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Chapter 1: Ends and beginnings
North Carolina: March 1865
Dawn was breaking. The surviving fires at the camp crackled as slivers of bluish-grey smoke escaped toward the treetops. The deeper into the forest they moved, the clearer the sound of people became - a low, collective muttering of exhaustion and disillusionment. Men were waking to another day where the impossible would be demanded of them, like it had been yesterday and would be until the war was over. The only shared hope came from the obvious certainty that this war was nearly at an end.
Two young sentries, as straight and unmoving as the oak trees behind them, guarded the north entrance. They were just visible beneath the dawn's breaking light. Eyes forward, they moved only their hands in quick salute as the party was marched into camp.
His wrists, bound behind his back upon capture, ached tremendously, but the pain there could not compare to the burn in his right leg. He'd caught a stray bullet in his thigh in the fall of '62 and the injury still prickled like an angry fire on a daily basis. They'd been forced to march through the night. Reports of Union battalions closing in from every direction haunted the straggle of remaining Confederate soldiers, and the men who had caught them hadn't wanted to rest until they had rejoined their Regiment.
Hell, he would have been happy to run into a stray Union infantry. He would be at his leisure to sit out the rest of the war in a Union prisoner camp, where he would surely get three meals a day more than what he currently received with the 3rd Virginia Cavalry Regiment. Supply lines had been cut off and talk of Lee's men arriving in the area only matched the talk of Grant's men reaching them before Lee.
But these concerns were part of a larger picture. He had smaller matters to face; Major Cross's wrath and the punishment for desertion, which had become harsher in recent months. There was talk of swift and harsh court-martials where the hangings followed the next day. The Confederacy was leaking men faster than their defeated soldiers were leaking blood. Maybe an end now wasn't such a bad thing. He had seen and done terrible things since the war had started in 1861, when Confederate Batteries had opened fire on Fort Sumter. Since then death had occupied his every waking moment. He'd lost count of the amputations he'd performed on boys, barely into their teens, only to watch them die an agonising death a week later from disease. He had watched men clinging to life on the battlefield with their exposed organs drying out in the sun, their lives seeping away with each speck of moisture lost.
He'd seen Hell on Earth. An end to him would be unfortunate now, sure enough, but also an end to this war for him. Something within yearned for that release. It was the reason he had chosen to risk desertion.
"You're a disgrace," an uncomfortably familiar voice yelled. Major Abner Cross strode toward him with his hands clasped behind his back, his chest thrust forward and his face and cheeks flushed with indignation. Cross's grey uniform was pristine and every buckle sparkled. His own uniform was torn, bloodied and stained with mud.
"Who could have known that an experienced war surgeon, a man who knows that his service is desperately needed at this critical time, was actually a dishonourable coward?"
"I knew," he volunteered with a slight shrug.
The privates who'd captured them on the outskirts of Jamestown pushed him and the two other deserters forward. He was a tall man, but the Major had two inches on him and greeted him back with a hard shove to the chest that threw him back. He stumbled and landed heavily on the ground. His fellow deserters - recent recruits in their early twenties - were marched on. The Major circled behind him and House closed his eyes when he felt the tip of a sword dig into the side of his neck. He believed the man was capable of executing him right there – should he wish to. With just a flick of the Virginian's wrist his throat would be cut. Cross would probably explain that House had foolishly tried to escape again. No one would know, and amidst the chaos, no one would care.
"What an example you have set to these young men," Cross hissed, as if his words caused him physical pain. Then there was a swell of muttering a little beyond them in the distance, and the Major stiffened, re-sheathed his sword and reached down and dragged House back to his feet by the scruff of his uniform.
"I would like nothing more than to send you for court-martial tomorrow morning-" The Major hissed into his ear.
"- but unfortunately your services are needed, doctor," Colonel Buford Carter interjected as he arrived, riding his favorite stallion Fire Fly. Young, fair and slight but with an easy, likeable manner, Colonel Carter was respected by everyone in his Regiment.
"Some of our men were ambushed during the night; they lie wounded and dying in these woods. I will spare you the indignity of court-martial, if you help to spare my men."
House's eyes followed his fellow rebel, rebels, disappearing into the woods.
"And them?" his voice sounded distant, like it had only barely struggled into existence, or maybe hadn't actually been his at all, but someone else's. He hadn't slept in days and hadn't eaten or taken any water in over twenty-four hours.
"They will be made an example of." The Major jutted his chin upwards. He smoothed his thick white moustache with a thumb and finger and then tugged the small tuft of white hair on his chin before twisting it into a neat point. "Would you like to join them, House?"
"They will receive a fair trial, tomorrow morning," the Colonel assured House. "Will you come now, doctor, please? these men have waited long enough for medical assistance."
"You have surgeons. Three, the last time I counted. Although Chase is entirely incompetent, I can imagine one might ignore him completely."
If he was here he would rather be doing his job. He wasn't in the habit of letting innocent men die if he could do anything to prevent it. But there were other surgeons in the camp.
"You are the most experienced surgeon here. I know you are well aware of this."
"I will attend to the men - if I have your word those two boys will not be executed."
"You have my word," the Colonel assured him with a slight nod as he turned his horse to leave, and House knew the Colonel to be a man of his word.
"Okay. Take me to your injured."
The make-shift hospital in the forest was a flurry of activity. Robert Chase looked up from the wound he was attending as House approached. As House got closer, it was obvious the younger surgeon appeared torn between the happiness he felt for seeing him again while trying to portray some sort of higher moral indignation.
"A man with a debilitating limp deserting - now I have heard everything." Chase dropped his eyes back to his impossible, incurable injury.
The man beside Chase's patient was semi-conscious and writhing in pain on his crude bed, made from an old door and two saw horses pushed together. House lifted the bloodied blanket over the man's left leg, and took one look at the injury before reaching a quick, and absolute diagnosis.
"That leg, you're going to lose some of it."
"But, but he said," the soldier craned painfully around to look at Chase, "he said there was a chance..." he did not finish. His words gave way to pain and tears and finally, morbid comprehension. The man's knee was a gory mess of shattered bone and twisted sinew. Chase should have taken it off hours ago.
"Were you waiting for me return?" House asked the younger surgeon. Chase did not answer the question.
House continued on his way, out of the small clearing. He needed his medical equipment, which hopefully still remained in the main medical supply tent that was located deeper in the forest. Chase decided to follow for a moment, so he could hurl admonitions at him as he went.
"I have not yet had time to amputate that man's leg, and would rather he wait in agony and hope, than in desperation." House wasn't listening so Chase grabbed his arm and stopped him. He yanked himself free immediately.
"That man saw his brother and best friend die while you were running the other way. You could show a little compassion."
"Show him yours. Show it him as you explain that we ran out of chloroform in this camp two days ago, and that he will feel every inch of the blade I use to amputate his leg – which should have been taken last night."
He walked on but Chase did not, he merely called after him:
"It would have been done last night, had you been here."
House continued deeper into the woods. Did the younger surgeon's comment induce the desired amount of guilt in him? No. He had been there too long now, everyday something more horrific to deal with: arms deep inside a solder's guts or tying arteries together before hacking limbs off boys; no, he was quite sure that he no longer felt anything at all.
The wound was not a serious one, he was sure of that now, but it had left him incapacitated for long enough to become separated from the rest of his men. Foreman was nervous and fidgety, more so than he had ever seen the man, who usually seemed calm and ready for anything. Captain James Wilson was sitting up against the burl of an old oak. At first he had guessed that he had taken some shrapnel to the stomach, and that he might not see another morning. But now there was light, it seemed he had actually been clipped on his hip with something smaller. The battle was a blur, he couldn't remember getting hit, but there was no shattered bone, not that he could see, and the wound appeared a minor hole in his bloody, blue uniform.
The Sgt. Major had stayed with him to help stop the bleeding, and he was immensely grateful to the man for that. In doing so they had lost their line completely. The only thing they knew for certain was that they were deep in enemy territory now. The Rebels were close.
He was planning his next move when a dishevelled man in a tattered Rebel uniform stepped into the clearing. He was not armed but Foreman's gun was at his shoulder and covering the man before the man even saw them. He did not seem bothered by either their presence or the gun on him. He merely sighed and muttered something about what he had done to deserve such 'A terrible morning'.