By Dave Pezza
He wiped the sweat from his brow with his uniform, but already the drenched and grimy woolen sleeve smeared dirt and sweat onto his forehead. As he wiped his forehead, the overpowering odor of mud and gun powder invaded his nose and swarmed his head. Once he had smelled it, he couldn’t stop smelling it. He could feel the smell clinging to his greasy hair and worn wool slouch hat. He found no relief from the pervasive heat that soaked the very air he breathed. Over the open field just beyond the edge of the treeline, heat rose in waves in the thick afternoon air, as if the Earth itself was aflame. Thick black clouds covered the field and trapped the moisture and heat like a massive greenhouse. The heat beat down on the men’s already fractured and frayed nerves. They had waited all morning for it; most of them were ready to be done with it. He swallowed and choked on his dry throat. He reached for his canteen, but stopped. He had run dry last night soon after the fighting stopped. He forced down the rest of his thick saliva. The signal moved its way through the ranks.
It would begin.
The drums rumbled and they rose to their feet and marched out of the woods like a herd of men moving through the thick air. He checked his gear, what little was left. He had used up most of his powder the day before last, and found little last night while scavenging through the dead in the night. They could see the ridge, but they were still out of range of the long guns. The herd continued to march toward the lion’s den. His legs moved forward, but his mind drifted home. He saw his two daughters playing by the fire while his wife sewed tattered uniforms for the war. He believed they were safe because of him. They were protected because of his courage and the courage of his brothers, protectors of their land and freedoms. This thought lifted his legs and pumped adrenaline into his heart, but the heat and the loud drone of cicadas wore him down. He looked inside himself again and found his wife’s pure and voluptuous body on their wedding night. He smelled her hair and he remembered the way it flowed over their wedding bed like a river of gold. He recalled how nervous he was that night until he looked into her eyes. Those eyes, those green and brown freckled eyes split open his chest and struck his heart heavier than any mold of lead could. Those eyes widened every time he moved in to kiss her. They hardened with pain and strength when she gave birth to both of his daughters, the very eyes that caressed him at night and fortified him in the morning. He marched with the rest of them, slowly crying, not out of fear or cowardice, but because he knew in his soul that he would never see his home, his children, or those eyes ever again. He knew she felt it too, and it cut him to pieces.
The first artillery barrage ripped through the lines of men. His tears stopped. Shrapnel tore open a boy’s chest, leaving only a twitching, pulsing mess of blood and raw earth. They marched on with deliberateness, their pace quickening. The sonic booms from the cannons and the screaming of his own men hardened his resolve. Those eyes didn’t leave him. They pushed him and comforted him. More artillery fire broke through the lines and pockets of red mist spouted all over the field, briefly floating in the humidity like wet heavy fireworks.
Yet they marched on.
He bit his lower lip and willed his body into every step. He stared at a single point on the battle field and fought his body until he reached that spot, a test of mind over flesh. Then he would pick another spot, and then another. Soon he could make out the individual shapes of the enemy soldiers on the ridge. He picked out a single man among the exploding cannons and muskets. He would get to that man, and he would kill that man. Others fell around him, but he still charged. Suddenly a different type of blast broke his concentration; a hundred little pops sounded off to his left. Men broke ranks and crashed over each other in a chaotic whirl of fear and surprise. Another round of small pops opened up upon them and more men came flooding from the left flank, some falling and screaming as they ran. One man, older than he, fell holding his bloody leg. An instant later an artillery shell tore through the man and the very earth on which he lay.
The artillery fire slowly dissipated and the small pops grew into loud barrages of thunder. He fired his musket, now that he was in range, and he closed his eyes to the mini explosion in front of his face. With his eyes closed he thought a thunderstorm lay before him, launching thousands of bolts of lightning in a single strike. He stumbled, fell to his knees, and crawled upon the ground. He flung off his slouch hat and ripped open the top his uniform and breathed as deep as his lungs would allow, inhaling dirt and sweat. His fellow soldiers fired all around him, returning a monstrous volley of resolve and bravado. He threw himself up, reloaded and fired again toward the line of men on the ridge with fire spitting from their heads. While the smoke filled his face and lungs, the ground shook beneath him and his leg flew out from under him. He lay forward, nearly skewered on his own bayonet.
This is it, he thought.
His wife rushed back to him he could feel her soft skin under his fingertips, not the coarse charred grass, just her silky skin. He was lifted up by another soldier in his company. Shrapnel from the artillery shell that exploded next to him had grazed his leg, the shell’s impact sucking him to the ground.
Now he ran, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his leg, adrenaline coursing through his body and blood pooling in his boot. He panted and breathed fire from the bottom of his lungs. When he could stand no more and knew he would drop they had reached the top of the ridge, charging with bayonets. He and other soldiers from his company glowered for a mere moment before enemy troops on that part of the ridge, both sides at awe that anyone had could have made it up that gauntlet of hells. A pocket of sun broke through the clouds and gleamed on the bayonets before them. He parried a blow and struck at an enemy’s neck. Blood pulsed out onto his musket and he turned to parry another from the left, but he was too late. The gleaming bayonet sliced open his stomach and he crumbled to the ground.
Another soldier from his Virginian Company had reloaded in time to shoot the Union soldier before he could finish him. Some of the Virginians rushed over to the cannons and turned them toward the Union line. They quickly realized no ammunition had been spared in stopping their desperate charge up Cemetery ridge. Every ball, shell, and ounce of powder had been sent down to rip and tear them apart. More Union companies rallied to Virginian’s newly won position. Some of the Virginians fled back down, others stayed, refusing to be sent back down that hill. Miniballs zipped above him like hawks swooping in for the kill, leveling what was left of the Confederates. The Union tore through the remnants of the Virginian Company, the only Confederates soldiers to break through the line. He lay there, holding his wife in his arms, kissing his children in their beds, and watching the sun set from his front porch.
If he had listened, he would have heard the sound of the Union muskets riddling his brothers just yards away. He would have heard the horns of retreat and Union soldiers cheering and jeering in victory.
If he had opened his eyes, he would have seen the skies open and light shining off of the gold buttons of the victorious soldiers in blue. Instead, he saw only those eyes, and then nothing at all.
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