The young woman waited for Colonel Leasure outside the hastily-erected picket fence surrounding Camp Wilkins. She was tiny, dressed in a simple dark dress of bombazine and a bonnet that shaded her features. But her erect posture, chin lifted and eyes raised to stare straight at the scene before her, made it clear she was neither demure nor humble. Even as the colonel returned her stare and recognized her obvious youth, he was aware she was a formidable personality.
“Madam, I am Colonel Daniel Leasure of the Roundhead Regiment, at your service, M’am.”
“Good morning,” she nodded with a miniscule lifting of the corners of her mouth that might have passed for a smile. “I am Nellie Leath. Mrs. Leath,” she said. “I have come to serve as your matron.”
“Ahhhh, I see. And what, exactly, is a matron?”
“It is my understanding, Sir, that each military regiment is to be accompanied by a skilled woman who can handle the housekeeping chores, so to speak. A matron, as I interpret the term, oversees meals, supplies, and minor medical needs for the soldiers.”
“Oh, I see. And you have been sent by the Sanitary Commission, I presume.”
“Not exactly.” Now the young woman laughed openly. “You really don’t remember me, do you?”
“You have me at a disadvantage, M’am. Have we met before?”
“Oh, yes. At York, last June?” She raised an inquiring eyebrow at him, but he still appeared confused. “You were the adjutant with the Twelfth Regiment, and I was a volunteer nurse, assigned to assist Doctor Speer and his small group of surgeons. There wasn’t much need for battlefield services. I spent most of my time helping the women of York who had taken in our soldiers as boarders. You came to York one day to visit some of your men who had fallen ill. I was helping care for two of the most serious cases, Corporal Robert Gibson and Sergeant James Miller. You remember them, I assume.”
“Yes, of course. I found their eventual deaths most upsetting because I had helped to recruit them. And I do remember a young nurse being particularly helpful. But your name doesn’t sound familiar.”
“I was using my maiden name then—Nellie Chase.”
“Ah, yes, I do remember that name. There was a fuss over you, as I recall. Something about you being related to Lincoln’s new Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase?”
Nellie winced. “We are only distantly related, if at all. I assure you I have never met the man, and he has never even heard of me. Still, people assumed I had gotten my position with the regiment through some sort of nepotism, while I wanted to be judged on my own merits. That’s why I started using my married name, instead. I’m sorry if that confused you.”
“I still don’t know how you come to be here. Who sent you?”
“No one. I come as a volunteer. I remembered you clearly from York. You impressed me with your kindness, your concern for your men, and your medical knowledge. When I heard you were recruiting a new regiment, to be composed of sincere, God-fearing, and highly moral young men, I sought you out. I want to continue to help in the war effort, and you would seem to be in need of a woman such as I.”
Just then, a commotion broke out behind them as two sopping wet young recruits came running for the camp, arms flailing. “Ow, ow, oh, ouch, ow,” they yelled. As they neared the colonel, he could see that their faces, red and tear-stained, were covered with angry-looking blotches. Their bare arms, too, were mottled and marked with welts.
“Whoa,” said the colonel. “What company are you in? And what in the devil’s name have you boys gotten yourselves into?”
“Bees, Sir,” said Billy Simpson, the taller of the two. “We’re in Company H, from Lawrence County. Zeb here saw some bees leaving that old hay barn down the road. They were a’comin’ out from behind a loose board, and he pulled on it, hoping to find him some honeycomb. But there was a whole swarm of them and they attacked. We got away by jumping in the cow pond, but not before they took their revenge.”
“We’ve been stung a hundred times, I know,” said Zeb Elliot. “Ow, ow, ow. Sorry, but it burns like fire, Sir.”
“How are you going to be a soldier and stand up to battle, if you can’t even endure a small dispute with bees?” the colonel asked.
“Well, I would hope the rebels don’t come with stingers, Sir.”
“Be that as it may, you must learn self-discipline, soldier.”
“Excuse me,” Nellie interrupted. “Do either of you have some tobacco? If so, may I have it?”
“I had a stogie in my pocket a while back, but I expect it’s pretty soggy by now.” Billy pulled a dripping cigar from his pocket and held it at arm’s length, “Uh, you surely wouldn’t want this, M’am.”
“Yes, indeed. That’s exactly what I need. Hold still, now.” She took the cigar from him and began to pull the wet leaves apart, tearing the tobacco into inch-long pieces. Carefully she layered the patches onto the welts left by the bee stings.
“Ouch,” the men protested as she worked. “It hurts when you touch them.”
“I know. But wait a few minutes. Let me try this.” When she finished, she stepped back and allowed a faint smile to move beyond her lips to light up her eyes. “How do you feel now?”
“Ow! Ah—aahhh. It’s gone!”
“You’re right. They don’t sting anymore. How’d you do that?”
“Yes, Mrs. Leath.” Colonel Leasure raised an inquiring eyebrow. “How did you know to do that?”
“That’s what a matron does, Sir.” Nellie suppressed a laugh and resumed her serious demeanor. “To answer your question, Granny Merrill—my grandmother—lived with us when I was growing up. She was known as something of a wise woman and treated the minor ills and injuries of the neighboring families. She taught me some of her secret remedies. Wet tobacco for insect bites was one of them.”
“You know, in civilian life, I am a trained doctor,” the colonel told her. “I might have prescribed a paste of baking soda, but tobacco would never have entered my mind. I am impressed.”
“We all have our little stores of useful knowledge, I suppose. Zeb, Billy, leave those patches on until they dry and fall off. You should be fine. And the next time you want to satisfy your sweet tooth, here’s another use for that stogie. Light it and let the smoke penetrate the crack where you think the bees are. It will make the bees sleepy, and you’ll be able to help yourself to a chuck of comb without risking another disaster.”
“Yes, M’am,” they said.
By now a smattering of curiosity-seekers had begun to assemble around the gateway, watching to see what the mutton-chopped colonel was going to do about the young woman who had solved a problem for him. Murmurs and suppressed snickers passed through the crowd. From somewhere near the back, a soft whistle revealed what the onlookers suspected. Reluctant to put on a further show, Colonel Leasure bowed slightly, and offered his arm. “Well, come with me to our headquarters, and we can discuss this further.”
The two picked their way through a mass of soldiers, some cooking over an improvised fire. others pounding tent stakes or practicing their drills in the dust. As they passed, every eye watched them. The homesick soldiers saw Mrs. Leath as mother or sister, or neighbor; the more worldly-wise had other notions. But all were struck by the self-assured figure of this lone woman in a campground full of men.
As they walked, the colonel’s eyes remained slightly downcast as he picked their way around the inevitable obstacles of a makeshift military camp. This also allowed him to keep his surroundings slightly out of focus, so he did not have to see the curious stares or leering grins of the men who watched their progress. Nellie, however, was openly fascinated. She noted everything as they passed, as if she were keeping a mental inventory. Her eyes twinkled when she noticed a chicken sizzling on a stick over an open fire, while four obviously guilty soldiers pretended to be interested in everything around them except for the purloined fowl. She reacted with a sympathetic smile to a miserable young man who sat staring at a much-creased picture. She noted with interest the men who were reading or writing in their journals. And occasionally she wilted a forward young stud by sneering at his wiggling eyebrows. Nellie recognized and categorized them all as they passed. By the time she and the colonel reached the command tent, she may have known the regiment more intimately than he did
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