Several pairs of feet plodded down the road, the mud from three days of heavy rain sucking at their boots. The men did not march. They were far too weary for crisp military precision.
They forgot the cohesiveness of their brigade. Stragglers concentrated on keeping their feet moving forward. No matter. The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia would soon come together again.
The rumors that were relayed for days during the march told of winter quarters, a time of rest and preparation. But one more battle remained for General Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade before the close of 1862.
This road led to Fredericksburg.
Shelby raised his arm to swipe at the sweat on his face. Cradling his Whitworth rifle in his arms, he fell back a few paces to join one of the veterans of the company.
“Hey, Joseph! Think we’re going to see some action up ahead?” Shelby asked. He flashed a wide grin.
“Don’t get too excited, boy,” the older man grunted. “This is war, and those blueboys ahead are just as intent on killing you as you are them.”
“I don’t figger on gettin’ shot. My folks are prayin’ for me to come home safely,” grinned Shelby.
Joseph spat. “Need a lot of prayer to get through this war in one piece. Have you ever seen someone who got shot?”
Shelby’s easy smile disappeared as he shook his head.
“If he’s gut shot, he’s as good as dead. If it’s just his leg or arm they’ll carry him to the field hospital,” growled Joseph. “That’s just as bad, because most likely the wound will go gangrene. I’ve seen men go to the hospital with both legs and leave minus one.”
Joseph shook his head. “If they shoot me I hope it’s a head shot. You don’t even feel it, I hear.”
Shelby fell silent. The veteran and the young recruit slogged side by side, each deep in thought.
“You ever pray, Joseph?” Shelby asked suddenly.
The older man drew a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. “Naw. I leave it to those that know they don’t belong here and want to go home. I’m a soldier. I was in the Mexican-American war with some of the rest of these men. I got through that and come home because I knew how to shoot and kill.”
“I wonder,” Shelby mused, “if I’ll be able to when I have to.”
“The heat of battle ain’t a good time to stop and wonder. But I ain’t seen a man yet that don’t shoot when it’s certain he’ll be dead if he don’t.”
A rider galloped up to Shelby and Joseph and hailed them.
“Men, the colonel wants two volunteers to go up and see if there’s something that would pass as food for this company,” he commanded, gesturing to a barn set behind a windrow of trees.
The two men saluted as the horse and rider rode back to the head of the group.
Joseph shrugged. “All of us got to forage for the rest once in a while. Just means we’ll be stopping soon for the night. Looking forward to that.”
They trudged through grass still wet from rain. As they neared the trees, a shot rang out.
Joseph fell to the ground, blood pulsing from his neck. Shelby dropped down beside him, his breath coming in short gasps and his eyes wild with fear.
“Joseph!” Shelby stared at his companion’s eyes fast glazing over with the pall of death.
Scanning the trees ahead, he thought he detected a movement of blue scurrying toward the barn.
Blinded by sudden anger, Shelby loaded his rifle and ran in the same direction. Ahead of him, the figure in blue was attempting to swing open the door.
Swinging his rifle to his shoulder, Shelby fired once. The fugitive clutched at the door latch one more time. Its skirt billowed out upon the grass and the rifle dropped in front of the door as the figure slumped to the ground.
Shelby trembled as he came near. He shook his head in disbelief and looked to the heavens. Three Confederates ran across the field toward him.
“A sniper! A woman sniper!” Shelby muttered as the men led him away.
They buried Joseph and the woman side by side at the edge of the windrow. Someone said a prayer, commending Joseph’s soul to God.
“What about her?” Shelby demanded. “Shouldn’t we pray for her?”
“She got a burial. That’s all she gets, and better than she deserves!” one of the men retorted.
As the others returned to the company, Shelby paused and whispered, “Lord, forgive her, and if it’s possible, forgive me, too. And, please, God, end this war soon!”
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