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’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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“Yes ma’am, very serious. The stamp on the outside says it came from Tacoma, out in Washington-not the one next door, but the western territory. Or that’s where the message started, anyhow. I don’t know too well how the telegraph works.”
“Me either,” she confessed. “But I don’t know anybody in Washington.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure.” She turned the envelope over in her hand, still unwilling to open it, reading the stamped mark that declared the station in Tacoma where the message had been composed.
“You . . . you going to open it?” Paul Forks asked, then seemed to think the better of it. “Never mind, it’s no business of mine. I’ll leave you alone,” he said, and turned to go.
She stopped him by saying, “No, it’s all right.” A laundry boy bustled past her, prompting her to add, “Let me get out of the hallway, here. No sense in blocking up the main thoroughfare.” She carried the envelope to the back scullery stairs, where no one was coming or going at that particular moment.
Paul Forks followed her there, and sat down beside her with the stiff effort of a man who hadn’t yet learned how to work around his permanent injuries. He was careful to keep a respectful distance, but the naked curiosity in his face might’ve been mirrored in her own, if she hadn’t been so fiercely tired.
“Washington,” she said aloud to the paper as she extracted it from the light brown envelope and unfolded it. “What’s so important out in Washington that I need to hear about it?”
“Read it,” he encouraged her. Paul Forks couldn’t read, but he liked to watch other people do it, and he liked to hear the results. “Tell me what it says.”
“It says,” she declared, but her eyes scanned ahead, and she didn’t say anything else. Not right away.
“It says,” she tried again, then stopped herself. “It’s my . . . my daddy.”
Paul frowned thoughtfully. “I thought your kin came from Waterford?”
She gave a half nod that ended in a shrug. Her eyes never peeled themselves off the paper, but she said, “I was born there, and my momma and father live there now, working a farm that’s mostly dairy.”
Paul might’ve been illiterate, but he wasn’t stupid. “Father? Not your real pa, then?”
Though she didn’t owe him any explanation, she felt like talking, so she said, “My daddy ran off when I was little. Went West, with his brother and my cousin, looking for gold in Alaska-or that was the plan as I heard it. For a while he sent letters. But when I was about seven years old, the letters just . . . stopped.”
“You think something happened to him?”
“That’s what we always figured. Except, it was strange.” Her voice ran out of steam as she read and reread the telegram.
“What was strange?” Paul prompted.
“One day Aunt Betty got a box in the post, full of Uncle Asa’s things, and Leander’s things, too. Leander was my cousin,” she clarified. “And there was some money in there-not a lot, but some. There was also a note inside from somebody they didn’t know, but it said Asa and Leander’d died on the frontier, of cholera or something. Anyway, when I was about ten, the justice of the peace said that my momma wasn’t married anymore on account of desertion, and she could marry Wilfred. He’s been my father ever since. So I don’t know . . . I don’t know what this means.”
The tone of her voice changed as she quit relating ancient history and began to read aloud from the sheet of paper, including all the stops.
“To Vinita May Swakhammer stop. Your father Jeremiah Granville Swakhammer has suffered an accident stop. His life hangs by a thread stop. He wants you to come to Tacoma in the Washington territory stop. Please send word if you can make it stop. Sheriff Wilkes can meet you at station and bring you north to Seattle where he lies gravely wounded stop.”
The letter sagged in her hands until it rested atop her knees.
“Is that all?” Paul asked.
“That’s all.” She stared at the letter, then looked up at Paul. “And all this time, I figured he was dead.”
“It looks like he ain’t.”
“That’s what it looks like, yeah,” she agreed. And she didn’t know how to feel about it.
“What’re you going to do?”
She didn’t shrug, and didn’t shake her head. “I don’t know. He left me and Momma. He left us, and he never sent for us like he said he would. We waited all that time, and he never sent.”
They sat in silence a few seconds, until Paul Forks said, “He’s sending for you now.”
“A little late.”
“Better late than never?” he tried. He leaned back and braced against the stairwell in order to help push himself back to a standing position. “Sounds like he might be dying.”
“Maybe,” she agreed. “But I’m not sure if I give a damn. He left us . . . Jesus, fifteen, sixteen years ago. That son of a bitch,” she mumbled, and then she said it louder. “That son of a bitch! All this time, he’s been out West just fine, just like he said he was going to be. And all that time, we sat at home and wondered, and worried, and finally we just gave right up!”
“He might’ve had his reasons,” Paul said, awkward as he stood there, uneven on his one real foot and one false one, and unsure exactly who he was defending.
Glaring down at the paper, she said, “Oh, I’m real sure he had his reasons. There are about a million reasons to leave a woman and a little girl behind and start a new life someplace else. I guess he just picked one.”
He said quickly, “Don’t you want to hear it?”
“Why would I want to hear it?” She wasn’t quite shouting, but she was warming inside, like a furnace catching its coals. The heat spread up from her belly to her chest, and flushed up her throat to her cheeks. “A million reasons, goddamn him, and I don’t need to hear even one of them!”
“Because you don’t care?”
“Damn right, because I don’t care!” Except that she was shouting now, and nearly on fire with anger, or sorrow, or some other consequence of her tumultuous week. “Let him die out there, if that’s where he wanted to be all this time!”
Paul Forks held out his hands, trying to halt her, or just defend himself-even though it wasn’t his fight, and he wasn’t the man with whom she was so furious. “Maybe he’s where he wants to be, or maybe he’s just where he ended up. Either way, he wants to see his little girl.”
Mercy gave him a look like she’d kill him if he blinked, but he blinked anyway. And he continued: “Someday, you’ll wish you’d gone. If you don’t do it now, like as not, you’ll never get another chance-and then you really will spend the rest of your life wondering. When you could’ve just . . . asked.”
She clenched the telegram in her fist, crumpling the paper. “It won’t be as simple as that,” she said. “If he was dying when this was sent, he’s probably dead by now.”
He fidgeted. “You don’t know that for sure.”
“It’d take weeks to make the trip. A month or more, I bet. You know as well as I do what the train lines are like these days. Everyone talks about transcontinental dirigible paths, but nobody’s making it happen. Maybe I could hop, skip, and jump it by air-but that’d take even longer than going by train. Forget it,” she said, stuffing the wad of paper into her apron pocket.
Paul Forks stepped out of the stairwell and shook his head, “Yes ma’am. I’ll forget it. And I’m sorry, it wasn’t my place to bother you. It’s only . . .”
“It’s only what?”
“It’s only . . . when I took that hit on the field, and when they brought me here . . . I sent for my wife and my boy. Neither one of them came. All I got was a message that my boy had died of consumption six months after I went to war, and my wife went a few weeks behind him.”
She said, “I . . . Paul. I’m real sorry.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his clothes. “Anyway, that’s why I stayed on here. Nothing to go home to. But I don’t mean to pry. It just hurts like all get-out when you think you’re meeting your Maker, and there’s no one there to send you off.”
With his left hand, the whole one, he touched her shoulder in a friendly way. And he left her alone there, in the stairwell with the message she couldn’t stand to read again, and no idea how she was going to answer it.
Still pondering, she went back up to her bunk, and opened her cases to retrieve the stationery she’d taken from Captain Sally’s stash down in the hospital office. Not knowing what else to do, or what else to think about, she sat on the edge of the bed and started writing.
Mercy’s handwriting wasn’t any good, because she’d never been schooled long enough to make it smooth, but it was legible. And it said:
Dear Mrs. Henry,
My name is Vinita Lynch and I am a nurse at the Robertson Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. I am very sorry to tell you that your son, Gilbert Henry, died this afternoon of February 13, 1879. He was a good soldier and a nice man, and he made jokes while we tried to save him. He had been wounded bad but he died peaceful. I stayed with him until he was gone. He spoke fondly of you and his brother. His last thoughts were of home.
When she was finished, she sealed it up and set it on the nightstand beside her bed, to be mailed on Monday, when the post came.