Excerpt of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
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That's not the way I meant it. You said ten minutes. It's having a thing and the loss I'm talking about.
The blind man twisted a square of newsprint up into a cone and then dipped with a riddly spoon into the pot and filled the cone with wet peanuts. He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind.
Where to begin? Inman wondered. .....Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg. Any would do admirably as example of unwelcome visions. But Fredericksburg was a day particularly lodged in his mind. So he sat with his back to the oak and halved the wet peanut shells and thumbed the meats out into his mouth and told the blind man his tale, beginning with how the fog had lifted that morning to reveal a vast army marching uphill toward a stone wall, a sunken road. Inman's regiment was called to join the men already behind the wall, and they had quickly formed up alongside the big white house at the top of Maryes Heights. Lee and Longstreet and befeathered Stuart stood right there on the lawn before the porch, taking turns glassing the far side of the river and talking. Longstreet had a grey shawl of wool draped about his shoulders. Compared to the other two men, Longstreet looked like a stout hog drover. But from what Inman had seen of Lee's way of thinking, he'd any day rather have Longstreet backing him in a fight. Dull as Longstreet looked, he had a mind that constancy sought ground configured so a man could hunker down and do a world of killing from a position of relative safety. And that day at Fredericksburg was all in the form of fighting that Lee mistrusted and that Longstreet welcomed.
After Inman's regiment had formed up, they dropped over the brow of the hill and into the withering fire of the Federals. They stopped once to touch off a volley, and then they ran down to the sunken road behind the stone wall. On the way a ball brushed the skin of Inman's wrist and felt like the tongue of a cat licking, doing no damage, only making a little abraded stripe.
When they got to the road, Inman could see they were in a fine spot. Those already there had trenched along the tightly built wall so that you could stand up comfortably and still be in its shelter. The Federals had to come uphill at the wall across acres and acres of open ground. So delightful was the spot that one man jumped onto the wall and hollered out, You are all committing a mistake. You hear? A dire mistake! Balls whistled all about the man, and he jumped back down into the ditch behind the wall and danced a jig.
It was a cold day and the mud of the road was near frozen to the condition of slurry. Some of the men were barefoot. Many wore homemade uniforms in the mute colors that plant dyes make. The Federals were arrayed on the field before them, all newly outfitted. Bright and shiny in factory-made uniforms, new boots. When the Federals charged, the men behind the wall held their fire and taunted them and one called out, Come on closer, I want them boots. And they let the Federals come as near as twenty paces before shooting them down. The men behind the wall were firing at such close range that one man remarked on what a shame it was that they had paper cartridges, for if they had the separate makingspowder, ball, and waddingthey could tamp in thrifty little loads and thus save on powder.
When he was squatted down loading, Inman could hear the firing, but also the slap of balls into meat. A man near Inman grew so excited, or perhaps so weary, that he forgot to pull the ramrod from the barrel. He fired it off and it struck a Federal in the chest. The man fell backward, and the rod stood from his body and quavered about with the last of his breathing as if he had been pierced by an unfletched arrow.
The Federals kept on marching by the thousands at the wall all through the day, climbing the hill to be shot down. There were three or four brick houses scattered out through the field, and after a time the Federals crowded up behind them in such numbers that they looked like the long blue shadows of houses at sunrise. Periodically they were driven from behind the houses by their own cavalry, who beat at them with the flats of their sabers like schoolteachers paddling truants. Then they ran toward the wall leaning forward with their shoulders hunched, a posture that reminded many witnesses that day of men seeking headway against a hard blowing rain. The Federals kept on coming long past the point where all the pleasure of whipping them vanished. Inman just got to hating them for their clodpated determination to die.
Excerpted from Cold Mountain. Copyright © 1997 by Charles Frazier. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.