“Off to War”
Chapter 3 – Battle
It didn’t take long for the other women to find out that Elizabeth didn’t know much about cooking or laundering or more than basic stitching. They all found this rather curious, Melanie reported to her, but they appreciated her willingness to learn. And they seemed pleased with how quickly she picked things up. By the end of the first week, she was performing all of the basic tasks with surprising proficiency, even if she was slower than the other women. Everyone became most impressed with her drawing skills. In her free time in the afternoons, she would draw portraits or scenes of the camp.
Melanie continued to feed Elizabeth a running commentary on the men in the unit: who was available, who was married, who was cute, who was plain, who was ‘husband material’, who wasn’t anything special. Elizabeth’s suspicions had been laid to rest. She was certain Melanie would go home with a fiancé.
Elizabeth and Melanie seldom saw their tent mates as the nurses’ time was taken up at the hospital, setting it up to receive casualties, only returning to the tent to sleep. Even then, Sarah wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Not even at the behest of the ever-chatty Melanie could they get more than rudimentary pleasantries out of her. Was she shy or tired or just not interested in concerning herself with making new friends? Lily, on the other hand, would engage in simple conversation, but was always more interested in hearing about Melanie or Elizabeth than talking about herself.
Everyone became more and more certain their unit would find themselves in combat soon. After getting to know some of the soldiers, it broke Elizabeth’s heart to think that some of them would leave the camp and not return. At least John would be safe. The doctors would stay in the hospital to receive the sick and wounded. They would remain a safe distance from the fighting. Still, that was of little comfort.
“What do you think, Elizabeth?” Melanie asked. They were in their tent, preparing for bed.
Elizabeth hadn’t been paying attention as Melanie went through her evening litany of the men she had encountered that day.
“I’m sorry, what?” Her face warmed in spite of herself.
“I met the young doctor. What was his name? John. He’s handsome. I may have found my match,” came Melanie’s gleeful voice.
Elizabeth dropped her apron. Her John? Was Melanie talking about her John?
“He has a girl back home,” Sarah piped up, startling Melanie. But she recovered well.
“Is that so?” Melanie fingered the edge of her pillow.
“Yes,” Lily said, settling herself onto her mat. “I hear they’re engaged.”
“Well, he didn’t marry her before joining up. That says something. War changes people. Maybe I still have a chance. After all, I’m here and she’s not,” Melanie met Lily’s gaze as she eased herself onto her own mat.
Elizabeth drifted back off into her own thoughts. War changes people. Was that true? Did war change people? Would it change her? Would it change John? Would it change the fact that they loved each other? Surely not. What they had was so deep, so real. Elizabeth could not, would not accept that the war could change that. Melanie didn’t know what she was saying. She didn’t know John.
“What do you think, Elizabeth?” Melanie interjected into her thoughts.
Elizabeth had missed Melanie’s question again.
“I think it’s time to get some shut eye,” was all Elizabeth could manage to say.
“I agree!” Lily said, her voice quite loud.
Melanie’s eyebrows furrowed and her bottom lip protruded as she crossed her arms.
Sarah leaned over and turned out the lantern, plunging the four women into darkness.
“Melanie,” Elizabeth said, as she slid down onto her thin bed, her voice gentle. “I think you need to realize that one day soon some of these men are going into battle and they’re not coming back.”
“I know that,” she said, her voice quiet and soft.
“Then why plan futures with so many of them?”
“Because it keeps me from thinking that way, that there’s a time clock on their lives.”
Elizabeth had to almost hold her breath to hear Melanie speak, her voice was so quiet.
“I don’t want to treat them that way. I don’t want to think about them like that.”
Elizabeth glanced in her direction in the dark, but was only able to see her silhouetted in the night. This was a deeper side to Melanie. Elizabeth never could have guessed that there was something more behind all of this boy craze.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth whispered. “I didn’t realize…”
“I know,” Melanie said into the darkness. “It’s all right. Let’s just get some sleep.”
“All right.” Elizabeth lay down on her pillow and listened to the gentle breathing sounds of the women in her company. But her thoughts were on John and on what Melanie had said about war changing people. And it kept her awake long into the night.
“Off to War”
Chapter 3 – Battle
Another early rise for the troops. Jacob sighed as he sat up and moved his legs to wake his limbs. This was definitely something Benjamin did not write about. They had been rising well before dawn these last few days. Yawning and stretching, he pulled on his uniform pants first, then his uniform jacket. He had to report soon.
His tent mate was already dressing as well. It wasn’t long before they were both regulation, gun in hand, and ready to go. Making their way outside of their tent, they reported to the command post, taking their places in the line up.
All of the soldiers stood at attention while the captain walked up and down the line, inspecting the troops. Jacob held his breath as the man passed by. On occasion, the captain would find what he considered a sloppy appearance and yell at the soldier. For the most part, they were a ship-shape unit, if not by nature, by fear of this particular commander. Their captain had a reputation for remembering anyone who dared show up sloppy. Thus far, Jacob had escaped that nightmare.
After inspection, they were released to breakfast. On occasion, the women would make a warm breakfast for them, but that all depended on what foodstuffs were available. This morning, it was the hard tack bread rations and some bacon, which had been cooked.
Jacob ate his food, all the while thinking about his mother’s flapjacks and maple syrup she often fed him if he had a test that day or needed cheering up. He appreciated the women who had given up so much to come stay at the camp and cook for the soldiers, but they could not compare to his mother’s home cooking. Especially the blonde girl they called Elizabeth. Whenever she had been cooking, he could hear the other men groaning. It just wasn’t her strong suit.
Forcing down the last of the hard tack, Jacob saw the captain signal the troops to line up for their early morning run. After a quick breakfast each day, they would line up again for maneuvers. This could mean any number of things physical. They would run for some length of time every morning. Sometimes they would have obstacle courses of sorts where they would have to crawl with their muskets in hand or climb with them. There were days they had exercises where they practiced hand to hand combat with their bayonets. And there was his least favorite – taking apart their muskets and putting them back together.
Even now, Jacob moved toward the front of the line for their morning run. One of the faster men in the camp, he could keep up his speed throughout the duration of the run. The captain counted them off and they started moving.
Though the never dared breathe a word of it, he found the morning run invigorating. He enjoyed the fresh air, the scenery, and, though he was sure most of the men did not find the run enjoyable, the camaraderie was something to be appreciated.
So they were off, out into the field. Jacob allowed his mind to wander during the run when, before he knew it, a couple of other soldiers began shouting at him from behind.
“Hey, you trying to make us look bad?”
“Yeah! What’s in your head?”
“You’re just jealous,” Jacob yelled back with a slight grin on his face. That would bug them. After all, it was the same heckling every morning. A handful of them would get together after morning drills and chide each other. It almost seemed like everyone had a certain thing the others would tease about. They ribbed Frank about how he always had a piece left over during musket drills. George would be razzed about his poor time on ground drills. And they hassled Jacob about his running.
“What are you doing? Running from the front lines?” They tried to make him mad, but it wasn’t working. Jacob turned his head for a second, eyeing which ones managed to keep up with him.
“No, I’m leading a rag tag group of misfits,” he howled back, wanting to show them they weren’t getting to him. A hand landed on his shoulder. He glanced back. One of them had gotten close enough to touch him.
“So, one of you can actually run!”
Jacob feinted left and right, dodging this other soldier who tried to grab him. It brought back memories of he and Benjamin playing in the back yard when they were boys. He hurled out taunts. The guy behind him started to pant and lose his gain. Slowing down a bit, Jacob turned while still jogging.
“What now? Can’t keep it up, Old Man?” He laughed. The troops seemed as if they were chasing him.
Old Man sprinted faster.
Jacob’s eyes widened and he realized that Old Man just might get him. He turned back around and picked up the pace. Right as he did so, he hit a dip in the path. His feet stumbled, and Jacob hit the ground hard.
Old Man was so close behind him that he crashed into Jacob as well. They both lost their breath, the wind knocked out of them.
The captain was soon on the scene. “What is wrong with you two? Moore, Johnson!”
Jacob was just then catching his breath and pulling himself to his feet. He took the fall relatively unscathed. Old Man didn’t look too good though. When he got up, his ankle seemed twisted.
“Moore, you get Johnson back to the infirmary. Move out!”
Jacob extended a hand to help the man. “What’s your name?”
“Daniel. Daniel Johnson.” The man said, grimacing as he attempted to put weight on the injured ankle.
“Well, Daniel, congratulations on figuring a way out of morning drills.” Jacob offered the young man a smile. “I just hope the captain doesn’t clean your clock for it later.”
Daniel chuckled, leaning on Jacob while they limped back to the hospital. Once there, it wasn’t long before the doctor had wrapped Daniel’s ankle and told him to take it easy for the next few days. As the doctor walked away, Jacob decided to get one more jab in.
“See, I knew there was a way to slow you down!”
Daniel gave him a cross look and Jacob knew he had made a lifelong friend.