Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Secrets and Sacriffices by Diane Wylie
Secrets and Sacrifices
by Diane M. Wylie
Late Fall 1861
Charlotte “Charlie” Garrett, crouching uncomfortably behind a boulder, swallowed the lump of fear in her throat, adjusted the position of her beloved army-issued Springfield, and waited. All snipers had been ordered to come before the main body of the regiment and pick off any Yankees they could. The moment of truth had arrived. Since disguising herself as a young man to join the Twenty-Fifth Virginia Infantry, following her husband Joshua into war, Charlotte had never shot a man. She was now a sharpshooter for the regiment, having been ordered into this maligned group of men due to her ability with the weapon she clutched tightly in her hands.
From where she was hidden she could see Clarence, the older man who had taken her under his wing, and a few of the other soldiers selected for this job. He was lying on the ground behind a huge log, and two of the younger snipers were up in the gnarled oak trees that overlooked the ground below. The others were invisible through the falling snow.
The weather had gotten progressively worse up in the mountains, and the soldiers had been growing more and more discontent. The Confederates held this part of the Allegheny Mountains and were to defend Staunton-Reidsburg Pike from Union forces who hoped to take the summit from them.
The idea that the officers were counting on her and the rest of the sharpshooters to draw the enemy out from behind their artillery made her stomach feel as though it were full of nervous butterflies.
Taking off her spectacles, she looked down at the valley while she polished the smudged glass ovals on her shirt. No Bluecoats were visible at the moment. Charlie's stomach twitched. Where are the damn Yankees? Smoke belched out of the slightly raised tree line, and a loud boom echoed across the ground.
All of the time spent drilling and marching had not prepared her for the mind-numbing terror beginning to claw its way up her spine. Today something was going to change…her life was going to change…history was going to change. Two armies were going to clash, and people were going to die just like they had already died in the time since Fort Sumter and Bull Run.
Oh, God! She was starting to tremble at the very idea that she was here doing this! She wished she had not joined the snipers. It came as a surprise when she found out most of the other foot soldiers didn't like them. Jeers of “sneak” and “murderer” were sometimes directed toward her group. The soldiers who fought out in plain sight didn't appreciate the skill of those who perched in trees or behind rocks to pick off their unsuspecting targets. Many considered the sharpshooters to be coddled or even cowardly when they were allowed to shoot behind cover while the others marched headlong into battle.
It would have been so much easier to stay with her husband. If she were beside him, with his comforting presence to draw strength from, she was sure her heart would not be pounding as hard as it was. Joshua seemed to have gotten over the rage she had seen him display on the practice field when he recognized her, despite the baggy uniform, dirty slouch hat, short hair, and glasses.
* * *
All during training camp in Virginia, Charlie had managed to avoid direct contact with Josh. They were in the same company and, with Josh's natural ability to cultivate new friends, she knew it would only be a matter of time before he made the rounds of the entire regiment and knew each one of them by name.
She had carefully studied the actions and habits of the men around her and had gotten very adept at burping, spitting, and scratching when the time seemed right. By acting like a man, dressing like a man, and keeping her hat pulled low, Charlie had managed to avoid detection. Even Clarence, who kept a close eye on his “adopted” son, had not picked up on her gender. Fortunately, he respected her need for privacy whenever she could get it.
Then one day it happened. Charlie lined up with the rest of the troops on the practice field as usual. Standing beside Clarence at attention, she waited for the officers to give orders. She remembered looking around and searching for Josh, as usual. Her husband was the whole reason she was here after all. She just couldn't bear to be so far away from him. All she needed to get through the day was to see his handsome face, but she had to make sure he didn't see her. He was somewhere in the ranks of soldiers that had gathered on the muddy field.
“At ease, men,” Captain Weaver had yelled. Then he'd moved closer to the rank and file. “Tomorrow we march to our destiny, gentlemen. We must rise above the oppression of the Federal government and, with your help, we will persevere against the Northern aggressors.”
A chorus of whoops and catcalls had erupted all around and swelled to a thunderous noise.
“Hear that, lad?" Clarence had clapped her on the back hard, almost knocking her over. "We're gonna whip them Yankees. We are gonna whip 'em and send them running with their tails 'tween their legs.” He had grinned at her from under his grizzled, scraggly beard.
“We sure are, Clarence, we sure are!”
Suddenly, the trumpet had blown, and they had all settled down and stiffened to attention again.
Captain Weaver had been trying to speak once more. “Everyone has done a bang-up job these past weeks. Some of you have never handled a rifle before, while others have obviously been hunting many times and know exactly how to handle a gun. One such young man has proven himself to be a very good shot. He will be part of the sharpshooters in our regiment. Charlie Garrett, please step forward!”
With no choice, Charlie had come forward then turned and, with a start of surprise, she had found herself locking eyes with Josh in the crowd. That was the heart-stopping moment when she knew her husband had seen her, really looked closely at her.
The thunderous cloud appearing on Josh's face the moment he realized the real identity of “Charlie” Garrett had been obvious to her, even yards away from him. She
had watched him reach for his powder charges and prepare to load his rifle. Terror had swept through her. He'd glared angrily at the soldiers all around him The other Augusta County boys had seen Josh's strange reaction, encircled him immediately, and Billy Kaufman, the largest man in the regiment, had taken Josh's gun away with one massive hand, then pinned Josh's arms to his sides. As soon as she had the opportunity, Charlie had escaped the practice field. She just hadn't been able to face him.
Joshua had not come anywhere near Charlie when the regiment marched into the Allegheny Mountains, which was fine with her. She had really needed the time to think.
Then, just this very morning, Josh had just walked up to the cook fire, introduced himself as her cousin, and they walked off to talk.
“You need to go tell Captain Weaver you're my wife and that you joined up without my permission or knowledge. I'll give you my wages, and you can buy passage home,” Josh had said as soon as they were out of the other soldiers' earshot.
Startled by his blunt command, she'd nearly tripped over an exposed root. He had not considered for a moment what she wanted or even why she was here. Fighting tears she had quickened the pace, leading him down a ravine to a spot where they might have a little privacy.
“Stop, Charlie.” Josh's hand had landed on her shoulder gently but firmly. “You heard what I said, but I will not be the one telling the Captain anything. You will.”
“Oh, no, I won't.” Facing him squarely, she had raised her chin and crossed her arms over her chest. Clenching her jaw, she'd given him her best stubborn glare. Only he hadn't blustered and blown as usual. He hadn't even huffed. Not once. The sad expression on his face had been thoroughly confusing to Charlie. It was so unlike her husband to react this way. His hand had come up toward her face, and she had flinched involuntarily. Josh's woeful expression had deepened. “Charlie, oh my darling, is this what you think of me now?” He'd dropped his hand. “Do you think I would raise my hand in anger to the woman I love? Though it seems plain you no longer love me.”
“What? Why do you say that, Josh? I joined this army because I love you. It is the only reason I am here.”
“If you love me, why are you sleeping with all of these men?”
“Josh! No one has touched me! They think I am a man, like they are!”
“If it weren't for big Billy, I would have shot them all! What about your parents? Where do they think you are?”
He had moved closer then. Slowly his big hand had come up and gently removed her hat and glasses. “There now, you look more like yourself.” His fingers played with the short, dark curls. “I miss your long hair.”
“It will grow back,” she had informed him tersely. “I told my family I was going to visit Aunt Betty in South Carolina. I told them I couldn't bear to stay at the farm without you…and it was true. I couldn't, Josh.” She had needed to pray for control and the right words. “You have to understand…I like it here…where I know you are close. I like the army. It's like camping out. I always enjoyed the hunting trips we went on with my brothers.”
He had frowned even more sternly, if that was possible. “You liked hunting? Why did you refuse to kill the doe on the last trip we made?”
Fiddling nervously with a button on her uniform, she had watched Josh lower his long-limbed body to a moss-covered log. “That was different--uhh!” Josh had yanked her down onto his lap. “--That was different. It was a beautiful animal with two young ones. They were so darling. I just couldn't kill their mother.”
Josh hadn't looked at her face. He had kept his eyes down in the vicinity of her chest. “Honey…those Yankees may not be beautiful, but chances are good that some of them will be daddies to young ones, too.” He'd raised his face then, so handsome and so familiar, and had looked at her somberly. “Are you prepared to shoot somebody's daddy, somebody's husband, or somebody's child?”
* * *
His words came back to her now as she looked down on the scene below and waited for a glimpse of blue. She put on her glasses and wiped her perspiring hands on her gray woolen pants. Was she prepared? Could she shoot somebody's husband?
“Clarence,” she called softly.
He didn't turn around. He too was busy scanning the ground below. The spyglass glinted in the sunlight. Would the Yankees see the reflection off the glass? Her
heart jumped into her throat, choking her and increasing the trembling of her hands. How could she shoot now?
The grizzled face swung around to face her. “Charlie? You okay, boy?”
She motioned with her hand and, after a quick look around, Clarence came in a crouching run to join her.
“Whatsa matter? You got a case of the jitters?” he asked amiably. Then he glanced down at her hands and up again at her face. “Yah sure are jumpy, Charlie. Yah gotsta calm down and keep your mind on one thing at a time. Jus' remember what I taught you. Tear open the cartridge, git the powder down the barrel, put the bullet in--don't forget that part,” he gave a short chuckle, “then ramrod it down, put the cap on the nib under the hammer, and ya'll is ready to go again.”
“Sure, I remember it all,” Charlie retorted indignantly. “I'm not stupid, you know, just scared.”
Clarence chuckled again. Reaching down at his side with steady hands, he offered his canteen. She looked at it, puzzled. “I have my own water, Clarence, I don't need to drink yours.”
“Mine is special. Have a drink, boy,” he insisted, thrusting it at her.
“Okay.” She took the canteen and tilted it up for a large mouthful. “Gak!” She choked and finally swallowed the stuff that burned all the way down. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she pulled out a blue bandana to wipe under her glasses.
Clarence laughed softly again. “Ain't you never had no strong drink befo'? A little shot of courage, that's all.
My grandma set a great store by her own shots of courage. Said they were the reason she lived so long…my grandma was ninety-seven when she passed on.”
A shot rang out. They threw themselves into position. The other snipers were taking shots at a group of Bluecoats picking their way through between the rocks and scattered trees. A cry echoed up the mountain, and Charlie saw one man fall, holding his hands up to his neck as a stream of red appeared, visible even from this distance.
Clarence sighted down the high-powered scope of his special-issue Whitworth rifle and easily picked off another soldier from a distance of almost four hundred yards. He turned away to reload with a precious .45 caliber bullet then took down another man before Charlie could squeeze the trigger of her ordinary rifle once. The Yankees were running back in the direction they had come. One man was lagging behind the rest, having a more difficult time maneuvering the natural landscape. He would be so easy to shoot. The snipers continued to fire all around her. She took a bead on the clumsy soldier.
“Shoot, Charlie! Every man you take could save the life of one of ours.”
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. Opening her eyes again, she saw the man fall to the ground. She'd killed a man! No…wait…the man sprang up and began running again. He had only tripped and fallen.
“Come on, boys!” Clarence called to the sharpshooters. “Stay sharp now. The real fighting is about to start. The snow is lettin' up!”
Sure enough, no sooner had the words left his mouth than the now-familiar Rebel yell sent goosebumps skittering along Charlie's arms. With an explosion of noise, the army in gray erupted from somewhere below them. Hoards of men came screaming out into the open--some falling over their own feet in their haste and others nimbly leaping over the obstacles in their path. The Confederate flag, like a beacon of light, drew them toward their enemy in a stream of humanity.
“Here they come!” Clarence shouted. “Pick off as many Yankees as you can before they reach our men!”
As if they were magically summoned, the tide of blue flowed out of the trees heading directly for a clash with their boys. Spurts of gunfire now accompanied the war cries of the Rebels and the screams of men being hit.
Charlie hurried to reload, tasting the powder as she ripped open the cartridge to put it down the barrel. No time to waste. Josh is down there! Don't think. Just aim and fire. She listened to the voice in her head directing her to pick out a Bluecoat through the pall of smoke, pull the trigger, reload, pick another one, fire, and load again. There was no time to watch them fall, no time to see how she had put a bloody hole in a living, breathing human being. A strange kind of trance fell over her, and her actions became mechanical, repetitious, and unthinking. Over and over she hit her mark.
But gradually, confusion began to mount, and her anxiety grew. It was getting harder and harder to sight her targets. She could no longer see the Bluecoats clearly! Pulling off her glasses, she flung them aside and continued to peer down the gun barrel. Nothing! A quick rub of her eyes…still nothing. What was the problem?
“Charlie! Charlie!” Clarence was tugging at her arm. “We have to go down! The smoke is too thick to see from here anymore!” Grabbing up her wire rims again, she followed the angular figure of her mentor as they made their way down to join the fighting below.
Sliding down the steep incline with rocks rolling under her brogans, Charlie strained to see what was happening. The noise was horrendous. The high-pitched whine of bullets, the lower booming of the cannon fire, and the screams of injured and dying men filled her ears, blocking out sensible thought. Everywhere, soldiers were running, stumbling, and crawling in the opposite direction.
A bugle's faltering tones rang out, sounding the retreat. “Back! Go back!” An officer on horseback gestured to their group. “Retreat! No use, boys. There are too many of them!” The captain had lost his hat, and blood ran from a rent in his sleeve. The distinctive whine of a cannon ball grew louder, and Charlie dove for the ground. It hit behind the horseman. He was gone in a shower of dirt and debris that exploded up then came down on her head.
Quickly scrambling to her feet again, fear gripped her with a horrible force, and she forgot to follow Clarence. She had to find Josh! Where was he? Charlie began to run.
“Charlie, come back! We have to retreat!”
Clarence was calling after her but she paid him no mind. The smoke lay in a thick blanket over the valley. Soldiers appeared out of the fog, stumbling and
staggering past her. Searching and searching, she ran, tripping and jumping over obstacles. Some of them appeared to be human. Bile rose in her throat as she peered with dread at each torn and bloody man who lay on the battleground or crawled past. Some plucked at her sleeve and pleaded for help, while others were beyond helping. There was no time to spare for any man, no matter their rank or need.
“Joshua Garrett! Have you seen Josh Garrett?” she pleaded with the soldiers who ran, hobbled, and crawled past her. But they ignored her frantic words in their quest for safety. Bullets whined past Charlie's head and plucked at her clothing as she made her way deeper onto the smoky battlefield, but she cared little.
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