“Off to War”
Chapter Three ~ Battle
The battle raged on. All Elizabeth could do was sit and listen to the cannons and gunfire in the distance, grimacing at every sound. There was no laundry to do, no sewing that was called for, nothing to be done. Just sit and wait for news. It was the longest wait of her life. Looking at the water, she couldn’t help but imagine the laundry that they would have to do the next day. She envisioned the blood discoloring the water as they would work to clean the dark blue uniforms. Shaking her head to clear such morbid thoughts, she tried to think of something more pleasant. Nothing came to mind. What was there to think of at a time like this? Nothing but war and bloodshed. Not for the soldiers, and not for her.
Though she had long since been released from duty, she found herself unable to leave her post. The camp seemed abandoned with the troops gone, the hospital staffed, and the other women…where? Where were the other women? Waiting and praying in their tents? Elizabeth sank to her knees by the water tub and sobbed, praying for the men in their unit that were facing their mortality even then.
“Father, Keep Your gracious hand on these brave men. It is my will that You keep them safe from harm, but I know that it is Your will not mine that we should seek. Comfort those who are wounded. Give the doctors wisdom and skill. Be with John.”
“Elizabeth!” Melanie interrupted her thoughts. “Elizabeth!”
Elizabeth got to her feet. “What is it? Is there news?”
Melanie was almost out of breath as she stopped by Elizabeth. She nodded. “The fighting is over, but there are many wounded. They need help in the hospital. I told them I would bring you.” Melanie grabbed her hand and walked in the direction of the hospital.
Elizabeth froze. She wanted to help, but how could she avoid John in the hospital? He would see her and her plan, and her time here would be over. Her head fell. What purely self-serving thinking! There were men wounded and in need of care, and she was worried after something so selfish! Embarrassed by her reaction to Melanie’s request for help, she turned away.
When Elizabeth didn’t move, it caused Melanie to jerk back. “Come on. What are you waiting for?” Melanie asked, confused.
Determined to do what she could to help these men who were in such need, she took Melanie’s hand and followed her, rushing toward the hospital tent.
Nothing could have prepared Elizabeth for what she saw at the hospital tent. The battle had been gruesome. Every space available was filled with men in all states of horror. She did not have time to take it all in before a nurse approached.
“Take the men water, sit with them, and tell them the doctors are making it around. Do you know how to clean a wound?”
Elizabeth was numb to everything around her, but she nodded. Melanie shook her head.
“Good,” the nurse said to Elizabeth. “Do only superficial cleaning. You’ll find supplies over there,” she indicated a shelf at one end of the tent. And you,” she turned to Melanie. “Come watch me for a couple of patients and you’ll learn.”
Looking over the tent full of men in agony, being recognized by John was the furthest thing from her mind. Elizabeth made her way over to the shelf and grabbed some supplies. She stopped at the first man near the shelf unit. He was young, much younger than John. His sandy-blonde hair fell over deep brown eyes that looked up to her as if to find some reassurance that all would be well. There was a fear there. Fear remaining like an echo from the emotion of the battle and fear that nothing would ever be the same. Fear of what might happen to him. Elizabeth knew that she would never forget the look in his eyes.
“Hello, soldier.” She put on her best smile for him. “I’m Elizabeth. What’s your name?”
The man was shaking badly, with a terrible leg wound. He was in shock. In all likelihood he would lose the leg.
She offered him some water. He drank it, thanking her. She began to clean the wound, but she didn’t see much point in it. The leg was in need of a deeper cleaning. Still, she did as the nurse had instructed her and basically put a strip of cloth on a gunshot wound.
“I-is it b-b-bad?” Adam asked.
She shook her head. “You’ll be fine,” she told a half-truth. “The doctor will see you in a while.”
Man after man, wound after wound, all Elizabeth could do was offer water and assurances that the doctors would see them soon. She could tell by looking at some of these men that they were not going to make it and it broke her heart. But she put on a brave smile for them, and spent more time by their bedside, talking with them, singing to them, praying with them. A few of them passed on while she was with them, but she refused to cry.
After a couple of hours, she noticed that she had not had to duck from John’s view. Glancing around the hospital, she couldn’t spot him anywhere. She excused herself between patients to find a nurse.
“I’m looking for Dr. Taylor. Dr. John Taylor,” she said, knowing her voice betrayed her worry.
“A doctor will be around to see each patient in turn,” the nurse said, a little annoyed.
“No,” Elizabeth grabbed her shoulders, desperate. “I’m looking for Dr. Taylor.”
The nurse stopped to think. “He went to the front lines to patch the wounded there and prepare them for transport. He hasn’t come back.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. She whirled around and took off running. Where to, she did not know. At first she turned this way and that, confused about what she was going to do. Then, she was struck with a plan and ran for the laundry. It was easy enough to get her hands on a small enough uniform, carry it back to her tent, and slip into it, binding her breasts. Shoving her hair up in a cap, she rubbed dirt and mud on her face to disguise her feminine features. And, making her way across the camp somewhat unnoticed with all of the mayhem from the recent battle, she ran toward the battlefield.
The field was littered with bodies and limbs. Elizabeth had thought the hospital was bad, but this was a million times worse. There were no words to describe the grisly state of the men there. She felt the urge to vomit, but held her stomach. Taking several deep breaths, she reminded herself that she was here for a reason, she had to find John. He might need her.
Walking the battlefield, she looked for signs of her beloved. With the front line a little ways in the distance and to the left of her position, she could search here for a while before risking being discovered. What was he doing out here in the first place? Why would he come? Hadn’t he promised to stay a safe distance from the fighting? But she knew he would go where he was needed. Stubborn, selfish fool!
She was getting close to what had at one time been the front line when the bodies thickened and the number of gray uniforms matched the blue ones. One look to her left told her that she was almost in line with the current front line, just in a section that wasn’t being patrolled. She found herself being forced to move bodies in order to check for John. Having to touch the bloodied corpses ended up to be too much for her stomach and she did vomit. But, her determination took over and she moved onward.
As she came upon one particular Union soldier stabbed with a bayonet, the blade protruding out of his back, she could see that the man underneath him was a Confederate soldier, so she turned to move on. But a hand shot up toward her. He was alive!
“Help me,” came the weak voice of the man trapped underneath the dead Union soldier.
Something in her told her to run, but another part of her bid her to stay. Gray uniform or blue, this man needed help. How could she, in good conscience, leave him to die knowing she could have saved his life?
With much effort, she pushed the dead soldier off of him and saw that the Confederate soldier had a wound in his upper arm. It began to bleed out. The weight and body of the Union soldier must have put enough pressure on it to stop the bleeding. Thinking quickly, she tore off enough sleeve from the Union soldier to fashion a tourniquet.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice still weak.
That’s when she looked into his eyes. It was hard to imagine that this man, whose blue eyes she found herself gazing into had played a part in the destruction around her, had killed men, perhaps this Union soldier she had just moved. But it was true.
There were sounds in the distance and she jerked her head up, standing when she saw more Confederate soldiers headed her way. What was she going to do?
“Stop! Thief!” One yelled out, raising his gun. He fired.
A hot searing pain in her left shoulder whipped her around and threw her to the ground. Elizabeth was still conscious when her head found a rock as she landed. And then all was black.