|Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen Chapter 4 – Bull Run
Make it stop now! Charley thought, or thought he was thinking until he realized he was screaming it: “Make it all stop now!”
Death was everywhere, nowhere. Bullets flew past him with evil little snips and snaps and snickers as they cut the air. Next to him, Massey’s head suddenly left his body and disappeared, taken by a cannon round that then went through an officer’s horse, end to end, before plowing into the ground.
This can’t be, he thought. I can’t be here. This is all a mistake. A terrible mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.
He had forgotten to fire. The officers had marched them out into a field in perfect order and told them where to aim and fire, and he had raised his rifle and then the whole world had come at him. The Rebel soldiers were up a shallow grade a hundred yards away, behind some fallen trees, and they had opened on Charley and the others before anyone could fire.
It was like a blade cutting grain. He heard the bullet hitting the men – little thunk-slaps – and saw the men falling. Some of them screamed as they fell. Most were silent. Many were dead before the hit the ground. Many were torn apart, hit ten or twelve or more times before they had time to drop.
The men left standing with Charley fired, then the survivors of that round reloaded and fired again, and Charley aimed in the general direction of the Rebels and pulled his trigger, firing blind.
The black powder smoke clouded form the rifles and the rebel guns on the hill and it was impossible to see or to understand anything.
I don’t know anything, Charley thought – the words jerked through his mind before he thought them.
Somebody screamed over the sound of the gunfire, and the man next to Charley turned to the rear and began walking away as calm as if he was going for a stroll in the park, his rifle at right shoulder heft.
Charley followed him, dragging his own rifle along the ground. He must know something I don’t know, he thought – must have heard something – but the man hadn’t gone four steps before he was struck in the back several times and dropped on his face.
Bullets filled the air. Charley heard them going past his ears like horizontal hail and he decided to lie down. If he didn’t lie down he would be hit, ripped, torn to pieces.
It was only slightly better on the ground. He heard the same sounds, the same bullets, but the bodies in front of him protected him. He could hear bullets hitting them.
Two bullets met directly in front of his eyes, jammed together and fell to the ground, as one. That sight was more horrifying than the death he’d seen. How many bullets, he thought, would have to be flying around for two of them to collide in midair?
Something jerked at his foot, pulling it sideways. He was sure he’d been hit, didn’t see how it was possible to keep from being hit, but when he turned he saw Lieutenant Olafson tugging at his leg. The officer had been hit in his left upper arm. He was still holding a saber in his left hand and was jerking at Charley with his right.
“Get up, boy. We’re to fall back.” The cords in his neck bulged with the strain of screaming over the noise.
“In good order we’re to fall back to the trees. Come on, son, up now and move. Help some of the others.”
Somehow Charley’s arms worked to push him off the ground. He stood and started walking when everything in him wanted to run; started walking “in good order” even when the lieutenant was hit in the chest and head and went down, obviously finished, but with his legs still moving, still pumping, still pushing the dying body around and around on the ground; Charley started walking, not running, even when his mind prayed to God, told God, demanded of God:
I am not supposed to see this, God. NO person is supposed to see this. How can You let this happen?
Charley walked amid the explosions of shot and the ripping of bullets until he was clear of the smoke and saw other men walking with him. Impossible, he thought, that the could walk as they did, in rank; impossible that they had lived, could have lived through what had come at them, was still coming at them.
Many of the men crouched as they moved, as if in a heavy rain, and Charley found himself doing the same, and when he was still some twenty yards from the line of trees ahead he crouched more and then ran – could not stop himself from running – until he was there, in the trees, a large maple at his back, and finally, sucking air until his lungs seemed to be on fire, finally he stopped and leaned over, his hands on his knees, and vomited, heaving until he was empty and then heaving more, until he felt as if his stomach would come up, until he felt his very soul would leave him.