“Doctor, please, I’ve come from Virginia seeking my brothers, soldiers who have taken ill. May I see if they are among your patients?”
He gestures me into the sanctuary where rough benches, pushed against the walls, make room for two rows of men laid out on cots and pallets. In my haste, I forget to take shallow breaths, and gag as the stench of sickness, unwashed bodies, and human waste assaults my nostrils.
“If they’re not here, you might try Captain Francis’s barn, off Pawlings Road.”
Candlelight falls on the drawn faces of the men. Their beards crawl with lice and fleas, but they’re so far gone with fever they don’t seem to notice. At the end of the row, I stoop to lift the blankets covering four corpses on the floor. As I start down the second row, hope surges in my chest. Perhaps my brothers have recovered since my husband posted his letter and they’ll be on picket duty when I arrive at Valley Forge. My vision of a happy reunion melts when at the last cot, a young soldier clutches my coat sleeve, staring up at me with glassy eyes. “Ma?”
“Shh. Everything will be all right.” As I smooth the hair off his clammy forehead, he relaxes at my touch. His skin looks waxy, bloodless.
“Don’t go, Ma. Please. I’m afeared.”
“Shh, shh, now. I’m here. Don’t fret.” In my experience, all sick children cry out for their mothers. “The Lord is my shepherd—I shall not want . . .” As I add my silent prayer that a kind woman has been there to console my brothers, Henry and Jeremiah, the young soldier closes his eyes, and a rasping breath escapes his lips. His hand falls to his side.
The doctor hovers nearby. “Was that your brother, madam?”
“No.” I blink back tears.
“I fear the rest will soon follow, for I have exhausted my supply of medicines.”
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