Dreadnought Page 4

“Yes ma’am.”

“And this, and these.” She handed over the soap and the rags, which Sarah was barely capable of balancing. “You see those men over there?” Mercy pointed at the end of the row, where a sad-​looking collection of as-​yet-​unprocessed newcomers were waiting their turns at paperwork and a doctor’s inspection.

“I see them—yes ma’am.”

“Start at the end of the line. Take off their shoes if they’ve still got them, and then their socks, coats, and shirts. Scrub them down and do it fast. There are clean shirts in the corner behind you, against the wall, and a small pile of socks to the left. Dress them in the clean shirts and socks, toss the dirty ones into the laundry vats in the next room, and then move on to the next row of soldiers.”

“Scrub . . .” Sarah was stuck on that one word. “Scrub them? The soldiers?”

“Well, I don’t mean the doctors or the rats,” Mercy told her. “Be quick with it. The surgeons’ll be along in less than half an hour, and if Captain Sally sees dirty men on her floor, she’ll throw a hissy fit.”

The poor girl’s face went nearly as white as her first and nearest charge. But she said, “Yes ma’am,” with only a small wibble in her voice, and turned to do as she’d been told.

Mercy would’ve helped her, but Mercy was the nursing superintendent of the first ward and had more important things to do. Granted, she was now in the ballroom ward instead of the first ward, but the nursing superintendent of the ballroom ward was bedridden, and no one else had been ready to step up to the task, so Mercy had swooped onto the scene to assist with pressing matters at this end of the marble-​floored room. A curtain had been hung to wall off a portion of the ballroom ward—not for the sake of modesty or decorum, and certainly not to shield the sensibilities of the soldiers. Most of them had heard and seen plenty.

Someone authoritative cried out, “Nurse!”

Mercy was already on her way. The surgeons liked her, and asked for her often. She’d begun to preempt them when the pace was wicked like this and a new batch of the near mortally wounded was being sorted for cutting.

She drew the curtain aside, stifled a flinch, and dropped herself into the seat beside the first cot—where one of the remaining doctors was gesturing frantically. “Mercy, there you are. I’m glad it’s you,” he said.

“That makes one of us,” she replied, and she took a bloody set of pincers from his hand, dropping them into the tin bucket at her feet.

“Two of us,” croaked the man on the cot. “I’m glad it’s you, too.”

She forced a smile and said teasingly, “I doubt it very much, since this is our first meeting.”

“First of many, I hope—” He might’ve said more, but what was left of his arm was being examined. Mercy thought it must be god-​awful uncomfortable, but he didn’t cry out. He only cut himself off.

“What’s your name?” she asked, partly for the sake of the record, and partly to distract him.

“Christ,” said the doctor, cutting away more of the man’s shirt and revealing greater damage than he’d imagined.

The injured man gasped, “No, that’s not it.” And he gave her a grin that was tighter than a laundry line. “It’s Henry. Gilbert Henry. So I just go by Henry.”

“Henry, Gilbert Henry, who just goes by Henry. I’ll jot that down,” she told him, and she fully intended to, but by then her hands were full with the remains of a sling that hadn’t done much to support the blasted limb—mostly, it’d just held the shattered thing in one pouch. The arm was disintegrating as Dr. Luther did his best to assess it.

“Never liked the name Gilbert,” the man mumbled.

“It’s a fine name,” she assured him.

Dr. Luther said, “Help me turn him over. I’ve got a bad feeling about—”

“I’ve got him. You can lift him. And, I’m sorry, Gilbert Henry”—she repeated his name to better remember it later—“but this is gonna smart. Here, give me your good hand.”

He took it.

“Now, give it a squeeze if we’re hurting you.”

“I could never,” he insisted, gallant to the last.

“You can and you will, and you’ll be glad I made the offer. You won’t put a dent in me, I promise. Now, on the count of three,” she told the doctor, locking her eyes to his.

He picked up the count. “One . . . Two . . .” On three, they hoisted the man together, turning him onto his side and confirming the worst of Dr. Luther’s bad feelings.

Gilbert Henry said, “One of you, say something. Don’t leave a man hanging.” The second half of it came out in a wheeze, for part of the force of his words had leaked out through the oozing hole in his side.

“A couple of ribs,” the doctor said. “Smashed all to hell,” he continued, because he was well past watching his language in front of the nurses, much less in front of Mercy, who often used far fouler diction if she thought the situation required it.

“Three ribs, maybe,” she observed. She observed more than that, too. But she couldn’t say it, not while Gilbert Henry had a death grip on her hand.

The ribs were the least of his problems. The destroyed arm was a greater one, and it would certainly need to be amputated; but what she saw now raised the question of whether or not it was worth the pain and suffering. His lung was pierced at least, shredded at worst. Whatever blast had maimed him had caught him on the left side, taking that arm and tearing into the soft flesh of his torso. With every breath, a burst of warm, damp air spilled out from amid the wreckage of his rib cage.

It was not the kind of wound from which a man recovered.

“Help me roll him back,” Dr. Luther urged, and on a second count of three, Mercy obliged. “Son, I’ve got to tell you the truth. There’s nothing to be done about that arm.”

“I . . . was . . . afraid of that. But, Doc, I can’t hardly breathe. That’s the ribs . . . ain’t it?”

Now that she knew where to look, Mercy could see the rhythmic ooze above his ribs, fresher now, as if the motion of adjusting him had made matters worse. Gilbert Henry might have a couple of hours, or he might have a couple of minutes. But no longer than that, without a straight-​from-​God’s-​hand miracle.

She answered for the doctor, who was still formulating a response. “Yes, that’s your ribs.”

He grimaced, and the shredded arm fluttered.

Dr. Luther said, “It has to go. We’re going to need the ether.”

“Ether? I’ve never had any ether before.” He sounded honestly afraid.

“Never?” Mercy said casually as she reached for the rolling tray with the knockout supplies. It had two shelves; the top one stocked the substance itself and clean rags, plus one of the newfangled mask-​and-​valve sets that Captain Sally had purchased with her own money. They were the height of technology, and very expensive. “It’s not so bad, I promise. In your condition, I’d call it a blessed relief, Mr. Gilbert Henry.”

He grasped for her hand again. “You won’t leave me, will you?”

“Absolutely not,” she promised. It wasn’t a vow she was positive she could keep, but the soldier couldn’t tell it from her voice.

His thin seam of a grin returned. “As long as you’ll . . . be here.”

The second tray on the rolling cart held nastier instruments. Mercy took care to hide them behind her skirt and apron. He didn’t need to see the powered saw, the twisting clamps, or the oversized shears that were sometimes needed to sever those last few tendons. She made sure that all he saw was her professional pleasantness as she disentangled her fingers and began the preparation work, while the doctor situated himself, lining up the gentler-​looking implements and calling for extra rags, sponges, and a second basin filled with hot water—if the nearest retained man could see to it.

“Mercy,” Dr. Luther said. It was a request and a signal.

“Yes, Doctor.” She said to Gilbert Henry, “It’s time, darling. I’m very sorry, but believe me, you’ll wake up praising Jesus that you slept through it.”

It wasn’t her most reassuring speech ever, but on the far side of Gilbert Henry were two other men behind the curtain, each one of whom needed similar attention; and her internal manufacturer of soothing phrases was not performing at its best.

She showed him the mask, a shape like a softened triangle, bubbled to fit over his nose and mouth. “You see this? I’m going to place it over your face, like so—” She held it up over her own mouth, briefly, for demonstrative purposes. “Then I’ll tweak a few knobs over here on this tank—” At this, she pointed at the bullet-​shaped vial, a little bigger than a bottle of wine. “Then I’ll mix the ether with the stabilizing gases, and before you can say ‘boo,’ you’ll be having the best sleep of your life.”

“You’ve . . . done this . . . before?”

The words were coming harder to him; he was failing as he lay there, and she knew—suddenly, horribly—that once she placed the mask over his face, he wasn’t ever going to wake up. She fought to keep the warm panic out of her eyes when she said, “Dozens of times. I’ve been here a year and a half,” she exaggerated. Then she set the mask aside and seized the noteboard that was propped up against his cot, most of its forms left unfilled.

“Nurse?” Dr. Luther asked.

“One moment,” she begged. “Before you start napping, Gilbert Henry who’d rather be called just Henry, let me write your information down for safekeeping—so the nurse on the next shift will know all about you.”

“If you . . . like, ma’am.”

“That’s a good man, and a fine patient,” she praised him without looking at him. “So tell me quickly, have you got a mother waiting for you back home? Or . . . or,” she almost choked. “A wife?”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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