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Chapter 38 of The Long Roll

The field lights were focused brightly on the left corner of the Muleshoe. Beyond the wall, they gleamed on the polished barrels of muskets, streaming out of the Christmas trees in a compact river of steel six muskets wide and extending back into the darkness. As the line approached the wall, the defenders opened fire, but the advancing muskets remained steady, as if the men who carried them were on parade.

Then the head of the column struck the wall, and the soldiers in the front rank fired, the simultaneous flare of the shots like a single detonation, repeated as the next rank arrived and the next, hurling the defenders back from the wall like a hurricane of flame. A scream from dozens of throats rent the night, and blue uniforms began to tumble over the wall and fan out into the salient. In the bleachers, Carrie Rainwater felt a sudden surge of fear, as if she and her children were the ultimate objective of the shouting men, and the dissolving gray line was all that held them back.

Nearer to hand, she saw Joyce Ayers picking her way through the crowded stands. Even in the darkness, she could see that Joyce was soaked, her chestnut hair clinging to her face and neck, her shirt clinging to her shoulders. She made her roundabout way to where Carrie sat and said “It’s going to get a little intense now. Thought I’d better help you sit with the kids.”

Suddenly there were running footsteps and shouts off to either side of the bleachers, and several in the audience jumped in alarm. Men began to stream past them and into the salient, their gray uniforms wet to blackness by the rain, their muskets held angled across their chests.

“Upton’s tactics had worked, but the assault was doomed to fail,” Professor Ricker intoned from the narrator’s podium as they rushed past. “Grant had neglected to sustain the artillery support, and, perversely, the unusual shape that made the Muleshoe an obvious target for assault, now made it easier to defend, the sharp concavity of its inner curve exaggerating the principle of interior lines and making it easier to rush reinforcements from other points on the line.”

The streams of men pouring into the salient converged on the blue-clad invaders amid more fire and smoke, and those who didn’t fall before the furious onslaught climbed the wall and disappeared back into the night.

A sudden cold gust hit the bleachers from the rear, sending empty Styrofoam cups tumbling into the gaps between the bleacher seats and causing the children who had put aside their blankets to pull them around their shoulders again. The thrumming of the rain on the roof intensified, and thunder rolled up behind them, louder than it had yet been.

“The attackers were driven back,” said Ricker, “but it was at this point that Lee was lulled into the single mistake he made during the Spotsylvania campaign. The prolonged quiet following Upton’s retreat convinced the graying chief of the Army of Northern Virginia that Grant was on the move again, that he had pulled another flanking movement and would either slip around the right flank, as he had done in The Wilderness, or hit that flank in force at first light. So he ordered the artillery within the Muleshoe pulled back behind the right flank, to support the line there if Grant attacked, or to disrupt his columns if he attempted to move toward Richmond again.”

Sound from the darkness surrounding the bleachers again; this time hoof beats, the jingle of harness, the sharp commands of riders. Three horses loomed out of the darkness to the left of the stands, one after another at a trot. They were heavy, big-footed beasts, and the spectators near the left end of the seats cringed away as their massive hooves splashed muddy water into the stands.

Each horse wore a harness like a plow harness or the trappings for a wagon, but none of them pulled any burden. Instead, they were also saddled, and ridden by men in glistening black slickers with forage caps pulled low against the rain so that their eyes were hidden in shadow. There was lightning behind the stands, followed closely by a peal of thunder that shook the roof of the bleachers, and the horses shied and fell back on their haunches. One galloped away into the salient, its rider low over its withers and clinging to the reins. One threw its head back and went into a staggering sidestep that threatened to carry it into the bottom row of the bleachers. One of its hooves actually struck the end of one of the boards, and the whole structure shuddered. The third began to buck, and just when it looked as if the rider would surely be thrown, he swung one leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground, landing on his feet with the reins still securely in his hands. He yanked the plunging horse’s head around, got a hand on its halter, and miraculously, the animal came to a stop and stood trembling.

The panic among the spectators was nearly as complete as it was among the stampeding horses. Some of the people on the front row lept up and dashed out into the rain, looking for running room. Others clambered backward over the feet and into the laps of those behind them. Robin tugged at Carrie’s sleeve. “The horses are scared,” she said.

“They’re all right now,” Carrie said, although she thought that the horses and everything else were getting less all right by the moment. “Look. The men are hitching them up to the cannon. In a minute, they’ll pull the cannon off the field, and then they’ll get to go back to a warm dry stable. The men will dry them off with towels, and give them some oats or hay or something.”

The girl nodded as if by agreeing, she could help it be so. “But I’m scared too,” she said. Carrie hugged her close, feeling the thin little body tremble against her like an abandoned kitten. “Don’t be, Honey. We’re all around you, and nothing can happen to you. And it won’t last much longer. It’s almost over.” She caught Joyce’s eye and scowled. “Are we all right here?” Carrie asked in as low a voice as possible.

“I think we are,” said Joyce. “But I’m worried about the guys. That was my idiot husband who nearly got bucked off. You can bet he’s loving every minute of this. There are hundreds of them down there, and there’s too much damned rain and too much damned electricity and explosives and gunpowder and who knows what. But they’d never even consider stopping at this point. They’ll risk getting fried by lightning or flattened like a road-kill ‘possum under a runaway limber just for the stories they’ll get to tell tomorrow. Did you know Annie Pruitt is down there in a borrowed uniform with two big ol’ pistols she got from Rick Solesby stuck in her belt? Used to be at least the women had some sense.”