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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty Two

       Last updated: Friday, March 18, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 32:

    CHAPTER 14

    For a wonder, the surgeon was sober.

    Better still, from Driscol’s viewpoint, he was a young man. The sergeant’s experience had been that the practice of medicine affected men like alcohol affected those with the curse of drunkenness. The more they studied, the worse they got. Middle-aged doctors were as dangerous as vipers; elderly ones, deadly as the Grim Reaper himself.

    “The arm’ll have to come off, Sergeant,” the young surgeon said firmly, leaning over Driscol where he lay on a pallet in the surgeon’s tent. “You’ll almost certainly get gangrene, with that bad a wound. Your elbow’s pretty well gone, anyway. Even if we left your arm and you didn’t get gangrene, you’d never be able to use it again.”

    He moved off, heading toward one of the tables onto which his assistants were hoisting a wounded soldier. After he was gone, Driscol rolled his head and gave young McParland a cheerful grin. He hoped it was cheerful, anyway.

    “D’you ever hear such nonsense, lad? Even with a ruined elbow, I could still use my fingers to count money.”

    McParland even managed to return the grin with one of his own. Well, a sickly smile—but Driscol suspected his own grin was on the sickly side itself.

    “What they pay us, Sergeant, I think you’ll only need the fingers of one hand for that. And you’re right-handed anyway.”

    Driscol pursed his lips, as if giving the matter careful consideration. “True enough. I’ll take your advice, then.” He raised his uninjured right arm, extending a warning finger. “Mind you, youngster, if we ever take Montreal and I don’t get my fair share of the loot on account of my missing arm, I’m taking it out of your pickings.”

    McParland nodded nervously. The sergeant was sure the nervousness was due entirely to the horrid surroundings of the surgeon’s tent, not his jocular threat. For all the boasts of American politicians and generals, the chances that the U.S. Army would ever take Montreal were about as good as Driscol’s chances to survive gangrene if he tried to keep his arm.

    Driscol didn’t fault the youngster for being twitchy. Hardened veteran that he was, the sergeant found the surgeon’s tent unsettling—and would have, even if he hadn’t been one of the wounded men waiting his turn.

    The sawdust in the boxes under the two cutting tables was soaked through with blood from the operations, and the blood was seeping onto the dirt floor. That was probably just as well, since it provided the flies swarming in the tent with a ready feasting ground, and distracted them from feeding directly off the wounds. Still, between the festering blood and the gore from intestinal injuries, the stench in the tent was incredible.

    No such side benefit could be found from the noises that also saturated the tent, unfortunately. The screams and groans and moans and muffled prayers blended into each like a cacophony straight from hell. The surgeon almost had to shout, in order to be heard at all.

    Driscol watched as the doctor and his assistants amputated a soldier’s mangled foot on the table nearest him. For all the grisliness of the work, it was done swiftly and expertly. Two of the assistants kept the man’s shoulders pinned and two others restrained the legs. Once the patient was securely immobilized and a tourniquet tightened around his leg, the surgeon cut the flesh all around the ankle, right down to the bone; then, peeled the flesh back so as to expose the bone farther up from the incision itself. He’d sever the bone as far up the leg as he could. That way, the resulting stump would have some padding over the bone’s end, once it healed.

    That was assuming, of course, that the patient didn’t die before then, from one of several common diseases brought on by amputation. Which, he very well might. Almost a fourth of all men who had amputations done after a battle died later from infection.

    No, Driscol reminded himself, never being one to shy away from the cold facts. That “one-fourth” applied to men who had their lower limbs amputated. The death rate was much higher for men who, like Driscol, had the cut made above the knee or elbow.

    So be it. Driscol distracted himself, as best he could, by continuing to watch the surgeon at his work.

    The blade the man used to slice flesh was no delicate instrument. It reminded Driscol, more than anything else, of a smaller version of the flensing blades used by whalers. It’d make a decent weapon in a tavern brawl, in fact, even if it wasn’t quite long enough to be suitable on a battlefield.

    Fortunately for everyone concerned, the soldier being operated on had fainted from the agony at that point. So he missed entirely the heart of the operation, which came when the surgeon took up a saw and hacked through the bone. Driscol was impressed by the surgeon’s speed. No master carpenter could have done better, he thought.

    The sergeant could only hope the man would cut off his arm as smoothly and efficiently.

    That done, the severed foot was tossed onto a nearby pile of such horrid objects. The flies over there were a seething little mountain of insects. The surgeon sewed up the severed arteries; then, still working as quickly as ever, folded the flaps of flesh and skin over the end of the bone and sewed everything up.

    A bandage was then placed on the bleeding stump, and it was done. The assistants heaved the unconscious soldier off the table and carried him out of the tent. He’d recuperate—and, hopefully, survive—in a different tent set aside for the purpose.

    While the surgeon waited for his helpers to return, he washed his hands in a bowl of water. Then cleaned the blade and the saw using a sponge soaked in the same bowl.

    Driscol couldn’t really see the point of that. By now, the water in the bowl wasn’t much thinner than blood itself, as often as it had been reused for the purpose.

    The surgeon’s eyes ranged around the tent, quickly examining the dozen or so wounded soldiers who lay in it. Experienced eyes, obviously, despite the surgeon’s youth. Driscol could see him quickly dismissing about half the cases as either hopeless or so chancy that he wouldn’t spend time on them while men who might survive were kept waiting.

    That meant he dismissed almost any kind of major abdominal, chest, or head wound as beyond his treatment. About the only exception to that rule was that battlefield surgeons would usually attempt to extract a bullet that hadn’t penetrated any deeper than a finger’s length. If it had . . .

    Well, they’d just leave it alone. If the man survived, the bullet would sometimes work its way closer to the surface, where they could eventually get to it. Driscol had known a soldier in the French army who’d survived such a bullet wound—and then, eight years later, finally had the thing extracted. By then, it lay just under the skin.

    For all practical purposes, the job of an army surgeon was to cut off hands, feet, arms, and legs. Nothing else, really.

    Fair enough, Driscol thought. Two-thirds to three-fourths of all battlefield wounds were suffered in the extremities, to begin with—and those same wounds accounted for almost all the survivors. Men shot or stabbed in the torso or the head almost invariably died, unless the wound was a superficial one.

    The surgeon’s gaze fell on Driscol. On his mangled arm, rather. The sergeant didn’t think the surgeon had even looked at his face—and he was quite sure he wouldn’t remember Driscol if they ever met again.

    “You’re next,” he said.

    Driscol saw the assistants coming back into the tent.

    There was no point in dallying. “Do it, then.”

    “I’ve got some antifogmatic I can give you,” said the surgeon.

    “Whiskey or rum?”


    Driscol sneered. “And it’ll be raw, too. Not that I’d touch any kind of rum. It’ll be whiskey, or no drink at all.”

    “Sergeant, this is going to hurt. A lot.”

    Driscol’s sneer remained firm and unwavering. “Is it, now? Sawing through my flesh and bone is going to hurt. I’m shocked to hear it.”

    Driscol decided he’d teased the surgeon long enough to maintain discipline among the troops, when word got back. “Never mind. I’ve got something better in my kit. Private, my tent’s not far off. Rummage around in my pack and you’ll find a bottle of laudanum. I keep it for just such a mishap. Bring it here, would you?”

    McParland was gone in a flash.

    Driscol closed his eyes. The pain had become constant and savage, but the sergeant was no stranger to suffering. The more so when he still had his duty to perform. Driscol had known for years that attention to duty was a better distraction from pain than anything else.

    By the time McParland got back, the sergeant’s reputation would have climbed still higher among the troops—or sunk lower, depending on how you looked at it. Word would spread like wildfire that the troll was delaying his amputation because he’d gotten into an argument with the surgeon over the respective merits of rum versus whiskey.

    He grinned at the thought. Every corporal and private in the Twenty-second Regiment who heard the tale—which would be all of them, eventually—would see it as proof that the master sergeant was indeed an inhuman creature, and an insane one at that.

    But Driscol was quite sure that, forever after, whiskey would be the spirit of choice of the regiment. Within a day, any new recruit unfortunate enough to have smuggled in some rum would be forced to get rid of it. The ridicule would be unbearable.

    Henceforth, for the Twenty-second Regiment, rum would be a drink for sissies.


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