36 Hours – Part 8

It is mid-day by the time I’m allowed to sit up. Len doesn’t say it but Kat does. Even this is too soon, but they need every man who can hold a rifle. A big offensive is coming soon.

“It’s less than a day,” Kat says as I hobble through the medical station with Shiod. Shiod is proposing a game of cards and we’re in search of Len again, full of purpose that we’ll steal him away from the center long enough for a game. Ever since Shiod spilled the news about Vanmere, Len hasn’t been around.

“A day is a long time,” Shiod says and spits, as if the number is grit in his mouth. We’ve already gotten used to eating with dirt in our bread. Clean is nothing but a long forgotten dream.

“It’s not so long as that,” Kat says and grabs the cards from Shiod’s hands. “Just long enough for you to lose your whole family fortune.”

“Good luck with that,” Shiod says, shrugging bony shoulders. “Johnnies took that a year ago.”

“Don’t you get a stipend yet?” I ask him, confused by this news. He’s never shared it before. Shiod was always the boy with money, the scion son of a merchant family. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Kat always joked that he was so tight with money that he must soon suffocate from it.

“Some,” he admits and grabs the cards back, shuffling them deftly in his long, thin fingers. They slide together quietly, the paper worn with use and slick with grime. There is no table here in the trenches so we’ll have to play with the cards on our knees. We’ve only a few cigarettes and rations to gamble with, so it won’t matter if we win or lose. The distraction is all we want.

Shiod stops outside the medical tent where we’ve been told Len is working. “Listen, my brother is running guns to a resistance cell in the Carolinas. What little we get from for it is all I manage. My Ma and Pa, well they’re counting pennies for the Johnnies now when Washington fell. Don’t tell Len though, all right? I don’t want another lecture about helping the enemy.”

Kat and I look at one another and Shiod steps inside. We exchange information silently, shocked to silence by this sudden and unexpected news. Shiod’s brother is younger than we are, sixteen or seventeen. He’s never shown a single hint of talent in anything but now he’s smuggling? Kat spreads his hands before him and shrugs. I agree and nod my head.

“The barkin’ hell is this?”

The voice is Shiod’s and his exclamation is nearly loud enough to make me jump. We quickly duck inside and see him standing there, mouth open, eyes squinted and his narrow, rat-like nose wrinkled up like he’d just sniffed a privy spill. I follow his gaze and find myself transfixed as well.

Lying on a cot is a young man with Len holding a bleed-soaked bandage to his arm. He’s young, younger than we are perhaps. His face is dirty and bleeding from a number of surface cuts. The blonde hair is cropped messily, as if by a razor. His eyes, the color of freshly churned earth, stare up at us with a mixture of hatred and confusion.

What shocks us is the gray uniform he wears.

“Not so loud!” Len says, turning to wave at Shiod. “It wasn’t easy to get him here.”

“I should guess not,” Kat says, his voice even but there’s a touch of wariness in it. “What are you doing?”

“He’s been hit by a Minie. I removed the damned thing but it won’t stop bleeding. I’m going to have to amputate.” He’s cut away the sleeve of his Johnny gray coat to show the pale skin and its red wound.

“Do not touch me,” he hisses, but his voice is strained with pain. The accent is unmistakably Georgian. Len reaches for the chloroform bottle and the boy’s face goes white. He cries out and tries to raise his other hand to stop him but it’s tied to the cot.

Shiod catches Len’s wrist instead, stopping it before he can grab hold of the bottle. Len struggles against it. “Let go of me, he needs this. He’ll die if I don’t.”

“So what?” Shiod wrenches Len’s arm backward. He cringes, groaning from the pain of it and Kat steps in, pulling Shiod off of him and giving Len a shove that knocks him to his knees.

“Are you mad, Lenmerer? We’re out numbered ten-to-one and you want to save one of them?”

Len rubs his shoulder and glares at all of us. He looks back at the boy, who has closed his eyes again. He’s begun to tremble and I risk a glance outside before securing the flap.

Kat is looking at me and I shake my head. He gestures to Len. “Do it if you’re going to but I think you’ve taken a few too many shots to the head.”

“You’re going to let him?” Shiod shouts and Kat grabs him by the arm and drags him back towards me. “Shut up,” he says. “He might know something we can use and…” He looks at me, sees that I am thinking the same thing. We’ve seen enough death today. I’m thinking of Vanmere and hoping that some Johnny medic might be doing this same thing for him.

Shiod wrestles free of Kat but does nothing to interfere, just crosses his arms and glares at us. Then he turns and leaves too quickly for us to stop him.

Len looks up alarmed but Kat holds out a hand. “He won’t go making a scene. He’s just upset because you always scold him about his parents turning traitor.” Len sighs and goes about the whole business. As he works, he looks ten years older, not a young man of twenty but an old veteran, lined and beaten. I turn away when the saw bites into bone but do not vomit and do not leave. I simply stand it, as does Kat. Len seems to be in a trance, unfazed. It is horror of a brand new sort.

“Was it very bad last night?” Kat asks after it is done, sitting on a folding chair nearby. “After the raid?”

Len doesn’t even open his eyes. He slumps now against the center tent pole after plastering the wound of the young Confederate. “One-hundred and twenty-seven dead, fourteen were brought off the field but died on the table or in the mud outside. Thirty-eight lost limbs. We worked all night on them. One lost half his face. He wouldn’t stop talking. Half of his jaw was gone but he kept… he kept…”

He covers his face and begins to weep. Kat and I look at one another but we know there is nothing to say. We lived through last night, and are hardly worse for wear. I took wounds, yes, but time will make short work of them and my limp will fade over the years. So we go to him and sit, one on either side. Our shoulders support him and we crouch together on the dirt floor like we used to on our camping trips that feel so long ago.

We’d find a quiet place and just rest there, shoulder to shoulder and never say a word. The three of us all lost so much in the early parts of the war. Len lost his older brother early in the fighting, then his father, a surgeon himself, was killed in a raid later on. His sister was taken during the evacuation of Washington and the reports we’ve heard of her turn my stomach to think of them.

Kat lost his uncle, two cousins and a mother to the fighting. I lost the least, though the two of them talk to me as if I’ve lost everything. Lia’s death was quick. Her house was hit with one of the first long-range bombardments from the Lees when they thought our town housed munitions. She didn’t suffer, they tell me. Killed instantly. It’s a fate that now seems so much kinder than it used to.

Finally, Kat and I rise to go and leave Len where he is. He is staring at the young Johnny on the cot, looking all the world as if he might pull through. We never ask him to play cards. I feel like he’s lost enough already.

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