After a very enjoyable stagecoach trip, Tom watched as the town of Smithfield came into view. He had made the most of his time away from watchful grownups, in spite of one rather prim grey haired traveler who reminded him of Aunt Abigail.
There was nothing exciting about the trip, such as getting held up by bandits…. He made up for it by spending most of his money on the best supper he’d ever had at the inn where they changed horses.
At another stop, he had time to visit the General Store and stock up on penny candy.
He remembered that he needed to save money for the trip back, then decided that he could make up some story, and ask the old uncle for passage home.
But when Tom alighted from the stage and a man stepped forward to greet him, he realized that his great uncle was neither confined to a wheeled chair, or a doddering old man. His step was sprightly, he seemed to carry his cane only for fashion, and he quickly got to the point.
“Thomas—or do you like to be called Tom? Well, Tom, I’m glad you’re here. Your mother tells me you’re smart and resourceful, and that’s good—”
He raised his eyebrows. She had?
“…because I have some very important meetings coming up in the next few days, and I’m going to need you to do some things.” The man put a hand on his shoulder, and steered him down the street.
“Chores, you mean?” asked Tom, tentatively.
The man looked down at him, perplexed. “Chores? No…. I have servants for that. Molly’s my maid and cook, and Simon does the farmwork. But let’s go have some dinner and we’ll talk. I’ll tell you what I’ve done so far about your brother.”
Uncle Josiah’s house was in walking distance, down toward the end of town. It was a handsome brick home with a small barnyard, and a plowed field beyond. In another fenced- in pasture, several fine horses were grazing.
“Just a small farm,” said Uncle Josiah, “enough to keep Simon busy and some revenue coming in. My other enterprises are doing nicely, as well. Now, Molly has our noon meal ready….thank you, Molly. This is my nephew, Tom.” Uncle Josiah turned back to him. “She has your room ready. Go on up and wash, and then we’ll eat.”
Tom wasn’t used to washing—at least not always. He got out of it as often as possible. But he followed the maid up the stairs, a bit surprised at the polished mahogany railing and sparkling glass doorknobs. He was ushered into a bright room with a large bed, veiled by green bed curtains, and a highly polished bureau and wardrobe.
“As soon as you’re ready, sir,” said the maid, and she disappeared down the hall.
Tom raised his eyebrows again at being called ‘sir’, then turned to the china bowl and pitcher. With extra clean hands and face, which he supposed was due his uncle’s apparent status, he returned to the dining room.
Over beef and potatoes and biscuits, his uncle talked. “The army had to move on before we could get much information. We only know where they were ambushed. Fortunately, there are two hospitals set up, and some of the men may be there.”
Suddenly a commotion at the door interrupted him. A man in field clothes burst in.
“Simon,” said the uncle calmly. “You have news?”
“Just heard that some of the men in the ambush didn’t move on—they were taken to one of the hospitals! Three men!”
“I thought as much.” He turned back to Tom. “What I hoped you would do was go to these hospitals, and ask questions, and try to find the men that were in the ambush. I think if you just ask the nurses, they may know. We checked, of course, two days ago but all was in such disarray that no one knew anything. They were too busy just trying to get medical help to all the men.”
“They’ve had time to find out more details now, sir.”
Uncle Josiah nodded his thanks, and the man hurried back to his work.
“Do you think you can do that, Tom? One hospital is set up at the church on the corner. The other is out of town a mile or so, nearer to where the battle took place. You can take a horse, of course. I have several important government meetings. We’re preparing documents to get to Philadelphia to the Continental Congress on matters concerning this part of the state. What do you think?”
As the man waited for his answer, Tom said, “why, I suppose so. Yes, of course, if that’s what you want me to do.”
“Good, just talk to the men, find out if they saw what happened to Nathanial. See if they can give some clue as to where he got off to. It’s very strange that he disappeared. If he was wounded, he should have been there on the road. If not, he would have gotten them help. Of course, if you’d feel better about it, I could have Simon go with you. It’s just that he’s so busy with the planting right now.”
“I—well…” Tom was a bit overwhelmed at this responsible job. Then he remembered his mother’s trust. “No, I can do that. I’ll try—my best.”
“Good then.” The man signaled to Molly for more ale and the dessert. Tom took a gulp of foamy milk to steady himself.
“Except…well…I don’t know how to ride. I suppose I could walk.” He rushed on, “it’s just that we live in town and don’t have a horse—only a cow. My aunt walks to school and errands, and they hire a buggy for my mother—for church and all.”
“Oh, well then. That’s fine. Simon can hitch up the buggy or you can walk, if you wish. I feel very badly that three days have passed and I haven’t gotten a clue as to his whereabouts. There’s just no sign of him.”
He finished his apple tart and took a last swallow of ale. “I must go. I’ll leave this part of our search in your hands. You can report tonight if you’ve discovered anything. Any help you need, just call on Simon.”
The man smiled congenially. He rose, was given his hat and cane by Molly, and took his leave.
Tom lingered, a little dazed at all this. Molly took the uncle’s dishes and said, “another tart, Master Tom?”
He looked up at her startled. And surprised himself when he said, “uh no. Thank you. I suppose I should be getting on.”
When was the time he had refused more sweets—in order to do a task, no less?
“The church is to the right, just at the end of the street then, sir.”
“Uh—thank you.” He folded his napkin, having no idea why he did it when he didn’t have to—only because Uncle Josiah had, he supposed. Then he got up and also left the house.
The church was not hard to find, but when he entered, he was stunned to see rows upon rows of men on makeshift cots. And it was the sounds—and smells—that hit him hardest. Groans, crying out….then pungent aromas of medicines and sweat, and who knew what all.
And how could he ever find anyone in all this? Must he go from bed to bed? Is that why Uncle Josiah didn’t have time? The first victim, closest to the door, had a broken leg. But the soldier next to him was bandaged and pale, tossing his head from side to side and murmuring a woman’s name over and over.
A group in the corner were talking seriously about someone on the cot nearby. He was shocked as a man turned and his shirt was bloodstained. Two women in long white aprons and white caps were listening carefully. One moved forward with a bottle of medicine and a glass.
Then he remembered his uncle’s words, “ask the nurses, they might know.”
“Ma’am, ma’am….” He moved forward, as another nurse bent over a cot nearby.
“Yes?” she turned toward him.
He gulped. “I’m looking for my brother. His name is Nate, uh, Nathanial. He was in an ambush.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know everyone’s name or their circumstances yet. You’re welcome to look. Someone came looking for a Nathanial a couple of days ago. We’ve had no new patients since then. These were in the battle and the army’s moved on.”
“Yes, but some of the men in the ambush might know. Three were brought to the hospital….” He didn’t realize how desperate he sounded.
“I’m sorry. You’re welcome to look.” She smiled sympathetically, but others were calling for her and she moved on.
He walked around the whole building, asking those who could hear and respond if they’d been in the ambush. He asked the two other nurses. They had no advice except to try the other hospital.
He got directions, and decided not to bother going back to ask if Simon could take him. During that mile walk, he was numb with what he had seen. Some of those men had been close to death.
It was a beautiful day, the sun shining, the trees blooming but he saw none of it. When he reached his destination, he was amazed yet again, for it was a hospital camp, with many large tents erected, about fifty men in each tent. It was the same as at the church, though much larger—hundreds of men in pain, or worse.
He leaned against a tree—how could he ever find out anything? But finally, he approached a nurse and asked his question.
“Why yes,” she said, and he stared at her startled. “One is over in this tent. Let me show you. He was telling me all about it.”
He had no idea how his luck had changed until she said, “It must be a miracle of God that you asked me in the midst of all this.”
And he suddenly realized that perhaps she was right. Could God have anything to do with his quest? But then, he supposed that Mother would say that God cared very much about them finding Nate.
The nurse wound her way through many aisles of cots before finally stopping to speak with a man. He was laying on his cot, obviously in some pain, but alert.
“Of course I know Nate. Great friend. But I don’t know where he got to. I was knocked out and the next thing I knew, I was here. I’m feeling a lot better. Got wounded in my shoulder here,” he pointed to a bandage. “I’m sorry, boy. I just don’t know.”
“There were two others,” Tom told them desperately.
“One left,” the nurse said. “Just an hour or so ago. And I’m sorry, I just don’t know who the other is. You’re welcome to look for him.”
The patient told Tom that some of his fellow soldiers caught in the ambush had black hair, some brown. One already walked with a limp. But he couldn’t know if the man Tom was looking for was here in this hospital.
Tom slumped in disappointment. Certainly not much to go on. He asked other nurses. He talked to patients. Finally it was dusk, and they were lighting the lanterns and lamps.
“Come back tomorrow and keep looking,” One kind doctor stopped in his harried dashing from one patient to the next. “We’ll ask around tonight.”
“Thank you,” Tom weaved his way between tents, and headed out of the camp dejectedly.
Suddenly someone hailed him. He turned. A man on crutches was trying to follow him.
“Boy, boy. I know the man. Caleb. Blond hair. He’s my friend. Bed next to me. But he’s just been in surgery. He’ll be out of it for a good while. Come in the morning. My name’s Sam. We’re in this first big hospital tent. I’ll introduce you if he’s able to talk.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” Tom shook the man’s hand, gratefully.
He had a lot to think about on the walk home.
Would he find out anything tomorrow? Oh, where was his brother! Somehow nothing else seemed to matter.
To be continued….
By Carol Bennett