It’s been a lot longer than I intended since I posted an installment of this World War I story, so this part is about twice as long as usual. (Besides, I needed the space to cover the latest bit of plot.)
If you haven’t read the earlier parts – Maud Raudabaugh, a nurse from Pennsylvania, is our narrator. A few days before the beginning of this story, the hospital where she worked (somewhere near No Man’s Land, and probably in France) was destroyed by artillery fire. She was injured; she doesn’t know what happened to the other people who were there. Now you know enough to listen to Maud’s story –
I woke with another headache. The guns were still thudding. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Have to find water today. See if the legs will work. If you’re lucky you can dodge shrapnel. Time to go.
* * *
There used to be a little stream, down the hill. I tighten the splint on my dragging foot. Deep breath. Skirts will hinder me, but female clothes might make snipers pause. The big guns? Soldier or nurse, they won’t care, any more than an earthquake would.
Crawling under fallen beams, out of what was a hospital once. Day before yesterday. Nothing looks the same. Artillery echoes through my bones. Hobbling forward dizzily, creeping up piles of rubble and sliding down the far side. Once I fainted. I woke with another headache. Water gurgles ahead. What germs, what poisons does it carry? I smile wryly – I’m going to drink anyway.
* * *
What now? I was so close to the stream! “Miss!” He’s scrambling down the hillside, dirtying his nice clean uniform. “Isn’t there a hospital around here?”
I laugh and laugh. “Up there!” I point at the rubble.
It takes a minute for him to understand. “But – I’ve got all these wounded men.”
He’s a bit shocky, I decide. But he does have a canteen of water. Oh, it tastes good! “Thank you,” I say, briskly, nurse-like again. “There must be some places in the world that haven’t been blown up. You’ll have to go there.”
* * *
“I’m not leaving you here,” he says. “You come with me – I’ll give you a ride in the ambulance.”
I thank him and walk briskly up the hill. Or I intend to. Somehow I’m sitting flat on the ground with the driver bending over me. “I think I’d better carry you,” he says apologetically, scooping me up.
By this time I should be used to the way the pounding guns make the whole world vibrate. My head swims; my mind floats like a leaf in water. I should go on duty – where’s the hospital?
Maybe I’m the one who’s shocky.
* * *
He’s got one of those new motor ambulances. How interesting! He lifts me into the seat in front and bends to turn the crank. I hope it won’t kick back at him – I’ve heard of men breaking arms that way.
We jolt off. There’s not much of a road left after the shelling. The wounded men in the back groan pitifully at every bounce.
“I’m Jack,” my rescuer says as he wrestles us up and over a crater.
“My name’s Maud. Hello, Jack.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Maud.” We come over the top of a hill; below, a wide stream and a tangle of metal. Jack mutters under his breath and stops the ambulance. “Bridge gone,” he says.
I don’t know how long we sat on that hilltop staring at the debris that used to be a bridge. At last Jack sighed and slipped the ambulance back into gear. He swung the motor around in a large circle until we were facing back the way we had come.
“Where are we going now?” I ask.
He shakes his head like a horse bothered by flies. “Tell you that when we get there.” His voice is as grim as his face, but I notice how carefully he picks his way along now, seeking out the gentlest ride for the poor souls in the back.
Somehow I can’t stop talking, even so. “Well, don’t you have a map?”
Jack brings the ambulance to a stop again so he can turn to face me. “Yes. I have a map. I have a map that says there’s a bridge across that river down there and when we cross the bridge we’ll be just a few minutes away from a decent sized town. I have a map that says there’s a hospital right where I found you. I have a map that’s not worth the paper they printed it on, that’s what I have.”