A lone Confederate skirmisher followed the road south to Atlanta. The road twisted through the hills like a snake with an itch. The soldier walked around a pine-covered hill, the trees splashed here and there with brown from an outbreak of pine beetles. To an ear unaccustomed to listening for small noises, the woods were silent.
The grayback listened to the wind blow through the trees, to the noises masked by the chirps of birds and insects. Lo! Hoof beats slow and plodding approached. The soldier skulked up the hill as quietly as he could, as any man could who’d spent his few boyhood years before the war hunting deer. At the base of a tall Loblolly pine that showed a few brown branches, he loaded his musket the dispatch. Moving up the tree with a loaded gun, unhurried and deliberate he perched on a branch that commanded a view of the road below. There he saw an officer and an enlisted man of the Union Army proceeding.
The rebel was no Whitworth sniper, not one of those famed Confederate sharpshooters with the equally famed British rifles. His weapon was antique and his accuracy, at least when he sat on a branch of a pine tree swaying in the wind, was uncertain. Nevertheless, his load of buck and ball, a minie ball and three pieces of buckshot in a paper cartridge, favored hitting a target more than a load of a cartridge with a minie ball alone.
He often took chances a more experienced soldier would not take. Most of the more experienced soldiers in his unit were dead, however, because bad luck often outruns good judgment. A need to impress, to distinguish himself lay behind the poor judgment of the sniper. This fault he shared with his father. The boy tried to impress his father; in turn, the father tried to impress his friends with the deeds of the boy.
Once the boy showed his father he could shoot. The boy put an old hat, little more than a shapeless piece of felt, on a stick in a field as a target. Pacing off a hundred yards, he loaded and fired his gun, a boy’s small gun for a beginning hunter. The boy’s bullet tore perfectly round holes in the hat, which the boy showed to his father. The man wore the hat, battered and holed as it was, little protection against the sun or rain, for the next month. He told all who would listen about his boy’s marksmanship, exaggerated the distance, and added treacherous wind and blinding sun to the circumstances of the shot. When war broke out with the North, it was clear that the boy should volunteer and destroy the Northern army by shooting its officers one by one, or so the father said.
By this time the boy was almost grown. His marksmanship, improved by frequent practice, exceeded in accuracy that typical of a smooth-bore gun. He hoped, however, that as a sniper, he would have a rifle, but the Confederacy saved itself the cost of a rifle by ordering the boy to fire on the distant enemy with a smooth-bore gun. The lack of accuracy of the weapon would be made up for with an increase in the number of projectiles fired at once. The minie ball in the cartridge was deadly, although the large buckshot were less likely fatal unless through happy circumstances (for the sniper) the shot struck a vulnerable spot.
In his breast pocket, over his heart, the boy carried a letter from his father, which concluded:
I haven’t heard from you in many months. I can only assume our side’s recent poor showing in the hostilities limits your access to pen and paper. I’ve only written on one side of this sheet. On the reverse please inscribe an account of some deed of valor or military prowess that will make your father proud.
When the boy received the letter, he felt at once ashamed of omitting the writing of letters to his family and of his poor showing as a sniper. Escaping with his life, he thought, valued more than hitting a glorious target. When he fire at a distant officer, he was ever mindful of his own life. This is not to say that he did not whoop with joy when a perfect shot, swift and lethal, left his gun and toppled a distant figure. The exaltation, however was brief. Firing his gun gave his position away; firing his gun put him in danger.
* * *
The party the young sharpshooter followed consisted of a captain, a surgeon from Michigan, who rode on horseback, and his lowly assistant, who sat in a hospital field wagon pulled by a pair of mules. The men proceeded in silence.
The captain’s last name was Cutter, either appropriate or not for a surgeon, depending on your view of an army surgeon. His assistant was Private Choate. To the men they treated they were Cut and Choke.
The surgeon accepted the name Cut, for he took pride in his occupation. He never felt, however, that the sobriquet Choke described his assistant well until that very moment when he stood on the road to Atlanta and saw a strange expression cross the man’s face. Choate did look like he was choking, sitting there on the seat of the wagon. The man gasped, “Spider, sir,” and pointed to the road.
Following the direction of the man’s finger, Captain Cutter found a large golden spider in a huge web that stretched across part of the path they were taking.
* * *
The wind was wrong, thought the sniper, and the officer was beyond the limits of accurate fire of a smooth-bore musket. Nevertheless, the sniper felt lucky. He already risked death sniping behind enemy lines in a barely recognizable uniform. In his bag he carried plenty of paper cartridges. He doubted this shot would be his last.
The sniper watched as the assistant pulled the wagon abreast of the sauntering captain. A tight group of men and horses gave him a good chance of doing some damage. The sniper aimed for the captain and fired when he saw the driver of the wagon point to the side of the road.
The driver of the hospital wagon fell at once. A piece of buckshot hit a mule pulling the wagon, and the animal fell in the traces and broke his leg. The captain’s mount twisted and ran for a few dozen yards with the captain struggling to rein the animal in. Spurting blood, the captain’s mare then fell, an artery in her neck pierced by a second piece of buckshot. The surgeon, his foot caught in the stirrup, fell as well.
* * *
The surgeon knew that his assistant’s wound was fatal when he saw brains and bone protruding from the man’s crown. The ball, he later said, his the man’s head like a plow blade and made a furrow across the top. His own horse bucked violently and his left boot slipped from the stirrup. The horse ran. He felt it sway before it fell on its left side. The surgeon later said that if he’d had a sure seat on a horse, he’d have broken his leg. Thrown from the horse, he half rose, then, mindful of the sniping, fell flat and felt his bruises begin to ache.
* * *
When he saw two men, a horse, and a mule go down after one shot, the grayback sniper shouted “No” because he didn’t believe in miracles. When he saw Captain Cutter struggle to his feet, he accepted the truth. The miraculous was reduced to the improbable three out of four.
When the gray skirmisher shouted, he raised himself up slightly and loosened his grip on the rifle. The smooth-bore weapon slipped on the tree limb that braced it. He seized it, but he lost his balance and began to slip off the tree. With his free hand, he caught hold of the limb that had supported his gun.
The needles on the branch were brown because an assiduous family of beetles lived, multiplied, and dined below the bark. The weak limb broke, and the rebel skirmisher fell. He did not move after he hit the ground.
* * *
When Captain Cutter lay stunned, he heard a distant cry, a bellowed negative. Shortly afterward there came the noise of a body falling through the branches, also distant. He lay on the ground, still as death, and watched the golden spider weave its web.
He did not know how long he had lain on the ground before he rose. Perhaps it was hours, perhaps it was slow-passing minutes. Keeping low, he removed his revolver from his holster and walked toward where he had heard the cry and the crashing branches.
The cry of No was ambiguous he thought. Was it the shout of a shooter who’d downed some of his own by mistake? Or was it a bellow of incredulity that so many balls hit the enemy? Either way, the captain thought he might require a revolver to settle the matter with the shooter, if he found him.
He’d been stunned by the fall, he understood at last, and in his stupor had chosen to confront with a revolver a man with rifle. The sniper hadn’t fired again, although he had had ample time to reload. Advance then, he thought, and take the chance. This far behind the lines the sniper was most likely a deserter from his own army.
Aside from the creaking and brushing sound of the pine trees moving back and forth in the wind, a wind as much responsible for deflecting the buckshot and the ball to the target as the sniper, the wood were silent. Captain Cutter saw a grayback soldier lying at the foot of a tall pine whose branches were splashed with brown.
The sniper’s body lay splayed and still. The surgeon saw copious blood and a depressed fracture of the skull. From professional curiosity more than from compassion for a man who had almost killed him, the surgeon checked the man’s pulse and felt nothing. Next he pulled a mirror from his jacket and placed it under the sniper’ nose. A small beetle, displaced by the war from his place in the tree, crawled on the sharpshooter’s face. The surgeon thought to brush the insect away, but did not.
The surgeon went through the dead sniper’s pockets for a clue to his identity. He found the letter from the father to the boy. Several years later, after the cessation of hostilities and the passage of many generations of pine beetles and golden spiders, when the magnitude of the loss to the families of the men who died in his presence oppressed him, he posted the letter to the sniper’s family. On the reverse he wrote: “Four dead with one shot from his gun, and he was one of the four.”