“At least all those soldiers finally left,” moaned Mrs. Robichaux, as she slumped into a black horsehair chair and fanned herself with a handful of papers from the office desk. The New Orleans aristocrat’s skin showed as red as a turkey’s wattle from the ninety-five degree August heat, endemic in the sweltering old hotel, now a Union Army hospital.
“I feel the same,” Dr. Gastineau agreed, looking as rumpled and exhausted as his two companions in the hospital office, “At least the damned Yankees finally took away their wounded! I thought they’d never go.” He waved a hand at that distant home of the enemy. The enemy who was winning the War.
Young Dr. Stubbs fanned his perspiring face with his own handful of papers. “Two hundred wounded and every single one in a medical pickle, for sure. A good education for me, but thank God they boarded the cars and are headed back to Yankee-land.”
“So….” Mrs. Robichaux raised her eyebrows. “What happens now? To – to … him? To this ‘Oliver Trowbridge’ person?” Silence enveloped the little room, broken only by kitchen sounds.
“I’ve been a medical professional for forty-five years, Madam,” began Dr. Gastineau. “And when the North leave their own man here to die, it tells a tale. They’ve transported their regiment twice and not taken him. No one with a stomach wound like that can live. All medical men know that, don’t we, Doctor?” He looked to young Dr. Stubbs for a second opinion.
“A well-known fact, sir,” agreed his colleague with the blank expression of those stating well-known facts.
Dr. Gastineau explained normal medical practice. “It’s not Christian to force the other soldiers to see one of their number die, to let them watch the final state. He’s already suffered the agony of hell for nine weeks. In this heat! Now the Connecticut fellows who cheered him on are gone. They are not coming back.”
“He’s alive, isn’t he? What do we do with him?” demanded the woman, known both as hospital benefactor and raging harridan when not getting her own way. “Nine whole weeks since the incident at La Fourche? How did this ‘Oliver’ live for two months, if you say he’s going to die? Seems like he might have done it already, if he had sepsis or the like.” pursued Mrs. Robichaux.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Clementine,” answered Dr. Gastineau, giving a sarcastic turn to his old friend’s first name in hopes bringing her down a notch. She thought she owned the St. Louis hospital after providing the society volunteers. After the hospital ended up in Yankee hands, she had commandeered her own slaves to care for the mess the hospital inherited after the Yankees got caught at La Fourche. Yankee wounded did not provide a picnic for the doctors, who had taken an oath to stop suffering. Even Yankee suffering.
“If he’s shot through the stomach, how does he eat or drink?” Clementine Robichaux demanded.
“For heaven’s sake, Clementine, it wasn’t really the stomach! No one kn0w just where that bullet went after it got in there, but it entered the abdomen from the right hip and came out on the left side of his spine. That minie ball hit everything in between.” The over-tired Gastineau looked disgusted at having to explain this to a fifty-year-old child.
“Susan!” called Mrs. Robichaux. “Susan!” A demanding tone from a demanding woman.
A hard- bitten and overworked slave stuck her head through the door that led to the kitchen.
“Yas’em?” she asked, exhibiting the not-so-polite side of a servant who knows her employer all too well.
“Susan, I brought some real coffee, sugar and cream in from the country. Boil up a pot for the doctors. Use the white enamel pot I brought with me.”
Fortyish Susan’s expression didn’t look submissive by any definition, but her disappearance showed alacrity when it involved coffee, cream and sugar.
Dr. Gastineau sat back in his seat and glared at Clementine like the oncoming wrath of God. “I don’t care if he is a Yankee! What do you want to accomplish here, woman? Torture that man to death?”
Chastened, the fat woman replied, “Of course not. I’m simply interested in how he lived so long if he’s “dying.”
“I ask you, why did his own cousin, a medical man, leave Oliver Trowbridge here with us, the enemy? “
Clementine’s head swung from side to side in reluctant admission that such an act was incomprehensible.
“Why? Because he cannot live!” Dr. Gastineau shouted. “The bullet passed all the way through. Minie bullets aren’t round. They flip over and over, ripping and tearing everything in its way!” The doctor had become downright furious.
Susan barged through the door and banged a tray down on the desk, pouring and serving the others, who maintained a civil silence.
“Be sure to have a serving yourself for all the work you’ve done these last few weeks, Susan.” said her mistress. Fortyish Susan poured her own enamel mug and retreated to the window that looked out on Charles Street. Her eyes closed and she took the first sip, her first sip of real coffee in the two months she had resided here.
Clementine Robichaux still held the floor. “I don’t know medicine, but I know common sense. Two months since the man was shot? He has to be eating something or he would have blown away like a leaf. Who feeds him?”
“Miss Nancylee Beauregard,” announced Susan, joining the conversation while flashing a touch of attitude. ”She been givin’ him peach juice with sugar water. Sometimes she give him lemon or raspberry shrub. I seen her last week with what she say was beef tea.” She moved closer to the group, standing behind Mrs. Robichaux and glaring at the doctors.
“Was Miss Nancylee here this morning?” asked Clementine of the silent doctors, who remained expressionless.
Susan jumped forward, leaning over the older woman to poke her finger in the direction of Dr. Gastineau. “She ain’t been here since yesterday morning because he told her not to come here no more! Not to truck with that Yankee never again. That’s what he said, all right!” The coffee grounds splashed unnoticed onto the chair.
“Doctor? Surely you never said such things!” Clementine slid to the edge of her seat, eyes bugging out of the fat pouches surrounding them. Her cup slammed down on the desk.
The sudden guilty shudder of the young doctor’s body matched the eyes that Dr. Stubbs directed toward the floor. Second-hand guilt.
“Which of you has been caring for him?” asked Clementine.
Dr. Stubbs looked up. “His cousin, that Yankee surgeon, looked after him the whole time. Thing is, whether he was a surgeon or not, he turned raving mad down here in the heat. Instead of using drains in the wound, he sewed that mess up tight. Anything in that fellow’s insides, blood, intestinal contents or pieces of uniform remain there to cause sepsis. Now isn’t that something? For a doctor to stitch up a stomach wound! Thank God he left with the rest of them.” He looked to Gastineau for support, receiving a beneficent nod.
“May I ask your true opinion, Dr. Stubbs? Your true heart’s advice?” begged Clementine, suddenly humble.
“Oliver Trowbridge may have sipped some liquids, but a man with a wound like that can never truly eat or drink. Ever. He’s not really suffering so much. The starving lose contact with reality and he has lost a lot of weight. Heavy fellow when he came here. Technically, he’s alive – for now, anyway…. Seemed unconscious today when I passed by, though.”
“He only sleepin’!” injected Susan, not afraid to make loud contradiction now that she had her mistress on her side, at least as far as this particular Yankee went.
Clementine jumped to her feet. “So he’s had nothing to drink since yesterday morning? Doctor?”
Neither man reacted.
“Susan?” Clementine appealed.
Susan now resided in the circle of her own guilt. “Ummm, well, ‘scuse me for disobeyin’ the doctors. I cou’n’t help it. I give the prisoner water real early this mornin’. He drunk it down, too. An’ he said, an’ he said…” Susan’s words drifted to a halt from their own lack of logic, given the final diagnosis on Oliver Trowbridge.
“Said what?” asked the white woman in a voice softened by sympathy. Susan was on her side against the men.
“Said he wished he had him some fine fresh coffee for breakfast, he did,” Susan said with wonder, while staring at the white enamel pot. “Course I knows he can’t have it, I knows that…,” she closed softly.
“Lord in Heaven! That doesn’t sound like dying!” cried out Mrs. Robichaux. “We’ll just pour a little coffee into some cream and try him on that. Go fetch the porcelain invalid feeder and hurry up about it, Susan. No time to waste! We’ll take the pot, too, so that coffee smell fills the room!”
“You know what Mr. Oliver said after that, Ma’am?” murmured Susan, as she gathered napkin and cream pitcher to put on her tray.
“Of course I don’t know!” A frown of hurry swept anxious into angry on Clementine’s face.
Susan faced her with a glowing gap-toothed smile of wonder. “Mr. Oliver say he think he’ll sink if he don’t eat suthin’. He say maybe he want some breakfast later. Mr. Oliver is hungry!”