Saturday, May 31, 1862 The Virginia Peninsula
Not now. Please, not now. Rebel bullets ripped through the sulfurous fog hovering above Caitlin McKae’s head. Her middle cramping violently, she prayed her anguished bowels would not betray her.
“Don’t let them take my leg, please! I’d rather die on the field!” “We’re getting you out of here, Marty!” Caitlin fairly shouted as she and the other three stretcher bearers carried the wounded soldier a quarter mile to the rear. Sweat poured from beneath her kepi and itched across her tightly bound torso. River water from the rain-swollen Chick- ahominy soaked through her brogans, and she faltered more than once in the red clay quagmire.
Head pounding like a fusillade, Cailtin slogged back through the mud to pluck more wounded comrades from the spongy earth. She scrambled after the other stretcher bearers and wondered how long this desperate battle for Richmond had lasted so far. Had an hour passed?
Two hours? Three? Suddenly spent, Caitlin doubled over, gripping her knees. Her stomach heaved, though it had no contents to vacate.
But her body wasn’t through. Her insides churning, Caitlin was left with no choice but to break away to the furthest pine tree she could make it to and find relief in relative privacy behind its trunk.
Before she could reach it, a lead ball tore through her arm. The twisting pain in her middle paled as fire blazed through her right bicep. The bullet had ripped completely through.
As she dropped to her knees, Caitlin’s thundering pulse dimmed the sounds of battle. With fumbling fingers, she unbuttoned her jacket with her left hand, wriggled free of it, and wrapped it around her bloody shirtsleeve. I could go back. I can still hold the stretcher with my left hand. But she couldn’t. Strength sapped from her body, her limbs felt as though they’d been filled with lead.
Flat on her back now, Caitlin tried to steady her breathing. The sky is still blue, she told herself. Somewhere, far above me, where bullets can- not reach and cries cannot be heard, the sky is still blue. The haze of gun smoke thinned, and she caught a glimpse of Professor Lowe’s balloon In- trepid hovering in the sky, with Lowe inside, reporting Confederate troop movements to General McClellan. Her eyelids drifted closed and she imagined herself there. But if I were, I would cut the lines tethering it to the ground and sail away, far away from war and disease and death. If only it weren’t for Jack. Her thoughts trailed away, into a blank expanse as welcoming as the sky.
Mud splattered her face as another bullet pierced the ground next to her. Suddenly, her ears tuned to the musket fire still rattling in the air. Rolling over, Caitlin dragged herself into the pine trees, leaned against a trunk and felt the earth shudder beneath her with the boom- ing of artillery.
“God, when will it end?” she groaned through gritted teeth. “Soon.” Caitlin turned toward the gravelly voice and found a bearded Rebel soldier. Mosquitoes hummed near his bleeding stomach. He would die within hours, even if he were in a hospital. “You’re bleeding, too.” He nodded to her crimson-soaked arm. Her jacket-turned-tourniquet must have fallen off when she’d crawled here for shelter. “Take mine. I’ll not be needing it now.”
“Thank you,” she breathed, and let him help her tie his jacket to her arm. Gooseflesh raised on her skin as the sweat filming her body turned cold.
“Can you read?” He handed her a small New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. “Do you know the one about the valley of the shadow of death? I reckon that ought to do.” His face was so pale. Surely he was in that valley now.
Though her mind began to fog, with her left hand, she flipped to Psalm 23, and forced her voice through chattering teeth. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies . . .”
Caitlin’s eyelids refused to stay open. She was sinking, deeper, and imagined the Virginia swamp was swallowing her whole. Her grip loosened on the Bible in her hand, and her consciousness slipped fully be- yond her grasp.
Thursday, June 19, 1862
Lips cinched tightly, Caitlin McKae fought the instinct to reach toward the smoldering pain in her arm—the pain that had dragged her back to consciousness and told her she had survived.
Where am I? She shook her head, hoping to clear the fog. Flies droned lazily about the room. Muffled voices swam toward her from the hallway while the air sat thick and heavy on her skin. Beyond the shuttered window, locomotives bellowed and chugged.
Where is Jack? “Please,” she prayed through cracked lips. “Keep him safe . . .”
“Well looky here.” The door creaked, and a wedge of light broad- ened on the floor, framing a stocky silhouette. The odor of corn liquor seeped from his grey uniform as he stepped to her bedside, peering past his mustache at her. “Look who’s finally awake. I got a whole heap a questions for you, girly-girl.”
Oh no. Her hand flew to her heart, felt it hammering against her palm with only one threadbare sheet between. The binding around her chest was gone.
“That’s a fact.” He chuckled. “Your secret is out now, so you might as well fess up directly.” One hand flexed around a club while the other rested on a revolver in its holster. His lips curled into a grin.
The alarm clanging in Caitlin’s mind rivaled the screeching steel of a steam engine grinding to a halt outside.
“Ain’t you got something to say for yourself ? For starters, how could such a pretty girl such as yourself come to this? Leastwise, maybe you was pretty once.” He reached for her, wearing the same possessive ex- pression she had seen too often before.
“Don’t touch me,” she whispered, trying in vain to knock his hand away. When he laughed and called her “playful,” she spit in his face, dor- mant anger and fear combusting in her veins.
Cursing, the officer ground his club into her bandaged arm. A gasp escaped her as searing pain ushered her back to the moment the bullet first tore through her flesh.
“George Washington Lee, you get out of here this instant!” The club fell away, and Caitlin, nearly breathless, blinked up at the blessed interruption—a silver-haired woman, blue eyes blazing, cheeks flushed. “How dare you treat her this way?”
“And just who is she, Miss Periwinkle?” Coughing racked Lee’s body until he dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief. “She reeks of espionage.”
Caitlin sat up, pulling the sheet up over her chest, and swallowed the moan bubbling up from the pain.
“Of course not.” The woman jabbed her finger toward the man, stood with one fist propped on her ample hips. “She has more patriotism in the tip of her freckled nose than a regiment of conscripts. Why else would she fight for the cause?”
“I am not a spy,” Caitlin broke in.
Lee’s eyes brightened. “You see! You heard it for yourself, she is a Northerner!”
“She’s Irish, and you know as well as I do that we have plenty of im- migrants in these parts, and them as loyal to the cause as you are.” Her tone was thick with disdain.
“I would beg you to remember that as the provost marshal of this fine city, it is my oath-bound duty to ferret out deserters, spies, foreigners, Northern sympathizers, and any other such like as would be harmful to the good of our country.”
“Humph! I would beg you to remember I changed your diapers when you were still in short dresses, young man.” Miss Periwinkle snapped opened the wooden shutters and light flooded the small space. “You’ll not bully me or anyone in this establishment or you may find the good doctor not nearly so inclined to oblige that nasty cough of yours. Now good day to you.”
“Do be advised, Miss McKae.” Colonel Lee leaned against the door- way again. “We do not abide spies in our midst.”
“I told you, I am not a spy.”
“Funny. That’s what all seven of those Yankee devils said, all the way to the gallows. The Andrews raiders said they were Union soldiers, but they were dressed as civilians when they tried stealing our train. As I said, we do not abide spies. No matter what they’re wearing.” His eyes seemed to bore through hers.
Though she did not blink, Caitlin hugged the sheet to her chest as she watched him leave.
Miss Periwinkle bustled back to Caitlin’s side. “I’m so sorry about that, dear. Rude introductions, indeed.”
Blood still rushing in her ears, Caitlin wore a tight mask of coun- terfeit composure as Miss Periwinkle prattled on. “I’m Prudence. Now drink this tea of dandelion root for the pain in your shoulder. I do wish we had some opium for you, but Lil Bit says our tea will do nicely.”
“I do wish you’d stop calling me that around the patients, Prudence.”
A white-haired gentleman stepped to Caitlin’s bedside, one hand cradling a pipe and the other resting on the stethoscope about his neck. “Older by fourteen months, and my sister still won’t let me forget it.” The doctor placed the stethoscope on Caitlin’s chest, listening. “You gave us quite a scare, my dear.”
“What happened?” Her voice creaked. She struggled to sweep the remaining cobwebs from her mind.
“Quite simply, the Richmond hospitals ran out of room after the Battle of Seven Pines, so they shuttled all who could safely be moved down to us. You’ve had a hard go of it, my girl. Your wound was only part of your trouble. By the time you arrived here, you were in the throes of typho-malarial fever, and unconscious. I imagine you had been for days. Do you remember any of this?”
Caitlin pressed her fingers to her aching forehead while snatches of memory flickered over her. The wrenching abdominal pain, headache, nausea, fever, and chills. The bullet that tore through her arm, and the Rebel who gave her his jacket as a tourniquet. “I remember some,” she whispered, mind still reeling.
“Your Bible is right here, dear.” Prudy handed a small volume tomher.
“My Bible?” Caitlin opened the cover. To the Confederacy’s Defenders in the 18th Georgia, Co. A. With regards, Chaplain Samuel York. It was the Rebel’s Bible. She’d been reading it when she passed out. Slowly, the pieces fit together. It must been in her hand when Confed- erate medical officers found her and carried her off the field. To Jack and the rest of her own regiment, she was now missing in action.
Dr. Periwinkle unwound a bandage on her upper arm. “It’s a mira- cle the ball passed through you without shattering the bone,” he mur- mured while inspecting the entry and exit wounds. “There is still risk of infection and secondary hemorrhage.” He paused, stroked his handlebar mustache downward. “You remind me so of my own daughter, when she was about your age. And you’ll be fine, Miss McKae.”
The words pricked Caitlin’s ears. “How do you know my name?”
Prudence raised her eyebrows. “You told us yourself, dear. But you were in the fever’s grip and I reckon you’ve forgotten the worst of it.”
Her heart plunged. “Where am I?”
“Periwinkle Place boarding house. Since war came, we care for convalescents here, too. Wounded Rebels come in from all over to us, on ac- count of our railroads. Lil Bit brought you to me directly so you may recover with privacy, now that you won’t be soldiering anymore.”
“The South has sent its sons to war—including mine—but we need not send our daughters.” The twinkle returned to the doctor’s eyes. “Your patriotism does you credit, child, but it’s time you just get well and stop pretending to be someone you’re not. No more soldiering, all right? You’re safe now, in Atlanta.”
Atlanta. The Gate City to the South.
Caitlin’s spirit flagged, but her face betrayed nothing. She may be able to get well here, but to stop pretending and reveal her true identity would never do.
Then again, this would be the last place anyone would look for Caitlin McKae.
Including Jack. The void he left in her heart ached already. And yet, the price she had paid to be with him had exacted a toll only another veteran could understand. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to imag- ine a life without marching, drilling, fighting, suffering. A life so far from her past she could stop looking over her shoulder for it.
She would start over again in Atlanta and make this place her home, at least until she had the means to leave. She had reinvented herself be- fore. She could do it again. She would have to.
This is not the end, she told herself. It is only a new beginning.
“ATLANTA HAS BEEN since the commencement of the revolution—a point of rendezvous of traitors, Swindlers, extor- tionist, and Counterfeiters. The population as a predominant ele- ment is a mixture of Jews, New England Yankees, and refugees shirking military duties.”
~COL. GEORGE WASHINGTON LEE, Provost
Marshall of Atlanta
“WE HAVE LEARNED our lessons well—can cry when we would laugh—and laugh when we would cry . . . The face must keep its color—white or red—though the heart stops beating or flames up in scorching pain.”
~CYRENA STONE, Unionist Atlanta resident