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A sparkling sky with its brilliant moon cast an eerie glow on the dewless and parched landscape. The divisions of General Gilbert's III Corp moved ghostlike in great clouds of silty dust as it crawled eastward along the Springfield Pike towards Perryville in search of water and a place to rest the night. Every soldier, every beast, every vehicle wore a mantle of white dust. It had worked its way into every crack and crevice of equipment and tack, every fold of wagon canvass and clothing and skin. Duane rode his horse near the side of the wagon. He felt the gritty film in his hair, under his shirt, in the folds of his eyelids and the hairs of his nostrils. It was layered on his sweat and stuck inside his parched mouth. The extent of his misery was masked by the depths of his exhaustion having been on the march for a week of this extended drought.
Earlier in the late afternoon there had been the distant sound of a cavalry skirmish. Word had come that a Confederate presence was established at Perryville. But more important, there was water ahead. Darkness had fallen almost five hours ago, still the army moved. Suddenly the front of Sheridan's division came upon the puddled creek bed and found itself under attack from the ridge of land east of the creek. It was an hour before midnight. The night-lit terrain with its shadows and soft bright reflections was difficult to defend. As the division came to rest, an Indiana brigade was sent forward to seize the creek bed and scatter the Confederate defenders.
While elements of the division maneuvered for battle, an officer rode up to the supply wagon. "Lieutenant," he called to Marshalton, "get up there and see what you can do to help!"
"Yes, Sir, Captain!" he wheeled his horse around to the back of the wagon. "Johnny, pass me my field pack. Grab a supply pack for Dee." He turned to a quartermaster company nearby. "Sergeant, bring up litters and field supplies and follow! Johnny, bring the wagon as close as you can."
"Here!" Johnny called as he passed the requested gear. "I'll be along."
Orders were passed in the night confusion as the doctor, the boy, and two dozen soldiers moved toward the fighting to help the wounded. The brigade was repulsed and the walking wounded began to wander back from the field of battle. Midnight passed as the shooting ceased and the wounded were attended in the soft glow of starlight and the high, nearly full moon, wherever they met the surgeon and his party along the roadway from the creek. The lieutenant's party continued to work its way forward until they came upon the wounded who had fallen near the front of the assault. They lay along a ridge of land that paralleled the creek below. A small valley lay bathed in night light which reflected off the pools of water and caressed the bodies of fallen soldiers on the sloping ground stretching gently to the dry banks.
The boy could hardly swallow for the dryness in his throat. He stared longingly at the reflection of the water and felt a hand grasp his wrist as Dan read his thoughts and cautioned against a rash move. The two tied their horses to the branches of nearby shrubs, then joined the others as they turned their attention to the wounded. While the small groups worked quietly they could feel the enemy watching from the opposite ridge. They could sense their whispered conversations. There was a feeling of mutual truce. In that sense of safety, the boy worked his way down to the water. Then he lay in the damp dirt, pulling himself over to the pool to quench the dryness in his throat. The warm fluid felt comforting. Duane sat back on his knees and slipped his canteen from his shoulders, lay it in the water, and pushed it under to watch it fill. Returning to the wounded, he shared the precious liquid with the conscious.
Nearly two hours had passed in the first night of the new day. A few of the wounded had been removed from the slope. Suddenly the night was shattered by the approach of a new assault. Instinctively the boy dove for cover in a rocky flaw on the hillside as two new brigades from Sheridan's division moved down the slope, crossed the creek, and advanced up the far side.
The moonlit valley erupted in violent conflict as the Confederate line poured a devastating fire upon the advancing Federals. Relentlessly the Union troops pressed the attack in a deafening clatter of musket and rifle fire. The night was filled with screams of pain, the shout of orders, the Rebel yell, the smoke and din of battle, the whine of projectiles glancing off rocks. Duane kept low, not daring to look for fear a stray bullet would find its mark and strike him down. The assault stalled briefly, then pushed forward up the slope, forcing the Confederate defenders to fall back toward the town. The line was broken. The defenders continued a stubborn resistance as they withdrew. Sheridan's troops pursued the retreating forces and the fight faded noisily from the ridges of the eastern creek bank. Duane and the others advanced cautiously as they moved to help the wounded. Before long the rest of the division began to move forward. More assistance arrived to help the wounded as the majority of the troops paused for water on their way up the slope to establish lines of battle along the ridge to the east of the creek before resting where they stood for what few hours remained of the night.
Johnny had arrived with the wagon and was on foot in the area of the recent fighting, when he called, "Dee! Come here quick!"
Duane sensed an urgency in the voice and dashed through the water and up the embankment. He found his friend kneeling beside a Confederate corpse.
"What fer'd ya call, Johnny?" He breathed hard to catch his breath.
"You might want to look close on that uniform," he pointed. "This regiment's from Arkansas."
Duane knelt to inspect the insignia in the moonlight. He glanced up to his friend. "Seventh Arkansas." His eyes were moist with a sudden surge of emotion. But any tears were forced back as he continued somewhat hoarsely, "We gotta find one thet's alive. I gotta know if'n maybe some'n knows of my pa."
"You check along the top to see what you can find," Johnny suggested. "I'll continue to help along the slope here."
"Thanks," Duane accepted. "Jeremiah's still where I left him on the other ridge. Chance I don't see ya afte' a look about, I'll git him first thin then follow on to where eve' ya head with the wagon."
"I aim ta."
The two separated as Duane walked off through the noise and movement of newly arriving regiments in search of Confederate survivors. He paused a moment to scan the moonlit high ground. In the shadows beneath a stand of maples a little distant from the commotion of soldiers settling in for a few hours rest, there was a movement. Something metallic caught a stray beam of light and flashed in the darkness. The boy approached cautiously, unholstering his revolver as he neared the dark shadows, slowing his pace to allow his eyes to search for information. His heart pounded nervously as he wondered if danger lay ahead or someone who could help him or just a tree branch giving way.
An injured soldier leaned against a tree trunk. One arm hung bloodied and useless at his side. The other supported a musket with fixed bayonet, pointing directly at Duane. The boy dropped to his knees raising his revolver in one swift movement, but paused with his thumb on the hammer when he saw in the dim light that the soldier had not pulled back the hammer on his weapon.
"I ain't fixin ta be kilt," Duane spoke nervously. "But it ain't my wantin ta do no killin neither."
"Thet sets jest right with me, Boy." He lowered the weapon and Duane did likewise. "Wouldn't do no good nohow seein's it ain't loaded."