Dreadnought Page 21

Children had never been her favorite patients, though, as the doctors at Robertson had pointed out more than once, grown men often behaved far worse than little boys. Mercy couldn’t argue, but she hadn’t had little boys in her care too much, except for a few of the other nurses’ children, or the children of the widows or wives of the maimed who came to the hospital to visit. Small colored children were even farther out of her realm of expertise, and small colored children with monied parents went right past her threshold of experience.

But all things being equal, she figured a busted-​up leg was a busted-​up leg, and there was no sense in letting the little fellow suffer from it if there was anything she could do about it.

So she did her best to ignore the inquisitive eyes that followed her every move. Before long, she came to the conclusion that she was not much more out of place in the colored car than in the rich car, where her fellow passengers were high-​class ladies who’d never worked a day in their lives, with their trussed-​up offspring and upturned noses.

She turned back to Charles, saying, “Here, I’m just gonna pick up your leg and set it on my knees, you see?” as she took the tiny leg and began the process of unwinding the swaths of cloth that bound it.

Mrs. Hyde said, “I do appreciate you taking the time like this. I know you’re only traveling, and not working, and as I told you, I don’t mind paying for the service. There’s not a doctor on this train, and even if there was one, I don’t know that he’d bother with us. But I thought maybe another woman . . .”

Mercy said, “I understand,” because she did, and because she wasn’t sure what else she should say to follow that.

“Do you have any children of your own?”

“No,” she said. “My husband died not long after we married. We never had no children.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Hyde. “He died in the war?”

Mercy nodded. And suddenly, because she’d wanted to say it for so long, but had no one to say it to, she blurted out in a hard whisper, “He was from Kentucky. He died at Andersonville.”

Taken aback, Mrs. Hyde said, “But you . . . you’re—”

“I been working at the Rebel hospital up in Richmond. Patching up the grays.”

“Oh my,” said the other woman. “It’s . . .” She hesitated. “These are complicated times. And I’m sorry about your Yank,” she said the word softly. “But I’m glad you’re here on board, and I mean every word when I say I thank you.”

Mercy reached the end of the winding bandages. The limb she unwrapped had met some terrible event; that much was plain. The top of the foot was swollen far beyond its regular size, and Charles’s tears flowed afresh when the nurse prodded it.

Mercy asked, “What’d he do, exactly?”

Mrs. Hyde frowned at the child, who grimaced back with his lower lip puckering. “He fell down the stairs, running after his sister. If he’d had his shoes on like I told him, he might not’ve slipped.”

Charles began, “She took my—”

“I don’t care,” his mother said, punctuating every word with a firmness that told the boy that the time for arguing was well past. “You knew better.”


“Sorry, sugar,” Mercy said. She lifted the foot and peered at it from all the other angles before saying, “Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .” She looked again, and harder, and pressed against the purpled flesh over the boy’s protests. “It’s not the worst I ever seen by a long shot. I think probably he’s cracked a couple of the little bones here on the top of his foot, and maybe broke one outright. But it could be worse. If he’d messed up his ankle, that would’ve been a lot harder to heal. These little ones over here—” She indicated the spot where the real damage appeared to have occurred. “—there’s not much to be done about them. All you can do is wrap his foot up tight and keep him off it, as much as you can. And once it heals up, it won’t bother his walking too bad, like it would if it’d broken at a joint.”

“Can you show me how to wrap it up?”

She nodded, and reached into her bag. “I’ve got some willow extract here—let me give you some. It won’t speed up the healing, but it’ll take the edge off the pain and swelling some.” Then she straightened the bandage and tore about half its length off. “If you tie it right,” she explained, “you only need about this much.”

She straightened the boy’s foot out. He whimpered, and chewed on the back of his hand.

Mercy wound the cloth tightly, but not so tightly that she’d cut off all the blood. She braced it back around his ankle to hold it stiff, and finally, when she was done, she asked Mrs. Hyde to hold the end while she rustled around in her bag again. She pulled out a pair of safety pins and fastened it, then put the boy’s foot back down.

Mrs. Hyde cooed over him briefly, telling him how brave he’d been, and she reached for a bag that had been tucked under the other child’s arm. “Thank you so much, Nurse. . . . Here, let me dip into the travel fund and see—”

But Mercy shook her head, having come to a decision on the matter. “No, please. That’s not necessary. All I did was tie up his foot. It’s not a big thing, and he’ll be all right.”

“Please, I insist!”

But Mercy hemmed and hawed, rising to leave, and finally Mrs. Hyde sighed and gave up. “If you won’t take any money, that’s fine. But listen, dear,” she said—which Mercy thought sounded strange coming from a mixed woman, whether or not she was almost old enough to be Mercy’s mother—“pretty much everyone here’s getting off in Memphis. And you are, too, isn’t that right?”

“That’s right,” she said.

Mrs. Hyde rifled through her bag once more and pulled out a sharp white card with her name printed on it, and the legend, “The Cormorant: Traditional Cuisine, Soul Food, and Fine Dining for All Types.” Beneath that was listed, “Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis.”

She said, “This is my restaurant. Or, they’re my restaurants, mine and my sister’s.”

“You have your own restaurants? I didn’t know . . .” She knew of some free colored men who owned property in Richmond, but she’d never heard of a woman owning anything like this.

Mrs. Hyde shrugged. “There used to be laws about it, but those laws are getting looser. And there’s ways around them now. These days.”

“Restaurants,” Mercy said again, taking the card and reading it. “You’ve got three of them?”

“The one in Memphis just opened last year. We started in Knoxville and worked our way west,” she said proudly. Then a sly look crossed her face. She added, “You’re a southern girl, I can see that plain as day. But I bet you never had anyone but your momma cooking for you.”

“Yeah. I grew up on a farm. We had farmhands, but nobody to help with . . .” She was beginning to catch on. She said, “You, and your sister—I guess you used to be—” She stopped herself from saying house niggers because suddenly it seemed impolite, or maybe she only felt outclassed. She continued, “You used to do all the cooking for the rich ladies, in the plantations.”

Mrs. Hyde winked at her. “Some of us didn’t feel like sticking around as employees, for what they were talking about paying us. We figured we could do better on our own. My sister Adele, she wrote our first cookbook, and it sold like crazy! Then we went into business together, thinking we could make the food ourselves and sell it just as easy.”

“Nice!” Mercy exclaimed with genuine admiration. “And it’s called the Cormorant? Or all three of them are?”

“Mm-​hmm. It’s a franchise, that’s what it’s called. And you listen to me, dear,” she said it again. “You take this card, and you show it to the host at the Memphis Cormorant. You tell him I said to let you have anything you want, and I’ll take care of it.”

Mercy said, “Gosh, thank you—I mean it, thank you very much. I’ve been eating travel food for the last few days, and I don’t mind telling you, that sounds real good right about now.”

Mrs. Hyde patted her arm. “Don’t you worry about it. And thank you, for fixing up my Charlie.”

The nurse left with the card, and returned to her original seat in the forward car.

Memphis was only a few hours more, plus or minus a stop or two where people got off and people got on. The train filled up and emptied out in unequal measure, since more people were headed for Memphis than to Lawrenceburg, Kimball, Selmer, or Somerville.

But eventually the Memphis station rolled into view, a beautiful white beaux arts building that looked like a museum. Mercy thought it was definitely the prettiest thing she’d seen in Tennessee thus far, day or night, city or countryside. Fort Chattanooga was a military garrison, and every stop in between had featured small-​town nondescript style. This station, though . . . it made the nurse crane her head around to see out the window again, if only to admire it before she could enter its undoubtedly hallowed halls.

The train pulled into its slot with a squeal of the brakes that pinched the track all along the vehicle’s length, and Mercy stepped out into a crowd that flowed riverlike along the platforms, under the overhangs that shaded waiting and debarking travelers from the sun.

Now it was growing late again, and cooler, which the nurse found disorienting. It felt as though her entire life had been lived from dusk to dawn ever since she learned of Phillip, only tiptoeing around the edges of sunset or sunrise, and sleeping or traveling all day.

She stretched, then turned her neck to and fro to let it pop and spring back to its usual position. Her satchel was heavy in her arms, more so now than ever with the added weight of the guns; she slung it over one shoulder, under her cloak. The cloak felt almost too warm, but with night coming on, she’d be glad to have it—she knew that—and, anyway, she didn’t want to carry it.

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