dire for us. We shall have to reach into ourselves and take hold of this ground with the tenacity of a man protecting his own, and deny our enemy victory! We must make the eventual arrival of our comrades a blessing to the rebel! Make him delight in an excuse to run from here and save his own skin, for the rebel officers will push them to sweep us away with equal determination to our desire to refuse them!” Hedley stood, looking from man to man, and for the first time Potter saw the true genius of their new sergeant. “So gentlemen,” he began again, “I say that whether our army arrives in a matter of hours or days doesn’t matter a fig! We can hold, and we will show those rebels the error of daring to test our mettle!”
A cheer went up from the assembled men, and a feeling of esprit de corps that few had known since their first days as soldiers overcame them. Haimer smiled broadly at him, and Potter slapped him on the back as Sergeant Hedley chided them playfully for halting in their work. Potter watched Hedley wander from their group as spades dug into the earth with renewed energy. He hardly could believe how powerful the sergeant’s words had been--nor how he could feel so hopeful given that all that Hedley has really done was confirm just how dire their situation truly was. There was no fighting the mood of those about him however, and soon he allowed himself to be caught up in it as he resumed his work. They had only just completed the improvements they had been assigned when the alarm was raised by the lookouts--and what remained of their cavalry troopers proceeded out at a canter to reconnoiter and skirmish. The enemy was approaching without question now, but only the officers knew their composition and surmised intent. There was concern of where the enemy would choose to engage, but the men took some heart in the fact that the officers seemed satisfied that their arrangements should prove enough to hold their position. All told, there were 40 of their platoon, divided between the defenses near the base of the hill and those further up towards the observation post. The remaining troopers (of those not scouting or sent as messengers) were deployed to the furtherest flanks of the hill so as to have some advance warning if the enemy should decide to move in such direction. Most agreed they likely would, and if so their options to respond became more problematic. For that matter, thought Potter checking that the cap remained sure on the nipple of his musket, the whole situation was far from ideal--they had the more defensible position to be sure, but surely the enemy would come in strength. Standing with Haimer and Connelly in the upper defenses, he realized that the time for such thoughts had passed. They were stuck now, and would do what they must to live through the day. He gazed out into the early evening horizon, and was struck how odd it seemed that such a beautiful sky could accompany what would likely prove a hard and even terrible event to come. There was no conversation amongst the men, only the sound of the occasional whispering wind and the leather-against-metal rustlings of militaria. Eyes were opened wide and senses stretched in listening and seeking signs of the approach of what was to come. Haimer opened the flap of his cartridge box for the third time in as many minutes, checking the status of his ammunition. “You’re gonna wear out the leather, boy,” groused Connelly, poking Haimer in the side.
“Nothing wrong with being certain about it!” countered Haimer with a grit of his teeth. Corporal Brooks came wandering over, his footfalls crunching in the drying earth so recently turned over from the diggings.
“What is all the commotion over here?” shot Brooks, with a shake of his musket. Connelly and Haimer answered as one that it was nothing, and then were silent. The corporal seemed satisfied with this, and being a kind man at heart only shook his head and wandered back down the line. “Blasted waiting--” grumbled Connelly after moment, pulling his forage cap from his head and running a hand through his matted ginger hair. “I can stand most all the trials I’ve done found here in this soldier’s life, but waiting I can rare abide!” Potter nodded his agreement and looked to Haimer. The younger man was a little pale, but his eyes were defiant. He’s scared, thought Potter, but by God if he’ll admit to it. Potter knew that he too was scared; he always was before action. Every man dealt with this fear (Sullivan called it “before the dance creepers”) in his own way. Some refused it wholly, even if their body showed the signs. Some might take mysteriously and fervently to religion--even so far as to form spontaneous bible groups which sometimes gave into loud protestations of God’s greatness. In itself this wasn’t a bad thing, but it could be discouraging later to the truly faithful when it was many of these same men who worked the hardest at accomplishing sin as soon as the danger passed. When they first had come South, one occasionally saw men that fully broke with their fear of battle--but such reactions were rare now. Potter looked about him at those who were closest, taking in the silent watchful stillness which the majority of men portrayed in these moments. He felt for the small folded letter he always kept in the breast pocket of his coat; words home and a request to whomever might find his body should the worst happen. Most soldiers made some sort of allowance that way, even if they didn’t like to talk about it much. Billings was looking at an ambrotype of his wife and children, something Potter had seen him do many times before. He made a silent prayer that it would not be the last time he witnessed this, for either of them. Suddenly there came a shout, and then the echoing crack of musketry from the first line just among the tree line below.
“They’re coming boys!” shouted the lieutenant from the observation post above them, dropping his field glasses from his eyes. Every man readied himself along the trench as gunfire and a wail of Southern voices joined together below as the battle of Post Lincoln began.
Sand kicked up in violent sprays as bullets flashed into the entrenchment walls between them, one ball showering splinters into the right side of Leo Amsel’s face when it struck a log he was crouching behind. He grunted more in surprise than pain, and reached for his face as his brother Martin shot a rebel charging towards them through the head. Though chaos reigned about them, order held on by its fingernails amongst them--men loading and firing as fast as they could. Sergeant Dayton, wounded through the shoulder but still running up and down the line to bolster spirits, called a cease fire and slowly the sound faded. An acrid, clinging haze hung low before them amongst the trees and brambles; moans of the of the wounded and dying punctuating the sudden stillness with the momentary retreat of the enemy. “By GOD!” said the wounded sergeant as he passed where Martin was helping Leo pull splinters from his cheek, “What a charge! Infantry too, and determined to make ground. Boys, if this next charge is better supported, be ready to fall back to the upper line. Make sure you lend assistance to those that are wounded--By God we’ll leave no one behind to be captured here!” There we many assents along the line, and in general the wounds sustained so far were slight--but every man knew they had been lucky.
“Determined, he says?” commented Sullivan tying a handkerchief tight over a flesh wound to his hand that bled as though it was much worse, “murderous I would call it!”
“Ya, they are hard fellows--”added Leo Amsel, the right side of his face a red, blotchy bloody mess, “Hard fellows!” A shout went up and the enemy appeared again, firing as they came. The sergeant was hit three more times before his limp body fell forward over the trench wall; the air humming and churning with lead. The call to retreat was raised by someone, but all had become confusion. The air choked at their throats, so thick was the smoke of musketry, as burning embers smoldered in the detritus of the forest floor and swirling vortexes rippled before their vision with the passing of meteoric musket lead. Sullivan felt everything was moving very slowly, all but his heart which pounded in his chest with a mad drive to escape, and run. Voices combined around him; the screaming battle cry of the enemy mingled with cries of agony and calls to fall back. The lines intermixed, as bodies collided and Federal blue and Rebel grey and butternut fell in heaps together or thrashed and rolled in combative embrace. As he scrambled he felt that his feet failed to make purchase, sliding under him in sand to finally trip and send him sprawling. Someone stamped hard on his hand, forcing him to release his rifle while the sharp point of a bayonet stuck into his shoulder. Sullivan froze, a young demanding voice calling out to him. “Roll over an’ give up! I gots you, an’ don’t you try nuthin’!” He rolled over, looking up into a dirty scruffy face dressed in dark brown and grey--when suddenly a shot rang out. His triumphant captor’s face turned to a grimace as he spat blood and fell backward--to be replaced by the haggard looking Amsel brothers who scooped him up as bullets whizzed loudly past them and thumped into earth ahead of them. They had Sullivan up quickly between them, Martin loosing his cap in the process of retrieving their rescued friend’s musket by the sling as they scrambled with obvious desperation ahead of the advancing enemy up the hill. It felt to Sullivan that they would be taken by an enemy bullet at any moment, a primal sense of urgency to flee and not look back filling him with every step. Before he knew it, they were within sight of their own lines and met by watchful, grim men who gathered them into the trenches. Volleys erupted along their lines into the few unlucky pursuing enemy who came into view, halting any further advance smartly. Slowly the shooting came to a halt as the enemy retreated from view amongst the trees below, leaving behind the sad scene of a few dead and wounded amid the scrubby short grasses between the lines. Leo Amsel was busy still picking splinters from his face with the help of his brother when Potter and Connelly appeared beside them.
“God almighty Ansel, are ye alright?” exclaimed Connelly kneeling down beside the wounded man. Finally having removed most of the splinters, Leo nodded and held a clean handkerchief to his face which his brother had given him. Martin grinned.
“At last, I will be the better looking brother, eh?” Leo gave a sardonic half smile and Potter chuckled.
Sullivan, who had been hunched nearby against the trench wall, sat up and looked about. “How many--” he said clearing his throat, “--that is where are the others? How many made it back?”
“Eight in all,” answered Sergeant Hedley approaching along the trench line. “You three and five others. My hope is that most of the others are captives or even wounded--but they may be lost.” A silence settled over them, during which Sullivan rose and retrieved his musket from where Martin had left it. He brushed dirt from the lock and hammer, before turning to the sergeant.
“Sergeant Dayton is dead, and there be a lot of Sesech down there.” Hedley nodded and looked out to the horizon a moment.
He cleared his throat and nodded again. “Alright, look to your positions--check your boxes and count up. Sullivan, come with me.” For a moment the others watched them proceed up the hill to the Lieutenant before they resumed positions and began to check their ammunition.
“Sullivan ist right”, said Leo he reloaded his musket, “vas bad, unt Sullivan came close to danger.” Potter closed his box, and rechecked the percussion cap on his musket. Martin Amsel settled into a spot beside them in the trench, and Potter noted that where the seam of his coat pushed out there was a ragged tear--a bullet had torn through the wool and only narrowly missed his shoulder. Martin cocked his eyebrows when it was pointed out to him, but laughed it off with the “could have but didn’t” attitude they all seemed to grow into as their enlistment went on. Leo’s raw face was beginning to bruise, as he discarded the no longer white handkerchief.
Potter sighed and sighted down his musket. “Before this is day is over, I’m afraid Sullivan won’t have been the only one close to danger.”
The lieutenant thanked Sullivan for his report on the events in the lower defenses, and gave orders to the assembled sergeants. Ammunition was brought forward to the trenches, the crates stacked within reach of the tense defenders. A steady watchfulness hung over the men, and few spoke. Time passed slowly, and nothing was seen of the enemy. The tense, hyperawareness translated to cramped fingers, grinding teeth and hushed curses. Haimer growled to himself as he sighted along the length of his weapon.
Connelly looked over. “Ye see some-tin?” “Nothing--why don’t they come?!” Haimer spat and frowned. Connelly moved to lay a hand on Haimer’s shoulder only to have his friend slip out from underneath his touch and shove him away. The pair stared at one another for a moment in steely silence before both men resumed their watch. Connelly sighed and shook his head, looking at Billings down the line. “The waitin’ is the hardest part,” someone along the line commented. Haimer scowled. He knew he was scared, and that made him feel both furious as well as ashamed. He was about to apologize to Connelly when a shout rang out from the observation post above, visibly affecting the men as though they had been slapped--and every one lowered themselves as best they could in the trench as they pulled muskets tighter into their shoulders. Potter, crouching in his place along the line, glanced to his left at Martin Amsel. “Did you hear clearly what they said?”
“Nein, do you think zay are coming at last?” There was a pause, but neither knew the answer. The wind blew gently, and the grasses which clumped about the body of an enemy soldier down the hill bent slightly. Leo Amsel grunted, and poked Potter as he gestured down the line of their trench. With surprise, they saw that the men were slowly and tentatively coming to their feet. Along the rise of the trench behind them, Sergeant Hedley was walking in their direction, calling out to the men as he did. He had Sullivan in tow behind him, and was motioning for the men to rise. Were they surrendering?
The wind blew back their way, and suddenly Hedleys voice was clear. “Rise up boys! Up lads, the rebels have decided our hill isn’t worth the effort, they moved off to the North!” Haimer stood stiffly, the days events suddenly heavy weights in his joints. The line was being ordered to form as skirmishers and he forced himself to step up over the lip of the trench before the others. Connelly joined him, smiling as he fell in beside him.
“All that--”growled Billings as he kicked the dirt savagely, “and them bastards still didn’t try us!”
“Not yet, anyhow--so far!” said someone as they fell into line.
“Tell that to them what was below, in them trenches yonder,” said Connelly, hooking a thumb down the hill. Fallen rebels were still visible in the grasses below where they stood. Sergeant Hedley called for quiet, and when the remaining men in the trenches had assembled they fixed bayonets. What were they doing now? Not marching down the hill, surely. What if the rebels returned when they were near the first line of trenches? Or what if they were not gone at all, but only hiding? How did the officers even know the rebels were gone to begin with? All of this swarmed through Potter’s head, though he surmised he was not alone in such thoughts. They were returned then once more to the trench to wait while the sergeant went back to the observation post.
“What’s this all about then?” asked Henry.
Billings spat into the dirt at his feet, and sat on the lip of the trench. “Going to make us march down there I think. Damn stuffed shirt officers.”
“Quiet you two--” interjected Haimer with an aggressiveness that surprised Potter, “--let’s see what’s up before you start making pronouncements!” The younger man’s comment had the desired effect, and silence settled over them. Of course within each man questions and worries raged, partnered with fatigue which had begun at last to truly settle in after the long day. They were left to wait, tense and edgy for nearly an hour before the sergeants came back down the hill and formed them up. They were marched slowly down the hill, passing the grisly reminders of the earlier fight with bayonets at the ready. Potter looked back once, watching the slowly receeding safety of the hill and the observers at the top watching their progress in return. They slowed as one, the line of men tense and alert as the sight met them. Sergeant Hedley moved forward, stepping over the fallen and approached the form of Dayton. Hedley stepped over, and gently rolled Dayton back, cradling the fallen man in his arms before hoisting him up over his shoulder. Other started forward now, some to stand watchful as others gathered up their dead and even finding one or two still clinging to life though wounded.
Haimer stood looking around him, hard faced and defiant until something caught his attention. “Did you hear that?” asked Haimer, but Potter had not and told him so. Stepping into the trench, Haimer came across a badly injured and pitiful looking rebel. For a while he simply stared down at the man, who wore a different uniform from his and was his enemy. This man had helped to wound and kill many of those he saw after a fashion as his own brothers--yet something else occurred to him then as well. Suddenly Haimer drew his canteen, and knelt beside the whimpering rebel. The man was dying, that was very clear, and he took the water with a sputtering cough on lips which were painted with bright blood. The rebel’s eyes sought Haimer’s, and his raspy voice was barely audible. He drew closer, and the rebel spoke in his ear some last secret before he was gone. Haimer drew back, and stood for a moment over his fallen enemy, who had somehow ceased to be hated in his eyes; and even ceased to be truly an enemy. For the first time, Haimer realized that this was a man--he had been a son, possibly a brother or husband and even a father. He was a soldier, just as Haimer himself was.
Potter stepped over at last, and looked down on the dead rebel before laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Are you alright?” He asked. Haimer looked at him, and nodded.
“I’m a soldier now, Potter,” Haimer said with a half smile, “But I think my eagerness is at an end.” From above, the lookout cheered, calling down the hill to Sergeant Hedely that the relief was approaching. At the front of the column of cavalry which preceded the main body, the guidon flapped merrily in the breeze. The horses were excited, and as the men carried their wounded and fallen away from the trees, the whinnying of the horses echoed over the hill.