This is part one of a story entitled Dessa, which I wrote last week for school. It stars a Union Army nurse named Charlotte (Charlie). Please keep in mind that I wrote this in only a week...
Thick smoke from the artillery still lingered in the air. I flew through the swarms of battle-fatigued men, my mind focused on a single thing.
“More bandages!” I cried, bursting through the flap of the medical tent. Dr. Winston, the surgeon, wheeled around and looked me straight in the eye.
“We’re running low on supplies, Charlie. How bad is it?”
I panted from exhaustion and shook my head from side to side.
“Bad. There are hundreds of men who are to be dead in a minute unless we get some help to them.”
Suddenly two soldiers brushed past me with a makeshift stretcher. On it lie a man covered in blood.
“I’ve got patients piling up. Take these bandages and do what you can out there,” Winston ordered, thrusting a pile of cloths in my hands.
I raced back outside, towards the front lines. I could barely hear myself think, there was so much noise. Men were shouting orders and in the distance I could still hear the cracking of muskets. My stomach churned, uneasily. I feared for the life of my husband, Jack, a lieutenant of the Union army. Every time I saw a dead body being carried away, my heart pounded with a fear that it might be him.
I wasn’t a trained nurse. In fact, I knew very little about medical things. But when I marched along side my husband to war, I knew I would be tending to the wounded. They needed all the help they could get.
The battle was over, but my work had just begun. So many men scattered on the ground, dying. Each one of their faces seemed to plead with me to come. Where to go first? They all needed immediate care.
I knelt down to the nearest man. I reached out to his neck with my cold hands and felt his pulse. Nothing.
My head shot up and I looked around. Who said that? I scanned the battlefield.
“Nurse…” the weak voice came again.
I turned around to see a middle-aged man lying still on the cold ground. I took in a quick breath as I saw his chest red with blood. I knew at that moment there was no way I could save him. Yet I hurried over anyway.
“Shh, shh, it’ll be all right,” I comforted. I began to place some cloths on his open wound, when he grabbed my hand.
“Please,” he begged. “You must help me…”
“I will, if you let go of my wrist,” I said softly, although he was so weak I could easily remove his hand myself.
“I’m Edward Bryers… My daughter. You must get her… Please…”
“What? Where?” I exclaimed, looking around.
“Tennessee…. Belmont… You must save her from them…” he panted.
I stared at the soldier in shock. What did he just say? He wanted me to go to Tennessee to get his daughter? I whisked away a strand of brown hair that had fallen from my bun and leaned in closer.
“Save her from whom?”
“Great aunt… uncle… Harriet and Thomas Sorenson…” he whispered. Suddenly he grabbed both my hands and looked up with pitiful eyes.
“I-I promise, I promise,” I exclaimed, my hands trembling. With my words his face suddenly changed. His eyes closed and he leaned back slowly. I felt the tenseness in his hands disappear. A smile formed on his pale, chapped lips. Before I could say another word, his hands dropped lifelessly to the ground.
My mind was in a blur. What had just happened? Our conversation played over in my head. What were those names again?
“Charlie! What are you doing?” I turned to see Jonathon, one of Winston’s nurses.
“Coming, I’m coming…” I mumbled. I stood up, taking one last glance at Edward, then hurried off to help the soldiers.
Night came, and most of the men had been brought to the medical tent. Winston was still working feverishly. I remember walking past the tent and seeing his shadow in the flickering lantern light, performing operation after operation on our wounded boys.
With the last of my energy I stumbled into the small tent where Jack and I slept. My heart sunk. The same bedrolls were laid on the cold ground and the same tin mugs and plates set between them. Nothing had been moved. I dropped to my knees in exhaustion. Why wasn’t he here yet?
As the minutes went by, worry turned to fear. I sat in the dark tent, the ticking from Jack’s stopwatch driving me mad. I was about to go looking for him when a tall silhouette appeared in the tent opening.
“Jack!” I cried, jumping up.
“I’m sorry to worry you, dear. I had to stay and discuss things with some officers. Are you hungry?”
Jack walked over to the lantern and lit it. The tent flooded with light and I saw him gather up our tin plates and cups. I was a bit frustrated and upset that he didn’t realize exactly how worried I really was.
“I’m starved… lets eat in the tent though, okay? I have something I want to talk about,” I said, as he left to go get our supper.
A few minutes later he returned with two plates of hardtack and some coffee. I eagerly took it. We sat down, and in the flickering light we began to eat.
Jack was a unique man. He wasn’t one for flowery words or speeches, but he had a heart of gold. We had been married for two years, and I didn’t regret one minute of it. We didn’t always agree on things and I knew convincing him that I needed to go get that little girl would be difficult.
“Well?” he finally asked. I took a sip of coffee and held tight onto the warm cup.
“I made a promise to a dying soldier…” I said, looking pleadingly into his blue eyes. “I told him I would get his daughter from his great aunt and uncle… I guess he doesn’t like them, I don’t know… What was I supposed to do, Jack? He was dying! You can’t very well deny a dying man’s last request. And about his own daughter… I just couldn’t say no!”
Jack stopped chewing.
“Look, I just have to go to Belmont, Tennessee and bring her back-“
“Belmont? You want to go down south to get some girl who’s name you don’t even know, and bring her here?” Jack laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“But Jack, I promised!”
The arguing continued for quite some time until we both agreed to settle it in the morning. The stress of war was wearing on us both. We were utterly exhausted and needed a good night's sleep. But even as I lie in my bedroll all I could see was Edward’s face after I promised to get his daughter. There was no way I could break that promise.