sunset from behind the wire

sunset from behind the wire

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sawbones

Part of the non-sequential series of fictional shorts: Medical care during the War of the Rebellion/Civil War/War of Northern Aggression (pick your term - same war) was spotty at best.

Sawbones

The upper Mississippi lay behind him and with it, the cloud of mosquitos that rose above it every evening like the locusts of mighty Egypt. Though summer temperatures rose above ninety degrees, it was necessary for him to sleep with full clothing and a muslin hood draped around his face to fend off the blood-sucking insects. Though he didn’t know what lay ahead of him to the west, emerging from the ‘Zone of the Mosquito’ made life far more tolerable.

The vast plains stretched for days behind and days ahead and he reasoned that the great barrier that kept people from making the trek was not hostile Indians or natural obstacles but one of grinding loneliness. He hadn’t seen another soul since he had been three days west of Independence. Not a wagon rut, not a buffalo track, nothing but endless land and clear skies. There had been a snake that made his saddle horse and pack mules shy three days before. As strange as it may sound, he’d hoped to cross the path of another rattler just to break up the monotony. 

He heard them and their horses long before he saw them emerge from a copse of cottonwoods near a meandering stream. The Army moved south, men coughed and talked, pots and sabers clanking and horses whinnied. An element of men wearing faded blue blouses and straw hats rode straight for him as he sat on a hill astride his bay Morgan.

“Good day sir,” The man wore sergeant stripes. “May I ask you your business?”

“My name is James Abner Wilson and I’m a doctor, on the road west.”

“There is no road here and this is the Indian Nation.”

“I have heard that there is peace on the prarie.”

“If there is peace at the moment, it is because we brought it.” The sergeant scrutinized Wilson’s tack. “You were in the Army?”

“I started out with the Eleventh Pennsylvania. I joined the regiment under Colonel Coulter as his personal surgeon and when it became part of the First Corps, I transferred to divisional surgery.” 
Major General C. C. Augur

“The General is in need of a doctor since his died in Wichita one week past.”

“Which general?”

“General C. C. Augur. That’s him, coming out of yon woodland.”

Wilson saw a man of average size clothed in a new, fancy, brass button uniform, wearing a hound dog gaze on his face, mutton chop whiskers and a thin cigar clenched between his teeth. As the general drew nearer, James could see intelligence and cunning in his eyes. 

“What have we here, Sergeant Dall?”

“I found this here former Army surgeon on his way west and offered him our company if he wished to travel south with us.”

General Augur spoke with his cigar still clenched in his teeth. “That would be fine.” The general moved on, gilded staff in tow.

“What is happening, Sergeant?”

“Indian treaty council at Medicine Lodge. Big treaty. The government is changing its strategy. Now they plan to keep the red men on a plot of land and have them raise crops like proper white men.”

“Does the government think its strategy is sound?”

Sergeant Dall pursed his lips, then smiled. “I’m only a sergeant.”

Dr. Wilson fell into line with the mounted soldiers, next to Sergeant Dall. 

“You could join us for lunch. We have Cincinnati Chicken and hard tack on the bill of fare.”

Bacon, dipped in brine referred to as 'Cincinnati Chicken', usually eaten raw on Army biscuits, didn’t appeal to Wilson, but it wouldn’t do to offend his hosts. He smiled and nodded. “The food hasn’t changed.” He’d ended the war as a major and saw the transformation from wartime military to peacetime military. The change shocked him. The officers remaining were a blend of competent men with a substantial wartime and deadbeats who remained due to political patronage. Gone were the conscripted soldiers and then men who fought for a cause. Shiftless men, escaped convicts and a substantial number of them were immigrants who spoke no English replaced the old Grand Army of the Potomac, which became something different. 

A disastrous love scandal, a less than successful return to civilian life after a three-year military career as a human butcher, and a desire to travel and see what so many wrote about in dime novels resulted in his decision to go west. Doctor Wilson bought a mule and a pack frame, saddled his horse, slid two Colt Model 1862 revolvers into gun pocket holsters on his belt, and his Prussian Jaeger Dreyse needle-gun into the scabbard on the horse. His shotgun for birds, varmints and such stayed on the packhorse. He bought a second mule on the banks of the Missouri River at the urging of a buffalo hunter that he befriended. 

“You could turn to drink.” Clem Harper, the buffalo hunter offered, tossing a jug of corn liquor his way. “Most doctors I know are servants of pop-skull. I fear that if you cross the prairie alone that you will be shot full of arrows and scalped.” 

James declined politely. “I’d have to work at being s drunk for I do not favor the taste of strong drink.”

“It do take the pain away,” Clem advised. The doctors tell me that I have a tumor, which causes me great anguish. Oh be Joyful is the only thing that cures the pain.”

“What did the doctors prescribe for you?”

“Quinine and Epsom salts.”

James dug into his bag and handed Clem one of several bottles of opium pills that he’d packed. “Take these when the liquor no longer works to dull the ache.”

The recollections of the recent past stopped when General Augur’s party stopped at a commissary wagon and the general himself invited him to dine with his staff. Sergeant Dall tipped his hat and rode off to small gathering of dismounted cavalry, some of who had already begun to eat. 

“Good doctor, if you would attend me?”

“It would be my pleasure, General Augur.”

“The cook will prepare Chicken Marengo, which has been canned. It was the meal favored by Napoleon and if it was good enough for him, it is good enough for this army. It is made from chicken, crayfish poached in white wine, white pickled onions, mushrooms, garlic, spices and tomato sauce.”

Wilson dismounted and sat across from General Augur in one of a number of canvas camp chairs, which were being assembled in the officer’s mess. The General had an orderly remove his left boot and showed a mangled ankle to the doctor. “What do you make of this.”

“The bone has been improperly set. Did a horse roll under you?”

“It is as you say. The very thing. My personal physician set it while he was in his cups. Poor bastard was also feverish with malaria and we’d run out of quinine.”

“An ankle is a touchy matter. At the very least it will need to be re-broken and reset. I am not an orthopedist.”

“Something for the pain then? We have this matter of the treaty signing at Medicine Lodge and I have no time to recuperate.”

Brigadier General J. S. Wadsworth
General Augur’s eyes brightened, not quite the hound dog sadness anymore as Wilson unpacked the mule that he called Jehoshaphat and handed the general three bottles of a medicine that he’d made himself. Augur untied the glass stopper and sniffed the first bottle. “No alcohol?”

“No. It is a prescription of my own making, but it will ease your suffering.” He’d blended fresh rosemary, sugar, laudanum, cloves, pulverized lemon peel and cinnamon. The sugar offset the natural bitterness of the opium.

“How much should I take?” 

“This is enough for two weeks. Drink it along with coffee. You can even mix it with Army coffee and it will improve the flavor. I call the mixture the General’s Friend. I made it for General Wadsworth when I served as his surgeon during the Gettysburg campaign and onward until his death in The Wilderness. I was recommended to General Wadsworth by his wife’s family in Philadelphia.”

General Augur whistled. “I always wondered how a man as old as James Wadsworth could command from the saddle day after day, campaign after campaign. It makes sense that he had a talented surgeon.”



11 comments:

  1. In this age the general would be saying, "Yo, dude."

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    1. He's be a gay Democrat if he made general in the present environment - or a woman who had gone through a gender reassignment. Sad commentary on how things have changed.

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  2. Yep, just look at the leadership in San Francisco... sigh

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    1. They reflect the 'ideal' that the Obama Administration is striving for.

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  3. As someone once said, "It's not your granddad's army"... Still, I liked that short. You should do one about the cheap wine guzzling, orgy crew.

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    1. 51 shades of gray on the summer solstice in Austin?

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  4. That'd do nicely. If you can work in the Hog Farm (and their repellent clown) & the Whole Earth Catalogue I'll be totally impressed. Go on, have a go.

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    1. Keep your eyes peeled for the blog on June 21 - Solstice in Austin

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  5. Top result. Will advertise.

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  6. I'm in awe of your diversity, Larry. Superb.

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