Monday, July 16, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 11

Chapter 11
“Well, the first part isn’t even what I remember really,” Lu began.  “Just what the nurses told me after the doctor realized my memory wasn’t going to come back.”
“More than I’ve heardc so far,” Lou said a touch acerbically.
Lu raised his eyebrows as he gave her an exasperated look.  “Maybe if you’d stuck around for five minutes, you might’ve.”
She opened her mouth to respond heatedly, then thought better of it and flapped her hand at him to continue, ceding the point.
Leaning back against the wall of the lodge, Lu raised his eyes to the sky obscured by the ceiling of branches and mud while he searched his brain for where to start.
“How’s our patient doing today?” the doctor asked.
The nurse leaned forward to run a wet cloth across the large, sandy haired man’s forehead.  He turned away from her ministrations, moaning.
“Restless, but still no fever,” she said softly.  “I was even able to get a little porridge down him this morning.”
“That’s encouraging,” the doctor mused, jotting down notes in a small tablet he carried with him.  “But still no signs of consciousness?”
The nurse shook her head ‘no’ even as the patient reached out to grab her hand in his, breathing out a single syllable.
“That’s all he ever says,” she added.  “The same word, over and over.  Lou.”
“Wonder who Lou is.”
The nurse shrugged.  “A lost friend, a brother or son, a father.  Maybe even a wife or sweetheart.  It’s hard to tell.”
“Well,” the doctor grunted, already moving toward the next bed and the next patient, “let me know if anything changes.”
“When I woke up a week later it quickly became apparent I remembered nothin’.  That’s when they started callin’ me Lu, for lack of another name.”
The two carefully avoided meeting each other’s eyes as they pondered the implications of this information.
“If you didn’t know nothin’, how’d you end up back in the war?” Lou finally asked, breaking the silence that had grown between them.
Kid turned his head to meet her gaze with his own searching one, wondering what it was she really wanted to know.  Not finding an answer he returned to his story.
“Once I was well enough to no longer merit the use of a bed, they put me to work as an orderly,” he said.  He subconsciously reached up to touch the long white scar that could still be found amongst the strands of brown hair on the back of his head.  “I couldn’t remember why I’d been fightin’ the war, but I could sure see the price those boys were payin’ everyday.”
Lu’s voice broke as his eyes turned inward, seeking out memories he’d deliberately tried to erase.  Lou wondered at the brilliant sheen of tears she saw gathered in his beautiful blue eyes.  She’d never seen such pain in them, not even on the two separate occasions she’d broken his heart.
“Wake up!”
Lu’s eyes flew open as his roommate shook his shoulder violently.
“What?” he asked groggily.
“Ambulances started rollin’ in about 10 minutes ago,” the youngster said urgently, tensed to race back out of the room now that Lu was awake.  “Colonel says ta hurry.”
It was only a matter of grabbing his grey kepi cap and the armband that identified him as a member of the hospital staff to get ready and Lu was racing after the younger boy.
The ‘hospital’ was a plantation manor house donated to the Cause by a member of the Davis Administration who’d already fled with his family to the relative safety of Richmond.  The hospital staff, the doctors, nurses, orderlies and others, slept in the old slave cabins out back.
Lu came skidding around the corner of the manor house, running at top speed.  The large reception area at the front, the curving driveway leading up to and then away from the wide porch flanked by towering Grecian columns, had once welcomed dashing gentlemen in frock coats and beautiful southern belles with tiny corseted waists and wide skirts belled out by hooped frames in metal, wood and ivory.  Today it hosted wagons pulled by horses, mules, oxen and any other four-legged critter the Confederate Army could press into use.  Each wagon bore the bleeding, moaning remnants of several members of an entire generation of boys and men laying down their lives on the battlefield.
Lu ran to the nearest wagon and climbed inside, moving from one man to the next in rapid succession, unsure how to help.  At first he deliberately breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench of the already rotting, putrid flesh of the wounded.  Soon, though, he’d become so inured to the smell he didn’t bother.
“Lu!  Get down from there!”
Looking up at the sound of his name, he saw the man who’d been his doctor motioning to him.  He jumped over the side of the wagon and trotted toward him.
“Yes, sir?”
“Leave these poor souls to the chaplain,” the doctor said, grabbing Lu’s elbow in an already bloodied hand.  “They’re as good as dead already.  I need your help with those that have a chance of making it through the night.”
“We couldn’t even give them morphine or laudanum to ease their passin’,” Lu said quietly, so lost in his memories he didn’t notice his erstwhile wife had scooted over to his side and laid a comforting hand on his arm.  “There wasn’t even enough fer everyone who might survive.  We waited ‘til we knew they’d lived through surgery before givin’ them just a few precious drops.  Surgery!  More appropriate ta cal it butchery.  All they could do was chop off injured limbs and hope they survived.”
“Oh, Kid,” Lou said softly, suddenly flinging her arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder.  “I’m so sorry.”
Lu looked down in surprise at the small woman he suddenly found sitting almost in his lap, clinging to him desperately.  After a moment, almost of their own will, his own arms rose to encircle her, pulling the soft body close.  Closing his eyes, he breathed deep and continued his story.
“I only lasted a few weeks.  As soon as the doctor said I was healthy enough ta fight, I sought out the first commanding officer I could find, Colonel Turney of the 1st Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment.”
“You sure this is what you want, son?” Colonel Turney asked, concerned.  “You know our unit is made up of a group of boys and men all from the same county back in Tennessee.  You’ll be an outsider.  I can’t promise a welcome reception.”
“I don’t care, Sir,” Lu replied stubbornly.  “I’ve got to do somethin’.  I’m tired of holdin’ boys, boys, Sir!  The lats one was only 13, if he was a day! while they die in my arms, callin’ fer their Ma’s.  AT least this way I might be able ta save a few.”
“You got any gear?”
Lu shook his head.  “No, Sir.  Just these clothes.  Everythin’ else must’ve been left on the battlefield when I was injured and they brought me ta the hospital.”
“More’n likely stolen by human vultures,” the Colonel muttered.  Then, shaking his head to rid it of unpleasant thoughts, he added, “No matter.  I’ve got plenty extra after this last battle.  Lost five men yesterday alone.  You’ll have ta scrounge fer ammunition, though, just like the rest of us,” he warned.
“He was right, too.  Most of the men didn’t cotton ta me much, at first,” Lu said, resting his chin on the top of Lou’s head, hardly noticing the feel of her fingers as they moved restlessly up and down his forearm.  “But Carl…. Carl was different.”
“Come on, you can share my tent,” the tall, slender young man about the same age as Lu said, glaring at his comrades in arms.  “Anyone willin’ ta fight them Yankee divils is good people in my book.”
“Thanks,” Lu said, hefting his saddlebags over one shoulder while tightening the other hand around the stock of the rifle Major Holman had just issued him.  “Name’s Lu… Louis Mallory,” he introduced himself, stumbling over his own name.
“I’m Carleton Cathers, the third,” his new friend said as he led the way to his tent.  Looking back over his shoulder at Lu with a self-mocking smile, he added, “But you can call me Carl.  I always thought the rest was a mite high-falutin’ fer a common dirt farmer like myself.”
“Carl treated me like a brother from that day on,” Lu mused.  “The others eventually came to accept me, but they never quite relaxed around me like he did.”
“When was this?” Lou asked curiously, wondering what she’d been doing while all this had been happening to Kid.
Looking down into her big brown eyes, he felt like he was drowning for a moment.  Determinedly he pulled his gaze away from hers by pure force of will.  He tightened his arms around her again.  She felt so right in his embrace he didn’t want to ever let go again.  Trying to distract himself, he began counting in his head.
“Must’ve been late summer of ’62,” he finally said.  “’Bout the time Mary Kate was born, I’d reckon.”
They sat in silence for a moment, both thinking how different things could have been.
“We fought in the second Battle at Manassas Creek, and then later at Sharpsburg and Frederiksburg that year.  Eventually we settled in for a cold winter with few blankets and dwindling supplies.  Things just went downhill from there.
“Summers filled with deadly, bloody battles -- the smoke from the guns sometimes so thick you couldn’t see two feet in front of yer face-- and even deadlier diseases, winters of cold and deprivation until it all seemed to blend together into one unending nightmare,” Lu sighed.  “Through it all Carl and I fought side by side, always watching each other’s backs.  I lost count of the number of times we saved each other’s lives.”
“When did you meet Lydia?” Lou asked when Kid went quiet again, apparently lost in his memories.  She was grateful to this Carl Cathers for saving her love’s life, but jealous of him at the same time for being able to be there with the Kid when he’d needed her the most.
She could feel Kid’s chest moving under her cheek as he laughed softly.
“Depends on what you mean by ‘met’,” he smiled.  “Any time we had five minutes break, Carl was regaling me with tales about his beautiful wife, waitin’ fer him back in Tennessee.  He had a tintype of her, taken on their weddin’ day, that he’d pull out and kiss goodnight before turnin’ in.  Like clockwork.”
“But I didn’t actually meet her until Thanksgiving of ’64.  We’d been camped out in the bloody stalemate that was the Siege of Petersburg since August.  By then there were only five men remaining of those Carl had joined up with.  The Colonel decided ta give us furlough, in small lots, throughout the winter, so we could see our families.  Carl insisted I come home with him.
“Just wait, you’ll see,” Carl moaned, salivating in delight already.  “My Lydia makes the best succotash.  And I bet this time of year she’s bakin’ up punkin’ pies by the dozen.  She’s a real good cook, my Lydia.”
“So I hear,” Lu smiled.  “What say we get there and find out what she’s actually got instead of dilly dallyin’ along, day dreamin’ ‘bout it?”
Carl laughed, slapping Lu on the back in graceful concession of his point.  A couple more hours walking and the two men topped a rise that overlooked what had obviously once been a prosperous farm.  Now the buildings sagged from lack of maintenance and repairs and the barn looked to be half-empty.  But Carl saw none of that.
He had eyes only for the plump, curvy woman hanging wash on a clothesline strung between the house and the barn.
“Lydia!” he shouted even as he started racing down the hill toward her.
Turning toward the sound of her name, the woman let the clean sheet in her hands fall to the ground as she flew toward her husband, calling out, “Carl!”
“I spent most of the next three days makin’ myself scarce, keepin’ busy repairin’ fences and farm equipment,” Lu laughed.  “Lydia was every bit the cook Carl had boasted about and always very friendly toward me, but it was clear she really wanted ta spend time with her husband, not entertainin’ a virtual stranger.  They’d only been married a few months when he’d left for the war and hadn’t seen each other in the nearly three years since.”
“I know exactly how she must have felt,” Lou murmured.  She moved one hand down to twine her fingers through Kid’s.  That’s when he noticed for the first time the thin gold band decorating the third finger of her left hand.
Sucking in a quick, shocked breath, he opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind.  Instead he continued with his story.
“I didn’t see her again until after we surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in ’65.  The Colonel had sent us home hoping to boost morale.  But it had the opposite effect.  It reminded us of what we were missin’, fightin’ a war we’d all given up as lost months earlier.”
“The rest of that winter was the worst we’d faced yet.  Then, in March, a letter from Lydia finally caught up to us.  She’d written in January, tellin’ Carl he was goin’ ta be a Pa.”
Lou glanced up at Kid as she felt his arms tense around her.
“What happened?” she whispered, half afraid to hear the answer.
“I was tired, cold, hungry… and I decided ta call it a night and turn in early, get some sleep while I could.  I never noticed how squirrelly Carl had been actin’ all day.  If I had, I might’ve stopped him, saved him.”
“What happened?”
Crack!  The sound of the rifle shot so near the rear of his tent jerked Lu out of his light slumber into an instant wakefulness.  He rolled over to ask Carl what was going on and tensed.  Carl’s spot was not only empty, his bedroll and haversack were missing entirely.
“Halt!” came the cry of a flustered sentry, quickly followed by another ear jarring CRACK!
Lu jumped out of bed and tore out of the tent, running as fast as he could toward the agonized groans of his friend.
“Carl!” he shouted, falling to his knees next to the other man.  “Why?  Why’d you do it?”
“Lydia,” Carl gasped, barely audibly.  “She needs me…. baby.. needs me.”
“Aw, Carl,” Lu whispered, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood in a futile effort to save his friend’s life one last time.

Carl reached out and grabbed at his hand, stopping the frantic motions, pulling Lu down close to his face. 
“Promise,” he demanded.  “Promise…. help…. Lydia.”
Tears of grief twisted Lu’s features as he placed his hand over his friend’s.  He leaned over and placed his head next to Carl’s.
“I promise,” he soothed his friend.  “I promise.”
A brief smile slid across Carl’s features and his eyes slid shut.  
Behind him, the young sentry, barely old enough to be out of school cried unashamedly.  “I didn’t want ta shoot him,” he mourned.  “But he wouldn’t stop.  Why couldn’t he have just gone back ta his tent?”
“I… I never told Lydia… how he really died,” Lu said quietly.  “She deserved ta think her husband died a hero, not shot in the act of desertion.  So, I lied.  I lied through my teeth.  The Colonel even helped me.”
Lou reached up to place her hand on Kid’s cheek, unsurprised by the moisture she found there.  “No,” she said gently.  “No, you didn’t.”
Lu looked down at her, a question in his gaze.
“You told her he saved yer life, and he did,” she reminded him.  “Time and time again.”
She watched Kid’s face closely as his grief tightened muscles relaxed one by one.  Slowly, he nodded.
“You’re right,” he marveled.  “You’re right.”
Slowly he leaned forward, watching her face with wonder the entire time, until his lips met hers softly, gently and his eyes closed while he savored the feel of her lips.  He felt her breath catch , her hands clench in the fabric of his longjohn top.
Pulling back, he smiled down at her.  He reached out and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek.  This was a woman he could see having fallen in love with and married, despite her out-spoken, unconventional ways, despite her brash, flash fire quick temper, despite her stubbornness.
Suddenly, the soft woman in his arms stiffened, pushing him away from her with one arm even as she scrambled off his lap and back over to her side of the sweat lodge.
Almost glaring at him from her renewed distance, she asked, “So, just when did you fall in love with her?  When did ya fall in love with Mrs. Lydia Cathers?”


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