Gusts of damp, blustery wind warned of a storm's impending arrival. Leaves fluttered and flapped, the tops of the trees leaned to the left, and the smell of the air changed. Bren halted Redfire to pull an oilskin poncho from a saddlebag. She removed her trail hat and tucked it under her thigh, out of the way. After slipping her head through the circular opening, she shrugged her shoulders to settle the material so it would shield her chest and back from the elements. The large oilskin hung down far enough to cover her thighs and calves. She replaced and tightened the hat by pushing up the slide on the cords, and after turning the brim down so rain could run from it freely, she resumed her journey.
Soon, the daylight dimmed to a murky gray, and rain started as a soft patter. The precipitation strengthened into a steady rhythm and eventually came down in blowing sheets as water poured onto the trees. Rivulets ran down the branches, and drips turned to streams of liquid accompanied by a chorus of gushing noises. The porous earth beneath the trees sopped up most of the downpour, but Bren couldn't be sure of Redfire's footing, so she slowed the stallion from the usual trot to a steady walk.
The trail Bren traversed rose gradually up a mountainside, then steepened, and the trees and underbrush thinned. As Redfire picked and slid his way to the summit, Bren thought she heard sounds of battle and tilted her head in an attempt to improve her hearing. As the sorrel topped the treeless rise, the sounds became clearer, and Bren stared at the meadow in the valley below. From her vantage point, she could see a "wall" where the rain ended partway up the valley. Beyond it, the gray-clad Confederate infantry engaged the blue-coated Union troops under a bright sky. It was a new battle with the pall of blue smoke just beginning to build.
With ninety yards separating the forces, foot soldiers in the front rows of each group fired their muskets, then knelt to reload while the row behind them fired, then the lines moved forward. As dead and wounded men dropped, the ranks stepped over them and continued their firing rotation. The creaks, clanks, and rumbles of soldiers on the move intermingled with the crackles of muskets and the groans of the wounded. From the Union lines, fife and drum, barely heard above the din, urged the men onward.
Flag bearers on both sides kept pace with their front lines. Red and white stripes streaming from a starred blue field proudly led the Union troops forward. Bren noticed right away that the Rebel flag, a red field crisscrossed with star-encrusted blue bars, was being driven back. The Confederate ranks slowly gave ground as the Union Army moved against them.
I have nothing to do with this battle, Bren told herself. It's good to be up here and well out of range. In fact, she thought bleakly, I'm often running away from friendly bullets, while people I know are being mowed down. Because of me. She wrenched her thoughts away from that track.
While she watched, the rain drifted past her and the sun reached Bren, making her too warm under the oilskin. She removed her hat with one hand and pulled the oilskin over her head with the other, taking care not to dislodge her beard.
She observed the battle for a few more minutes, saddened by its useless pageantry, then replaced her hat. After shaking out the oilskin, she folded it and stuck it back into a saddlebag, then turned Redfire away. Recognizing she was near Cranston, she thought she might get a bite to eat and say "hello" to Leah. Memory of the pleasant blonde lightened her gloomy thoughts. She wondered how Leah could stay so cheerful with the life she led.
As soon as the trees enveloped her, she headed for Cranston, about half an hour's ride on the other side of the mountain. She knew she might run into a picket line of sentries, especially with a battle going on close by, so she slowed the sorrel as she neared the town.
Without warning, someone opened fire on her. Bren swerved her mount away from the source of the danger and drew her pistol. Immediately, she faced a second soldier, a Rebel, who stepped from behind a tree to take aim. Jumping to get out of Redfire's way, the soldier shot erratically just a fraction later than Bren. Her bullet hit him in the chest, and his caught her in the bone of her lower left leg. Redfire leaped over the fallen man as Bren gasped at the pain. With her unscathed leg, she spurred the horse to greater speed as more firing broke out behind her.
Riding low against the sorrel's neck, Bren felt dizzy and nauseous. She struggled to keep her thoughts focused, knowing she needed to take some precautions. Removing the rawhide cord from her hair, she fumbled with one hand, trying to tie it around her leg, and finally came to a stop to do it. Apparently, she had gotten away; she heard no pursuit. Slowly, she reached behind her to a saddlebag. Fumbling from lightheadedness, she pulled out a length of rope, looped it around her body, and tied it to a hole in her army saddle.
"Think!" she urged herself in a low voice. She hesitated a moment, marshaling her thoughts. Then she knotted the ends of the reins around her left wrist to prevent losing them while at the same time providing Redfire with slack to have his head if the reins slipped from her hands. To complete her precautions, she took off the trail hat, replaced it with the Confederate cap, and fastened the strap under her chin.
If she made it to Cranston without falling, perhaps she could find some help there-maybe Leah. Her thigh throbbed with pain as though her leg had been chopped off below the knee. My God, she wondered, is this how Phillip felt? She attempted to move her foot and fainted from the agony, but the rope held her in the saddle. She didn't regain consciousness, and without direction, Redfire stayed in place for several hours. At last, hunger urged him to begin feeding on the sparse grass. As he moved from patch to patch, he gradually got closer to the town. When the forest gave way to cleared land, the horse stopped near the edge of the trees and lowered his head to continue munching.
Faith Pruitt opened the back door of her house and stepped into the yard. A slight breeze stirred her red curls, obscuring her vision, so she set down the metal buckets she carried and pulled a ribbon from her apron pocket. As she tied the ribbon around her head, she frowned at the sounds of battle coming over the mountain. The muskets crackled like a hundred breaking twigs, and the heavy cannons boomed like rolls of thunder. For two days, the fighting had disturbed the countryside, and Faith wondered whether Cranston was in danger of being seized by the Yankees.
She turned around and looked at her home. It sat at the very end of the gravel road, eight blocks east of the town's center. Behind it and to one side stretched open fields and forest. The town council had provided the white building for the hired schoolmaster, her husband Nathan. They had lived here together for seven years, and their son Benjamin had been born here. Two years ago, in the seventh year of their marriage, Nathan got caught up in the fervor of states' rights. With the town council's agreement, Faith took over his teaching responsibilities so he could join the Army of the Confederacy. He died in battle before completing his first year of service. So Faith was still teaching.
She stood for a moment, lifting her face to the pleasant breeze. She didn't want to think of death-or war-but the nearness of the battle led her thoughts in that direction. Nathan died for his belief in states' rights, but to her, staying in the Union made more sense. Surely, states united under one government formed a stronger alliance. Once the slavery issue raised its head, her Union sympathies increased, but she kept her political views to herself. She knew speaking out would serve no useful purpose; it could only jeopardize her life and Benjamin's.
Abandoning her troubling thoughts, Faith picked up the buckets just as Benjamin came through the door. "Mama, can I play outside now?" He tossed his head as the breeze blew dark-brown curls into his eyes.
She was happy for her son's sake that he had his father's complexion: brown eyes and tan skin coped with the sun better than her own green eyes and freckles. But at eight years of age, Benjamin showed obvious signs of having inherited her sturdiness. His father had been small and slight, almost womanish, while she was 5'7" tall and large-boned, bigger than most women and many men. She turned her head, listening. "Do you hear the muskets and cannon fire?"
Yesterday, Faith hadn't allowed Benjamin out at all, but the battle didn't sound any nearer. It had to be a mile or two away on the other side of the mountain, so it seemed safe to let him play outside. "You stay in the yard, and if the sounds get any louder, you come inside and let me know, all right?"
"All right, Mama." Benjamin gave a vigorous nod. "Do you need any help with the water?" When Faith smiled and shook her head, the boy darted away, scanning the ground.
Faith took the buckets to a barrel sitting at a corner of the house. Boards nailed against the edges of the roof formed crude gutters to direct rainwater toward two corners. Wooden barrels sat at each of those corners to catch the runoff, providing an extra source of water. Faith used well water for drinking and cooking, and the rain barrels took care of most other needs. Dipping the buckets, she filled them from the barrel and carried them into the house.
Benjamin spied a piece of wood he could use for a musket. He picked it up, lodged it against his shoulder, and sighted down its length. Now he would search for the enemy. He lifted his gaze across the field stretching behind his yard and spied a horse near the forest. Although it stood in shadow next to the trees, it didn't look dark enough to be their horse, and a glance at their corral confirmed Nightglow was still there. Surprised into forgetting his mother's admonition, he dropped the "musket" and loped toward the strange horse to investigate, slowing to a walk when he got close. A rider lay against the horse's neck.
Crusted blood laid a trail from a hole in the person's pant leg down to and along a black boot. Flies buzzed around and covered the blood's path. The horse didn't move as the boy walked up to it, and he saw the ends of the reins wrapped tightly around the rider's hand. Speaking softly and moving slowly as his mother had taught him, he took hold of the bridle and led horse and rider to his home.
He tied the horse with a length of rope that dangled from a rail of the corral and ran in the house, calling his mother. A moment later, the two came back out. "See, Mama, he doesn't have any uniform, just the gray cap."
"You're right, Benjamin. It looks like he might be shot." She brushed away the flies and carefully lifted the foot of the bloody left leg from the stirrup.
"Many soldiers don't have full uniforms, so we can't tell from that. But he's wearing the cap, so let's just figure that he is one. For sure, we know he needs help." The son nodded and waited for directions from his mother. "Hold onto his leg. It's all right to let it move, but make sure it doesn't bang into anything. We have to lift him down from this side so as not to spook the horse. Be careful now, its looks pretty bad. And watch out for that piece of rawhide tied below his knee; don't loosen it."
While the youngster grasped the wounded leg, Faith released the reins from the rider's hand and untied the ropes attached to the saddle. The man mumbled something unintelligible, and Faith wondered how conscious he was. "We're trying to help you, and we need to get you down from the horse. Can you put your arms around my neck as I slide you down?"
"No," the soldier said, appearing to revive a bit. Faith paused, wondering whether he would say more. He spoke quietly, but clearly, and she heard the pain in his voice. "I'm too heavy . . . Hold onto my injured leg . . . and I'll bring the other one over." He stopped and took some extra breaths. "Maybe you can balance me as I slide down. Give me a minute, first."
Faith waited until the soldier felt ready. When he moved his good leg, Faith put a hand against his waist to steady him. As the leg swung over the horse's back, the soldier began to slide and clutched at the saddle to slow his momentum. Faith put both hands on his waist to support him, and from the corner of her eye, watched Benjamin. He was allowing the injured leg to move, but keeping it lifted as the rider's good foot met the soil. Pleased with her son's actions, Faith raised her hands to the soldier's armpits and helped lower his slumping form to the earth.
Once the rider was down, Faith helped Benjamin gently settle his wounded leg. "Good work, Benjamin, now run get Doc Schafer." The soldier's foot had flopped a bit, suggesting the leg might be broken. Faith's father had been a doctor, and she had often assisted him. But her knowledge of healing didn't extend to gunshot wounds, and she possessed no strong painkillers or the proper instruments to deal with such trauma.
The soldier hadn't said a word since being helped from the horse. Perhaps the exertion caused a loss of consciousness. Faith took scissors from a pocket in her apron and cut along the seam of the damaged pant leg, then the underdrawers beneath it, being careful not to displace the tourniquet. The leg was swollen from the knee down, and there was a hole about four inches above the short boot, next to the outside edge of the shinbone.
Faith went into the house and came back with two blankets and a bottle of water. She folded one blanket and placed it under the soldier's head; the other she meant to use as a cover. But first, she wanted to check whether there were any other injuries. She felt down the arm nearest her, and when she got to the hand, it turned and clasped her wrist. "Stop," the soldier whispered, and the closed eyes flew open. His voice was weak and hoarse. "Who are you?"
For the first time, Faith noticed the dark-haired soldier was quite good-looking. He had strong features and light brown eyes that seemed to shine with a golden light. She thought he must be in distress and wondered how much he was aware of.
"I'm Faith Pruitt. My son found you and brought you here, to our house. He's gone to get Doctor Schafer, the surgeon." Faith held the bottle of water to his lips, and the soldier emptied it without stopping. When he finished, Faith returned the question. "And who are you?"
The muscles around his eyes were tense with pain. "My name's Bren Cordell. I'm a scout with the army. I was coming into Cranston when some damn-fool sentries opened fire on me. Idiots didn't give me a chance to identify myself."
Faith's eyes widened. "That sounds like terribly bad luck to me. I guess with the fighting so near, everyone is nervous and overreacting." She looked at Bren's hand. The scout released the wrist, and Faith winced as she rubbed it. "I was only checking whether you have any wounds besides the one on your leg."
"No, I'm fine. Tell the doc to tend my leg and leave the rest of me alone. I don't take kindly to being poked and prodded." The soldier's voice had strengthened a bit. He spoke with a thick drawl, but in a no-nonsense tone, and Faith looked toward the holstered pistol. Maybe she should have taken the weapon, just to be on the safe side. Bren's glance followed hers, and Faith realized her expressive face betrayed her thoughts. "Don't even think that, ma'am. No one takes my sidearm." The man paused for a ragged breath. "But don't worry. I'm not about to shoot my angel of mercy. Not as long as you abide by my wishes, anyway."
The threat raised Faith's dander. Here she was trying to help the scout and what did she get for her kindness? The soldier's warnings sounded ominous, and he had a pistol to back up his words. Faith fought to keep her quick temper in check and decided to concentrate on the soldier's wounds. He must realize he needed her assistance. She looked up as Doctor Schafer arrived on foot, followed by Benjamin. She chose to abide by the soldier's wish not to be examined thoroughly.
"Hello, Doc. This soldier dropped practically on my doorstep, so I thought we might tend him here. Will you examine his leg? Far as I can tell, it's the only wound he has."
Faith knew Doctor Schafer well. A thin, middle-aged man with black chin whiskers, he had started as an assistant to Faith's late father, Dr. Pruitt, and occasionally he called on her when he needed help. He knelt on the ground next to her. "You were lucky to get me. A rider just came in asking me to treat some of the wounded from the battle in the next valley. With two days' worth of casualties, the medical staff's overloaded. They've set up a field hospital, and I'm on my way there."
He did a quick examination of Bren's wound, using a metal probe and not reacting to Bren's gasps of pain. "This is a nasty one, soldier. Looks like a Minie ball hit the edge of the bone, broke it, and embedded itself in part of it. It's one of the smaller balls, or the leg bone would have been shattered." He shook his head then met Bren's worried gaze. "Infection has already started. I can scrape the damaged tissue out and set the bone, but I can tell you from experience we would just be prolonging the agony. Battle infections like these are virtually impossible to treat. Best thing is to take the leg off right now, or it will probably kill you."
The doctor's last words hung in the air for a moment before the soldier reacted. "No!" The voice came loud and forced. "No one's taking my leg off."
Faith's face went white as the doctor explained his prognosis. She felt a connection to this soldier. For some reason, fate had brought him to her house, and she would do her best to help him. "Doc, why don't you clean the wound and set the bone the best you can. I'll tend to it and keep a close watch on it. Maybe the leg can be saved."
"All right, Faith. Heaven knows you've worked some healing miracles before." He bent to the task of removing the Minie ball, then took pains to scrape out the pieces of trouser material imbedded into the wound by the metal. Faith reached for Bren's hand and nearly had her own mangled as the soldier's grip intensified with the pain. Finally, the surgeon finished the cleaning and debridement of the damaged tissue and flushed the wound with whisky from a flask kept in his bag. Bren groaned and the doctor passed the flask to his patient, who took a lusty drink.
Schafer dusted morphine powder into the wound to numb some of the pain, filled the hole with scraped and softened linen, and wound a bandage around it. Moving beyond Bren's feet, the doctor grasped the wounded leg's foot and gave it a firm jerk. When the leg seemed straight, he took wooden splints from his bag and bound them along the broken area, taking care to leave access to the wound. He removed the tourniquet and laid it on the ground, after which he cut open the boot that was compressing the swollen foot and slipped it off. Then he cut off the blood-soaked stocking.
Faith watched muscles tense along the scout's clenched jaw and heard him droning over and over, "I can do this. I can do this." His dogged persistence in the midst of agonizing pain impressed her.
At last, the surgeon finished. He and Faith rose, and she put a hand on his arm. "Before you go, please help me get our patient into the house." Schafer lifted Bren's shoulders, Faith and Benjamin each supported a leg, and the three managed to move the soldier inside. Faith led them to her bedroom, yanked down the covers with one hand, and they laid their burden on the bed. The doctor removed Bren's other boot and stocking, and Faith pulled the covers over the patient. She left the bound leg sticking out to keep the covers' weight from pushing against the foot of the wounded leg. Then she moved to her bureau. She opened a drawer, took out some bills, and tried to pay the doctor his fee.
He waved a hand and refused the money. "This isn't your responsibility, Faith. I can't take your money." She thanked him and put the bills away, afterward walking with him through the sitting room to the door. The surgeon paused a moment, rubbing his chin. "Maybe you should have him moved to my infirmary. Some of the townspeople, especially the Yankee sympathizers, might frown on you, a widow woman and the teacher of their children, tending a Confederate soldier in your home."
Faith nodded her head. "That is a concern, Doc, but he's going to need vigilant care, and you said you were called to the battlefield. You're the only one who has seen that he's here, and I know I can rely on your silence."
The surgeon patted her arm. "Yes, you can. I'm staying neutral in this war. Oh, I almost forgot to give you some supplies. Do you have sufficient bandaging material?" When Faith nodded, he opened his bag and handed her extra paper packets of morphine and some opium tablets. "Dust the wound with morphine when you change the dressings. That should help some of the pain. And you can give him a tablet or two of opium when it becomes unbearable." He closed the bag and touched Faith's arm. "Remember, if the infection gets out of hand, send Benjamin after me. I'm helping the army out today, but I'll be back tomorrow. I have patients here who need me." He lowered his voice. "Though I doubt if I could be much help to your soldier at that point. The leg should come off now. If the infection isn't stopped, he'll die."
"I'll watch it closely. Maybe a constant change of dressing will prevent it from worsening," Faith said as she let the surgeon out the door.
When Faith returned to the room, she brought a jug of water and an earthenware cup. The soldier had lost blood and would need plenty of liquid to replenish it. Bren appeared to have revived some energy, but still seemed weak, so Faith held the cup while he emptied it. When he finished, she watched as the soldier's eyes roved around the room before resting on hers. There wasn't much of note about the room, though Faith believed its soft, warm colors added to its comfort. Next to the dark walnut bedstead sat a matching side table, with a bureau along one wall. A rocking chair and a straight-backed chair completed the furniture. Dark brown, deep red, and yellow in the bed's quilt were matched by several articles in the room: a woven brown-and-yellow area rug, red cushions on the rocking chair, and yellow drapes at the two white-curtained windows on the walls at right angles to the bed. The only other color in the quilt was a rich green that almost exactly matched Faith's eyes.
Faith hesitated, giving Bren a chance to speak, but the scout remained silent, staring at her as though mesmerized. Faith was puzzled by the look. "Is there something you need?" She poured more water in the cup and held it out.
"No, I, um," Bren stumbled for a moment, seemingly flustered. "I must apologize, ma'am, for seeming so rude. I thank you for your care of me and for accommodating me in your home."
Faith acknowledged the words with a nod. "You can thank my son Benjamin for that. He's the one who found you and brought you here." She lifted the cup to the scout's lips.
The second cupful disappeared as quickly as the first. "Then I'd like to thank him." Bren lifted a hand to cover a yawn, and Faith realized the soldier's life force needed rest to restore itself. She set the cup back on the bedside table.
"He's tending to your horse. He'll put him in the barn."
"Redfire. His name is Redfire." The words drifted slowly from Bren's lips, then the scout's eyes closed and he slept.
While Faith's hands automatically smoothed covers that weren't yet wrinkled, she gazed at the person occupying her bed. His face was drawn and tired looking, but that could be the result of his wounds. She wondered whether scouts could leave a battle whenever they pleased, or had he deserted in the face of the enemy? Or had his horse just wandered in this direction after he got shot? And had it really been a sentry who shot him? Whatever the answers, Faith could tell that her protective instincts were rising to the fore, and she laughed at herself. Like this soldier needs my protection. I might need protected from him as he recovers. Though as slim as he is, I could probably outfight him. She snorted softly. And I know for sure I can outrun him. Then the possibility of his death struck her with a pang of sadness. But she was determined not to let that happen. She made a silent vow to do whatever was in her power to save his life-and his leg.
She placed her hand on his forehead and noticed he burned with fever. When his eyelids flickered, she quickly removed her hand, lest she wake him. We're about to embark on a tough journey, Mr. Cordell, she thought. Faith's eyes lit with purpose as she recalled the words Bren had fortified himself with: "I can do this." This time, she promised silently, you have an ally. We can do this together.
A day later, on Sunday morning, Bren still hadn't revived. Faith knew the soldier needed constant attention, so she sent Benjamin off to church services with a note to the parson's wife.
Dear Mrs. Hebert,
Unforeseen circumstances have arisen, and I beg you to have the kindness to assume my teaching responsibilities at school for this week. I'm sorry to have to ask such a favor in the first week of the school year, but I have no choice. Benjamin will be absent from school for several days as well. Thank you in advance for what I pray will be your agreement to my request.
With sincere gratitude,
Mrs. Faith Pruitt
Faith decided Benjamin should stay home because the excitement of having a soldier in their home might be more than her son could keep to himself. She hoped a few days away from school would give her the chance to ensure his silence about them boarding a man. The situation was innocent enough, but as the schoolteacher, Faith hoped to avoid any hint of indiscretion.
While Benjamin was on his errand, Faith made preparations to bathe Bren. First, she pushed against the soldier's arm to make sure Bren wouldn't awaken and threaten her again. When there was no response, she unbuckled and removed the gun belt, tucked it around the holstered pistol, and laid the bundle in a bureau drawer. She took the buckets outside and dipped water from one of the rain barrels. After hauling the pails into the kitchen, she hung them on hooks at the top of the fireplace to heat over the fire.
Then Faith went out to the barn where Bren's saddlebags hung on a peg and pulled the contents out onto a worktable. Some clean clothes, including underdrawers and stockings, were wrapped around a roll of cotton cloth. She set the clothes aside and returned the cloth to one of the bags. A great believer in a person's right to privacy, she avoided snooping through the other articles. Her beliefs were sorely tempted, however, when a journal fell from the table and flipped open, revealing pages filled with strong handwriting and detailed drawings. She riffled through the pages and saw that the drawings depicted battle scenes, weapons, an occasional single figure or face, and what appeared to be maps. Chiding herself for prying, she quickly stuffed the journal back into a bag.
Faith gathered the clothes, an identical set to the ones Bren was wearing, and took them into the house. She grabbed linen towels, washcloths, and a square of soap from the washroom shelf and carried everything into the bedroom. By the time she removed the soldier's clothes, she thought the buckets of water would be comfortably warm. She pulled the cover from atop Bren and left it at the foot of the bed. After unlacing the cord at the neck of the pullover shirt, she unbuckled the trouser belt and worked the shirttail loose. She pulled the tail toward Bren's shoulders and stopped, surprised by the appearance of white cotton wrapping. What's this? she wondered. Does he have broken ribs he didn't mention? That can't be. Surely he could never have gotten off the horse without indicating something about it.
Filled with curiosity, Faith pondered her next move as she finished removing the shirt. She decided there was only one answer. If Bren had another injury, the bandage still needed to be changed to a clean one. She took her scissors out of her apron pocket and cut along the side of the binding. When she finished cutting all the way to the top, she lifted the loose strands to move them aside then promptly released them. She dropped into the chair next to the bed, hardly believing her eyes. Glory be! My soldier is a woman.
This discovery was so unexpected that Faith sat in the chair for several minutes just getting used to the idea. Then her common sense took over. Woman or man, Bren still needed a bath. She carefully finished undressing her patient, sliding both the wide trouser leg and underdrawer leg past the splints. She pulled the cover back over the woman and went after the buckets of water.
Faith finished bathing and dressing Bren before Benjamin returned. Thinking it might be better if Benjamin continued to believe the soldier was a man, Faith left the beard on and washed around it. She folded the clean trousers and stockings and laid them on the bureau, deciding the underclothes by themselves would be more comfortable, and the shirt was long enough to act as a tunic. On the injured leg, she had to cut the underdrawer leg to allow access to the wound and the splints. Now, she reminded herself, my soldier has one pair of trousers and two pairs of underdrawers that need mended. I can do this, she thought, then smiled, knowing she had repeated Bren's words. Faith wasn't trivializing them; she was giving the words her blessing. She admired the woman's strength of purpose.
She put clean linens on the bed, then covered Bren with an extra quilt while she opened the windows wide to air out the sweaty odor. She debated whether to rewrap Bren's torso and pretend the masquerade hadn't been discovered. Bren would be more comfortable without the wrapping, and if the infection was stopped, she would be recuperating for weeks. Faith couldn't be expected to be kept in the dark for that length of time. Still, it might be better for Bren if she were unmasked slowly. Retrieving the clean cotton wrapping from the saddlebags, she put the bindings back on and pulled the clean shirt over them. Then she sat in the rocking chair, pushed the discovery of Bren's gender from her mind, and contemplated the most serious aspect of the situation-the wound.
Bren's wounded limb would need re-bandaged every 12 hours. After thinking about that reality for a while, Faith got up and changed the wraparound bandage to one straight up and down, allowing better access to the wound without the necessity of removing the splint. The infection in Bren's leg had grown until the limb looked like an over-ripe melon ready to burst. A dark-brown, heart-shaped mole on the skin adjoining the wound had originally been the size of a pea and now was as large as a coat button.
Faith had to admit she needed help. As soon as Benjamin got home from church, she sent him to see if Doc Schafer had returned from the field hospital. The surgeon came and brought a pair of crutches with him. "Keep these crutches, Faith, and let's hope our patient lives long enough to use them." He handed them to her, and she set them in a corner of the bedroom. When he examined the wound, however, he raised his hands in resignation. "We can't save this leg."
Faith saw Bren's eyelids move and heard her groan. The soldier's good leg flailed out and caught Faith in the stomach, bringing an "Oooomph" as the breath spurted from her body.
Doc Schafer bellowed, "Damn your hide, soldier! She's trying to help you."
Bren took some heavy breaths and gasped, "Sorry. It pains. It pains."
Faith's firm hand touched for a moment to Bren's forehead. "Don't worry; you didn't hurt me. Here, I have something that will help stop the pain." Faith drew two opium tablets from the pocket of her apron and reached for the jug of water she had left on the side table. She poured some water into the earthenware cup. Bren reached for the cup handle, but her arm dropped weakly back to the bed.
Faith put an arm under Bren's neck and shoulders to support her head. Holding the cup to her lips, Faith watched as the patient tried to gulp the whole cupful. Quickly, she pulled it back. "Here, take the pills first, then you can have more water." She poked the tablets one at a time between Bren's shaking lips, then allowed her to finish off the water. "That should start working in a few moments," she said encouragingly. She refilled the cup several times until Bren was satisfied, then called to Benjamin to bring in another jug of water. The boy brought the water in and set it on the bedside table. Faith sympathized when she saw his nose wrinkle, probably from the sickening smell of the wound. She expected he would leave and didn't notice when Benjamin stayed, hovering quietly in the background.
She tried not to show she was terribly worried about the condition of Bren's leg-and the fever burning through her. Her heart had sunk just a little farther when Doc Schafer removed the bandage and she saw how much the infection had progressed.
She brushed at some flies buzzing annoyingly around her face. When her hand came in contact with one of the insects, the touch sent an exciting message to her brain. "Doc!" she said with such force that he turned to her with a look of surprise. "Do you remember that strange theory Father heard from another doctor a couple of years ago? The one about maggots cleaning out wounds?"
Doctor Schafer wrinkled his brow. "I can't say as I do, Faith. Will you explain it to me?"
Faith's fair skin was flushed, partly from tension and partly from excitement. "About a month before he died, Father told me he met with a colleague who professed that some surgeons were using maggots to clean out wounds. Father laughed about it and said he wondered how you made the maggots eat the bad tissue and leave the good. But he did say he might investigate it some day." Faith waved a hand at Bren's leg. "What better time to investigate it? We can put some maggots in this wound and see what happens."
Bren's eyes went wide. "Now wait a minute-"
Doctor Schafer interrupted. "Look, soldier, you're out of choices. I told you before that the chances of saving your leg were pretty bad. Now the infection is even worse, and you'll lose the leg for sure-and your life too-unless something stops the poison from spreading." The doctor's forehead creases deepened, and his voice roughened. "We don't have any cure. You want to give this maggot idea one last try, or should I just cut off your leg right now?"
"That's pretty damn blunt," Bren said in a hoarse drawl. Her hands trembled and her face blanched, and neither the doctor nor Faith said another word. They watched Bren collect her control and waited for the answer. Finally, she nodded. "All right, let's try it."
Faith headed for the door. "Benjamin and I will get some maggots from the garbage pile out back." Her eyebrows raised in surprise when she saw her son was still in the room, and she motioned to him to accompany her.
"Fine," the doctor said. "I'll get this bandage off." He bent to his task.
Bren watched Faith and Benjamin leave, then she struggled to keep her voice from wavering. "Do you think this will work, Doc?" She had visions of going through life with part of her left leg missing. She and Phillip would make a great pair-mirror images of each other. A shiver went through her, and she blinked her eyes in an attempt to banish that mental picture.
"I don't know, soldier. I just know if it were my leg, I would surely try it." The doctor raised sympathetic eyes. "If this maggot theory works, other soldiers can be saved too. Hell, I'll go back to that field hospital and put maggots in some of those wounds just in case it does work. There sure aren't any alternative solutions."
Faith reentered the room with her son following her. Benjamin's hands encircled a bowl of writhing, wriggling, white maggots, and his eyes were big and round and scared looking. Bren looked from Benjamin's pale face to the pile of squirming larvae, and her stomach lurched, but she wanted to calm the boy's fears. She winked at him and drawled in a weakened voice, "Thank the Almighty, I don't have to eat the blasted things."
Overcome by a combination of opium, fever, and pain, Bren lapsed into semi-consciousness. For three days, fever wracked her body. She vaguely knew when Faith applied wet compresses to her forehead, tended to her wounded leg, and coaxed opium tablets and water down her throat. Finally, the fever broke and she woke, soaked in perspiration. An early morning sun shone a golden path across the bed and as Bren's eyes followed it, she saw Faith asleep in the rocking chair. Clothed in a dark-brown dress with a beige apron, she looked fetchingly doll-like with her legs stretched out in front of her and her head sloped to one side. Tendrils of curls touched softly against her cheeks, and Bren felt a strange ache in her chest as she gazed on such beauty.
The sun's rays reflected from Faith's red hair, forming a halo around her head. A lopsided grin pulled against Bren's lips. How appropriate. I do believe this angel has saved my life. And my leg. The ache in Bren's chest intensified, and she attributed it to gratitude. Then a puff of laughter escaped her. Maggots. A truly outlandish idea, but Faith had the courage to propose it. Bren struggled to a sitting position for a better view of the lovely picture across from her.
As though Faith could feel someone looking at her, she opened her eyes, and answered Bren's grin with a slow one of her own. Suddenly, she jumped up and crossed to the bedside. "You're awake!" she said, obviously pleased. "And sitting up!" Her eyes sparkled as she quickly felt Bren's forehead. "I can hardly believe it. Your fever has disappeared. The maggots are working."
"Are working?" Bren swallowed. "You mean they're still in my leg?" Faith smiled and nodded as she poured some water into the cup and held it for her patient. Bren lifted her arm to help, then dropped it back with pretended weakness. While Faith once again supported her shoulders and held the cup to her lips, Bren took a good, close look at her savior. This woman had spent a lot of time and effort saving her leg. Her eyes softened as more warm feelings of gratitude washed over her.
Faith glanced up from the cup directly into the look she was receiving. For a long moment, both women paused. Then Faith broke the spell. Quickly, she pulled the cup back, set it on the table, and moved toward the lower part of the bed to examine Bren's leg. The wound had been left open to the air, so as not to suffocate the maggots as they did their loathsome but lifesaving work of eating decayed tissue. Several of the worms had managed to crawl away onto the sheet, and Faith made short work of picking them up and discarding them into a slop jar under the bed. "I think perhaps we can remove all but a very few of the little creatures now," she remarked. "The wound looks pretty clean." She finally raised her eyes and observed Bren. "Speaking of clean . . ."
"Uh, yeah," Bren hastened to agree. "I have other clothes in my saddlebags if Benjamin can bring the bags in for me." She patted her beard, which was straggly from perspiration. "And maybe you could lend me a pair of scissors and a comb to smooth out this mess."
Faith nodded. "And you'll need a bath. I'll warm some water for you, then I can give you a hand with it."
"No!" Bren said quickly, then softened her tone. "No, thanks. I can take care of my own bathing, ma'am. Just bring me the proper necessities-soap, water, linens-if you please, and allow me some privacy."
"You're too weak to hold a cup, but not too weak to wash yourself?" Faith's eyes twinkled, but she had the grace not to laugh when Bren felt her face reddening.
"I'm getting stronger by the minute," Bren protested, then grinned wryly, acknowledging her earlier deception. She didn't even know why she had pretended to be weak; the reaction had been impulsive. Admit it, you laggard, you like having this woman tend to you. Obviously, her small ruse hadn't fooled Faith who now had a hand over her mouth smothering a chuckle as Bren turned redder. Just then, fortunately, Benjamin knocked on the side of the doorjamb and waited until Bren invited him in.
"I heard you talking," the boy said shyly. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, I am, Benjamin. It's kind of you to ask. I feel much better. I'm wondering if you can do me a favor?"
The youngster practically ran to the side of the bed. "I'll do whatever you want, sir."
"Now that's the kind of enthusiasm I like," Bren drawled. "You would make a fine soldier." Benjamin's face gleamed with pleasure at this praise. "Your ma and I agree that I need to get washed up. But my extra clothes are in my saddlebags. Can you bring the bags in from the barn?"
"Yes, sir. I'll do that right away, sir." Benjamin said. Bren gave him a small salute, and the boy stood at attention and returned it, then left to perform his task.
"You've won over at least one person in this household," Faith remarked. Bren cocked a questioning eyebrow. "Well," Faith said, counting on her fingers, "first you cussed me, then you kicked me, then you cussed me some more, then you tricked me into waiting on you." She wriggled the four fingers. "Not exactly an auspicious beginning."
Bren was beginning to get annoyed with herself for the stupid blushing she had difficulty controlling. "The cussing I don't remember, but I apologize for it. And the kicking was purely accidental. But I apologize for that too." She rubbed the back of her neck. "As for the trickery," she grimaced comically before continuing, "I have to confess I would do it all over again if I thought I could get away with it. Having you wait on me certainly is more pleasant than having to do everything for myself, like I do out on the trail. For that I thank you."
A laugh bubbled out of Faith. "And you're quite welcome. Except for Benjamin, I haven't had anyone to take care of for a long time. I'm enjoying the opportunity." She turned as if to leave, then looked back toward Bren. "I'll go warm some water for you. And I'll bet you're hungry too."
Bren let her body relax into the bed. "To tell the truth, ma'am, I think I need a nap before I bathe. I'm pretty worn out from fighting that infection, I guess. And my thinking is still muddled. But if you could bring me something to eat-a piece of bread would do-I'd be grateful. I'm so hungry that even if the food had some of those maggots all over it, I'd just brush them aside and take my turn."
Benjamin came in with the saddlebags, drawing their attention. Faith pointed to the bed "Put them there, Benjamin, close enough so Mr. Cordell can reach them without any trouble." He did as his mother directed.
Bren nodded. "Thank you, Benjamin."
The youngster nodded in return. Faith put her hand on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. "I'll be back in a moment with some bread and cheese," she promised as the two left the room.
Bren tried to stay awake, but exhaustion overcame her, and she drifted off to sleep before Faith returned.
When Faith brought the bread and cheese, she quietly set it on the side table next to the water jug, within Bren's reach. She turned to tiptoe from the room when a low moan arrested her movement. Returning to the side of the bed, she gazed for a moment at her patient. The soldier looked gaunt and pale and her body twitched several times, accompanied by a few more moans. Faith could only imagine what terrible scenes Bren might be reliving. But at least the woman was alive. She pulled the covers up close to Bren's chin, offered a prayer of thanksgiving, and left the room.
As she entered the kitchen and picked up the buckets to get water, she grew thoughtful. Who would guess that my soldier would turn out to be a woman? A woman who looks, talks, and acts like a man. Faith found the situation strangely intriguing and the woman . . . surprisingly attractive. Bren Cordell and I need to have a discussion soon. She's been too sick to notice yet, but she'll suspect something's amiss as soon as she realizes her trousers are missing. As well as her pistol.
To be continued in Part FivePlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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