Bottom Rail on Top, Part 5

As they sat in Henry’s prison, the door open for Private Byrd to hear, Shaw, who noticed how he favored his leg when he sat and winced when he stood, offered again to take him to the surgeon. Henry had a low opinion of army surgeons, who knew how to bleed and amputate. He said, “Do you have a root doctor here?”

Shaw said, “I never heard of a root doctor.”

“Someone who knows how to use plants and roots for sickness. At home, my housekeeper was a root doctor.”

Byrd, who eavesdropped on all of these conversations, put his head in the door. He said, “Miss Claudia, who does the wash here, knows roots.”

Shaw said, “Could you ask her to take a look at Captain Kaltenbach?”

Miss Claudia was a weary-looking woman with a light brown complexion, whose hands were wrinkled and roughened from putting them in hot water full of harsh potash soap. Byrd escorted her into the cabin, and out of curiosity, lingered at the door, which he left ajar. Miss Claudia said, loud enough to be overheard, “Private Byrd, go on, let me see to this man in privacy.” Byrd, shamed, shut the door.

She said, “What’s the matter, sir?”

He explained. She said, “You’ll have to take off your trousers so I can see it. Take that blanket from the bed and drape it over your lap, for modesty. I’ll turn away and you let me know when you’re ready.”

She looked at the leg, the new scars red and shiny on his skin. “Grapeshot?” she said.

He nodded.

“How long ago?”

“Battle of the Wilderness. Three weeks.”

She probed the new scar and the flesh beneath it with her fingers. He winced. She said, “It’s healing, even though it looks so nasty. But that muscle is in a knot underneath, and setting in this room all day don’t help you any.”

He said, “I’m not a prisoner for my pleasure.”

She shook her head. She said, “I’m going to work out the knot with my hands. Then I’ll put on a salve. Should heal faster, look less red.”

“Comfrey?” he asked, remembering Minnie’s salves.

“Yes, comfrey,” she said. “Works wonders on anything inflamed.”

She began to massage the knotted muscle. He felt it ease, and felt the ache in his leg start to diminish. As she worked, he asked, “Why would you do this for me?”

A smile played over her somber face. “Well, Sergeant Shaw asked me to,” she said. “But even so, I can’t abide to see anyone in pain, Captain Reb.”