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Doctor Andrew Pike was glad he had bothered to grab his overcoat because the sky was pouring buckets of rain before he reached the hospital ward. His broad brimmed hat low over his eyes, Andrew dodged the mud puddles and increased his pace to a jog. He wanted to check on the status of Private Lonnie Simmons before turning in for the night.
Andrew hesitated in the downpour. Maybe all those years in the war had trained him to be forever looking into shadows. Someone was moving in the open crawlspace under the old house that was being used as one of the barracks for the military hospital. Who would be sneaking around in this miserable weather unless they were up to no good?
He was tempted to get a soldier from the ward to accompany him around the house. But he would feel foolish for causing a bother on a rainy night if this turned out to be just another vagrant rifling through the garbage. The ex-Confederates were sometimes lurking about in search of food or cast off goods.
Andrew cautiously put his head around the corner of the house. Swaying trees were outlined as gray shadows dancing in the feeble light. Well, this was a bold move. Someone had stacked crates under a window and Andrew caught sight of a hand closing the shutter from the inside. That was the storeroom window. Clever Reb!
For once Andrew was glad staff officers had been ordered to continue to wear their side arms while on duty. Andrew took the pistol from his holster and cocked the piece. He really did not mind the poor and destitute pilfering cast off garbage, but breaking into his hospital and stealing medicine and supplies from his patients was a brazeninsult.
Entering the barracks, he squinted in the pale light. The fire had burned low in the wood heater. He put a straw against the embers then touched the flame to the wick of the lantern on the hallway table.
Lifting the spluttering lantern high, he ventured down the ward between the neat row of beds. Snoring filled the warm, heavy air. A floorboard creaked under his foot. Andrew stopped and listened. If someone had heard him crossing the room surely they would be scrabbling for an exit by now. Nothing. Not a sound. There was only the soft patter of rain on the roof. For a desperate reason, known only to Andrew, he hoped this was but a short shower without thunder and lightning.
Andrew entered the back hallway and stared through the shadowy gloom at the closed door to the storeroom. To free his hand, he put the lantern down on a table. Andrew could not force his racing heart to calm. A wave of panic overwhelmed him every time he reached for the doorknob. He was a doctor, not a lousy soldier. He did not want to harm anyone. Andrew closed his eyes and resorted to the old tactic of overcoming these panic attacks. "One, two, three. Reach." He jerked the door open.
Almost mouse-like in their softness, footsteps retreated to the back corner of the closet. "I know you are in there. Come into the light." No one stirred. "I have a gun."
There was a soft cry, like the mew of a kitten. Was this a child? No, the person who ventured into the light wrapped in one of the hospital wool blankets was petite and frail, but she was definitely a grown woman. A pair of large, hollow, terrified, Confederate-gray eyes stared up at Andrew. She trembled so violently that Andrew wondered she did not vibrate the floor.
"I only wanted ... out of the ... rain," she chattered. "I didn't ... take ... anything. I just borrowed ... this blanket ... while I got out of the wet."
"Are you alone?" he asked looking past her with the lantern held high.
At least she was a polite Reb.
"Please let me ... go. I didn't ... mean ... mean any harm. I'm just cold and wet." She was not exaggerating her misery. Her hair was bedraggled and her clothes no better than muddy rags.
"You live around here?"
She dropped her sad eyes to the floor. "No, sir."
Andrew twirled the gun barrel in a circle. "Do you live anywhere?"
"No, sir. I hoped ... for a job ... but didn't..." She gulped, as if unable to continue.
Andrew nodded. Policy was to hire ex-slaves rather than any whites with Confederate ties. "Are you hungry?"
She looked up with such hope in those big, liquid eyes.
"I think there's a little bread in the pantry." He pointed, holding the lantern high. He might feel sorry for this woman, but Andrew was no fool. He did not want to risk a knife in the back so he made her walk in front of him.
She literally pounced on the bread when he put it on the pantry table. Andrew decided he could safely re-holster the pistol as he stoked the potbelly stove. There was a loud moan of agony from the ward.
"Stay put," Andrew ordered with a sharp, warning finger.
"Yes, sir," she said even with her mouth packed full of bread.