Wrong Side of Love

by

Diana Lee Johnson


 


       

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Chapter 1

Loudoun County, Virginia
January, 1865

 

"Hold it right there, mister!" Brenna McKeon stood holding a shotgun, the butt firmly planted under her arm. She pointed the double barrel toward a mounted stranger.

"I'd like to, ma'am," the man said in a hoarse whisper, the nod of his head more an uncontrolled droop, "I truly would, but I don't think I can stay up here much longer." His speech was forced and breathy.

"Who are you and what do you want here?"

"I, I just wanted some . . . some . . . wa-" His words drifted, his eyes rolled upward, and he slid from the saddle to the frozen ground with a dull thud.

Brenna moved cautiously toward the lathered horse, talking to him in a soothing tone as she took the reins and tied him to a low branch of the huge maple tree nearby. Then, making a wide circle, she moved to the man on the ground. She poked at him with the barrel of the shotgun, but he didn't move. She wasn't even sure he was breathing. She trapped the stock of the shotgun tightly beneath her arm, and leaned closer. He was breathing, shallowly.

His eyes were closed, his skin ashen, his features drawn. A worker joined her in the yard. She handed him the gun.

"Keep it pointed at him, Ruben."

"Yes'm." The tall black man stared down at the man on the ground.

Brenna studied the rugged face below her, observing the well-defined jaw line under several days' growth of light brown whiskers. She mentally chastised herself for noticing anything personal. She had no time for such frivolity.

She opened his collar and felt for a pulse. "He's alive. I can feel a weak pulse. Don't know if he's starved or sick." Her cold fingers warmed too quickly against him. She searched his clothing for some clue. "He's got a fever, but I don't--" her words halted abruptly. As she pulled the left front of his greatcoat aside, her fingers slid into a thick, warm, stickiness. His shirt and jacket were soaked with blood.

"Good Lord. Ruben, put down the gun and help me get him to the house."

"Miss Brenna, you don't know who he is or who done shot him. He could be a Yankee."

"And he could be a Confederate, or a civilian. Even if he is a Yankee, he certainly won't be the first one in my home. Now help me."

"If he's a civilian, who ya s'pose shot him?" Ruben chattered idly as he approached.

"I'm sure I don't know." She groaned as she tried to lift the huge, limp body, "and if you don't help me this instant, whatever he may be, he will be a dead man."

Ruben swallowed and took a deep breath. Laying the shotgun on the porch, he returned. Placing his hands under the man's shoulders, he dragged him toward the house.

Brenna picked up his feet and they struggled to get his dead weight up the porch steps and through the front door. Brenna motioned with her head, "Here in front of the fire," and they placed the stranger on the braided rug.

"Get some blankets, Ruben. He may be fevered, but this floor is too cold to be healthy once I remove his clothing."

"I get what I can find, Miss Brenna. Ain't a whole lot left, ya know."

Brenna knew only too well that they were short on everything. She'd tended so many wounded men in her home, she had scarcely enough blankets to keep herself warm this winter. Though the man was fevered, his face and hands were beet-red from the cold. She must warm them slowly.

Ruben helped her remove the overcoat, the jacket and the shirt, mumbling. "I seen you take care of so many, Miss Brenna, blue and grey, guess one more half-naked man on the parlor floor won't make no difference."

Brenna shook her head, casting him a sideways glance.

"Get my things, please, Ruben, and bring as many lamps and candles as you can find. The sun's going down, and I need more light."

Ruben brought a black doctor's bag and wooden surgeon's kit. Then he gathered lamps and candles and stationed them as close as possible to her.

"Two bullets still in this man," Brenna mumbled as she inspected him. "I don't think he has much of a chance, but he doesn't have any if I don't get them out. The one in the shoulder isn't too bad, but this one . . . " She studied his chest. "If it isn't too close to his heart, it's surely punctured his lung. You know what to do, Ruben."

"Yes'm. Water's already on the stove."

"Thank you. I'm gonna have to do this right down here on the floor. If we move him, he'll lose more blood--if he has any left."

She spread the instruments out on a clean white cloth. She'd never operated from a kneeling position before, but he couldn't be moved. Brenna rummaged through the black bag searching for the small amount of treasured chloroform a Union doctor left.

She wasn't going to use it unless absolutely necessary. The man was unconscious, and she didn't think he was likely to stir, but she'd keep it handy just in case. She struggled to her feet, impatient with the tangle of skirts and petticoats as she pulled at the bulky cloth with both hands. Some cursed invention of men to keep women from being too aggressive, no doubt. They kept the trousers for themselves. She flung the fabric down and headed for the kitchen.

"Would you wipe him off some, Ruben, so I can see what I'm doing. I've got to wash my hands."

"Yes'm."

She gave him a grateful smile, aware of his dislike for bloody scenes, then hurried away. She appreciated the fact that he no longer complained around her.

Brenna was so accustomed to the sight, she blocked the crimson color as she treated wounds. Her mind repaired to sepia images, like the daguerreotypes of her brothers that adorned the mantel in the parlor.

When she returned, Brenna stood for a moment watching how mechanically Ruben took a clean wet cloth, ran it over a bar of lye soap and gently dabbed at the bloody skin around the two holes. She couldn't help thinking it was a too well-practice routine for them both.

He got up from the floor. "That 'bout the bestest I can do, Miss Brenna."

"That's fine. I don't know what I'd do without you." She touched his arm as he moved.

"Yes'm," he mumbled as he stepped back out of her way.

Brenna removed both bullets with the speed and skill of a veteran war surgeon. Each time she tried her hand at surgery, she became quicker, more adept.

"You 'maze me, Miss Brenna. Minnie says them long, slender fingers o' yours should be flyin' with a sewin' needle, not havin' t' poke around for bullets and sew up men's insides. Them's delicate hands, but they's strong and steady, like yer pa's. All them little knots you can tie with one-hand. I seen ya practicin', pretendin' ya was doin' some fancy kind o' embroidery. Man's real lucky if you's the one what fixes 'im up stead o' some sawbones."

Brenna hoped she'd successfully re-attached the severed vein she found very near this man's heart and that her tiny stitches closing the gap in his collapsed lung would hold long enough to heal so the lung could re-inflate.

With a deep sigh, she leaned back and sat on her heels as she rested her hands on her aching back and stretched her shoulders.

"I've done my best, Ruben, but only God knows if that will be good enough. He probably won't survive the heavy loss of blood, but there's a chance. At least he'll lose no more."

She picked up the bottle of chloroform and handed it to Ruben. "I didn't need this at all. Not a good sign. He was probably beyond help when he got here."

Ruben took her hand to help her up, but she smiled, shaking her head. "I'll sit here with him a little while."

"Miss Brenna, you gotta stop puttin' yourself out all the time fer strangers. You just too much like yer pa. He never know'd when to take care of his own self. If'n he did, he'd still be here. It ain't gonna do nobody no good if you catches yer death."

"I'll be fine. You go on to bed."

Leaning her head back to stretch her cramped neck, Brenna closed her eyes, her face pointed toward the ceiling as she made a silent plea to God for this man's life. Every life was precious, but something touched her about this man. Perhaps it was simply because he was the first wounded man in civilian clothes she'd treated. It made her think of her father, traveling among the soldiers on both sides in civilian clothes, tending wounded, until a vindictive Union officer shot him for the very act that saved his life.

Her mind drifted, as she slid over on one hip, her legs curled beneath her skirt. The Union Army always wanted her father to treat their wounded, but gave him only the most hopeless of cases, the ones they didn't want to assume responsibility for.

Yankee doctors were always quick to criticize his methods, his obsession with cleanliness and his refusal to pack open wounds with lint. But they were also quick enough to take the credit for miraculous survivals under her father's care.

Her mind snapped back to the present wondering what happened to this stranger on her parlor floor. Had he been set upon by deserters? Was he a deserter? She looked closely at the square shape of his jaw, the perfect arch of his thick eyebrows. No, she thought not.

Perhaps it was his helplessness that touched her, not characteristic of him, she was sure from the well-developed muscles of his arms and chest. He appeared a little gaunt.

She sat on the floor studying his face, so close she could feel his warmth from the fever, see the wavy lines of heat escaping into the cold air near the floor. Was she imagining the lines about his eyes fading, his breathing less labored? Or was he fading into God's hands.

His body was long, well over six feet, probably as tall as her brother Briant. She surveyed the length of him with her eyes, wondering where he was from, and what brought him to her farm.

The wavy hair, matted close to his head in a pronounced band of sweat beneath his hat, was now drying. No longer clinging tightly to his head, it was lightening to a muddy brown. Somehow that seemed to agree with his features. Did it go with his eyes?

Brenna realized she ignored or forgot the color of his eyes. She checked his pupils in her diagnostic procedure, but she was so accustomed to the routine she couldn't even remember their color. Brown, no, not brown . . . blue?

Her brow furrowed as she concentrated. She could remember the pupils, but not the eye color. She studied the face again, trying to remember. She shrugged. Why should she bother herself with such a detail? She shook her head. It was silly to even wonder. She got up from the floor to move to a nearby chair.

Stopping in her tracks, she glanced about the room to make sure Ruben hadn't returned, then tip-toed back to her patient. Another furtive glance about the room--she bent over and lifted one eyelid. Blue, his eyes were blue. She caught herself smiling with satisfaction and quickly controlled her expression.

She tweaked her nose as she straightened and sniffed to clear her nostrils, wishing he was conscious enough to chew a sprig of mint or a bit of cloves for his stale breath. Even Briant's hated pipe smoke would have been welcomed.

Brenna sat in the wooden rocker, exhausted and stiff from tending the man on the cold floor. A tear escaped down her cheek as her thoughts returned to her father. The injustice of the military record of his death made her immune to any personal feelings of warmth, though she felt honor-bound to continue his work. If not for the war, Brenna would already be a doctor.

Almost twenty-two, she was a spinster by local standards, and a poor one at that. There was nothing for her in the South, even though everyone for miles relied on the knowledge and skill obtained from her father over the years.

If the war didn't end soon and at least one of her brother's return, she didn't know what to sell next. If her brothers did come home, they'd probably be angry at the pieces of land she'd sold for supplies, or given to the former slaves. Dinsmore was her grandfather's huge plantation, but was now a moderate farm, with no one left to run it.

Sleep crept up on her as she thought about it all, until Ruben shook her hard.

"Miss Brenna, you gotta wake up. The man, he gots another hole in him."

She fought to open her eyes, not sure she heard what Ruben said. "What?" She strained to hear, her heavy eyelids refusing to open.

"Thought I'd take off his boots so's he'd be more comfortable-like, and one of them's filled with blood. He gots a mean hole in his leg."

"What? His leg?" She shook herself awake. How could she have missed another wound?

"You was so worried 'bout his upper half, didn't nobody notice the bottom."

She stumbled from the rocker to look. Sure enough, another wound appeared just above his right knee.

"Looks like it went through." She yawned. "Get the--"

"I know, I'm goin'. Get the hot water. Get the soap. Get the bandages. Get the doctor bag . . . " his voice drifted off as he recited the routine.

Brenna stretched, took a deep breath, then scurried about the room lighting the lamps and candles again. She hoped all this work wasn't for nothing. He was still breathing. Did it sound less labored, or was she just so tired her ears couldn't register.

 

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