I shivered and brushed the snow from my shoulders again. We had had ten inches so far, and it was still coming down heavily. I was glad we didn’t have to fight in this since we were in winter camp, but spring would come soon enough with more shooting and dying.
I heard something behind me and swung my rifle around to meet whoever was coming.
“Careful, my boy. You could hurt someone with that.”
I relaxed. It was Adolphus coming to relieve me.
“You seem a trifle nervous today,” he said.
“Yes, well, there was word of a Yankee infiltrator who shot someone not too far from here. I thought it was against the rules of war to do so during winter camp.”
He sighed. “War is a rule unto itself, and none may change it. You should be used to it by now.”
“I should be, but I’m not.”
I thought back to leaving my family, and what a sad occasion it was. I wondered what brought me back to the scene of so much suffering and misery, and concluded that it was because I loved my family so much, I had to fight for their lives, even though they were far from the front. Then, too, there was the love of my comrades, which was a far stronger impetus to be there than all the politicians and high-flown oratory. And so I was back.
I went to our shelter to find Hiram resting. This was an unusual thing, so I asked, “Do you find yourself indisposed?”
He grimaced and held his stomach, twisting in the bed. “I’m not indisposed, but I am sick.”
It was then that I realized that the poor lad did not know the meaning of ‘indisposed,’ but I said nothing to him about his lack of knowledge. He had no education at all, but still was a fine young man who showed bravery at every turn.
“Can I get you something?”
“A little milk would be good.”
I shook my head. “We have none. Can you think of anything else?”
“No,” he groaned, and started to turn on his side.”
“I could see if I could procure—I mean, get some laudanum if you think that would help.” I was not sure the doctor would give such a drug to one so young, but if necessary, I could claim it was for an ailment that I had.
“I’ll try anything. It hurts so much!”
“I think you need to go see the doctor.”
“I can’t walk and if you try to carry me, you’ll make the pain even worse. Please, go get the medicine.”
“All right.” I made my way to the rear where I knew the surgery was located. There was not much call for surgery with so little fighting, but of course there were still illnesses to deal with. A corporal sat at the entrance to the surgery. “I have a friend who’s too sick to be moved. I think a dose of laudanum.”
He smirked at me. “If we had any, I’d take it myself. We ran out yesterday, and don’t know when we’ll have any more.”
“Is there anything else you’d recommend?”
“Do I look like a doctor? I don’t know what to recommend.”
“May I speak to the doctor?”
“He’s over at headquarters. If you want to chase him down, be my guest.”
The HQ was an hour’s walk from where I was, but I decided Hiram’s well-being was worth it. I made my way behind the front lines, seeing that everyone I met looked as tired and bedraggled as I was. Those of equal rank nodded to me, while I saluted those above me, and returned the salutes of those below me. The army certainly did have it all worked out in an orderly fashion.
Finally I came to the headquarters area, which was a place of much confusion. It’s a wonder that anything gets done, I thought, and then it occurred to me that a lot didn’t get done, and I could see why. I asked the corporal standing guard where the doctor might be.
“Well, I don’t know him, but they’re all in that big tent over there talking about something. You’ll like find him there.”
“Think nothing of it. I have to stand here anyhow.”
I went over to the large tent and went inside. A couple of the men who I assumed were doctors looked at him as if they were wondering why I was there. I went over to the closest one and whispered, “Beg pardon, sir, but I’m looking for Doctor Brown.”
He sat. “You mean Phineas? He’s right over there.” He pointed, and I saw our doctor sitting by the wall. He looked like he was about to fall asleep.
I walked over to him and knelt down. “Dr. Brown! Dr. Brown!”
“Huh? What!” He had been asleep after all.
“Sorry to bother you, sir, but one of my friends who is a drummer boy is sick and needs something to help him feel better.”
“Why didn’t you take him to the infirmary?”
“There was no one there.”
He sat up, “Didn’t you think that someone would have come long there long before you could have walked here?”
“I didn’t think, sir. I was so concerned with my friend.”
“Hmph. Who’s your friend?”
“Hiram, sir. He doesn’t have a last name, but he’s one-armed.”
A look of realization spread over his face. “Oh, yes, the one armed-wonder. He plays better than those who have both arms. What seems to be the problem with him?”
“He has a terrible pain in his stomach, sir.”
“Hmm…that could be any of a number of things. Tell you what. You high tail it back and find your friend. Take him to the infirmary. There’ll be someone there who can help him. I’ll come along as fast as I can, but not as fast as you. In the meantime, don’t let him eat anything. I think he might have appendicitis, and I’d have to do surgery on him if he does.”
“All right, sir. Thank you.”
With that, I left, running the entire way to get there faster. I came to our shack and found Adolphus bending over Hiram, who was unconscious. He looked me, worried.
“He just passed out,” he said. “Before that, he said his stomach hurt.”
“I’ve just come from seeing the doctor. He thinks it might be appendicitis and we shouldn’t let him anything to eat.”
“Hah! That’s one’s easy, in his condition.”
“What can we do in the meantime?”
“Precious little besides sponging his forehead with a wet rag. He’s burning up with fever.”
We passed a few anxious minutes doing what we could for Hiram. Then we heard someone at the door. It was the doctor, and he was carrying his surgical instruments with him.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“Right in here,” I answered, gesturing to the bed where Hiram lay.
The doctor quickly went over and examined him, pushing on his abdomen. Finally, he stood up and said, “Hmmm.”
“What do you mean by that, sir?”
“By that I meant that he is too sick to move. We run the risk of rupturing his appendix if we do so. We’ll have to operate here.”
“Here!” Adolphus exclaimed.
The doctor turned to him. “With someone in his condition, here is as good a place as any. I have some ether, but if that doesn’t work well enough, you two will have to hold him while I operate.
I quickly prayer that the ether would do its job and said, “Certainly, sir.”
“Very well. Put some of what’s in this bottle on a folded-up cloth and hold it over his nose. Then I’ll check to see if it’s working.”
I did as I directed and noticed that Hiram’s breathing slowed.
“I hope you didn’t give him too much. You could kill him.”
I said nothing.
“All right, let me check to see if he’s out.” He pinched him on his shoulder, and seeing the Hiram made no response, he nodded to us. “Hand me my scalpel.”
I did so, and the doctor prepared to make his first cut. But then he turned to us. “Blood doesn’t bother you, does it? Because there will be a lot of it.”
“We are all too well accustomed to the sight of it and in great quantities. You need not fear us fainting or becoming sick.” Adolphus seemed surprised that the doctor should ask such a question.
“Very well, then. Let us begin.”
Adolphus and I held onto Hiram as a precautionary measure. The doctor made his first cut, and a little blood seeped out. Then he cut more deeply and the blood flowed freely.
“Quickly! Give me some of those napkins in my bag. A nurse would have had them already, but then you’re not nurses.”
Nor would I wish to be, I thought as I retrieved the napkins. The doctor used them to staunch the flow and then cut more deeply. “Almost there,” he said. He made what turned out to be a final cut, and Hiram moaned.
“Quickly! More ether! The other is wearing off. But not too much!”
I tried to give Hiram the right amount, but having had no experience with this, in truth did not know what the right amount was. Apparently I did so, since the poor lad stopped moaning. Dr. Brown moved quickly and soon had the appendix out. He held it with tongs and said to Adolphus, “Here, take this and throw it away.” Adolphus did just that, and came back to the bed.
“Now I have to sew him up,” Brown said. “Normally I leave that to my orderlies, but they’re not here.”
I nodded to Hiram. “He could do that for you.”
“How is that possible? He’s so young.”
“He was living a difficult life on the docks when we met him, and had plenty of experience treating wounds after knife fights, which he saw too many of.”
“Hmph,” grunted Brown. “You never know. Turning to the matter at hand, I wonder if anyone every performed an appendectomy on himself? I suppose it’s possible, but that would mean a fool would do the procedure.”
This puzzled me, so I said, “Why a fool?”
Brown laughed. “It comes from an old saying, ‘The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”
“I see. I’ll have to think about that.”
“Anyhow,” Brown continued, “when he comes to, he’ll need some of this—” He held up a bottle which I suppose contained laudanum. “One teaspoon every four hours. No more than that, or I’ll be performing an autopsy.”
“I understand, I said. Thank you, Doctor.”
“We need all the good men we can get, and this is a good one. Of course, we’re in a losing fight and he could be shot tomorrow. Only the good Lord knows what will happen next.”
“He does that,” I said.
“I’ll look in on him tomorrow. Remember what I said to do.”
“We will,” Adolphus said. “Thank you from me.”
Brown waved his hand. “Take good care of him.” With that, he left.
“Well, Hiram dodged a bullet this time,” Adolphus murmured.
“And it was a self-inflicted wound,” I added.
“Indeed it was.”
We left Hiram lying where he was, going to lie down on our own beds. It wasn’t long until we both fell asleep.