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Published on Friday, January 1, 2014

Bal Masqué

By Melissa Lenhardt

 

I watched the Comanche massacre my wagon train from the safety of a buffalo wallow.

They came with the setting sun at their backs and in the wagon train's eyes. At first I thought it was a mirage until the quaking ground, war whoops, and the skittishness of the animals told me it was all too real.

The trembling terror of war paralyzed me, a terror I had worked diligently to forget these past seven years. I put my head down, closed my eyes, and prayed this was a dream, that I wasn't hearing the gruesome noises of death I had struggled so hard to forget. I mumbled long forgotten prayers as my bladder released.

The victims' screams and the Indians' war cries intermingled in a hellish cacophony. Gunshots rang out. Harnesses jingled. Oxen brayed. Men yelled. A dog barked, yelped, fell silent. Then, far above the din, Maureen screamed my name.

   

I sat up and peered above the tall grass of my natural fortress. The chaotic scene that greeted me burned onto my memory like a brand. Our ten wagons were strewn over a quarter of a mile, some toppled over and attached to the dead or dying oxen. Indians chased and caught a wagon flying across the prairie trying to escape and, within a few feet, the driver was dragged from his perched and to the ground. If the fall didn't kill him, the Indian did. Blood flew through the air and, after a soul-tearing scream, the Indian held aloft the scalp of their victim.

With a blood-curdling cry to match the savages, Amos Pike rode into the center of the massacre. He held his rifle aloft, shooting repeatedly as he charged. Two Indians dropped before the big Indian with the fresh scalp dropped his trophy, wielded his gun like a club and knocked Amos from his horse. Semi-conscious, the Confederate war hero was dragged by one arm to a broken wagon wheel. The Indian tied Amos's body to the wheel, his arms and legs forming a large "X" while another Indian started a fire amid the surrounding rubble. As the fire caught, the Indians roamed the wreckage, searching for survivors.

I could not move and I could not look away. Fear did not paralyze me, cowardice did. I did not want to die and I knew that to move meant certain death. I dropped back to earth and curled into a ball, tears streaming freely down my cheeks. I covered my ears in a vain attempt to block out the sounds of the charnel house a hundred yards away but it kept getting louder and louder, growing, vibrating the ground until the sound was all around me.

Then I heard the sound that had been haunting my every waking hour for two weeks: the braying of cattle. This time, though, there was a desperate note to it. I sat up again and saw seven hundred and fifty head of cattle stampeding, driven by the sweat streaked, enraged faces of Amos Pike's cowboys.

A few cattle veered off from the group and threatened to overrun me, but the main mass of cattle put their heads down and ran. They charged straight through the destroyed wagon train, overrunning whatever was in their way and stampeding any victim unlucky enough to still be alive. The Indians, while surprised, were not defeated. A few ran with the herd, others mounted their horses and let the stampede run its course. The Indians turned against the charging cowboys who were shooting while galloping forward, full tilt, through the dust and smoke. Calmly, the Indians leveled their bows and let their arrows fly. Every cowboy, save one, fell from his horse. The last cowboy was chased, tackled bodily from his horse, and killed with a few swift chops of a knife.

The cattle were gone, leaving in their wake deathly silence and a haze of dust lit orange by the now blazing wagon fires. Through the swirling dust, I saw the Indians lift Amos into the air. He was conscious now, blood running down his forehead from the gash where his scalp used to be. With brave defiance, he screamed, "I'll see you in Hell!" The Indians laughed and threw him in the fire.

The sounds of Amos's screams reverberated in my head. I wondered, later, if it was Amos's screams I heard or my own, because at that moment, the Indians turned in my direction. In one fluid movement, the Indian who had unseated Amos was on his horse and riding toward me. I could not move. The gun holstered on my hip was forgotten.

I watched Death approach. All the years of my fighting against the strictures of society – its rules and expectations of my gender – were pointless. Everything I had accomplished, every bit of new ground I had broken were rendered moot, were to be destroyed at the hands of an Indian. There was no one left to mourn Catherine Bennett, to miss me, to wonder what could have been. I thought of the mother I never knew and the father I missed so dearly and of Maureen, most assuredly waiting for me on the other side, with a chastisement on her lips for wandering away from the wagon train. I closed my eyes as the gunshot rang out.

The familiar jingle of cavalry, the pounding of horses hooves and the welcome notes of a bugle sounding charge disoriented me. For a moment, I was back at Antietam, standing next to my father, waiting for the casualties to stream into our makeshift hospital. When I opened my eyes I saw the Indians riding off. A small regiment of black soldiers, led by two white officers, ran past me and after the savages leaving me alone, staring at the wreckage of my future, the sole survivor.

 

*         *        *

 

It was not a conscious decision to move toward the carnage but something — a hidden hand, the thought there might be someone I could help — propelled me forward. I stumbled and fell heavily to the ground, the churned earth pillowing my fall. I lay there, resting my cheek on the dark, loamy soil and considered never moving again, of again welcoming the death I had embraced only moments before. Feeble moaning cut through the unnatural silence. With a dread I hadn't felt in years, I picked myself up and moved forward.

The smell of blood, roasting meat and cow manure surrounded me. Amos had long since stopped screaming. All that was left was the crackle and pop of his burning flesh. Frau Schlek stared vacantly into the sky, her hands futilely holding organs that spilled out of the gash where her unborn baby should have been. The baby lay next to blood-smeared wagon wheel, his tiny head crushed, his cord still attached to his mother. Herr Schlek's body was a few feet away, his head further away still. Their four other children were nowhere to be found.

Frau Schlek looked at me. "My baby."

I knelt down beside her and cradled her head in my lap. "It's a boy. A strong baby boy." I choked on the last word.

She smiled the beatific smile of a new mother. "Good. Hermann wanted another boy."

I sat with her until she died, stroking her hair and talking in a soothing voice of nothing in particular. I placed the broken body of her baby in her arms and covered them with a quilt from their wagon before moving on.

Maureen lay in the middle of the wreckage, Cornelius a few feet away. A savage had taken a hatchet to Cornelius and left his torso a pulpy mess. His bald head was not scalped, unlike Maureen.

I ran away and fell to my knees vomiting, trying with every heave to purge the image of Maureen with her face torn away and her eyes full of terror. Somehow I knew she had been alive when they had taken her scalp, that they had chopped away the bottom of her face to stifle her screams to me.

I do not know how long I knelt there, screaming and sobbing and blaming myself for all of it. When I felt hands on my shoulders I began flailing, fighting against death, which I believed had finally tracked me down. A quiet voice in my ear and strong arms holding me eventually broke through my confusion and terror. I saw a group of Colored soldiers arrayed in front of me on slathered, blown horses. Many of the soldiers stared at the ground, embarrassed at my outburst.

"It's okay ma'am," the voice said in my ear again. "You're safe. You're going to be fine."

All strength left me and I collapsed forward against the stranger's arms, sobbing the word "No" repeatedly. The inappropriateness of being held by a strange man occurred to me and I stepped away so quickly, I would have fallen but for his quick reflex in catching my arm.

"Careful," he said.

I caught sight of Maureen lying behind the officer and turned my gaze to him. I gasped. Looking down on me with compassion and pity was the officer from Antietam.

 

*         *        *

 

I stepped back. No. It couldn't be him. My doubts were banished when he turned his head to speak to his men and revealed the long red scar down the left side of his clean-shaven face. I stared at the scar, too distinctive to be denied.

"Where did you come from?" I asked.

"Fort Richardson. I am sorry we were not earlier."

I was lightheaded, unable to think coherently. Maybe this was a dream, I thought. An Indian attack. Maureen dying. Rescue by the nameless officer from Antietam who inadvertently ended my masquerade as a male orderly. The coincidence beggared belief. Yes, I assured myself. This is all a dream.

"Are you real?" I asked.

With a steady gaze he replied, "Yes, ma'am."

"I told Anna about you just this morning. She asked me...."

I turned and surveyed my immediate surroundings. Two soldiers threw buckets of water onto the burning wagon wheel. "Anna! Where's Anna?"

"Is Anna your daughter, ma'am?" the officer said.

"No, she is – she is -" I started toward the wreckage, but I'd walked through there before and didn't see her. I turned around to walk the other way. Maybe she had wandered from the group like I did. The officer stopped me.

He shook his head very slightly. "Let my men look for her," he said. "What did she look like?"

"Blonde, fair. Seventeen," I said.

His eyes clouded. "Corporal Williams, search for the young woman. Sergeant Washington, form a burial detail."

"You're hurt, Suh," a smooth deep voice said.

"I'll be fine. You have your orders." His men scattered, leaving us alone.

"Are you injured, ma'am?"

"What?" My voice sounded hollow and far away.

"Are you injured?"

I closed my eyes and shook my head. "I am," I swallowed down the word 'fine'. "No. I am not injured."

He stepped before me and bent down to my eye level. "There's blood on your face."

I wiped my cheek and my hand came away bloody. The memories of the past half hour were like fine cheesecloth; appearing whole at first glance but upon closer inspection full of gaps and holes. I could not remember everything, and I did not know if I was injured or not.

I looked from my hand back to the officer, trying to piece together events and push back the memories and questions the sight of him created, when I saw the blood on his tunic just below his shoulder.

"You are bleeding," I said.

He looked down. "It's nothing."

I followed his gaze. "You have an arrow sticking out of your leg," I said.

"It's why I am bleeding," he replied.

I pointed. "Your shoulder is bleeding."

He craned his neck down to look at his shoulder. "So it is," he replied with some amusement.

Relief surged through me. Something to focus on besides....

"Allow me," I said.

I stepped forward and lifted my shaking hands. I balled my fists to steady myself and smiled at him. "Do not worry. I will be fine in a moment."

He stepped back. "You're in shock. Don't worry about me."

"What I need to do is help you," I said, more testily than I intended.

He said nothing for a moment, only studied me. He moved his arm to unbutton his tunic and winced.

I gently slapped his hand away and unbuttoned his tunic enough to reveal a large red stain on his white shirt. I slipped my forefingers through the hole at the center of the stain and pulled.

"Let me guess," he said. "I've been shot."

"With a bullet and an arrow." I probed around the shoulder wound to gauge the totality of the damage. "Can you walk?"

"Yes," he replied. "Can you?" There was concern in his eyes and voice. My curt professionalism had not made him forget the state I was in when he found me. I turned away. I couldn't afford for him to recognize me.

"Come with me," I said.

I tripped across the uneven ground on weak and wobbly legs. I climbed into my wagon, amazingly left unhurt and upright, and retrieved my medical bag. "Do you need my help removing your tunic?"

He looked at my bag, the wagon, and me curiously. "I can manage," he said. He unbuckled his holster and handed it to me. I placed it in the wagon while he finished unbuttoning his coat. When he struggled, I helped him. The back of his shirt was snowy white.

I folded his coat and placed it on top of his holster. "The bullet is deep in your shoulder," I said. I doused a square of cloth with whiskey and cleaned around the wound. "A pressure bandage should suffice until I can take the bullet out." I was mumbling, speaking mostly to myself as I worked.

"Take the bullet out?"

"Yes. I am a doctor." I said it before I weighed the risk of admitting it.

His scrutiny unnerved me. If he recognized me, could he connect the boyish male orderly who sewed up his face at Antietam with Catherine Bennett?

I pulled the bandage tight around his back and across his chest. "Does that hurt?" I asked.

"No."

I smiled and continued to wrap. "You are a poor liar, Captain — ?" I paused and looked at him questioningly.

"Kindle. William Kindle."

I tied off his bandage. "That will do for the moment." I was trying to avoid looking at the wreckage of the wagon train and to avoid Kindle's penetrating gaze, which left me few places to look. I dropped my head to assess the arrow protruding from his thigh. "Now for your leg. There isn't much blood, which concerns me."

"You're afraid the arrow has hit an artery and is plugging its own hole," he said.

"Yes, exactly," I replied. I eyed his suspenders. "I need a tourniquet," I said.

"By all means," he replied. Together we removed them.

I looped the suspenders loosely around his thigh above the arrow then tied them off. "Sit here," I said.

He sat on the back of the wagon while I climbed inside again. Images flashed through my mind; Frau Schleck's gaping stomach, her husband's head caked with blood and dirt, Maureen's mutilated face. My back to Kindle, I covered my mouth and fought against nausea and a sob of despair. Could I do this? I had to, needed to. He was grievously injured. If I didn't help him he would die, of that I was sure. I dropped my hand from my mouth. I couldn't live with myself if another person died today due to my cowardice. I found a bottle of whiskey and handed it to him.

"Thank you," he said. He removed the cork and took a swig. His sun-weathered face was noticeably paler than it had been moments before, setting off the redness of his scar. He finished taking a drink and caught me staring. I looked away as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said nothing.

"How are you feeling? Lightheaded?" I asked.

"A little," he replied.

So am I, I thought. "Maybe you should lie back."

"No."

"As you wish," I said. I cut his pants around the wound and cleaned the leg around the arrow with the whiskey soaked cloth.

"Have you ever done this before?" he asked.

"Removed an arrow? No. Have you?"

"Once or twice."

"What would you recommend?"

"You have to cut the arrow out."

"Oh." I bit my lip.

"Is that a problem?"

"What?" I looked up from his leg. I didn't want to admit to him my idea had been to yank the arrow out, check the bleeding then assess my options. "No. Not at all."

A young officer came around the wagon. "I cannot find the girl, sir. I have checked all of the wagons and the general area. She is nowhere to be found."

"What does that mean?" I said.

In his pause before speaking, I knew what his answer would be. "She was most likely taken captive."

The sights, sounds and smells around me validated the stories we'd heard of the Comanche, but on what happened to abducted women the storytellers had always remained silent. A shake of the head and, "Better to be dead," was all anyone ever said.

I swayed. The ground tilted and rushed up to meet me.

 

*         *        *

 

Whiskey poured into my mouth and trickled down my throat. I coughed and sat up. The young officer cradled me while Captain Kindle held the whiskey in readiness for another shot, if needed. A moment passed before I understood why these men were hovering over me with expressions of concern on the one side and anxiety on the other.

Anna. Maureen. Amos. The Schleks.

I asked if four children had been found.

"Besides the baby?," the young officer said. "No. They've taken them as well, haven't they, Captain?"

Kindle didn't respond, but the expression on his face was answer enough. "Can you stand?" he asked me.

I wanted to curl up and sleep forever. "Yes."

"Should I form a party to go after them?" the young officer asked.

"We cannot," Captain Kindle said.

"Sir, we must."

"We don't have the men. We must bury the dead, there is a storm on the way, and it will be dark soon."

"Sir, allow me to take some men and follow the war party."

"Did West Point teach you how to track Indians, Lieutenant?"

"No, but one of your men...."

"There is no one in this group who can track a band of running Indians. You need a scout, which we do not have."

"Uncle...."

"In the Army, you are a lieutenant under my command, not my nephew. You will address me as Captain or I will have you reassigned to a clerking position in St. Louis. If you argue with my orders again, I will have you court martialed. Do you understand, Lieutenant Kindle?"

The young man's face went red and his lips pressed into a thin line. "Yes, sir."

"Sergeant Washington," Captain Kindle said.

"Yes, suh." A large Colored sergeant stood a few feet away.

"Do we have any horses that aren't blown?"

"Yours and mine, suh."

"Lieutenant Kindle, take Corporal Williams to the fort immediately and relay our predicament to the commander. Inform him of the abductions. Tell him we will wait here for his instructions."

"Yes, sir." The young man saluted, turned on his heel a bit too precisely and left.

"He is your nephew?" I asked.

"Beau. My late brother's son." Kindle pressed his lips together and looked away, ending my attempt at conversation.

The shaking in my hands had moved to my legs. Try as I might, I could not keep them from trembling beneath me. I climbed into the wagon and sat down in the guise of readying my instruments to perform surgery on Captain Kindle's leg. Sitting did not help. My entire body shook as if overcome by chills. Already Maureen's pleasant countenance had been replaced in my memory by her death mask. I heard my name being screamed through the din of battle and saw myself cowering in the buffalo wallow while, one hundred yards away, an Indian chopped Maureen's face apart to silence her.

Far away I heard the discussion of burying the dead. Sergeant Washington and his men would place the bodies in a broken wagon bed and then lower it into a large grave. The captain ordered them to hurry as the storm was coming on quickly.

"Ma'am?" Captain Kindle's voice was full of concern.

I took a deep breath and stood. I grasped the metal rib of the wagon cover and placed a protective hand over my roiling stomach, swallowing the urge to vomit. I needed to focus, to push my personal tragedy and guilt to the back of my mind and focus on Captain Kindle's wound. I returned my attention to my patient. "How are you feeling, Captain?"

"I should ask you the same."

"I'll be fine, Captain."

"Please, lie down, ma'am. The shakes will pass in time."

"They are abating already," I lied. "You didn't answer my question. How are you feeling?"

"Fine," he said, though his color was worse.

I tossed a crate onto the ground and climbed out of the wagon. I set the crate upright and asked Kindle to sit.

When he hesitated I said, "Please. I will not faint again. I need to determine if an artery was nicked."

He sat down. The arrow's brown feather fletching reached almost to Kindle's chin. It would seem to be so easy to just yank the arrow out and deal with the clear wound.

As if reading my mind, he explained. "The arrowhead is attached to the shaft with animal sinew. It softens in the body and loosens the arrowhead. You will just yank the shaft out then will have to search for the head."

I nodded, filing the information away but hoping I'd never need it again. "How far are we from Fort Richardson?"

"Ten miles." He looked at the darkening sky. "With a storm coming."

Over my shoulder I noticed the clouds gathering in the west for the first time. "Wonderful," I said. I knew I could complete the operation without incident. However, performing the surgery in our current circumstances, in the middle of the prairie and a storm gathering on the horizon, was not ideal.

Captain Kindle watched me without a word. I turned away from him, trying to keep my face in profile as much as possible. I called for the nearest solder.

"Please find two barrels and place the side of a wagon across them. It will have to do for an operating table. I also need someone to make a fire and begin boiling water. Quickly, now. I do not want to attempt this in the rain."

He looked toward Captain Kindle, eyes wide, waiting for direction.

"Do as she orders," Kindle said.

When the soldier was gone I said to Kindle, "You're in luck. I procured chloroform in Austin. You will not feel a thing."

"I don't want chloroform."

"I didn't ask you what you wanted."

"Nevertheless, I do not want to be unconscious."

"Captain Kindle, the only way I will perform this surgery is if you are unconscious."

"Then you will not perform the surgery."

"You cannot restrict blood flow to your leg for another day. The damage would be irreparable."

"I do not think you're in a state to perform surgery."

"Believe me, focusing on your leg is the only thing that will calm my nerves."

He was still studying me when Lieutenant Kindle and Corporal Williams rode up to take their leave. Beau Kindle took in the soldiers preparing the table with confusion. "What are you doing?" he asked me.

"I am about to operate on your uncle's leg," I replied.

"You cannot do that," he said.

"Would you rather do it in my stead?"

"Don't be absurd," he replied.

"Lieutenant," Captain Kindle barked. "Keep a civil tongue in your head."

Beau Kindle dismounted and spoke in a low, controlled voice. "Captain, forgetting the fact we do not know what her skills as a surgeon are, do not forget she fainted not ten minutes ago." When Kindle did not respond, the lieutenant continued. "Sir, do you think it wise to put your life in her hands under these circumstances?"

"No. But, I see no other choice."

Despite that rousing endorsement, I endeavored to put Lieutenant Kindle's mind at ease. "I understand your concerns, Lieutenant. You have no reason to believe I am up to the task. I can only assure you that your uncle's well-being is as important to me as it is to you."

I willed my hand not to shake and placed it on Lieutenant Kindle's arm. "Please, go quickly to Fort Richardson. Bring the post doctor back if you feel you must. I will do what I can to make Captain Kindle comfortable until you arrive." I gave Lieutenant Kindle the most modest, feminine smile I could muster.

"You're wasting daylight, Lieutenant. You have your orders," Captain Kindle said.

Somewhat placated, Beau Kindle saluted, remounted his horse and kicked it into a gallop. Corporal Williams saluted, turned his horse and followed.

The smile dropped from my face. "What would you have me do, Captain?"

Captain Kindle was slumped against the side of the wagon, visibly in pain. "Sorry?"

"Would you have me operate on you or make you comfortable until you arrive at Fort Richardson where your leg will inevitably be amputated."

He did not reply. I moved in front of him. "Captain?" His eyes met mine. They were full of pain, just as I remembered them. "Trust me, Captain. I will take good care of you."

After a long, unsettling pause, he nodded.

I motioned for the soldiers to place the makeshift litter near the wagon.

I threaded two needles, my shaking hands making the task more difficult than usual. I turned slightly away from Kindle, enough to hide my tremors but not so far as to ignite his suspicion. Trembling hands would do little to burnish Kindle's nascent trust in me. I knew my mind and hands would settle when the time came, until then I needed a distraction.

"How long have you been in the Army?" I asked Kindle.

"Twenty years."

"Indeed." I poured diluted Coptic acid into an iron skillet and dropped my instruments in it along with the two threaded needles. "You do not seem old enough to be a twenty year veteran."

"West Point when I was eighteen. How long have you been a doctor?" he asked with great difficulty.

"Officially? Four years. I assisted my father for many years before that." I glanced at him. "Do not think you will get me to tell you my age, Captain."

"I would not dream of asking," he replied.

"Sergeant Washington, can you help him?"

Washington and a private moved to help Kindle to the table. He held up his hand to stay them. "I do not need help."

The wind increased, bringing with it the metallic scent of the oncoming thunderstorm. Thin tendrils of lightening flashed across the distant sky. A rumble of thunder followed.

Sergeant Washington and the private looked at each other with concern on their faces. I pulled Sergeant Washington aside.

"How much time do we have?"

"Ten minutes before the storm. Maybe fifteen, ma'am."

"Would you please have a couple of your men clear a space on the floor of my wagon for the Captain to lie on, after? They can take everything but the trunks outside."

"Yes, ma'am."

While Washington directed the men, I turned my attention back to Kindle. He sat on the edge of the table, lightheaded and woozy.

"Time to lie down, Captain."

"Cut around the wound, follow the shaft down with your finger to find the arrowhead." I placed his folded his coat under his head.

"Anything else?"

"Pray it's not in the bone."

"Private," I said to the nearest soldier, "would you please bring me a pan of warm water? Sergeant Washington, get another soldier and go wash your hands in the remaining warm water with this." I handed him a bar of carbolic soap. "Do not touch anything to dry your hands. I will give you a clean cloth when you return."

I washed my hands and when the three men returned, I handed the skillet of acid soaked instruments to a small soldier standing nearby. I positioned him and Washington at the head of the table and foot of the table, respectively. "Captain, do you have any orders you would like to give your men before you go under?" I asked.

"Sergeant Washington, will the bodies be buried before the storm comes?" Captain Kindle asked.

"Yes, suh."

"You know what to do?"

"Yes, suh."

Kindle nodded. "I leave the regiment in your hands."

"No need to be so dramatic, Captain," I said. "You will be with us again in no time."

I lay a cloth soaked with chloroform over his nose and mouth when Kindle stayed my hand. "I don't know your name," he said.

Relief washed over me and stilled my trembling hands. Whether or not he recognized me as the orderly who helped him at Antietam, I still didn't know. But, he did not know my name. He could not connect me to Catherine Bennett, the New York doctor accused of murder.

"Call me Laura."

THE END

 

Melissa Lenhardt writes historical fiction and contemporary mysteries set in Texas. A life-long Texan, she lives in the Dallas area with her husband, two sons and Golden Retriever.

 

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