CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT
Deir el Belah, Palestine
Weary of death, Ginger Whitman couldn’t seem to drag herself away from it.
The dim light of dawn shrouded the path winding down the side of the craggy hill. Her boots slid on sand and rock as she loosened the clasp of her short red uniform cape, wiping the sweat on her neck. The stench of decay curdled in her throat.
A half-dozen soldiers worked. Their shovels scraped into sand with a thumping cadence. Each toss of earth devoured the broken bodies in the pits beside them. Some nurses called her foolish for coming here every morning. But who else would come to pay respects? She couldn’t recognize the dead faces from her vantage point, but their voices haunted her dreams. Lives cut short by the unending, brutal tide of war.
The chaplain stood nearby, praying. She bowed her head. So many lives she couldn’t help save. The bodies of Ottoman Turks fallen on the British line received a similar hasty burial nearby. In death, the heaps of bodies were indistinguishable, save for the remnants of uniforms. Death made equals of cowards and heroes, friend or foe. As the war had progressed, the British government enacted sober policies for burying enemy dead. The government had more hope their enemies would return the favor than she did.
She lifted her hand to her nose, the rotten scent stoking her ire. Her father predicted when she’d joined that she’d learn to hate. He’d called her naïve, claimed when the pleasantries of polite society vanished, she would understand the safety she’d abandoned. He hadn’t been entirely wrong—but what he labeled as safety had been innocence cloaked in the privilege of her family’s wealth and status. Three years of lost innocence tormented her soul like a festering wound.
She muttered a prayer for the Turkish soldiers too.
As she kept watch, the grey hills transformed to vibrant yellows and baked white stone, dotted with verdant brush. The hillsides lush with vegetation, adjacent to the sea, draped Palestine with unexpected beauty. The now-impenetrable town of Gaza, where the Ottoman Turks held their ground through two costly battles, loomed in the distance. The British advance had stalled. The longer they stayed, Ginger detected an increasing sense of hopelessness in the men she treated.
A sharp sting pricked her forearm. She crushed the mosquito feasting there. She scratched the red welt—one of many. With May’s heat growing stronger by the day, pests swarmed in hordes. If her mother knew the state of her skin, she’d faint.
Days before Ginger’s debut into society, a blemish had erupted on her chin. Her mother had directed servants to comb the whole of Somerset for a poultice to make it disappear. The days when those things seemed important were laughable now. The world had turned upside down and, along with it, her carefully groomed role. Her mother’s letters still brimmed with ideas for Ginger’s planned wedding after the war. The thought of a wedding felt like a tether to another life.
Distant gunfire crackled across the ridges of the sand dunes. The troops entrenched a few miles away were starting early. Or some unfortunate soul had risked a cigarette and found a sniper’s quick response. She hoped she was wrong. Quiet resumed, and she checked her wristwatch. Dread crept up her esophagus. She’d rather stay around the burial pits than return today.
She climbed the steep hill and stopped to regain her breath, tucking strands of her flame-red hair behind her ears and under her cap. She looked out over the tranquility of the rippling Mediterranean, then turned. Tens of thousands of horses, mules, and camels rested on the plain alongside men waiting for the chance to prove their worth. Or join the mounting piles of bones in the desert.
British blood soaked these lands, and for what? She scowled. Oil fields and the Suez Canal, they’d been told. When she’d been on leave at her family’s home in Cairo at Christmas, she’d questioned her father about the rationale behind the British push into Jerusalem. Despite his work at the Foreign Office, he failed to provide her with a satisfactory answer. The British had secured the Canal two years earlier, and she hadn’t heard of oil in Jerusalem. The leadership in London had never dressed wounds or held soldiers’ hands as they wept over lost limbs. Anger coursed through her.
As pink and yellow hues emerged on the horizon, the railroad tracks and road connecting the troops to the white canvas hospital tents shimmered like a river. She wished she could watch the sunrise. But today she had to answer for her temper and her weak attempt to see justice done.
To think she faced censure because she’d saved a life. The wrong life.
Just one week earlier she’d been ordered by a doctor to leave a soldier to die. “We can’t waste time on him when others are more likely to survive,” the doctor had said. She’d disagreed and treated the soldier anyway. Now she faced a disciplinary hearing for it.
The rims of her eyes burned. Protocol didn’t matter if she forgot her humanity. James wanted her to apologize. A wise, penitent response. But she was tired of pretending the rules always made sense.
“Ginger! On your way back already?” Beatrice ambled toward her, dressed in full uniform.
“I thought you were still sleeping.” The sight of her friend set her nerves at ease.
“I heard you slip out. I thought I would come and offer moral support.” Beatrice scanned Ginger’s face. “Did you not sleep well?”
“I spent the night regurgitating excuses.”
“You know you did nothing wrong. Who cares if you have to apologize?” Beatrice squeezed her hand.
A few feet away, a sunbird chirped at their approach and darted from pale-purple flowers dotting the brush. Sunlight caught its black feathers and gave them an iridescent shimmer as it took flight. An unexpected lightness filled Ginger as it soared among the sandy hills. “I suppose so.”
“James thinks they won’t take any further disciplinary action against you if you apologize. I overheard him discussing it with the matron last night.”
Oh James. His inability to help himself was both endearing and irritating. “I rather wish he wouldn’t.”
Beatrice smiled. “I think it’s sweet of him to intercede.”
“Yes, but there are enough whispers implying I get away with too much because of his influence. That he’s the only reason I’m at the clearing station.”
Beatrice lifted her skirt as they started the steep descent toward the railroad tracks. “You do have an advantage between your family and your fiancé. No use denying it. And aren’t you here, partially, because of him?”
Beatrice’s frank honesty wasn’t always the easiest to digest, though Ginger appreciated it. She sometimes sensed a hesitation in other nurses to treat her as a peer, despite their equal rank. She’d shared too much about her past with Beatrice to deny the truth, at any rate. And Beatrice still did her the favor of mailing back the unopened letters that arrived each week from the man Ginger’s father had wanted her to marry instead of James.
A screech and hiss announced the first train of the day approaching the casualty clearing station. Ginger and Beatrice darted across the tracks. Safely on the other side, they slowed. The empty train cars crawled past them through billowing smoke, about to stop at the railhead. Acrid cinders burned their nostrils.
At the bottom of the next hill, a few crude huts stood beside an enormous stone well, surrounded by a copse of tall palms. Ginger had never understood how vital these wells were until her work in the desert. A soldier she’d treated in Port Said had told her horror stories of entire regiments going half mad with thirst, digging into the sand in their desperation, only to fall victim to the heat.
Fortunately, the British found working wells all over Belah. Despite the abundance, the army insisted upon heavily chlorinating it, ruining their tea. The huts, with their thatched palm-branch roofs, were crumbling structures of stone and mud.
The army had little use for them and most of them stood empty.
A strange guttural noise came from one stone hut as they neared it. Ginger and Beatrice stopped, exchanging glances.
“Probably a private in his cups,” Beatrice said, her voice dry.
“And if it’s not?”
Beatrice tugged at her arm. “If it’s not, we still need to hurry along.”
Unconvinced, Ginger broke away toward the entrance of the bigger hut, an arch without a door. She stuck her head in, resting one hand on the shoulder strap of her kitbag. Her eyes settled on a man’s booted foot.
“What on earth …?”
The foot shifted, then she heard a moan.
Ginger stepped inside.
“What is it?” Beatrice asked.
Ginger’s eyes adjusted to the dim light in the hut.
The man curled on the ground was breathing raggedly, and blood soaked his shredded shirtfront. The instinct to rush to his side faded when she saw his uniform.