As soon as he heard the chimes from the distant bell tower, Thomas Jackson knew he was in trouble. He tore his eyes away from his army, spread out below him, to peer myopically at the distant, stained clock face. A quarter past five already! He knew a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He was running out of time. Steeling himself, he turned back to fix his opponent with as passive a face as he could manage.
“Something wrong?” The other general called, his southern accent distorting his words. And what’s that he’s chewing? A cigar?
Jackson snorted. “The only thing that’s wrong is that you’ll be with your father before tea-time!”
“You and whose army?”
“My army, Chester.” Jackson swept his arm across in front of him. “History will remember this day!”
Chester shook his head and pointed down at his own troops, perfectly regimented to both sides of his prancing cavalry. “You haven’t a chance!” He grinned widely, showing his missing teeth. “You don’t even have cannon!”
“What about those?” Jackson pointed across at several carriages, heavy with steely barrels. They were a bluff, purely for show. They couldn’t hurt Chester’s troops one bit. Jackson prayed his opponent hadn’t already guessed.
“Those toys?” Chester laughed. His arm swept down and two of his own cannons barked. Jackson flinched despite himself and watched in horror as four rows of his men were hurled aside. I have to spread them out! He began the motion that would increase the distance between his tightly-packed troops, then hesitated. If he spread the men further apart, they would be easy prey for Chester’s eager cavalry. He sighed. Chester would know the consequences as well as he did. Better to risk the slow-loading cannon than the swiftness of the horsemen. He peered at the distant clock. Time was passing swiftly and this pointless banter was achieving nothing.
He swept his arm forward, sending three regiments of his blue-coated infantry forward. Chester responded quickly; five of his regiments, also in blue, slid forwards to meet them. Jackson frowned. How was it that two such powerful armies were dressed so similarly? Only the darker trousers, emblazoned with the pale vertical stripes would distinguish his own troops from Chester’s, who wore beige-coloured trousers. If the two front lines collided, both generals would be hard-pressed to control their men. I’m not going to let it come to that! Jackson sent his cavalry hurtling forward at such a pace that Chester barely had time to blink. Jackson smiled with satisfaction as his opponent’s front-line troops were scattered wildly. Chester’s hands moved quickly. Jackson peered across the grass as the opposing troops were quickly rearranged into 'square' formation, bayonets forming a bristling defence against his horsemen. Chester’s cavalry belatedly entered the field of battle, challenging Jackson’s mounted troops and he swept his arm back towards his own lines, bringing them back into line. But the damage had been done. Fewer than half of Chester’s leftmost regiment lay off to one side. Chester responded with cannon-fire, cutting narrow swathes through Jackson’s troops, but Jackson refused to spread his men and risk their vulnerability to cavalry. Whilst the cannons reloaded, Jackson attempted a flanking manoeuvre, hoping to catch Chester on the hop, but the general was watchful and reorganised his troops accordingly. What now? Jackson thought furiously. I have to break through his lines… he glanced at the merciless clock face …before I run out of time!
“Giving up, Brigadier General?” Chester grinned.
“That’s Major General to you, Chester!”
“Oo-oo!” Chester taunted. His arm dropped and Jackson’s troops were spilled. Jackson’s own cannon replied angrily, but with no effect. Brimming with confidence, Chester ordered his men forwards. They were closing in on Jackson’s front line. With little option, Jackson spread out his men, forming a double line of defence. The cavalry were less of a threat now, as much in danger from their advancing allies as their foes. Jackson’s front line held, facing the approaching troops stoically. Their general glanced around. Chester had committed all his troops to the advance. Chester’s regiments broke from their squares and spread out to match Jackson’s double line. Behind them, their cannons spoke one last time, but did little harm to the extended line of troops.
The lines closed. Chester’s men kept up their steady pace. Jackson’s line held. On the flanks, the cavalry stood ready. Their task would come later, when the battle-weary troops began to scatter.
Jackson watched the advancing troops and considered his two regiments clustered closely behind the front line. Time was short. He had one last chance.
I hope this works! The lines met and men began to fall on both sides. Both Chester and Jackson watched with whitened knuckles. Soldiers fell faster than either of their generals could count. Jackson realised he had been holding his breath. He released it slowly, counting silently. Two, three, four, five…now! He mustered his reserve troops, pushing them forwards. Unceremoniously, the gathered regiments shouldered their comrades aside, pouring forwards. Chester’s jaw dropped. His arms windmilled. Troops turned and headed towards the centre of the line, trying to stem the enemy’s flow. But the departing soldiers left the flanks exposed and Jackson’s men pushed forwards, turning inwards and began to cull Chester’s men from behind.
“No!” Chester yelled, his hands flying to his head. He tried to turn his men around, but they were already overwhelmed. Jackson’s troops poured through the centre of the enemy line. Many of them turned and routed Chester’s soldiers from the rear. The remainder charged towards the flag, now guarded by fewer than ten men. Jackson risked a glance at the clock face. Only a few minutes left! Chester had spun his remaining troops around and they were pursuing Jackson’s men, desperate to protect their flag. But Jackson had organised a protective wall against the advancing troops. Behind them, their comrades struck the enemy soldiers like a wave, bowling them over. Jackson breathed a sigh of relief. The flag was his. I’ve won! But Chester’s troops were surging forward, pushing back his protective wall. Jackson signalled for his cavalry to rally to the aid of his wall, but Chester anticipated his move, blocking the horsemen with his own. I have to hold on! Jackson realised. Just until –
“Thomas!” The distant voice reached him as if across a great distance. But it’s too early! As if to affirm the sudden deadline, the distant clock struck the half hour. He’d run out of time. It’s over!
“Thomas!” The woman called, a trace of annoyance creeping into her voice. Thomas Jackson climbed to his feet, brushing the damp grass from his knees. Five feet away, Chester stared at the field of battle thoughtfully.
“If I’d had another few seconds, I would’ve taken my flag back.”
“Would not!” Jackson retorted.
“Would too!” Chester stood up indignantly. “I had more cavalry than you!”
Jackson opened his mouth to launch a retort, then stopped. A grin split his face. “But I had the flag at the end,” his shoulders shrugged lazily. “So I won.” Chester frowned, then conceded the argument.
“Then I’ll win tomorrow, you watch!”
“Ok. But since you lost, you clear up.” Jackson grinned, but the boy had already dropped to his knees, avoiding his friend’s gaze. His hands quickly scooped up the fallen and the standing alike into an empty metal biscuit tin.
“Thomas!” The woman called for the third time, cutting through the clatter.
“Coming, Mum!” Jackson called back, then turned back to his friend. “See you tomorrow, Brigadier General Chester Arthur?”
“Goodbye.” Chester grumbled, then glanced up. “Major General Jackson.”