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Re-enactor heals from mysterious shot Suspect fired gun belonging to stranger

malice yet to be found

July 11, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.

Epps isn't bitter. He's just thankful he survived a lead ball that penetrated the left side of his neck under his ear, nicked his esophagus and lodged against his right tonsil.

"My personal feeling is, it was an accident," he said.

Confederate descendant

That afternoon, a week ago Friday, began innocently enough: It was about 5 p.m. Epps, a hunter since he was 9 years old, a enactor for 10 years and a descendant of a Confederate infantryman from Texas, was moving across a wide, open field with his Virginia unit, armed with a replica .58-caliber 1853 Enfield musket, a thin man with long dark hair, sweaty in a gray shell jacket and blue wool pants.

As a child, he always loved to visit old battlefields, loved the old guns.

As a skirmisher on the right flank of his regiment, he was delving into a thicket, probing, then withdrawing to reform with his Rebel battalion. Yankee cavalry were spotted on the other side of the woods, the Union's extreme left flank, a strategic position. The Confederates entered the woods again. Epps was deploying as a skirmisher, pushing toward the edge of the trees.

There was confusion, it was hot, men were firing muskets. Epps was given the word to advance. The Union cavalry was dismounting. The enemies were eye to eye. "At this point," he said, "there's just a few of us. We started to go after them."

Epps was ducking behind a tree, kneeling, firing, stepping out and moving forward. The Union troops were falling back. Fleet of foot, Epps was leading the rush, and suddenly he broke out of the woods. Sunlight. Union cavalry on three sides. He halted, knowing he was cornered. He was thinking: Whoops.

"Right then," he said, "it hit."

A blast out of nowhere. First thought: I'm powder-burned. Gunpowder at close range can do damage, but this feels different. He reaches with his left hand, touches the blood, knows he's been hit. He's rising to his knees, staring down. He steadies his nerves. Stay in control.

"I could taste the blood in my mouth," he said.

He doesn't yell. Can't. He can only whisper, holding his bleeding neck with his left hand, waving for help with his right.

No one notices.

A couple of Union cavalrymen are riding by casually. Finally, a rider stops: "Are you really hurt?"

People are converging on him. Epps whispers to his Confederate sergeant: "Get my gun." Doesn't want to lose that, not even with a wound.

The medics arrive, he climbs into a wire basket, "hurting like crazy." A four-wheeler speeds him over rough terrain to an aid station. Epps looks up at a clear blue sky, little spots of clouds, and knows he's seriously hurt, but he still doesn't know it's a gunshot wound.

He's being loaded into an ambulance, people are asking him, "What's your name?"

He's telling them, "Clint Epps."

"How old are you?"

"Where are you hurt?"

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

A graduate of Rice University, Epps is cool, never thinking this is the last moment. Maybe his last re-enactment, at least for a while. In the fall, he will study wildlife ecology at the University of California at Berkeley. Maybe become an ecology professor, or get into wildlife conservation. Soon enough, he'll be back at his parents' Angus cattle farm where he grew up.

He's being airlifted to York Hospital. There, the initial shock is beginning to fade. His Brazilian Indian necklace -- strung with seeds and monkey teeth -- is removed. Maybe it was a bit of good luck.

'I can't believe it'

An X-ray shows the lead ball. Now they know: He was actually fired upon. After a battery of tests, he calls his older sister Pattie: "I'm in the hospital, been shot in the neck. I'm fine. Tell the folks. Bye."

In surgery that night, doctors go through the back of his throat to remove the lead ball. Before dawn, he awakes, fading in and out of consciousness. He is laboring to breathe.

A young nurse is saying, "I can't believe it."

And Epps says, "I can't believe it either."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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