As Tom Sawyer had expected, the bullet, and the wound in his leg from which it had been extracted, made him the envy of every boy in St. Petersburg for nearly an entire summer, and he never grew tired of retelling the story (he occasionally allowed Huck or Jim to help), especially after he realized he could charge most of the boys for a look at the wound itself. He had a hole drilled into the bullet and took to wearing it on a string round his neck, immensely satisfied by the stares it received. Eventually, however, the wound healed and ceased to become a source of income, and the bullet and its story were no longer so interesting. For a time he found other ways of maintaining his position as the town’s hero (detective work and a hot air balloon were involved, in two such episodes), but it was wearying work.
Then the gossip among the adults turned to talk of war, and the boys began looking with jealousy on those old enough to enlist, should the chance to do so arrive. Tom thought it particularly unfair that his history, which included something very like actual combat and certainly a genuine gunshot wound, should receive even less attention now than it had in the past, though he did impress a few of the other boys with stories of warfare he had gleaned from his books. All the boys agreed that it was just too bad, but those in charge would never get around to arranging a real war with their endless talks and politics, and even if they did, it would be over too soon for any of them to join up.
When news of secession (hotly debated among the adults in town, and some of the older boys, of whom Tom now considered himself one, though little of these apparently important matters seemed very impressive to him) and then actual warfare began to trickle into St. Petersburg, every boy in town stopped playing pirates, cowboys and Indians, or thieves, and switched to playing war, some siding with the Union and others with the Confederacy. A few young men volunteered for the army, made the others wild with jealousy by parading around in their new uniforms, and left to see actual combat. Tom watched them go, itching to become involved himself but knowing Aunt Polly would never allow him to fight. The few months until his eighteenth birthday seemed an eternity. He was the unluckiest boy alive; the war was sure to be over by then, and he’d have to hear about everyone else’s adventures instead.
But he got his chance at the beginning of February, not long past his birthday, when two Missouri regiments reorganized into one and put out a call for new volunteers. Tom bore up under two days of Aunt Polly’s fretting over the St. Petersburg boys who had already joined before running into town with Joe Harper and seeing the both of them enlisted before noon. (Ben Rogers, according to one of the other boys, had run away to enlist with the South, and Tom considered that option as well for its added element of adventure before regretfully deciding that his part in stealing Jim away, however innocent his intentions, probably disqualified him from service in the Confederacy.) He came gaily back into his aunt’s yard, full of admiring talk for the soldiers’ rifles and smart uniforms.
Aunt Polly met him at the door, a look of sorrow on her lined face. “Going off to war now, ain’t you?”
“’Deed I am, Auntie,” Tom said, unable to resist a bit of a swagger. “But I’ll do you proud, don’t you worry—I ain’t a boy anymore, and I can fight like a man. Die like a man if I’m pressed to it—never let them take me alive and all—”
“How you talk, child!” Aunt Polly said, shuddering.
There followed a mostly unpleasant span of a month and a half in which he bade goodbye to St. Petersburg (at least the girls did seem properly awed by his uniform and his sparkling rifle, although Aunt Polly’s tearful farewell gave him an uncomfortable pang of guilt) and spent countless hours in camp with other new recruits, his spirit suffering under the tiresome repetition of drill, drill, more drill, bad food, drill, strict discipline from officers he mostly disliked, sleeping conditions far more crowded than he was accustomed to with Sid, and a little more drill to break up the routine. But then they marched to Pittsburg Landing, where it was rumored they might see some action at last, even after the general insisted there were no Confederates nearer than the town of Corinth.
As several soldiers had suggested around the campfire the night before, the morning proved the general wrong, a skirmish already beginning weakly in the predawn hours and gathering force into a real battle. There was a flurry of orders; Tom and his fellow soldiers swiftly dressed and readied their rifles, forming up to march.
The order to move came after several excruciating minutes of waiting, the distant crack of gunfire in the early-morning air straining Tom’s endurance intolerably. The lines began to creep forward at last; the steady tramp of marching feet seemed a fitting drumbeat.
The halted again and slowly fanned out along a ridge. Tom stared into the forest perhaps 75 yards away, shifting from one foot to the other in an agony of impatience. “I can’t see nothing,” he complained. “Where are they?”
Joe shrugged. His fingers tapped out a nervous tattoo on his canteen. “Blamed if I can see nothing either.” He paused, seeming to find something very interesting in the general vicinity of his shoes. “You afeared, Tom?”
“’Course I ain’t. You?”
Joe shook his head without looking up.
Scarcely had he done so when a mass of soldiers in gray and brown appeared through the trees, far too close, their muskets raised and ready, their mouths open in an animal yell. Tom began to wish that he had not eaten so much at breakfast—and then an officer cried, “Ready—aim—fire!” and he found himself responding, astonished at how easy it was—aim at that blurred mass and squeeze the trigger, how simple—
A volley of bullets exploded from the Union line. He crouched, his hands already fumbling through the motions drilled into him—dropped the rifle’s butt to the ground, tore open the cartridge with his teeth, shook the powder and bullet into the barrel, rammed the bullet home. The vague roar of battle deafened him, but his hands took no notice.
Musket fire erupted from the Confederate lines. Bullets hissed past him and above him, and for one surreal moment there was nothing but haze and noise and undefined shapes across the field and on either side of him. Then a bullet found its mark, and a soldier staggered back, his throat an explosion of scarlet. Another released his rifle and fell to the ground, writhing and painting the grass dark red, and then all was blood and smoke and confusion.
He was aware of motion, somewhere, though if asked he could not have said whether he or those around him or both were struggling back and forth over the field. He felt his hands cocking the rifle, firing into the smoke, reloading, moving without conscious direction from his brain, over and over and over again. Now and then blue figures or gray ones coalesced from the smoke, but he saw no faces before they melted back into the roar of battle. He realized, at some point, that they were losing more ground than they were gaining, and then that the Confederates had forced them back through their camp and then beyond it, and he felt a brief stab of annoyance that some Rebel soldier would use his tent tonight.
Time passed—possibly minutes or hours—and he found himself in a clearing alone, the roar of battle all but silenced. Tom blinked several times, tears streaming from smoke-stung eyes, and stared around, scrambling for a vague recollection of the map he’d seen of the area. Forest, field, smoke—nothing looked like the map’s neat lines. But he heard, dimly, an officer of his own company bellowing orders and trying to reorganize the men, and then he caught a glimpse of blue uniforms against the brown and green of the woods. With a rush of relief, he stumbled in the officer’s general direction.
Joe Harper met him just inside a knot of trees, eyes wide and face black with powder. “Reckon you killed any Rebs?”
“I dono. S’pose I did. Couldn’t see too much. Blasted smoke,” he added, coughing.
Joe nodded. Neither felt a great desire for further speech after this exchange. Tom found that his fingers were shaking, though he could not muster up what he thought the proper level of disgust for this show of weakness.
They rejoined the company as more soldiers filtered through the trees, all with blackened faces and red eyes. There was a hurried march and more orders shouted. The ground shook as the booming of Confederate artillery grew louder.
Tom loaded his rifle and caught a glimpse of canons across the field, and then the air filled with the whine of bullets and the thump of Minié balls against tree trunks. He crouched, took careful aim, and fired. A Rebel in butternut collapsed.
That was his first certain kill, Tom realized. He wondered what he should think about it, and then the thunder of artillery fire replaced his burden with more immediate concerns, such as escaping a hail of grapeshot. Tom dove for the ground as the trees around him exploded. A soldier two paces in front tumbled to the ground, shrieking incoherently, half his abdomen blown away.
Another shell blasted into the ground, and Tom felt himself lifted and flung backward. He struck a tree, fell into the dirt, and lay dazed. Heat and white light and smoke washed over him.
He shook his head experimentally to clear his vision. The world swam. After a moment he dragged himself upright, clutching the tree for support, and stared around for his rifle. He could not remember dropping it, but the blast had torn it from his fingers, and if he could only find it again, he could defend himself from that booming death—
A shell screamed overhead, and he ducked. A human scream close by pulled his head round. Joe Harper stared at him, eyes wide with shock, his jaw dangling from a thin piece of flesh on one side. A piece of shrapnel had ripped it apart. Bright white bone showed through the blood pouring from his mouth. Joe’s rifle dropped and he stood, still staring uselessly.
Tom found he could not tear his eyes away. His heart was beating very fast, throbbing in his ears. He did not remember anything in all his books like this.
A bullet whizzed past his ear. A second struck Joe’s stomach with enough force to send him lurching backward. He looked down at the blood that was rapidly staining his uniform a sticky black and sank to the ground. Tom pulled a deep breath of smoky air, choked, and tried again. Joe’s hand twitched and curled convulsively around a nearby branch, his eyes still open and fixed upward. His other hand trembled in place above the wound in his stomach.
Casting an anxious glance toward the Confederates, Tom scrambled to Joe’s side and dropped flat. The boy was still now. Tom felt a tightening in his throat and chest that he could not remember having experienced before.
He turned away, picked up Joe’s rifle, and ran toward a different area of the fighting.
The sun crawled through the sky, red at noon through the haze. Tom fired, reloaded, fired again without allowing himself pause for thought, not even counting the Rebels he took down. The sun hung low over the trees when a Minié ball whipped by him, grazing his left arm at the elbow. He was aware of a burning sensation, of hot blood dampening his sleeve, but as he could still move his arm to reload, he ignored it.
The sun slunk beneath the horizon. The fighting tapered away, save the shells from Union gunboats, and Tom drifted into a makeshift camp with other soldiers of his company, sick with fatigue and unable to bear the thought of more hardtack.
Another soldier noticed the blood on Tom’s coat. “Where yeh hit?”
Tom looked. For a moment he struggled to remember. “Elbow. It hurts,” he realized.
The soldier crouched by him and peeled back the stiffened fabric. “Jist a graze, looks like. Better git it bandaged anyhow.”
Tom made his way to the field hospital. A knot of wounded boys clustered outside the tent, several huddled on the ground and cradling shattered limbs. A soldier appeared in the tent flap with a bucket, from which protruded a severed foot, its skin not yet ashen. Tom hesitated.
The soldier set the bucket down near a pile Tom had no desire to inspect too closely. “You’ll have to wait,” he said, motioning to the other soldiers. “Plenty in line before you.”
“All I need’s a bandage.”
“Oh. That’ll be quick then.” The soldier waved him into the tent and snatched a strip of cloth and a canteen from the ground. He soaked Tom’s elbow, then the bandage, and began winding the cloth around Tom’s wound. “Change this and wash out the wound every day or so, and pray you don’t get gangrene.” He nodded to the other end of the tent, where a man Tom supposed must be the doctor was bent over a bed, wiping blood and bone fragments from a large saw onto his equally bloody apron.
Tom escaped the hospital tent as quickly as possible and returned to the campfire he had left. A pouring rain began not long after, drenching the fire and frustrating all attempts to keep dry. Tom spent a miserable, sleepless night under his sodden blanket, shivering from cold and flinching at the crashing thunder and the roar of shells from the Union gunboats pounding Confederate encampments.
The rain died away near dawn, and the company shuffled into something resembling order to march back into battle. The sunlight revealed scores of dead soldiers sprawled across the field, most missing heads or arms or legs, some lying in mangled piles with little identifiably human but a piece of uniform or a hand, others spread out flat with their eyes still wide open, fixed in an expression of pain or surprise or simple confusion. Occasionally he saw wounded men stirring, begging for help.
“Jist want some water,” a Confederate boy groaned. “Jist a little water…” His rib bones showed through a mess of blood and cloth on his chest. Tom wondered how he had survived the night.
Then the battle began again, and again he had no time for thought. He lost himself in the blur of smoke and the drill his hands knew better than his brain did. He was acutely aware of the moments when bullets cracked through skulls of boys nearby or blew apart limbs, but his hands and feet never stopped moving until the soldiers in gray dissolved back into the woods and the sky grew dark again. The Union had won the day, he understood. They had even regained their old camp—plundered in areas but still usable.
Tom drained three cups of coffee and sat staring at the campfire’s flames for several minutes, hearing the crack of gunshots in every snapping ember and flinching every time the logs collapsed in a spray of sparks. Finally he claimed the need to refill his canteen and wandered away to a nearby creek, where he sat down, propping his back against a tree, and kicked at the water.
It was quieter here. He could almost believe there was no battle, save for the murmur of men’s voices and the distant flickering of campfires in the dark, and the shattered face that appeared behind his eyelids whenever he blinked.
He wondered what Mrs. Harper would say.
Tom reached up and tugged at the knot of the string around his neck, pulling it free and dropping the bullet from so long ago into his hand. He rolled it between his fingers and rubbed at its smooth sides.
The men at his campfire took up a song Tom did not recognize, their voices drifting toward him through the trees. He stood a bit unsteadily. After a moment’s hesitation, he flung the bullet away into the water; it broke the dark surface and slipped out of sight without a sound.
Tom cradled his wounded elbow with his other hand and returned to camp.
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