Dr. Jacob Carter barely recognized his old neighborhood. Once echoing with life, most of the tall houses on the oak-lined street were shuttered and dark, as silent as the residents of the new cemetery on the hill across the Potomac. The former inhabitants, most of them Confederate sympathizers, had fled as the war turned against them and this once—Southern city turned its face forever northward. The Carters’ house—home to one of only three Unionist families on the block—sat in the middle of the row, as quiet and lifeless as the rest.
His eyes welled as he gazed upon his home for the first time in four years. He wasn’t sure what he had expected—wreckage, perhaps, or widows weeping in the street—but it hadn’t been this. Not this unrelenting emptiness.
But it turned out it wasn’t empty, not quite. As Jacob stepped out of the carriage and onto the muddy street, he dodged a steaming pile of cow paddies, which he promptly jumped into when a pig darted out from behind a house and rushed toward him, cutting to one side at the last second. Wrinkling his nose, he wiped his boots off on the wheel of the carriage.
“Well, Hannah,” he muttered as he adjusted his rucksack on his shoulder. “I’m home. Such as it is.”
A snarling dog shot past with a half-eaten piglet clamped in its jaws, and Jacob rested his right hand on the grip of his Colt .36, taking comfort in the cold metal strapped to his hip. It was the one memento of his army service he had kept. He’d thrown his bloodstained uniform into a campfire a week ago.
He heaved a sigh and strode toward his house. He nearly tripped over a grimy man lying motionless in the gutter nearby. The man’s scraggly, unkempt beard hung halfway down his chest, and the uniform he wore was so muddy and tattered that it was impossible to tell whether it was Union or Confederate. Flies buzzed around his head—never a good sign. Though he never wanted to tend to another soldier, Jacob instinctively knelt down and felt for a pulse.
“Whassa matter wi’ you?” the man demanded, snapping awake. “Can’t a fellow get any sleep ‘round here?”
“Sorry,” Jacob mumbled. “Just seeing if you were all right.”
The man told Jacob where he could go and what he should do with his mother when he got there and then rolled over and went back to sleep.
Shaking his head, Jacob dug a brass key out of his pocket and trudged toward the house. The porch creaked under his weight as he approached the front door. The lock was cranky from neglect, and he had to jiggle the key a few times to make the sliders click into place so he could swing the door open.
Dust wafted down from the chandelier overhead as he stepped into the dark foyer, and he sneezed twice as he lit a lantern on the hall table—the shuttered windows blocked all 132
daylight from coming into the house. An elderly neighbor had promised to keep an eye on the place while he’d been away at war, but like most of the neighborhood’s residents, the man had left town a few months ago. He’d written to say he was moving in with relatives in Baltimore and that if the government had any sense they would move the capital and abandon Washington. Seeing the town for himself, Jacob had to agree.
As his eyes adjusted to the lantern’s glow, Jacob stepped into the sitting room and set his rucksack on the floor. Like all the furniture in the house, the sofa and armchairs were draped with sheets, once brilliant white but now dingy with dust. He strode to the fireplace and ripped the protective sheet off the large portrait that hung over the mantle.
“Hello, ladies,” he whispered to the figures smiling down at him. He gazed up into the eyes of his late wife, Hannah. In the portrait, she stood behind their daughter, Josephine, then nine years old, seated in a chair. After Hannah’s death, her older sister had tried to persuade Jacob to sell the large home and move to a smaller house near hers in Boston, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the house that Hannah had loved so dearly. The house was Hannah. She had selected every stick of furniture, every curtain, every tablecloth. She had given birth to Josie in an upstairs bedroom where she died ten years later. It was home.
He shifted his gaze to Josie’s grinning image, and an ache settled in his chest. He hadn’t seen his daughter since he’d sent her away from Washington at the outset of the war. Now twenty years old, she’d written to him often from his brother’s cattle ranch in California, her most recent letter asking when he might send for her. She’d loved California, but she missed her father desperately. Jacob could get the house back in order easily enough, but there was nothing he could do to reverse the city’s decay. He and Josie could both tolerate the mud and the crumbling buildings, he supposed, if not for that god-awful smell. Washington City’s sewage had barely been adequate before the war, and he was certain that much of the excrement now lying in the streets was of human origin as well as animal.
“It’s all right, Josie,” he whispered. “We’ll work through it, you and me. Just like we’ve always done.”
Too exhausted to start opening up and cleaning the house, Jacob trudged upstairs, yanked the protective coverings off of his bed, and lay down on top of the musty quilt. He pulled out his pocket watch and opened it to the small portrait of Hannah that he kept tucked into the case. He laid it on his night table and dropped his head onto his pillows. He ignored the puff of dust that wafted up around his head. Though it was only late afternoon, he closed his eyes and quickly dropped off to sleep.
He did not sleep well.
He hadn’t slept well for two years.
Being a surgeon had amplified the horrors of the war for Dr. Jacob Carter. The bloody day at Antietam had been bad enough, but it was the three long days at Gettysburg that haunted him most. Three days with no sleep and little food as he dodged bullets while trying to treat soldiers on the battlefield as the fighting raged. Most of those men—boys, really—had not survived anyway. Almost 3,200 Union soldiers had lost their lives, often after suffering at the blade of a bone saw as Jacob and his fellow surgeons frantically tried to save them.
He woke up screaming four times that night.
In the morning, he headed to his clinic a few blocks away. Many of his fellow Army surgeons had gone to work in Washington’s Army hospitals, treating returning soldiers, but Jacob had wanted only to return to his private practice. He’d had enough of gangrene and amputated limbs. The boarding house that sat next to his clinic, once a respectable establishment favored by congressmen, had at some time during the war been put to other purposes. The new proprietor had transformed the first floor into a large saloon, and it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what the rooms upstairs were being used for. In the absence of law enforcement, sex and liquor were the only two businesses still thriving in Washington.
Jacob let out a long breath when he found his own building unmolested. Squatters had infested many of the city’s closed businesses, and he wasn’t keen to use the revolver still strapped to his hip—he knew too well what bullets could do to a human body. The air inside the clinic was musty from being boarded up, but it was better than the air outside; The new saloon stank of urine and stale beer. All the same, he needed light, so after placing a small portrait of Hannah on his desk, he pried the shutters off the windows and spent the rest of the morning sweeping out the dust and creating a list of medicines and supplies he needed to order. He had to reopen his practice if he wanted to bring Josie home.
At midday, he walked to the post office to collect his mail.
He should have hailed a carriage. Its closed window curtains could have blocked the view of the shantytown he was passing. The carriage driver yesterday had told him the locals called it Murder Bay.
“Sprung up when all them freedmen came into the city after President Lincoln issued that damned Emancipation Proclamation,” the man had grumbled. “Police don’t even bother tryin’ to arrest murderers there. Too many scoundrels and not enough officers. Ain’t gonna get no better now that we got all these soldiers comin’ home an’ lookin’ for work that ain’t there.”
As he walked past Murder Bay, Jacob pulled his shirt collar over his nose to try to block the stench from the old city canal that ran alongside the shantytown. Its original purpose forgotten, the canal was now a sewer and storm drain, reeking of feces. Surely it couldn’t be long before typhoid, cholera, and dysentery swept through the already desperate population.
He glanced to his left at the looming figure of the White House and then back at Murder Bay. Two young colored boys, neither of them older than ten, fought in the mud over half an apple core.
He would have laughed at the irony of the situation had it not been so sad.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives lost,” he muttered. “For what?” The freed Negroes must feel so cheated.
He quickened his pace, wanting to leave the destitution behind as quickly as possible.
When he reached the post office, the postman surprised him by handing him a small sack of mail. Jacob hadn’t expected much—his family and friends had all known to write to him care of the Army of the Potomac. Back in his clinic, he dug into it to discover a small archive of periodicals from the past four years; he hadn’t thought to cancel his subscriptions before he’d left. But mixed in with old issues of Scientific American and The New York Times was a recent letter from his brother, William, in California. He wrote that he hoped Jacob had returned home safely and that Josie was looking forward to seeing him again.
“We’d all love to see you,” William’s letter read. “Come to California, Jacob. Spend some time here on the ranch before going back to your work. You deserve a respite.”
“Older brothers,” Jacob muttered with the first little smile he’d broken in months. “I’m forty-six years old, and he still thinks he can tell me what to do.”
He stayed late at the clinic, trying to avoid the emptiness of the large, dusty house. Someone started playing the piano in the saloon next door, and he soon wearied of the drunken shouting. Tossing the old newspapers into the stove to burn the next day—he had no desire to relive the war through four years of headlines—he stepped out onto the porch. As he turned to lock the door, the skin on the back of his neck prickled.
“Hey fella,” a sultry voice purred. Jacob started. “Sorry about that.” The woman laid a hand on his shoulder. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” She stepped closer, her hot breath wafting over his ear. It smelled of cheap liquor. “You feeling lonely, fella?”
There was something familiar about the woman’s voice, and he turned around, squinting through the waning light.
The woman jumped back, her hand snapping away from his shoulder. “Dr. Carter?” Even in the twilight, Jacob could see her blushing. “Dr. Carter, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you, I-” She spun on her heel and fled toward the saloon. Jacob sprinted after her, catching her after only a few yards.
“Alice.” He searched for words, but for a moment could only point at the saloon. “Why are you working here? What happened to Henry?” He flinched. He shouldn’t have asked. He already knew the answer.
“Henry’s dead. Sammy, too.”
“Sammy? What happened to Sammy? He would only be what? Six?”
“Seven. Typhoid. Last winter.” Her tone was flat and emotionless.
“Oh, Alice, I’m so sorry.” Jacob dug into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin. He pressed it into her hand.
She took it without acknowledgement and tucked it into her low-cut bodice. “Where’s Josie?”
“California with my brother. I’m sending for her tomorrow.”
“Don’t bring her home. Don’t let her see this.” She gestured to the street with a sweep of one hand. From somewhere behind them, a baby cried.
“You don’t have to work here. Do you need a place to stay?”
“Goodnight, Dr. Carter.” She disappeared under the shadowy eaves of the saloon.
Jacob looked around at the street, once smooth and flat, now covered in six inches of sticky muck, the boarded-up businesses, and in the distance, the noxious fog rising off the canal. The city itself reflected the war’s brutality on its inhabitants. His eyes glazed over as his mind drifted back to the hilly battlefields of Maryland and Pennsylvania. When the crash of shattering glass rang out from the saloon, he dropped flat onto the rotting wooden sidewalk. He threw his arms over his head and lay there trembling until he felt a nudge in his ribs. In one swift motion, he ripped his Colt from its holster and aimed at the dark shadow looming over him.
“Easy there, mister,” a deep voice drawled. “War’s over.”
He jammed the gun back in its holster and apologized. After receiving Jacob’s assurances that he was all right, the man continued his shuffle toward the saloon. Jacob almost followed him—maybe a drink would settle him down—but he turned and raced for home, one hand on the grip of his Colt the entire way.
After another restless night, Jacob emerged from his cavernous home and set off to wire his daughter. The path to the telegraph office took him past the unfinished Washington Monument, whose grounds the Army had turned into a slaughterhouse during the war. He ripped his handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to his nose to block the metallic odor of gallons of fresh blood. So much like Gettysburg. A pig squealed as a butcher slit its throat, and he collapsed onto the splintering sidewalk, his hands clutching the sides of his head as the screams of maimed soldiers rattled his brain. He dug into his pocket again and pulled out his watch. Flipping the cover open, he focused on his wife’s portrait. As his heart slowed, he forced himself to his feet and continued down the street, still staring at Hannah’s picture.
Halfway to the telegraph office, Jacob remembered he’d left his list of needed supplies at his clinic the night before, and as long as he was wiring Josie, he might as well wire the apothecary in New York City too. He took the long way back to his clinic to avoid going past the slaughterhouse again, and as he approached the clinic, he saw a few overnight patrons stumbling out of the saloon. He cringed. At least one of the scruffy men had probably spent the night in Alice’s room.
He was so distracted that he nearly stepped on the little bundle in front of his door. At first, he thought it was just a dirty shawl that someone had dropped, probably as its owner reeled out of the saloon. He was about to kick it aside when the bundle began to cry. He dropped to his knees and unwrapped the dingy blanket to reveal the red, howling face of an infant. The baby screwed up its face as its toothless mouth gaped open, sending up an ear-blistering squall. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jacob scooped up the child, unlocked his clinic with his free hand, and burst inside.
With the screeching baby tucked under one arm, he began pumping water into the sink of the little kitchen at the back of the building. As the water flowed, he pulled his handkerchief—still clean, thank goodness—out of his pocket and dampened a corner. Sitting down at the small kitchen table, he twisted up the wet corner of the handkerchief and poked it into the infant’s mouth. The baby’s eyes popped open, and the tiny mouth instinctively began sucking on the damp cloth.
“Sorry it isn’t milk, little one.” Jacob caressed the baby’s downy head. “But it’ll have to do for the moment. Now, where did you come from?”
Hoping to find some clue to the baby’s identity, he unwrapped the gray blanket. He presumed it was once white, but like everything else in Washington, had lost its luster to the war. Underneath, the baby was wearing nothing but a soggy diaper. He spread the blanket on the floor, lay the baby on it, and searched his cabinets for a diaper. Surely he still had one around someplace, or at least some bandages large enough to serve as one until he could buy some. The baby suckled happily on his handkerchief while he scoured his cabinets. Finally, in the very last cabinet, Jacob found a stack of diapers. The top one was dusty, so he grabbed one from the middle of the stack along with some pins and knelt on the floor to change the baby.
“Congratulations, Dr. Carter, it’s a girl,” he chuckled as he pulled off the wet diaper and swapped in the dry one. The baby spit out the handkerchief and smiled at the sound of his laugh. Her brilliant blue eyes stood out in sharp contrast to the wisps of black hair on her head, and Jacob smiled back at her. “You look just like Josie did as a baby,” he told the child. She smiled at him again. “Let’s get you something to eat and then see if we can figure out where you came from.”
He picked her up and wrapped the blanket back around her. Fortunately, the general store only a block away was still in business, and in less than thirty minutes, Jacob had purchased a bottle and several cans of condensed milk. He sat down on a bench outside the store and cradled the baby in one arm as he held the bottle to her mouth with the other. The little girl placed a chubby hand on each side of the bottle and stared up at him as she drank. For a moment, he was twenty-six years old again, feeding his infant daughter to give his exhausted wife a break.
“Oh, Hannah, I sure wish you were here right now,” he whispered.
When the baby finished her meal, Jacob deposited the empty bottle and the extra cans of milk at his clinic and walked to the police station. When he stepped through the doors, the young man at the counter didn’t even look up from his paperwork.
“Whatcha need, mister?”
Jacob held up the baby. “I need to report an abandoned infant.”
The clerk glanced briefly at the baby and then looked at Jacob. “Whatcha expect us to do about it?”
Jacob’s jaw dropped. “Find her mother, of course! Charge her with abandoning a child and then find some relatives to care for this baby!”
The young man laughed in his face.
“Mister, we ain’t even got enough men to go after all the murderers in this town. You think we got time to deal with a baby?” When Jacob’s mouth gaped again, the clerk explained. “You ain’t been in town long, have you? There’s at least a dozen babies abandoned every month. Ain’t unusual to come across a dead one as you’re just walkin’ down the street.”
Jacob’s toes curled in his boots. He gazed down into the face of the sleeping child and then back up at the clerk. “Why don’t they get taken to the orphanage?”
“Orphanage is full. War left so many kids without parents that they’re near to bursting.”
“What about a church? Any of them taking children?”
The clerk shook his head. “Most are treatin’ soldiers.”
“What am I supposed to do with her?”
“Way I see it, you got two choices: keep her yourself or put her back where you found her.” He returned to his paperwork, making it clear that the conversation was over.
Jacob’s shoulders slumped, and he carried the baby back outside. He headed to the telegraph office and wired the orphanage in Baltimore to see if they could take a baby. He sent Josie a telegram, too, letting her know he was home safely but that she should sit tight in California for now. He was all the way back to his clinic before he realized he hadn’t wired the apothecary for new supplies.
Jacob spent the afternoon cleaning his clinic, taking breaks to feed or change the little girl as needed. When the pair arrived home that evening, Jacob set the baby on a blanket on his bedroom floor while he scrabbled around the attic for Josie’s old cradle. Next to the cradle, he found a carton of Josie’s baby clothes. He smiled as he pulled the tiny items out of the box. He hadn’t known Hannah had saved them, but he was grateful she had. They would see new use in the coming days. Before retiring, he gave the baby a bath, buttoned her up in one of Josie’s old sleepers, and laid her in the cradle next to his bed.
“Good night, little one,” he whispered, kissing the baby’s soft forehead. “Tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do.”
He woke up four times that night, but not to his own screaming. The baby demanded food at midnight, three o’clock, and six o’clock and a fresh diaper at one-thirty. But Jacob didn’t mind. Each time he lit the oil lamp next to his bed and gazed down at the tiny red-faced human in the cradle, he smiled. He’d raised a daughter of his own and delivered and treated hundreds of infants over the years, but he still marveled at the baby’s hands, her tiny toes, the way the tip of her nose turned up ever so slightly. She was so beautifully formed and so—there was no other word to describe her—intact.
He took her with him to the clinic again the next day and alternated between tending to the baby and scrubbing his exam room. It occurred to him that one of the girls at the saloon next door—perhaps even Alice—would know the baby’s origins. But then again, the child’s mother had abandoned her. What good would it do to confront her with her shame? It wouldn’t make the poor woman better able to care for the child. Still, he shouldn’t get too attached. The orphanage in Baltimore might have space for the baby, in which case, it would be the best place for her. They could find her a home with two young parents.
Three days ticked by, and Jacob and the baby fell into a pattern. They would spend the day at the clinic and return home in the evening for supper, a little playtime, a bath, and bed. He even started receiving patients—all civilians—at his clinic again. A few of his colleagues had expressed thinly-veiled contempt for his refusal to continue his service at the military hospitals, but one look around the city made it clear that the civilians were in dire need of medical attention, too —and sprained ankles and bumps on the head didn’t aggravate his nightmares. He still hadn’t wired the apothecary in New York, but the local druggist had had enough quinine, Epsom salts, iodine, and bandages for him to tend to the simple ailments the citizens arrived with.
On the fourth day, Jacob received a telegram from the Baltimore orphanage saying that they, too, were past capacity. Perhaps he should try one of the establishments in New York City which were sending children on trains to the Midwest to find families. Jacob glanced down at the little girl, who was chewing happily on her fist. Based on her size and the two little nubs trying to push their way through her bottom gum, Jacob guessed she was about four months old. He tried to picture her in the lap of some stranger as she steamed west on a train to be taken in by more strangers, and his chest ached. He set her in his lap and looked in her eyes.
“I’ll be an old man by the time you’re all grown up,” he said. “But I’d be honored if you’d have me as your papa.”
The little girl cooed, and Jacob cuddled her close to his chest as tears streamed down his face.
“We better go wire Josie and tell her to come home. We’re gonna need her help. Should probably think about naming you, too.” A frantic pounding on the clinic door cut his chuckles short. He set the baby in the crib he’d purchased secondhand and ran to the door. On the porch stood a man about his own age holding the limp figure of a young woman. The left arm of the girl’s dress was soaked with blood like she’d taken a bullet. Jacob recoiled.
“Dr. Carter!” the man sobbed. “You have to help us! Please, my daughter!”
Jacob saw himself in the man’s eyes, and he snatched up the girl and carried her into the exam room. Swallowing the bile that had risen in his throat, he laid her on the table and sliced off the sleeve of her dress with his pocketknife. The young lady moaned but did not open her eyes.
“We were attacked.” The man trembled so violently that Jacob worried he’d fall over, and he pointed him toward a chair. The man sat down and continued. A man, he tried to rob us. Amy was too slow giving up her handbag, and he stabbed her!” He buried his face in his hands and broke down.
Jacob examined the wound. Amy was lucky. The knife had gone through the fleshy part of her shoulder, missing her artery. She had lost a lot of blood, but she’d pull through. His heart pounded, the familiar terror trying to seize him, and Jacob shifted his gaze to the young woman’s face. Her blond hair swirled like a halo around her head; her long eyelashes brushed her cheekbones. Nothing like a soldier, and yet another casualty of the war. But she was one he could save. His pulse slowed as his practiced hands moved almost of their own accord to stop the bleeding and stitch up the gash. The young lady came around soon after, and Jacob gave her some brandy and told her to lie still for a while. When the girl and her father left a few hours later with instructions for her to rest for the next several days, Jacob snatched the baby out of her crib, held her close, and wept for the second time that day.
His nightmares left him alone that night because he never slept. He spent the night prowling through the house, his Colt belted around his hips. He jumped at every sound and once drew his gun on a mouse in a hall closet. The baby cried only twice, and after the second feeding, Jacob went into Josie’s bedroom, yanked the protective cover off of her bed, and wrapped up in the musty quilt that Hannah had made when she’d discovered she was pregnant with Josie all those years ago. He lay there, wide awake, until the sun rose.
After breakfast, Jacob gathered up the baby and hailed a carriage to carry them to his attorney’s office.
“Jacob!” Abner Lawson greeted him, arms wide. Jacob’s arms were full of baby, so Abner pulled him into an awkward half-hug. “Good to see you! I’d heard you were back in town, and I hoped you’d drop by. Who’s this?”
Jacob explained how he’d found the baby and had decided to keep her. Abner raised an eyebrow, and Jacob knew he was thinking of the legalities that should be conducted to establish his guardianship of the child.
“No one’s going to ask, Abner. This town has bigger problems.”
“That much is certain. But what really brought you down here? Something tells me this isn’t a social call.”
“It isn’t. I need you to sell my house and clinic.”
Abner’s other eyebrow shot up and nearly disappeared into his hairline—a remarkable feat given how quickly his hairline was retreating from his forehead.
“But you love that house. And what about Josie? Isn’t she coming home?”
“I can’t bring her back here.” Jacob thought of Amy. “She’d be nothing but a target.”
“What about you? And your new friend here?”
“We’re leaving. This city is dying, and I’ll not stand around and watch it tear itself apart. I’ve seen enough death.”
Abner’s eyebrows dropped to their usual latitude, and he laid a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Yeah, I guess you have. I’ll take care of everything, but I have to warn you. There are few people around here with the money to purchase a house like yours, and those who do have the good sense not to live here.”
“It’s got plenty of rooms. I’m sure someone could turn it into a brothel. We’ll be out in two weeks.”
Abner nodded and bid his friend goodbye, reminding him to write when he was settled and let him know where to reach him. Jacob thanked him and turned to leave. As his hand reached the door latch, Abner called him back.
“You said she was four months old?” He pointed to the baby.
“Near as I can figure.”
Abner smiled. “You know that puts her birthday. . . .”
“Right around the end of the war. I know.”
“What have you decided to call her?”
Jacob had puzzled over this exact question for much of his sleepless night. He’d considered naming her Hannah, but when Abner asked him so directly, a different name slipped out of his mouth before he even knew what he was saying.
“Hope. Goodbye, Abner.”
That afternoon, Jacob boarded his clinic back up and returned home, where he spent the next two weeks packing up the house. He didn’t keep much: Hannah and Josie’s portrait, his medical texts, and his and Hope’s clothes. Everything else he donated to local charities that were helping soldiers put their lives back together. Halfway through the process he received and ignored a telegram from Josie begging him to let her come home.
On the last morning, he gazed around his empty house.
He’d hired a carriage to carry him and Hope to the train station where they would catch a train to Baltimore. From there they would board a ship to ferry them southward down the coast, around Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, and across to Panama. Another train would bear them across the isthmus, where they would catch a second ship to San Francisco, and from there, a stagecoach for the final leg of their journey.
As Jacob carried Hope out to their waiting carriage, he turned and gazed one last time upon his wife’s house.
“I’m sorry, Hannah,” he whispered. “But this isn’t our home anymore.”
On the way to the train station, Jacob asked the carriage driver to stop at the telegraph office. It took him only a moment to send a brief message to his brother:
TO: William Carter, Lucky Star Ranch, Placerville, California
FROM: Jacob Carter, Washington City
MESSAGE: Coming to you STOP Will wire from Panama STOP Jacob
Balancing little Hope on his hip, Jacob climbed back into the carriage, beckoned to the driver, and left the ravaged, stinking city behind.