Chapter 1 (Working Draft)
Chimborazo Hospital, Richmond, VA – October, 1864
Death stood waiting on the other side of the partially shuttered window pointing its long, bony finger at Abraham Michael McCabe. Braham didn’t fear death, never had. Dying slow from a gut-shot was preferable to dying at the end of a hangman’s rope. Either way, the shutters would open fully and Death would sling his body over its shoulder and carry him the short distance to Hell.
Braham exhaled one word through dry, cracked lips, “Water.” He didn’t need much. Only a sip. He tried to lick his lips but his thick tongue wouldn’t slide across the parched skin. Beneath swollen, half-opened lids wavy figures and shapes appeared all around him. He blinked and tried to focus on the rows of cots filled with moaning men. Not spies like him but wounded Confederate soldiers.
The Johnny Rebs had tossed him onto a cot. “Don’t let the bastard die,” they had said to the doctor. “We intend to hang him.”
The nurses called him a dead man walking toward the gallows. That’s what he was, but would death caress him before the hangman put a noose around his Yankee neck? The soldiers had tried to beat the names of Richmond’s underground network out of him. They couldn’t. So they intended to strip him of what he cherished most—his honor. He would die the dishonorable death of a spy, and they would bury him in an unmarked grave?
He placed his hand on his swollen belly. His insides sizzled like bacon cooking over an open fire pit and rigors shook his body. He was alone. Not only on the ward, but in life. He had no family. No son to carry on his name. His cousin was his only heir and she didn’t need his money. All a man had at the end of his life was his honor, and the Rebs intended to dump his on a compost heap.
The door at the end of the building opened and rattled shut. “Where’s the prisoner?” The man’s distinctive Virginian drawl rang in Braham’s discerning ears. The man was not only from Virginia. His slow pronunciation placed him smack in the Tidewater region.
Feet shuffled. A chair scrapped angrily across the floor. “Down there. Number twelve. If’n you ask me, that man’s gonna die right soon,” a young lad said.
“Are you the night nurse?”
A determined heel strike against the floorboards grew louder, sharper. Brisk movements rustled the air throughout the ward and men turned in their beds to see the newcomer.
“Sir, we ain’t got no other Federals, why’s he here?”
Braham turned his ear toward the voices, rerouting focus from his pain to the man walking toward him dressed in a cadet gray officer’s tunic.
“He was caught down by the railroad tracks. Quicker to bring him here. President Davis believes he can identify spies living in Richmond. Has he said anything?”
Through clenched teeth Braham exhaled a wheezing breath. The lad was right. He wouldn’t survive the night.
“I’ve been here all day. He’s yelped some but ain’t said nothing.”
The newcomer approached Braham’s cot and read the paper ticket that hung on the end of the metal-framed bed. Braham had wondered what was written on the ticket since they didn’t know his name. Did it list him as a Yankee spy? Would they tie the paper to his toe when they buried him?
The officer tugged on his bushy beard. “This says to withhold pain medication. Why?”
“Reckon the surgeon don’t want to waste none on a spy.”
The bearded man pressed two fingers against the inside of Braham’s wrist and held them there with a gentle touch.
Smooth skin, not used to hard work. No ragged nails.
“Is there an exit wound?”
“Nope. Still got that minie ball in his gut. He’s dying slow. Ain’t right, even if he is a Yankee.”
The bearded man lifted Braham’s shirt and removed the filthy bandage to look at the entry wound.
Braham grimaced as the dressing pulled scab and crusted dirt from the inflamed skin below. The man gently pressed his fingers into Braham’s belly then quickly withdrew them causing him to cry out in pain.
The man straightened, mumbling under his breath. Then he looked at the wound again. “His shirt is soaked. How long has he been sweating like this?”
“Awhile, I reckon. How long you ‘spect he’s gonna live?”
“At this rate only a few hours.”
Braham reached for the doctor’s hand. He had to get someone to listen to him. “Water.”
The bearded man turned to the nurse and said, “Bring me pain medication and clean bandages.”
“My orders are to leave him be.”
“I’m not going to watch a man die without trying to make his last moments comfortable. Now go.”
Boots clacked against the floor, growing fainter with each step.
The bearded man sat on the edge of the spindle-back side chair, scooted it closer, scrapping wobbly legs against the floor. Dust fountained off him as if he’d ridden for a century without care for himself or his mount. He took Braham’s long-fingered hand between both of his.
“I’ve been sent to rescue you, Major McCabe.”
A velvety whisper sounded in his ear. He wheezed out a breath. Was he already dead? Was the angel of mercy upon him? Forcing words through his cotton mouth he asked, “Am I still alive?”
The man’s full lips turned up in a grin. “There’s no white chalk mark drawn around your body, yet.”
Even in Braham’s diminished state he found the odd answer intriguing. “Can’t go far. Legs won’t work.”
Crystal blue eyes studied him with piercing scrutiny. “You won’t have to walk.”
The flickering flames of candles garnered enough light that if Braham squinted he could gaze into the face of his professed rescuer. His shallow breathing grew still for a moment. He remained motionless, save for a twitch of a small muscle beneath his right eye.
The officer, pursing full lips, leaned closer and rested a cool, steady hand on Braham’s chest. “Hold on, we’re going for a ride.”
Braham gazed into almond shaped eyes—eyes that didn’t fit with the brown bushy beard. His spirit ignited with hope that fate wasn’t leading him to a slow death or a hangman’s noose, but to a life yet to be lived filled with magic and mystery.
The man opened a sapphire brooch and began speaking in Gaelic.
Braham sniffed, pulling air deep into his lungs. The autumn scent of burnished gold leaves lingered gently on night’s breath. The scent of a woman. A scent that didn’t come from a bottle but from the essence of a lassie’s soul.
Braham closed his eyes and exhaled one last deep breath . . .