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Authors: Victoria McKernan

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BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
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“So little sister's taken up with the Spanish doctor, eh?” he said.

“He's sick. She's tending him.”

“Tending him,” he snorted. “Oh, ain't that nice.” Buck winked at the other men. “You know, I believe I feel some fever coming on me!” He put his hand on his crotch. “Oh yeah—it's a fever! A bad one! I believe I need some tending!”

Aiden didn't even think. He just reared back and punched William Buck in the face as hard as he could. Buck stumbled against the tailgate. For a long, slow second, he just stared in disbelief; then he hurled himself at Aiden with a roundhouse punch. Aiden threw up his arm to block the blow, but Buck had a good four inches and sixty pounds on him and knocked him to the ground. Aiden kicked hard at the man's legs. Buck fell. He let out a pained whoosh of breath, but he wasn't
winded for long. He threw himself on top of Aiden with an avalanche of blows.

“I'll pound you,” Buck snarled. “Then I'll pound your damn sister!”

Aiden slammed his fist into the man's cheek and felt the skin split beneath his knuckles. He saw the Kansas boys trying to pull Buck off him.

“You're shit!” Buck spat at him.

“Cut it the hell out!” Jefferson J. Jackson growled angrily. Aiden rolled over and felt blood pour out his nose. Jackson grabbed Aiden's shirt and hauled him to his feet. “I don't care what this was about!” He glowered at the both of them. “I told you my camp rules, and peacefulness was high up there, was it not?”

“Yes, sir,” Aiden mumbled.

“William Buck, you're a goddamn grown man.”

“He hit me first!”

“So what? If a kid half your size needs whupping—which I ain't saying he do, necessarily, at this particular nighttime moment, anyway, for God's sake—well, it generally don't take more'n a punch or two. We got a thousand more miles to go. Any more between the two of you and I swear I will leave you both behind and take my own satisfaction out of your sorry-ass hides before I do. Is that clear?”

Buck and Aiden both nodded.

“God damn! And I was dreaming something nice.” Jackson stomped back to his bedroll. “All musical and such!” he muttered.

“Maybe y'all ought to shake hands,” the widower suggested tentatively, glancing nervously from Buck to Aiden.

“You come see me any time you need to get a hurt on, boy.” Buck wiped blood off his chin.

“I catch you near my sister, or think you're even thinking about her, I swear I will cut your heart out,” Aiden said.

Joby fell asleep long before Maddy even got to the production of Swiss cheese, but it was a long and terrible night for Carlos. As Marguerite had warned, his mind suffered more than his body. He felt ants crawling all over his flesh. He saw mice darting around in the shadows and flies swarming and packs of black dogs prowling. Joby woke and tried to settle him down.

“No dogs here, Doc. The dogs are gone now,” he reassured Carlos.

“He dreams about those dogs all the time,” Joby explained sleepily to Maddy. “They used to come around the hospital tents, you see, try and steal from the pile of arms and legs. I'd chase one off and two or three more would sneak in behind. They would be licking at the blood on the ground. You could hear them always licking. …”

Maddy shuddered and almost threw up herself.

As the night wore on, the flies and mice went away, but Carlos was still restless. Maddy read more from the
Atlas of the World
and told him about life on the homestead. He knew nothing about farming, had never milked a cow or plowed a field. She tried to tell him only happy things. How nice the hay smelled, how once she had two yellow kittens. She left out the awful bits: how the hay spoiled and the cow died, how coyotes killed the cats. The moon went down and the
fire became a small flicker. The camp was silent, even the animals deep asleep by now.

“Now you tell me something.” Maddy yawned. She had run out of stories and was too tired to read anymore. “Tell me how you learned to be a doctor. Where did you go to school? Was it hard?”

Carlos looked at her with tired red eyes. One foot moved restlessly back and forth. “Little girl,” he laughed softly. “I know you like secrets. So I'll tell you one. I'm not a doctor. I don't have a diploma. I never went to medical school.”

“But Joby told me about all the soldiers you fixed in the war.”

“Yes, well, there's another thing. I was never in the army either! Not South or North.”

“But you came from the army. You were in an army prison.”

“They never were too picky about who they threw in prison.” He took a sip of water and stared into the dying fire. “I just got caught up. We were in Georgia, the war started, and we just got caught.”

“How did you come to be in Georgia from New York?”

“My father was a surgeon. He trained in Cairo—”

“Cairo, Egypt?” Maddy asked excitedly.

“Yes.” Carlos smiled and Maddy blushed, embarrassed that he saw how the foreign country impressed her. “My father was Spanish,” he went on. “My mother Egyptian. There were great schools of medicine then in Cairo. Doctors there knew about things your surgeons now have never heard of. But still, she died giving birth to me. Three years later, my father brought me to America. He thought there was opportunity here. He was a great surgeon, but he was darker than
me.” He absently rubbed his cheek. “In New York there were a hundred white doctors for the wealthy. The poor went to barbers or old women with their plants and potions. It was hard for him to practice surgery. He became a hotel doctor. After many years he grew tired of treating syphilis and drunks. A grateful client offered him a position on his plantation in Georgia. It was perfect. There were almost two hundred slaves there, and on the surrounding farms, a thousand or more. They were all valuable property,” he added with a bitter note.

“So just as they sent broken plows to the blacksmith, they sent broken slaves to us. It was—there is no way to explain it without sounding horrible, but you already know I'm horrible, so I'll tell you—for a doctor, it was wonderful. The slaves never came to us for ordinary ailments or boring diseases. No gout or indigestion, no headaches or croup. They had their own healers for that. We had complicated, interesting cases and plenty of surgery. We had open fractures and tumors; we had limbs crushed or caught in farm equipment. It was easy to get ether, and we could do surgery for an hour! My father designed new equipment. There was a jeweler in Savannah who made instruments for him. My father saved so many people.” Carlos paused. “But we wondered if that was doing more harm than good, fixing them up just to send them back to slavery.” He wiped the sweat off his face.

“Then one day a cartful of wounded soldiers came. The war had started. There had been talk of it brewing, but we were in our own world. Suddenly it was on our doorstep. The next day, six more came in, four the day after, then a dozen, and we never even counted anymore. The plantation owners all around began to flee. There was no way for us to get back
to New York, and even if we could, every day there were injured men to treat. How could we just leave? When the Union Army got close, the Confederates retreated and took us along with them. There were days my arm hurt from sawing through so many bones. But some days there were only a few injured and we could take our time and operate. God! That was so incredible. … I'm sorry, it's no talk for a girl.”

“I held the guts down inside an Indian,” Maddy said. “While my momma sewed him up.”

Carlos almost laughed. “Did he live?”

“He rode away,” Maddy said. “Sitting up on his own horse. But after that I can't know.”

“Well, then you know how it feels,” he said seriously. “When we could save a man's leg—those days were so good.”

“What happened to your father?” Maddy asked gently.

“He died of cholera, in the second year. I had nowhere else to go and they had few other surgeons, so I just kept on. I grew out of my coat and they gave me an army coat. My pants wore out and they gave me army pants. So I was in the army.”

The eastern sky was starting to turn from black to deep blue. Dawn was only an hour or so away. Maddy felt as if her insides were glass and about to break into bits. She tried to shift the talk to happier subjects.

“How did you and Joby come to be friends?”

“He was the blacksmith's son on the plantation. He taught me how to ride a horse.”

“Is that his real name—Joby?”

“Joseph Bradford. We had lots of Joes, so he was Joe B.”

“What caused his brain injury? Was he shot?”

“He tripped over a fence rail and was trampled by our own cavalry. It was our first real battle. I cut a hole in his skull to let the brain swell. It saved his life, but there was already damage.” Carlos stared at the glowing embers. “He wasn't ever much good for soldiering, even before getting trampled, but he had magic with the animals. He became my driver for the hospital wagons.”

“Then what?”

“Then the war just went on. In October of 1864 we were captured by the Yankees and taken to a prison camp. Six months later they opened the gates and told us to leave. So we walked out.”

“How did you come to be here?”

“There were hundreds of men walking, all looking for food and a way home. Neither one of us had any family left or home to go to. We came to a train station.” Carlos hesitated. “I had the dead money.” It was as if he needed to talk now but hated to at the same time, Maddy thought.

“Soldiers sew their valuables into their clothing,” he went on quietly. “Coins, rings, watches, whatever they want safe. They sew secret pockets in the lining. Everyone knows it. After a battle, other soldiers slit open the coats of the dead right on the battlefield. But the wounded mostly came to me with their clothes still uncut. If they died in my care, well, I knew as well as the next man how to search out the coins.

“At first I turned everything in to the officers. They said it would go to the families, but I soon learned that that didn't happen. So I started keeping it myself. I wrote everything in a ledger. I thought when the war was over I would get the money to the families somehow. I made a false bottom for my medical case and hid the coins there. It was heavy with
the instruments and no one ever found out. But over the years, I began to spend from it, to buy what medicines I could find for the wounded, soap, food, even bandages. The coins came and went. I lost track.

“Then the war was over. I still had money in my case. It was awful, thieving from the dead, but I didn't know what else to do. I bought tickets and we got on the train. I didn't even know where it was going, just that it was heading away from where we were. Three days later it arrived in Independence. Mr. Jackson was there, organizing the wagon train. It seemed like a good idea, to go to the other side of the country. Away from everything.” He shivered. “So I gave him money and asked him to buy whatever we needed to provision us. The next day we left. Now I'm here.”

Maddy stared at him. “So you mean to say—just two months ago you were in war prison?” Carlos nodded.

“Is that where you got—to needing the laudanum?”

“Yes. I never touched it before. There was precious little to be had during the war, and it would mean some poor soldier going without as I sawed off his arm. But we were in the camp”—his voice broke—”so long.” He turned away and steadied himself. “The poppies grew well around there. One of the guards wanted me to brew the laudanum for him, to sell. I took my cut. It's lovely stuff,” he sighed. “For a while.”

They both fell quiet. Maddy thought over his story, her mind filling in all the things he had left out: the fear, the hunger, the pain and loneliness, the horrible terror and ugliness of death. The first red glow of sunrise crept above the horizon. Carlos closed his eyes. The worst of his illness seemed to be over now. He looked almost calm. He also
looked, Maddy suddenly realized, very young.
I grew out of my coat. …

“How old are you, Doc Carlos?”

“How old?” He opened his eyes and blinked at the new light. “Well, yesterday was my birthday,” he said quietly. “Now I am twenty-one.”

Maddy didn't remember falling asleep, but suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her awake. She sat up quickly. The sun blasted her eyes and she squinted.

“Maddy—wake up.”

She sat up, feeling stiff and cold. She saw Joby sleeping soundly beside the remains of the fire. It felt as though ten years had gone by in one night. Doc Carlos was also asleep, curled tightly on his side, one hand still gripping a spoke of the cart wheel.

“You need to go back now,” Aiden whispered.

Maddy blinked and squinted at her brother. His face was bruised, his lip was crusted with dried blood and one eye was swollen shut.

“Aiden—what happened to you?”

“Nothing. I tripped,” he said. “Spooked one of the mules and it kicked me.”

Maddy didn't believe him for a second. With the way the men had been in her family, she well knew the evidence of a beating.

“Go back to your wagon now,” he whispered, pulling her to her feet. “Before everyone is awake and having questions.”

Maddy didn't know what kind of questions anyone would
have, but she was too tired to protest, and followed Aiden back to the reverend's wagon.

Marguerite gently took her hand. “Lie down and sleep in the wagon.” Maddy curled up on the quilts and slept until the wagon jolted to a start. It was not even a half hour, she thought, feeling grouchy from the lack of sleep. She shifted, trying to find a comfortable position, and felt something hard under her ankle. She sat up crossly but then saw that it was a book:
Comprehensive Anatomy of the Human Body, Including All Circulatory Systems and Muscular Arrangements.
She leaned out the back of the wagon and saw Joby driving the doctor's cart and Doc Carlos walking alone off to the side. He did not look her way. She stroked the soft leather cover and felt as if she had been given the whole world.

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
9.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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