The sky was a pale pink arc, slowly sinking beneath a growing blackness. Kimble stared at it and thought it a rarity; much more aesthetically pleasing than most sunsets; more vivid, and intense; much more detailed than usual, with an amazing clarity. It made him think of heaven, which he had been taught was somewhere up in the sky, and that made him think about all of the people who had preceded him to that place, many of them under tragic circumstances, or very unexpectedly.
Then, a bizarre image popped into his head, uninvited. There were tombstones in the pinkish sky, dotting it like gross birds clipped of their wings.
"Kimble," a voice called out beside him. "Are you okay?"
Kimble turned around and could barely see the silhouette of a young man beside him. It was Ashton, another private who had somehow survived as long as Kimble had. Ashton always camped with him or near him, but the sunset had taken Kimble away, and for a moment Ashton had appeared as an utter stranger.
"Yes, I'm fine. I was simply admiring that fine view to the west, and thinking about things."
"What kind of things?"
He looked at Ashton more closely. He was still innocent, despite the carnage and gore he had lived through. His eyes still had a sparkle in them that the war hadn't dulled yet. His face, babyish and pale, almost feminine, betrayed no secret carnal knowledge of the world. Perhaps, Kimble thought, Ashton wasn't smart enough to comprehend what was really happening in the war.
"Not things, Ashton - more like people. I suppose I was thinking about the dead."
Nary a twitch crossed Ashton's face. Kimble couldn't tell if he had even heard at first. Then the young man sighed deeply and nodded his head.
"Many good men have died," Ashton agreed. "I suppose it must be God's will."
Kimble's eyes narrowed. That comment annoyed him - he hated simplifications. They were the cheapest way he knew of to ignore a problem. The conversation was probably a waste of time, but he continued it anyway.
"That's not what I meant. I'm not talking about this puny war, or the immediate future. I'm referring to all people, of all nations. What about people who died thousands of years ago? What about Julius Caesar, or Napoleon - where are people like that now?"
"Heaven or hell, I suppose," Ashton said slowly.
"And where is that?"
Ashton looked up at the sky, where the bright pink was quickly bleeding into dying orange embers. Finally, he confessed, "I don't know."
"You see, Ashton, that sunset made me wonder if all of those people are somewhere, all together, all of them waiting for the rest of us to join them. That color in the sky a few minutes ago - I've never seen a color like that before. That color must be something from heaven, because you don't see that color naturally occurring down here on earth. All of those people must be where that color comes from."
This seemed to be more than young Ashton could take. He shook his head, then shrugged and closed his eyes, as if meditating.
Kimble took this as free license to continue.
"All the men of this war, I agree, they've got to be somewhere, too. But I wonder if they leave right away, or linger somewhere in-between, or if they watch themselves for a while before they quit this place. Do they still feel pain? I don't mean physical pain... I mean do they despise the war, and the killing and suffering, and the senseless fighting? Do they follow us into battle?"
"Stop it!" Ashton jumped up, panting, his eyes squinting with tiny tears. "Just stop it! They're all gone, and we will be, too, tomorrow! They're not up in the sky - they are gone! Forever!" Ashton stumbled away into the night.
Kimble's eyes did not follow him.
To hell with him, anyway, he thought. The young man would be okay after sleeping on it. Kimble couldn't help it if Ashton couldn't face reality. Ashton was still too young. He would fight in the morning and be fine. Maybe they would even find the shoes they were looking for in the nearby village of Gettysburg.
That night Kimble dreamed and saw the faces in the sky instead of the tombstones. He saw his mother, who had died of tuberculosis the spring past. He hadn't been granted leave from his unit, even for such a sad occasion, and he supposed that he should resent the Colonel for that. But he didn't. He saw Lieutenant Bowles, the twenty-one year old cavalier from Fluvanna County who had ridden into camp standing on his horse. At Antietam, he had been shot off the same horse, torn in half by a screaming Yankee shell. He saw Carter Williams, his original messmate, a fellow philosopher and student of books. Kimble could see his mustached smile as he quoted the lines of Shakespeare that would make young ladies turn red. Williams had died beside him instantly, shot between the eyes at a long forgotten place called Green Hollow. He was the only man in the company hurt there.
Most of all, he saw his young wife, who had passed away two years before the war even began. He couldn't even say her name anymore. But he saw her face, and he knew that somewhere she was still alive; somewhere she still smiled with lips that had blood flowing through them; somewhere her warm breath still clouded the air with perfume; somewhere her voice still filled someone's ears with melodious tones of joy.
That place was a mystery, though. He had been unable to locate it. He had traveled in the Confederate army from Georgia, now all the way into Pennsylvania, and he had seen no sign of it anywhere. Certainly, the hundreds and thousands of dead corpses hadn't pointed any definite direction. He had read the Bible, along with every other important spiritual work, and found no clear directions. The place did exist, though, and the sunset made him feel close to it. He thought of his wife again. He wondered if the grimy, disfigured soldiers were there with her - or Napoleon, or Caesar.
He woke up to the bugle call and the scattered sound of muskets and rifles. The promised battle was beginning.
He found Ashton in a much better mood. The young man smiled at him, as he lovingly wiped the stock of his captured Enfield rifle clean with a grease cloth. Nearby, the company was forming up; the Colonel barking at loafers.
"I think I know where that place you're looking for is," Ashton said, smiling devilishly. "It's a few steps beyond that ridge where the cemetery is."
Kimble nodded. He was referring to the hill where the Yankees where entrenched, waiting for them.
"That's hell, not heaven," Kimble said.
"I've been thinking about what you said," Ashton continued. "I think all soldiers must go to heaven, because they all are following orders. It doesn't matter which side you're on, or which side is right. And heaven must be somewhere out of reach, or else people would go there when they weren't supposed to. So heaven must be up there somewhere, in the sky." Ashton pointed his bayonet upward.
Kimble saw a barn swallow swoop down near them, dashing after an invisible insect, then pull back toward the clouds. "It's got to be further than that. Heaven can't be so close that birds can get there."
"Why not?" Ashton asked.
The Colonel moved closer to them, and shouted in Kimble's face. "Assemble, gentlemen. I shouldn't have to say it twice! You, Kimble, you chose to be a private, so act like one!"
The Colonel referred to the fact that Kimble was forty, wealthy, and had turned down a commission to lead this same regiment (in which case the Colonel would have taken his orders). Instead, he had enlisted as a lowly private, with the lukewarm intention of committing a gallant form of suicide. So far, however, the gods of war had not cooperated. They had tried to decorate him twice for bravery, and both times his ungrateful, apathetic reaction had slowed down and eventually killed the paperwork.
As they joined dozens of others in formation beyond a row of apple trees, the bullets whizzing overhead momentarily distracted Kimble. Perhaps today would be the day. That was depressing, but also somewhat appealing.
Ashton was growing nervous, as he always did right before the moment of truth. He could not stand still, and the Colonel cursed at him.
"Do they have apples in heaven?" Ashton asked.
Kimble ignored him. He stared at the rotting apples on the ground, and thought about how much they were like soldiers who walked into battle attached to their own living tree, only to fall to the ground to slowly decay and shrivel up. But apples were not living, breathing, sentient beings.
The charge began before he was ready, and Kimble stumbled. He immediately recovered, and the sounds of battle suddenly rushed over him like an angry storm. He heard the boom of artillery; smelled gunpowder; saw smoke, and watched men already lying on the ground bleeding, moaning, swearing, crying. There was a horse with an empty saddle running around on three legs, it's fourth leg shot off near the hock. It was screaming like a human.
Kimble wondered if horses went to heaven.
Then he began to see the enemy in front of them. They were lined up behind a stone wall. A cannon flashed behind the wall and an entire wave of men to Kimble's left fell. Some of the blue men ran out from the main line and began fighting by hand with the rebel attackers.
Kimble attacked fiercely. For the first time since the charge began, he coolly raised his weapon and leveled it at the closest target. A slap to his shoulder, and the blue soldier snapped, falling. He found another blue blur and smashed it viciously with the butt of his rifle. Another ran toward him, tripped and fell, and Kimble ran his bayonet through his arm, and then his stomach. He crouched down and carefully loaded his gun, making sure he placed only one charge in it. Then he chose another target, and watched again as another blue blur fell.
Somehow, in the utter chaos of battle, he heard an officer ordering them to fall back. Kimble reluctantly followed a much smaller mass of men back toward friendly lines, pausing every hundred feet or so to load and fire.
When they reached the comparative safety of the apple trees, he began to look for the rest of his company.
The wounded were everywhere. Their pitiful pleas for water sounded like some sick droning swarm of gigantic insects. He found Ashton among them. Kimble and three others standing nearby were the only members of the company unscathed. Ashton was lying on the grass, a bloody bandage wrapped around his head.
"How far did you get?" Ashton asked.
"I got right up to them," Kimble said. "We fought hell out of them."
He gently pulled the bandage back and examined the wound. It was not bleeding any more, but a glossy clear fluid was oozing from the hole above Ashton's ear.
"Doc says I'm lucky," Ashton said. "I could have bled to death." He suddenly winced. "But I do feel right dizzy, and my whole head aches."
"You rest," Kimble said, pushing the bandage back into place.
Ashton would die, he knew, and the doctor was merely being kind not to inform him so. Kimble had seen such brain injuries before, and when blood came, they lived. When the clear fluid came forth, they died.
"Guess we won't find heaven today, will we?" Ashton whispered.
Kimble left him.
That night he buried Ashton. He didn't want to leave him in enemy soil, but there was no choice. He formed a crude cross of sticks above the place, then sat and waited for the sunset.
The sunset never arrived. Instead, the evening was overcast, and night came on so subtly that Kimble wondered if he had been sleeping when he saw the moon glimmering behind the clouds.
He tried to be scientific and logical. The moon was obviously in the sky above the earth, probably hundreds of miles away. The stars were probably further than that. If Ashton had been right, and heaven was out of reach for the living, then it had to be beyond even the stars.
Kimble was an avowed atheist since the death of his wife, but he muttered a prayer out of respect for Ashton.
"Merciful God, who takes and gives life with no regard, I implore you to look on this creation you have bequeathed us, and grant us the wisdom to accept it as it is. Take this simple young man, Jeremiah Ashton, and show him the way to heaven, Lord. And if there be any answers for me, Lord, grant them to me, or strike me down and reunite me with those I mourn for..."
Kimble's hands trembled for a moment, and he stilled them by folding them together tightly. Then he stood and wandered back to the clearing where the regiment was attempting to regroup. He joined the three other healthy survivors in his company around a small fire where they were boiling apples for dinner.
The smell was good, but it was far from perfection. He had never smelled an aroma as perfect as the color of the sunset the night before.