Off to War
Chapter Two (Shipping Out)
Dearest Father and Mother,
By the time you read this letter, I’ll be far away…
Abigail’s heart froze in her chest as she read those few words. Her maidservant moved to make another curl in her hair, but Abigail waved the woman off. What should she do? Continue reading or wait for her husband? Waiting for Thomas seemed by far the wiser thing to do. He would be able to keep a level head. Yes, he would know what to do.
Moments later, he appeared at the doorway, his features twisted in concern. Abigail couldn’t form the words, so she held the note out to him with a shaking hand.
He read the first few lines and looked up at her, eyes wide.
“Out loud,” she managed, her mouth dry.
Excusing the servants, he closed the door behind them and then sat on the edge of the bed nearby.
“Dearest Father and Mother, By the time you read this letter, I’ll be far away. I am sorry to have to do this in a letter. It’s not fair to either of you. Please forgive me. But I could not risk that you would stop me. What I am about to do is too important.
“I can no longer imagine continuing on here while John is at war, risking his life every day. The thought that I would wake each day not knowing where he is or if he is even alive is too much. I have to find a way to be with him. So, I am joining the women who follow the camps. This is the only way. Do not worry so, Mother, I will be away from the fighting. And I will write often. I love you both. Elizabeth.”
Abigail’s face fell onto her arms on the vanity. “My girl!”
Thomas stood and closed the distance to his wife, placing a hand on her back. “There, there.”
“You must go after her, Thomas. You must bring her home!”
“You know that’s not possible. The train left last night and for where I do not know. She is beyond our reach.”
“No,” Abigail insisted. When John first made it known he had enlisted, Abigail had sympathized with what she imagined Charlotte to be going through. Now she knew all too well the emotions that had coursed through Charlotte on that day.
Thomas’s arms surrounded her, holding her while tears poured forth. But in the midst of it all, Abigail felt moisture on her husband’s face. And she knew, he felt it too. Their daughter had gone off to war.
Off to War
Chapter Two (Shipping Out)
Just as Louisa had said, the next day proved to be arduous and every bit as long as she had promised. The train took them as far south as Charleston. From there, they walked for miles upon miles before they set up camp for the night. It couldn’t come soon enough for Elizabeth.
While she considered herself to be in excellent physical condition, young and capable, only a few hours in, her feet hurt. No doubt she had blisters from her impractical shoes. Why hadn’t she thought to exchange those when she bartered for plainer dresses? Her lack of foresight left her with no choice but to suffer.
For the sake of the women, the unit commander did pause from time to time for a break. However, the infrequent stops weren’t quite long enough for Elizabeth’s poor blistered feet. Finally, as evening neared, the unit came to stop and set up camp for the night.
Elizabeth and Melanie had been assigned a tent together with two nurses. Once the tent was miraculously assembled, due for the most part to their tent mates, Sarah and Lily, the girls went to setting out their sleeping mats. The tent only had room for their four sleeping mats to squeeze in, but they were thankful for beds and shelter all the same.
After her mat was set up, Elizabeth fairly collapsed on the padding. She wanted to lay there for the remainder of the day, but that would not be possible. Forcing herself into a sitting position, she pulled one foot close to herself and tried, with great difficulty, to take the shoe off.
“You’re over there grunting and whimpering about something. What’s the matter?” Melanie teased.
“It’s these shoes,” Elizabeth moaned. “I can’t seem to get them off.”
“Let me help.” Melanie came over to take a closer look.
Elizabeth’s face warmed. How was it that she couldn’t even get her shoes off by herself?
“Where did you get such fancy shoes?” Melanie asked, awestruck.
“It’s a long story,” Elizabeth looked away, hoping to dissuade Melanie from further questions.
“It’s not important,” she snapped, a bit louder than she meant to. “I didn’t mean that. I’m just in a lot of pain. Please,” she begged her new friend. “Help me.”
Melanie untied the shoes and freed the laces all the way down, then worked at loosening the leather. Then she tugged at the shoes with great care. It still took some effort due to Elizabeth’s swollen feet. But after several seconds, Melanie managed to get them off.
Melanie’s breath caught.
“What is it?” Elizabeth worried about what Melanie might have found.
“These blisters. My goodness, Elizabeth! You need to see the doctor about this.”
Looking over her knees, Elizabeth caught sight of her lumpy feet even through her foot dressings.
“No, I’ll be fine.” The words rushed out. A doctor did need to look at her feet and tend to the blisters, but the last thing she needed was for John to find out she was here.
“Let’s take off your stockings,” Melanie countered. Without waiting for consent, she removed Elizabeth’s stockings. Then the angry, red, water-filled blisters on her heels and the pads of her feet were plain to see.
Elizabeth, grimacing, reached out to touch one, but drew back.
One of the nurses had walked back to the tent for something and Melanie beckoned her over to where Elizabeth sat. “Sarah, I am trying to convince Elizabeth that the doctor needs to take a look at her feet. What do you think?
She glanced at Elizabeth’s feet and made a small sound. Then she made her way back into the thick of camp before Elizabeth could protest. Sarah would certainly return in short order with a doctor.
Elizabeth fell back on the cot, throwing an arm over her face. Her well-laid plan was over before it had begun. All of this…for nothing. John would be here in a matter of moments and he would send her back home.
Two sets of footsteps crunched in the grassy area nearby. A whisk of a breeze flew through as the tent flap opened. Still, Elizabeth refused to look up into John’s face.
“What seems to be the problem here?” a male voice said, but it wasn’t John.
Jerking back to her sitting position, Elizabeth sought with her eyes to confirm what her ears had heard. The kind blue eyes she stared into were decidedly not John’s. Had she gotten the wrong unit?
“I have, um, that is…there are some, um…I’ve got blisters,” she managed.
“Is that all?” The man watched her, smiling, and a little laugh escaped from deep in his throat. He was older than John, but not quite her father’s age. And he seemed rather amused at her tongue-tied state. Getting down on one knee, he examined her feet.
“I’m Dr. Smith. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There are two other doctors in the unit – Dr. Taylor and Dr. Rhodes. You’ll meet both of them in time.” As he spoke, he began to examine her blisters. “And I’m afraid I’m going to have to lance these.”
Elizabeth nodded. She had known as much to be true.
“Sarah,” he called over to the nurse who stood behind him. “I need some clean bandages and a sterile needle.”
She moved off to fetch his supplies and he let his eyes wander around their tent. Salt and pepper eyebrows went up when he spotted her shoes not far away. When he met her eyes again, it became clear. He knew she was playacting, that she was from an upper class home.
“I hope you have other shoes for the journey tomorrow. There will be more walking and I can’t guarantee it will be any easier in those. In fact, I doubt your swollen feet will fit back into them.”
Elizabeth shook her head, looking down. She hadn’t planned well at all. And now she was terribly embarrassed.
“No matter,” Dr. Smith said, his voice kind and gentle. “I’m sure we can find a spare pair of soldier’s boots. You’ll need a larger size shoe with the bandages on anyway.”
Elizabeth nodded, meeting his gaze.
They both turned as Sarah shuffled back toward the tent with the things Dr. Smith had requested.
Taking the needle in one hand, he clamped a hand around Elizabeth’s ankle. “You shouldn’t feel much, Miss. But even if you do, you must remain as still as you can.”
Nodding, Elizabeth braced herself. But, true to his word, she didn’t feel much of the pin pricks. Then he cleaned them and began wrapping her feet.
“I’ll find you some suitable boots,” he said, as he tied off the last bandage. “I need you to stay off your feet the rest of the evening, understand?”
“Yes, Dr. Smith.”
He stood, turning to leave.
“Dr. Smith,” she called after him.
He turned back toward her.
“Thank you,” she said in a meek voice.
“Of course. Anything for a woman so brave she would leave all behind to join this ragtag bunch.”
Elizabeth nodded. They understood each other. He would not disclose her identity to anyone.
As he left the tent, she lay back on her mat and stretched out her tired legs so she could rest her bandaged feet on her folded jacket. The bed mat, a far cry from the down feather pillows and soft mattress she had back home, was little more than a thick blanket on the ground. Even so, after the exhaustion of the day, it wasn’t long before she slept.