The assault came in the dusky-pink dawn on a Sunday. The lone soldier, who slept forty yards from the rest of the bedraggled Confederate company, bolted from his bedroll and was on his chestnut-colored horse in a matter of seconds—urging the bay toward a hill to the east.
Looking over his shoulder, he could see his boys in gray awaken and stagger into a defensive position against the surprise attack from the Yankees. His brothers in arms referred to him as the sharpshooter, the crack shot, the skirmisher. But the soldier, bending low over the neck of his horse, thought of himself by one name only: sniper. He’d heard the term from a British colonel who had told tales of one man’s supreme marksmanship. He’d tried the name on for size then—wore it in his mind and came to love it. It defined him. It was what he did.
The first blare of a Confederate bugle filled the air, and the sniper had the fleeting thought that the bugler should be picking up a rifle instead of his horn when he saw the enemy—the dreaded tide of blue—spilling out of a haze that hung over this piece of Tennessee land nestled between two hills and a meandering river.
The sniper knew from the enormous sound of the war that his boys were vastly outnumbered and the battle would be over almost before it began. He heard the otherworldly rebel yell split the dawn. The cry had always reminded him of an angry, wounded animal bay- ing its intent to fight to the death. If the sound of his own men could send chills up his spine, he could only imagine what it did to the nerves of the Yankees.
He kept riding up the rise and away from the crash of musketry and the storm of leaden hail. His trained ear picked out the distinc- tive sound of the howitzer pummeling the troops as he reached the summit of the hill. He jumped from the saddle with his rifle and dropped to his knees behind a heavy patch of wild, knotted vines, practically becoming part of the landscape in his dark-brown shirt and green trousers.
From his vantage point, the scene below him was shrouded in clouds of gray smoke that rose from the ground. He nestled the long barrel of his rifle on top of the thick vines and looked into the high-powered scope made especially for the nine-pound Whitworth. At the sound of another thundering boom from the howitzer, he swiveled the rifle around until he located the artillery soldier who was manning the cannon six hundred yards in the distance. The sniper caught the buttons of the blue Union jacket in the crosshairs of his scope and fired. The force of the shot blew the Yankee off his feet and knocked him into the soldier behind him. One hundred twelve. As the sniper dropped a new bullet into the muzzle of his rifle, another Federal stepped into the space to fire the howitzer. The sniper squeezed the trigger and watched through the scope as the Yankee dropped. One hundred thirteen.
The sniper turned once again to the panorama of activity below him, where sulfur smoke moved around the soldiers like a living force to be reckoned with. After reloading his weapon, he used the scope to pan across the swarm of blue and gray colliding amid thrusting bayonets. A Union officer with a crust of gold braid on his shoulders charged through the thick of the battle, a rebel cap arrogantly dangling from the tip of his raised bayonet. The sniper adjusted the position of his rifle, momentarily taking the sight off the officer by raising the barrel a hair’s breadth. He cocked back the hammer, braced for the recoil, and squeezed the trigger just as the officer moved back into his view. The bullet hit the man dead center in his forehead. He didn’t even have time to blink before he died. One hundred fourteen.
The sniper figured he had one shot left before he’d foul the bar- rel of his rifle. With alacrity that was second nature, he reloaded. Through his sight, the sniper saw a Union cavalry officer, a captain, he thought, galloping wildly through the fray. The officer reined in his horse and jumped from the saddle. Seemingly oblivious to the barrage of lead flying around him, the man bent toward a wounded infantryman on the ground just as a rebel soldier wielding a bayonet came at him. The soldier managed to ram the tip of the bayonet into the captain’s shoulder, but the Yank swiftly proved himself the better combatant by turning and running his sword into the rebel’s chest. As the captain shoved his sword back into its scabbard, the sniper fixed his sight on the ribbons that decorated the man’s chest. One hundred fifteen …
He felt the pressure of the trigger under his finger and squeezed off the shot just as an artillery shell exploded. Blue-tinged smoke filled the air and obliterated his view of the captain. As the smoke and debris from the shelling cleared, he searched the ground for his target, cursing when he realized that the captain wasn’t dead— he was riding off with the wounded infantryman lying across his saddle. Heedless of the peril, the sniper stood and looked out over the field of battle to watch the Union officer galloping along the river.
The sniper jumped on his horse. Seconds later, as his own com- pany bugler sounded retreat, he was flying down the hill with but one objective: to kill his intended target.
As he neared the bottom of the hill, the sniper dismounted and tied his horse to a low tree branch before creeping the last few yards toward the river. He heard the Union officer’s deep, commanding voice before he saw him. “You’re going to be fine. That’s an order.”
The sniper moved even closer and heard a weak reply. “Your rank doesn’t have authority over me right now, Captain.”
The sniper used the barrel of his rifle to part the tall reeds in front of him, revealing the two men. The infantryman was lying prone near the water’s edge, and the captain was kneeling beside him. From his vantage point, the sniper could see that the officer was powerfully built, with chiseled features and a square jaw. As the sniper watched, the captain pulled at the buttons on the soldier’s blue coat, then turned his face away from the sight that met him. The sniper used the opportunity to continue forward.
“You can’t do this to me, Jed,” the captain said. The sniper could hear the quaking emotion in the Yank’s voice as he spoke. “I promised her I’d bring you back, and I won’t let you render my word worthless.”
The sniper took another step, thinking that for the first time, he would see the terror in a Yank’s eyes before he fired the shot that would end his life. He was so intent on the position of his rifle, he failed to notice the dry branch under his foot. When it snapped, the captain glanced up, and their eyes locked for just a moment before the sniper braced and squeezed the trigger. But there was no recoil. No report of a bullet whizzing through the air. His rifle had jammed, and the captain hadn’t flinched. The officer seemed to summarily dismiss the sniper as he pulled a kerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the river.
The sniper would not be denied. He put his rifle down and, with a trembling hand, pulled his bowie knife from a back pocket. With feet that felt as if they were encased in lead, he took a step forward while the captain washed the grime from the infantryman’s face. The wounded man struggled to lift his hand, and the captain caught it between both of his own. The sniper could hear the effort it took for the young man to utter his next words.
“They were right, Eli. This dying. It doesn’t hurt.”
As close as he was now, the sniper could actually see the captain tighten his grip on the young man’s hand. “Good.”
“Pray me home, Eli.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper.
The captain seemed to hesitate before he dropped his head. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
The sniper watched the officer shudder with the effort of his task as he continued. “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
The sniper drew up the image of the captain killing the rebel soldier on the field. He inched toward the men and raised his knife. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
The sniper felt his heart thudding in his chest, echoing in his ears with a roar of anticipation as he mentally calculated where best to plunge his blade.
“Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.”
One hundred fifteen … one hundred fifteen … one hundred fifteen. The sniper kept his eyes on the Yank as he brought his knife high over the man’s back … thrust down and turn … down and turn … and then reversed the arc. His arm propelled the knife toward his enemy. He braced for the resistance he knew he’d feel when his blade hit flesh.
The captain’s head remained bowed, his voice strong. “Surely, goodness and mercy …”
No mercy! No mercy! The sniper veered from the knife’s trajectory and swung the blade wide of the captain.
“… shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The sniper saw the young man’s arm slacken, and the captain slowly released his hold. Somewhere in the distance, a lonely bugle played as the captain leaned over to place a kiss on the dead soldier’s forehead.
The sniper, stunned and ashamed at his own failure, didn’t move a muscle when the Union officer stood to face him with anguish in his eyes.
“He was Jedidiah Francis Hale. He was eighteen. He was a poet and had an affinity for dogs. He was my mother’s second son.”
The captain seemed to forget the sniper for a moment. A dark stain of blood spread outward from the bayonet wound to his shoul- der, but he seemed oblivious as he stared past the sniper and rubbed a knuckle across the stubble on his cheek. When he looked back at the sniper, the pain in his eyes had been replaced by sad resignation.
“I am grateful I was able to tell my brother good-bye.”
The captain reached behind his neck and pulled a medallion on a long silver chain over his head. He let the medal dangle from his fingertips as he stared at it.
“My mother gave me this before I left home,” he said, his voice husky with emotion. “She said it would keep me safe.”
The Union captain slipped the chain over the end of the Confederate soldier’s knife. Then he turned back to his brother, hefted the lifeless body, laying it across the saddle on his horse, and led the animal away.
The sniper sat alone near a clump of bushes, cleaning his gun. The familiar mechanics of pushing the ramrod in and out of the barrel helped calm his mind and still his pounding heart. He hadn’t yet gone to look for the remnants of his company after his encounter with the Union captain. Mercy. He should have been one-fifteen. I let him walk away. Mercy. I let him live when so many of my own people have died. It was the first time he had failed to perform his job—his duty. To kill the enemy who had stolen so much from him—from his family. The cap- tain’s face flooded his memory. The palpable pain in the man’s voice; the look of sadness in his expressive eyes. The bravery he displayed as he completely discounted both a rifle and a knife so he could be with his brother in the final, terrible moments of the young man’s life.
The sniper pulled the ramrod from his gun barrel and was about to get up when he spotted the medallion on the ground next to him. Picking it up, his thoughts returned to the captain and the deep, emotional timbre of his voice. My mother gave me this before I left home. She said it would keep me safe.
The sniper’s horse whinnied softly behind him, and he knew it was time to find what was left of his company and trail them the way he always did—at a distance. He slipped the chain over his head and tucked the medal under his shirt. He heard his horse whinny again just before something solid smashed into the back of his skull. Pain shot through his head. Stupid medal, was his last thought before he sank into darkness.
His mind slowly came awake with tumbling, confusing thoughts as the familiar drawl of voices around him rose and fell against the monotonous creak of wheels in motion. The sniper opened his eyes and knew immediately that he was in trouble. He was lying on his back in a prairie schooner crammed with other miserable-looking Confederate soldiers. Turning slightly to the left, the sniper could see the blue coats of the Union soldiers on the buckboard as they drove the horses. The thought of his own horse’s fate made him jerk around to look out the back of the wagon. Bars dashed any hope of escape, but he felt a measure of relief when he saw his bay traipsing in a line with other horses behind the wagon. He struggled to sit up, stopping for a moment to wait for the world to quit spinning.
He tried to focus on the soldier across from him. When he spoke, the sniper’s voice came out scratchy and hoarse. “Where are we going?” “Gratiot.” The soldier shrugged. “Rumor says we’ll be dead inside a month. The green-apple quickstep runs rampant through that place. And if that don’t getcha, then the shakes do. Thought I’d die from a bullet—not from diarrhea in a Yankee prison.”
The sniper vomited, and the men around him barely noticed.
As one day folded into the next, the sniper couldn’t decide which was worse: the misery of the wagon ride under the unseasonably hot sun, or the dread of what was to come once they reached Gratiot Street Prison. The throbbing in his head had gone from pounding to almost tolerable, though he had yet to stomach his daily ration of food without getting sick. He looked around at the grimy faces of the soldiers in the wagon and wondered how many of them would survive the Yankee prison. Not for the first time, he wished that blow to his head had killed him. The thought of being locked up with thousands of men who were doing nothing but marking time was almost more than he could stand.
The sniper cut his gaze to a scraggly soldier sitting opposite him. “You gonna eat that or not?”
The sniper looked down at the piece of salt pork in his hand, briefly pondered how long it would take to starve to death, then tossed the pork to the soldier. The man grunted his thanks before stuffing it into his mouth. A guard walking alongside the wagon issued a sound of disgust. “Typical reb,” he said. “Taking something that rightly belongs to another man.”
A few eyes went to the guard who, for days, had been purpose- fully picking at the soldier chewing the salt pork. The sniper had heard rumors that the two were related through marriage, but that ideology and geography had put them on opposite sides of the war. Hate came off them in waves.
The rebel soldier turned and glared at the guard. “I expect that ol’ skeleton y’all call president would know a thing or two ’bout that, seein’ as he’s taking our homes and our land.”
The guard drew his pistol from a side holster and brandished it toward the wagon. “You speak more respectful of Mr. Lincoln, or you’ll be eating dirt instead of pork.”
“Says the yellow-bellied Yank holdin’ a gun on a man who ain’t armed,” the rebel said.
“Once we stop, it could be a mighty long walk between the back of this wagon and the front door of Gratiot.”
“If you’re thinkin’ that a bullet in my back would be a surprise, then think again. It’s what I’d expect from you.”
Though the threats and insults had become commonplace between the two men, the vitriol had escalated. Tired of the whole thing, the sniper closed his eyes and willed his thoughts to another place and time. He let memories parade through his mind and, for the time being, found solace in the fact that he’d once been very happy.
A burst of loud bugling filled the air the next day. The incongruent sound burrowed into the sniper’s subconscious and roused him from sleep. He looked toward the noise and saw an American flag stream- ing proudly from the staff on the lead horse of a group of Union soldiers riding up fast upon the wagons. The soldiers reined in their panting animals.
“The war’s over!” shouted a Union captain. “Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox yesterday! It’s over, gentlemen. As God is my witness, it’s over!”
While the Union soldiers cheered their victory, the sniper felt palpable shock at the words. The South had fallen. Everything he had fought to preserve would be gone forever. He felt tears sting his eyes as loss overwhelmed him. Looking around, he saw the same emotion on the faces of his Southern brothers.
“What about the prisoners?” a Union guard asked.
“Turn ’em loose.”
In mere moments, everything changed. The same faces that had been etched in defeat, now conveyed relief. Confederate prisoners of war would be released to go back to their lives as farmers, teachers, storekeepers.
The sniper felt his numb feet hit the dirt, and he had a moment of panic that his legs wouldn’t work at all. He looked around and could see that others were having the same problem as men started to disperse in all directions but the one they had been heading. The sniper had one thing to do before he’d join them. He made his way through the confusion of soldiers—blue uniforms, gray uniforms, men who wept and men who cheered.
The horse danced in place at his master’s appearance. The sniper ran his hand down the length of the bay’s nose.
“Time to go home, boy,” he whispered. “Leave the horse.”
The sniper turned to the guard behind him—the same pistol- brandishing guard who seemed to hate rebs more than all the other guards combined.
“He’s mine.” The sniper’s voice was low. He had to work to keep it steady. “I’m taking him.”
The guard cocked his revolver. “I don’t think so, Secesh.”
Before the sniper had time to react, his wagonmate came from nowhere and bowled over his Union rival. The men scrabbled on the ground, fists finding purchase, hate finding relief. All around him, similar skirmishes were breaking out.
A gunshot split the air. Then another. Men started yelling. Some of the former prisoners hadn’t turned to leave at all—some would rather die here than go home defeated. The short-lived calm of surrender had become thick with the tension of war once again. In the sniper’s line of sight, he watched two boys in gray fall and a blue coat stagger back from an attacking rebel. The sniper wished for a gun but wouldn’t take the time to try to find one. Instead, he worked frantically to free his horse from the tethered line. But he didn’t have time before an onslaught of Union men rushed toward him.
The sniper was left with no choice. Willing his half-starved, wounded body into action, he turned to run away from the chaos and smoking guns. He felt a sharp sting in the back of his calf and nearly fell face-first, but somehow recovered his balance. Somewhere in his brain he registered the warm blood gushing down his leg, but in mere seconds he had a new worry: a rumbling tremble under- ground seemed to be nipping at his heels. He glanced back to see two horses still tethered to a wagon careening straight for him. He kept running with the hot breath of the horses on his neck, then felt the power of the animals as they charged past, tangling him in the harness rigging. In moments, he was ripped from the ground as the horses became airborne. He heard wood splintering, the terrified noises of the horses as they fell; the world tumbled past in bits and pieces of grass, rock, and dirt. The face of the Union captain who’d given him the chain around his neck flashed before him just before his head slammed into a boulder. I think he knew this thing would kill me!
It was well past midnight when Dr. Abe Johnson yanked open his clinic door and scowled at the two middle-aged men standing outside. In the dark it was hard to make out anything about them, other than the fact that one of them had a slight man wearing a brown shirt and green pants thrown over his shoulder.
“We found this fella ’bout five miles outside a’ town.”
“Bring him in.” The doctor stepped back from the door, and the two men entered the clinic. Doc pointed at a table. “Put him right down there.”
They did as the doctor asked and stepped back a couple of feet. Dr. Johnson lit a lamp and moved it closer to the table to peer down at the man.
“Tell me what happened,” Doc said. He lifted each of the man’s eyelids and then turned his face from side to side to examine it.
“It’s a miracle we saw him at all,” one of the men said. “We pulled our wagon over because Tom there had to relieve himself.”
The man called Tom picked up the story. “I got myself off the road a ways and remember thinking I needed to be quick about it, on account of Dan gets testy when we stop.”
“Seems like we gotta stop every hour fer that peanut of a bladder you got.”
“Anyways, I was just finishing my, uh, business, when I heard something in the dark. Something below me. Turns out I was stand- ing on the edge of a ridge.”
“Dang lucky you didn’t step off into nothing and kill yourself, Tom.”
“I called over to Dan so we could both listen, and that’s when we figured out we was hearing horses that had somehow wound up at the bottom of the hill,” Tom said. “We could tell they was hurting pretty bad.”
“We made it down to them in pretty good time and saw right away that there was no saving ’em. Never seen animals beg to be shot before—but those two surely were.” Dan shook his head. “I sure hate to hear an animal suffer.”
“We was just about to start climbing back up when we saw … him,” Tom said, directing his gaze at the injured man. “He was stuck under the rigging—must have gotten tangled up in the wagon as it went over.”
“He wasn’t moving, but he was breathing,” Dan said. “We hauled him back up the hill.”
“He been awake at all since you found him?” Doc asked. Both men shook their heads.
“No,” Tom said.
The doctor continued to run his hands along the man’s arms, then his shoulders.
“You think he’ll live?” Tom asked.
Dr. Johnson began unbuttoning the man’s shirt. “I don’t know how badly he’s hurt yet. There could be internal bleeding, broken ribs.”
“I think he’s about starved to death too. He’s light as a feather,” Dan offered.
The doctor peeled back the material, and the three stared at a thick binding wrapped around the man’s chest.
“Let’s get him up so I can undo the binding,” Doc said.
They pulled the man into a sitting position. The doctor slowly began to unwind the binding. As the last of the cloth came off, Dr. Johnson cleared his throat. “Well, that explains the ‘light as a feather,’” he said. The three men stared in stunned silence.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. Johnson said quietly, “it seems we have been mistaken about the gender of the patient.”
“Mistaken about the sex, too,” Tom said. “That there is a full- fledged woman.”
She opened her eyes and found herself in an unfamiliar room, looking at the back of an unfamiliar man, who was whistling. She must have shifted, moved, made some kind of noise herself, because he turned and looked at her, his lips still pursed in mid- whistle. The sound died on his lips as he started across the small room toward her. He was older, with an average height and build. His shirt and trousers looked rumpled—as if he’d been sleeping in his clothes.
“Good. You’re finally awake,” he said.
She realized she was reclining on a cot, and when she tried to lift herself on her elbows, a heavy, throbbing pain in her head made her moan and sink back into a pillow.
“Where?” she managed to croak out of her parched throat.
“At my clinic in St. Louis,” he answered. He pulled a chair next to the cot and sat down. He reached for her wrist, but his touch made her jerk away. Her instinctual reaction caused her to grimace in pain. “Who?”
“You’re asking the right questions. That’s good,” he said. “I’m Doctor Abe Johnson. I’ve been taking care of you for the past three days.”
She was confused. “Why?”
He frowned and studied her. “There was an accident. Don’t you remember?”
She stared at him without answering.
“I’m going to check your pulse now,” he said. She felt him lift her arm with a confident touch.
“Excellent,” the doctor said with satisfaction. “Steady and strong.” He lowered her arm to the cot. “How is your pain?”
It was as if the question jarred her further into reality, and she quickly became aware of a myriad of things that didn’t feel right. Her head throbbed, her ribs ached, and when she stretched out her leg, she felt something akin to a lick of fire run up her calf. She felt bruised and battered and tender.
“Pain … everywhere.” She lifted a hand to her head and gingerly ran her fingers over the thick wrap that ran across her forehead and, as far as she could tell, all the way around. She swallowed. All she could think of was water. “I’m … thirsty.”
“Of course you are.”
He pushed to his feet and went to a pitcher on a table across the room. He poured her a cup of water, but he handed it to her with an admonishment. “You’re going to be tempted to gulp this down, but I’ll advise against that unless you don’t mind vomiting.”
She nodded her understanding, and he helped her sit up. She tipped the cup to her lips. The water felt like liquid heaven running down her throat.
“Easy does it,” he said. She forced herself to stop drinking and gave him back the cup.
“How did I get here?” she asked.
“Two men brought you in.”
“Where are they?”
“Long gone. They were just passing through this area when they found you tangled up in some wagon rigging at the bottom of a pretty steep hill about five miles outside of town.”
“I was alone?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes, as far as I know,” he said. “Had you been traveling with someone else?”
She searched her memory for the answer. “I don’t remember.”
“Where were you going?”
“I … can’t say.” She looked past him, her big brown eyes filled with worry as her mind raced.
Intrigued, Dr. Johnson leaned forward in the chair and rested his forearms on his knees. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Her eyes flew back to his. “Secret?”
“I am obligated as your doctor to hold anything you say to me in confidence,” he said. “So whatever you were doing—whoever you might have been running from—you can tell me. Maybe I can help you.”
She felt as if she’d come into the room in the middle of a conversation. Your secret is safe with me.
“How long did you say I’ve been here?” she asked.
“Three days. But I have no way of knowing how long you were lying there unconscious before those men found you.”
Lying there unconscious. Your secret is safe with me.
She shifted again on the cot and sucked in a sharp breath when a ripple of pain shot through her body.
“You have several contusions on your skull,” he said. “The most significant is just above your left temple. I also found one located near the crown of your head—but I’d say that injury is older than the others. You have some bruising consistent with a bad fall, but as far as I can tell, nothing is broken.” He hesitated for a moment, as if carefully giving weight to his next few words. “It very well may be that the binding you had around your chest kept your ribs from breaking.”
Why is he talking in riddles?
He raised his brows. “Yes. As I said, your secret is safe with me.”
Frowning, she shook her head, then immediately regretted the action. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t understand.”
He studied her for a moment, then said, “You have another significant injury that we haven’t discussed. A gunshot wound to the back of your calf. How did that happen?”
“I don’t know,” she said, more to herself than to him. “I don’t remember.”
“All right. I understand. I’m a stranger and we just met and, understandably, you don’t know if you can trust me or not.”
“No. You don’t understand. I don’t remember anything that you’re talking about. I don’t remember an accident, or falling, or being shot!”
He tented his hands together, tapping his fingertips while he studied her. “Your mind is most likely protecting you from what was certainly a traumatic experience.”
When she didn’t respond, he pressed on. “Let’s start with simpler things, shall we?”
She licked her dry lips and dipped her chin in agreement.
“I can hear a trace of the South in your speech,” he said. “Where are you from?”
She searched her mind, but it was filled with dark corners that seemed to be hiding the answers. I don’t know. I don’t know … how can I not know?
She uttered the words aloud. “I don’t know.”
He stroked his chin thoughtfully but sounded skeptical when he asked, “No recollection of that either?”
She tried again and reached inside herself for the information, but it wasn’t there. The moment stretched, and silence boomed in the small room. Panic started to swell in her throat.
“We’ll leave the geography questions for later, shall we?” She swallowed and nodded.
Dr. Johnson offered a confident smile. “Let’s start with the very basics. What’s your name?”
She automatically opened her mouth to reply with the answer. Surely she knew her own name. But trying to retrieve the memory in the deep black chasm of her mind was like trying to catch the wind. There was nothing. Not a shred of anything to grasp and unfurl like a sheet where all the minutes, hours, days, and years leading up to this moment might be hiding. With frightened, heart-pumping adrenaline, she whispered her answer.
“I don’t remember.”
The admission hung in the air between them. Her large, frightened eyes studied the man sitting by her side as he studied her. It dawned on her that he was the only person she ever remembered having a conversation with. The thought stabbed through her, and she fought the urge to scream. Despite the splitting pain in her head, she swung her legs over the side of the cot and pushed herself to stand on her injured leg.
“Be careful now,” he said, slipping a steadying hand under her elbow. Even with the terror rising up inside her, she was cognizant enough to hear the intrigue in his voice.
“What’s happening to me?”
“As I said earlier, your mind might be trying to protect you from something you don’t want to remember.”
She turned to face him. “But my own name?”
He didn’t answer—just kept looking at her in a way that was becoming increasingly irritating.
“Let me reiterate—you can trust me,” he said. “I know we just met and you are likely skeptical about confiding in a complete stranger …”
Her voice was shaky when she replied. “You’re not hearing me. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know where I was headed, why I was traveling—where I’m from or even my own name!” She looked down at the white gown she was wearing. Down at her bare feet on the floor. She wiggled her toes and shook her head at the same time.
“Those might as well be a stranger’s feet because I don’t recognize them!” She raised a shaking hand to examine it. “This could be a stranger’s hand.” A new thought took shape, and the tears she had held at bay spilled down her cheek. “I don’t even know what I look like.”
“What is the last thing you remember?” he asked, clearly more intrigued by the second.
She took a deep, steadying breath and looked up at him. “I heard whistling, opened my eyes, and saw you.”
He went to a small closet in the corner of the room and pulled some clothing from a shelf. Carrying the clothes back to her, he put them in her hands.
“You were wearing these when the men brought you in,” he said. “They are clothes that would be worn by a man, not a young woman.”
She inspected the wool shirt and pants. “If that’s true, then why would I have been wearing them?”
“Your chest was bound, and your hair is cut in a masculine style. My hypothesis is you did all of it on purpose in order to be perceived as a man.”
Tears slipped down her cheeks as she ran her hands over the rough wool of the brown shirt. “But why?”
“That’s a good question,” he said. “One I was hoping you would have an answer to when you woke.” He crossed his arms over his chest and slowly shook his head. “Your cognizant skills seem fine. You can carry on a conversation and have knowledge of everyday things, have reasonable expectations—have a healthy fear level of what’s happening to you. It is as if only one part of your brain has been traumatized by your head injury.” His expression went from perplexed to revelatory. “I’ve read about cases like this, but in all my years I’ve never seen it firsthand. A once-in-a-lifetime thing, really.”
“Cases like what?” she asked. A feeling of deep foreboding settled over her like a drape.
“Amnesia,” he said. “It’s the loss of one’s memory—usually due to a brain injury or sometimes even a terrible shock.”
She frowned. “That sounds—very bad.”
He pressed his lips together, and she saw pity in his expression. She dug the heels of her hands into her eyes as if she could press her memo- ries back inside her head. Try harder! Remember something. Remember!
Moments later, she felt him gently pull her hands away from her face. He leaned closer to her as if the very action would help convey the sincerity of what he was going to say.
“It might very well be temporary.”
A ray of hope leapt up inside her. “Temporary?”
“Yes. I’ll need to do more research, of course, but I know the condition can last anywhere from minutes to hours to …”
“To what? Days? Weeks?”
“I don’t see the point in speculating about that right now,” he said. “Let’s just concentrate on the present.” He pulled something from his pocket and held up a silver medallion dangling from a silver chain. “You were also wearing this.”
She reached for it. Feeling his scrutiny, she fingered the medal and willed something to come back to her. The black drape across her mind remained firmly intact.
“It’s beautiful … but I don’t remember it.”
He reached out for it, but she tightened her fingers around it. “You said it’s mine.”
He withdrew his hand. “Yes.”
Careful of the bandage around her head, she slipped it on. “There is something else we haven’t tried,” he said. “Something that might jar your memory.”
“I have a mirror in the next room. Let’s go have a look, shall we?” She didn’t answer. It wasn’t vanity that made her hesitate. It didn’t matter to her if she was homely—if her nose was too big for her face or her chin too weak. What mattered was her quicksilver hold on sanity and how fast that might disappear when the face of a stranger stared back at her from the glass. What if the shock of seeing herself did nothing to help her remember?
“I promise you won’t be disappointed in your reflection,” he said, leading her to the next room.
Her first impression of the woman who stared back at her from the mirror was that she looked lost. Lost and terrified and sad. Her hand went to the short, dark hair cut above her chin. The bandage wound around her forehead served only to make her eyes look huge. Her nose was fine. Her chin was chiseled like a porcelain doll. Her memory stayed locked up tight. She shuddered with disappointment.
“Nothing, eh?” the doctor asked.
She barely managed to shake her head.
“Steady does it,” he said, peering over her shoulder. “We’ll sort it all out.” She saw him frown into the glass. “You are a handsome young woman. I would surmise you’ve barely had twenty birthdays—if that. Somewhere, someone is probably frantic about you.”
She continued to stare at the woman in the mirror. At a face that might have been anyone on the street for all she knew. She spoke to her own reflection as if she expected a reply. “What are you going to do?” Dr. Johnson became pragmatic. “First things first. You’ll need more time to recover from your injuries. Perhaps as your head heals, your memory will return.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Her voice was laced with fear.
“Let’s not borrow trouble,” he said.
She shifted her gaze from her own reflection to his. “I hardly have to borrow it. I’m consumed with it. I have no idea where to go or what to do next.”
“Let’s just take things one day at a time,” he said. “The mind is a fascinating thing. A mysterious part of the body I could spend a lifetime studying and have only a scintilla of answers for the questions I have.”
“That’s what worries me most,” she admitted. “That I’ll spend the rest of my lifetime looking for the one answer I need.” She found her own eyes in the glass again. “Who am I?”