Everything changed for Laura Taylor when the South lost the Civil War. The Yankees’ arrival in South Carolina drove Laura and her soldier husband, Jesse, westward to seek a new beginning. But Laura’s hopes crumble when Jesse dies, and she finds herself pregnant and alone in a wild railroad camp with winter coming in fast. The only one she can turn to is Dr. Spencer Hardin.
Spencer returned from the war to discover his wife had run off with another man, taking his young son with them. Vowing to get his child back, he started the long journey to San Francisco, and not even the revelation of his wife’s death could stop his vengeful journey. But when a blizzard rages, Spencer finds himself stranded, fighting for the lives of Laura Taylor and her baby, and the first steps on the path to redemption.
“A well-written story of two people who find love in recovering from the past and the war that tore apart a nation.” —Historical Romance Review with Regan Walker
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Franklin, Tennessee: December, 1864
Exhausted, Spencer Hardin leaned against the crude table and closed his eyes, seeking a moment of respite before another wounded soldier came in. For nearly twenty hours straight, he'd dissected muscle and sawed bone at a frantic pace, while his surgical assistants had held one hundred and twenty-three struggling men down. With no ether, chloroform, or opiate to ease the suffering, he'd had to shut his ears to the desperate pleas, screams, and whimpers of those losing limbs. It was a cacophony of hell without end.
Carried on the lips of the wounded, the bad news of a battle lost had grown steadily worse throughout the night. By daylight, the body count had begun, confirming the enormity of Hood's defeat. Twelve Confederate generals lost in two hours. More than fifty regimental commanders killed. The casualty lists went on and on, numbering not in hundreds, but in thousands.
"You're done in, Hardin."
He felt the weight of Ben Morton's hand on his shoulder. "I'm all right," Spence responded wearily. "I was just resting my eyes, that's all."
"You're fagged to death — that's what you are," the senior staff surgeon insisted. "You're the best leg man around, and I can't afford for you to get yourself down. Go get some sleep, and don't come back until six-thirty — I wish it was more, but that's all the time I can spare you."
He didn't think he could sleep, but Spence was in no shape to argue. Plunging his hands in the wash bucket, he looked down at his blood- caked arms, at his soaked surgical apron, and he saw the young soldier being lifted to his table. The boy was going to lose an arm and a leg, and there was nothing he could do about it. He just felt helpless and defeated by the overwhelming number of wounded. And he knew he had to get away from the stifling stench of blood.
Outside, as the chill air hit him, he leaned his head against the nearest tree and wept. He'd trained as a surgeon, but he'd become a butcher.
"You all right, Doc?"
Caught, Spence straightened his shoulders. "I'm just tired."
"Gets to a body, don't it?" the soldier observed. "I been bringin' 'em in since midnight, and we still got men lying ten feet deep where they fell," he added, shaking his head. "Sometimes I hear 'em crying, but by the time I can get to 'em, they're gone." He looked away for a moment, then his haunted eyes met Spence's again. "Those I know won't survive the ride in, I'm having to leave 'em out there. I feel like I'm playing God, but I know I got to do it."
"You do the best with what you've got — that's all anybody can ask of you," Spence consoled him.
"Guess I got it better'n you, don't I? Least I'm not cuttin' off pieces of 'em."
"You probably save as many lives as I do."
"You can't think that, Doc. You got a gift for what you do, and ever'body knows it. If I had to lose m' leg to live, you'd be the one I'd want taking it."
"Well, I got to go back now, but I just wanted you to know you're the best, Doc."
"Thanks. Between the both of us, maybe we'll do some good."
"I got no doubts about that, Doc."
Passing the hospital tents, Spence stopped, then retraced his steps to the tent marked "Ward A," thinking to tell Mrs. Barnes to soak bandaged stumps in turpentine if she ran out of everything else.
He'd barely ducked through the flap door before she grabbed his arm, pleading, "You've got to help me, Dr. Hardin! The wounded are packed so tightly in here that they are lying upon one another, and yet they keep sending me more. I don't even have blankets to cover what I've got, and I'm at my wit's end, sir, my wit's end!"
"We've got to have blankets. If I cannot keep these men warm, they'll perish from shock, sir — don't we owe our men more than this?"
"You'll have to take what you can from the dead," he decided. "At least they're past knowing."
"We've done that. Blankets, clothing, everything — even the bandages — and there's still not enough!" she cried. "I'm just a nurse, but you are a doctor — they'll listen to you! Tell them I cannot keep this ward running with nothing!"
"Mrs. Barnes," he said wearily, "I'm amputating limbs with nothing — not even a drop of whiskey — to kill the pain of a capital saw biting through bone."
"But they've lost so much blood, it makes them cold. Most of them are without beds or pallets even, and the ground's too damp for them."
"I know." He fumbled with the brass buttons, working them through the buttonholes. "Here," he told her wearily, handing her his coat. "Wrap this around somebody."
"Oh, I couldn't ... I didn't mean ..."
"I've got another one."
"Hardin! Spence Hardin!" someone called out. "Over here!"
Sarah Barnes sighed. "It's Captain Donnelly again," she said, betraying disgust. "If I could, I'd wish him out of here, and I truly mean it. He thinks I have naught to do but wait on him."
"I'll take care of it." Turning around, he scanned shivering men packed side to side and end to end so closely that anywhere he went in the tent, he'd be stepping over someone. He spied Ross Donnelly lying on one of the few cots, covered with a heavy blanket, and he waded over bodies getting to him. "Damned if it didn't take you long enough to get here," the Georgian told him sourly. "I've been hollerin' for whiskey for hours, and all I get is water."
"It's all she's got."
"But you can get me some, can't you? Dammit, Spence, but I'm in pain — look at my face — and Miss Friday-Face over there won't even answer me."
"She's got men dying faster than she can get to them." "It's not like I'm not hurt. Hell, I got a busted shoulder and a busted nose myself. I had to holler myself hoarse for her to go get Doc Winters, and all that damned quack did for me was tie my arm to my neck with a rag. They've got me in here like a damned nobody, Spence."
"I wouldn't say that too loudly — you've at least got a blanket."
"I thought you of all people would understand," Ross complained.
"Spence, I've got to get out of here — out of the whole damned war. It was hell out there — that damned Union artillery just kept pounding us. We wanted to outflank 'em, but Hood wouldn't let us, so we were just plain wasted. We could've taken those guns out, but he just kept throwing the infantry at 'em. It wasn't anything but a massacre out there."
"By the looks of you, you hit a brick wall face first,"
Ross gingerly felt his swollen jaw, then winced. "Damned horse went down, and I landed on my shoulder, then rolled. Not much to my credit to be telling it, but that's the way it happened. God, I hate this war. I sure didn't know when I signed up it'd last this long — hell, I thought we'd have 'em licked by the first Christmas. I thought you and me would be dancing at that victory ball your daddy-in-law was going to throw us. You hear anything from Cullen, anyway?"
"He had a stroke, and he's in a pretty bad way."
"How's Lydia taking it?"
"Not well — everything's on her shoulders now. Sally can't cope with anything."
"Never could. My mama used to say Sally Jamison had feathers for brains, you know, but she's good-hearted. I don't know how a woman like that could have a daughter like Lydia. Hell, they don't even look like each other, Spence. That girl's just Cullen through and through."
"Yeah. Tell you what, Ross — you hold tight until tomorrow, and I'll write up a medical discharge for you. If I could, I'd go home with you."
"You and me need to talk about that, Spence." The young cavalry officer took a deep breath, then let it go. "Hell of it is, I got no home now. I probably should've said something, but I was kind of ashamed about it. But after we lost Atlanta, things were getting so bad down home that my daddy took Mama and the girls and hired somebody to run the blockade for 'em. I expect they've made it to England by now."
"I'm sorry — I didn't know."
"Yeah, well, I thought maybe Lydia would've told you in one of her letters. I figure she'd be bound to know it, seein' as Mama and Sally Jamison brought her and Phoebe out together in Atlanta, but I don't guess you weren't around in 'fifty-nine, were you?"
"I was still in medical college — I didn't finish until May of sixty-one."
"Helluva time to come out of it, wasn't it?"
"I want that medical discharge, Spence," Ross said, returning to the matter at hand. "I'll be damned before I'll die for nothing. All we've got left now is Bobby Lee, and while he's the best of 'em all, North and South, he's not God Almighty."
"There's bound to be somebody around Macon who'd take you in."
"Maybe so. You know, the Jamisons and Donnellys have been friendly all my life. Why, I've known Lydia ever since she was born, bein' as Blackwood's right up the river from Jamison's Landing. There was even some talk between Cullen and my daddy about puttin' 'em together, but Lydia never had any particularity for me, so it never worked out. I always thought she was too stuck on herself just because Cullen had all that money, and she told Phoebe the earth'd have to run out of men before she'd look at me."
"I know it'd be a lot to ask ..." Ross hesitated for a moment, waiting for encouragement, but when Spence didn't say anything, he came to the point. "Do you think Lydia'd mind if I was to stay at Jamison's Landing? I'd do anything I could for her until you can get home yourself, and I don't mind Sally — hell, the woman's like a mother to me, Spence. She's more'n a little flighty, but there's not a mean bone in her body. I reckon I could try to keep her out of Lydia's hair some."
For a moment, Spence wondered what Liddy would think of the idea, considering she'd expressed a real disdain for Ross's wild ways. "I'd have to tell her you've changed, and you'll have to make her believe it," he said finally.
"Would you? You tell her I'd be mighty obliged if she'd take me in, and I won't be making any trouble for her. I won't forget this, Spence, I swear it. Anything you ever need from me, you've got it. But I've got to get away from this war before I get my head blown off."
"Dr. Hardin! Colonel Henry's convulsing!" Mrs. Barnes called out.
"I've got to go, but I'll see what I can do," Spence promised. "It might work out for both of us."
He reached Matthew Henry as the colonel gave one last gasp. "He's gone," he said simply, looking to Mrs. Barnes. As he closed Henry's eyes, Spence heard her say softly, "It's a blessing, isn't it? He didn't know how he'd manage without his arms."
As Spence emerged from the tent, he felt a profound relief for Matt Henry, a lesser one for himself. Self-centered or not, Ross Donnelly could sure lift a burden from his shoulders. With somebody there, maybe Lydia's anxiety wouldn't turn into a full-blown hysteria. It was worth a try, anyway.
"Doc! Doc, it's me — Danny Lane!" a kid said breathlessly.
"What is it?"
Lane shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hesitating before he blurted out, "It's Jesse Taylor — my sister's husband, Doc." Swallowing hard, he explained, "He's took a ball in his leg — went plumb through it. I know it's against regulations, sir, but the regulations is wrong. If maybe you'd just give it a look, sir, 'cause he says he ain't giving it up."
"I was headed to bed, but Winters is taking my place." On the verge of tears, the young ambulance driver caught Spence's coat. "But Winters'll saw it off, Doc! All the way in here, I been tellin' Jesse you're a real decent sort, that if anybody'd make a try at saving it, you would, and ..." His voice broke, then he mastered it. "It'd be real hard on Laurie if he wasn't to come home, Doc — it'd kill her."
"Please — he's all she's got."
Attempts to save a limb which in civil life could be saved cannot be made. Gunshot fractures of the thigh, bullet wounds to the knee, and similar injuries to the leg, which at first sight may make amputation seem unnecessary, must always in the field require the sacrifice of the limb. Primary amputation done within the first twenty- four hours is critical, reducing the high rate of infection and ultimately saving more lives. The directive wasn't open to interpretation, and Spence knew it.
"I'm not in any shape to do anybody any good right now. I'm sorry." "She never had anything, you know. Our folks both died while we was little. Laurie wasn't even twelve yet, but she raised me. I can't let her down, Doc."
He liked Danny. The kid had never shirked his gruesome duty of picking through the dead to find the living, which was more than could be said of men older than he was. "All right," he decided. "I'll take a look, but —"
"You hear that, Jess? He's gonna fix it!" the kid crowed as he climbed into the ambulance wagon.
Holding the canvas for Spence, he said low, "Jesse's a mite tetchy now. I kinda had to land him one upside his head to get him in."
The smells of straw, sweat, and blood hit Spence as he crawled inside. Before his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he heard the unmistakable click of a gun hammer being cocked, and he felt the cold steel barrel against his neck.
"Don't move, mister," Taylor warned him.
"Don't, Jess — it's the doc!"
"Nobody's touching my leg, Danny. I came into this world with two of 'em, and I'll be leaving it the same way."
"Jess, he ain't like most of 'em, I swear to God he ain't. Just let him have a look, that's all I'm asking," Danny pleaded.
"He touches it, I pull this trigger."
Not giving up, Danny looked to Spence. "Tell 'im, Doc — tell 'im he don't want blood poisonin'. Jess, look — he don't even have a saw with him."
"If he knows what's good for him, he'll back out real easy."
"He ain't armed, Jess. It'd be murder — just plain murder. You ain't no murderer, and you know it," the kid argued. "You wouldn't hurt a fly less'n it was a Yankee. All I'm asking is for you to let him look."
"I'm not on duty," Spence said quietly. "If there's any cutting, it'd be Winters doing it."
"I've got no faith in an army quack," the man growled.
"I was trained at the Medical College of South Carolina as a surgeon," Spence told him evenly. "And if you don't put the gun down now, you can take your leg to hell for all I care." There was a strained pause, then Jesse Taylor slowly uncocked the revolver and lay back, closing his eyes. "Well, you're either a brave man or a damned fool, so look it over, tell him there's nothing to do but cut it off, then get the hell out of here."
"I can't tell until I see it. Danny, my field kit's in my tent, under my cot. And just in case, maybe you'd better round up a pair of leg splints. Tell Winters I've got a broken leg to treat."
Spence went to work, carefully loosening the blood-soaked cloth around the wound. "I'll have to probe it first."
"Bone's broke," Taylor managed through clenched teeth. "Bullet went clean through it, taking a hunk of the leg in back."
"I see that. If the lead and bone fragments aren't cleaned out, there's a risk of gangrene."
"Just don't get out the saw — I'll stand damned near anything but that."
"I got the kit, and the splints is coming," Danny declared over Spence's shoulder. "It's gonna be all right, ain't it?"
"I don't know yet."
Forgetting his fatigue, Spence cut the pant leg, exposing the wound. Feeling underneath, he could tell there was considerable damage. Nonetheless, he probed the entry hole, finding bits of bone embedded in the soft tissue. He'd have to section the muscle to see how much of the femur had been lost. "You'd better hold on," he warned Jesse Taylor. Nodding to Danny, he added, "Light that lantern and hold it close — off to the right a little, but close."
As he cut, probed, and picked around the broken femur, the man never made a sound. Spence worked meticulously, finding each sliver, exchanging the probe for needle-nosed forceps, retrieving every bit he could. The air was chilly, but he was sweating when he sat back and reached for the stoppered bottle.
"Soon as I get a little of this in there, I'll force the bone together, and splint it. You'd better sit on his shins, Danny."
"Jesus God!" Taylor gasped, bucking when the permanganate hit the open wound.
As he left the ambulance, Spence felt pretty good about Taylor's chances. Barring infection, the man would be limping home with both legs, but one was going to be a little shorter than the other.
In his tent, he hung his coat over the chair, washed his hands in the water bucket, then sat to remove his boots. His gaze strayed to Lydia's picture, taking in the incredibly beautiful woman and the small boy on her lap. God, it had been so long since he'd been home to see them. Every time he looked at that picture, the yearning he felt was nearly unbearable.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bittersweet"
Copyright © 1997 Anita Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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