“Fire, fire!” Seconds ago, it had been an order from the lieutenant, impatient with his men’s slow reloading of their muskets as the discipline of drill broke down under heavy Rebel fire.

Now it was a frenzied warning.

The snarls and brambles of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania had been bad enough when they were merely preventing maneuver, but sparks from Warren’s artillery battery had caught the underbrush on fire. As the Union men and the Rebels struggled hand to hand with rifle butt and bayonet, the surroundings had been transformed into a maelstrom of crackling sheets of flame. The cries of the wounded rose in pitch to frenzied shrieks as they were burned to death.

Amos Callahan had broken and run under the strain, as had many of his fellows in the 27th Michigan, and many of the Rebels. He morale had been utterly broken when he had witnessed a sergeant, bleeding from a gut shot and immobile on the dry spring grass, press his rifle to his throat and thumb the trigger rather than face a screaming death amid the flames. It had been close enough to fleck Amos with gore, and he snapped under the sensory assault. He had a wife, after all, and had only held their little Andrew once since his birth.

But he had stopped dead. Among the cries from the wounded men about to be engulfed, Amos heard a familiar voice: Nathan. Nathan of the homestead next door, Nathan of the desk behind his in the schoolhouse, Nathan of the fast carriage rides around town courting young ladies. They had enlisted together, bivouacked together, and now they were about to die separately.

There was only a moment to act, to make the decision to flee or stay rooted stock-still in mute horror…or to act. Amos chose to act.

“Take my gun, Nate!” Amos cried. The heavy rifled musket that he had been about to cast away instead became a lifeline; Nathan, wounded in the knee, was able to grasp and hold onto the proffered aid. As fire swirled around them in a holocaust, consuming Federal and Rebel alike and rent by the cracks of MiniĆ© balls and cannonades, Amos dragged his best friend to safety. There were embers all over them, and Amos felt his eyebrows singed off by the heat, but it didn’t matter.

“You could have left me there to die, Amos,” Nathan sobbed amidst the inferno. “Thanks for coming back for me.”

“The fire was so hot,” Amos murmured. “I didn’t know what to do…I barely had time to think…”

“What’s he talking about?” said the nurse, who had come in to change Amos’s dressings. She switched on the electric light overhead and peered at the old man’s pallid features.

“Dad lost his best friend from school in the war,” said Andrew, sadly stroking his long grey beard. “At the Wilderness with Grant, he burned to death when the battlefield caught fire. Dad says he never really left that field; I think he…goes back there sometimes, when things are really bad.”

“I wonder why he would return to someplace so painful,” the nurse said with a concerned look.”

“I’ve no idea,” said Andrew. “But when a man is on his deathbed, I suppose he’s apt to go where he’ll go.

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