September 14, 1862
Battle of South Mountain
Joe opened his eyes to darkness. A shadow moved against the semi-blackness of a window and his senses screamed the warning. He jerked, gasped at the jolt of pain, and fell back. His heart pounded with fear at his weakness as his mind struggled to place where he was. Ben? Where was he? They had stayed close to each other. Too close. Ben had blamed himself when Joe had taken the minie ball in his shoulder. Joe heard his own voice as if from a great distance; his explanation to ease Ben’s guilt; “We’re in a war, what do you expect?”
He blinked as a vision of Ben flashed through his pounding head. He massaged his forehead, felt a hand on his shoulder and swung to his left, rolling to avoid the contact. He fell into nothingness, slammed into the floor. Pain took his breath.
Through the waves of nausea he realized one thing, the voice was soft. Feminine. When the hands touched his shoulder, his face, he felt the softness in the fingertips, reminding him of home and gentler times.
“You’re in a springhouse on our farm,” the voice rushed to explain. “You were injured.”
He gritted his teeth against the weakness of even sitting up. Her hands left arm, though he could hear the swish of her skirts. A flicker of light, then a touch against the wick and brighter light.
“Can you stand?” She went to the bed, yanked the covers back up that had twisted with him to the floor. “I’ll try to help you.”
“No,” he spit the word, and rocked to his knees, fighting for consciousness through ever move. Why was there such searing pain? The minie ball injury? “I’ll get up.”
She guided him down onto the thin mattress and covered him with a quilt. He felt like a child being put down for a nap. Her fingers swiped hair from his brow and he swallowed against a new tightness in his throat. How long had it been since he’d felt a gentle touch?
“I’ll get my grandmother. Perhaps she can—”
“Stay.” He exhaled hard, wanting nothing more than to feel her touch against his face again. To hear the softness of her voice.
She’d made as if to rise, but settled back in the chair and into the circle of light. “You know who you are and what happened?”
“My shoulder. I was shot by a Yank in a skirmish. Ben. . .my brother was with me.”
“He’s not here. It’s only you. You were brought here by. . .a group of people.”
Such a lot of words. Too many for him to make sense of them all. Golden light shimmered against her dark hair and revealed a flash of darkness along her cheek. A dimple? He blinked and felt the grit in his eyes.
“Go back to sleep. It truly is the best thing for you.”
“Ben. . .” He let the word linger, his mouth dry, lips stinging. He raised his hand to touch the burning spot along his mouth but the effort was too much. The woman’s voice was a whisper in his ear, his eyes too heavy to open and he didn’t want to. All he wanted was to know his brother was safe. The woman had to know something, didn’t she? Lost on a rise of pain emanating from his chest—or was it his shoulder?—the question spun away from him. Giving up the fight, he dragged in a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to relax against the waves of discomfort.
Gerta Bumgartner stood sentry over the inert form of the Confederate soldier, a position Elizabeth had seen her grandmother take many times to heal the sick and suffering. But this, this was different and they all knew it.
"His wound is bad, Grandmama," she worried aloud as she stepped into the coolness of the Spring House.
Gerta's sharp eyes, only now dimming with a fog that made it hard for her to focus, took in the dark interior of the room. Babbling along the floor, a spring ran up through the ground, paused to maintain a pool of water, then gurgled off beneath the wall and out into the bright September sunshine.
Another roar vibrated through the air. The two shared a look, each understanding and mirroring back the worry of cannons and charging brigades moving their direction. The war was edging closer to them every minute.
"The fighting is fierce. The south will prevail."
She should have been used to the shocking things Gerta said by now. It was part of the reason her grandmother stayed to herself and was no longer called on as much among the citizens of Sharpsburg. "How can you say that Grandmama, knowing that your grandson fights for the North?"
Gerta chuckled and wiped her hands on a linen that lay across the wounded soldier's chest. "I say what I think." She shot a mischievous grin. "Tomorrow I'll root for the Yanks."
Beth took in the soldier's gray complexion, the dry, cracked lips. No shoes. His feet were cracked on top, the bottoms splotched with blisters and dirt.
"A right sad lot of men if he's any example," Gerta said. "Did you burn the clothes and the bedding?"
"Yes." She couldn’t help the grimace. She’d been forced to burn the rag of a dress she’d worn while dragging the louse infested mattress and clothes out to the fire. Her ankle and leg ached from the work.
"I stripped him down and scrubbed him hard." Gerta pointed to a long tube hung on a leather string around his neck. "A louse trap."
Beth raised a brow. "Another one of your remedies?"
Another cackle of glee burst from her grandmother. "Can't take the credit for this one. It works and there was plenty of his blood to bait the trap."
Beth stared at the narrow tube and decided she didn't want to know anymore.
Gerta stroked the man's forehead almost as if she feared his skin would tear with the least pressure. She'd felt that tender touch before. Felt her grandmother's gentle pressure against the hollows of the eyebrows that helped relieve pressure in the head, or the massage that eased pain and relaxed taut muscles in the neck. "Tell me about the package."
For a moment she couldn't fathom to what her grandmother referred, then she recalled the brown wrapped package beside the armchair in front of the fireplace. "I haven't opened it yet."
"I can see that, girl, but where did it come from?"
"I brought it with me."
She managed a stiff nod. "She wanted me to have something of home."
"Yet you haven't unwrapped it?"
Beth shrugged. "I haven't been homesick."
Gerta straightened and put a hand to her back, a grimace tightening her features. "I think I'll sit a spell. We'll need to bake more bread. As much as we can over the next few days."
"I've already started." She didn’t bother to remind her grandmother that she’d said the same thing every day for the last two days, ever since word of the Confederates moving into Frederick had been received.
Elizabeth followed her grandmother's brisk steps outside at a slower pace. Already the September air blew hot. A beautiful day redolent with the rushes of gentle breezes and a mopcap of white clouds scudding along the blue sky. Yet even the warm rays of the sun seemed restless as they stabbed through the clouds, then disappeared, only to reappear within seconds. She wondered, fancifully, if even God was nervous about the artificial white-cloud capping South Mountain and the battle waging there.
She hadn't realized she'd stopped to stare until her grandmother's voice broke into her thoughts.
"There go the Roulette's."
Beth's gaze followed the bend in the road that ran in front of her grandmother's farm and led Northeast to Hagerstown.
"Going to the church, no doubt."
"Aren't you worried, Grandmama?"
"You wanted to train as a nurse and the Good Lord saw fit for those slaves to bring you your first patient." Gerta turned back toward the house. "We'll have more than we can handle if the fighting keeps up."
She traced her grandmother's path into the generous kitchen not quite done with the conversation. "You think they'll come this way?"
"They'll be all over the place. Harper's Ferry is a threat that they'll have to deal with."
"And you're not afraid?"
Gerta snorted. She dipped water from a bucket into a kettle and set it to heat. "I'm seventy-nine years old, sharp of tongue and knowing more than all those Rebels and Yanks put together--"
"All of them?" Beth couldn't help the smile.
Her grandmother shot her a grin and flattened her lips like the bill of a duck. A comical, mischievous expression Beth had seen frequently on her father’s mother’s face, hard times or not. "Well, most of them. Goodness knows there's nothing much to fear at my age except dying and going to the wrong place, and I've had that one settled for years."
"But what if they steal or force you to leave or. . .?" She shuddered, her mind going to the worst possible scenario.
Scooping tea leaves into her favorite cup, Gerta raised another, empty cup, eyebrows lifted in question. Beth nodded.
Gerta measured out tea leaves, her bright, dark gaze unflinching. "Nothing bad will happen, Bethie."
She pressed her lips together, the truth stinging afresh. "Already so many have died."
"And there will be many more who will need our help."
Nursing, she meant. It was the one dream that Beth had clung to in the days since leaving her parents' home to stay with her grandmother, intending to join with the Army of the Potomac and Clara Barton. A dream that had waned a bit as rumors circulated of the coming troops. But the blacks had come under cover of darkness the night before, bringing the soldier and igniting the need to be of more use than sitting and stitching or cooking all over again.
Gerta had never been able to understand why the blacks had come to her, other than her reputation for helping the ailing. Whatever the reason, her grandmother had not turned them or the soldier away.
Gerta slid the cup of tea toward her. Dutifully taking a sip, Beth couldn’t help but smile. No one made a cup of tea like her grandmother, or maybe it was so good because it was made by someone who knew her as well as her grandmother did.
She covered the sigh by blowing the air onto the tea. Her leg. Her ankle. Always a problem. “I want to help.”
“Your mother gave you something to keep your hands busy so you could rest your leg.”
Beth didn’t meet her grandmother’s gaze. Gerta, of all people, knew exactly how much she despised being relegated to tasks that made her sit and rest. “It’s not going to be a problem.” She lifted her chin, pleased to see not an ounce of pity in Gerta’s eyes.
“Then we should get to work.”
Beth took a long sip of tea, dreading another day of baking. Perhaps her pride should be swallowed instead of the tea.
A sagging flour sack beckoned, as did the twenty something loaves of bread already baked, awaiting the inevitable hungry mouths of the enemy whose goal must be Hagerstown to join the rest of the confederate army. They could hide the loaves. Save them for the Union troops that were even now engaging the Rebs. She hoped the enemy wouldn’t decide to loot the Union held garrison at Harper’s Ferry that would take the Confederates through her grandmother’s small town. Sharpsburg would be ravaged by the thieving monsters. She feared her hopes were already dashed though, as reports of the confederates in that part of Virginia had already filtered back, putting the townspeople in a vice of fright, hemmed in on three sides by the enemy.
Allowing herself to be carried off to a more peaceful time by the familiar work of adding water to flour to form a dough, inhaling the yeasty sour dough scent, Beth did her best to blank her mind of the worries that nagged. When she finished kneading enough dough for four loaves, she began another batch, until perspiration dampened her neckline and flour dusted the front of her bodice and her bad foot sent shards of pain shooting into her leg. She dragged up a stool and continued the work. Wiping the flour from her hands, she heaved a heavy sigh when the sticky flour mess mussed her skirts instead of the apron she should have been wearing to protect her clothes. She brushed at the mess and decided it best to let the moist flour dry before picking it off her skirt. She tied on her grandmother's worn calico apron with the pretty stripes. The striped material was a little wild for her mother's taste, but it fit Gerta's personality to a tee. The thought tugged a smile from her as she plunged her hands into another batch of warm, sticky dough.
The yard door rattled open behind her. Gerta opened and shut the door quickly. “The flies are terrible.” She set a cup of tea down on the work surface. "I wanted him to drink some, but he fell asleep again.” She surveyed Beth’s work with a sharp eye that belied her deteriorating eyesight. “You've quite enough there. Add more flour to the sourdough for tomorrows baking. I'll start on some pies while you rest."
Beth finished the dough, placed it in a bowl and covered it to rise. A long line of bowls lined the work surface in front of her.
"Biscuits would be good as well. Maybe a meat pie."
"Are you going to have Harold take the milk cow, chickens, and horse to safety?"
Gerta measured out lard and turned to the flour sack. "He's driving Mrs. Knicks cow too and said adding more wouldn't be a problem."
Beth sighed. At least the animals would be safe should the soldiers come their way and pillage. She’d heard stories of the damage they’d done at Frederick. Finished with the bread, Beth wiped her hands on the apron and picked up the tea she’d left mostly untouched. She tasted it and frowned.
"A pinch of cinnamon and a bit of the hot water," Gerta nodded toward the kettle, "will warm it up just fine."
Ridiculous that tea still soothed on such a warm day, but it did. She inhaled, and the rich cinnamon took her back to a time, years before. Her throat swelled shut as the memories assaulted her afresh. She stared down into the cup. A shell whizzed and shattered. Beth started, the tea splashing onto her hand, the tin mug slipped to the floor and splashed its contents.
A shout rent the air then. Beth caught her grandmother's moment of confusion before she wadded her hands in her apron to wipe the hot liquid from her hand and bolted toward the door, one word spat into the air and left to explain the sudden outburst. "Joe."