JULY 1862 – MONDAY
Abe shakes me awake. Not that I was really asleep. Just drifting. Letting myself give in to the throbbing from my foot.
“Joe. Joe. C’mon, eat this while it’s hot,” he says.
I struggle onto one elbow, smell what he’s holding out. Fish. On a hunk of bread – the last of our bread. I blink hard, try and shake off the stupor of the long, cold night. Morning. Abe’s made a fire. He must have lit it and caught and cooked this fish while I – drifted. The smell drives even the throbbing out of my mind. I tear into it, gulp down two animal mouthfuls before I think – let alone chew.
Then, swallowing down the third huge bite, I look up guiltily.
“I’ve took more’n my share,” I’m so hungry my hand trembles and half holds back, as I say, “…Sorry, Abe. Take the rest.”
“Nah! I ate mine while you were asleep.”
Ravenously, I finish off and am sucking my oily fingers before I realise – Abe is lying.
“We hafta be movin’ on,” he says. His voice cracks, nervously, as he asks, “How’s ya foot?”
“I reckon it’s getting better. Like ya said – ain’t nuthin’ like a night’s sleep for ailments.”
Abe is not deceived. But, maybe he hopes there’s a grain of truth in there.
“Jus’ too lazy to walk, huh?” I see him brace his shoulders. “I guess we’d better bathe it. Change your bandages.”
The very thought makes me…
“No,” I whimper, before I can stop myself. I flinch away. The movement shifts my foot. “@**@!” I squeal. “@**@!!”
“Sheesh, Joe!” Abe tries to grin. “I reckon you’ve been in the army too long! If’n we had any soap – I’d wash ya mouth out!”
I’m ashamed. Not of the language. Sheesh, no! I’m ashamed of the squealing. Of the tears spilling down my face. Yesterday, I tried so hard not to show Abe how much pain I was in. Now I’ve spoilt it! I could…
Through the throbbing, I cannot help laughing at the thought. I could – kick myself.
“Abe, how far d’ya reckon we’ve covered today?”
“A good few miles,” he lies. He tore up his shirt to re-bandage my foot this morning – but, it’s over a month since either of us had clean linen. So, the fresh bandages were pretty much as grubby as the old ones. Abe’s face looked tight with worry when he unwrapped yesterday’s rags. ‘Course, he tried to hide it.
“Knew you were malingerin’! I’ve had worse wounds ‘n’ that bustin’ pimples shavin’!”
Though the pain made me shake, I did my best to cover it.
“Reckon pimples is the only thing you need to shave, huh?”
He flushed, touched the wispy moustache he has been growing for near on six weeks now. “What’d you know? Seen more bum-fluff on gooseberries than on you!” Abe sounds real gruff. That’s ‘cause he’s worried. He knows I don’t mean nothing.
Abe’s made a crutch. It works better’n me draping an arm round his shoulder, but …
I try, once more, to make him see reason. “If’n you left me somewhere, they’ll find me…”
“I’m slowin’ ya…”
“I told ya – SHUDDUP!”
“They’d treat me alright, I reckon. You could get away. War’ll be over by Christmas, anyhow…”
“SHUDDUP!!! If’n you say another word, Joe – I’ll – I’ll flatten ya!” He raises his fist and scowls hard, trying to look as if he means it. “I ain’t leavin’ ya! I gave my word! We both did! Our WORD! We ain’t splittin’ up! Never! Jus’ – shuddup!”
Relief floods through me. I am trying to do the right thing – but, I don’t want to! We’ve stuck together since I managed to toddle fast enough to keep up.
A long beat. We should move. Can I? I’m not sure. It must show. That’s why Abe’s letting this ‘rest’ go on and on.
“We’re on the edge o’ farmland here,” Abe tells me.
“I reckon …” he kicks at the ground, “…I reckon we’re gonna need a horse if’n we’re gonna get you… If’n we’re gonna get us both home. I reckon…”
“That’s stealin’, Abe…” I interrupt.
“T’ain’t! It’s res-kwish-nin’! T’ain’t stealin’ to take stuff from the en’my in time o’ war! It’s our duty…to do anythin’ we can to get back to our unit…” He tails off, our eyes meet. Silence. Even before I tore my foot, we were not heading back to our unit. Not really.
“They hangs ya for horse-stealin’…” I say.
“Only if’n they catch ya!” Abe tries to look defiant. He fails – gulps. His face twists in misery as he turns away. I reckon we both know he will not dare steal a horse.
In a much quieter voice, Abe says, “I reckon I’ll go see if’n I can res-kwish-in some’n to eat, anyhow. Try an’ stay outta sight, Joe.”
“C’mon Joe,” calls Ma, “…Mornin’. I’ve got pancakes on the stove.” She twitches back the sheet. “C’mon son. On your feet.” She is holding a broom. She is – prodding me with it. She wears the pretty blue dress from years back. The one she wore that Christmas when… The sun is behind her, shining through her hair, making the light brown gleam gold in places. She looks young again. Like when Abe and I were kids. Before…
Prod. Prod. Throb. Throb. “C’mon, son…C’mon…”
“DON’T!!” It is Abe’s voice. He sounds choked. “Don’t touch him! Leave him!”
“C’mon, son! On your feet!” Not Ma at all. A stranger’s voice – Irish brogue. I blink through the drifting. The afternoon sun shining through the leaves makes the scene waver and shift…
The man speaking has Abe, tearstains on his dirty face, firmly by one shoulder. Beside him, a second fella is levelling a rifle at me. “On your feet!” Stern, but not unkind. I gulp, try and sit up. My head swims.
“LEAVE him!” Abe struggles in the Irish fella’s grip. “I’m sorry, Joe…”
A third man…no, a boy… Well, I guess maybe not far off my age, bends over, blocks out the sharp shafts of light.
“Pa, Mister Heyes…I reckon this one’s hurt.” The youth pats my coat. “Don’t think he’s got a gun neither. Nothin’.”
“Check his boots, Nate! That’s where you keep your secret blade!”
“An’ – an’ his sleeve! Check that! Derringers!” These voices are much younger. Excited.
“Hannibal! Jed!” The dark haired man with the rifle lowers his weapon. “Which part of – ‘Stay home and don’t follow us’ – did you two not understand, huh?” He moves toward me. I flinch away – my eyes riveted to barrel of his gun. He scans my face, looks at the dirty cloth wrapped around my foot. His own face softens. The brown eyes meet mine. “Don’t worry, son. We’re not planning to hurt you. Nate, take this.” He hands the rifle to the blond haired youngster. “…Put your arms round my neck…let’s get you back to the house…”
“Could I…could I do that for ya, ma-am? I could do that sittin’ down…”
Mrs. Heyes looks over. She was real scared when we got brung in. Kind though. Kind eyes. Gentle hands. I reckon she’s near her time. She soaked my foot in a bowl with camomile floating in the warm water. They’ve herbs in pots on the porch. When she was gathering the camomile, I blurted.
“Ma has herb pots! Herbs on one side, flowers on…”
“Shuddup!” hissed Abe.
Mrs. Heyes gave me a smile though. Still wary. But, I reckon, it made her less frightened. Don’t quite see why – but it did.
There was something else in the water too. Bark, maybe? Taking off the bandages and putting my foot in the bowl hurt real bad. But, I think it helped. Softened down the throb. And, seeing it now, covered with snowy white linen rather than filthy, I guess that makes me feel better too.
Mrs. Heyes looks back down at the vegetables she is preparing. “Er…”
“No,” snaps her husband. I jump. Flinch as my leg moves. He meets my eyes. Maybe I look near as scared as she was at first. His face softens. “We’re not going to hand either of you a knife, son. Not even to slice beans …”
“I wasn’t thinkin’ that!” I protest. “I wasn’t thinkin’ nuthin’ like that!”
I reckon Heyes believes me. “Nevertheless,” he says, kindly enough.
“We ain’t co-op’ratin’ an’ – an’ helpin’ no more, anyhow!” blurts Abe.
“Abe…” I protest, under my breath. I don’t quite see why Abe keeps acting so… Well, I do. It is ‘cause he is mad with himself for getting caught. And, even madder with himself for crying when they caught him.
He raises his voice. “Damn dirty free-staters … thinkin’ they can damn well push us…” Something in Heyes’ expression makes him tail off.
“You said ‘Damn’! Damn’s a nordy word! Sam’ul’s not ‘llowed say ‘Damn’!” young Samuel, who is bright as a button and has chattered away to us both (whenever Hannibal shuts up), informs Abe and the rest of the room. “He said ‘Damn’!” he repeats, with relish.
Abe tries to keep up a defiant stare at Heyes. Abe’s eyes drop. He wriggles uncomfortably. I feel much better when he looks over, sheepishly, at Mrs. Heyes and says, “I’m sorry, ma-am. Guess I’ve picked up bad habits. I don’t want ya to think we weren’t brought up no better. Our Ma…” He stops, gulps. His eyes go back to the well-swept floorboards. He blinks hard. I reckon he is thinking the same as me. This place is a bit like… like home.
“How old are you, son?” asks Heyes. His voice is gentle.
“Twenny-one!” lies Abe. He tries once more to stare at the man. “…An’…An’ I AIN’T your, son!”
“Uh huh?” An eyebrow lifts, “How old, really?”
“Nineteen!” He wriggles under the gaze. “Near ‘nuff nineteen…Nineteen next year!”
I reckon Heyes still don’t believe him – though it’s true. It might be ‘cause we’re both dressed in stuff Heyes has lent us. It’s too big – so we look smaller than we really are. Our stuff – which, frankly, stank – is soaking in a huge copper of hot water and lye soap. Abe tried to argue, then realised that arguing against being clean, dry and warm was kind of – stupid. He did say we didn’t have to wash – but, Heyes just said that was up to us. He said he’d smelt worse things – though mostly they came out of the back end of animals. Abe shut up then and took the soap and towel he’d been offered over to the pump. When Heyes told us to pluck the chickens Abe had killed, so his wife could cook them, Abe opened his mouth to argue again. Young Hannibal shut him up that time. He said he presumed we stole them…
“Res-kwish-nin’d’!” blurted Abe.
…to eat them. So – unless we had a taste for feathers – why was Abe getting proddy about plucking them?
“Have you…” It is young Jed Curry asking, “…have you been in lotsa battles?”
“Hundreds!” Abe says. Blue eyes widen, impressed.
“Pfffttt!” dismisses Hannibal. “There haven’t BEEN hundreds o’ battles!”
“How’d you know? You don’t know nuthin’!” challenges Abe.
“Battles are reported in the newspaper.”
Abe blinks a little at this confident answer. “Newspapers are full o’ lies. Lies from folk back East. They don’t know nuthin’ neither!” he says.
Hannibal purses his lips. “You can’t believe everything you read in the press, that’s for sure!” I see his Pa smile at this. “…Still! There haven’t been HUNDREDS o’ battles. Not even ONE hundred. An’ – an’ you can only march around thirty miles a day with a pack – so even if’n there HAD been a hundred battles, YOU couldn’t have been in all of ‘em!”
“Want some advice?” Nate Curry is smiling over. Either he or Heyes still keeps the rifle close.
“No!” dismisses Abe. Then, “…What?”
“Don’t waste your breath arguin’. Even when you win – you end up too plumb tuckered out to enjoy it!”
Abe scowls for a second. Then, a reluctant grin, as he glances from Nate back to the dark haired youngster now looking real smug.
“Maybe a few of these battles mighta been what you’d call – skirmishes,” he admits. “An’ – when I say hundred – we.e.ell – I wuz kinda distracted by the flyin’ bullets an’ roarin’ cannon! I mighta lost count!”
Hannibal grins back. I don’t. I don’t want to think about…
I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, I see Heyes watching me.
The door opens. It is the Irish fella – Curry. Abe looks past him. His face falls. “Ain’t ya brung the Doc? You said you’d…”
Curry speaks to Heyes, not Abe. “Doc Wallace was called over to help at the Fort yesterday,” He looks over at us, “…They’d Reb prisoners brought in.” A beat. “Mrs. Wallace is pretty sure he’ll be back in the mornin’. She’ll send him right over.”
It is real stupid, but I feel relief wave over me. I ought to want the Doctor here – now. I don’t. The Doctor will touch…
Curry and Heyes both look over at me. Well,” says Heyes, “…I guess the best thing is to get a hot meal inside you and see if we can make you comfortable enough to sleep, huh? See the Doctor in the morning.”
“He’s gonna sleep in my bed, Mister Curry,” announces Hannibal. “I’m…” a small chest swells out, importantly, “…I’m gonna sleep in the barn! To make room.”
“Papa…Pa…” young Samuel is tugging his Pa’s sleeve, “…Can I…?”
“No,” says Heyes, firmly.
“Pa…” Jed Curry gives a winning smile at HIS Pa, “…can I sleep in the barn with Han?”
Before Curry can answer, Hannibal chips in, “It’d be SAFER with two of us out in the barn. In case any more Rebs turn up. Jed can be – back-up!”
“Nate’s stayin’ as back-up,” says Curry. “We’re goin’ home…”
“I can be back-up back-up,” pleads young Jed.
Curry and Heyes exchange a mute conversation. A tiny nod from Heyes.
“Try an’ stop Hannibal yakkin’ sometime before midnight,” Curry gives permission. “…Sure an’ the cows’ll be wanting their sleep even if you two don’t’.”
“…I’m a real good shot,” Abe boasts through a mouthful of pie. I reckon, though Mrs. Heyes gave us bread and cheese and cookies to ‘keep us going’, we both fell on the chicken like starving dogs. I can see Abe feels a lot better now. So do I. The pain throbs away but, I reckon a hot meal inside me has helped. “Back home…” Abe grins at young Samuel whose sparkling eyes are peering, fascinated, over his mug, “…they call me ‘One-shot’ Oakes!”
“No! No!” Samuel wipes the milk off his lip and shakes a silky blond fringe. “It’s one-shot HEYES. Tha’s whad dey usder call Papa! ‘Tis!”
“I reckon it’s not unique to me, Samuel,” smiles Heyes. “There’s a few ‘one-shots’ around.”
“The rabbits back home…” says Abe, “…they don’t even bother runnin’, huh, Joe? They see it’s me – an’ give up! Sometimes we hasta make two wagon journeys just to fetch back all I can shoot in a mornin’, huh?”
“Then – he wakes up,” I josh, feebly. Abe is not really lying. Just tall tales.
“Jed’s a real fine shot,” says Hannibal. Jed flushes pink with pleasure. “Pa says he’s got a good eye!”
“The thing to do…” chimes in Jed, “…is to ‘tic’pate. You hasta put yourself…”
“You have to THINK like a rabbit…” interrupts Hannibal.
“Or…or an squirwl,” nods Samuel earnestly. He has clearly heard this before.
“You have to get inside their head…” Hannibal again, narrowing his eyes and darting them from side to side.
“Or an – an duck…”
“You hasta think… where am I gonna run…?” explains Jed, quickly, before Hannibal can carry on.
“Or –or – or – an wabbit…” Samuel is searching for another possible animal.
“Then you takes a fix where you think it’s gonna run…”
“Jed! Jed! JED!” Samuel is bouncing in his seat.
“Could be an – an GEEZE!”
“…THEN, you’d take a fix where you think its gonna FLY…” corrects Abe. He smiles at Samuel, who grins back happily.
“Then you wait…” persists Jed. “Like a …like a…”
“Like a wily ol’ cat…waitin’ at a mouse hole!” suggests Abe. “…Real quiet, real still…”
“Uh huh,” Jed nods, pleased. “One time, there was this squirrel…”
His brother and Hannibal chorus together, “…Coming down the trunk…I took me a fix on the branch…”
Jed grins, sheepishly.
“Last time Abe an’ me went huntin’ back home…” I begin. “…Back home…” I try again. My lip wobbles. I shut up, stare hard at the table. Sheesh! What I am I, a baby? I shoot an apologetic look at Abe, as Heyes passes me a handkerchief.
I feel a little hand slip into mine. David, who is as placid as his brothers are lively, gives my fingers a comforting – if sticky – squeeze. Even that hurts my foot – but, looking at the solemn dark eyes blinking up, I reckon it’s worth it.
“You look a bit like our sister Ellie’s boy,” I tell him. Proudly, before I realise how plain sappy it sounds, I add, “…I’m an uncle…”
Mrs. Heyes gives me another smile, as she refills my mug. Is that where you were headed? Home?”
Abe and I exchange a glance. For a moment I reckon he is going to tell some lie – though even to ourselves we have not quite admitted it IS a lie – about finding our unit. Then, he just nods. “…Joe’s got hurt y’see…” That is half true.
“…You broke away from the prisoners getting sent to the Fort, then North? Is that it?” asks Heyes.
“Yeah!” Abe is scowling again. “…We ain’t deserters! We ain’t! Could see ya thinkin’ it. But it AIN’T true. Only yella bellies from up North desert! Ev’ryone knows…”
I catch his eye and he shuts up. We both know – though, again, we have not quite admitted it – that if, technically, we ARE escaping prisoners rather than deserters – it is pretty much down to bad timing.
“Uh huh?” says Heyes.
“You ain’t gonna let us go home – are ya?” Abe sounds gruff, to cover how hard he is hoping Heyes might change his mind.
“Nope. I already told you – I’ll be taking you into the Fort, handing you over.”
A beat. I want to go home. More than anything in the whole wide world, I want…
Heyes is looking at me. “It might not be right away,” he says. “We’ll see what the Doctor has to say about moving Joe. Hannibal might have to talk the ears off the cows for a couple of nights, huh?”
“You ain’t takin’ me in without him! You ain’t gonna split us up! You AIN’T! I won’t let ya!” blurts Abe.
He won’t will he? No! He can’t…
Heyes throws Abe a warm look. “Don’t worry. It’s pretty clear I can trust you not to run off while your brother can’t join you, huh?”
I realise I am squeezing David’s hand a bit too hard and let go. I try and give him a smile. “Sorry,” I mumble.
“S’orright,” he says.
“Alex,” says Mrs. Heyes, in an undertone, “…they’re so young. Don’t you think…?”
“No!” he says, firmly. “No. I don’t think. The wartime rights and wrongs aside – I don’t think these two would be safe trying to make their way hundreds of miles South, past combatants on both sides, when they can’t even raid my chicken house without getting caught…”
Abe scowls hard at this. Heyes looks at him for a moment, then, over at me.
“I DO think…” goes on Heyes, “…however grim it is in prison camp, they’ll be fed and no one will shoot at them. At least, son…” Abe hunches his shoulder away. “…At least, you WILL definitely get home, once the war’s over.” A beat. “Maybe before,” he says. “…Prisoners get exchanged. ** You could be lucky – be home sooner.”
Home. I gulp.
“The war’s gonna be all over by Christmas, anyhow,” I say. A beat. “Ain’t it?” Nothing. “We’ll be back with Ma by Christmas, huh?” My voice sounds – pathetic. I look over at Heyes. Why I am asking him – I don’t know… “Won’t we, sir?” The ‘sir’ slipped out before I could stop it. I flash yet another apology at Abe.
“I heard folk sayin’ THAT last year,” says Nate Curry. Not nasty, just – matter of fact.
“Maybe,” says Heyes. He is trying to be nice. “Maybe. Let’s all hope so, huh?”
Only – maybe. My hands clench. The movement hurts my foot. The throbbing goes ‘home’, ‘home’, ‘home’, in my head.
“You miss your mother a lot, huh?” Hannibal asks this very quietly. His eyes stay firmly on his dish, as he pushes the last mouthful of pie round and round.
“Uh huh,” I say, ignoring Abe’s ‘shuddup’ scowl. “…Ma didn’t want us to join…”
“Shuddup,” hisses Abe.
I don’t. I carry on. “We run off. Ma’ll be frettin’ real bad. She’ll be…”
“Shuddup! Shuddup! SHUDDUP!!!” Abe is not mad at me. Not really. He is mad at himself. He said we should join. Because, the war was gonna be all over by Christmas. That was last Christmas. And, we’d miss the chance to fight…Fight for our…To prove ourselves…My mind drifts.
No. I don’t want to think about that. I struggle back to the present.
Abe mumbles, “Sorry, ma-am,” to Mrs. Heyes, for raising his voice. A silence.
“You could write to your mother. Tell her you’re both out of danger,” suggests Heyes.
“Pfftt!” dismisses Abe, rudely. Flushing, he goes on, “…I know you’re from back East so you don’t know nuthin’, but – ain’t ya noticed there’s a war on!”
“Mail takes a while and might have to be checked,” says Heyes, evenly, “…But, the last I heard, it hadn’t ground to a complete halt. I’m pretty sure I could get a letter to your mother.”
Abe shrugs. I watch him slowly go redder and redder. Of course, I know why. He will be mad if I say. But…
I think about sending Ma a letter. I want to. I want to real bad.
My own face scarlet, I blurt. “We don’t write too good.”
Hannibal’s jaw nearly hits the table, but I reckon, somehow, Heyes had already guessed.
Not a problem,” he says. “…Just tell me what you want to say.”
The letter looks pretty short. It says we are together and safe. We hope Ma is well. We are fine – ‘cept I have bust my foot, but Ma is not to worry, it is nothing. We hope to be home soon. We are …Abe flushes, he whispers to Heyes … we are sorry we ran off the way we did. Deeper blush, his voice drops even further … we miss her. Love to Ellie and young Abel…
“Ah,” smiles Heyes, “…Abel! And, here’s me thinking you were named for Mister Lincoln!” His eyes dance, as he looks up. “…Only teasing, son. No offence.” He props the letter on the shelf. “We’ll leave it open, huh? Then, when the Doctor tell us how long it’ll take for Joe to get well – we can add it in. Put her mind at rest.”
“Bang!” exclaims Samuel, who’s brought out a couple of toy soldiers. “Bang…he’s dead! Jed! Jed! Goddim!”
Jed, good-humouredly, makes a gurgling sound as he tips over the wooden man.
I cannot help it – I flinch. Throb, throb, throb. Bang! You’re dead.
Nate, old enough to know he should not ask, but not quite old enough to resist, turns to Abe. “These battles you lost count of …”
Abe gives a little grin, acknowledging a hit.
“Sure! Hundreds!” Abe’s tone makes it clear he is back on tall tales. “…Told ya they called me one-shot! Well – we’d heard a troop train was a comin’ in … I found me a hide …an’ waited, an’ waited…like a…”
“Like a wily old cat…” supplies Jed.
“Uh huh! An’ I levelled my rifle, an’ I took me a fix on the points… an’…” Abe milks it, “…I waited…”
“Lika cad!” Samuel nods.
“An…with one bullet…”
“Uh huh. I sent the whole train inter the ocean! Splash! Splooosh!”
“Where was this?” protests Hannibal.
“On the coast! Where d’ya think?” shoots back Abe. Being warm, dry, fed and safe has made him near like he used to be back…
“Your brother sure can talk, huh?” says Ma. I can almost hear her. I CAN hear her. I try and look round, but… throb, throb, throb… “Home for Christmas…That’ll be real fine, Joe…Joe…Joe…”
“Joe. Joe. Joe. Are you with us?” I blink at Hannibal. No. No I’m not. I struggle back. “What about you…? Did you kill hundreds?”
What? Part of me realises Hannibal is giving me a chance to tell a tall tale, like Abe. Part of me…
“One,” I say. “One…” I am not looking at any of them. I am looking at him…Staring at him, wide-eyed.
I hear Abe. He sounds stunned. “When? Ya never said nuthin’!”
Of course I never said nothing! I don’t want to remember! I don’t want…
Everyone else is real quiet.
“The last time. Y’know. He…”
“…Please…please…it hurts…please…Please finish me… ” Squealing. Writhing in the mud. It takes me two tugs to get my bayonet back. Blood. “…It hurts…Don’t leave me… Please…” They are supposed to die clean. Not…
“The time it never stopped rainin’ once. He…”
“…Help me… Mary!… MARY!! …Please, no…Don’t leave…Finish me…” I try to obey. I wouldn’t leave an injured dog like that! I try…Move the blade to his throat…Push…I can’t, can’t…”PLEASE!”… I close my eyes…Push in the blade hard as I can…I freeze…What will I see when I look?…I won’t look…It never happened…Let me go home…
“Not hundreds. One.” Something wet runs over my face, drops from chin onto my shaking hands. Not rain. Not this time. “Just one.”
Then, Heyes’ voice, fatherly. Not that I’d know. Pa was never real…
“Let’s get you upstairs, son. See if you can get some sleep, huh?”
Even before the Doc arrived, I reckon I knew it was bad. Worse, I mean. It’s getting harder and harder to get any sense out of Joe. He’s real hot. When I bathe his face, sometimes he calls me ‘Ma’…
It’s not just the stuff he’s saying, though. It’s the smell.
Heyes and the Doc are huddled together. Whispering. I sit by Joe. Try and calm him. Being – being touched hurt him real bad. I reckon though – I reckon even though this Doc Wallace is on THEIR side, helping out at the Fort and all – I reckon he was gentle as he could be. Heyes too. Heyes will let Joe stay until he’s well and…
Me too. He’s going to let me stay with Joe. He promised. He’s got to!
I know he’s from back East… Sheesh! He’s from Massachusetts! They’re ALL godless ab’lishnist liars up there…Everyone knows! No better’n thieves who want to stop us…er… safeguarding our global eeck nomic …er … ‘cause we’ve a natural right and duty to maintain slavery out of …er …kind guarding-ship…**
I’ve forgotten the rest. I don’t really care right now. I don’t care where Heyes is from. I don’t care what he thinks about the war or the union or – or nothing. I don’t care that he talks all fancy, as if he got a plum stuck in his mouth and swallowed a dictionary. I see Joe, tucked up clean and fed and warm in his son’s bed. I see Heyes’ eyes, dark with concern. I trust him. It’ll be fine. We’re safe now. And, even if we’re not going home straight away, we’ll both be home soon enough. I believe him. He said we’d definitely get home. He said – definitely. Once the war’s over, if not before. Definitely. He said.
Heyes walks over to the window, calls to Hannibal who is doing chores with Jed. They are trying to be quiet – on account of Joe. Every so often the voices and laughter will get high and shrill, then – shushing. The shushing is louder than the noise! I don’t reckon cheerful noise out in the yard does Joe much harm anyhow. I reckon – somehow – he thinks it’s me and him out there. When we were kids.
“Hannibal, come up here, please,” calls Heyes. Boots thumping on the stairs – then – boots remembering, exaggerated slow stepping.
Heyes moves out onto the landing, speaks low. I strain to hear.
“Hannibal, I want you and Jed to go over to the Curry place. Ask Mr. Curry to come right over. Soon as he can. If Mrs. Curry can come too – I’d be real grateful. Understand?”
“Uh huh.” Cheerful voice.
“And Hannibal – take Samuel and David with you…”
“Awww, Pa! Naow! Why???”
“You’re all to stay at the Curry place until I come fetch you…understand?”
“Because I say so! Don’t argue, Hannibal. I need you to do as you’re told. Look after your brothers. And …while you’re at the Curry place – you’re all to mind Beth. Understand?”
“Why??!! Beth’s not near as smart as…”
“You’re to tell Mrs. Curry – I’ve told you to mind Beth. AND – I’ll be checking you passed that on. Clear?” A beat. “Clear?”
“Yes… Yes, sir.”
“Good boy. Be as quick as you can. Ask Louisa if she could come up here. Thanks, Hannibal.”
Boots going down. A moment. Female footsteps. The voices are too low for me to catch.
Heyes and his wife come in.
“Abe,” says Heyes. My heart sinks. He sounds so kind – it frightens me. “…Doctor Wallace and I would like a word outside. Louisa will sit with Joe for a minute. Alright?”
I try to gulp down the lump that has suddenly risen in my throat. I fail.
“…Drink this, son.”
I cannot stop my hand shaking. The glass rattles against my teeth. The whiskey burns as it goes down.
“…It’s the only way.” Doctor Wallace has his hand on my shoulder as he talks. “… Even if I’d got here yesterday – it’d probably have been the same.”
I take another fiery gulp. I reckon … I reckon I guessed. I’ve smelt that smell on the field, after… I reckon I was just trying not to know.
“You see folk with wooden legs getting around just fine…” Heyes is squatting before me, trying to look into my eyes. “…He’ll be able to walk…ride…work… He’ll be alive! That’s the main thing, huh?”
I grip the arms of the chair hard. I can’t bear to think of … But…but…I guess Heyes has a point. There was a fella back home that’d lost a leg. He did fine. Held down a job. Had a wife, children… He got along just fine…
I think of the – the cutting. The saw… I shut my eyes. Squeeze them tight until red spots dance inside my lids. No. No! But…Joe’ll be alive. This time next year – he’ll be walking again – we’ll both be home – the war’ll be over. Definite. Certain sure.
“…I’ve asked Curry to come over,” Heyes’ voice again. I feel a firm grip on my hand. “…because, I don’t think it’s the right thing for you to help hold him. I’m not saying you couldn’t…Just, it might be easier for a stranger, huh?”
Another gulp at my drink. “He’ll be alright? Huh, Doc? He’ll… he’ll…?”
Mrs. Heyes sits with me. I am doing my level best to look – what? Grown up, I guess.
Screaming. Cutting through me like a …
No. No it ain’t. It ain’t cutting ME anything like a knife.
Again. Thin – high-pitched. Like a hog being slaughtered. ‘Cept – ‘cept that’s quicker.
I give up trying to look grown up. I hunker down, arms wrapped tight round my head. Press them, hard as I can, against my ears.
Jed and I follow my father back to the house. Abe hasn’t moved. Still staring at the wall. Nate is watching him. Not that anyone really thinks Abe is going to run away.
“Abe,” my father says, “…Reverend Thomas is here. We’re about to start.” A beat. Very gently, Father adds, “I think you should come, son.” Nothing. After half a minute, Father goes back out. Back to the grave he and Mister Curry dug yesterday.
Jed takes a deep breath and walks over to Abe.
“You oughta go,” he says, firmly. “You oughta go see your brother buried. You oughta pay respect. You oughta go and SAY some’n…”
“What? Say – what?” Abe’s face is all twisted as he turns to Jed. He looks real mean…No. No. Mean isn’t quite the right word.
Jed opens his mouth, shuts it again. He looks at me, all – hopeful. I try and think what Abe ought to say at the graveside. It is hard to think of – of anything.
Jed’s bottom lip sticks out, stubbornly. “You oughta go!” A thought strikes him. “Your Ma, SHE’D want you to be there…”
I pull Jed back, because as Abe darts out of his seat, for a moment I think he’s going to get hit. Abe looks so – so mad. Abe isn’t going for Jed though. He grabs the letter off the shelf, tears it up. Keeps on ripping and ripping until tiny, tiny pieces fall round his feet.
“We could write another letter…” My voice sounds too loud, somehow, in the quiet kitchen. “Write how Joe was thinking about his mother at the end… We could say how sorry we all are… We could say how you’re safe and will be home when the war’s over…”
“Liar! LIAR!” Abe does not look round. He is shaking all over. “LIAR!!!”
I feel Jed stiffen beside me. “Han ISN’T a liar…”
“He IS. He’s a damn dirty liar – just like his damn Pa!”
“Don’t you say stuff ‘bout…”
Before I can finish, Abe is blurting out, “This damn War’ll jus’ go on an’ on…An’ I can’t even remember why I made us… It was MY fault! An’ even when it’s over – I ain’t goin’ home! I can’t! Not without Joe! I CAN’T. Ain’t no point. An’ – an’ Joe weren’t thinkin’ ‘bout Ma at the end – or me – or nuthin’. He were jus’ hollerin’ like a stuck pig, as that damn Yankee Doc an’ your Pa killed him! He weren’t thinkin’ nuthin’…” He looks so – so angry as his eyes meet mine. “…Your Pa …an’ all of you …it was ALL lies…”
I should feel mad – him talking about my father that way. I don’t. I can’t. You see, Abe is still shaking. And – and now he’s blubbing. I haven’t blubbed like that for years.
Jed and I are watching the wagon set off for the Fort. Mr. Curry is driving. My father is in the back with Abe. Abe is not crying any more. He has gone back to refusing to say anything. Hunkered up in a corner, arms hugging his knees, head down. He wouldn’t say good-bye. He won’t even look at my father.
Jed kicks at the ground. His forehead puckers. He is trying to find the right words to ask…
“Nothin’,” he gives up.
I am real glad Jed cannot think of the question. Because, whatever it was, I am pretty sure there isn’t an answer.
** Prisoner exchange was a possibility before September 1862. So, Alex may be wrong / over-optimistic, but – he is not out and out lying.
** At some point Abe seems to have heard a reading of a famous 1860 Thanksgiving sermon given by Benjamin M. Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans. He argued that white Southerners had a right and duty to maintain slavery out of economic and social self-preservation, in order to act as “guardians” to the “affectionate and loyal” but “helpless” blacks, to safeguard global economic interests, and to defend religion against “atheistic” abolitionism. His sermon was widely distributed.