Dreadnought Page 3

His skinny hand stretched out and she dropped the watch into the waiting palm. He turned it over and over, and asked, “Nobody washed it or nothing?”

“Nobody washed it or nothing. It’s still ticking just fine.”

“Thank you, Nurse Mercy!”

“You’re welcome,” she mumbled, though she’d already turned back to the stairs, scaling them one slow brick at a time as if her feet were made of lead.


Mercy Lynch would’ve liked to take a second afternoon of solitude if she’d been able, sitting on the foot of her narrow bed and reading and rereading the letters Phillip had sent while he was still in a position to write them. But the hospital didn’t slow enough to let her grieve at her leisure.

By the second afternoon, everyone knew that she was a widow.

Only Captain Sally knew she was a widow of a Yankee.

There was always the chance it wouldn’t have mattered if everyone knew. Kentucky was a mixed-​up place, blue grass and gray skies, split down the middle. Virginia was nearly the same, and she suspected she’d find proof enough of that in the Washington hospital where the boys in blue were brought when they’d fallen. All along the borderlands, men fought on both sides.

Phillip had fought for Kentucky, not for the Union. He fought because his father’s farm had been attacked by Rebs and halfway burned; just about the same as how Mercy’s own brother fought for Virginia and not for the Confederacy because her family farm had been burned down twice in the last ten years by the Yanks.

Everyone fights for home, in the end. Or that was how she saw it. If anyone anywhere was fighting for state’s rights or abolition or anything like that, you didn’t hear about it much anymore. Those first five or six years, it was all anyone had to talk about.

But after twenty?

Mercy had been a small child when the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter and the war had begun. And as far as she’d ever known or seen since, everything else had been a great big exchange of grudges, more personal than political. But it could be that she’d been looking at it too closely for the last fourteen months, working at the Robertson Hospital, where they sometimes even treated a Yankee or two, if he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and especially if he was a border-​stater. Likely as not, he was kin or cousin to someone lying on a cot nearby.

Likely as not, he hadn’t been born when the war first broke out anyway, and his grievances were assigned to him, same as most of the other lads who moaned, and bled, and cried, and begged from their cots, hoping for food or comfort. Praying for their limbs back. Promising God their lives and their children if only they could walk again, or if only they didn’t have to go back to the lines.

Everyone prayed the same damn things, never mind the uniform.

So it might not’ve mattered if anyone knew that Vinita May Swakhammer of Waterford, Virginia, had married Phillip Barnaby Lynch of Lexington, Kentucky, during the summer of her twentieth birthday—knowing that they’d been born on the wrong sides of a badly drawn line, and that it was bound to come between them some day.

And it had.

And now he was on the other side of an even bigger line. She’d catch up to him one day; that was as certain as amputations and medicine shortages. But in the meantime, she’d miss him terribly, and take a second afternoon off her shift to mourn, if she could.

She couldn’t.

She’d have to miss him and mourn for him on her feet, because no sooner had she ignored the lunch Paul Forks brought and left than another round of casualties landed hard in the first-​floor ward.

She heard them arrive, all of them drawn by the cramped, dark little ambulances that were barely better than boxes. Retained men and doctors’ assistants unpacked them like sandwiches, sliding their cots into the daylight, where the men who were strong enough to do so blinked against the sun. Out the small window in her bunk, she could see them leaving the ambulances in impossible numbers; she thought dully that they must’ve been stacked in there like cordwood, for each carriage to hold so many of them.

Two . . . no, three of the soldiers came out wrapped from head to toe, still on a cot, but needing no further assistance. They’d died making the trip. A few of them always did, especially on the way to Robertson. Captain Sally had a reputation for healing even the most horribly wounded, so as often as not, the most horribly wounded were sent to her.

Only three men hadn’t survived the transport.

That made it a good load, unless there was another ambulance someplace where Mercy couldn’t see it.

She’d been given permission to stay cloistered upstairs, but two nurses were already down with pneumonia, and one had packed up and headed home in the wee hours of the night without saying anything to anybody. One of the doctors had been commandeered by a general for field surgery, which Mercy didn’t envy in the slightest. So this hospital, which was low on beds and high on chaos under the best of circumstances, was now shorthanded as well.

Two suitcases sat at the foot of Mercy’s bed. They were both packed. She’d been living out of them since she arrived. There weren’t any drawers in the bunks; so you made do, or you kept your belongings on the floor, or under your bed if it was hitched up high enough.

Mercy’s wasn’t.

She unfastened the buckle of the leftmost case and slipped a locket back inside an interior pocket, where it was always kept. She buckled the case again and stood up straight, pinning her apron into place against her collarbones. A slab of polished tin served as a foggy mirror. Her cap was crooked. She fixed it, and used a pin to secure it while she listened to the cacophony swell on the floors below.

Yes, she was taking her time.

For those first frantic minutes, she’d only be in the way. Once all the men were inside and the ambulance drivers had finished their hasty paperwork, and once the mangled soldiers were lying in bleeding lines, then she could be more useful.

There was a note to the chaos that she’d learned—a pitch achieved when the time was right, when everyone who’d fit inside the walls of the judge’s old house was crammed within, and all the doctors and all the retained men were barking clipped instructions and orders back and forth. When this very particular note rang up to the attic, she left her bunk and descended into the carnival of the macabre below.

Down into the thick of it she went, into the sea of unwashed faces turned black with bruises or powder, through the lines of demarcation that cordoned off the four new typhoids, the two pneumonias, and a pair of dysenteries who would need attention soon enough, but could wait for the moment.

There were also two “wheezers”—hospital slang for the drug addicts who’d magically survived on the front for long enough to land in a hospital. Their substance of choice was a yellowish muck that smelled like sulfur and rot; and it went through their brains until they did little but stare, and wheeze softly, and pick at the sores that formed around their mouths and noses. The wheezers could wait, too. They weren’t going anywhere, and their self-​inflicted condition made them a bottom-​rung priority.

Around the nearest hastily cleared lane, doctors bustled back-​to-​bottom with shuffling nurses who squeezed through the corridor as swiftly as if it were a highway. Mercy stood there, only for a moment, triangulating herself among the dilapidated patriots who lay wherever they were left by the medics—either on their stretchers upon the floor, or against the cots of earlier patients who’d not yet vacated them.

She was overrun by two chattering surgeons; battered by a set of coal hods, water pails, medicine trays; and run into by one of the small boys who ran messages from floor to floor, physician to physician. Mercy counted four of them, scuttling in different directions, delivering scraps of paper with all the speed of a telegram service, if not the accuracy.

Deep breaths. One after another. Work to be done.

Shoving through the narrow artery, she emerged on the far side of an intersection where the entrance to the old judge’s ballroom had become a filthy pun, since the worst of the gunshot patients were assembled there. Ball shot was unpredictable and messy, always. Sometimes gruesome lacerations, sometimes blown limbs left connected only by stray fragments of bone and gristle. Sometimes pierced cheeks, hands, and feet, or a crater where an eye had been. Sometimes a punctured lung or a splintered rib.

Never anything but awful.

Thirty beds were already occupied, with half a dozen other ragged men lying on the floor, muddy to the knees and covered with bandages so dirty that it was difficult to tell what dark stains were blood and which were only the filth of the field. Most of their faces were as pale as death already, from loss of bodily fluids or from the shock of what they’d seen, and what they continued to see.

They waited in relative silence, too exhausted even to moan. One or two called hoarsely for water, or begged for a doctor, or cried out for a distant mother or wife. More than a handful had lost their coats somewhere along the line; they were wrapped in blankets and huddled together pitifully, sometimes sharing the covers for warmth even though the room was kept from freezing by the billowing fires that were constantly stoked by two retained men at either end of the room.

A new nurse, a girl younger than Mercy by several years, stood immobilized by the urgency of it all. Her hands fluttered at her sides and her eyes welled up with tears of frustration. “Where do I start?” she whispered.

Mercy heard her, and she could answer.

She swept past a table piled with lone socks, slings, splints, bandages, discarded holsters with weaponry still in them, and shirts that were missing sleeves. From the next table down, she retrieved a basin the size of a small sink, plus a fistful of washrags and a kitten-​sized bar of ugly brown soap that smelled like a cheap candle.

“Nurse,” she said, and she would’ve grabbed the girl’s arm if she’d had a free hand to do so.


“Nurse. What’s your name?”

“Ma’am? It’s . . . it’s Sarah. Sarah Fitzhugh.”

“Sarah, then.” Mercy foisted the basin into Sarah’s not-​quite-​ready arms. Warm water sloshed up against the girl’s apron, dampening her breasts in a long wet line. “Take this.”

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