But For the Grace of God
by Ginger Myrick
West Virginia, May 1864
The Confederate soldier galloped his flagging mount through the densely wooded copse, unheeding of the bullets zinging dangerously past his head. He didn’t know how they could see to draw a bead on him in this thick growth so close to the river. They were probably shooting blindly.
Maybe he could lose them. It didn’t really matter. He’d already been hit once and would probably be dead soon, but he wasn’t about to give the bastards the satisfaction of his capture. If he could just hold on long enough to find a hiding place, somewhere he could at least settle down to take a look at his wound and perhaps stem the bleeding. He pressed his hand more tightly to his side, bent lower over the horse’s neck, and rode even harder.
The unfolding drama did not go unnoticed by the residents of a nearby farm. The gunshots drew Hannah Carter to her window, and she pulled back the curtains to scan the dimming twilight for some explanation of the commotion outside. She was about to abandon her vigil when her eye caught movement down by the river’s edge. She saw a horse struggle up from its crossing, and her vision focused just in time to witness its rider’s unceremonious yet oddly graceful slide to the ground. She let out a little cry of surprise as he hit the grassy bank not fifty feet from the house and rolled three times before coming to a stop face down in the dirt.
She reached the door in three swift steps, flung it open, and sprinted down the porch. Halfway across the yard she was joined in her flight by a big bear of a man running from the barn. They reached the soldier at the same time, and Hannah threw herself down at his side to get a better look. As she rolled his shoulder back, she saw that his face was dirty and covered with small abrasions from his tumble. She inhaled sharply as her eyes took in the tattered right side of his uniform and the gaping hole oozing blood in a slow but steady stream.
“Jeb, we have to get him to the house,” Hannah said, looking anxiously up into the big man’s dark brown eyes.
“We can’t,” he said, his face taking on a defiant set. “Have you forgotten about the pick-up tonight?”
“Well, we can’t leave him out here to bleed to death.”
“Why not? It’s what he’d do to me,” Jeb insisted stubbornly.
Hannah smiled tenderly, amused by his reluctance. Though there was no time for this, she placed her gentle hand on the powerful brown forearm exposed by his rolled-up sleeve. “Jeb,” she said softly, “I know you’re too smart for that petty argument. Besides, it would eat at your conscience to leave him. You wouldn’t sleep for a month.”
He sighed wearily, knowing that she was right. He hefted the considerable mass of the soldier’s long lanky body as if he were a child, threw the man over his shoulder, and made his way up the slight incline to the house, mumbling the entire time that they would all hang for this. Hannah shook her head, chuckling nervously to herself behind his wide sulking back. She grabbed a small leafy branch lying under an oak tree and scraped it along in the dirt behind them, doing her best to erase the evidence. Maybe it’s dark enough they won’t notice, she prayed hopefully, attempting to convince herself.
When she reached the porch, she hurriedly tossed the branch around the corner of the house and jogged up the steps, casting a last worried glance over her shoulder at the dusky horizon before stepping inside and closing the door—and just in time. No sooner had the latch securely clicked home than she heard pounding hoof beats thundering past on the other side of the river. They would have to hurry.
Hannah bustled into the kitchen where Jebediah had already deposited his burden onto the heavy oaken table and begun to cut away the raggedy remnants of the battle-stained coat. Ginny had dropped her supper preparations and had already begun to wash the soldier’s face and the area surrounding his wound.
“The bullet’s going to have to come out before we do anything else,” Jeb said, his earlier reticence forgotten as enemy now became patient.
“We don’t have time to open him up now,” Hannah observed, gathering the gray rags of the uniform and pitching them into the stove. “Those soldiers will be back as soon as they catch up to his horse. Just clean his face and wrap him up tight enough that he won’t bleed all over everything. Then get him upstairs into a bed. I’ll help Ginny clean up this mess.”