His Heart Was Still Beating (Civil War)

This scene from Like Light from Stars takes place in a mule cart used as an ambulance, late in the American Civil War:

In a cloud of red dust, a wagon clattered along a plank road between ravaged fields. The driver, a Union soldier in a filthy uniform, beat at the mule team with a switch. His face dripped sweat. In the cart were the bodies of five wounded soldiers strapped to litters. The violent motion of the cart jostled the bodies back and forth. At the back of the cart a soldier nurse sat slumped among the wounded men, his head bouncing toward his knees. In another corner, behind the driver, a teenage girl, short and sturdy, braced herself against the rough wooden slats. One of the wounded soldiers screamed with every jolt of the cart. Another moaned steadily, a droning sound between harsh breaths. The other three showed no signs of consciousness. One of these had one leg of his uniform sliced open and a tourniquet high on his thigh.

The girl, Vinnie, was a lady nurse and was dressed accordingly, in a plain, dark brown skirt, which was muddy, blood-stained, and damp. A leather bag was tucked under her thigh. She was singing to herself for comfort, though she could not hear her own voice over the racket the wagon made on the wooden planks. In the distance, looking back through the dust raised by the cart’s wheels, she could see a wall of smoke moving toward them from the battlefield they had just left.

The driver shouted something over his shoulder and the soldier nurse jerked upright and gaped wildly around the cart. He crawled over and pressed his hand against one young soldier’s neck, then pulled out his knife, cut the straps that bound the soldier to his litter, grabbed the legs, and expertly rolled the body over the side. The cart bounced on, leaving the dead boy splayed in the weeds behind them.

Without feeling for a pulse, the nurse reached over with his knife and cut the straps on the soldier with the tourniquet. Vinnie shouted, “That one’s alive!” The man ignored her and rolled the body toward the side. The girl leaned forward to get closer to the nurse’s ear. “I—saw—him—swallow!”

“If he ain’t dead now, will be soon,” the nurse yelled back. “Bled too much!” He heaved the legs over and then lifted the torso out. The body bounced, rolled onto its back beside the road, and lay still. The cart clattered wildly on.

Vinnie stared at the body growing smaller behind them. She thought of the soldier’s mouth, small, pink, and childlike beneath his black mustache, and his black eyelashes. His heart still beating faithfully. She couldn’t leave him there. She grabbed her leather bag and threw it over the side. “Hey!” shouted the nurse. Vinnie scuttled back through the space left by the jettisoned bodies, put her legs over the edge, hesitated, and then threw herself off. She landed hard, got up, and began running beside the plank road. “Hey! Miss!” but the shouts receded with the cart down the road.

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One Response to His Heart Was Still Beating (Civil War)

  1. Beverly Dahlen September 7, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    Sylvia, I am so pleased to see your work here. Please let me know how I can get a copy of the book if it is available. We look forward to seeing you soon.


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