A ripple of low sound went through the line. John couldn’t tell how far the Rebels had come from Fort Stedman. They’d certainly gotten past the first line of rifle pits in the rear of the breastworks. And they’d seen the 208th now. They were opening fire.
“Blackbirds, is it?” Joe Feagan was staring wild-eyed at the sudden scatter of shot in the sky, and John did for Joe what Henry Schafer had done for him at Fort Donelson. He hooked him with his leg and pulled him down.
“Bullets. Easy. Mind your gun,” he said.
On order, they fired back. There was a blaze of fire along the line. The sky blurred with a thin wash of smoke, and John smelled the black stench of it. As he handled his gun, the crucial, familiar motions came back to him: tearing and charging the cartridge, ramming it home. Moving the gun into firing position and priming the cap. Cocking the hammer and taking aim before he fired. He knew there were cavalry units that had repeating rifles, that they’d made war a very different thing. But this was war as he was used to it: men in formation; the blue glint of metal as they raised their guns to fire at each other and then lowered them to load once again.
Another volley now. Then a third. It was methodical. It was numbing, which was what let a soldier see men catapult through the air or plunk head first into a muckish stream, and all the while keep loading. John saw the sudden, red shock of wounds. He smelled a man near him who’d soiled himself.
For twenty minutes, for half an hour, they kept their position. Some of the Rebels had begun to shrink back. They were taking shelter in a ravine, but the gunfire kept up on both sides. From what he’d seen, this enemy seemed a threadbare bunch and, for the briefest second, John thought how much smaller the task of inventory had to be in General Lee’s army. Then he heard the order for the regiment to charge.
“Stay low. Fire low. Keep low when we go forward,” he called to the men who were near him, and they were off on the double-quick and heading straight for the Rebels. John could feel the fever, the blood rising in the line as the men charged ahead.
Yet to him, the faster things happened, the slower they felt. Their flags moved like drifting kites. Feet disappeared in a smoky haze and appeared again only when the haze lifted. When he drew closer to the advancing line, bullets still flying, John saw the Rebels who remained in the center of the line loom larger—their faces gradually acquiring features—while the men on the right and left fell out of view. He heard Lieutenant Corl order the line left, and as he started the move, he felt a rifle butt crack his head from a boy who’d turned the wrong way. He shook his head once. He shook it again, but he knew it was clear. Really, it was as clear as it had ever been in battle. Clearer, for he was aware of so much. The jumbled racket. Yes. Yes. He recognized the noise of bullfrogs and owls and insects—how amazing to lie next to an elephant ear while the Rebel cavalrymen hurled out their taunts—and rain pummeling the cars as the men hoisted coffins on board, and Felix talking. Did Felix never stop talking? Felix saying we killed him, Jack. Oh, Jesus holy crap.
Such a choir. The sooty, opened mouths growing wider and louder by the second. And what was he hearing? Ann? You’ve forgotten, Mr. Given, I was born in New York. How could I be Irish?
But you are! he wanted to shout. You are! And these lads. Feagan and Feeney. Delancy (creaking as he is from the rheumatism he got from sleeping on the ground). And McAfee is. O’Neal is. And Jimmy Cassady, who’s too fast to catch up to.
He could take off his cap, John thought. Stuff it back in his pocket, and the Rebels would never know him for a Yankee in his clerk’s coat. He could slip into their line and use his bayonet like a dagger left and right. It was kill or be killed, and it hardly mattered anymore unless these lads themselves were killed. He would take it very hard if they were. But to hell with Ann Bradley. To bloody hell with Ann. In all his life, he’d never been so angry. He was here because of her, and would it get him killed now, her voice running in his head?