In which a doctor discovers an unusual secret.
Antietam, Maryland, 1862.
“I know your secret,” said the doctor softly.
“What secret?” croaked the bandaged figure, lying on the cot.
“I think you know what I mean,” replied the doctor.
A shudder of pain ran through the wounded soldier’s body, and a groan escaped his lips.
“Who else knows?” he asked with an effort.
“Only the nurse who assisted me in dressing your wounds,” replied the doctor. “She’ll not betray you. Indeed she admires you!”
“And you?” breathed the soldier softly.
The doctor leaned forward straining to hear his patient’s barely audible question. After a moment he answered:
“I should report you to the authorities. It’s my duty, but I also admire your courage and your spirit. So your secret is safe with me for the moment. I ask only one thing in return.”
The soldier’s lip curled in contempt as he spoke:
“I know what you want, doctor. I regret that at this moment I am too weak and weary to give it.”
The doctor held up his hand.
“You misunderstand me,” he said. “I merely wish to hear your story. I should like to know how you came to be a soldier and how you were able to deceive the officers in your regiment and your fellow-soldiers. Tell me these things, and I promise I’ll do all in my power to prevent the discovery of your secret.”
“How do I know you won’t go straight to my sergeant soon as I tell you ‘bout myself?” asked the soldier skeptically.
“You must trust me,” answered the doctor. “I can keep you here in this tent away from the prying gaze of other soldiers and the rest of the medical staff.”
He looked down at the slender, wiry figure on the bed, the cropped brown hair, the boyish face, the blue eyes in which pain and mistrust mingled equally.
At last the soldier nodded.
“Alright,” he said, “but let me sleep now.”
His eyes closed, and the doctor stood for several moments gazing down at the pale features, twisted in pain, until they relaxed. He leaned over until he heard the soft exhalations that told him his patient was breathing regularly.
“How do you feel this morning?” asked the doctor brightly as he came to the soldier’s bedside.
His patient was propped up against a pillow, still pale-faced, but looking calmer and more alert.
“Cain’t complain,” the soldier said brusquely.
“You were lucky,” said the doctor.
“If this is lucky,” said the soldier with a wry grin that turned into a grimace, “I sure hope I ain’t never unlucky!”
“You took some shrapnel in your left side,” continued the doctor, but I was able to extract the fragments and cauterize and bandage the wound. I cleaned the wound as best I could, so as long as infection doesn’t develop, you should recover in a week or two.”
The soldier looked doubtful.
“Not sure as I can take that much time, Doc,” he muttered. “I wanna be dressed, and walkin’ around afore anyone comes lookin’ fer me.”
“You just leave that up to me,” assured the doctor. “I can handle anyone who comes inquiring after you. You just rest and take it easy.”
“Why you doin’ this, Doc?” asked the soldier suspiciously.
“Out of respect for a brave and patriotic soldier,” replied the doctor simply.
“You sure you ain’t tryin’ to take advantage o’ me, Doc?” persisted the soldier.
The doctor laughed gently.
“No offence, soldier,” he said, “but you’re not really my cup of tea. You’re a little too…mannish for my tastes. I’m drawn to a more feminine type.”
“Oh, you mean like those delicate swooning ladies that faint at the sight o’ their own shadows,” sneered the soldier.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied apologetically. “Listen, my name is Jonathan Wilcox. You can call me John. What shall I call you?”
“Let’s stick to the name I enlisted under,” replied the soldier. “That’s Robert Brown. My comrades call me Bobby.”
“Very well,” said the doctor. “That’s probably the safest. Wouldn’t be advisable to use your real name, I suppose! Where do you hail from?”
The soldier frowned and answered:
“I was born on a farm in the woods up north…”
Roberta Walczynski paused and leaned on her axe. Her eyes swept slowly around the wide clearing outside the log and mud cabin that was her home. Her glance took in the untidy rows of corn and potato plants, the cluster of scrawny chickens scratching in the dirt, and the fenced enclosure that contained the graves of her mother and her three siblings.
A tear formed in the corner of her eye
How Momma tried to give Daddy a boy-child, she thought, but all ‘as she could give him was girls, one after t’other! How I miss my sisters, she thought! How I cried when the fever took ‘em! I never had no-one to share my burdens! Daddy was always so angry ‘bout everythin’. Soon as I could walk, he had me milking the cow, feeding the chickens and, soon as I was strong enough, chopping wood and pulling the plow. Like I was a slave or sumpin’.
I was so happy, she thought, when my brother was borned last September. I thought at last I’d get some peace and maybe even a little love. But then he had to go and die on me, poor little tyke, and Momma too!
Daddy just went plumb crazy after that! Drinkin’ corn liquor, and beatin’ on me! I just tried to cook, and do my chores, and keep outa his way. But one o’ these days, I swear he’s gonna kill me. I gotta git outa here first chance I git!
All of a sudden her reverie was interrupted by a violent blow that sent her sprawling in the dust. Her father towered above her, his face black with fury.
“Ain’t you finished choppin’ that kindlin’?” he roared. “You’re naught but an idle good-for-nothing! Get done double quick, and then get to the house, and cook my breakfast if you knows what’s good for ‘ee!”
Roberta got gingerly to her feet, and picked up the axe, peering cautiously out of the corner of her eye at the burly figure of her father heading back to the house. She raised the axe, wincing at the sharp pain that glanced across her shoulder-blades.
Late that evening Roberta slid cautiously from beneath her blankets, and listened for the noisy snores that would assure her that her father was dead to the world. When she was certain that he was sleeping soundly, she got to her feet, and picked up the baggy, patched jeans that she wore each day to do her chores. She pulled them on over her coarse long underwear, and then put on her woolen shirt.
Gosh durn it! I’m so awful skinny, she thought! No meat on these bones! Still all that work’s made me tough. And I could pass for a boy real easy. Ain’t got no woman’s stuff!
She drew on her socks, noting wryly the hole in one of the toes, donned her warm jacket, picked up her boots, and stepped outside.
The cold wind whistled around her ears, exposed by the rough barbering job she’d done on her long tawny hair the night before with her mother’s pinking shears. From now on, I’m Bobby, a young boy, she thought to herself! For what good is it to be a woman in this world where men beat you and push you around. All a woman gits to do is cook and clean and have a whole passel o’ babies? That ain’t fer me, no sir!
She turned up the collar of her coat and pulled her cap down around her ears against the morning chill. She paused only a moment at the graves to bid farewell to her mother and siblings, whispering, “I cain’t bear it no more! I gotta git!” Then she turned on her heel, and strode off down the path through the trees.
The Mississippi River, a few weeks later.
“Hey, you!” roared a voice. “You ain’t paid to stand around gawking! Shoulder that coal-sack, and tote it up the plank!”
Another man to boss me and beat me, thought Bobby grimly as she squatted, and turned her back to the heavy sack, easing it onto her narrow shoulders. She struggled to her feet and staggered over to the narrow gang-plank. Then she steadied herself and stepped gingerly on to the swaying timber.
“Git a move on!” roared the voice again. “We bain’t got all day. Ship sails wi’ the tide!”
Bobby tottered hastily up the slight incline of the gang-plank, lowered the sack onto a chute, and watched it slide down into the hold.
“I doubt as you’re fitted for this work, lad,” said the foreman, roughly prodding her skinny shoulders.
Yer sure right there, thought Bobby wryly. I ran away from home fer this!
“Maybe, you better run back home to your Mommy!” hissed the foreman, leering down at her. She caught the familiar reek of alcohol on his breath.
Ignoring his taunts, she set off down the plank to fetch another sack.
Philadelphia, a month later.
“It’s mighty good of you to share your room with me,” said Bobby gratefully.
“I’m glad o’ the company,” replied Sean in a friendly tone. “Sure, it can be mighty lonesome of a night.”
“Don’t you have family?” asked Bobby.
“I’m an orphan,” answered Sean. “Came with me folks from County Down. That’s in Ireland. The cholera took me Mam and me Dad, me brother and me sister. We were scarce off the boat in Boston town when they got sick. Sure, ‘twas a cruel thing, for we’d left our village to escape the terrible famine. I’ve been on me own ever since.”
“I’m so sorry!” said Bobby gently.
“Ah, you get used to being alone after a while,” said Sean philosophically. “But what about you? Have you no folks?”
“I ran away from home,” said Bobby. “My father was a drunkard, and he was beating on me.”
An expression of concern passed over Sean’s face.
“Sure, and that’s a terrible thing!” he exclaimed. “Let’s us be fast friends, you and me! Perhaps we can ease each other’s burdens some.”
Bobby felt a warm feeling in her heart.
“That would be…nice,” she said awkwardly.
“Well, then,” said Sean with a smile. “Two young buckos together! You can have that corner, and I’ll take this’un. It’s not much, this place, but it’s a roof over our heads!”
Bobby glanced around the tenement room. It was cramped and grimy, and the floor was covered in dust. I’ll give it a good sweeping tomorrow, she thought.
“What’s that book you have there?” asked Sean.
“Oh, ‘tis just something a girl at the factory gave me,” replied Bobby casually.
“So you can read then, can ye?” said the Irishman.
“After a fashion,” admitted Bobby. “I used to go off in the woods to get away from my Dad. I’d take a bible with me to practice. It was the only book we had!”
“Sure, but it’s a good one at that!” declared Sean. “Is it hard to learn to read all them words?’
“It was hard at first,” said Bobby, “but I knew my letters and I’d learned some of the psalms by heart, so I’d look at each word, and puzzle it out, and after a while I began to know some of the common words. There’s still some long’uns I can’t figure, but I get along.”
“That book you have there’s not the Bible, is it?” asked Sean.
“No, it ain’t,” answered Bobby. “It’s an adventure story called ‘The Female Pirate Captain’. It’s about a young woman who dresses as a man so as she can rescue her lover who’s a prisoner on a ship. It’s real exciting!”
“Seems a bit far-fetched to me,” Sean objected skeptically. “Surely people’d know her to be a woman even if she was in disguise. Women walk different. They have a much different shape.”
Bobby couldn’t resist teasing him.
“So you’ve noticed the difference, have ye?” she said, grinning broadly. “But you know, if a woman was to cut her hair and wear baggy clothes, I fancy she could pass for a man. And she could learn how to walk like a man. It ain’t …” She paused just in time and corrected herself. “It wouldn’t be so hard!”
Sean gave her a puzzled look.
“But women are the weaker sex,” he continued. “They’re not as brave as men, and they couldn’t fight as we do!”
Bobby controlled her indignation with difficulty.
“Women are brave too!” she insisted. “Ain’t you heard of Joan of Arc?”
“Who’s she when she’s at home?” asked Sean.
“You mean to say you ain’t never heard of Joan of Arc!” exclaimed Bobby incredulously. “Why, she was a farm-girl who had visions from God, and she went and led the French army to victory over the English long ago.”
“A girl in charge of a bunch o’ growed men! I don’t believe it!” protested Sean.
“But it’s true!” insisted Bobby. “It’s in all the hist’ry books!”
“Well, if she’d any part in giving the English black eyes and bloody noses, then she’s my hero too!” exclaimed Sean with some passion. “I hate the English! They’ve done terrible things to Ireland! Still, I’ll wager there can’t be too many of these women warriors.”
“There sure are,” insisted Bobby hotly. “Why, there’s Boudicca and Zenobia who fought the Romans, or the pirate leader Grace O’Malley from your own country who defied Queen Bess?” asked Bobby. “There’s a whole passel of ‘em!”
“And how d’you know all of this?” asked Sean.
“I had a picture book when I was little,” explained Bobby, “with stories ‘bout brave women. My mother’d read it to me before I laid down to asleep. That is until my father got mad and threw it on the fire one night!”
“Sure, and that’s a cruel thing to do to a wee child,” said Sean sympathetically. “But listen, I’d like you to read to me from this book o’ yours one evening? What’s the name o’ the woman in the story who dresses like a man?”
“Her name’s Fanny Campbell,” replied Bobby, “and she kin shoot straight as any man, and fight with a cutlass!”
“Sure but it sounds like a crackin’ yarn,” said Sean, “but I’m thinkin’ you and I better get some shut-eye. We’ve gotta be at the factory by five in the morning. I’ll blow out the candle. Good night to you, my good friend!”
Bobby lay awake, huddled in her blanket, listening to the sounds of the night: a dog barking in the distance, the occasional rustle and scratch of a rat in the hallway, the rattle of a passing carriage in the street below. Muddled thoughts ran through her head.
I’m bound and determined to live as a man, she thought, and I’ll learn to spit and swear and swagger just like they do. But yet I’m confused. I’m drawn to this Irish boy. He’s so handsome and kind. He makes me feel…I don’t know what…all soft and tender? But no, no, I’ll not turn into a daft, mooning girl! I’m Bobby Brown, and I’m tough and I’m strong.
With that thought in mind, she slipped off to sleep.
Philadelphia, a few weeks later.
“We’re makin’ no money at all, workin’ our fingers to the bone in that factory, Sean,” said Bobby earnestly. “Four dollars a month! It’s barely enough to feed us, and we have to live in this hole!”
She waved her arm to indicate the tenement room.
“It’s not so bad,” said Sean soothingly. “You’ve done it up real nice.”
Bobby glanced at the cracked window, the rickety table with its vase of withered flowers, the two battered chairs, and the grubby mattresses and threadbare blankets stacked in the corner, and let out a hollow laugh.
“We can surely do better than this, Sean,” she said scornfully. “The feller from the Army said we could earn thirteen dollars a month if’n we signed up, and a bounty of one hundred and fifty dollars! Why, that’s a fortune!”
“But they’ll send us off to war, and we’ll get wounded or killed!” objected Sean.
Bobby was about to say, “You were the one that claimed that men were braver than women”, but she stopped herself just in time.
“Look,” she said instead, “I ran away from the farm ’cos I hated all those chores I had to do day after day. But it ain’t no different here at the factory! Same old thing day in day out! I want adventure! I want excitement! If I’m to die, then so be it! I’d rather feel truly alive fer jest a short time than waste my days toiling like a slave! Besides the soldier boy told me that we gonna beat them Rebs in jest a few weeks.”
“If that’s the case,” remarked Sean dryly, “there’ll be no more need of us as soldiers and we’ll soon be back in the factory.”
“Not me,” said Bobby, “I plan to sign up for a long hitch. Why, I’d like to spend my whole life in the army, travellin’ around the country, protectin’ people, fightin’ Indians. I might even get out west to the frontier!”
“They’ll never take us,” said Sean. “We’re too young. I’m scarce fifteen, and you told me you’re only fourteen.”
“They’re desperate for recruits,” insisted Bobby. “Long as you kin carry a pack and a rifle, they’ll take you. The soldier boy said the medical ain’t nuthin’. The doctor barely looks at you. You don’t have to undress or nuthin’. And you git a brand-new uniform, a clean place to sleep and three squares a day.”
“And you believe all that blarney!” said Sean scornfully.
“I don’t care if it’s true or not,” declared Bobby. “I’m bound and determined to git out of this rat-trap and find me some adventure before I die! Now are you with me or not?”
Sean thought for a moment.
“All right,” he said finally.
“It’s gonna be ripping!” said Bobby. “We kin watch out for each other while we’re trainin’ to be brave soldiers. Think of it! Servin’ our country! Fightin’ in Mr. Lincoln’s army!”
“All right, all right!” exclaimed Sean with a grin. “I’m with you!”
“So that’s how I came to be a soldier,” said the pale figure on the bed wearily. “Listen, Doc, I’m powerful tired! Can I tell you the rest in the morning?”
“Of course,” said the doctor kindly. Then he said:
“By the way, a Sergeant MacDonald was in here this morning enquiring after you.”
A guarded expression stole over Bobby’s face.
“What did you tell him, Doc?” she asked anxiously.
“I told him that you were wounded and recovering, but that you needed complete rest,” replied the doctor. “So he said he’d come back in a couple of days. So you’ve no need to worry. Nurse Clara here will take care of you.”
The nurse leaned over, touched Bobby’s arm and gave her a warm smile.
“Thanks, Doc,” said Bobby softly. “Gee, but I’m tired!”
The woman warrior’s eyes closed, and she drifted off to sleep.
Virginia, late 1861.
“I’m fair bushed, I am!” gasped Sean, collapsing into a heap by the campfire. “How can you be lookin’ as fresh as a daisy after eight hours o’ marchin’ in the dust and the heat?”
“Cos we’re out in the open air!” replied Bobby. “Puts the color back in your cheeks! You can breathe clean! Not like when we was cooped up in that stinkin’ factory! I’m liking it!”
“So I can see!” said Sean. “Tell me, boyo, how come you can shoot so good? The sergeant was sure singin’ yer praises!”
“My Dad took me hunting, taught me to shoot squirrels and rabbits,” replied Bobby. “You know, for jest a few hours he seemed to forget I was a…”
She broke off just in time.
“You were a what?” asked Sean in a puzzled tone.
“That I was a… disappointment to him,” said Bobby hastily.
That was a narrow escape, she thought. I’ve gotten so close to this boy that I almost gave myself away!
“Come on, you bogtrotter! It’s time for chow,” she said, poking him in the side with her toe.
“Watch your language, Polack!” he replied roughly, his face spreading into a mischievous grin.
Bobby’s heart missed a beat.
“They say we’ll be fightin’ the rebels tomorrow,” said Sean nervously. “I wonder what it’ll be like to be in battle for the first time. Honest, Bobby, I’m scairt! I’m afraid I’ll turn tail and run!”
Bobby leaned over, and patted him on the shoulder.
“Don’t you worry, Sean, I’ve got your back,” she said. “We’ll stand together! We’ll lick those rebels good!”
She glanced over, and saw the fear in his eyes.
“Listen,” she said gently. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ scairt. Look around you. All o’ these boys is scared thinkin’ ‘bout tomorrow. Some of them got wives and children, or mothers and fathers, or brothers and sisters. Most likely they’s wonderin’ if they’ll ever see their kinfolk agin.”
She paused and smiled.
“Now you and me, we’s jest poor orphans,” she continued. “We only got each other. So if’n we catch it tomorrow, won’t be too many weeping over us! Now look, why’n’t you get some rest? I’m gonna walk to the creek down there, and take me a bath. If tomorrow’s gonna be my last day on earth, I wanna be clean and smellin’ fresh, not all filthy and covered in dust!”
Bobby climbed out of the creek, and after carefully looking both ways, padded across to the bush where she had spread out her clothes. Water dripped from her thin, bony frame as she crossed the grass. She picked up her shirt and used it to pat herself dry.
She was just pulling on her long woolen underwear when a voice nearby said in a tone of wonderment:
“Landsakes, you’s a girl!”
Bobby froze for a moment, then hastily pulled her underwear up over her body, and reached for her pants. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She waited until she had donned her shirt and pants before looking up.
Hiram Bulstrode, a recruit from her platoon was leaning against a tree, grinning from ear to ear.
“Corn! I’d niver’ve guessed it!” he said. “I reckoned you was just one o’ them beardless farmboys with squeaky pipes! But goldarn it, you’s a girl.”
Bobby eyed him defiantly.
“Tain’t none o’ your concern,” she snapped. “Just mind yer business and leave me be!”
“Oh, cain’t do that!” remarked Hiram in a gloating tone. “Wimmins ain’t allowed in this man’s army. They weak and liable to pass out when them bullets start aflyin’!”
“Nonsense!” retorted Bobby. “I’m brave as any man in this outfit, and a good deal braver than most. I kin carry a pack and shoot straight and I ain’t a burden to no-one! So you just slink off back the way you come, Hiram, and let me alone.”
“Oh, I cain’t do that, Missy,” said Hiram smoothly. “I feel obliged to report you to the sergeant unless…”
He paused and shot her a meaningful glance.
Bobby’s heart froze.
“Unless what?” she said in as steady a voice as she could muster.
Hiram licked his lips.
“This could be our little secret,” he said slowly, “if’n…”
“For Christ’s sake speak your mind, Hiram Bulstrode!” exclaimed Bobby in exasperation.
“Well, if you was to join me in that thicket over there, and show me how friendly you kin be, I might be persuaded to fergit ‘bout what I jest seen,” said Hiram in an oily tone.
“Do your worst, Hiram!” she said contemptuously. “Go tattle to the sergeant cos there ain’t no way in hell that I’m going in that thicket with you! And don’t try to force me neither! I’ve worked my whole life on a farm while you got fat and pudgy sitting on a clerk’s chair. ‘Sides I’ve got a nice sharp knife in my belt and I know how to use it. I kin carve you up good!”
She let her hand stray towards her belt.
Hiram turned pale and edged hurriedly away.
“You ain’t heard the end of this, Missy” he hissed over his shoulder.
All of a sudden Bobby realized that she was trembling, so she stood still and took several deep breaths as her heart beat slowed down.
Wonder what he’ll do, she thought. Reckon he’ll try another assaults on my virtue before he blabs to the sergeant. I prob’ly got a couple of days. At least I’ll get to fight the Rebs one time.
She thought of Hiram’s pudgy figure scuttling off into the bushes at the mention of her knife, and a hoarse chuckle of amusement and relief escaped her lips.