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Pippa's gaze darted around Brussels's crowded, stinking streets. Wounded men lay everywhere. She could only be glad she was here. The times she had helped the local midwife and the county surgeon had given her skills which might save lives, or at least ease the passing.
Her twin might even be here. Wellington's letter saying Philip was dead had been sent from here. Philip might be amongst the British fighting Napoleon, and Wellington might not even know.
Her mouth twisted. It was a far-fetched idea. The note was dated weeks ago, and everything pointed to her twin being dead. But she knew her twin was alive, she felt it, and this was the only place she had to start.
A cry of pain caught her attention. It was from a man, his head wrapped in bandages turned brown by dried blood. Flies buzzed around him. His cracked lips opened, and his tongue ran over them, searching for moisture that was not there.
Pippa rushed to him. Kneeling, she felt the heat of fever emanating from him. She took a dipper of tepid water from a nearby bucket and, supporting the soldier's head with one arm, tipped the liquid into his mouth. He gulped greedily.
'Thank ye, lad,' the man said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
'Twas nothing,' Pippa murmured, for the first time regretting her decision to disguise herself as a youth. She had done so because young men were allowed in many places where women were barred, places where there might be people with information regarding her brother. Nothing mattered more than finding Philip.
Yet, if she wore skirts, she could tear off her petticoats and make a new bandage for the man's wound. As it was, she wore a pair of Philip's old pantaloons and one of his shirts, her breasts bound by linen to give her the appearance of a man. She had nothing she could take off without exposing herself.
'Blast,' she muttered, putting aside her wish for petticoats. Steeling herself, she made the decision to remove the filthy bandage. The man would be no worse without it, and probably better.
'Hey! Boy! What do you think you are doing?'
Pippa heard the voice as background noise. She was still too new at her masquerade to realize she was the 'boy'.
'You, boy,'the gruff voice said angrily as a beefy hand gripped her shoulder and swung her around so she landed on her knees.
Pippa did not like being touched. She liked even less being interrupted when she was with a patient.
'Unhand me,' she said, lowly and furiously.
'Touchy for a mite of a lad,' the man accosting her said, dropping his hand.
Scowling, Pippa stood and dusted the dirt from the knees of her buff pantaloons.
The officer looming over herand she was not small was a bull of a man, with a scowl the equal of hers. A shock of dark brown hair fell over equally dark eyes.
His frown deepened. 'Leave the men alone. We have enough problems without your meddling.' He squatted by the soldier. 'And this one is sorely hurt.'
Pippa's anger seeped away as she watched the surgeon gently tend to the man's wound. 'I can help, sir. I've trained with our county surgeon and know many of the local midwife's pain remedies.'
Disregarding her, the surgeon soaked the bandage with water from the nearby bucket and then carefully unwrapped it. 'He would be better off without this.' Dismay moved across his craggy features, followed quickly by stoic acceptance.
The surgeon took off his coat and made it into a pillow, which he carefully laid the soldier's head on. Next, he washed his bloody hands in the water and dried them. Only then did he deign to give Pippa a critical once-over.
'You are naught but a boy, dressed in his older brother's clothes. I'd sooner trust yon private' he jerked his head in the direction of a man who was going around giving the hurt soldiers water 'with an amputation before I'd let you treat these injured men.'
His callous words bit into Pippa, but she held herself straighter and met the other's hard gaze with one of her own. 'I know enough to realize you have ruined the drinking water by washing your hands in it. Now you must send someone to fetch a fresh bucket.'
'Any fool knows that.'
'You should also consider giving him a tincture of henbane to ease the pain and promote relaxation and sleep. You could do the same with opium or laudanum, but I doubt there is enough of either to go around.'
The surgeon's eyes narrowed. 'How old are you, boy?'
The barked question took her by surprise. It should not have. Only very young boys have downy cheeks and slim shoulders. She had tried to pad her shoulders, she could do nothing about her cheeks.
Going on the offensive, a trick her twin had taught her early in life, she met the surgeon's eyes boldly. 'Old enough to be here.'
For an instant the man's wide mouth quirked up. 'Plenty of spunk.'
Two moans pierced the air, each from opposite sides of the street. The surgeon glanced from one wounded man to the other, his face torn by indecision. The hook of his nose seemed to turn down.
'All right, boy. This is your chance. I cannot tend both men simultaneously.'
Anticipation made Pippa's hands shake. She looked from man to man and found her attention drawn to a bright brown thatch of hair. Her twin had hair that color, not black as her own because they weren't identical. Could it be Philip?
She took a step toward the man, saying over her shoulder, 'Yes, sir.'
The surgeon didn't stop her. 'Mind you don't do anything that will harm the bloke,' he stated, his dark eyes boring into her back. He raised his voice. 'Or I shall have you thrown out of the city on your arse.'
'Ingrate,' Pippa muttered under her breath as she hastened to the patient who might be her twin.
She knelt beside the man, disappointment clenching her hands. He wasn't Philip. But he was sorely injured.
The man's moans increased in volume, and his arms and legs thrashed about, throwing off a dirty blanket that had been draped over him. His right calf was a mass of torn muscles and protruding bone. If she did not act quickly, putrefaction would set in and he would lose the limb. The moans stopped the first time she probed the wound.
She glanced at his face to see him watching her with pain-racked hazel eyes. Rivulets of sweat poured from his high brow. He was more handsome than she had ever imagined a man could be. Pain twisted his features and furrows creased his forehead and carved brackets around his mouth, a mouth that might have been wide and sharply defined if it were not flattened by agony. His jaw was square and clenched. His cheekbones were high and flushed with fever. Perspiration slicked his hair.
'Don't cut it off,' he said, his voice a deep, dry rasp that made her fingers shake even more.
In some ways he reminded her of her brother; strong and clean of limb, with the exception of his right leg, and similar in colouring. But the feelings this man aroused in her, in spite of his helplessness, weren't sisterly. Nor were they welcome under any circumstances, much less these.
Forcing her attention back to his wound, she saw that amputating the limb was his best chance, and yet she found herself agreeing with his command not to remove it. This man had a fierce light in his eyes and a muscular wiriness that spoke of activity. He would not appreciate living without his leg.
By the time she pulled the last fragment of bone and the final piece of torn cloth from the wound, perspiration drenched her shirt. His piercing gaze bent on her face as she worked did not help. Never had a man stared at her so intently, and never had a man's attention affected her so completely.
She dared glance at him again, only to wish she had not. His face was creased in agony, and she knew it had been a supreme effort of will that had kept him conscious during the cleaning.
'That leg will have to come off,' the surgeon said in a gruff voice.
Pippa had not heard him approach. Starting, she twisted around in her squatting position and looked up at him. 'I think I can save it.'
The surgeon shook his head. 'If we were in a small town or he was the only patient, I might agree. But 'tis not so, lad. If the leg stays, it will fester and kill him. Better he lose a limb than lose his life.'
Pippa frowned. She had heard the surgeon at home say similar words, but
Perhaps the surgeon was right.
The man's broad shoulders shook and the leg beneath Pippa's fingers twitched. His eyelids fluttered, their thick sandy eyelashes creating a sharp shadow against his pale skin. His eyes caught and held her attention, commanding her.
'Don't let him take my leg,' the man whispered, his voice coming hoarse through cracked lips. His hand gripped her wrist and squeezed to emphasize his order. 'I would rather die.'
Even as he said the words, his eyes closed and Pippa realized he was trusting her to do as he ordered. He did not have the energy to fight the surgeon. It was up to her to save his limb.
Her twin came instantly to mind. Philip would not want to lose his leg. He would call himself half a man. This man would do the same. She knew it with a certainty she did not want to question for fear that she would find herself gone insane; that she would find herself more involved with this man than she had any reason to be.
Chewing her bottom lip, Pippa stood and faced the surgeon. 'You heard him. He would rather die.'
'You would risk his life on a whim?' The surgeon's bushy brown eyebrows formed a bar across his wide face. 'I was right not to entrust anyone's care to you.'
Pippa flushed, half-embarrassed at her statement and halfangry at the surgeon for doubting her skills. 'The way a man feels about his life is as important as whether he has one.'
The surgeon's scowl deepened, his attention going to the patient. 'You did a thorough job of cleaning the flesh. Can you set the bone?'
Pippa nodded, sensing that she had won.
'You,' the surgeon bellowed to a nearby soldier, 'bring an eighteen-tail bandage and splint.' Turning his frown back on Pippa, he said, 'If this man dies, you will have to live with your conscience. Now, show me what you can do.'
Pippa bit her bottom lip and studied the surgeon. He met her gaze squarely. He was laying a heavy burden on her, but one doctors and healers faced every day of their lives. She could and would accept that burden.
Reaching into her herbal pouch, she withdrew some garlic oil and mixed it with fresh water. She poured the mixture over the wound to protect against putrefaction. Her patient flinched, and when she looked at his face she saw he had bitten his bottom lip until it bled. But his eyes were open and watching her.
Conscious of his gaze on her, she flexed the leg to straighten the bone for setting. Without a sound the man flinched and then went limp. He had finally passed out. She breathed a sigh of relief for his sake. Quickly and competently, she set the bone, put on soft lint to absorb the drainage and crossed the eighteen tails of the bandage so that the leg was completely wrapped. Lastly, she applied the splint.
By the time she was done, her hands shook and sweat ran in rivers down her spine. It was a hot, muggy day, but she knew it was the fear of failure that had worn her down. She did not want this man to have his leg amputated. She wanted him to awaken a whole person, wanted to see the fierce determination and fire in his hazel eyes once more.
'You know he will limpif he survives.' The surgeon's gruff voice intruded on her thoughts.
'And it will pain him most in damp, cold weather,' she added, standing and taking a deep breath to steady her nerves.
'Perhaps we can use you after all. I could not have done a better job of cleaning and setting the leg.'
It was a concession she had begun to think would never come. Pippa released the breath she had been unconsciously holding and broke into a radiant smile. 'You won't regret it.'
He looked at her from the corner of his eye and shook his head. 'You are as pretty as a maid. See that you watch yourself. Some of these men are none too particular.'
Pippa turned red. 'Yes, sir.'
Her attention flitted to the unconscious man. What would he think of her as a woman? It was a question she was fearful of having answered.
'I'd be doing you no favors if I didn't warn you, lad.'
'Thank you,' Pippa muttered, trying to deepen her voice.
The surgeon looked at the patient. 'This one is your special case. See that you let me know when gangrene sets in and the limb must be removed. You have until then to try and save the leg.'
'I will do all I can,' Pippa vowed, watching the steady, shallow rise and fall of the hurt man's chest.
'Meanwhile, there are others who need your services and your herbs.' Turning from her, the surgeon bellowed, 'Jones, stay with this lad and see that you get him what he needs.'
A tall, thin, battle-scarred sergeant ambled up. 'Knew we was robbin' the cradle for the fightin', Major, but thought we wasn't in need of babies to tend the sick.'
'This young man has just performed as well as any army surgeon I know,' the older man said. 'Don't go giving the lad trouble or I'll have you confined to the hospital.'
Jones shuddered. 'Horrible place. Dark and hot and stinking.'
'A living morgue,' Pippa whispered, her stomach churning. 'Those poor men.'
'Ah, Lord.' Jones rolled his eyes. 'The boy has that fervent look in his eyes. Now he'll want to go nurse the bastards there.'
'You are absolutely right,' Pippa said firmly, squaring her shoulders and jutting out her chin. 'Show me the way, Jones.'
'What about this one?' the surgeon said, stopping Pippa in her tracks. 'Do you intend to leave him here, exposed to the elements?'
Pippa's gaze travelled over the patient. He was tall and well-formed, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He was a spectacular man. She didn't want him going to the filth and squalor of the hospital.
He is your patient, she told herself. Patient and nothing more. He might not even live.
With difficulty, she forced her concentration to his medical problem. Because of the bands of muscles in his legs, it had been difficult for her to relax his calf enough to open the wounds so she could clean them.