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Authors: Mary Jo Putney

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Salamanca, Spain

June 1812

 

The white-haired surgeon wiped his forehead wearily, leaving a smear of blood, as he studied the man on the crude operating table. "You certainly made a mess of yourself, Captain," the surgeon said with a distinct Scottish burr. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to block a charge of grapeshot with your chest?"

" 'Fraid not," Lord Michael Kenyon said in a strained whisper. "At Oxford, they teach the classics rather than practical matters. Maybe I should have gone to the new military college."

"It will be a real challenge to see if I can pick all the bits out," the surgeon said with macabre cheer. "Have some brandy. Then I'll get to work."

An orderly held a bottle to Michael's lips. He forced himself to consume as much of the fiery liquid as possible. A pity there wasn't time or brandy enough to get seriously drunk.

When Michael finished drinking, the surgeon slashed away the remnants of his patient's jacket and shirt. "You were amazingly lucky, Captain. If the French gunners had loaded the powder right, there wouldn't be enough pieces of you left to identify."

There was an ugly sound of metal scraping on metal. Then the surgeon wrenched a ball from Michael's shoulder. The resultant blaze of agony made the whole world darken. Michael bit his lip until it bled. Before the surgeon could strike again, he asked haltingly, "The battle—is it won?"

"I believe so. They say the French are haring away at full speed. Your lads have done it again." The surgeon began digging at the next buried fragment.

It was a relief to surrender to the blackness.

Michael returned to awareness imperfectly, floating in a sea of agony that numbed his senses and hazed his vision. Every breath sent stiletto-sharp pains stabbing through his chest and lungs. He was lying on a straw pallet in the corner of a barn that had been commandeered for a field hospital. It was dark, and fretful pigeons cooed from the rafters, complaining about the invasion of their home.

Judging by the mingled groans and labored breathing, the earthen floor must be covered almost elbow to elbow with wounded men. The scorching Spanish noonday heat had been replaced by the bitter cold of night. There was a scratchy blanket over his bandaged torso, but he didn't need
it, for he was burning with the fever of infection, and a thirst worse than the pain.

He thought of his home in Wales, and wondered if he would ever see the lush green hills again. Probably not; a surgeon had once told him only one man in three survived a serious wound.

There was a certain peace in the prospect of dying. Not only would it bring surcease from pain, but he had, after all, come to Spain with the bitter knowledge that death would free him from an impossible dilemma. He had wanted to forget both Caroline, the woman he had loved more than honor, and the terrible promise he had made, never thinking he might be called upon to fulfill it.

With vague curiosity, he wondered who would miss him. His army friends, of course, but they were used to such losses. Within a day, he would have become "poor old Kenyon," simply one more of the fallen. No one in his family would be sorry, unless from irritation at having to put aside their finery to wear mourning black. His father, the Duke of Ashburton, would utter a few pious platitudes about God's will, but he would be secretly pleased to be free of his despised younger son.

If anyone would feel real grief at his passing, it would be his oldest friends, Lucien and Rafe. And there was Nicholas, of course, but he could not bear to think of Nicholas.

His bleak thoughts were interrupted by a woman's voice, as cool and clear as a Welsh mountain spring. Strange to hear an English lady in such a place. She must be one of the intrepid officers' wives who chose to "follow the drum," accompanying their men through all the hardships and danger of campaign life.

Softly she asked him, "Would you like water?"

Unable to speak, he nodded assent. A firm arm raised his head so he could drink. She had the fresh thyme and lavender scent of the Spanish hills, discernible even through the stench of injury and death. The light was too dim to see her face, but his head was resting against a warm curve. If he could move, he would bury his face against her blessedly soft female body. Then he would be able to die in peace.

His throat was too dry to swallow, and water spilled from his mouth and ran down his chin. She said matter-of-factly, "Sorry, I shouldn't have given you so much. Let's try again."

She tilted her vessel so that only a few drops trickled between his cracked lips. He managed to swallow enough to ease the burning in his throat. Patiently she gave him more, a little at a time, until the excruciating thirst was gone.

Able to speak again, he whispered, "Thank you, madame. I'm… most grateful."

"You're very welcome." She lowered him to the straw, then rose and went to^the neighboring pallet. After a moment, she said sorrowfully, "
Vaya con Dios
." Go with God. It was a Spanish farewell, even more appropriate for the dead than the living.

After she moved away, Michael dozed again. He was vaguely aware when orderlies came and removed the body on the next pallet. Soon after, another casualty was laid in the space.

The new arrival was delirious, mumbling over and over, "Mam, Mam, where are you?" His voice revealed that he was very young and terribly afraid.

Michael tried to block out the wrenching pleas. He was unsuccessful, but the steadily weakening words showed that the boy was unlikely to last much longer. Poor devil.

Another voice sounded from the foot of Michael's pallet. It was the Scottish surgeon saying, "Bring Mrs. Melbourne."

"You sent her home yourself, Dr. Kinlock," an orderly said doubtfully. "She was fair done up."

"She'll not forgive us if she learns that boy died like this. Go get her."

An indefinable time later, Michael heard the soft, distinctively feminine rustle of petticoats. He opened his eyes to see the silhouette of a woman picking her way through the barn. Beside her was the doctor, carrying a lantern.

"His name is Jem," the surgeon said in a low voice. "He's from somewhere in East Anglia. Suffolk, I think. The poor lad is gutshot and won't last much longer."

The woman nodded. Though Michael's vision was still blurred, he thought she had the dark hair and oval face of a Spaniard. Yet her voice was that of the lady who had brought water. "Jem, lad, is that you?"

The boy's monotonous calling for his mother stopped. With a quaver of desperate relief, he said, "Oh, Mam, Mam, I'm so glad you're here."

"I'm sorry it took so long, Jemmie." She knelt beside the boy's pallet, then bent and kissed his cheek.

"I knew you'd come." Jem reached clumsily for her hand. "I'm not afraid now that you're here. Please… stay with me."

She took his hand in hers. "Don't worry, lad. I won't leave you alone."

The surgeon hung the lantern from a nail above the boy's pallet, then
withdrew. The woman—Mrs. Melbourne—sat in the straw against the wall and drew Jem's head onto her lap. He gave a deep sigh of contentment when she stroked his hair. She began to sing a gentle lullaby. Her voice never faltered, though tears glinted on her cheeks as Jem's life slowly ebbed away.

Michael closed his eyes, feeling better than before. Mrs. Melbourne's warmth and generous spirit were a reminder of all that was good and true. As long as earthly angels like her existed, life might be worth living.

He drifted into sleep, her soft voice warming him like a candle defying the darkness.

The sun was inching above the horizon when Jem drew his last, labored breath, then became still. Catherine laid him back in the straw with a grief beyond tears. He was so young.

Her cramped legs almost failed when she got to her feet. As she leaned against the rough stone wall and waited for her muscles to recover, she glanced at the man on her left. His blanket had slipped, exposing the stained bandages swathing his broad chest.

The air was still chilly, so she leaned down and drew the blanket up to his shoulders again. Then she laid her hand on his forehead. To her surprise, the fever had broken. When she had given him water, she would not have given a ha'penny for his chances. But he was a tall, powerful-looking fellow; perhaps he had the strength to survive his wounds. She hoped so.

Wearily she made her way toward the door. During her years following the drum, she had learned a great deal about nursing and more than a little surgery, but she had never become inured to the sight of suffering.

The austere landscape was peaceful after the deafening clamor of the day before. By the time she reached her tent, much of her tension was gone. Her husband, Colin, had not yet returned from duty, but her groom, Bates, was sleeping outside, guarding the captain's womenfolk.

Tired to the bone, she ducked inside the tent. Amy's dark head popped up from her blankets. With the nonchalance of an old campaigner, she asked, "Is it time to march, Mama?"

"No, poppet." Catherine kissed her daughter's forehead. After the horrors of the field hospital, it was heaven to hug the child's healthy young body. "I expect we'll stay here today. There's always much to be done after a battle."

Amy regarded her sternly. "You need to sleep. Turn around so I can untie your gown."

Catherine smiled as she obeyed. Her qualms about taking her daughter on campaign were countered by the knowledge that the life had produced this miracle of a child: resilient, wise, and capable far beyond her years.

Before Amy could undo the stained gown, hoofbeats sounded outside, followed by the jingle of harness and the staccato sound of her husband's voice. A moment later, Colin barreled into the tent. He had a cavalry officer's energetic personality, and one was always aware when he was in the vicinity.

" 'Morning, ladies." He ruffled Amy's hair carelessly. "Did you hear about the cavalry charge yesterday, Catherine?"

Not waiting for an answer, he dug the roast leg of a skinny chicken from the hamper and took a bite. "It was the prettiest maneuver I've ever been in. We went roaring at the French like thunder and swept them from the field. Not only did we take thousands of prisoners and dozens of guns, but two eagles were captured! There was never anything like it."

The gilded French regimental standards called eagles were patterned after those of imperial Rome, and capturing two was a stunning feat. "I heard," Catherine replied. "Our men were magnificent." And she had spent the night tending the price of victory.

Having stripped the meat from the drumstick, Colin tossed the bone out the tent flap. "We went after the Frenchies, but no luck. One of those damned Spanish generals disobeyed Old Hookey's order to set a garrison at the river, then didn't have the courage to admit his error."

Catherine ignored the profanity; it was impossible to shield a child who lived in the midst of an army from strong language. "One can see the general's point. I shouldn't like to confess a mistake like that to Lord Wellington."

"Very true." Colin peeled off his dusty jacket. "What else is there to eat? I could down one of the dead French horses if it were roasted properly."

Amy gave him a reproachful look. "Mama needs to rest. She was at the hospital almost all night."

"And your father fought a battle yesterday," Catherine said mildly. "I'll go make breakfast."

She moved past her husband to go outside. Under the odors of horse and mud was the musky scent of perfume. After the pursuit of the French was called off, Colin must have visited his current lady friend, a lusty widow in Salamanca.

Her maid-of-all-work was the wife of a sergeant in Colin's company and would not arrive for at least an hour, so Catherine knelt by the fire herself. She laid twigs on the embers, wearily thinking how her life had turned out so differently from her dreams. When she'd married Colin at the age of sixteen, she'd believed in romantic love and high adventure. Instead she had found loneliness and dying boys like Jem.

Impatiently she got to her feet and hung the kettle over the fire. There was no place in her life for self-pity. If there was sorrow in her nursing work, there was also the satisfaction of knowing she was doing something that truly mattered. Though she didn't have the marriage she had hoped for, she and Colin had learned to rub along tolerably well. As for love-—well, she had Amy. A pity she would never have any other children.

Mouth tight, she told herself what a lucky woman she was.

 

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