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Woman in Gray
Kady hadn’t felt fear like this in a long time; nearly two decades. She remembered standing before the recruiter, nervously waiting whether she would be allowed in.
But why should she be afraid now? She had stared death in the face countless times and lived to tell. She had been in the front line of battle, leading the charge. Kady had been wounded and captured, and still managed to escape without anyone finding out her secret.
Kady had been in Pickett’s Charge.
Inadvertently, memories flooded her: memories that she had tried to bury and yet still appeared in her dreams. She swallowed hard and tried to keep too many from resurfacing. To do what she was about to do, she had to stay strong.
The conversation with her husband the night before came to mind.
“Kady, you don’t have to do this. If Levi Holmes never showed up, no one would think twice. A lot can happen in twenty years. Maybe Levi shouldn’t come back,” Tom said gently.
Kady sighed. “I think…I think I should go as Levi.”
Tom scowled. “You can’t do that. If anyone should find out—”
“Nobody did during those three years,” she interrupted.
“But what if the neighbors do? The shame it’ll bring on us…” his voice trailed off.
“You’re ashamed of me?”
“No! No! I just…I think you’re the bravest person in the world, but that doesn’t mean other people will accept what you did. Our own children don’t even know!”
“I could go as Levi. Clip my hair up, borrow your clothes, get a hat. I think I can do it!”
“Kady! Listen to yourself! You’re using Levi as a mask so you won’t have to face it! You have to go as you!”
“They’ll think I’m lying or crazy or both,” she said forlornly. “Maybe I am crazy. I must be to have disguised myself as a man for three years.”
“Shh!” Tom hushed, “What if the children hear you?”
“Let them!” Kady exploded. “I did what I did was because I loved Virginia, just like all the men who fought! I risked everything I had to protect my homeland! Why should I hide it from all the people? I could’ve died! I was nearly sent to prison! And we have four kids in this house who know nothing!”
“You know what, Tom? I will go as me! I’ll dress as a woman and everything! And if they don’t believe me, I’ll show them this!” Kady rolled up the left sleeve of her dress. A long, jagged scar ran from her shoulder to her wrist. Tom cringed. “I got this for defending what I believed in!” she screeched. “Why should I hide?”
Kady spun around and saw her ten-year-old son Henry standing in the doorway of the parlor. His innocent little face and tousled black curls brought her sanity back. She hurriedly rolled her sleeve back down and blushed bright red. “Go back to sleep, honey.”
“Why are you yelling?”
“Mama and Daddy are just discussing a touchy subject for me. I’ll be all right. Go to bed. And tell the rest of them listening on the stairs to go too.”
Henry looked at Tom for help, but Tom shook his head. “Listen to your mother, son.” Henry trudged up the stairs with his sisters and brother.
Kady collapsed on the sofa. “I’m sorry, Tom, I don’t know what came over me. I just wish I didn’t have to act ashamed of my past. Why can’t I get the rewards the men did? I trained with them, ate with them, fought with them, and nearly died with them.”
Tom sat down next to her and smoothed her flyaway hair. “Maybe this could be your chance.”
“What if they don’t accept me?”
“I don’t think we’ll have that problem. They didn’t get along with Levi Holmes just because he was a man. They liked him for his personality and bravery and fighting skills. And you still have all that. You can do it, Kady. I believe in you.”
Kady urged the horse on faster. The quicker she got to the soldiers’ reunion of her Virginia company the less time she had to reminisce. Some memories were good, but others haunted her nightmares. The scar on her arm pulsed.
“I don’t know about you, but this has to be suicidal,” Hardtack leaned over and said. For some reason the tough-as-hardtack man had opened up to the young Levi.
Levi looked at him nervously. “You sure?”
“Positive. Look. All the cannons are doin’ is wakin’ the Yanks up to our charge. They’re all set to blow us away.”
“But Lee said it would work. Lee hasn’t lost a battle yet.”
“That may be true, but I’ve a feeling our luck is run out.”
The bugle sounded the call. The generals shouted. The drums pounded. They all commanded the same thing: charge.
The heat shimmered over the field and the cannons still boomed up ahead. Inside the costume that was Levi, Kady’s heart thumped in rhythm to the beat of hundreds of soldiers marching in gray. She was always jumpy before a big moment in battle, but now her war-trained instincts took over. The ground in front of them rolled up and down. Farther down were two long fences with a road in between. Get across the fences without being killed, and the Yanks were dead ahead.
A cannonball exploded to the left of her. She heard the screams of the men hit. Inwardly she cringed. Those screams disturbed her dreams every night. But she knew she could not stop and help; her objective was to cross those fences.
Cannonballs were blasting all around her. She winced when shrapnel grazed her cheek. She felt blood trickle down her face but kept going. The fence was right there…
The fence was much higher than Kady had guessed. She saw other men shot as soon as they attempted to climb over. A quick prayer flew to heaven. Kady then went through the fence instead of over. She was extremely thin after over a year in the army and squeezed through the bars with ease.
Now she was on the road. A cannon shot through the fence to the right. Perfect. Men would swarm to that hole and be easy targets for the Yankee rifles. Kady shimmied through the other fence and now the enemy was right in front of her.
She dropped to the ground and crawled to avoid the slaughter behind her. Most of the men trying to cross the fences never made it. The stench of gunpowder mixed with blood seemed especially nauseating on this hot Pennsylvania day.
Kady knew she had to run for it. Those who had made it over the road were now in hand-to-hand combat with the Yankees. Blue and gray muddled into one horrid color of death.
Kady did what she did whenever she was scared in battle: she let out the Rebel Yell. She whooped and hollered as she led a singular charge against the enemy.
Faster than she had ever run before, she landed a bayonet into a blue-coat before he could shoot her. Another one punched her in the mouth. More blood. She smacked him in the face with the butt of her rifle. He went sprawling. Some of the Yanks finally noticed her and took aim. She ducked and felt blood splatter on her back from an unfortunate comrade who wasn’t so quick.
Then the biggest Yank she had ever seen came at her. His uniform bulged at the shoulders and the buttons strained. He was over six feet tall and looked like Goliath.
Everything went in slow motion. Kady saw him coming and threw down her rifle. She pulled out her trusty Bowie knife and prepared to fight. One of them was going to die this day.
The Yankee’s arm swooped up in an arc above his head. The July sun hit the knife and it gleamed as it came down on her.
She threw up her left arm and felt a slicing pain. Wet blood gushed out and she almost fainted. She tried to lift her right arm to knife the attacker, but the intense pain wracking her body prevented it. Kady fell to her knees and prepared herself to die.
A shot rang out and the Yank let out a cry before buckling to the ground. She turned to see Hardtack holding a smoking pistol. She tried to call out to him but she was losing blood and energy fast. Gray sneaked into the corners of her vision. Kady tried to stand but collapsed on the grass that was now red with her own blood.
She laid there listening to the sounds of battle. After what seemed like an eternity she heard cheering and the sounds of men running away. She opened one eye and saw that the Yankees were still there. The enemy had won. It was the Confederates who were retreating!
Kady tried to sit up but couldn’t. She was so weak…
A pair of rough hands grabbed her by the shoulders. “You still alive?”
Her eyes squinted in the sun. She tried to answer but could only moan.
“I got one here!” the same voice said.
“Woo-eee that’s a lot of blood,” another man said. “We gotta get this Reb to the hospital.”
Kady’s eyes opened wide. “No! I’m fine! No doctors!” She let the Yankees help her stand. Her knees nearly gave out.
“Wow you sure got it good,” one of them whistled. “You Rebels are tough as nails.”
“Tough as hardtack,” Kady groaned. She wondered if the man who saved her life was still alive.
The two soldiers tried to get her to walk, but her feet only dragged. “Good thing you’re so skinny,” one said.
Kady’s head lolled as she tried to focus. All around her was a blur of men carrying wounded on stretchers. Bodies laid all too still on the ground. Screams of the dying pierced her aching skull.
Finally they reached the hospital tent. “Don’t take me in there,” she mumbled. It was getting harder to put sentences together. Her mind was fogging up. She had to stay in the character of a man or she would be found out.
“Come on, Johnny Reb.” The two Yankees brought her to a male nurse. The man held up a hand, stopping them from going into the tent. “We’re all full inside. You’ll have to put him somewhere out here.”
The soldiers were appalled. “In this heat? With all the flies and bugs? It’ll kill him! Can’t you see how much blood he’s lost already?” one demanded.
“I’m sorry, but we’re full. A doctor will come when he’s available.”
“Look, ma’am, I know he’s the enemy but you gotta do something!” the other Yank said.
“Sorry,” the nurse said crisply. He turned and walked away to tend other wounded.
One of the men cursed under his breath. “C’mon, I’ll fix you up.” They set Kady down and propped her up against a tree. “Yates! Go find a thread and needle!” The soldier called Yates nodded and ran off.
The other soldier attempted to unbutton Kady’s coat. She sluggishly moved his arm away. “Just rip…sleeve…” The man nodded and took his knife and tore off the rags that had once been her gray coat sleeve. He ripped off his own sleeve and dabbed at the enormous slash on her arm. She winced but said nothing.
The man talked while he worked. “My name is Walt. Walt Roberts. The other guy is Edgar Yates. What’s your name, Johnny Reb?”
“Levi Holmes,” she whispered, struggling to keep her voice low like a man’s. “From Virginia.”
“I was training to be a doctor when the war started. I know enough to help you pull through. ”
The two were silent as Walt cleaned the wound as best as he could. He poured some water from his own canteen on her arm. “Where is that Yates?” he grumbled. Kady still felt blood coming from the gash.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked, trying to take her mind off the throbbing in her arm.
“Me and Yates are cousins and were raised together. We were taught to help anyone in need. I figure that applies even in war. Let’s face it, sonny, you would’ve died without help.”
Yates appeared with the items requested. “You have no idea what I had to do to filch these. If I get caught…”
“Shut up and help,” Walt commanded. Yates shrugged. He knelt down and held Kady’s other hand. “Squeeze when it hurts,” Yates whispered.
“I’m sorry, but this will sting.” Walt then began to stitch her arm back together.
It did hurt a lot but Kady had had worse.
Finally Walt pronounced himself finished. “It’s going to leave a nasty scar, but it’s better than dying.” Kady nodded her thanks.
Walt and Yates sat by her side until the guards took her away with the other Confederate prisoners of war.
Kady shook herself out of reverie. There was the church where the reunion was to be held. It was right where Mrs. O’Conner said it would be.
“May I help you, ma’am?” A young stable boy offered his hand and helped her down from the house. “Do you want me to put him in the barn, for you?” Kady nodded.
After the boy had left, she stood staring at the church door. She had to do this. She had to. It was her right as a veteran of the War Between the States.
A sign inside the church said for the veterans to proceed to the sanctuary. Kady pushed open the big double doors.
Inside were lots of men in their old gray uniforms, but not as many as she had expected. In twenty years, a lot of them had passed on or moved too far away to come back. Kady wished she had her uniform on, but knew that it would be too unseemly. The best she had was her old Bowie knife tied under her skirts.
She sauntered right up to the front of the church. One of the veterans greeted her. “Hello, ma’am. What can I do ya for?”
“I am here representing a veteran: a Mr. Levi Holmes.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, then.” The man bowed and moved on to talk to another veteran.
Kady remember that that man was Joe Daniels. She smiled at the fact that she knew these men and none recognized her.
The men politely talked to her but none made avid conversation. Kady sat alone on the front pew. Finally one stood up at the pulpit. “Hello, there, Rebels!” The men all hooted and hollered. “Do any of you kid glove boys remember me?”
“Captain Joshua!” one called. The veterans applauded and cheered their former commander. The man was a legend in her company!
“Well, I think we should have a little story time! What say you?” The men yelled their approval. “Well, I’ll go first!” The men pretended to groan. Kady remembered that the Captain was known for his long-winded speeches.
The afternoon went quickly as man after man got up and shared a memory. Some were funny, like the time a young private had gone to relieve himself and came back with a bottom full of mosquito bites; others were sad, like the death of a comrade. All the men, and Kady, were teary-eyed, for all had lost someone dear.
“Excuse me, ma’am, would you like to share something in honor of Mr. Holmes?” the Captain asked her. It was time for Kady to face them. She nodded.
She walked up to the pulpit nervously. The men respectfully waited for her to begin. Kady cleared her throat and said, “I know Levi Holmes very well. All of you who remember him told me he was a great soldier. Well, he told me one story of his: the one of how he escaped being a prisoner after Gettysburg.” The men cheered, for all knew the story well.
“Levi sat that night of July 3rd with the other prisoners. His arm ached mightily, for he had only just gotten it stitched up by some friendly Yanks. He noticed that one of his good friends was there, a man who has saved his life: a man who went by the name of Hardtack.” Again, more cheers. “Levi crawled over to Hardtack’s side and said to him, ‘We need to get out of here.’ Hardtack nodded. ‘Tonight?’ Levi asked. Hardtack nodded again. The Yankee guard yelled at them to be quiet, but the plan was already set.
“That night, the guard was pretty tired after three days of battle. He was also a bit tipsy from celebrating victory.” The veterans booed. Kady smiled and went on. The words came easier now. “The guard sat down to rest. At that moment, Hardtack leaped onto him, pinning him to the ground! Levi grabbed the guard’s rifle. All this was done without a sound.
“‘Now listen here,’ Levi said, ‘we’re going home and you ain’t gonna stop us. If’n you do, you’ll meet the business end of your own gun. Got it?’ The Yankee nodded. Levi and Hardtack watched him while the rest of the prisoners snuck away into the woods. The two were preparing to leave when suddenly the guard yelled, ‘Prisoner escape! Help! Help!’ Levi knocked him on the head with the butt of the rifle, but the damage was done. Hardtack and Levi scrambled up and melted into the dark forest. Most of the Yankees gave up the pursuit but there were two who caught up with them. ‘Halt!’ One cried. And Levi stopped.”
The crowd held its breath.
“He stopped because he knew that voice! It was the voice of one of the men who had saved his life earlier that day! Levi turned and ran toward them. Hardtack scoffed and ran ahead.
“‘Walt! Yates!’ Levi cried. The two soldiers realized it was the young man they had rescued.
“‘You have to get out of here,’ Walt whispered. Levi nodded. ‘Thank you for everything.’ Walt and Yates turned around and loudly called out to their camp, ‘They’re gone. No use chasing ‘em now!’
“Levi made it almost to camp but realized he had to let his new friends know he was safe. So do you know what he did?”
“Rebel yell!” a veteran cried.
“You bet your britches!” Kady said.
The church was filled with the sounds of Rebel Yells.
Kady lifted her hands to quiet the bunch. “There’s one more thing Levi Holmes wanted to tell you!”
The men quieted as the air of mystery settled around them.
“Levi Holmes was not who you think he is!” Kady heard the murmurings buzz but kept going. “He was a woman in disguise! I am Levi Holmes!”
The church exploded.
“It couldn’t be!”
“He weren’t no woman!”
“Fine!” Kady rolled up her sleeve and showed the ugly scar. Walt had done his best to stitch it, but the scar was knotted and rough.
The church fell silent.
“Where did you get that?” the Captain asked.
“I was captured during Pickett’s Charge. I fought hand-to-hand with a big Yank and he gave me this. Some other Yanks took care of me and then I was captured. I am Levi Holmes.”
“What’s your real name?”
“Kady Morgan. I enlisted in 1862 when I was seventeen.”
“Same reason as you! I wanted to defend Virginia, my home, and my family. The only way I could do it was by dressing as a man.”
Whispers zinged through the crowd. Kady waited nervously to see if the men would accept her.
“What do you think, Captain?” someone called.
The Captain stood up. “Do you want to know what I think, Mrs. Morgan?” he asked fiercely. Kady hung her head. She remembered he only talked like that to a soldier who was about to get yelled at.
Captain came up to the pulpit and put a hand on her shoulder. “I think you are the bravest woman I ever met.” Kady looked up at him and smiled. Around her, the veterans cheered.
The rest of the time, including the complimentary supper from the church ladies, was spent asking Kady how managed to stay disguised for three long years. The men were not angry, only curious. They’d never thought that Levi Holmes was actually a woman.
“Does your husband know?” Joe asked.
“Yes. He was a soldier in another company. He’s a very understanding man.”
At the end of the night, every soldier gave her their addresses. “Keep in touch! We’ll see you at the next reunion Mrs. Morgan!”
Kady rode home smiling. The memories still returned to her, but they were good ones.
“I see that it went well,” Tom said as he helped his wife off the horse at home that night. “Told you so.”
Kady planted a big kiss on him. “Thanks, Hardtack.”