The first week in February was a rainy one, and our camp turned into a muddy quagmire. Life was miserable, or more miserable than usual, as we tried to keep dry and still fulfill our duties. I had finished my guard assignment and went back to our shack. Inside, I found Adolphus reading while lying in bed, and Hiram and Andrew were playing poker, using pebbles as chips. I went over to them.
“Can you cash in your pebbles after you win?” I asked.
Andrew grinned. “Yes! We can get a stone, and if we win enough, a boulder.” He laughed, while Hiram just stared at him.
“What’s wrong with you, Hiram? That was funny!”
“It’s not funny when you’re losing. It’s just a game.”
“A game I want to win.”
“Well, I wish you well, then.”
Hiram grunted and went back to his cards. We never could tell what he was going to do or say, or how he would react, but of course we were happy that he had healed without any complications.
I went over to Adolphus and sat on my bed, which was next to his. “What are you reading?”
He turned the book over so I could see the title. “‘Moral Theology’,” I read. “Is it a difficult book?”
“I fear it is. When I finish it, I will endeavor to explain it to you. If I understand it well enough.”
“I am certain that you will. When the war is over, I should like to go back to school. I had so little, and I think it will limit me if I do not remedy the situation.”
Adolphus smiled. “I can tell you will be a good student. You learn quickly and have a curiosity that is so important to learning.”
“You are kind. What will you do when the war is over?”
“Well, I pray that will happen soon, but I am not certain what I shall do. I fear my house has been destroyed, although I have relatives whose places must be untouched. I do not wish to be a burden to them, so I am thinking I could be a minister. I know it will be difficult as we rebuild, but it will important for congregants to have spiritual leaders. For yourself, where do you think you will go to school?”
“I know so little about it, I cannot say.”
“Ah. I am certain you will find out as much as you can as soon as you can.”
“That is my purpose.”
At that moment, Hiram cried, “Faugh!” and threw down his cards. “I fold! I have never met such a good player, and I have seen many of them.”
I bet you have, I thought. The kind of rough life that Hiram led on the river would guarantee that he would be in close contact with a number of gamblers. The question was, with so little contact with gamblers, if any, how did Andrew learn to be an excellent player? I resolved to ask him when I had the opportunity, but he stood up and announced, “Now I have the guard duty. I will be back when it is done.”
“Be careful, my boy,” Adolphus told him. Andrew went out, and Adolphus turned to me. “Two of our company have been wounded, and we need no more.”
“That is certain, although Hiram was afflicted rather than wounded.”
“You are correct. This war has impaired my ability to make such distinctions.”
“That is a small matter.”
“Perhaps so, but before the conflict I would not have made such a mistake.”
“It is no matter, as I said. Let’s have something to eat. I am starved.”
“We have a supply of the finest salt pork, if that will satisfy your appetite.”
“That is about all it will do, but it is better than no food at all.”
“That it is.”
We ate our meal without saying much. Adolphus and I sat at our little table, but Hiram took his food over to his bed and are it there. Something was clearly troubling the lad beyond losing at poker. After we ate, Adolphus lay on his bed to rest, and I went over to talk to Hiram.
“Hiram, what is wrong? You did not eat with Adolphus and me.”
“Nothing is wrong,” he said and lay on his bed, turning his place to the wall.
“If you do not tell me what is amiss, your condition will grow worse.”
He turned toward me, his face a mask of fury. “I SAID TO LEAVE ME ALONE! NOW GO AWAY!”
I stumbled backward, shocked and surprised. Even in the worst circumstances since we had known him, I had never seen him like this.
Across the shack, I could see out of the corner of my eye Adolphus, who had stood up and was gazing on the scene before him with wonderment and concern. He came over to me and pulled me to the other side of the shack.
“Adolphus, something is wrong with Hiram,” I said.
“That I can see. I wonder if he has a weakness of the mind which only now is manifesting itself.”
“But he has been in much worse circumstances without behaving so.”
“Perhaps all those circumstances have helped bring him to his present condition.”
“Perhaps. What shall we do?”
“You run and fetch the doctor. I will remain here and try to calm him.”
“Good,” I said, and walked calmly to the door of our shelter, wanting to do nothing that would further aggrieve Hiram. When I reached the opening, I ran as fast as I could toward the surgery. Soldiers that I passed looked at me curiously. We never ran, except on the rare occasion when we double-timed to the front, or when we were attacking, or running from the field of battle. I didn’t care what those I passed thought of me: I only wanted to obtain help for my friend.
I reached the surgery and ran in. A corporal seated at the table looked up curiously. “What is the matter?” he asked.
“My friend—he is not himself—I need the doctor—to come—quickly!” I gasped, trying to catch my breath.
“He is making rounds and can’t be disturbed.”
“He knows of this case. He recently performed surgery on him.”
The man before me looked doubtful. “Wait here. I’ll see what I can do.”
I collapsed on a chair, still breathing heavily. Within about a minute, the corporal came back with Dr. Brown.
I jumped from my chair. “Doctor! It is Hiram! He is acting strangely! I fear he might have a brain fever or some such!”
“What is he doing?”
“He has become belligerent and refuses to talk to us! I have never seen him like this!”
“Let us make our way to your shelter. Just on the basis of what you’ve said, I fear he may have acute mania. Did he strike anyone?”
“No, but he would have had I persisted in trying to talk to him.”
We both went back through the trenches to our shack. Adolphus was standing by the shack, looking through the door and then back along the trenches. He saw us and called, “Please hurry! He has grown worse!”
“What is he doing?” the doctor asked.
“He is attempting to harm himself. I tried to remove all dangerous objects before I came out, but I am sure there are several left.”
“Perhaps we had best wait for my orderlies.” Dr. Brown looked troubled.
“We cannot hesitate. I fear he will kill himself if we do not go in this instant!”
“All right, then,” Brown said. “But let me go first. I have more experience.” He hesitated, then pushed through the door with Adolphus and me right behind him.
Hiram was over in a corner, greatly distracted. He held a large knife at his throat. “Don’t come any closer!” he screamed. “Or I’ll kill myself with this—” He pantomimed driving the knife into his chest.
Dr. Brown approached him slowly. “You need to give me the knife,” he said. “You might hurt yourself.”
Hiram spat at him “I want to hurt myself! I want to kill myself, and I will, if you get any closer to me, so don’t try anything.”
We all stood where we were, not knowing what to do next. Finally, I moved to where Dr. Brown was.
“I told you not to move!” Hiram yelled. “Stop where you are, or you know what will happen!”
I spoke softly to Dr. Brown so that Hiram couldn’t hear. “Let me talk to him. He knows me much better than he knows you.”
“Go ahead,” Brown said. “Try.”
I moved slightly to get closer to Hiram, but he didn’t say anything. “Hiram,” I said gently, “Do you know who I am?”
He spoke slowly. “I recognize your face, but I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Caleb, and we first saw you on a wharf beside a river. We’ve spent a lot of time together, and you saved our lives. Will you give me the knife?”
“Why?” He gestured again with the blade.
“If something happens to you, a lot of people will be sorry. I will miss you, as will Laurel and Clinton and Andrew and little Caleb. So will Adolphus. Please put down the knife and we will help you.”
He gestured toward the Doctor. “He said he would help me,” he hissed, “but he hurt me! Twice!”
“That was necessary to save your life. We can help you feel better. Please—the knife?”
He seemed to have a great struggle within himself as I heard the orderlies outside. Brown backed away slowly to tell them, I was sure, not to come in just then. As Brown reached the door, Hiram’s face crumpled, and he dropped the knife, falling onto the floor. Adolphus ran forward and took the knife while I gathered Hiram in my arms and spoke softly to him. “They’re going to take you to a hospital and make you feel better. We’ll come see you. Would you like that?”
He nodded wordlessly, and then the orderlies came in. I should say here that orderlies were big, strong burly men who among their duties had to hold down wounded soldiers who were having a limb amputated, and this was done without anything to dull the pain. In my experience, the orderlies, while I would not wish to do what they did, had grown insensible to suffering since they were around so much of it. As a result, they handled their patients roughly and spared them little sympathy.
So, as the two orderlies went past me, I said, “Treat him gently, will you? He’s been through a lot.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard one of the orderlies snicker, and that told me how they would treat Hiram. Sure enough, they roughly put him on a stretcher and bound him to it. Hiram reverted to his former state, straining against his bonds and cursing a blue streak. He must have learned how from the river boatmen, for I had never heard some of the words or the ways they were combined.
Adolphus and I stood unable to speak while the orderlies picked up the stretcher, and none too gentle. Then they carried Hiram out of the shack, still cursing. We could hear him for quite a while.
“Well,” said the doctor. “Some men take it well, and others are like your friend.”
“Did the orderlies have to treat him so roughly?”
“Alas, they are inured to suffering by all they have witnessed. While I do not condone what they do, I cannot keep them from it. If they did not do their offices, there would be none to take their places. They are rare creatures.”
“I still do not like it.”
“I do not either, but I have told you why I stand by and watch. I have few choices. What would you do?”
I sighed. “Given the circumstances, probably the same as you.”
“Where will you take him?”
“That is difficult to say. We want the hospitals close enough to not interfere with treatment, but far enough as not to present a threat to our wounded. I can say it would be to the west, but how far I cannot tell you this time. I will tell you when the picture becomes clearer.”
“When will that be?”
“I cannot tell that, either. I must get back to my surgery. Although we are not fighting, I still have men who need my offices.”“Thank you, Doctor. This has been difficult for us all, I know.”
“You were the one who calmed him.”
I shrugged. “I had best knowledge of his nature and history. I am pleased that he responded to me, although that did not last long.”
“It gave him a small surcease. Sometimes that can make a difference.”
I did not see how that could be so, but I said, “Please let us know where he is as soon as you find out.”
The doctor nodded. “That I will do. Now I bid you good day.”
“Good day and thank you again.”
Adolphus came over to me. “What do we do now?”
“About Hiram, do you mean? I suppose we have no choice but to wait until we hear where he is and then go see him.”
“Yes. That is what we should do.”
“I’m going to lie down and see if I can take a nap. I have the duty in three hours.”
I went over and lay down on my bed, but sleep was hard to come by. I kept seeing Hiram’s face, by turns contorted with fury, and then looking like a child as I held him in my arms. In truth, he wasn’t much older than a child, and he had seen things that no on should see, but especially not a child. I finally fell asleep and dreamed of knives and crying children.