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Authors: Tim Bowling

Tags: #Historical, #General, #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The Tinsmith
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“Now that this blasted rain's stopped, we can go back to operating outside,” Rawley said. “And work fast, dammit. We might be moving out anytime.”

Recovering his instruments from the barn, Anson plunged back into his duty, joining the dozens of surgeons, stewards, and soldiers deputized for hospital detail who scurried about the barnyard, setting up the wrenched doors and oak barrels for surgery. Hours passed in a blur. The day grew warm, then hot. Sweat poured into his eyes, trickled through his moustache and beard. He hardly noticed that the sounds of battle had not resumed. No artillery pounded the earth, though sporadic musket cracks continued through the early morning. At one point, looking up from his table, Anson noticed two soldiers going through one of the viscous stacks of arms and legs. They reached in gingerly, then tossed limbs off to the side. Anson hurried over.

“What are you doing there?”

The men looked up sheepishly. One, corn-haired and freckled, with rubbery lips, immediately lowered his head again. His companion, who wore a beard dark and sharp as a spade under cheeks of a vivid red, spoke up mildly.

“Sorry, sir, it was only Jim's fancy. He's got it into his head to have his arm back. You see . . .”

The man's embarrassed hesitation irritated Anson. “I can't see anything if you don't tell me.”

“Well, it's this way, sir.” The soldier's cheeks seemed to drain of colour and immediately flush red again, as if he were continually dying and returning to life. His grey eyes fluttered. “Jim's a seaman, and the arm he's missing has his favourite tattoo on it. And Jim, why, he's afraid if he don't at least study it a while, he won't remember it exactly so as to get it made again just right.”

The corn-haired soldier looked up, scowling. “But I don't see as how he 'spects us to know which one of these is rightly his. You can't tell the blood from a tattoo nohow.”

“Mebbe we should just pick one,” the bearded soldier said, the red in his cheeks almost reaching his eyes. “Jim's pretty sick. He might not look hard enough to know the difference.”

Speechless, Anson turned heavily away. Just then, a violent commotion erupted in a near corner of the barnyard. A stocky civilian on a large white charger shouted at Josiah Rawley.

“I have the right to recover my property!” He yanked on the reins, but the more he did so, the more the horse seemed to react to the violence of his words. “And if it's in that barn, I aim to find out!”

“This is a hospital!” Rawley brandished his amputating knife. “And I am its commanding officer. No man's going to search for anything here unless I say so.”

“Then say so before I go ahead and do it anyway. I've got a government contract here to round up dead horses and I'm going to need all my niggers to get the job done.”

“Well, then, come back when the fighting's over. As far as I know, neither army's going anywhere just yet. Your dead horses will stay dead.”

The civilian, a squat man in English riding breeches, glared out from under his slouch hat. He had a scruff of reddish beard, like a tilted crescent moon, running from ear to ear, framing what to Anson was one of the ugliest faces he'd ever seen. The cleft in the chin was dark and thick and gave the whole jaw a cloven hoof quality. The eyes were black and shining, tiny patters of grease. Briefly, the man curled his thin lips back and revealed a pair of sharp incisors. Then, with a curse, he savagely spurred his mount and charged straight at Rawley.

To Anson's amazement, his superior officer didn't move out of the way. He simply widened his stance and leaned forward slightly, as if about to whisper a secret. With a wild, pealing neigh, the horse rose up, mud flinging off its hooves. Its rider's grin almost split his face in two. Anson imagined the top of the skull was about to tear off at any second.

Once the horse quieted and dropped to a standing position, its graceful white head yanking from side to side and up and down without rest, Rawley spoke.

“If you're not careful, sir, your property, if you find it, will be gathering up your fine charger with all the other poor beasts. I suggest you water the animal.”

The civilian leered out of his half-oval of beard as if out of a ring of fire. His voice came like a shout smothered by gunshot.

“And if you're not careful, I'll have my niggers dump you in a trench with all the rest of this rotting Yankee flesh.”

With a sharp snap of the reins, he reared the horse around and sped off westward. For a half-minute, Anson watched the man sink on the darkening horizon like a stone. Then a familiar voice brought him around.

“Come on, back to it now.” Rawley buried his right shoulder into a scattering group of civilian onlookers, many of whom appeared to believe that their contribution to the Union cause amounted to standing around and gawking. There were at least a dozen of them, and they'd likely come down from the surrounding hillsides after the battle, as nonchalantly as if they'd chosen to stroll after a picnic. But the ladies, at least, in their feathered hats and wide-hipped gowns, were shocked enough to hold perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses. Anson could hardly abide the presence of civilians, but then, the war was still new to most people, still a matter of romance to be followed like a theatrical production. Try as he might, however, he could not appreciate the civilians' looks of horror, for in these lay only the common sense human response to misery and death. To anyone, surely even to a general, the battlefield now was horrifying.

He approached one of the men, a particularly delicate-seeming fellow in a clean linen suit and straw boater whose pinched face wore a curious mixture of superiority and disgust.

“As long as you're here,” Anson said, “you might as well pitch in. You could take water to the men, at least.” He pointed to the ever-growing group of wounded lying flat on their backs or seated at the edge of the barnyard.

The man's nostrils dilated as he glanced at the wounded.

“Thank you, no,” he said. A crack of a rifle sounded in the far distance. The near-simultaneous loud groan of a soldier who was being lifted onto Anson's table made it seem as if the man had been struck again. The sound backed the civilian away. He spoke softly to a pretty young woman with long flaxen hair who stood near him, her eyes wet, her chin trembling.

“Come, Dora, I've seen enough to write my article.”

A journalist! As far as Anson was concerned, there was no lower breed. But as he was about to call the man a scavenger, the pretty woman stepped forward, pushing back the ruffled sleeves of her gown.

“I . . . I would like to help. I had no idea of what . . . of . . . oh, it's awful. Please, tell me what I can do.”

Softened, Anson led the woman over the manured ground to where a steward was tearing strips of cloth for bandages.

“This lady wishes to help,” Anson said. “Find her a suitable task, Clavett, please.”

The steward, whose face was like sodden paper with two large ink blotches on it, spoke dully. “Help? What for, miss? You ought to go home and take all these useless dandies with you. They're only getting in our way.”

The young woman bridled. She lifted her chin and spoke with resolve. “I do not intend to be in the way. I intend to be of service to these poor men.”

Clavett smiled at Anson, then said, “All right, miss, I guess you're in earnest. I'll find something for you to do. Even if you just visited with the wounded, that'd be a mercy to them.”

A mercy. Anson could no longer connect the word to its meaning. Mercy was what happened back home when an old and respected member of the community died in bed after a long illness. Mercy was what had come to each of his parents in turn, what should come to all souls in the fullness of time. He knew he could never think of mercy like that again. Not here. Not in a place worse than any nether world he'd read about in his beloved classics. Anson watched the young woman slip away, like Persephone, except with blood and not the seeds of pomegranates soon to besmirch her palms. Placing a hand to his side to fight off another piercing cramp, Anson made his way back to his operating table.

The stench grew by the hour. The gases of decomposition were being released from the dead still lying in the field, and the heat only made matters worse. Anson swayed a little from the pain in his stomach. His feet ached. His shoulders slumped heavily. And yet the damaged bodies kept appearing on the tables, the same quick decision about whether to amputate was made, the smell of chloroform no longer dulling the sickening odour flowing off the amputated limbs. Anson's strength for pulling lead out of wounds, when he could find it at all, had dwindled to almost nothing. He muttered phrases of bucolic Latin to try to stay alert.

It rained heavily for an hour in the afternoon, but they did not move the tables again; tarps and blankets were set up on poles to shelter the area of the surgery. In any case, Anson barely knew how the day unfolded outside of his own unceasing tasks. A sudden increase in the lines of groaning men he understood vaguely to be the result of a truce for exchanging wounded—a positive development from the human point of view, but Anson disliked the extra work. He wondered if he'd ever be done with cutting through tissue and sawing through bone. Exhausted, sickened, he berated the well-dressed onlookers, including a few women clothed in their most delicate finery, for not offering assistance. But they seemed to be in a state of mute and motionless disgust. With considerable gratitude and relief, Anson greeted the tall soldier's sudden reappearance.

The young man hadn't been there a few minutes ago, and now he was. And the result restored Anson's vigour. Almost as soon as he set another wounded man down on the table, the soldier took up a cloth and administered the anaesthetic. He did so firmly and without fuss, seemingly unmoved by the patients' fears and struggles. In the general miasmic atmosphere, with men groaning and crying out and awful stenches flowing across the torpid forms on the ground and in the crowded canvas tents of the barnyard, Anson felt himself lifted by the young soldier's steady presence, his lean face, surprisingly calm-looking despite the rough, broad scar on one cheek that suggested some act of violence. When time permitted, he vowed that he'd find out the man's regiment and secure for him a commendation.

The day ground on. Now some of the wounded, with the protection of shock having given way to severe pain, lashing the nerves and burning like hot wires, begged to have a limb removed. Anson ceased putting down his knife or rinsing it between surgeries; he simply held it between his teeth as another soldier was placed on the table. Then he explored yet another wound—most were serious fractures caused by minie balls, and it was difficult often to find the track of the lead, the entrance and exit wounds being wildly disparate. His fingers probed with increasing roughness as fatigue weakened him. The tall soldier's assistance became vital. He proved remarkably adept at calming agitated patients with nothing more than a calm, steady look and a firm grip. Before long, Anson asked him to hold his fingers on arteries during the amputations; the soldier's composure made the application of tourniquets unnecessary.

As dusk fell, Rawley decided not to move the tables back into the barn because it was overcrowded with wounded. Sperm-oil candles set up on barrel tops burned a faint, flickering light. Anson, for his part, was relieved to remain outside, despite the stench and insufficient lighting; the sense of vastness conveyed by the night and stars helped keep his duty in perspective. No matter how difficult the work, how exhausted his body, he knew he was but a single man with limited power. Besides, he had already observed that the open air seemed to help the wounded somehow, perhaps because the wind dispersed the miasma.

The young soldier, too, with his firm hand, made the long night bearable. Even on a few occasions when Anson began to make mistakes, the soldier lightly coughed or shifted his body. Once, when Anson uncharacteristically began cutting away too much tissue from around a bone, he even spoke.

“I've noticed that you generally leave more skin than that.”

Anson shook his head, wiped his eyes, asked for the candle to be lowered.

“Thank you,” he said after a few seconds. “You've just saved this man a great deal of grief.”

The soldier pulled back with the candle, his face briefly rivered with the light.

The work continued. Anson came to depend heavily upon the soldier's help, but the surgery was relentless. Some time after midnight, Anson paused and looked up from the table. From far across the fields, beyond the woods, came a low rumble and tramping, the sound of troops on the move. What did it mean? Anson turned, but the tall soldier wasn't there. A new man, just as young, very pale, his face a wilting blossom, looked down at the wounded man in amazed disgust.

“The man who was here before you,” Anson said. “Where did he go?”

Backing away from the table, as if terrified that he'd fall into the wound, the new man—Anson vaguely recognized him as a musician from his own regiment—said, “I don't know. I was just told to come over here. Sound asleep I was too. Haven't slept in days. It ain't fair.”

Anson made a brief prayer for strength, clutched at his stomach for the hundredth time, and returned to work.

By the time another daybreak approached, he noticed his cutting had become less efficient, more ragged; he could not help it. Pain flared across his shoulders, down his spine—the rheumatism back in full force. Latin was only a dead language now, as dead as everything else around him.

“Here's another, Sam,” he said to the assistant surgeon in charge of registering the dead as he lifted a body from the table.

The surgeon's reply was drowned in a burst of shouting, followed by the pounding of a horse in gallop. Anson looked to the east. The sky had lightened slightly but he could see nothing against it. The dark seemed oddly still, alive with unseen forces.

BOOK: The Tinsmith
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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