Dreadnought Page 5

“No wife. A mother . . . though. And . . . a . . . brother, still . . . a . . . boy.”

She wondered how he’d made it this far in such bad shape—if he’d clung to life this long purely with the goal of the hospital in mind, thinking that if he made it to Robertson, he’d be all right.

“A mother and a little brother. Their names?”

“Abigail June. Maiden . . . name . . . Harper.”

She stalked his words with the pencil nub, scribbling as fast as she could in her graceless, awkward script. “Abigail June, born Harper. That’s your mother, yes? And what town?”

“Memphis. I joined . . . up. In Memphis.”

“A Tennessee boy. Those are just about my favorite kind,” she said.

“Just about?”

She confirmed, “Just about.” She set the noteboard aside, back up against the leg of the cot, and retrieved the gas. “Now, Mr. Gilbert Henry, are you ready?”

He nodded bravely and weakly.

“Very good, dear sir. Just breathe normally, if you don’t mind—” She added privately, And insofar as you’re able. “That’s right, very good. And I want you to count backwards, from the number ten. Can you do that for me?”

His head bobbed very slightly. “Ten,” he said, and the word was muffled around the blown glass shape of the mask. “Ni . . .”

And that was it. He was already out.

Mercy sighed heavily. The doctor said quietly, “Turn it off.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The gas. Turn it off.”

She shook her head. “But if you’re going to take the arm, he might need—”

“I’m not taking the arm. There’s no call to do it. No sense in it,” he added. He might’ve said more, but she knew what he meant, and she waved a hand to tell him no, that she didn’t want to hear it.

“You can’t just let him lie here.”

“Mercy,” Dr. Luther said more tenderly. “You’ve done him a kindness. He’s not going to come around again. Taking the arm would kill him faster, and maim him, too. Let him nap it out, peacefully. Let his family bury him whole. Watch,” he said.

She was watching already, the way the broad chest rose and fell, but without any rhythm, and without any strength. With less drive. More infrequently.

The doctor stood and wrapped his stethoscope into a bundle to jam in his pocket. “I didn’t need to listen to his lungs to know he’s a goner,” he explained, and bent his body over Gilbert Henry to whisper at Mercy. “And I have three other patients—two of whom might actually survive the afternoon if we’re quick enough. Sit with him if you like, but don’t stay long.” He withdrew, and picked up his bag. Then he said in his normal voice, “He doesn’t know you’re here, and he won’t know when you leave. You know it as well as I do.”

She stayed anyway, lingering as long as she dared.

He didn’t have a wife to leave a widow, but he had a mother somewhere, and a little brother. He hadn’t mentioned a father; any father had probably died years ago, in the same damn war. Maybe his father had gone like this, too—lying on a cot, scarcely identified and in pieces. Maybe his father had never gotten home, or word had never made it home, and he’d died alone in a field and no one had even come to bury him for weeks, since that was how it often went in the earlier days of the conflict.

One more ragged breath crawled into Henry’s throat, and she could tell—just from the sound of it, from the critical timbre of that final note—that it was his last. He didn’t exhale. The air merely escaped in a faint puff, passed through his nose and the hole in his side. And the wide chest with the curls of dark hair poking out above the undershirt did not rise again.

She had no sheet handy with which to cover him. She picked up the noteboard and set it facedown on his chest, which would serve as indicator enough to the next nurse, or to the retained men, or whoever came to clean up after her.

“Mercy,” Dr. Luther called sharply. “Bring the cart.”

“Coming,” she said, and she rose, and arranged the cart, retrieving the glass mask and resetting the valves. She felt numb, but only as numb as usual. Next. There was always another one, next.

She swiveled the cart and positioned it at the next figure, groaning and twisting on a squeaking cot that was barely big enough to hold him. Once more, she pasted a smile in place. She greeted the patient. “Well, aren’t you a big son of a gun. Hello there, I’m Nurse Mercy.”

He groaned in response, but did not gurgle or wheeze. Mercy wondered if this one wouldn’t go better.

She retrieved his noteboard with its unfilled forms and said, “I don’t have a name for you yet, dear. What’d your mother call you?”

“Silas,” he spit through gritted teeth. “Newton. Private First Class.” His voice was strong, if strained.

“Silas,” she repeated as she wrote it down. Then, to the doctor, “What are we looking at here?”

“Both legs, below the knee.”

And the patient said, “Cannonball swept me off my feet.” One foot was gone altogether; the second needed to go right after it, as soon as possible.

“Right. Any other pains, problems, or concerns?”

“Goddammit, the legs aren’t enough?” he nearly shrieked.

She kept her voice even. “They’re more than enough, and they’ll be addressed.” She met his eyes and saw so much pain there that she retreated just a little, enough to say, “Look, I’m sorry, Mr. Newton. We’re only trying to get you treated.”

“Oh, I’ve been treated, all right. Those sons of bitches! How am I going to run a mill like this, eh? What’s my wife going to think when I get home and she sees?”

She set the noteboard down beside the cot. “Well, all God’s children got their problems. Here . . .” She pulled a filled syringe off the second tier of the rolling cart and said, “Let me give you something for the pain. It’s a new treatment, but the soldiers have responded to this better than the old-​fashioned shot of whiskey and bullet to bite on—”

But he smacked her hand away and called her a name. Mercy immediately told him to calm down, but instead he let his hands flail in every direction, as if he desperately needed someone to hit. Dr. Luther caught one hand and Mercy caught the other. This wasn’t their first unruly patient, and they had a system down. It wasn’t so different from hog-​tying, or roping up a calf. The tools were different, but the principle was the same: seize, lasso, fasten, and immobilize. Repeat as necessary.

She twisted one of his beefy arms until another inch would’ve unfastened the bones in his wrist; and then she clapped a restraining cuff from the tray down upon it. With one swift motion, she yanked the thusly adorned wrist down to the nearest leg of the cot, and secured the clip to hold him in place. If Dr. Luther hadn’t been performing pretty much the same technique on the other wrist, it wouldn’t have held up longer than a few seconds.

But the doctor’s restraints were affixed a moment after Mercy’s. Then they were saddled with one violently unhappy man, pinioned to a cot and thrashing in such a manner that he was bound to injure himself further if he wasn’t more elaborately subdued.

Mercy reached for the mask, spun the knob to dispense the ether, and shoved it over Silas Newton’s face, holding him by the chin to keep him from shaking his head back and forth and eluding the sedation. Soon his objections softened and surrendered, and the last vestiges of his refusal to cooperate were overcome.

“Jackass,” Mercy muttered.

“Indeed,” said Dr. Luther. “Get his shoe off for me, would you, please?”

“Yes sir,” she said, and reached for the laces.

Over the next three hours, the doctor’s predictions were borne out. Two of the remaining three men survived, including the disagreeable Silas Newton. In time, Mercy was relieved by the severe and upstanding Nurse Esther Floyd, who hauled the young Nurse Sarah Fitzhugh along in her wake.

Mercy left the bloody beds behind the curtain and all but staggered back into the main ballroom grounds, where most of the men had at least been seen, if not treated and fed quite yet. Stumbling past them and around them, she stopped a few times when someone tugged at her passing skirt, asking for a drink or for a doctor.

Finally she found her way outside, into the afternoon that was going gold and navy blue at the edges, and would be nearly black before long.

She’d missed supper, and hadn’t noticed.

Well. She’d pick something up in a few minutes—whatever she could scavenge from the kitchen, even though she knew good and well it’d be pretty much nothing. Either you ate as soon as you were called, or you didn’t eat. But it’d be worth looking. She might get lucky and find a spare biscuit and a dab of butter, which would fill her up enough to let her sleep.

She was almost to the kitchen when Paul Forks, the retained man, said her name, stopping her in the hallway next to the first-​floor entry ward. She put one hand up on the wall and leaned against it that way. Too worn out to stand still, she couldn’t hold herself upright anymore unless she kept moving. But she said, “Yes, Mr. Forks? What is it?”

“Begging your pardon, Nurse Mercy. But there’s a message for you.”

“A message? Goddamn. I’ve had about enough of messages,” she said, more to the floor than to the messenger. Then, by way of apology, she said, “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault, and thanks for flagging me down.”

“It’s all right,” he told her, and approached her cautiously. Paul Forks approached everyone cautiously. It could’ve been a long-​standing habit, or maybe it was a new thing, a behavior acquired on the battlefield.

He went on to say, “It came Western Union.” He held out an envelope.

She took it. “Western Union? You can’t be serious.” She was afraid maybe it was another message repeating the same news she’d received the day before. The world was like that sometimes. No news for ages, and then more news than you can stand, all at once. She didn’t want to read it. She didn’t want to know what it said.

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