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The Reach

 

The Reach

 

By Paul Hennrich

Copyright 2017 Paul Hennrich

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Thank you for downloading this book. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

This book available in print at most online retailers.

 

Table of contents

 

BOOK ONE ─ Between the Wars

BOOKTWO ─ The War

BOOK THREE ─ The Last War

BOOK FOUR ─ The Peace

 

Other titles by Paul Hennrich

 

Kent Baker Mystery / Suspense series:

 

Definitions

Scavengers

Entertainment

Coming soon:

Kinfolk

 

The Reach

The legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace.

~William Tecumseh Sherman

I came to the place of my birth, and cried,

“The friends of my youth, where are they?”

And echo answered, “Where are they?”

~old Arab saying

 

 

 

 

BOOK ONE

 

Between the Wars

 

The Journal of Tom Wills

June, 1853

 

Women are a lot like fish, Jesse was saying.

I remember his words clearly. We were sitting on the riverbank by Murphy’s Branch. It was one of those summer days that was the type you want to remember. The sun was out, the clouds were floating, it wasn’t hot. Bugs were humming and chirping, letting you know it was nice by them too. I can’t say I remember them for sure, the bugs, but I know they were there. They had to of been. The birds too.

What Jesse was saying wasn’t exactly that women were like fish. No, what he was saying was that women took men like fish bit a hook.

He was sitting on a finger of bank, farther out in the water than Moses and me. The sun was dabbing the water between the shadows of the tree limbs. The sticks we had tied to our lines for floats were in spots of sun. You always fished in the sun spots.

“Girls,” Jess repeated, “are like how a fish bites. The pretty ones are like a catfish when he’s playing around with your worm. Makes your stick circle slow for the longest of time, just playing with you. Kind of snobbish, like she don’t really know if she wants you or not. Just slowly circles, slowly circles and teases you till your mad. Some of the others come at you different, like a carp or a buffalo. Grabs you and just tries to take you away all at once. Like it’s starving to death. See what I mean?”

I didn’t say anything. Being Jesse’s brother and three years younger, and only nine years old, I never questioned him. I listened in awe, as always, and was just glad he had let me come along.

Moses was his age and just a friend and so had a right to skepticism.

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “What girl tried to gulp you up?”

“Didn’t say any did, just said that’s how they would.”

Moses felt he had him on the run. If you had them on the run you didn’t let up.

“And what about the in-between ones,” he went on. “Kind of pretty but backward shy. How do they bite? Do they in-between bite?”

“I guess, yes. Like a bluegill. A nibble, then run like hell. You mean you don’t know what I mean? About girls?”

Jesse, as always, was good. He had turned it around fast. What eleven-year-old would admit he didn’t know about girls? Especially with a nine-year old listening.

“Sure I know,” Moses said quickly, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. “It’s just that it was kind of a igernent way to put it. Why would you compare a girl to a fish biting anyway?”

Jesse smiled, knowing he knew he had put it on Moses.

“Cause I know a lot about both,” he said.

Lately I began noticing it didn’t take much to run our talking to the way of girls. Of course, I knew why. They were of mind and body to want to figure girls out. Since it was them doing the talking I didn’t mind it, even though I didn’t care a hoot about any girl anywhere.

I was allowed along, like I said, and I liked listening. If I had been with someone my age we wouldn’t have even thought about bringing it up.

But Jesse and Moses were talking about it all the time. It was weighing heavy on them. Not enough that they would invite one to go fishing with us, but enough to talk about them when we went.

I knew I shouldn’t say anything but they had started my brain to twisting and so I got stupid and asked.

“Yes, but anyway, what if she was pretty but it was a cold day and something was coming out of her nose? How would she bite then?”

They turned and looked at me like I was a slimy gar they’d just pulled out of the water of Murphy’s branch.

Moses curled his lips when he spoke.

“Oh, now that was really igernent! What pretty girl would let her nose run? Your igernent when you’re little, aren’t you? Isn’t he Jess?”

Jesse really wasn’t embarrassed by me, but he did laugh, and that was enough.

“Igernent he is,” he said.

Being igernent, I turned my head away and looked to my stick, thinking I wanted a bite real bad.

It had been a long time since any of us had one. It was four hours past dawn and the heat was chasing the fish away.

It didn’t matter much though. We were in the talking mood and the stringer had five catfish and two white perch from when it was cool and they were biting. I looked from my stick to the sky that rolled above the trees.

Some crows were making their way past, black, lazy and fat. Above them a white puff of cloud rolled off too high for a ladder to reach. I thought about it and decided it looked like my grandpa’s head, except it’s nose was bigger.

Jesse jiggled his cane pole restlessly, trying to make something happen. The water rolled away from his stick in circles, even though the stick wasn’t round. It was Moses who broke the silence.

“I’m getting kind of hungry anyway. What about you?”

“Thirsty too,” Jesse said. “We may as well go, I guess.”

We rolled our line up around our poles, pulled the last of the worms off and threw them in the water, then stuck our hook into the stick to hold everything tight. Being the oldest and the tallest Jesse was elected without a word to pull the fish rope out of the water and carry it. It was mostly the tallest that elected him as he was only months older than Moses. Being tall meant the tails wouldn’t drag.

We trundled up the bank and through the willows and maples that covered the most of it. The weeds were dried and laid over and the briars stood above them, making it hard for someone my size to drag themselves through. I pulled along silently, however, knowing it wouldn’t do to complain, igernent as I was.

We soon broke out of the woods into a grassy field where the walking became a lot easier. I rushed up to fall in beside the two bigger boys.

The talk about fish biting like women was still bothering Moses it seemed, as he was asking Jesse the question I knew was coming all along.

“What about Sarah? What kind of biter do you suppose she would be?”

Sarah was a girl in town about their age. Her father owned the tavern. I had noticed that up to a year or so ago they never talked about her, or any girl for that matter. So far that summer, though, she was all they ever talked about. I knew one of them liked her as they were of the right age for losing their senses that way, but what I didn’t know was which one. It had been hard to tell by the way they talked. The not knowing made me try to close the gap quickly as soon as I was past tall weeds. It was possible that it could prove the day of reckoning, and a lot of stature would ride on the back of such knowledge when we got back to school.

“Sarah?” Jesse said, squinting his eyes and pursing his lips in thought, holding the rope carrying the fish over his shoulder.

It seemed someone was always asking Jesse a question. It wasn’t just his height that caused it. It was something else. Jesse was a thinker, and usually right, even about things that was mostly made for growed up thinking. He whirled things in his mind like cream in a churn and it always came up butter. That’s a highly respected thing in a boy eleven, especially among other boys eleven. It got so you took for granted he was the one with the answer, so why bother with anyone else?

“Sarah?” he said again, not wanting to rush into anything so important. “I’d say Sarah would bite any dang way Sarah wanted. One day she would tease like a catfish, the next she would gulp like a carp. Sarah would do just whatever Sarah wanted to do.”

The idea of Sarah gulping seemed to take the wind out of Moses. He just looked at the ground with wide eyes, kind of like he’d been gut struck.

“Dang it,” he said softly after a while, “I believe you’re right. She could do what she wanted.”

We walked along in silence a while then Moses started laughing.

“Ha! What kind of bait would you use for Sarah?”

“Bait? Ha, ha! Danged if I know. Maybe a ribbon. Or a new pair of shoes.”

“Or,” Moses said with a guffaw, “a neked man! Sit some neked man on a big hook and see if she’d come to that!”

“Yeah, with his wee-tail a-hanging! Think she’d jump to that, Mose?”

“Ha, ha! Bet so, jump right to that!”

It was such a sight to imagine that we all stopped to bend over and laugh. I could just see some neked man on a hook with his wee-tail hanging as plain as day, and so could they. Walking was out of the question. The conjured picture had to be enjoyed.

It took a bit but eventually we started off, wiping the tears from our eyes. Every once in a while someone would mumble ‘wee-tail’ or ‘hook’ as the vision floated by once more and we’d laugh again.

Before long we came to the rutted dirt lane that led eventually past both our houses. The warm dust floated up as we kicked along through it and eventually settled on our sweaty foreheads. In another day it would be Saturday and we would go through several washtubs of water before it would all come off. Right then, however, the dust was ours for the taking.

A quarter mile down the road Moses’ house came into view. Small, unpainted, with a chimney and a dirt yard picked clean by chickens. A large oak sat right behind it and a short, big-around maple in front. Even from the distance you could see that the front porch sloped downward. It was a small place, but then again there was just Samuel, Moses’ father, Mrs. Hoppe and Moses and it was more than enough room for them. Behind the house a short ways sat a wood shed.

In a field just this side of the house Samuel Hoppe was working his team through the grass, laying it under with a singletree plow. He saw us coming and stopped and smiled and walked the short distance to the road.

Mr. Hoppe was the workingest man I ever knew. I never saw him that he wasn’t putting himself into a sweat. He worked hard day after day sharecropping our ground, fact being that if you farmed anywhere for miles around you were sharecropping my family’s land. On top of that, on weekends, he was our preacher, holding God before us as closely as He could be helt. With any spare time that was left he was helping a neighbor who was behind putting out a crop, or nursing someone who was sick, or just plain checking up on people. In most cases someone else’s needs came ahead of his own, making his plot the last one to be farmed. That day it was middle June, time for planting to be winding up, and he was still plowing the first of his own fields. Most said the running around was just Samuel the preacher doing God’s work. My Mama didn’t disagree with that exactly, she just said she also thought he had a big case of the jitters, whatever that meant.

I had no idea what made him that way, I just know there wasn’t anyone who didn’t like Samuel Hoppe, for being both a good worker and a good man and preacher with a grip on God.

He wasn’t tall, but he was stout, and as he came up to us the stoutness showed through as the sweat pressed his cotton shirt tight against his chest muscles. He wiped his head and light brown hair with a blue handkerchief.

“Boys done well,” he said, pointing to our fish. “Someone’s going to be enjoying some fine fried catfish.”

“You can have them, Reverend,” Jesse said. “We had the most of the last batch.”

“Well now,” Mr. Hoppe said slyly, “do I have to strike a bargain to skin ‘em?”

“Nah. We’ll take them up to our place and Moses can bring them back.”

“Catfish. Um-m-m. Can’t beat this deal at twice the price.”

Moses looked past his father’s shoulder towards the plow and horse.

“Need some help, Pappy?” he asked, knowing he was safe in asking because he knew the answer.

Most children Moses and Jesse’s age worked the fields hard that time of the year. About the only ones who didn’t were Jesse and Moses and both for the same reason. Their father’s wouldn’t allow it. Our father because he thought it wasn’t our place and Reverend Hoppe because he felt Moses shouldn’t.

Mrs. Hoppe would get on to him about it and his answer was always the same.

“A boy’s a boy,” he would always say, “so let him be one while he can. He’ll be grown up soon enough and there’ll be time aplenty to pay dues. God likes the children happy.”

Mrs. Hoppe was worried about the Reverend’s health, being such a worker as he was, and she was right in that Moses’ not helping made it harder on him, but the Reverend would have none of it. He would only smile and hug and tickle her and she would slap at him and let it lie.

And being eleven it didn’t bother Moses not to work, or to ask to help, knowing the answer.

“No, I got her, son,” Samuel Hoppe replied. “It’s a nice day to plow. You boys best get those fish took care of before they dry out.”

We started back up the road, the two older boys high stepping.

“Here, now, you two wait up on young Tom,” he chided. “Someday he’ll be as big as you and might leave you behind.”

I smiled back at him. It was nice to be given the chance to grow up as big as big boys, though I knew my chance of catching Jesse was slim. Still, for an adult to say it was good just the same. He winked at me then turned to work his way back to the plow.

Just past the Hoppe’s house the road took an upward tilt. The ground began rolling, which in that part of southern Illinois meant you were mounting a hill. I learned later in Virginia what a hill really was but at that time the definition in my home country was a bigger than average roll in the ground. So it was a hill we were climbing.

At the top of that grade, maybe three quarters of a mile from the Hoppe house, was my and Jesse’s home. It started coming into view beyond the trees about the time Moses’ home started disappearing into them. Even from the distance you could see it was a considerably bigger place, two stories tall and made of brick, the only brick home for miles around. Father would have it no other way. His had to own the grandest house and with no chickens in the front yard.

The only thing allowed in our front yard was a tree lined road that circled before a large white front porch, freshly painted every two years. Once I had seen a picture drawing of a southern plantation in a book in Father’s library. I had looked on the sly because he didn’t like us boys rummaging there. Our house looked kind of like this big house in the drawing, which was someplace in Louisiana. I have no doubt Father planned it that way.

Our house was on the direct top of the hill and from the front porch you see all the surrounding farmland that we owned. Father had that planned that way too.

As we closed in the trees brushed up against the road on our left, tall oaks and shagbark hickories with a few scrubby dogwoods and sassafras. They grew thick because no livestock was grazed there and they had free rein. The woods there was also deep but did not extend to the front of the house, where they weren’t allowed because of Father’s needing a view.

From behind one of the hickories, just outside the road, a voice came clear and without warning. It didn’t surprise us as we were expecting it.

“Where you goin’ with them fish?”

It was Grandpa and he stepped out with a grin on his face. He had gotten up on us again, even though we knew he would.

Grandpa was always proud of getting up on people. That was because he had once been an Indian fighter, forty-some years before. He liked to prove he still had it in him to be one and we liked him to prove it because there wasn’t much more for boys to be prouder of than a Grandpa who had been an Indian fighter.

In his hands he held what he always held when he got up on us, a Kentucky long rifle that we stood in awe of as much as of Grandpa. A gun we ached to touch but that Mama would not allow us to get near. She had nothing against that gun in particular, she wouldn’t let us touch any.

Grandpa was tall, a little scrunched because of his age but tall just the same. There were those who said he was where Jesse got his height from. It surely wasn’t Father or Mama. You could see a likeness in their faces too, both long and pleasant, and in their straight hair combed straight back, though Grandpa’s was white instead of brown like Jesse’s. Other ways Jess was like Grandpa too. It wouldn’t be long before I found he had some of his courage.

Grandpa shifted the rifle so it was cradled across his arms then nodded towards the catch dangling behind Jesse’s back.

“I suppose you’ll want help cleanin’ those fish,” he said.

We did and he knew we did, which was why we told Reverend Hoppe we were taking them to our house. It was like a game to us, though I don’t know that Grandpa knew it. The game being that every time we came home from fishing he would sneak up on us and volunteer to clean our fish.

Then again, I’m pretty sure he knew it.

“You can sure help us if you want to, Grandpa,” I said as innocently as I could.

He took two long strides in his leather, frontiersman britches and was up beside us.

“Might as well,” he said. “I’ve wandered these woods about as much as I’ve a mind to today.”

Grandpa spent about all his time wandering the hills and woods. He knew where every ginseng bush was and where the next batch of eating mushrooms was about to come up. He knew when and what fish were about to bite and where to get them and never failed to tell us, and always kept the house in turkeys and venison. It was the Indian fighter in him, I guess, and he was contented with doing it.

Thing was, there hadn’t been much for him to do with the business end of our land since my father had taken over the reins of it years before. Jesse and I had never known him as a working man, only as our Grandpa the Indian fighter, who always stayed in his frontiersman ways.

The land, of course, was really his, gathered up and given to him by his father a long while back. His father had been one of the first settlers in the area. It took in a lot of acres and was one of the biggest properties in our part of the state.

Grandpa got the land after his father died and right after that my Father had come and married his daughter and took to running things. And, I gather, Grandpa just let him. And Mama. Mama, I guess, because she was a woman. Grandpa, I always guessed, because of the call of his long rifle.

People talked about Grandpa and his Indian fighting days and his wanderings. He was sort of a legend in our area. Some other people who would have tried the same thing might have been considered a brick short a full load, but not Grandpa. Maybe it was the way he carried himself, sort of tall and limber and proud. I don’t know. Maybe it was because he was the one who really owned all the land in the first place, land-owning being big in a place where most folks was small time. Money always made you a little less crazy.

Most people, I had a feeling from my watching and listening to them on the sly, thought it more likely my father was a little touched, instead of Grandpa. Some of them, I gathered, didn’t like the airs he put on when he strutted around in his fancy clothes, or the way he talked like he knew everything and everybody.

As it was Grandpa did little talking, except when he had something he thought important enough to say. He hardly ever mentioned his fighting days, though everybody knew about them. At least he had never said much to Jesse and me and we were dying to know about them.

It did seem he was talking to us about it a little more as we got older, but never enough to satisfy us. We figured Momma was protecting us from his violent past like she protected us from his gun and all else. Jesse said it was also because Grandpa was a great man and great men never talked about their battles. George Washington, we figured, never mentioned his. It was them that wrote about him that did all the talking.

But no matter why, Grandpa got away with his leather clothes and stalking in the woods and wasn’t considered addled. Sometimes I think I always try to figure too much of the why about things. Maybe the truth of it was he was the original man it all belonged to and that was all that mattered to most folks.

Just below our house a couple of hundred feet, a spring flowed down the hill out of some stubby rocks. It was our fish cleaning place and we all headed there through the grass, the grasshoppers chirping and jumping and making it a living thing.

When we got to the spring Grandpa reached into the sheath at his side and pulled the long bladed knife with the deer antler handle.

We held that knife in as much awe as the long rifle. It just had to of raised some scalps.

He leaned his rifle, which was almost as tall as him, against a nearby willow.

“Here,” he said, “give me one of them whiskered fish. If we don’t get around to those boney perch, won’t be no great loss.”

We followed the knife with wide eyes as he held the first catfish against a small log we had placed by the spring just for skinning and sliced off his head as clean as a whistle, no wasted motion.

“Just like a scalp, huh Grandpa?” Jesse asked hopefully.

“Not so much so,” Grandpa replied, not taking the bait.

Grandpa had a way with cleaning a catfish, which could be easy if done right and hells own problem if not. The trick was to end up with a skin flap behind the gills to grab between knife blade and thumb to use to pull the skin off clean with. If you missed leaving it you had a tough time getting a finger hold.

Grandpa knew the trick. When he got done with the head it wasn’t seconds before you had nothing but a gutted fish with pinkish-white meat in front of you, meat hanging on backbone and ribs. It would take us boys ten minutes to get one cleaned, which was why we were glad Grandpa fell for our game that he probably knew about.

He flung the first fish’s skin and guts into the nearby weeds and held out his hand for the next fish.

“Believe I might trail along with you boys the next time,” he said. “Won’t be long before the top water might be gettin’ hot enough for the bass to go for a grasshopper. Beat messin’ with those boney perch.”

It was obvious the perch weren’t much to Grandpa, which meant he no doubt wanted out of cleaning them. Which meant nothing to us except that we didn’t want to clean them either. So Jesse tried to move the conversation on with a joke.

“Yeah, and maybe Father will come along too. Think, Grandpa?”

Our father’s slowness about doing things with us had long ago become a joke in our minds and didn’t bother us at all. Grandpa felt obligated, however, and couldn’t let Jesse’s jab pass without a defense.

“Well, now, I’m sure your father wishes he wasn’t so busy. But he is, and he puts good food on the table and a nice enough roof over the top, so best we don’t hold it again him.”

“Oh they don’t hold it against him, Grandpa Turner,” Moses volunteered, “I can vouch for that. He just probably don’t have the clothes for fishing.”

Jesse and I giggled. Moses was a friend and had a right to jab without fear, even at someone’s father. That right ended with a friend like Moses, however.

Grandpa was well into the next catfish and acted like Moses’ remark had passed over him.

We watched a while in silence. Flies were starting to gather, the smell of fish being too good to pass up. A light breeze rolled the grass around us. We followed the knife as it did its work, silent and deadly. Moses creased his forehead.

“Grandpa Turner,” he said, “I was wondering. When you was out in the wilderness by yourself during the Indian troubles, how did you shoot for food? I mean, didn’t the Indians hear and come after you?”

“Yeah, Grandpa, didn’t you have to be quiet?” Jess asked.

Like I said, Grandpa had come to talking about it now and then. We hit it lucky because this looked like it was going to be one of those times.

“Do you boys know what it was like in those days? The land, I mean? Wasn’t like now, where you can see a neighbor’s smoke and sniff his outhouse. Was all woods and prairies. Usually weren’t anybody around for miles. If you needed somethin’, you took the chance. If it didn’t pan out you just had to figure it was your time.”

Grandpa had a countrified way of shortcutting his words. It was fun listening to him talk. He lopped off another fish head as easy as he lopped of the end of some of his words.

“And there weren’t In’yuns hunkered behind every tree like you boys got it figured,” he went on. “Where I cut my teeth there wasn’t a village for fifty, sixty miles. You figure they hung from the vines ready to drop?”

The best we could do was shrug our shoulders.

“Anyway,” he went on, “I wasn’t often alone. I wasn’t one of them alone fellows. Them men was few and far between. Boone, Kenton, Campbell. Had more guts than sense, wanderin’ in In’yun country on the sly all alone. Me and my friends, we came up after their like, when most of the In’yuns had moved on. Did I tell you we came out of Indiana?”

He looked at Jess and I and we shook our heads.

“Hell you say. I didn’t tell you that? Seems I ain’t told you a lot of things. Yes, sir, I was born in Indiana, east side as it was. Didn’t do no fightin’ there, was too young and had a watchful mother, not unlike yourselves. Had fights close to home though. Heard of Fallen Timbers? Where Mad Anthony took on Little Turtle? What it was was a tornado had laid over the trees like so much kindlin’. Had to crawl through it careful like, they said, or you got a tomahawk in the face. Rude awakening that would’ve been. Anyway, Mad Anthony Wayne took them on there. That’s why they called him Mad Anthony, he didn’t have the sense God give green apples when it came to a fight. Took them on and whipped them, bullets and knives and dead men in the tree trunks. In’yuns took and run, not knowin’ what to make of a man who would fight there where they had wanted to. That was one of the few ways to get the best of an In’yun, act in an unexpected’ way. They see things one-two-three and don’t know what to make of someone who see things cankered. Heard of several people who didn’t get painted black and burned because they started spoutin’ tongues, as the bible says. Some was already tied up and the branches piled. Can’t imagine nobody not slobberin’ then. Anyway, Mad Anthony gave ‘em such a whippin’ they signed over all their land in Indiana. Sure you ain’t learned this in school?”

We assured him we hadn’t, else we forgot.

“Well, what do they teach you if they don’t teach you Mad Anthony Wayne? ‘Rithmatic can only carry you so far.”

More guts and skin sailed down the hillside.

“Anyway,” he continued, “my pappy was like Dan Boone when it came to moving on. Waited till the place was safe and tame and then left it. Drove your great grandma to the other side of sane. Pappy took us here to Illinois where the In’yuns still was. Not many mind you, just a few of what was called the Illinois tribes and a scatterin’ of Ottawa and Shawnee. In’yuns just the same. Was like your great grandpa wanted to dare ‘em. Made them mad, too, him and his like did. Well, he started claimin’ land and I got too big for my mother to salt my tail and while he was still claimin’ I took off to the parts unknown. But not alone, damn sight not alone. Took Phillip Tobias with me. I weren’t no Dan Boone and I don’t want you boys be saying I was, no matter what you hear.”

He straightened a bit, enough to make his back crack and his stomach grumble.

He went on.

“It started out as me and Phillip and we shot food when we wanted because all you could see was trees, trees and trees. It was a frightful inspirin’ to be alone like that. I don’t know what God even heard us.”

“Weren’t you scared, Grandpa?” I asked through a mouth that never closed.

“Don’t know that I was scared, though there was times I thought more highly of my mother’s apron strings. Couldn’t help it. Just trees. From every hill, from every point you looked. Trees. It was pretty, mind you, but there was times you felt you was gonna be swallowed. Couldn’t figure the day would come when most would be girded and gone, least not in my life. But here we are.”

“What about Phillip?” Jess asked. “Where’s he at today?”

“Dead. Fell down a bank and ran a bone through his leg. First came the puss, then the stink and the fever and then he died.”

“Was you being chased by Indians?” Moses blurted.

“No, wasn’t no In’yuns. Just fell down a bank and put a bone through his leg. Lots of ways of dyin’ where there’s only trees.”

It wasn’t a death from Indian fighting but it was a death long ago in the frontier and it was enough to set our minds to running. Two men in buckskins, in the woods, and one of them dying. We looked ahead with dreamy eyes and saw it, with Grandpa in the middle.

“What’d he look like?” I asked.

Grandpa stopped skinning fish and glanced at me.

“What does it matter what he looked like?”

“Don’t know,” I said truthfully, “just wondering.”

He looked back to his work.

“You know, haven’t thought about Phillip in years. What did he look like? Reg’lar height, reg’lar build. Brown hair. If I remember right he was losin’ it as young as he was. Middle twenties. Hmm, kinda sad. Hard to remember the little things, and I watched him die.”

He went quiet.

“Tell us about it, Grandpa,” Jess said hurriedly.

Even then it was half a minute before he spoke.

“Don’t know that I should. Your children, you know.”

“Children!” I said in disbelief. “Well, we know about fishing for women with neked men on hooks and if that ain’t big I don’t know what is!”

Grandpa stopped in spite of a handful of guts.

“You know what?”

Jesse looked at me in disgust.

“Don’t pay no mind him, Grandpa, he’s igernent. We don’t know what he’s talking about.”

For a while it looked like Grandpa was going to smile, but then he turned serious.

“Maybe you are grown up. Maybe.”

His hands were getting slippery so he rinsed them in the spring water.

“What happened was we was walkin’ on a narrow overhang, trying to stay out of briers. Wasn’t too far to the creek bed, maybe twenty, twenty-five foot, and most of the drop off was dirt. Just a few jabbings of rock. Anyway, the edge was mossed and our long rifles kinda hard to handle and Phillip just went over. Hardly made a sound, more kind of grunted. When I got to him he still didn’t moan and groan, even with that shinbone poking sharp and pointy through his buckskins. It was an ugly sight though as I cut away his pant leg. Meat and blood puffing out around that bone, inside-out turnin’. I tried to set it. To today I don’t know how he stood it but still he never made much noise. Thing was, I wasn’t no doctor and didn’t get it right. Couldn’t move him and couldn’t leave him and so I just hung around and kep’ him in food and water. Fever took him when the puss started and that leg got big and black and blue and wasn’t long it stank. Phillip never said much. Course he never did when healthy. We’d go a day or two and he wouldn’t comment at all, unless it was unusual cold or hot or pretty. So not being a natural talker, he wasn’t in no mood to talk for sure when he was hurtin’ bad, even had his mind been right. Course, it wasn’t. All he could do was mumble in his sleep. I didn’t listen, figured it as personal.”

Grandpa was getting to the last catfish and something, the fish or the talk, seemed to be wearing him down.

“Went on close to a week or so,” he said with less of a voice. “I don’t know for sure, in them trees you never counted days. Anyway, that last day I went out to hunt and he told me to move his rifle closer. I did. Wasn’t a half mile off I heard the shot. Bounced off them woods it seemed like forever. Went back and I buried him. Phillip Tobias. Doubt I could find that place today.”

“But what happened to him?” I asked. “Did the Indians git him?”

“Igernent!” Jesse said to me even though it was hard for him to speak.

“Let him be,” Grandpa said. “He’s young and little and that’s a story I shouldn’t of told him. Your mother won’t like it if it gives him dreams.”

“He killed himself!” Moses hollered at me in spite of what Grandpa said. “Isn’t that right, Grandpa Turner, he killed himself?’

“That’s right, yes. There’s never no reason to do that, boys, I want you to keep that in mind. But he was sufferin’ and there was no way to get him any better. Just remember, it was a long time ago and times was hard. You lived one day, you died the next and never held grudge either way.”

“What’d you tell his folks?” Jesse asked.

“Didn’t know ‘em. Didn’t know of ‘em. He had just kinda wandered among us out of nowhere and, like I said, never talked.”

Jess said, “So he’s almost forgot about, ain’t he? It’s just us and you who know about him now.”

Grandpa pondered.

“Suppose,” he finally said. “Most others I told are dead and can’t remember ever tellin’ your mother or father. Don’t really know why I told you.”

We stood there in awe, knowing we alone held a secret story with Grandpa Turner, an Indian fighter. It put us in an important place. And we knew that, though we busted to, we could never tell anyone else. Secrets with great men was kept that way and we had decided long ago he was a great man because, as Jesse had said, great men never told of their bravery. At least not often. And here he had.

We wanted to ask more but we could see Grandpa was done talking. He turned into himself any time he was. His eyes tightened and you could see his mind working. It was best then to be quiet. He threw the last catfish into the shallow pool. He turned and held out his hand.

“Now,” he said, “how about one of those boney perch.”

Jesse put the stringer down and pulled them off one at a time and flung them downhill into the tallest weeds.

“What perch, Grandpa?” he asked, when he was done.

Grandpa’s eyes widened a mite and he rolled a half smile.

“Since I’m a man who believes in using what you git, “ he said, “it’s a good thing I don’t know nothin’ about no boney perch. Let’s get these eatable fish to the house and maybe your Mother will fix them for supper.”

“We promised them to Reverend Hoppe,” I volunteered.

“Sounds good to me,” Grandpa said. “Let’s see if we can finagle one of

father’s old newspapers to roll them in.”

We fell in line behind Grandpa and made our way to our large brick house.

“Tell us more about Fallen Timbers and Mad Anthony fighting the Indians,” Moses pleaded.

We all wanted to hear more, but Moses the most. His plans were to be a soldier and a general, make battle and become famous. He read all the books he could on the subject, though there weren’t many to be had in our part of the woods. He never once wavered from his dream and none of us had any doubt he would do it.

It didn’t look like Grandpa was ready to go on, though. He picked and chose his talking sparingly, as was the way with great men and heroes.

“Best save it for another day,” he said. “We got business and my mind can’t carry a double dose.”

Moses puckered in disappointment and followed along.

We bypassed Father’s big porch and made our way to the back of the house. It was partially shaded there, several oaks sneaking in close. The smokehouse was a ways behind the trees and down below the hill the hog pen. We kept just enough hogs for us and the only chore Father would allow Jesse and me was slopping and watering them.

He always complained about the smell and threatened to be rid of them, saying a big house like ours didn’t deserve a pig smell when the wind blew wrong. But he didn’t do it, I guess because he had no other way to be rid of slop.

But the pigs were all his pride could tolerate, though, and we bought all our chicken and beef. That was, he said, the way of a family of means.

We trooped up the smaller back porch and found Mama where we knew we would, in her white kitchen, rolling bread on the center table.

Our mother was a fine looking woman, if a young boy can be trusted to judge such a thing honestly. She was medium tall, nowhere near fat, with clean blonde hair that she washed several times a week, a thought that frightened us when it came to our hair. Her face was small and fine like her hair. Most days she wore the hair in a bun.

Mama kept her own house, even though she didn’t have to. She demanded that she should, saying she’d just have to clean again what someone else did. She also said no one would feed her boys but herself, because they were her boys and needed her care. The big house kept her busy and we were big eaters, Grandpa included, but she always kept up and never seemed a whole lot worse for the wear. Maybe, with her mothering disposition, keeping things up for us is what kept her looking happy and healthy. A lot of the women her age looked twenty years older. These were the women who stayed in children and were not as well off as us.

Mama, for whatever reason, had only us and, along with that, enough money and desire to try to keep us fat. In that was happiness, along with the wish to keep her own house.

As it was, even though Father wanted to keep up the looks of a man of means, he never fought Mama much about her doing for herself. I suppose he wasn’t so uppity as to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or maybe she had already worn him down by the time we came along. Mama had a definite gift for that. She could wear anybody down.

She would worry you about how you felt, or that your color wasn’t right, she had a fixed gift for color, or why weren’t you eating more, or did you do this, or had you done that? Getting Father to give in probably was a cinch, the way she could work a person.

Grandpa always said she come by it honest, his mother having held him from the woods longer than he liked.

We didn’t begrudge her the worrying, however. She was a good mother and so we got used to it. Grandpa told us years before it was the best we could do.

A grin of relief crossed her face as we came in. It always did when we’d been fishing, visions of us belly up in the branch long since having flowed through her head.

“Good,” she said, “you’re back. Shouldn’t stay so long, boys, you had me wondering.”

“It’s hardly noon,” Jess reminded her.

“Noon is too long. Drink some water, you’re bound to be dried out.”

We dutifully made our way to the kitchen pump.

“Need a newspaper paper, Mama,” I said between gulps. “Got some fish to send with Moses.”

“Go ask you father,” she said, a doubtful look on her face, “but you know how he is.”

That we did.

It was a fact of high pride to him that he was the only man for a long ways who had a paper mailed in several times a week, and a big city paper at that. The Missouri Republican. It came all the way from St. Louis, eighty or so miles away. He would have liked to get something from Chicago, his thoughts being Missouri was a state of ruffians and drunks who mistreated the colored, but getting something from as far away as Chicago was a little much, even for a man of his means. At that the paper was always a week old before he got it and often torn. An aggravation to be sure, with him thinking the post rider beat him to the news.

As we took off to try for a part of a Republican, Mama stopped us.

“You boys’ shoes clean? I don’t want riverbank shoes in a clean house.”

“Oh, they’re clean, Mama,” Jesse said, having never looked to know for sure and on we went.

Father’s room was at the front of the house and we echoed our shoes as we went down the wide hallway. Father recognized the echoes and called to us when we were a door or two away.

“Got clean shoes, boys?”

“Yes, sir,” we answered together, still having never looked.

We came to his office door and stopped, knowing better than to enter unannounced. Father’s office was not Mama’s kitchen. He was not so glad to see us to risk us having free rein.

He was looking down at some papers on his desk, as we expected, and had not raised his head when he asked us about our shoes.

Jesse and I and our best friend Moses held Father’s work papers in awe and puzzlement. It just did not seem possible that one man could have such important things to do that you could not catch him at any time in a normal day not bent over his desk looking at ledgers or deeds. But we never had. Always, when we were lucky enough to be home during the day and not in school, if we came to his office door, he was working over his papers. We figured that every dollar earned needed one paper and since rumors was Father earned a lot, that made for a lot of peering. Sometimes we couldn’t help but think a lot of it was an act but, being not that interested, we saw no reason to find out different.

The few times he wasn’t in his office signing and reading, he was on his big front porch surveying his land, commenting that so and so’s corn looked good, or so and so had better quit messing around or his crop would be late. He said that last phrase a lot about Reverend Hoppe, though of course never when Moses was around to hear.

About once a week, when the weather was nice, he took to his horse and rode about his acreage, nodding solemnly to any of his ten sharecroppers he happened to see. Nothing much came of these rides except that, we figured, he showed himself, or that he just maybe needed to get away from all those dang papers.

An exceptional thing about the rides was that what Father wore on them was what he wore in his office, a suit with a fluffy white shirt and a little black tie.

My father was short with a little bit of a gut and him in a suit and a tall hat, with a belly hugging the saddle horn, looked just a little bit funny. But he carried himself proud and no one laughed, since he was the landowner. Grandpa mentioned once he ought to hire a slave driver to do the riding, but Grandpa was the only one who dared say such a thing. Father ignored him.

All this meant that paperwork and porch-looking and, once in a long while, riding, was pretty well all my father did. No time was really spent with us, just church going and a picnic now and then. We figured that the paper work was needed but that it was also a way around us. He probably timed a lot of it to our hallway echoes.

That fact did not bother us though. Over the years it had become a joke and we really didn’t mind. He wasn’t the outside type, after all, and having him tag along in the woods or along a creek bed would have been a considerable hindrance. We saved that kind of stuff for Grandpa, or otherwise just to ourselves.

It wasn’t that we felt Father didn’t love us. We never really discussed such a thing as love, but I know he did and I know Jess felt so too. He never once whipped us, ever, and that was rare in those times.

It was just that love for his family was handled like all else in his life, just business.”

“Yes?”

Jesse said, “Father, could we have a piece of your newspaper? We have some catfish to wrap up for Moses to take home.”

Father looked up, definitely shocked.

“My paper? My Republican?”

“Yes, sir.”

“For fish?’

It seemed hard for him to understand.

“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to help. “If we don’t they’ll probably dry out on him and get flies and maggots.”

He missed my explanation.

“My Republican?” he said again. “I can’t believe you think you need my Republican for fish. No, boys, that won’t happen. It not that far to his house if you put a move on. And unless you’ve washed off from fishing you’d probably best not be standing where you are.”

“We caught five,” I said, as if it mattered.

Already his head had turned back to his desktop.

“Good,” he said, offhandedly.

We shrugged, as we always did, and headed back down the hall. It hadn’t ruined our day. We had too much to do for that.

“Get your paper?” Mama asked as we passed through the kitchen.

“No,” I said. “Father just couldn’t understand.”

“You’ll figure something,” she said, carrying the bread towards the oven door beside the brick fireplace.

We exited the door to see Grandpa walking towards us with two large pieces of elm bark in his hand.

“Been turned down for your paper yet?” he asked.

It occurred to me that Grandpa was the one who told us to ask for the paper, but I didn’t dwell on it. Grandpa was sometimes hard to figure.

“Yes,” Jess said.

“Here,” he said, handing Moses the two pieces of bark, rough sides out. Sandwiched between the pieces were some hickory leaves, dripping water.

“Got your fish in these wetted leaves. That’ll hold them till you get them to a skillet.”

Moses thanked him and we started off down the hill. Grandpa took one of his favorite seats, in the middle of the top step of our front porch.

“Prolly won’t have time to get all there and back before your mother’s supper call,” he commented.

“We know,” Jesse called over his shoulder. “We won’t go all the way.”

We marched side by side, giving the dust fits again.

“Hang it!” Jesse said after we moved outside hearing distance. “Wasn’t that a story about Grandpa’s friend!”

“Phillip Toe-be-ass,” I said, so everyone could be sure about the man’s name.

They didn’t seem as interested in how it was said as me.

“Something I guess!” Moses said. “Them alone in the wilderness, probably surrounded by Indians. Must of been something! Wish I could of been there. Would of got to bury his body and everything else. I wonder if he broke his long rifle when he fell?”

“Guess not!” Jess answered. “Shot himself with it, didn’t he? Shot himself dead. It was a better story than any book’s ever had and Grandpa chose only to tell us. That’s the big thing. He’ll tell us more now, I bet, especially if we keep this one secret.”

He looked down at me hard.

“Hear that, Tom!”

It was a cut to the bone and I didn’t take it lightly.

“I’m not never telling! Why you looking at me?”

“Cause your igernent. You went and slobbered about the neked man and the fishhook. Grandpa almost laughed at us. You gonna tell stories to someone you laugh at?”

“It was an accident,” I said in valiant defense. “And I thought he would know about neked men and girls. Hell’s bells, Grandpa knows about everything.”

“Well just keep your mouth shut from now on, we’ll do the talking. I want for sure to hear more out of Grandpa.”

“Do you suppose he could find the place again and we could go and dig him up?” Moses asked.

“Said he didn’t think he could,” Jesse said. “Why would you want to, anyway?”

Moses shrugged. I knew what he meant but I didn’t know the why either.

“Said anymore to your Mama about our campout?” Moses asked after a while.

We had been talking about it since spring. Our first campout in the woods, just like frontiersmen. Jesse, Moses and I under the stars.

Mama was our main sticking point. She saw evils galore and death in every possibility. We had been working on her for weeks. Mr. and Mrs. Hoppe had been no problem, especially when Mr. Hoppe said he’d done the same thing as a boy. My father had reservations but didn’t put up much of a fight. Mama was the only remaining problem.

Jesse said, “Yeah, we been talking about it. I think she’ll say yes. But it’s not been easy.”

“Said she feared for wolves,” I recalled.

“And Grandpa said he had shot the last one ten, fifteen years ago,” Jesse said.

“Wolves!” Moses said with wide eyes. “Your Grandpa shot wolves around here?”

“Figure Grandpa’s shot about everything. Anyway, we’ll ask her again tonight. She might give in.”

“Naw,” I said in exasperation, “she’ll probably come up with another animal. We’re gonna have to fight her about all the furry animals.”

The thought of her standing in the way of the biggest fun we had ever planned just wore me out.

“She’ll give in,” Jesse said strongly. “We won’t take no for an answer.”

The day was gaining heat, like a log rolling downhill gained dust. I glanced up at the surrounding country.

The clouds were dying out, getting pushed out by the heat. I gazed at the green, wooded hills and wondered on which on we would have our adventure, camped out like Grandpa and Phillip Tobias. Or like Boone. Nothing around but wide open sky, night sounds and a fire.

It seemed a dream, to do such a thing. It excited me, just the thought, and looking back on it it’s not hard to understand. We were reaching to touch fingers with an exciting past, a past where men did manly things. Sometimes at the end of those manly actions, like Grandpa’s friend, they came to die and be buried. Some were surely forgot, yet even that seemed an honor. No boy has ever cared how hard the truth is.

A figure was moving up the road towards us. It wasn’t long before we realized it was Moses’ father.

“Where you going, Pappy?” Moses asked when the gap had closed.

Reverend Hoppe looked as sweaty and dusty as we must have.

“Going to the Kressler place, Moses. Their cow’s should be ready to calf and last I heard John was laid up with a fever. Was Sunday, at least, didn’t make our service.”

“Done plowing?”

“Not done, but done for the day. Birthing waits for no plow.”

“Need help, Pap?”

“I wouldn’t think so. You best go on down and keep your mother company. Is that the catfish?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Man alive! I hope you don’t eat it all before I get home, boy,” he said to Moses.

“Save you some, I promise. You sure Mr. Kressler ain’t better and don’t need no help? Or that that cow’s not ready yet?”

“Can’t chance it.”

Mr. Hoppe patted him on the back and went on by.

We watched him go. We were at our turnaround spot.

“You father never stops moving and mine never stops setting,” Jesse said. “Figure that, Moses. I guess they’re doing what they want.”

“I guess. See you boys tomorrow. Don’t forget to work on your Mama.”

By the time Jesse and I tarried a bit, then got back to the house, it was edging on three o’clock and suppertime.

 

Suppertime was an important time at our place. Father demanded that all be there and washed and sitting at the stroke of the clock. It was especially bad to be late on days when his Missouri Republican had arrived and the news needed to be read and discussed.

News was high on Father’s list. The paper made him, he figured, an expert on it. It went along, like a lot of other things, with being a man of his position.

We were hardly started into Mama’s roast meat and carrots when he unfolded the paper and put it to the side of the plate where he could see it.

He had taken off his coat but still wore his white shirt and tie.

“Looks like they’re still arguing in the west about the compromise Clay made in ’50. It’s just too bad he didn’t live to see it through.”

“Henry Clay?” Jess asked.

He was good at remembering those things. Father was proud of that.

“Yes, old Henry. Should have been president, just lived too far south.”

Henry Clay was one of those people Father liked. A southern gentleman. A man with power and a way with words. He often commented that Henry should have been president. Henry had run several times, we knew, but had always lost. Father always said Henry’s problem had been the black folk muddle and rich people from New York and Massachusetts. What rich people he meant, he never said, just that they had run a shaft up Henry, that good old southern gentleman.

Father blamed a lot on the rich folk out east and the black folk down south. They made life miserable for good old fellas like Henry, a man he felt on a first name basis with.

“But Henry sure messed up on that compromise,” he went on. “You can’t let some states have slaves and some not, it just won’t work. Folks there are on either side who just won’t give in. Best bet is to just say flat out slaves aren’t going to be. Send the nigra folk back over the ocean.”

Slavery was a mystery to my father. Though he felt himself like a man over a plantation and had built his big house to that effect, he just could not understand why anyone needed to beat people to work for nothing. Couldn’t they see you could just sharecrop the ground like he did? He gave what he thought to be a fair rental price, though there were folks who would differ, and he couldn’t figure why the gentlemen in the south would not do the same. It all seemed so easy to him.

It wasn’t that he had such strong feelings for the slaves, as they didn’t matter much to his mind either way. Mostly, he felt, they were a nuisance. And because they were a nuisance, he could not understand the trouble they were causing, not when people could be worked for pay and a man of privilege, like himself, could still make good money. Doing it the way he did, he felt, put him a rung above his fellow plantation owners below the Mason-Dixon.

“How could you send them all back?” I asked between chews. “Aren’t there hundreds of them?”

“It could be done,” my father said. “Mark my word, if it’s not done, and if someone don’t figure something out about this soon, there’s going to be a fight. And I just don’t see why. It’s beyond me.”

“Why question a fight?” Grandpa commented. “They happen sooner or later, no matter the reason. Always have, always will. If it ain’t over them black folk, it’ll be something.”

“Oh, Papa,” Mama said, “you can’t mean that. Why would you say such a

ing? These boys are getting older. Do you want them fighting?”

“No, but that won’t stop it. People argue and then when they argue enough they fight. The In’yuns did. I fought the damned English in 1812, which was the second time around with them. None of us what fought wanted to, but fought we did. Then this country went and fought them Mexicuns in forty-six. It happens. Men need to have some killin’ to make them see how sad and silly it is.”

“I simply do not want a war,” Mama said.

“Don’t matter whether you don’t want one or not,” Grandpa went on, “you’re always just between wars.”

“Well, it don’t have to be because of the negras,” Father said. “Douglas needs to do something, especially with this uproar in Kansas starting now, where they can’t decide which way they want to go. Douglas is the only man big enough for the job.”

Father never passed a chance to bring up Stephen Douglas. It brought back good memories.

He had gone to a Douglas rally several years before, in a town two days away. He was even invited up on the podium to sit during the speech. He never tired of people asking about it. No one in our county had ever done such a thing.

Douglas, he said, had given a fine speech. A little overlong, but worthwhile just the same. His only problem, Father often mentioned, was he could get close but never quite managed to hit the nail square on the head. Something, it seemed, that was often a problem when it came to politicians.

But, all things considered, Douglas was about the best man for any job, now that Henry was stone cold, and my father was on a first name basis with him.

“Douglas needs to go to Pierce and tell him to tell the westerners where the hog ate the cabbage. Then he needs to go south and tell the southerners to ship their negras back over the ocean and rent their ground like me. I don’t understand why they can’t.”

“Just so they do something and don’t fight,” Mama said, the thought still troubling her.

“I wouldn’t mind fighting, Mama,” I said, “if I had to. I’d carry a long rifle just like Grandpa.”

Jesse looked at me like I was igernent again.

“Oh, no, Thomas,” Mama said, pain in her voice, “don’t even say such a thing! Not ever!”

Grandpa leaned back in his chair. His face was creased.

“Someday we need to talk, boy. Just not today.”

Father changed the subject as if he hadn’t heard any of the previous talk.

“Saw you talking to Reverend Hoppe after you left with the fish,” he said to Jesse. “Where was he going?”

“Going to help Mr. Kressler,” Jess answered. “He had a cow ready to calf and the Reverend heard he was sick.”

Father looked soured.

“That man needs to take care of his own place. He hasn’t had a crop out in time in years. That hurts at harvest.”

“Plus Kressler doesn’t rent from you,” Grandpa added.

“Don’t matter, that makes no difference at all. It’s just that a man has to understand his obligations.”

“I think that as a man of God Reverend Hoppe sees his obligations differently,” Mama said, but then added quickly, “not that I’m saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying things could be that way.”

Mama never went too far in disagreeing with Father. As it was with all things, she might nibble a bit, but had trouble biting down.

Grandpa had no qualms however.

“Maybe John will return the favor and that’ll put the preacher back on your schedule. Either way, a man helpin’ a neighbor to calf won’t put nobody to starvin’ this winter.”

I could see the conversation was rubbing a raw spot on Father. He took his eyes off his Missouri Republican, which had come all the way from St. Louis to be at our table, and began going at his roast with a vengeance.

But he said nothing. It wasn’t often Grandpa made a business comment, and when he did Father was always rubbed and always got silent, one of the few times that happened. I suppose it was because it was Grandpa’s land in the first place.

Years later, when I knew old enough to do such a thing, I asked Grandpa about why, after father and mother were married, he turned the land over to my father.

“Just seemed the easiest path,” he told me. “Your old man not gettin’ to run the place was more likely to have happened from me buck-shottin’ him before he got a chance to get close to your Mama in the first place.”

“You didn’t like Father?” I asked.

“Not so much that I didn’t like him as I couldn’t get a feel for him, and that was somethin’ I was generally good at. He just came around one day out of the east sayin’ he had no family to speak of. Kind of a broody soul that found it hard to crack a grin. So it bothered me, me bein’ one who finds it hard gawkin’ at a sour face.”

“Father never has talked about his kin, has he?”

“Nope. I came to believe he really never had any he knew of, like he said, or else he had a fight with them. Or else he was wanted.”

“Wanted! You thought he was an outlaw!”

“Thought occurred to me. I know better than that now, though. I figure it’s one of the other things. The only way you could never go see family was you had none or couldn’t stomach what you did have. Anyways, I thought maybe your mother needed to sniff elsewhere, but your father stuck like bark to a tree and by the time I figured I had him figured, your mother was attached. Ain’t much you can do when a woman attaches. Turned out right good though, I suppose, what with you boys.”

“I suppose,” I had said.

“The man is highly proud of you in his own way, whether you want to believe it or not.”

“I know. So you got use to him and handed things over.”

“I did. He had a coon dog nose for makin’ money, hells more than me. I never lived life in a business sort of way. Only reason I tried in the first was my father died and weren’t no one else. Tried, but I always figured I could find somethin’ more reasonable to do, other than tally money. Like maybe strap on iron beaks and pick shit with the chickens.”

That talk came years later. Right then, at the supper table, my father was still somewhat the mystery to me.

He was into his second serving of roast before he found his tongue again.

“You boys make it to the Hoppe’s with those fish?” he said, looking for a way to change the talk.

“Yeah,” Jesse said. “And us, and Moses, are still talking about a campout. Okay, Mama?”

The thought seemed to affect her appetite.

“Oh, I don’t know. So much could happen.”

“Grandpa done shot all the wolves,” I said in the hope she hadn’t honed up on any other bad animals.

“Well it’s not just the wolves,” she said in exasperation. “There’s storms could come up. You’ll have to have a fire and you know how that is and you don’t know who or what else is out there in the dark. I’d be sick.”

“Nothin’ out there in the dark what couldn’t come in the front door just the same,” Grandpa said. “Lord knows I’ve seen scalped bodies at the hearth.”

“Papa!”

“They could build their fire in sight distance of the house. My eyes ain’t so bad I can’t see shadows ‘round a blaze.”

“I don’t see what it would hurt,” Father said, as if he was tired of the subject.

“Well I do,” Mama said, “I surely do.”

“Runs in your blood,” Grandpa said, “from your mother. But these boys are goin’ to camp out eventually just the same.”

Mama sat and pondered her fears, same way a person sits and ponders a stomped toe.

“Oh, I suppose,” she said finally, then pointed at us. “But you all stay close enough to this house for me to see. That way and only that way will I go along.”

“Yes, mam,” we said together, our voices ringing.

“We’ll tell Moses tomorrow!” Jesse added.

It had been quite a meal! I felt I could eat a pound or more meat without even knowing it. Mama had given in, at last!

Our joy was interrupted by a yelp from Grandpa. He flung a hand to his right cheek.

“Gaw-w-w-damn!” he said harshly. “Gawd-damn teeth! Think I got some more goin’ bad! Guess I’m just an old man who’ll never see the end of this.”

Teeth were important to Grandpa. Most people his age were lucky to be alive, much less have all their teeth. Yet, until the last year or so, Grandpa did. Most people half his age were gumming it and taking it as a fact of life.

Not Grandpa. He often mentioned having all his teeth. Even though he was white-headed, he felt they made him like younger folk. You didn’t not have teeth but twice, he often said. Once was right after birthing and the other just before dying. They were an important part the of the life and death trip in his mind.

He chewed on twigs all the time and used the frazzled ends of the chewed sticks to rub the outside of his teeth. He used the end of the stick, before it was frazzled, to clean in between.

The spring before Homer Crutchfield had died, taken in by the bloody flux, a natural enough way to go, I’d heard. I remembered how we all had gone together to the Crutchfield place to pay our respects and stare at the corpse, important tasks both.

I hated doing such things and Mama hated us doing it too, but Father said we needed to see what came in the end so we wouldn’t waste our time. I always figured one body would have been enough to get the that notion embedded but Father must have thought us slow learners. We went to see them all.

Mr. Crutchfield was laid out in his front room, in a wooden coffin on a strong looking table. It had to have been strong because, even though the flux had drained him, he was still a big man. We all made our walk up to the box, Mama and Papa holding our hands and telling Mrs. Crutchfield what a pity it was. Other people ahead had said the same and Mrs. Crutchfield was taking it pretty well.

Grandpa trundled up behind. He never said anything as he came to view the slicked down remains, only rocked slowly on his heels, bent over, and slitted his eyes in concentration. Finally, he leaned forward and looked up at Mr. Crutchfield from below the chin, getting a bird’s eye view of the blackened stubs behind the laid back lips.

“Homer was used out of chewers, weren’t he?” he asked.

Not knowing our Grandpa’s way about teeth Mrs. Crutchfield didn’t look upset, only a little unsettled.

“Well, yes,” she said slowly, “they were a bother his last years.”

“Twenty years younger than me, weren’t he?”

“Yes, yes, I suppose.”

Grandpa clucked his tongue.

“Shame just the same,” he said, “shame just the same.”

He turned and came to us, leaving Mrs. Crutchfield wondering about her husband, stone cold dead and without teeth,

Grandpa inspected teeth at every funeral. We were used to it although Mama and Father never really liked it.

Often I thought his long walks should have been enough to let him know he was doing damn good but Grandpa didn’t put near as much into his ability to stalk, hunt and wander as he did into his mouthful of chewers.

But they had been lately giving him trouble, several having to be pulled, and this rubbed him in the worst of ways. The pain meant nothing, just the pulling. It was one of the few things that put him in a truly bad mind.

“Hell’s fire,” he growled as he curled his lips against the throb, “might as well give up and be cold-ass dead as lose any more teeth!”

“Papa,” my mother said, “please don’t talk like that! You still got plenty left, as many as me.”

“Won’t if I hafta have these jerked.”

“Maybe they won’t have to be jerked.”

“What else is that sawbones going to do? Talk them out of rotting! It’s just a sign I been around too damn long.”

“What it’s a sign of is you got plenty left and you’ll be chewing my meals a long time to come.”

Grandpa’s eyes looked like he wanted to say more but his face said his heart wasn’t in it. He pushed his plate away and got up from the table.

“I’m going to the porch to sit,” he said.

We watched him leave the room.

“I don’t understand that tooth business,” Father said after he was gone. “What does he expect?”

Mama shrugged her shoulders but didn’t answer.

I wanted to say he expected us to understand, but didn’t know how.

 

 

Two days later it was Sunday and a bright clear one at that, all June sunshine and green grass.

Saturday evening Mama had heated water and nagged us into the large wooden wash tub. When we didn’t use enough of her large cake of homemade soap she threatened us with her doing the scrubbing. Being scrubbed by my mother wasn’t something a normal human wanted to have done twice. Grandpa watched the process once and said it looked like being skun by pushing the skin off.

Our Saturday evening bath put us in line for Sunday morning church service. Church was a big thing in country-land like ours. You prayed to God and got the news.

Our church was white and wooden and sat on a rise just under a mile from town. If you took the main road out of Jefferson, our hometown, to the north, the same way to go if you were going to our house, and took the first turnoff to the right, you didn’t go but half a dozen good rock throws till you came to the church. It sat in an inlet of meadow just before the road disappeared into a woods. The trees came up close to it on the sides and back and the ground around it was covered with hickory nut hulls the squirrels had left. The hulls crunched under your feet as you walked to and from the church. A row of flat rocks ran from a bare area in front of the church where the horses and carriages were left all the way to the big wooden front door. A few small shade trees had been planted to divide the bare area from the grass area the stones crossed.

Around the left side of the building, in another inlet that amounted to no more than a break in the trees, sat the cemetery, a cool place that was all stones and grass. Mr. Crutchfield’s grave was about the freshest that Sunday, the dirt brown and settling.

It was prairie grass there where the dead were, not weeds, and it always seemed to be laying over softly to the wind. A few daisies and some small purple flowers rested in with the grass. It seemed a nice place to come to lie, teeth or not.

The ground the church sat on was high enough that it looked out over the road juncture to, in the distance, the roofs and trees of Jefferson.

Most everyone who wasn’t ‘worthless’, as my father put it, went to church every Sunday. About the only one we knew well who didn’t was Grandpa, though Father was quick to say he didn’t mean him when he said worthless.

Grandpa said he had his own places to talk to God. He never said where the places were but said he and the Man always managed running conversations.

That week it was doubtful he would have gone even if his talking to God had fallen behind. He didn’t go to the Doctor in Jefferson to see about his teeth as Mama had wanted. They were still bothering him, you could tell, but he claimed they weren’t and he was for sure in no mood to be prodded. So Mama let it rest and Grandpa went about his wanderings, far short of a good mood.

But even without Grandpa, the church was full. Two rows of fifteen pews, with an aisle down the middle.

The wood inside the church wasn’t painted white like the outside and was well worn by feet, hands and hindquarters. In front was the raised area and lectern from which Reverend Hoppe preached. We had no organ but the singing was loud just the same and bounced strongly off those unpainted walls. I always liked to listen to everyone else sing. It gave me a full feeling, especially when it was an old standard everyone knew. Even Father joined in strong then, though his voice left a lot to be desired, being sort of shrunken and whiny.

That morning we sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ and I wondered about how good it was to hear it done on that morning, in that church, with people I knew in a place I knew. I guess in the end that was why I always liked to hear the hymns, the words bouncing off that good wood, filtering through the soft yellow sunlight coming in the tall windows. They were words among friends that somehow made peace with that cemetery behind the next row of trees.

After the first singing, and before the last, Reverend Hoppe got up and spoke his peace.

He was a preacher a little bit different from those I’ve heard since. Hell was seldom at your heels in his sermons and God never often got real mad. His was always a thought about how good things really was and how much better they could be. Reverend Hoppe’s sermons always matched the man.

That morning I remember most of what he said, maybe because it was so short. Or maybe I remember it because it was just ahead of the big changes, good and bad.

“You know I was thinking the other day,” he said solemnly from his high perch. “Thinking about a sermon to end all sermons, a complete and glorious rendering of God’s wishes. So let us start by reading Matthew, Chapter 22, Verse 39. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Now, let’s go picnicking. We know all we need to know.”

We sang some more, then church let out.

The letting out was the same each Sunday. Reverend Hoppe stood at the top of the steps by the front door and the adults went by to shake his hand and then gather around the bottom of the steps to talk. This caused the main part of the door opening to be blocked, but that did not stop us young ones. We rolled and squirmed and flowed around the outside of the whole mess like water around a sodden rock. We would not be kept inside for long, though we had nothing overly important to do when we got out.

The sun speckled the ground through the tree limbs. It was warm but the breeze that wafted the trees kept it cool enough and kept those sun speckles moving, as if alive. The horses were content at their carriages, their eyes half closed. Birds seemed to be everywhere and they had a hymn of their own. The flowers that pocked the grassy area in front of the church entrance were bent over, as if preparing for the passing of our feet. They knew we would soon be gone and they could stand tall again. The sky was a June blue, a Sunday warm.

I squeezed past my mother and father as they shook hands and yelped as I broke free, as all the other little ones had done before me.

At the end of the flat-rock walkway, on the right side, two dogwoods had grown up side by side, so close that they eventually grew together. They were closed up for the first couple of feet. It made for a natural target and every child for as long as I knew made for this V as soon as bonds were broke, without even thinking. Run, run, run, then jump through and dollop onto the dusty ground on the other side. It was as sure a thing to do as breathing.

That Sunday morning I took my turn and made it easily, as usual, then cleared away quickly to allow for the next set of charging feet. It was something you just had to do, at least if you were a boy or a girl under ten. Those dogwoods had held true for hundreds of little feet for many, many years.

I looked around and spotted a few children my own age and started towards them, then saw Jesse and Moses talking with Sarah under a nearby oak and went there instead.

Even though I was only eight I had to admit Sarah was a pretty girl, and that took some admitting.

She was tall, at the age when she could be taller than some boys, and in fact she had Moses by at least an inch, though she was still a ways behind Jess. Her hair was red, though not in a fiery way as it had enough brown in it to keep it tame. It was full and combed so that it laid thick and curly on the back of her neck. She had dark blue eyes that went past you to the other side. Her teeth were straight and large, her lips backed off from them just a bit.

That morning she wore a blue top dress over a white long-sleeved blouse. Her father owned a tavern and had a little money and so she usually seemed a happy girl. She was always ready to laugh, at least in those times when Moses and Jesse surrounded her.

I sidled up behind the oak and listened. Jesse saw me but paid me no mind. I could have been a fly.

Across the way some of the men and the bigger boys were laying old tables over some sawhorses. We were to have a church picnic, as we often did on Sundays in the summer. I watched them get things ready as I listened.

“So what’s going on in town?” Moses asked.

Sarah looked at him low, down her nose.

“If you would sometimes come in, you’d find out,” she said.

“Would if we had time. Got too much to do this summer.”

“And what would that be, Moses Hoppe? What could you be doing?”

She usually had a touch of orneriness in her eyes.

“One thing we’re doing,” Jess said in a prideful way, “is camping out.”

“Camping out?”

If I had questioned that they would have called me igernent. As it was Jesse seemed determined to have her know what he meant.

“Yeah,” he said strongly, “camping out in the woods by ourselves, just me and Moses and Tom.”

He held his shoulders back.

Sarah scrunched her nose and eyes.

“In the woods? On the ground?”

“Yeah!”

“Why would you want to do that?”

Sarah was that kind of girl. She could make you unproud real fast, as if your highest accomplishments weren’t much at all. Big thoughts had no right being in your mind, as far as she was concerned. With her, lots of times, you started out running and ended up crawling.

It wasn’t mean. She was right business-like about it, like Father and his papers.

“Well,” Jesse said, somewhat taken aback, “it’s like my Grandpa and the other frontiersman did. You know, they built a fire and stayed in the woods and wasn’t scared.”

“Wolves and all out there,” Moses added, “and not scared.”

He forgot to mention that Grandpa had killed them all but that didn’t seem the point.

“What on earth will you eat?” Sarah asked.

“Probably squirrels and animals we kill,” Jesse lied, regaining a foothold.

“And what will you sleep on?”

“Blankets. Probably just blankets on the ground.”

They both looked at her, waiting her approval. She looked ahead, setting things down pat in her mind.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You’ll go in the woods and get covered with ticks and jiggers, eat some cute little squirrel, get all hot and sweaty and all when you have a nice bed at home. Why?”

It was exasperating for sure to deal with girls. I had her figured as addled. Jesse and Moses just seemed bothered. She had brung them around to a lot less and a whole half a summer’s planning didn’t seem worth gopher’s spit.

But that was the kind of girl Sarah was. There wasn’t anything more you could want than for her to understand and there wasn’t anything she tried harder not to do. I only hoped she didn’t plan to be that way, but somehow I wondered.

“But, but don’t you see,” Jesse said, “not hardly anybody gets to do that! Least not no one in our school.”

“Why would they? Why would anyone want to do such a thing that would make them dirty and uncomfortable? I just don’t understand?’

“You ain’t never wanted to do anything like in the old days?” Moses asked.

“Not like that. Other things maybe. I might like to cross the ocean, if I could take a bath.”

“How could you take a bath in an ocean boat?” Moses asked. “They ain’t

going to give you drinking water to bath in and ocean water would pickle you

for sure. Everybody knows that, Sarah!”

Questioning her didn’t set as well as her questioning you.

“Well,” she said in an uppity way, “I wouldn’t go if I couldn’t bath, and that’s that.”

I was embarrassed to have them talking to a girl about bathing, but it didn’t seem to make a hoot to Jess and Moses.

“All I can say,” Jesse said to end things, “is we’re going camping, bathing or not, and it’s more than you or anybody from town is doing this summer and that’s that.”

“Go camping,” Sarah replied, “it means nothing to me, even if it makes no sense. I don’t know that any country boys ever make sense.”

Her and Jesse got into it quite often. I figured it was because they both were real smart and both set in their ways. Moses hardly ever talked her down, so intent was he on pleasing her. I, for one, liked to hear Jesse have at her.

“I guess,” Sarah went on, “that I got better things to do than talk to two boys who don’t give much thought to taking a bath.”

She started away, though not real fast. But Jesse wasn’t done with her.

“I’m thinking the reason you don’t want to camp out is your scared. It’s the thought of being out in the wilderness what makes you a mama’s girl, Sarah Hoffman.”

She turned around and if looks could kill Jesse would have been cold dead and gutted. Boy or girl, girl or boy, no cut was deeper than the cut of belonging to mama. I took in my breath at the sound of Jesse saying it.

“Mama’s girl?” Sarah almost spat. “Mama’s girl? Just because I won’t do what don’t make sense? Sunday dress or not I’ve a mind to knock on your head, Jesse Wills! We’ll see then about mama’s girl!”

She stepped closer to him. I was thinking this would be a sight to behold, in front of church and God and everybody!

At the last second Moses stepped in front and talked real quick-like.

“No, no,” he said, “we know your no mama’s girl. But you got ways to prove it to us, I figure.”

“I got no reason to prove nothing to you two, except that I can knock both your heads.”

She was a fireball, that’s for sure.

“Yes,” Moses went on, “but there is something we need you to do. It would help us and show us.”

She was still mad but she was also curious.

“What’s that?” she asked, sounding as bored as possible.

“Your papa still make that good peach wine all our folks like to buy?”

“He does,” she said. “Best in the state.”

“Well,” Moses said, somewhat softer, “we could use some to keep us warm in our campout.”

“What! You’re asking a girl to campout with you?”

Moses looked like he had swallowed his tongue, as that would have been a truly sinful thing to do.

“No, Sarah, no! We’ll sneak off and get it from you ourselves, next Tuesday night when we camp. Get us some?”

Sarah was doing some hard thinking.

“My daddy’s wine? He’d skin me if he found out.”

“Won’t if your careful. And no mama’s girl would ever pass wine to friends.”

Moses was playing a good hand and Jesse took to it so well that he forgot he was bowed up. He softened his voice.

“Yeah, Sarah,” he said, “for us friends. You can have a sip.”

“Don’t want a sip, nothing in a sip to me. But you would come to my house, to my window, after dark?”

“We would,” Moses said.

The thought had a hold of her, you could see it. Those blue eyes sparkled.

“A deal,” she said finally. “But I won’t do it for nothing, not take my papa’s wine.”

Jesse stepped up, a tinge of something in his eyes too.

“And what would you want?”

She held his gaze.

“Don’t know,” she said after a long while. “I’ll have to think on it.”

I was about to bust a gut. A campout like the frontiersmen and now one with wine to boot! It was too much to get a hold of!

“You sure you don’t know what you might want?” Jess asked, not letting it rest.

He moved closer to her to get eyeball to eyeball. She stood her ground and turned her face up to his. It was clear she was enjoying the tease.

“It’s hard for me to come up with anything right now. Country boys don’t have much to offer.”

The world had narrowed down to them, surrounding them in a little ball. Others were left out and you could see Moses knew it. A funny kind of hurt look took hold of his eyes and he gazed away as if searching for something to look at, his cheeks tinged red.

It didn’t seem fair to me that he was the one who came up with the peach wine idea and yet things had rolled around so that what came of it only included Jesse and Sarah. True, Sarah seemed to lean to Jess when all three were together and, true, I didn’t give a holy hoot about girls, but still I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Moses was a good fellow, just not as smart or big as Jesse.

Jess was still giving Sarah the hard eye and wasn’t about to give up.

“Well girl, you decide what you want by Tuesday night and maybe you’ll get it.”

“I’ll decide, but I doubt you’ll have it.”

“How about a slobber-faced kiss?” I blurted from behind the tree.

Jesse turned to me with pinched eyes.

“You better back away there, boy!” he said roughly.

“I was only helping,” I said, knowing I had killed the tease.

It made me feel better for Moses, though my kissing talk only made him turn redder. Preacher’s boys were more easily made red-eared than most.

“Go play baby games with your friends,” my brother ordered, taking one step my way.

A call from my father saved me. He and the other adults had moved to the tables where baskets of food had miraculously appeared.

“You boys make your way over,” he called loudly, “we need to say grace.”

“You too,” Sarah’s father said.

He was a short, shriveled, pale man, almost completely bald. Pale was the only way he could be, as he spent eighteen hours a day in his tavern in Jefferson. Sarah looked nothing like him.

In fact, she was one of those children who looked nothing like either one of their parents. Mrs. Hoffman was short and shriveled like her husband. Since I was always good at getting up close and listening, I’d heard some of the adults whisper as how she stayed likkered up a lot of the time, a thing that usually took the meat off your bones.

Sarah, even at her age then, was near as tall as they were and a lot fuller, though in no way fat. I always figured she took after a grandparent, like most folk said Jesse did Grandpa. Either that or she was adopted, though no one would ever ask seeing as how that was worse than being a mama’s girl any day of the week.

Shriveled Mrs. Hoffman stood next to my parents and shriveled Mr. Hoffman. He called to Sarah again.

“Come on now, hon,” he squeaked, his voice as little as he was, “time to eat.”

I wondered why she was scared of what he would do to her if he found out about the wine and then figured since he was a business man he would likely become a lot more puffed up when it came to a swindle of the profits. My father was that way. He was not a man to get crossways of when it came to his money, and owning a tavern was a business that sometimes could be more important than owning land.

Mrs. Hoppe, Moses’ mom, stood next to my mother. I always thought she looked like a smaller version of Mama, what with her blonde hair and pretty eyes. She was just littler, daintier, a tiny thing next to Mama. My Mama, on the other hand, was as tall as my father.

Although they never really visited each other on a regular basis, Mama and Rose Hoppe always seemed to come together when there was a gathering day. Maybe it was because Jess and me and Moses were friends or maybe it was because since they looked kind of alike, they thought kind of alike.

Mama was talking to Mrs. Hoppe as I walked up and the turn of the conversation made my heart drop.

“I don’t know,” Mama was saying. “I’m just not sure it’s a good idea for those boys to stay out all night by themselves. Jesse and Moses are the oldest and they’re just eleven. How could we know if something was to happen to them?”

“Heavens, Emily, what do you think could happen to them?” Moses’ mother said as if the thought had never occurred to her before.

“So many things! A storm, robbers, wolves.”

Hang the wolves, I thought! It was her father what killed them all!

“Do you really think?” Mrs. Hoppe said. “If they camp in sight of your house?”

“I know those boys. They won’t be too close.”

Rose put her hand on Reverend Hoppe’s shoulder. He was talking to my father and paid her touch no mind.

She said, “Samuel says they’ll be fine. He says if boys can’t camp out, they won’t know what it is to be a boy.”

Mama nodded towards my father.

“Alfred isn’t too concerned either, which makes me worry all the more. He doesn’t see danger in anything.”

My mother said ‘danger’ in a strong way, as if the word were an enemy. Danger seemed a personal affront to her.

“Well, if you really don’t think they should,” Mrs. Hoppe said, letting the decision hang on Mama.

My mother thought about it a second or two, then shrugged.

“Well, if everybody else thinks it’s all right, I don’t want to be the only one.”

The hole was jumped and I sighed in relief. Thank the Lord for the Reverend and his good wife.

My father was carrying on a conversation with Mr. Hoffman and Reverend Hoppe about politics, their usual talk fodder, and was using it as an excuse to bring up his owning of a hand-delivered Missouri Republican.

“The Republican says troubles are brewing over the slavery problem out west. I was saying the other day, Senator Douglas needs to straddle that fight and beat it dead before lesser minds carry it to blows.”

“What could the Senator do?” Mr. Hoffman said, rather sheepishly, my father’s Republican and the knowledge it imparted actually impressing him.

“He could tell those people to release their slaves. I, myself, don’t see why they’re needed.”

Father figured they could look at him and know what he meant.

“They won’t do that,” Reverend Hoppe said. “If they had plans on doing that it would have been done a long time ago when England outlawed it. The south is bullheaded. Even if they felt they could do without slaves, they would keep them. They’re the type of people who don’t like being told what to do. Course none of us do, just them more so. I’ve done a lot of thinking on it. It’s a rough land and a hard place to have settled. Maybe that’s what makes those people so stiff, even when they’re wrong and have no justification, especially in God’s eyes.”

“So what’s to be done?” my father asked, not as a question, but in a tone of voice that said the Reverend had missed the boat.

“I think soon they’ll be a fight, I see no other way. The God-fearing people of the north know the sin of slavery and will never stop demanding its end while Calhoun showed the south how to entrench, and they’ve dug one overpowering hole. I see no one turning around.”

My mother caught his words.

“Oh, how can you say that, Samuel?” she said, her hand at the bottom of her throat. “We’re a civilized land and I can’t believe we’d ever fight each other.”

“Being civilized has nothing to do with it where pride is concerned. Pride like the south owns has a tendency to swallow nations. The only thing that swallows the same is greed and I don’t know which is worse. I hope I’m wrong, but I look for war, and civil wars are always the worse.”

“Sounds like the end of the world to me,” Rose Hoppe said.

Reverend Hoppe shook his head at her.

“We can’t flatter ourselves that God would end the world because of America’s problem. No more will die here than when England fought Napoleon. People always look for the end of the world in their time because of things happening in their part of it. But no time is any worse than a hundred years before, when they were also predicting the end.”

“Good heavens, Reverend,” Mama said, “how bleak! And you a man of the bible.”

“The world is a beautiful place, it takes my breathe away every day. God did fine by the world. It’s simply that people have squandered what’s been given.”

Many things scared me, as children my age are always scared of something. Storms scared me because I always thought they hid tornadoes. We sat out many storms in our spring cellar and the wind and howling always put me to praying.

Death scared me. Not mine so much, but the death of one of my family. It was to the point that I hoped I would die before them, as the thought of Mama or Father or Jesse or Grandpa going first just broke my heart. I felt kind of funny and maybe a little ignerant thinking that way and I wondered if others my age felt the same.

Indians scared me, in spite of the fact I had never seen one. And though I wanted to grow up and be a frontier fighter like my grandfather, I always figured my first sight of the red man would cause me to droop my drawers. I only hoped I could fight and dirty myself at the same time.

But it seems to me that the thing that scared me the most was all the talk I had been hearing, for the years I had been paying attention, about the fight our country was about to get into. It was something that brewed and brewed and brewed and everyone who I respected and who talked about it, like Moses’ dad, left me with the feeling of what death and destruction it would cause. And that scared me a lot.

My mind saw dirty, ferocious southern fiends coming to my house and killing us all, after they killed our neighbors. They would chop us, or hang us, or burn us and my house and all the happiness I had known there would be gone. And the thing that kept me thinking and fearful in the dark, and made me feel most hopeless, was the fact that if the war happened there would be no escaping it. No storm cellar to hide in, no deep woods, no special hiding spot. They would come and they would find you, and hiding would be useless.

And so along the storms and someone dying and the Indians, the gist of the adult’s words and fears are what scared me the most. And all I could do was listen. I wondered if the children of the past had it so bad. I doubted they did.

My father did not like the political talk getting put aside by bible and end-of-the-world chatter and so tried to steer the conversation back where it belonged.

“I don’t know, Samuel, but I believe if there’s a man who can convince the cotton growers they don’t need their slaves, it would be our Illinois senator. Douglas is a bulldog, small as he is. He could convince then to make sharecroppers out of those people and stop all this mess. Or else send the nigras back, like I’ve heard people say. They simply aren’t worth a fight.”

“That’s what I think,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I’ve always said that. Load ‘em in a boat and send them back or else drive them into Mexico and let them live there. Ain’t Mexicans black, so to speak?”

Everyone shrugged, pondering the darker shades.

“No matter what you do,” he went on, “do something. They’re not worth white men dying over.”

Mrs. Hoffman looked at him, her dulled liquor complexion hanging on her face like a coating.

“What if they was white?” she asked.

Mr. Hoffman glared at her disapprovingly, as if he didn’t like either the interruption or the silliness of the question.

“What do you mean white?” he said. “What would a white man be doing being a slave?”

“Lillian asks a good question,” Reverend Hoppe said.

It seemed to get the goat of Mr. Hoffman. His tavern conversations must not have carried him that far.

“I don’t understand,” he said, truly puzzled. “Who on earth would own a white slave?”

“No matter the color, no matter the country,” Reverend Hoppe said, “slaves must be freed. Jesus died with no color in mind and slavery is an abomination and a slap upon His death. And if the southerners don’t come to their senses, then fight them we must, sad as I am to say it. This is a Christian country, and Christian it must act. I said in my sermon this morning, people need to treat people like they want to be treated. But southerners don’t see slaves as even people, so they treat them worse yet. Yes, God would support us in that war.”

“It’s hard to think of God supporting any war,” his wife said. “And it’s hard to think of us having to worry about it.”

She held her husband’s gaze.

“Would you fight?” she said finally. “As old as you are?”

“I would,” Samuel Hoppe said.

“Then there cannot be a war,” Rose Hoppe said.

Her voice was as strong and sure as his.

I saw Moses and Jesse and Sarah come up and Moses’ eyes were on his father. There was pride there, or something, in Moses who wanted to be a soldier.

I saw Jesse look at Father, who did not notice his gaze.

“I don’t think there will be a war,” Father said. “Not with men like Douglas and Winfield Scott and their like around. They will not allow it. It is a matter of money, and money can be made without slaves.”

“I hope your right,” Mama said. “I’ll not have any of my own fighting. I’ve never understood men wanting to go to war.”

“There is no understanding it, for sure,” Samuel Hoppe said, “but we can’t shun it and make it go away.”

The tables were completely set and everyone was closing in around Reverend Hoppe so he could say grace. I think everyone there was happy for the conversation to end.

After the meal the children played, while the grownups continued their talk.

I joined the games of the ones my age for a while but soon became tired of them. I suppose I was too use to doing things with Moses and Jess. I found myself wandering over to where they were.

The boys had found a way to show off to the girls. Sarah was among the group of girls off to the side acting like they weren’t interested.

There was a leaning maple tree at the edge of the woods. It wasn’t leaning enough so you could walk up it, nowhere near close. In fact, it wasn’t much of a lean at all. It also had no limbs for the first eight or ten feet.

The boys were getting a good start and running up the sloping side of the tree, hoping their run would carry them to the limbs. It was a tricky business. If you were going too fast and still didn’t make the limbs, you were close to straight out with the ground when you started your trip down, and the landing could be rough. Most ended up on their backs or butt. No one had made the limbs and almost all had tried.

Moses had tried and come close but in the end he came tumbling down, hitting on his heels and rolling backwards. Next Silas Young tired, bragging that that dang tree would be no problem for him. Silas was skinny and a talker. If talking could make it be, Silas would have never failed. When he didn’t make the limb he blamed his dang, worned out shoes. After him came his brother Ambrose, who was a quiet as Silas was loud, just a little dim-witted and twice as big, even though he was a few years younger. Poor Ambrose never had a chance. After him came Delwood Greer. Then Billy Beare. Then Arthur. Then Jack.

Finally, it was Jesse’s turn. He went into his run with a grin on his face as if he had no doubt. He hit the trunk already halfway to the limbs, took two more steps, then grabbed the lowest limb just as he ran out of lift. He held on a while, his feet dangling, and looked around with a grin. After a bit he handed over and over out onto the limb till he was three feet from the trunk and dropped himself to the ground. The boys cheered.

I turned then to see if the girls had noticed and sure enough they were looking. And behind them, past their shoulders, I could see my father had turned his head from the group of grownups and was taking in the scene on the sly.

There was a small smile on his face. His shoulders seemed tipped back just a might.

 

 

When we got back to the house that Sunday evening Grandpa was gone.

That was nothing unusual. We knew he was out on one of his long walks and, sure enough, his long rifle was gone from the pegs above his bed.

His mood wasn’t good that morning before we left. His tooth was still hurting him. Mama made him agree to go in Monday and have the doctor pull it. Monday was one of the days where the doctor’s round’s brought him to Jefferson.

The loss of the tooth grated twice as much as the pain on Grandpa. You could see it in his face. Every once in a while he would mumble cusswords under his breath about getting too old to be good for anything more.

So, because of his mood, Mama took to worrying when we found he wasn’t there. She was use to him being gone for days at a time, but not with a toothache.

“I hope he didn’t go so he won’t have to be here tomorrow,” she said. “The doctor won’t be back till Saturday and we could end up having to take out that tooth ourselves. That would be something. Or it could get infected and he could get bad sick. Don’t know why he had to pick today to wander off.”

She took up her worry watch and it was with relief that she looked out the front window at dusk and saw his shadowed body coming up the hill road. I went to her side and watched him close in with his long strides, the long rifle over his shoulder. He came up to the porch and took a seat at the top of the steps, as he often did.

It was a funny thing about my Grandpa and mosquitoes. Most of the time in summer, at sundown and throughout the night, it was miserable to sit outside. They came at you full of ornery and even if their biting didn’t drive you crazy, their buzzing would. Big, black snouted creatures that filled up swollen with blood and left an itch that burned all night. It was as if they owned the darkness, along with the owls and coyotes and ghosts and monsters.

But Grandpa would sit on the step on the worst of mosquito evenings and not bat an eye. And it wasn’t like the Indians.

Indians were never bothered by them, he told us more than once. Too much bear grease and wood smoke. They could be swarming you like bees to honey and an Indian would be standing there like it was a pretty spring day in April and he hadn’t a worry in the world.

“Squeeters don’t want nothing to do with that juicy In’yun skin,” Grandpa had said. “Good thing too or else the heathens wouldn’t have made it long enough for me and my friends to kill ‘em. Been a lot of shame in that.”

Grandpa’s funniness with mosquitoes wasn’t that they didn’t come near him, they swarmed him same as the rest of us. You could see them like a gray mist filling the air around him and like a gray shadow covering him.

But he didn’t swat and he didn’t cuss. He just sat there like he didn’t have a trouble in the world, looking out and taking in the night. I don’t know if he was just that tough or that they just couldn’t penetrate his skin. I figured it was the skin. It was bronzed and look stretched and dry, like a chicken that had been turned on the spit. Blue veins ran out underneath it. It looked thin and easy to break but I guessed it wasn’t. It was a woodsman’s skin, hardened by weather, and looked as tough as leather to my eyes. I imagined the mosquito snouts bending like a blade of grass against it.

That evening it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. A cool had come in from the northwest. Nothing cold, just a pleasant breeze that felt good to us for June, but it chilled the hateful mosquitoes. They would not bother the rest of night.

I moved on out the door and sat down beside him. Mama brought out a chair and sat it by the house wall, probably to feel his mood out if the conversation ran the right way. Jess saw what was happening and came out to plop beside me.

Father hardly ever joined us when we sat out on the nights the mosquitoes weren’t running. He was holed up, as usual, in his office. The Lord rested on Sundays, he often said, but never a landowner. A light from his kerosene lamp filtered out his window and onto the porch floor.

It was a beautiful night. The breeze had fanned the clouds away along with the mosquitoes and the stars were bright and glowing, with a deep look, as if they liked the weather too. The cricket chirps were so loud they had a feel of their own, like the breeze in the trees. Every once in a while a coyote yelped in the distance.

There wasn’t often a chance of getting Grandpa to make conversation unless he started it. He would either just nod at the talkers or ignore them altogether. His thoughts seemed to come ahead of someone’s chatter so we knew to sit and bide our time.

Finally, after five or ten minutes, he turned to me and Jesse.

“Done your praying, did you boys? Have a good eatin’?”

“Did,” Jess said. “I ate three chicken legs myself.”

“Only good result for somethin’ as ugly as a yard bird. And you prayed three prayers?”

It didn’t look like Jesse kept track of his praying as he didn’t answer.

“You feeling all right, Papa?” Mama asked.

“As all right as an old man has the right.”

He went to quiet again. I could barely make out his eyes following the stars. After he had traced then a while he turned to me.

“Been thinking about you saying at supper you wanted to take up a long rifle and fight like me,” he said. “Think I oughta tell you a little somethin’ about fightin’.”

I could feel Jesse stiffen beside me. I felt a shot of excitement myself. It died a little when I heard Mama talk.

“Oh, Papa, I don’t know.”

“Gonna do it, girl. Give your ears a choice.”

He took his rifle, which he had been leaning between his knees, and put it against the nearest front porch post. Mama let her doubts rest, as she always did when Grandpa spoke.

He looked back at the night sky.

“In ’15, August, I was on the north side of this state, clean north. We had a fort up there on Lake Mich’gan. Fort Dearborn, it was called. Not much of one at that, just a bunch of damn poles stood on end. A few dirt mounds. All the soldier’s rooms inside it leaked like they had no roof. A few houses sat around the place, pitiful as the fort. A few of what we figured were friendly In’yuns in the woods round and about. Place is called Chicago now, don’t nobody ‘member it was once Dearborn. I’d been wanderin’, them was my big wanderin’ days, with another woodsman.”

“Phillip Tobias!” I said excitedly.

Grandpa’s smile was small and cut short. You could see his tooth was still bothering him.

“Yes,” he said, “yes, Phillip. That was out first trip together. Just walkin’, taking in the country and ignerant ‘nuff to hit Fort Dearborn in times of trouble. We was fightin’ the British then, you know, and them hateful bastards had the In’yuns stirred. Their General in Canada was paying for scalps. Mostly he wanted men scalps but he gave a little for women and children too. Dead Americans was all the same to him. Thing was, some unfriendly warriors, them that sided with the British, moved in and tried to turn the good ones around about the fort against us. Told them about the money we could make them without our hair, told them how we were tryin’ to steal their land. Thing was, we did make ‘em money and we were tryin’ to take their land. That was the way of the frontier, you took what you was big enough to take. No denying that. So things were gettin’ into an uproar and here me and Tobias came waltzing up, dumb as hogs to the butchering knife. Was too many hatchets around for us to get out of there, we was damn lucky we made it into the fort in the first place, so we holed up in there with the rest of the folks. In’yuns started burnin’ those folks’ houses and cutting their cattle’s throats outside the fort, which kept everyone boiled up. Squalling children and stinkin’ animals all in one little area. Being use to the open woods it about gagged us, like a maggot on a gut wagon. But Phillip and I had no choice. So we hung around and got ready for a fight like the soldiers. Had a little food and In’yuns ain’t much for a long drawn affair, so we all figured we could wait them out, stink and all. Then the soldiers got to makin’ talk with the In’yun leaders and they said they would let us leave safe-like, if’n we was to promise to stay to hell and gone. No one really trusted them at their word but orders came from back east for us to leave and that Captain what commanded the fort was hell bent for followin’ orders, so leave we got ready to do. None of us who knew warriors thought much of it, but the Captain wouldn’t listen. He was told to leave and that he would. Even the man who was the In’yun agent in them parts, a fella named Wells who was more red than white by the way he dressed, told him it wasn’t no good idea. But the man wouldn’t listen. Loaded up and got ready to leave the morning of the fifteenth. Some of the officers on horses, most of the soldiers who weren’t sick afoot, women, children and the poorly in the few wagons we had. Damnedest thing I ever seen, us walkin’ out of there like we was goin’ to church like you did today. Hot sun, no air, In’yuns gathered about, nothin’ but eyes in the woods. Felt like you was walkin’ away from God’s footrest.”

Grandpa took his eyes off the sky and put them on the ground, as if his memory came better from there. The crickets seemed louder because he was quiet.

“Me and Phillip, we got ready. We knew what was comin’. Them warriors had a taste for blood and they weren’t about to go without. When we got away from the fort and was on the shore of that big lake, they came. Painted, screaming things, like hell’s own, with hatchets and guns and knives. Us men fought. The women and children was butchered. I saw one In’yun, hardly older than the children he was killing jump into a wagon full of ‘em and chop away like he was after a snake. He weren’t too good at it. It took a long time. He was having fun though, by how he was hollerin’ and carryin’ on. I was loading and shooting as fast as I could and the soldiers were chargin’ and the warriors was whoopin’ and there was noise no end and I could still hear those chil’ren and their mothers screamin’, just screamin’ and nothin’ else. Most wasn’t even tryin’ to get away, jus’ screamin’ and gettin’ hacked apart, as if the screamin’ would stop a tomahawk.”

I could see that wagon as sure as I could see the half-built moon beyond Grandpa’s head. Their parents’ scary talk had come true for those children.

“Papa,” Mama whispered.

Grandpa paid her no mind. He went on.

“We fought hard but there was no beatin’ them that day,” he said. “There was too many and we shouldn’t a been out there. Wells was killed and they cut his heart out and chewed down on it. I saw that much. And then those of us left give up. We knew we would prolly die, but it was still a prolly and that was the best you could do in those days. They separated men from the women that was left and took us across the river to their camp. God awful hot summer day. You could cut air with a knife. Stayed hot to the night. I was so thirsty I almost give up caring.”

He stopped again. It was like he’d lost his air for talking.

“Anyway.” he said after he found it, “it finally got dark and was still hot. You sweated from hot and you sweated from fear and that made for a stinking sweat, kinda sweet and rotten at the same time. You could smell yourself as well as those round you. They still hadn’t give nobody a drink. Wasn’t no moon that night and it was pitch black outside the campfires. Them In’yuns took to dancin’ and hollerin’ and holdin’ those scalps they got in our faces, sometimes slappin’ us with them. Hurt like hell, that raw skin. Worked themselves into a hell of a mood. That’s when they started pickin’ this one and then that one to burn. Thing was, they never burned you right away. First off they would cut off a nose or ear or lips, run hot sticks in your ears or eyes. Took knives and slit down ‘tween toes. Tied you down and put hot coals on your stomach or scalped you alive. Burning some poor soul wasn’t enough, I suppose. We sat in a row all hunkered like scared animals. They’d come down and pick someone out one at a time, mostly those poor damn soldiers. I’m ashamed to say I prayed they’d pick someone else when they come to me, I surely did. I wished that on someone else. I felt like smilin’ when they passed me and drug some poor screamin’ wretch to the fire. I suppose I ought to be ashamed o’ that, and maybe I guess I am.”

I think Mama was crying, though I couldn’t tell in the dark.

“Papa,” she said in a whisper, “you never told me.”

“Don’t suppose I ever told anyone. Never seen a reason till today.”

I don’t know that Jesse was breathing. If he was I couldn’t hear it. I know I hardly was. My Grandpa wasn’t just my Grandpa anymore. He became partly somebody else from that day on, a little bit of a stranger.

“They never took me nor Phillip,” he said then. “Maybe it was because we weren’t in a uniform and they thought us some dumb farmers. They usually saved out captives now and then for slaves. I guess that’s what they figured for us cause they took us away the next day and made us carry their loot from the fort. Few weeks later a kindhearted trader bought us and let us go, but there didn’t seem a chance for life that night, not settin’ there waitin’ your turn and listenin’ to the screams. Never heard such screams. It was far worse than the children in the wagon cause it weren’t just a hurt scream, it was a scream without hope. It kinda hit the dark sky and echoed back. It was screamin’ that made you think the night would never end.”

He stopped talking a while. I looked out at the night that was around me right then.

Finally, he turned and looked down at me.

“That’s what I want you to know about warrin’, boy. I ain’t telling you this to hate In’yuns, I sunk tomahawks in a number of their heads when we took their villages. Some people I fought with did as bad a things to them when they caught ‘em. They was only tryin’ to kill us before we killed them, that being the way in those days. It’s the screamin’ I want you to remember. No matter who’s fightin’ who, there’s always screamin’, one kind or another. Ain’t no heroes in a war like you think, only people screamin’ cause they’re gonna die. Fight if ever you need to, boy, but don’t want to.”

Grandpa turned to the stars again and didn’t say any more. He was done and there would be no more talking.

The breeze picked up. It turned colder. June was summer, but there was no summer that night, only cold air and deep stars.

Finally, Father’s light went out and left the porch floor.

“To bed, boys,” Mama said softly.

 

 

I laid in bed that night and stared at the dark ceiling. I could hear Jesse breathing across the room. I wasn’t able to fall asleep, and I doubt he was.

The reason I couldn’t sleep was not because Grandpa’s story had scared me. I knew the ways of Indians before the story and it didn’t put me scared of them any more than I already was.

My reason for not sleeping was because I kept thinking of Phillip Tobias. I’d been thinking of him every night since the Friday before when Grandpa told us about him as he cleaned the fish.

Something about his being by himself bothered me. Came from nowhere out east, all alone, no family, no friends except Grandpa. Who did he leave behind back east? Did they wonder about him?

Wandered alone and then with Grandpa, went to Chicago and almost died then went south and did.

Alone, in the woods, by himself again.

No one knew where. Grandpa use to, but he said he didn’t think he could find it again. He was the only one who had a chance of knowing and now he was old.

None of it seemed right. It seemed somebody should know where he was and visit him, if just to let him know he was remembered.

I wondered how many other people there was in the wilderness like him. Dead people nobody knew.

It really bothered me. So I did all I knew to do since, as much as I wanted, I knew I would never be able to stand over his grave. I had done it every night since Friday.

I laid there and thought about him, called to him in my mind until I fell asleep. Called to him in his lonely place in the woods to let him know I would remember him, though I never knew him. Called to him and let my imagination carry me over the trees to where he was. Called to him in the hope he would call back, maybe.

But he never answered.

 

July, 1853

 

The next Tuesday put us into July. Thursday would be the fourth. Moses came over for our campout that night. We told him Grandpa’s battle story.

His eyes took on a bright shine.

“It was a real battle? Charging and fighting?”

“Sure was,” Jesse said, “and then he was captured and almost burned at the stake by the Indian’s. My Grandpa was just like Daniel Boone.”

“When I become a soldier,” Moses said, “I’m gonna be a general. I’m going to lead charges

and I’m not going to lose. No Indians will beat my army.”

Jess took a slight.

“Grandpa didn’t lose the fight he was in. The Captain, or whatever he was, at the fort lost the battle.”

“Oh I know, Jess, Grandpa Turner wasn’t to blame. I’m just saying I would have done different than that Captain. We would of flanked them and gotten them into a crossfire.”

Moses liked to use long fighting words like flank and crossfire and such, thinking it gave him a head start on the general business.

It looked strange to me that Moses, a preacher’s son, would want to soldier and fight in wars. More strange that his father didn’t mind. But the Reverend said the Israelites fought all the time and the other Moses led them.

“Lordy,” Moses went on, “ I sure wish I could have been there to hear.”

“It was something,” Jesse said. “I’m sure he’ll tell us more. Heck, that was twice in not even a week that he told us frontier stories.”

“He told this one on account of me,” I threw in quickly. “Wanted to explain to me about fighting and all. Didn’t he, Jess?”

Jesse didn’t figure that, as a little brother, I was worth the time answering.

“Probably won’t say any more for a day or two though,” Jesse went on. “Mama made him go to town to the doctor about his tooth yesterday. Doctor pulled the one that was hurting and said the one next to it was rotten too and it might as well be pulled, so Grandpa said go ahead, Mama said he acted like he didn’t care. Thing was, he disappeared when he got home and we’ve not seen him since, though Mama thinks he’ll be here tonight. Losing teeth sure takes it out of Grandpa, makes him feel sad and old and him the strongest one around here. Sure wish it didn’t bother him. Anyway, not likely to do much talking till he gets over those teeth.”

“I just hope I’m here next time,” Moses said

“What you got in your roll?” Jess asked Moses, pointing to the blanket he had under his arm.

Moses put it on our front porch floor and opened it up

“Tin plate, a fork, cornbread and a cup. Not much of anything, just like a frontiersman. Your Mama going to give us the eggs for supper?”

“So she says, though I hate to go in and get it from her. Every time we do we get a talking to. She’s fretting us to death.”

“My mama too. Says she thinks we’re too young. If it weren’t for Papa, I think she’d make me stay home.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “Don’t they know what men are like? Heck, they’d all be dead if it weren’t for men camping out and killing Indians.”

They ignored me again but I was used to it.

It was late afternoon and we were excited and ready. The campout day had finally come, like Christmas, and it was on the fourth of July.

“Let’s go,” Jesse said. “We’re burning daylight.”

We went into the front hallway and stopped at Father’s door. He was scrunched down at his desk, writing.

“Going, Father,” I said, puffing my chest out. “Camping out.”

He lifted his head and looked at us a long time.

“You boys be careful out there,” he said after a while. “If anything happens to you I won’t hear the end of it. Don’t let me down, understand. If you have a mind to come on to the house, no matter how late.”

“Won’t be back,” Jesse said strongly. “We’re staying the might, no matter what.”

“I might come up with a matter-what. If I come out on this porch and holler, you best be coming,”

“What would you be hollering for?”

“Don’t know, or that I’d say if I did know. You just listen in case I do.”

We nodded and headed to the back of the house to face the worse, the one who knew of a thousand ways to die or be maimed. It was enough to bow your shoulders.

Mama was at the kitchen table getting things together when we came in. Her face was pinched as if she’d sucked a lemon.

“Hello, Moses,” she said. “I see you’ve got your blanket.”

“Yes, mam.”

“A thick one? It could turn cool like Sunday night.”

“Plenty thick, Mrs. Wills. Papa said it would do just fine.”

“I wish your mother was here. We need to talk about this again.”

“Done decided, Mama,” Jesse said. “We’ll be just fine. What could happen?”

Mama shook her finger at him.

“Don’t say things like that! That could make it happen. Wolves, and God knows what all out there.”

If it didn’t cause me to stay home I was ready to say be-damned those mangy wolves.

“We’ll be fine, Mama,” Jesse sighed.

“I hope so, I most certainly do. This is not my idea and you remember that.”

She showed us our blankets, thicker by far than Moses’. She had put our eggs and a skillet and grease in a cloth sack. We took it all and headed for the front door with her behind us reciting her terrible list.

“Make a big fire, but don’t burn yourselves up. Watch the weather and start in before any lightning, but if it starts, don’t stand up. Watch the coyotes, they’re as bad as wolves, they’ll kill a cow, you know. You got to watch walking around in the dark, else you’ll break a leg. Don’t eat no mushrooms. Cook these eggs good, too raw and you’ll be pucking. Don’t get close to the fire with these blankets, sleep far enough away so a corner won’t fall in but get close enough so you won’t get chilled.”

We went out the door and down the steps without stopping.

“Wait, now, wait!” Mama called.

We turned around.

“Right over there,” she said pointing. “That’s where you’ll go and that’s where you’ll stay?”

To the east of our house the hill fell away to a small valley then rose again till the new hillside met a woods. Where they met was maybe a half mile or less from the house and could be seen easily from the front porch. That was to be our appointed campground.

“Right there,” she went on, “where I can see you.”

“Yes, Mama,” Jess said.

“And you won’t leave that spot?”

“No, Mama.”

“Grandpa’s got good eyes. I’m liable to send him out on the porch to check on you.”

“We’ll be fine,” Jess said with a sigh.

“All right,” she said, more to herself than us. “All right then. Please, please take care of yourselves.”

We started across the grass and down the hill. It wasn’t long before we heard her voice behind us, getting louder as we got farther away.

"Watch your brother, Jesse! Make him stay close! He's littler, you know. Don't spill hot grease on yourselves! Pick off any ticks! Got water? Did I give you water? Come home if you get scared! Watch for highwaymen! Coons will bite you if they got the slobbering fits, even squirrels! Watch for skunks, they'll blind you! Don't --"

Her voice died away, like a man falling off a mountain. It got weaker and weaker and then we just couldn’t hear it any more though we knew it was still there. Probably be there the next morning when we came back, finishing up.

In spite of the weight of Mama’s endless list, I felt like I was on a cloud. I knew Moses and Jesse felt the same. We gabbed nonstop as we made our way towards the spot.

When we got there we picked a place a little away from the woods. It was a nice, level, grassy area, a perfect camp for frontiersmen. We laid our loaded blankets down and looked around, proud-like.

“Well, what first?” Moses asked.

“Firewood,” Jesse said. “Got to have plenty of firewood.”

We went to the woods and gathered. Not knowing how much we just kept on and on till we had a large pile, big enough to hold a fire all night and enough left for a small fort, if the need arose. It went three quarters around our campsite and was half again as tall as me.

It took a while and we were hot and sweaty when we were done. We sat and shared a drink from a brown jug of water Mama had sent. I gulped long and hard.

“Ho down there!” Jesse hollered. “We got to ration. Don’t you know you ration in the wilderness!”

“Ration?” I said, trying to catch my breath after the last swallow.

“It means we got to make this last, igernent.”

“But I was thirsty.”

“Gut it up.”

“Now we eat, huh?” Moses asked, anxious to get along with the campout experiences.

“Suppose so,” Jess said. “Suppose that’s next.”

We piled some small wood on top of some leaves and started a fire without trouble. We even cleared out a proper bare area around the flames so it couldn’t spread. Jesse took the skillet out and plopped the grease into it and started it to walking across the hot metal, holding the metal handle with a rolled cloth. When the grease was melted and bubbling Moses broke the six eggs into it. They spattered something fierce and we scuttled away, Jesse almost dropping the skillet. I hollered and made a jump over the high wood pile.

Jesse got things under control, though, and me and Moses made our way back after he did.

“Cook ‘em good, Jess,” I said, “I don’t want to puke.”

Those had to be the best eggs I ever ate. They slid down our throats like snow off a warm roof and we sopped the yellow up with pieces of bread broke by dirty, camp-out hands. Nothing could have tasted better.

Afterwards we sat and leaned back against the wood and burped and made manly noises, Moses going so far as to popping off a shot of gas. I tried to match, but none beckoned.

“Now what?” Jesse said after a while, preparing to grab hold of the subject we all had on our minds. “We’re going to town, ain’t we boys?”

“Should we?” I asked, just a little scared.

“Sure we should,” Moses said. “Why not? Who’s to stop us?”

Meeting a girl just wasn’t as important to me as them. Not if it made me have to go home.

“What if we get caught?” I moaned.

“We won’t,” Jess said, “not unless you get igernent and talk. All we got to do is wait till almost dark, when it’s hardest to see, then sneak off.”

“I ain’t going to tell, but what if they come over to see about us?”

“That’s a chance we have to take,” Moses said. “We said we would, and I’m not gonna not go and be a mama’s boy. Plus I want the wine.”

You want the stupid girl, I thought, but didn’t say.

“What we do is this,” Moses said. “Wait till it’s hard to see, like I said, then put grass and sticks in our blankets like we’re rolled in them, then go on in. We can be in Jefferson and back in a couple hours if we hurry. You can stay here by yourself if you want, Tom.”

“Won’t! I ain’t scared to go!”

“Yes you are. You’re just more scared to stay.”

“Am not!”

“Shush your mouth,” Jess said. “If we was frontiersman the Indians would have us scalped on account of your big mouth.”

I shushed, knowing when I’d been put in my place. But my stomach felt queasy with the idea of leaving like we were told not to do. Father had never whipped us but doing that could be enough to make him break his fast, and I didn’t cotton to a whipping. That came right after Indians and tornadoes in my things to be scared of.

But I knew I had no choice but to go along with the older boys in their trip to see the little red haired yakker they thought so highly of. I wasn’t about to stay by those dark, brooding woods by myself.

So a little while later we started stuffing the long blades of grass into our blankets, then added sticks and little fat logs for our legs and heads. I actually thought we didn’t do too bad, except that had the lumps in the rolls really been us I would have had to say we got bloated by the eggs.

Just as the shadows started deepening and our house became a gray clump across the little valley, we started away by the side to the woods so as not to be seen. I gazed across towards the house to see if anyone was standing outside and watching but couldn’t make anything out.

The birds had started their before-dark singing. The clouds were deep and dark with red at the tops of them in the west. I hoped they weren’t storm clouds. A streak of light popped behind the largest group. I watched it and felt chilled. Moses saw me looking.

“Heat lightning,” he said.

I hoped he was right, but the sky and the world looked awful big and ready to swallow me just the same. Made me think that, though I truly wanted to camp out, my bed would have felt mighty nice just the same.

We walked quickly and did not talk. There was no way to gab and still keep your breath coming. I kept up as best I could but it was a chore with my short legs. But I knew they would not tolerate me falling behind and I could not bear the thought of standing under those big, black clouds all alone.

So it was walk, walk and the sound of heavy breath and our feet plying the tall grass. Before long we hit the road and things was somewhat easier. We stopped a ways from Moses’ house and looked it over. No one seemed about and only the tiniest lights filtered out the window slats. I wondered if Moses thought about how good his bed would feel. Probably not, I decided, him having a girl on the brain.

“Best we sneak around,” he whispered. “Papa sometimes comes out on the porch.”

We made our way into the field across the road from the house, bending over so our shadows would not be seen above the weeds. After we were past the place we circled back onto the road.

Not too much longer and we could see the clumps that as the roofs of Jefferson, with a light coming through a window now and then.

It was not much of a town. One main dirt street with a mercantile store in the middle of it and various other businesses on both sides either way of the mercantile. A blacksmith shop, a bank, this and that. At the far end of the street, on the same side as the mercantile, was the tavern Sarah’s father ran. Besides drinks, it served sandwiches in the evening and breakfast in the morning. I don’t know when her father ever slept, which may have explained his scrawniness.

Sarah lived with her parents in the back part of the tavern, that part being made up like a house. It was a funny building, the front looking like a tavern, the back like a house, with a little porch and all. The few other houses in the town, there were maybe twenty or so of them, were on little side roads away from the main street.

When we came to the edge of town we circled away from the main road so we could come at Sarah’s building from the back, where she’d be, and where it would be darkest. A dog barked as we passed a neighbor’s backyard and I almost dribbled in my pants. It was a good thing that the house with the dog had an old wooden fence around it.

After a spell of sneaking and running we came to the Hoffman’s backyard, which was made up like most people’s front yard. We crouched there under a runty maple.

A faint light showed through a curtain in one of the bottom windows. Noises of voices and a door opening came through the heavy night air from the front of the tavern. Our dog friend had stopped his nagging bark. We hunched under the tree and pondered all this.

“Now what?” I whispered, wishing all the more we hadn’t bothered coming in the first place.

“I don’t know,” Moses answered. “I expected her to be at her window waiting. Didn’t she figure we’d come? Guess we could throw a rock and get her attention.”

“What!” Jesse said, louder than he should of. “And break a window!”

Glass was a hard won item in our area.

“Well,” said Moses, “we got to do something. Look igernent as hell just sitting out here staring at the dark.”

It was saying something about our predicament that a preacher’s son would stoop to a profanity. I had a feeling they weren’t as keen on the expedition as they were when we first started out.

“I say we just go back,” I put in, “before they miss us.”

Although Jesse didn’t resemble Father in many ways to speak of, one thing he had for sure gotten from him and that was an overly large amount of pride. It was one of the few things that ever got him into trouble, smart as he was. He did not take to insults against himself and his own, justified or not, and he did not take to failing at something. When Father took his rides over his properties his head was held high, some would have said too high. When Jess felt the chance of belittlement or insult coming, his head took a rise, as that God-awful pride he got from our father took hold of him in a like way. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad him claiming that pride, as it made him do rightful things. Other times, though, it took on a stubborn bent and things would happen especially when you added what he had gotten from Grandpa on top of it.

I could feel his head kick back that night, even in the dark, and I knew we was about to finish what we started, like it or not.

“You all can do as you like,” he said. “But I’m not going back and I’m not throwing rocks. I’m going up to that window and I’m getting that mama’s girl to come to it so I can tell her what I think.”

“What if it ain’t her window?” Moses asked.

“We’ll have to chance it.”

“No, Jess,” I moaned.

“Go on with you then,” he said, looking at me hard, “go on off. But I’m going over.”

Girls, I thought, they held a vicious curse.

Having said what he said, Jesse started in a low run across the Hoffman’s yard. I looked at Moses and saw all white eyes, and he looked at me, and then he followed.

“Oh, dang it!” I said to myself, then followed too.

Likker, I had heard, made men mean, and the front part of that building was chock-full of likkered men. I imagined us being beat senseless by Mr. Hoffman and the drunks that would be following him. It seemed a fate worse than being captured by Indians, such was the church stories I’d been told of likkered men.

We soon made it to the window, breathless and fretful. We stopped and listened. Nothing came from that room, the only noise the muffled sounds of the wild-eyed drunks in the tavern.

If Jesse held a fear of likkered demons, he didn’t show it. He eased up and tapped the glass. It sounded like a gunshot to me. He leaned back down.

Nothing. I hoped that meant we’d go, but that worrisome pride had him and he reached up and tapped again.

I looked behind me and picked my running path in case Mrs. Hoffman’s ragged head poked out. I planned a skitterish dash beyond the outhouse, using it for cover.

This time, after a half minute or so, footsteps made their way towards the window from the inside, tiny, uncertain footsteps. I eyed the outhouse path.

Someone stopped behind the curtained glass.

“Jesse Wills?” Sarah’s trembling voice said softly. “Is that you?”

You could see Jesse’s shoulders draw back, manlike.

“It is,” he whispered back. “We come like we said.”

The curtains turned back and she put her face to the panes, all one big smile. Behind her the kerosene lamp was burning at half wick, setting the room with an easy glow. It seemed to frame the soft reddish brown hair that was combed straight back, and made it look full and strong. Her skin had a soft shine and her teeth were straight and white. Her eyes burned within her smiling face. She seemed to glow like that kerosene lamp. As much as I thought poorly of girls, and as much as I was wishing to be somewhere else, I had to admit she was something to see.

I know, entrapped by her as they were, she hit Jess and Moses all they could stand. All I heard from them was air being sucked.

She looked over her shoulder then turned back and opened the window.

“So,” she said after she did, “you poor country boys came after all. I had about given up on you.”

She may have been scared when she came up to the window but the old Sarah was back in place now.

Jesse recovered himself as fast as she did.

“We said we would, didn’t we? Came all the way in the dark and no ones the smarter.”

“That you did,” she said a little louder, “but it means nothing to me. In fact, I’d say it’s kind of foolish.”

“Shush!” I said to her loudness. “Your Mama might hear!”

She waved me off.

“Not my Mama,” she said. “This time of night she’s had her drinks and fallen dead asleep. She couldn’t hear a thing and nobody in the bar can hear a thing either.”

Her earlier remark had gotten Jesse’s back up.

“Means nothing to you,” he repeated. “Well, isn’t that something. We are good to our word and you make light of it. But I guess keeping word means more to men than girls. I got my doubts you kept yours.”

Those eyes fired up a little more under that fiery hair. She reached down below the window and came up with a brown bottle full of something.

“Not keep my word, country boy?” she said. “And what would a big man like you call this bottle of peach wine?”

“Lordy!” Moses said, profane for the second time that night. “You done it girl, you sure enough done it!”

“Said I would. And if he misses it and I get the blame, I guess I’ll take the whipping for it. Now what, Jesse?”

The rise was gone from Jesse’s voice. He reached up and took the bottle respectfully.

“He wouldn’t whip you,” he said softly. “We wouldn’t let him.”

She laughed and it came out like a grown woman’s laugh.

“And just how would you stop him?”

“I don’t know. I just know I would.”

She looked at him and saw he meant it and the laughing stopped. There was something else there, her holding him in her gaze, and what it was was hard for me to fathom.

We were all quiet for a while, her look, and what she had done bringing things to a halt.

The heat lightning stroked again in the distant black, westernmost clouds. To the east the stars were out, visible in spite of Sarah’s light. A moon, three quarters full and huge, loomed there. Our dog friend was sniffing on the other side of his rough fence. Behind us, drowning out the drunks, the crickets started in with a vengeance. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to be there after all, I thought.

“So,” Moses said finally. “I guess we ought to be getting back.”

Sarah put her hands on the windowsill.

“Well, isn’t that just like you. Come all this way, get what you want, then leave without sharing a taste with the one risking a whipping.”

Moses seemed truly surprised.

“You would have a drink with us?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “but let me come out.”

Before we could even think or talk she swung her legs across the sill and jumped out onto the ground. She was wearing a pale linen gown that came down to her calves and was held onto her shoulders by two wide straps.

I almost died of embarrassment, right there. Nothing in my life had prepared me for a girl in her night clothes and I didn’t know if I was to turn away, pray to God, or both. The lightning, I just knew, would be forced to forgo the horizon and come down on us. I mean, she was covered, and the cloth plenty thick, but night clothes was night clothes no matter what and there she was in front of us with hers on. But that was Sarah. She didn’t seem to give it a thought in the least.

For the second time in not too long a while I caught the sound of air sucking in from the two bigger boys. Moses seemed inclined to turn away like me.

“Let’s sit down,” she said, “so we won’t be seen.”

She sat with her back to the wall of her house and her legs pulled up inside her gown. Without hesitation, Jesse plopped down on her right. Much slower, Moses took his place on her left. That put me by myself in front of them, facing the window.

“Pretty night, isn’t it?” she asked, looking up and around.

“Just right for a campout,” Jess said. “We’ve had a fire and cooked our supper over it. Got wood for the whole night.”

She shook her head.

“You three still intend on staying out when you all have beds? No figuring country boys.”

“You didn’t doubt us. You got the wine.”

“Might have took it anyhow. Never know when you might want a slug.”

“You’ve had it before?” Moses asked, surprised.

She smiled.

“No, I was just teasing. I guess I should have tried it, but I never did. Saw no reason. But I’m willing to give it a try now.”

You could see Jesse was mightily impressed with her. He looked at her with a crooked grin.

He said, “No better time than the present.”

He took the brown, long-spouted bottle and held it in his right hand, putting his left palm to the cork. He couldn’t get it first try, opened and closed his left hand to get it ready for another go, then tried again. This time there was a puff of air as the cork broke seal. Right away I could smell the sweet, heavy odor that lolled out. Likker. The stuff that made you mad, like a slobbering dog.

I could not believe they were going to drink it. It would cause them to be hurtled to hell for sure. I wondered if I would be offered a draw. I hoped not. I didn’t think I could do it and didn’t want to be called a mama’s boy.

Jesse cleaned his lips like a man, with the back of his hand, and without a second thought took a chug. The air bubbles rose from bottom to top. After his swallow he put the bottle between his legs and looked straight ahead, as if waiting for something to happen. For a second his eyes popped and teared but he didn’t flinch. The devil had given him strength for sure, I thought.

He passed the bottle to Sarah. She didn’t seem as cock-sure as before. She looked nervously at the two on either side of her, then she took in a breath and put the opening to her lips. She held it there a while but I wasn’t all that sure any bubbles rose. As it was she didn’t let on that she noticed any burn. She passed to Moses.

Old Mos’ didn’t want to waste any time so he took a fast drag. Probably figured that was the only way to get through it.

If I ever had a thought about wanting a taste of peach wine, poor Moses Hoppe’s take on his slug put the idea away. It was as if he’d sucked the draft of a peed-on fire.

What his body had took in, it wanted out, revolting against him. Not wanting to cough out loud he buried his face on the grass to his side and heaved his back in desperation.

I’d imagine if it hadn’t scared them so, his going into a fit, the other two would have had a good laugh at his expense. As it was, after the first jump back, both Jesse and Sarah come forward and pounded on his back. Recovery took a minute but after he got back his air he raised and tried talking first off.

“Wrong pipe is all…” he blurted out. “Just…just went down the wrong…pipe…that’s all.”

“Sure,” Jess replied, nice enough, “that can happen easy.”

Sarah took the bottle from him to protect him from spilling it. She looked at me and offered and I shook my head hard enough to flop my hair. I’d decided I’d rather be a mama’s boy as dead.

Then I shot my eyes at the window above her.

“You sure your Mama won’t hear that, Sarah?” I said in a loud whisper.

“My Mama doesn’t hear anything this time of night. She’s had her own wine and is in bed by now, snoring like a man. She’s a drunk.”

We were taken aback by what she said and how she had said it. She wasn’t mad and she wasn’t disgusted, she seemed to be only passing on some information. But a likkered woman was some highly loaded information for our part of the country.

“She’s not a drunk, surely,” Moses said, fully recovered from his coughing bout. “My Papa’s a preacher and he’ll have a small glass of your Papa’s wine now and then.”

Sarah shrugged her shoulder and brought the bottle to her lips again, but this time the pretending to drink was too obvious not to notice.

“I don’t care if you know,” she said after she was done. “Whether people know or not don’t change a thing or make a difference to me. She drinks herself to sleep every night and my father never comes in till late and he’s closed the tavern and I have the whole house to myself. So it’s pretty good.”

“Every night?” Jesse asked.

“Every night.”

We three boys were in a turmoil. We didn’t want to know any more if she didn’t want to say anymore, but were dying to find out more.

So nothing was said for a while as we looked down and around at nothing in particular. But being the youngest, and so the most senseless, I couldn’t stand it and decided to blurt out what I was thinking.

“Does it make you sad?” I asked.

She looked at me puzzled. Not mad, but puzzled.

“Sad?”

I shrugged.

“Sad,” I said. “I mean, you by yourself cause your papa’s working and your mama a drunk. I just thought you might be sad.”

I thought maybe my stupid curiosity might have been too much for her. She put the bottle to her lips again and this time took a drink for sure. A long, hard run of bubbles rose.

Thing was, she took it better than Moses. Her eyes teared and her face scrunched up like she’d just had a dose of the coughing oil the doctor made our parents give us. After it rode its way down she looked at me and tried to smile again in spite of her wet eyes.

“Don’t make me sad,” she said finally, “because I don’t let it bother me. I done decided I’m going to have it different when I get older and I don’t care what they do now.”

Jess took the bottle from her absently and, just as absently, took a small chug.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

She looked at him, then away, as if she wasn’t sure about if she wanted to say anything. But I think the likker had her a trifle.

“I know the kind of person I want to be with and I’ll only be with that one and that person will make my life right. I’ll be with whoever loves me most.”

Talk of love amongst young ones was about the most embarrassing thing there was but somehow, just then, none of us seemed to bothered by it. Even me, the most easily embarrassed when it came to girls. Maybe it was the dark that kept Moses and Jess from turning red. For my part, I wanted to understand what she meant.

“Don’t they love you?” I asked, having to know.

She pursed her lips.

“Sure they do. I guess they do. I know what I said before but the truth is my father has never whipped me. He don’t even shout at me. Mama neither, she don’t shout at me, not unless she’s really drunk. They just kind of leave me alone. But I’m gonna have it different when my time comes. I’ve looked at things and done a lot of thinking and decided.”

“What?” Moses said. “What have you decided?”

He had the look that said he wanted to know real bad.

“You don’t really want to know, and if you so it’s just to run off and tell others so they can tease me.”

“Never,” Jess said strongly. “Never.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” Moses added, his eyes on her, “I promise you that.”

She thought a while, then went on.

“Let me ask you all,” she said, “since you all seem so nosy to know. Who loves you the most?”

It seemed an igernent question but Moses was smittened enough to answer.

“My Mama and Papa,” he said quickly.

“But if you was married and had children, who would love you the most?”

Moses was surely confused. It took him a while to answer.

“All the same, I guess.”

She shook her head.

“Aren’t any all the same, not in nothing. Somebody’s always a little more, and I’m going to find that person, the one who loves me the most. When I do I’m going to cling to whoever it is. I’ll not go through life any other way, it’s too short. You’re not here long enough for nothing else as I see it. I mean, I’ll love all my family, children and the one I marry. But the one that loves me the most, that’s the one I’ll make sure about and keep around, no matter what. That’s the one I’ll always talk to and keep my secrets with. That’s the one I’ll die with. Could be my husband, could be my child. I doubt it’ll be my mama or papa, but no matter, I’ve decided that’ll be my way.”

Jesse put the bottle aside, deep in thought. I was glad he did. I didn’t look forward to him pucking.

“Sounds kind of harsh, I think,” he said, “or maybe I just don’t understand. There’s a lot of people that everybody knows who could be thought highly of. Seems it’d be hard to pick one above the rest.”

Sarah cupped her hands on her lap.

“It’s took a lot of thinking,” she said, “but I’ve had the time. I intend to be happy, and not like my cousin Jenny. You all know her? Jenny Bain?”

We shook our heads. Sarah continued.

“She’s from the next county. My first cousin. Jenny held me on her lap and played with me when I was a baby, I remember. Well, Jenny got older and decided she needed marrying and so said yes to Charlie Bain. He was her neighbor and was the first to ask and so since it was time, by everybody’s figuring, she married to get on with her life. Least that’s how it looked to me. Don’t know that she really loved him that much to speak of or that she really didn’t. He was just the first to ask and it was past time and so she married him. He didn’t really do anything to her or anything, but I really don’t think she was altogether happy. Anyway, she was twenty-four and got pregnant and the baby tried to come out sideways and they both died, easy as you please. First we got word she was having the baby and the next thing we heard she was dead. While we was at their house where they had her laid out, Charlie was hardly sad, saying things like it was the Lord’s way and such. And I looked at Jenny, all peaked and white, and thought, what did she ever have? Her mama and papa had eight children, couldn’t care for one more than the other, and her husband she hardly knew and here she was twenty-four and childless and dead and what did she really have? It was then I decided I wouldn’t go through this short life that way. If I never got married and people talked about it, then they’d have to talk. No way I’m ever gonna waste my time without someone loves me so much it hurts and I love back the same. I want to look at them and feel warm just because I looked at them. You can’t feel that strongly but about one person. I’m gonna find that person and I’m gonna give them all I got and expect the same in return. I don’t want to someday leave and feel I’ve come up short, like Jenny. And I won’t mind being alone, if I have to. I’m used to alone.”

She went quiet then, as if thinking she’d said too much.

I don’t know Jess and Moses was thinking. I confess I was more confused than before. I decided not to say anything, since I hadn’t an idea what to say.

It was Jesse, the smartest one of us all, who talked first, and I suppose it was the mark of our blurriness that what even he came up with sounded a trifle igernent.

“It’ll work out, I suppose,” he said.

Sarah grinned funny, and her voice sounded a little disappointed.

“Yes,” she said, “I suppose it will.”

The crickets was getting real loud. The moon was growing smaller.

Sarah leaned back and put a hand to hair.

“Gracious,” she said, “my head is spinning.”

“It is?” Jesse said. “Mine ain’t.”

He said that even though he looked a little wobbly from my point of view.

“And you all still intend to take that bottle and spend the night out with the ticks and chiggers?” she asked in a way that said she wanted to move on.

“We’re camping till morning,” Moses said determinedly.

“I just don’t know,” she said. “Country boys. Just don’t know.”

“Maybe you better go in now,” Jesse said. “You may get caught otherwise.”

She let the hair drop from her hands.

“Could be your more scared if you don’t get back, you’ll be caught.”

“No,” I said, “we stuffed our blankets.”

“What?”

“Stuffed them with grass and sticks to look like us.”

She looked at us and laughed her grownup laugh again.

“Boys!” she said. “Don’t know that I’ll ever figure one. Do you figure those sticks and grass are as smart as you?”

“It worked,” Jesse said. “No one’s come after us, have they?”

“Least not yet, but I wouldn’t count my eggs, unless you taught those sticks to lie real good for you. But I’ll go in if you think I should. Wouldn’t want to slow you down from your manly campout.”

She turned and pulled herself into the window with nary a problem at all, peach wine or not. When she got there she leaned out on the sill again.

“Hurry back,” she said, “if you get bored with chiggers and ticks.”

Jesse was closest to our leaving path so he waved, bottle in hand, and loped across the backyard. Moses was next but he was having a problem getting his legs started. He stood and looked at Sarah in the window.

Once more she looked soft and pretty but, after what she had said, also kind of small and lonely too. It was a big window in a big house.

Moses turned and made two steps as if to follow Jesse, who hadn’t slowed down, then stopped, clenched his fists at his side and turned back to run up to her. He put his hands next to hers and she looked puzzled.

“I-I love you,” he said.

And then he thought better of it, bent his head as if ashamed, turned and ran with his head still down to catch up with Jesse, who was too far away to hear.

I went after him but looked back to catch a glimpse of Sarah at her window, her mouth gaped.

I was stunned at what he said and thought about it all the way back as I ran to keep up with their long strides. No one talked.

Loved her? Moses had said he loved her! That was talk for adults, people who wanted to be married, and it made me feel red and flushed, even though he was the one who said it.

Love? Moses? I knew he and Jesse was taken with her, but love? Had what she said spurred him on? Did he want to beat Jesse to the punch? Or did he really, really think he loved her? Want to marry her?

It was too much for my mind to untangle, leastways at eight going on very close to nine.

Love was something your parents had. Love was something you had for your parents but quit telling them before you was very old. It was something too embarrassing to talk about, much less tell a girl.

And yet Moses did, he surely did.

And I knew if I was to stay his friend, I would never tell.

 

 

When we got back to our camp the moon was still trying to rise and the

fire burning, though barely. We couldn’t have been gone very long though it

surely did seem forever.

No one was there to catch us, the way it looked. Across the valley our house still had a small light in one of the windows and no one moved about.

I immediately began to feel better about our expedition. It would be cause for some good bragging when we got back to school. I felt myself puff up in anticipation of the telling I would do.

“Best rebuild our fire,” Jess said after we had looked around. “Someone might start to wonder.”

We did just that then sat down around the blaze and stared into it, Jesse still holding the bottle.

“Wasn’t that something,” he said after a while. “We done it, didn’t we?”

“Sure enough did,” Moses said. “Said we would, then we done it.”

The fire crackled and snapped, agreeing with our bravery.

“Likely to rain,” Moses said, his eyes on it, “way that fire’s popping.”

“Hope not tonight,” I put in.

The sky had completely cleared of the clouds in the west. The bowl of stars above us was unending. The fire looked to be wrong.

“Damn,” Jesse said in a burst, a smile taking his face, “she came out in her nightgown! Only Sarah!”

“Hopped right out,” Moses said, himself smiling, “like she didn’t have a care in the world. And took some wine, just like us!”

Jesse all of a sudden became serious.

“What do you suppose she meant?” he asked. “About what she said?”

Moses shrugged.

“I don’t know. I think the wine was running her tongue.”

“I don’t think wine can work you over that fast, can it? I mean, it never did get to me.”

“Me neither,” Moses put in. Obviously, he didn’t consider his ground choke as being got to. “But no matter, that talk of hers was strange.”

“Kind of sad,” I put in.

“Yes,” Jess said, “and kind of hard to figure.”

We fell silent. With just us there, talk about love and a silly girl seemed an uncomfortable idea. She wasn’t there to say what we couldn’t.

“Want more wine?” Jess asked, holding the bottle to Moses.

“Maybe one slug.”

He took his slug slowly, in an effort to recoup what he had lost in gagging the last time, and seemed to take to it better. He did not cough but his eyes did water.

He looked at me as he drank and ran his question by with his eyes. He knew from my look back that I had heard what he said to Sarah, but also that I wouldn’t tell. He nodded his head at me then gazed at the ground and stiffened his legs against the heat of the peach wine going down.

“Gawd!” he said. “That’s sure enough likker!”

“That it is,” Jess said, taking another slug himself.

The bottle was not offered to me and I did not regret it.

I of a sudden felt very, very tired. Not sleepy tired, just tired. I laid back on my blanket and looked up at the stars. I had never really looked at them so hard ever before.

Sometimes when we had been visiting and were coming home in our carriage after dark, I’d lay in the back behind the second sea, and I would try to study them. I was the only one little enough to lay there and had that piece of the world to myself.

But we were bouncing all the time and my looking never really came to much.

In the evenings when we sat out on Father’s big front porch, when the mosquitoes allowed us doing it, I tried to follow the night sky now and then. But the trees that overhung our house took away a big part of the view.

That night, however, nothing shook and nothing hung in the way. They were truly there and I noticed for the first time the little cloudy ones behind the big ones. Must have been miles away, I figured, miles away and too far to fathom. Dropping dew on the world while following along with the moon.

Was God behind them? Or did He want to stay in daylight and so had ridden off with the clouds of the day?

I found myself not paying any attention to Moses and Jesse. Their conversation had slid away anyhow as if they were caught by the same mood as I.

I laid there and felt the cool green grass and wondered about God and the stars, deciding I needed to take in everything on this night I had looked forward to for so long, this night that would be the first whole night I ever truly experienced outside.

Frogs had joined in with the crickets and the noise became loud enough that you had to figure the world was only frogs and crickets.

The moistness in the night air began to cover everything, like the night noises. It covered the grass, my blanket, my face and my hair. It held onto you in a way that told you it was late and that the night had you in its grasp. It told you the night was there. It told you to cover up.

I rolled onto my side and looked at the fire. I looked beyond the flames on the outside into the logs and stared at the glowing orange on the bottom side of each and at the coals below them that had popped off.

A fire is a thing that takes your mind, especially outside under the endless stars. It sits there so small and yet so large, the only thing between you and the wet night.

I imagined myself in those little orange-red caves of log bottoms and embers, tiny and unhurt by the heat, moving through a strange world that changed by the minute. It was a warm place and it had many ins and outs and took me around and around to where I could touch the softly glowing walls in awe. My eyes grew hot and watery from following the paths I could take. Jesse and Moses did not move, their eyes on the fire too. They were probably walking there with me.

When my back felt damp and heavy and a little cool I rolled over and put it to the fire. Laying that way I looked out and down the hillside into the woods a hundred feet or so away.

The large moon put a glow to all that was not in shadow and it was a strange glow, looking like a snow that was and yet was not really there. The humps of the bushes and shrubs and the underside of the trees were dark because the snow-light could not fall there. I stared at what I could not see in the woods.

In a while I saw Indians there, completely hidden except when they now and then put their faces around the tree trunks, making those faces light up with the glow of the open ground. Those faces were not painted. They did not seem mean, only curious, and I was not scared of them. When they ducked back to hide I kept my eyes on the spot until they looked again. They never let their faces show for long knowing, I guess, that I saw them.

It took me to wondering if they were some of the Indians Grandpa and Phillip fought in Chicago? If so, I wondered why they were not fiercer. Maybe they were sorry for what they had done. Maybe they wanted me to know they would not burn me.

Before long one or two began creeping forward, from tree trunk to bush, waiting a while after each move, popping their heads several times above their hiding place before starting forward again. I wanted to tell them to come on, that I would not run.

I was asleep and yet not asleep. I lived in a strange world of a warm back and cold face, where the night was strong. My arms and feet felt as if they didn’t belong to me.

I tried to hold their gaze when they snuck a glance at me but they would not allow it. It was as if they were ashamed.

No clouds moved across my hazily lit world, the moon and the heavy air would not make room. The Indians had to be seen.

I needed to ask them what they wanted, why they seemed ashamed? Grandpa said he never held a grudge for what they did. He would have done it to them, he said.

But I knew I would not talk. I could not, or they would leave, and I wanted to see them. I wanted them to explain things to me.

Where was their village? Did they have children my age? Was there peace?

Maybe they heard my mind talking because when they got to some bushes that were only ten paces from me they stopped coming forward and stopped showing me their white, night faces. I lost count of their number. I waited. I knew they would show again.

My eyes got heavier. No, I thought, don’t go to sleep, you cannot go all the way to sleep. There were Indians close and they did not look sad and they did not look happy and only on this night would you see them. Indians, moving to share your fire, moving close to tell things, like Grandpa told things.

I tried to force my eyes open. Do…not…sleep…

Indians…

Noises jerked eyelids open. They were running at me.

They were reaching for me! I saw them now, heard them, and they were dropping on top of me! I screamed!

“Jesus God!” I heard Moses yell, the terror in his voice making it high and unreal.

They were on me and I could smell them and hear them laugh and feel their breath brush my face! I was afraid they were going to gut me and so I screamed and screamed!

Across the fire I saw Jesse, plain as day in spite of what was happening to me. He did not hesitate and he did not scream in terror like Moses, he just jumped to his feet and clenched his fists and roared in a voice that did not sound like his and turned and grabbed a log four feet long and twice the size of his arm and hopped the fire to bring the log down on the one laying across my head.

I felt the man fall forward and curse.

“Shit!” he said, in a way that did not sound like an Indian.

The next blow fell on his head.

“Oh God!” he screamed, his face hitting mine and his hands coming loose of me. The stale sickening smell of likker came to me.

The other one, the one on my feet, stumbled up to face Jesse. Jesse did not say a word but brought the club forward in a sideways swing that got to the man’s temple before his hands could. This one did not curse. His feet folded beneath him, like a butchering hog that had just been shot.

Jesse did not stop. He seemed to be held by something he could not control. His face was harsh and his lips drawn back across exposed teeth.

“You little some of a bitch!” the first one said, recovering himself enough to raise up off of me, his left hand on the left side of his face. In the light of the fire I could see blood running through his fingers as his right hand clenched into a fist.

“I’ll kill you, you little son of a bitch!” he said to Jesse.

Moses had climbed across the woodpile and was standing on the other side, wanting to run yet not wanting to leave the fire.

If Jesse heard the man, he did not show it. As the man came forward he hit him as hard as he could across the side of his stomach. The man yelped again, thought better of things, turned and grabbed the groggy one at my feet by the top of an arm, then jerked him over me and away from the fire.

If they thought that would save them they were wrong. Jesse followed them down the hill, hitting them so hard the bark was splintering off the log. The two attackers were screaming and running as if hornets had found them.

In all the time he chased them Jesse never said a word. It was as if beating those men was the only thing in the world, as if he could not stop himself. I suddenly was as scared of him as I was of them.

“Jesse!” I screamed. “Jesse! Leave them be! Don’t go, come back!”

And yet he followed them and swung and swung until finally my voice got through his rage. He stopped when they were near the edge of the woods, stopped slowly and lowered the club like it had suddenly become very heavy.

You could hear the rustle of leaves as the two men scrambled away into the night. You could hear their moans and cries.

They were long gone before Jesse came back up the hill. He walked past me, the club still in hand, and sat where he had been before. He stared at the fire.

I started to cry. I could not help it. No storm had ever scared me so, no southern demons marching out of their cotton fields could ever be as bad.

Moses finally came around the pile and sat by Jesse. He stared at the fire too, his mouth open. I think he was also on the verge of crying.

“Who were they?” he asked.

Jesse swallowed hard.

“I don’t know,” he said in a soft voice.

Moses turned to look at him.

“God, Jesse. God. I thought my heart was coming up my throat when they pounced Tom. And then I thought you were going to kill them. I thought you were!”

Jesse’s eyes looked off into the night.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t know what happened. I just can’t stand someone big picking on someone little. There’s no reason for it. It’s mean.”

“But you didn’t even try to run.”

“I don’t know.”

“They was Indians!” I blurted between sobs.

Jesse looked at me.

“No. No they weren’t,” he said, his voice still soft.

“Yes, yes they were. They were Indians. I saw them.”

“No, Tom, they weren’t. I can’t say who they were, but they weren’t Indians.”

I picked up the blanket and stumbled around the fire and plopped to the other side of Jesse from Tom. I was heartbroken and tired. I had for so long wanted to camp out and now some likkered Indians had ruined it for me. He did not push me away or call me a baby, like other times he might have.

“Jess,” Moses said after some thinking, “maybe we better go home. They may come back.”

“Yes, Jesse,” I said as best I could. “Let’s go home.”

“No.”

“Please, Jesse,” I moaned, “please! I just know they’ll be back!”

“You two go if you want,” he said, “but I’m not. I’m going to finish the campout I started. No one will chase me away.”

I looked over my shoulder to my house across the meadow and then the hillside. It looked very warm and strong. I saw no evil there.

But if Jesse wouldn’t lead the way to it, then I would not go. And I know Moses felt the same way.

We did not talk then for a while. We let the frog and the crickets take over. We let the cold dank air filter about us like a laughing shadow.

I’ve often wondered what we would have looked like from a tree perch above us. Three pitiful campers, holding onto a fire and it’s light, huddled and small.

“We’ll have to take turns keeping a watch,” Jesse said after a while. “We can’t all sleep at the same time. I’ll go first.”

Moses picked up the peach wine.

“I think I could use a slug,” he said.

“Go ahead,” Jess told him.

Moses looked hard at the bottle, then put it behind him next to the woodpile.

“No, I guess not,” he said.

I pushed closer to Jesse and put the back of my head on his upper arm. I closed my eyes. I was too tired to cry any more. The fire started warming me and making me feel a little better. Knowing he was watching helped too. A few moments before I would have fallen asleep I had a thought and turned my face up to him.

“Jesse,” I said with a small voice. “Would you have killed them?”

“Go to sleep,” was all he said.

 

 

The next thing I knew it was morning. We had missed a lot.

I woke up still beside Jesse. I was stiff and dank, my clothes heavy from the night’s dew. The sun was well up and warm on my face. Our fire was nothing but a few dimly glowing embers.

I had missed the sunrise, the sunrise that in the days before the campout was one of the things I was looking most forward to seeing, because of the way Grandpa had talked about those he’d seen when he was a frontiersman.

“The woods always turned orange and gold first thing in the mornin’,” he said once. “I’d a been a rich man could I a sacked that gold.”

And I had missed it. The campout should have ended with the night giving way to the day, as an honor to our making it, but I had slept through it.

Thing was, it looked like I wasn’t the only one. Jess was beside me, his head back against the woodpile, his eyes closed. Moses was over on his side, his right ear to the ground. Little snores shot from him now and then. We had missed our turn at the watch, Moses and I.

I sat up, stiff and sore.

“Jess,” I said. “Jess, it’s morning.”

His head popped up, a trifle startled.

“Huh?”

“Morning, Jess. Sun’s up.”

“Oh. All right.”

Moses started to raise up too and he looked just as stiff and mussed up as I did.

“Oh, my,” he said, “I feel rough as a cob.”

We mulled around a while, moaning and getting our senses about ourselves, then got to our feet together without thinking about it and formed a row outside the woodpile to relieve ourselves. The streams splattering and making their runs down the hill gave us time to think about our place.

“Hey!” Moses said, as if the sun had lit up his brain. “We done it! We made the night!”

“That we did,” Jesse said, just as surprised. “The whole dang night! Got our wine, had our drinks, got attacked and still stayed the night. That’s something I’d say!”

And I had to admit it was! The light of day brought a whole new look to things. The terror of the night was passed, even to me who was the most terrified of all, even to me who had wanted to go home in the worst of ways. It was passed now and the day was bright as could be and we truly had a story to tell. No one at school ran a chance of topping it!

“Attacked and survived,” I said. “We showed then didn’t we!”

“By God, we did,” Jess said, “we did.”

We shook off, put away, closed up then went back to what was left of the fire. There was a cockiness to our walks.

“I still wonder who they were,” Moses said, as if he was only mildly curious.

“Don’t know and don’t matter,” Jesse replied, “we didn’t let them run us off.”

“No, we didn’t.”

We contemplated our victory for a while.

“You know,” I said, “I’m kind of hungry.”

“Me too,” Jess said. “Let’s put out the fire and head in.”

We used the rest of the water Mama had fixed for us to douse the embers. They sizzled like they didn’t want to give up but went out just the same.

After that we rolled up our blankets in traveling rolls, picked up our frying pan and other eating things and prepared to make leave of our victorious camp.

“Oh,” Jesse said to Moses, “grab the wine. We’ll hide it in the woods.”

Moses went over to his spot by the wood pile and glanced around. He bent over and moved some of the branches. He kicked at the grass.

“It’s gone,” he said, his voice nervous.

“Gone?” Jess said. “No, it’s not, you put it right beside you.”

“And that’s where I’m looking. And it’s gone!”

“Can’t be.”

But it was. We looked and looked, questioned Moses some more, then looked and looked again. The peach wine, Sarah’s father’s best, was for sure gone.

Jess shook his head.

“Do you suppose they come back for it?”

Moses said, “We’d a woke, I’m sure. And if they did and we didn’t, why didn’t they club us?”

I was beginning to feel scared all over again. Jubilation has an aggravating way of hightailing.

“Let’s just go,” I said. “Let them have the dang old wine, anyhow.”

“I don’t like it,” Jesse said.

“Don’t matter,” I went on. “We was going to hide it anyway so it saves us the trouble.”

There wasn’t anything much more to say about it so we turned and headed away. Because of the missing wine, Jess and I decided to walk Moses home, just in case of an ambush. I’d have felt better if Jess had carried along a club, but he didn’t.

We discussed how much of the night’s happenings we would tell our parents and decided to tell them nothing. We wanted to leave open the possibility of going camping again and the story of the attack would definitely stifle that chance.

As we got closer to Moses’ house we could see a mounted figure on the edge of the road, next to the ground the Reverend farmed. It wasn’t long before we realized it was Father.

He was obviously on one of his property-surveying rides. He had on his suit and square little black bow tie and dressy hat. Moses was as use to it as us and everyone else, seeing him put on his plantation airs that way, and made nothing of it.

He was looking out over one of the Reverend’s partially plowed fields. No one was in the field at the time.

He gave us a quick glance as we strolled up then went back to his field look.

“Where’s your father, Moses?” he asked. “It’s July and the crops need putting out and I don’t see him.”

Moses never knew of my father’s irritation at the pokiness of his father’s farming and so didn’t seem to think anything of the asking.

“Don’t know for sure,” he said. “I think I did hear him say something yesterday morning about helping widow Crutchfield get out her corn.”

“Humph,” my father said. “Seems his own needs putting out, and Mrs. Crutchfield owns her own ground.”

That ran past us. He worked his jaws a few times before looking down at us as if noticing who we were for the first time.

“Done with your campout?” he asked then.

“We are,” I said, sticking out my chest, “and we made it the whole night!”

He gave us a hard glance, head to foot.

“Your mother’s going to want you soaped raw when she sees you. Couldn’t you have tried to stay a little cleaner?”

“Hard to do,” Jesse said, his voice tinged in disappointment.

“Best you be getting home just the same,” Father said.

“Soon as we leave Moses off.”

We left him still staring at the field that wasn’t being worked.

Moses’ mother was glad to see him but not nearly so much so as ours.

“Oh dear,” she said from the front porch as we walked up, “I was worried sick! Been looking across at where you were camping and saw nothing. Was about to go over there myself, dress and all.”

“Walked Moses home,” Jesse said. “Where’s Grandpa?”

“Was here last night and was supposed to of had an eye out on you but was gone this morning.”

I was disappointed. I wanted to tell someone in the most desperate way about the fact that we had made it a night in the wilds, but Father was too worried about sharecropping and Mama just wouldn’t do. Just the talk of what we had done would start her to fretting again. Grandpa would have done the best for the telling to.

But Grandpa was wandering again. And lye soap and, hopefully, food, awaited us.

 

 

It was two days before Grandpa returned from his latest wandering.

Jesse and I were up a huge oak on the edge of the woods down from our house. It was one of our favorite climbing trees as the bottom branches were close to the ground and the limbs stayed big a long way up. By the time you got halfway to the top you had a high enough perch to see out over the surrounding hills a long, long ways, far enough to see the rooftops of Jefferson in the humid distance.

We climbed that oak often, for no better reason that to climb it, other times to get to someplace to talk, as if the ground wouldn’t do.

That morning we weren’t even talking, just picking little dead branches and dropping them to see them bounce from limb to limb till they plopped on the leafy ground below. I imagined the limbs to be Indians I was fist-knocking off a cliff.

In the middle of our fun a voice came up from the bottom of the tree.

“Got me two squirrels,” Grandpa said, a grin on his face. “All I need now is a boilin’ pot.”

He was grinning because he had gotten up on us again. We hadn’t heard a thing.

“Grandpa!” we said together, scrambling down the oak, glad because he was there and now we could tell him about our campout.

“Where you been?” Jesse asked after we’d gotten to the bottom.

“Here and there.”

“Grandpa,” I said as I puffed for breath, “we made the whole night on our campout! Did you know that?”

“Su’pitioned it.”

Jess said, “Stayed out the whole night! Set up watches and everything and wasn’t even scared.”

Grandpa put the butt of his long rifle on the ground and grasped the barrel with both hands.

“Proud of ya, boys, couldn’t a done better myself. Any excitement at all?”

We shrugged, looking at each other.

“Know what this means?” Grandpa asked. “Means your ‘bout men enough to go huntin’ with me. Another month or two and the weather will be turnin’ colder and be time for me to pick up some turkeys and venison for smokin’ to git us through the winter. Figure to maybe take you along with me.”

Jess and I got excited real fast.

“Truly?” Jesse asked. “Truly?”

“Don’t see why not. If you can campout and take care of yourselves on your own, you can surely watch me shoot a turkey. Might even let you take some target practice.”

I wanted to jump out of my pants, but was also deeply aware of the pitfalls.

"But Mama --" I started to say.

“Your Mama come around due to my loins. I’ll take care of your Mama.”

He slung the rifle over his left arm and started a slow walk towards the house. We fell in beside him.

“You know,” he said as we walked, “I eased past the Culp place. You heard of them I’m sure, a couple of ridges over. They had a hellfire story to tell. Seems the Brandon boys took a whippin’. You know the Brandon boys?’

We shook our heads.

“Trash,” he went on. “Maybe ten year older than you, Jess. Their Papa shoulda pinched their heads off the day they was born, way I hear it. Too lazy to work and too ornery to stay home. All they like to do is go to Jefferson and drink the cheapest likker they can find. Thing is, they come home the other night all beat and bloody and Mrs. Culp, her and her husband are their closest neighbors, she heard Papa Brandon say they told him they was waylaid along the road while they was out and about, night you boys was campin’. Makin’ their way home and someone walloped them good. Got me to wondering if it was this road and maybe you boys seen somethin’ or the other.”

Jesse kept his head straight on while shooting a glance at me out of the corner of his eyes. I kept quiet, knowing what the glance meant.

“No, Grandpa,” he said, “we was a long ways from the road. You know, on the next rise over from the house.”

“Well I know you couldn’t have seen nothin’ from there but maybe thought you might of trundled off a while or something. Took a wander, maybe.”

“No, we was there all night, like Mama told us to be.”

Grandpa kept a slow pace so we wouldn’t get to the house too soon.

“Just a wondering, thought I’d ask. Thing is, that story those boys told don’t ring true to me. Don’t rightly know them for sure, but just the same I can’t imagine anyone jumpin’ them. What would they have to want? Trash has what trash is. My cipherin’ says they did the jumpin’ and got the worse of it. Picked up on someone in the night, closed in then tried to take. That’s what their type does. Kinda like In’yuns you ain’t at war with. They may not want to fight you but they never passed a chance to steal from you. Worthless breed, trash and In’yuns like that. But you saw nothin’?”

“No, sure didn’t,” Jesse said in a funny way.

“Good. Just as well you didn’t. Bullies like that aren’t no one to mess with. Somebody done them good though and probably they rightly deserved it. Mrs. Culp said they could hardly walk. Funny, she seemed kinda happy about it.”

We were almost to the house and Grandpa stopped at our fish-skinning spring, turning back to us. The water gurgled on its merry way.

“So,” he said, “we’re on for a hunt, boys?”

“Yes, sir,” Jess said, still excited about it but a little taken back yet by what Grandpa had just said about the Brandon boys.

“Good,” Grandpa said.

We remained in place while he re-cradled the long rifle and started on up to the porch.

“Thing is,” he said as he did, “I just can’t figure what those Brandon boys wanted. Unless,” he glanced over his shoulder and kept on walking, “it was some damn good peach wine.”

 

August, 1853

 

It was the following month, while we were sucking grapes, that Jess and Moses and I got into a good discussion about the relatives we never knew.

We were at Moses’ house in his backyard. Mr. Hoppe had some grapes there. He had bent hickory limbs till the tops touched then tied some more crossways of those and let the grapes climb away. Over the years it made for a plant cave where the vines rose up on the outside of the limbs. It was shaded and cool and just large enough for us to fit into it and be pretty well hid away. We liked to crawl in there and talk and plan and eat grapes.

Outside the homemade trellis the Reverend had crisscrossed some more limbs to make a fence to keep the chickens out. It was a rickety fence, to be sure, but served its purpose. The chickens came up to the outside whenever we entered, clucking and complaining that they couldn’t figure out how to get in with us. Their complaints didn’t amount to much because they did not come away empty handed. We would squeeze and suck the guts out of the sweet grapes and fling the leftover skins to them. They really liked those skins and there was always a lot of lost feathers and fights over them as they hit the ground outside of our grapevine hideaway.

That day as we picked and sucked grapes and flung skins the conversation had wandered over to Grandpa and from there to our dead kinfolk.

“Why do you figure Grandpa Turner never told no one about the peach wine?” Moses asked.

“He’s pretty good about things like that,” Jess said. “He pretty well lets us have our fun, long as we don’t hurt nothing.”

“Think he saw those fellas attack us?”

“Probably. Probably would have slit their throats if we hadn’t handled it.”

Jesse knew he was stretching the ‘we’, but he was always good that way.

“And then he snuck up and got the wine,” Moses went on, “and we never heard him. Course, we never hear him.”

“Frontiersman can’t be heard,” I put in.

Moses said, “Sure must be nice to have relatives like that, famous and all.”

“Did you know any of grandpas or grandmas?” Jess asked him.

“No, they was all dead and buried before I was born. Never really thought to ask about them.”

“Grandpa’s the only one we know. ¬Grandma died a long time ago and no one knows nothing about Father and his kin.”

“Nothing?”

“He came from nowhere and don’t talk about it. Grandpa says they was probably outlaws or something, but he’s just pestering though. I think.”

Moses took aim with a skin he’d just sucked and caught a loudmouth rooster on the side of the head. The rooster was too dumb or hungry to care much and made short work of the skin. Moses grabbed another grape before he went on.

“Come out of nowhere and your grandpa just give him all that land for his own? When he didn’t know nothing about him and thought his kin was outlaws?”

“He married Mama. Grandpa didn’t want to be bothered with what he owned anyhow. Plus he was pulling a leg about the outlaw part. Father and his family probably just had a falling out, which is why we figure he won’t talk about them.”

“Well, he is different from your Grandpa for sure. Can’t help but wonder.”

Mr. Hoppe’s voice came from behind us. He was as good at creeping up on us as Grandpa.

“You boys in there stealing my grapes again?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” Jess said, “but we’re feeding the rinds to the chickens.”

“Well, don’t suppose I can begrudge you grapes if your fattening my birds. Got to have fat birds to make proper dumplings.”

He leaned down next to the outside of the grapevines. Moses turned to him.

“Papa, did I have grandmas and grandpas?”

Reverend Hoppe laughed.

“Kind of hard not to,” he said. “Why?”

“We was talking and I was just wondering.”

“Got room for another in there?”

We said yes and I couldn’t help but giggle as he went to the opening at the end of the grapevine cave and wriggled his big body in. Only Mr. Hoppe would do such a thing.

As it was he was nothing but a hunched ball when he finally made it and sat beside Moses. A bunch of grapes hung over his right eye, but that didn’t seem to bother him.

“You know, this is a nice place,” he said, “kind of cool and hidden. Should come here when your mother’s mad at me.”

I giggled at that too. No one ever knew of Mrs. Hoppe being mad at the Reverend.

“Now,” he said to Moses, “what was that you wanted to know?”

“About my grandparents.”

“I remember. My father was a preacher too. We moved and moved from one cabin to another when I was your age because there was too many souls to save for him to stay in one place for long. Drove my mother to distraction. But he was a good man and she loved him and we children did too. There was four of us and we went along without complaint. Finally ended up outside of Jefferson, though the cabin’s not there anymore. He and my mother and my youngest brother died when I was seventeen. Typhoid fever took them all the same month. I stayed hereabouts but my other sister and brothers left. Your Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jeremiah and Uncle Simon. You know of them.”

“Why’d they leave?”

“It wasn’t settled much here then, and it took someone with a certain outlook to want to make a go of it, especially when your parents and little brother have just died. They was just plain sick and tired of typhoid fever and the frontier. Someday maybe we’ll go east and see them.”

“What was my dead uncle’s name?’

“Micah. Named after that prophet in the thirty-third book. He was just three. Buried them all by Murphy’s branch but the flood came one year and washed all the graves away.”

“What about Mama’s parents?”

“Died out east. She came here with her Uncle Charles and Aunt Liz. You know them too.”

I also knew those people as they came to our church.

“What were their names?”

“Her Mama and Papa? Homer and Eleanor. Good, God fearing people all.”

“Did you know them?”

“No, but I know your mother and that tells me all I need know.”

“I wasn’t named after you or none of them.”

Mr. Hoppe pulled down a grape and sucked it.

“I wanted you to have the best bible name I could muster,” he said as he sucked. “Considered Jesus, but thought the Lord might have considered that a mite uppity. Moses was next.”

“What about Adam.”

“He wasn’t trustworthy nor around long enough. Moses was the man for big tasks and old age, things I wish for you.”

“We were just talking about Grandpa Turner, which got me to wondering.”

“Another good one there,” Reverend Hoppe said looking at Jess and me. “Your Grandpa is one of a kind.”

“A frontiersman,” I said.

“A frontiersman,” he agreed. “He was here long before my family and that’s saying something because I’m here to tell you there was nothing around when we arrived. Jefferson was nothing but a cabin or two.”

Moses had been pondering and his ponder had cut into his grape sucking.

“It’s strange, Papa,” he said after a while. “Your father a preacher and you a preacher and here I plan on being a soldier.”

“To each their own. Plus, I believe God sees the right in soldiering as a trade. His folks in the old testament would have been in trouble for sure hadn’t they had a righteous soldier around now and then. Another thing is, seems there can never be any peace unless there’s a good soldier or two around to make the bullies think twice about things. I’ll be as proud of you for soldiering as anything, all I ask is you keep your causes righteous and your anger just.”

All three of us had to think that one over and the sucking and swallowing became unusually loud as we did.

Reverend Hoppe had one more grape then eased himself around towards the opening.

“I got to get at it,” he said. “These are good grapes, even if I did grow them myself, but I best be started. Getting a late start as it is. Got this one last field of corn to put out but that still puts me way behind for this time of year. Won’t have one run plowed before lunch if I don’t get at it.”

“Want some help?” Moses asked, playing the game.

“No, I suppose not. Maybe some other day. You help Jess and Tom tend to these grapes, just stop short of a stomach ache.”

He squeezed out, grunting the last few feet. We turned and watched him head to the small barn where he kept his plow horse.

I had pondered till a question rose to the top, and turned to Moses to ask it.

“What if you become a soldier and because your one, like your Papa said, there aren’t no wars? Would you want to be a general if you couldn’t fight?”

“There’ll be wars,” Moses said, no doubt in his voice. “They’re fighting Indians out west right now, I’ve heard the adults talk about it. Indians aren’t Christian and so don’t know not to fight. More of them out there than there ever was around here, way I hear it. We’ll be fighting them for a long time to come.”

“Aren’t you afraid of being captured?” I asked, voicing one of my scaredest things.

“No, because I don’t intend on losing. Wouldn’t want to be a general if I figured on losing.”

“And that might not be the only war,” Jesse said. “Papa says his Republican says north and south are still arguing and a lot want to fight. South wants their nigras and the north don’t want them to have them. If the south gets mad and suc…cedes, the fight is on, cause the north won’t allow it.”

Another of my fears, Southern demons, the only one left after storms and tornadoes. It was enough to turn your stomach away from grapes.

“Which side will you be a soldier on, Moses?” I asked.

He gave me a look that said I was igernent.

“The North, of course! My father says God is on our side. Even if they’re black, God thinks it’s a sin to have slaves. It’s in the Bible. And also, they got no right to break up the country. Papa says that too. God had a hand in making us America.”

Jess said, “Father says it’s all a fuss over nothing. He says we should just send the slaves back over the water. But if push comes to shove, I figure he’ll go with the North, even though he has a hankering to be a plantation owner.”

“What else could he do?” Moses said. “He lives here, don’t he? Would you all fight?”

“Prolly,” Jess said, “prolly.”

“I’ll fight,” I said. “I’d rather fight a Southern demon than an Indian. A white man won’t burn you.”

A little while later we could see Moses’ father start plowing the field next to the grapes. He was in a flannel shirt that soon became wet with sweat, as did the top of his pants. It was most definitely August.

Beyond our cool grape cave the heat rose in shimmers. By the time the Reverend reached the far end of his plow runs he became a wiggly dark spot in the waves made by the heat.

Most farmers had gotten their crops planted a month or so earlier, but the Reverend always had his errands to help his parishioners and, as usual, he was late. We had become use to seeing him planting when no one else was.

He was pushing it though, knowing he was behind, and we were amazed at how fast he made a run.

“Your Papa sure can plow,” Jesse said.

Moses puffed a little, I thought.

“He can,” he said. “No one else can keep up with him, that’s for sure. Shag will come to a stop before he will.”

Shag was the big brown plow horse.

We watched Mr. Hoppe and ate our grapes and talked. It was getting to be lunch time, by the sun, and then past, and still he didn’t come in. Mrs. Hoppe didn’t come out on the porch and holler, knowing he would only come in when he was ready.

We watched the chickens and we watched him. Twice in one run he stopped and wiped his forehead, an unusual thing for him. Even the Reverend felt the heat, it seemed.

As it was the hot air was even getting down to us and that was saying something. It was Moses who brought it up.

“Believe I could use a drink,” he said.

We had quit the grape sucking sometime earlier, having had our fill.

“Me too,” I said.

We got to all fours to begin our crawl out. Jess had made only two crawls when he came to a stop and I almost ran my head into his rear.

“Hey!” I grumbled.

But he paid me no never mind. His head was turned to the field.

“Look,” he said.

Reverend Hoppe had stopped. Slowly, strangely, he began to bend over the wooden piece that connected the handles of the plow. He stayed there a while, it seemed forever, then came off the wood and dropped to one knee. He put a hand on the ground to keep his head from hitting the freshly plowed dirt.

Moses had stopped to look too.

“Papa!” he screamed, in a voice I had never heard before. “Papa, Papa!”

Reverend Hoppe went over onto his side.

“Papa!” Moses yelled again and tore his way out of the grapes with us running out right behind him.

It was not easy going over the freshly plowed field. I stumbled once and fell and by the time I got up Moses and Jesse’s longer legs had put them a long ways ahead. By the time I got to where the Reverend was they were already kneeling beside him. Moses had hold of his father’s shoulders.

Mr. Hoppe was white. It scared me to see him like that. How could that be? On such a hot day? Why wasn’t he red?

He wasn’t sweating either.

A devil had attacked him, I thought! He was a preacher, and good, and the devil had come after him! I thought of running back to the house, figuring he would get me too, but I didn’t.

Moses was trying to pull him up.

“Papa,” he said again and again. “Papa, papa.”

“Lord, Jesus,” Mr. Hoppe was saying like he had the croup, so softly I could hardly hear him. “Give me time, Lord Jesus, give me…time.”

He had his hands across his chest and was sucking air. The clean, fresh-turned dirt was blowing about under his mouth.

“Time,” he mumbled again, “time.”

Moses started to cry.

“Papa,” he sobbed, his voice failing him too.

Jesse put his head to the Reverend’s ear.

“What do you want us to do?” he asked loudly. “What do you want us to do?”

Mr. Hoppe started to talk but the words were jerked from his mouth. He moaned and hugged his chest harder. Moses’ eyes were two big balls of wet and he mopped at them with his dirty arms, streaking his face with brown.

“Mr. Hoppe!” Jess hollered.

Reverend Hoppe’s voice slowly came back as his body eased up.

“Time,” he said with a croak. “Just give me a little time…hot is all…hot.”

“Want some water?” Jess asked. “Can we get you some water?”

Mr. Hoppe’s face fell into the dirt.

“Let me lay down…give me time.”

Jesse turned to me.

“Go get Moses’ mother! Now!”

Mr. Hoppe was on his back, still white as a sheet, but he tried to rise at Jesse’s words.

“No,” he said, “no. I-I’ll be all right in a minute…don’t bother.”

“Now!” Jesse screamed at me.

I got up feeling sick and hollow and confused and turned and started as fast as I could towards the house.

It wasn’t the devil, I knew by then. It was something that could make you die and I was not use to people dying.

I could hear Moses crying behind me.

I ran off the field and onto the grass that was behind the Hoppe house.

“Miz Hoppe!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Miz Hoppe, Miz Hoppe!”

She came out onto the back porch.

“Good heavens, Tom, what is it?”

I pointed over my shoulder and tried to talk without stuttering.

“Mr. Hoppe, he’s sick,” I blurted. “He’s fallen down and he’s sick.”

She looked out into the field. Her face turned like Moses’ voice sounded, like I had never seen before. It was as if someone was trying to jerk it away from her on the inside. She put her hands to her mouth.

“Oh God,” she said. “Oh God, no.”

She wanted to move but she could not.

“Bring some water,” I said.

“Water?” she said like she didn’t know what I meant.

Then she found her legs and turned and ran into the house, coming out a moment later with a wooden bucket. We started across the field. Mrs. Hoppe was saying things behind me but I could not understand them.

When we got to them Jess and Moses had Mr. Hoppe propped up against the back of the plow and Jess was up and leaning over to try to keep the sun off of him. A little of his color had come back, but not much.

“Samuel,” Mrs. Hoppe said, her voice cracking.

“Just a little hot,” he said weakly. “That’s all, just a little hot.”

She saw where his hands were.

“Is your chest hurting?”

He dropped them.

“Just need a drink,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “yes, here drink.”

She tipped the bucket to his mouth and the water ran all over him. He swallowed in slow large gulps, then pushed it away when he had enough. He leaned to the side and coughed. His color may have been coming back but I had the feeling he was still hurting, though he was doing his best not to show it.

“Take me to the house,” he said.

Moses and Jess got on either side of him and helped him up. It wasn’t easy. He was a big man. They stumbled once but then made it. Moses was still crying, though not as hard.

It seemed forever to get to the house. Mr. Hoppe would walk a few steps then stop and catch his breath before he walked more. Mrs. Hoppe walked in front and touched his chest with the hand that was not holding the water bucket.

Finally, we made it. He sat down on the back porch and leaned against a post.

I looked out into the field. The plow horse looked sad and lonely. Mr. Hoppe was looking too.

“Poor Shag’s hot,” he said.

“We’ll take care of Shag,” Mrs. Hoppe said, rubbing his shoulder. “I want to know what’s wrong with you. What happened?”

“Just got hot, Rose. Just got hot, is all.”

“And your chest hurts.”

“Hot is all. Just let me rest a bit.”

I looked at him close. He had shrunk a little. His face was shiny, like a dead person’s. That thought scared me and I put it from my mind.

He had just been in the grapevine cave with us, had crawled in liked he was little. We had all sucked grapes.

“More water,” he said in a whisper.

Moses ran in and got a glass cup and dipped it in the water bucket. He put it in his father’s right hand.

The hand did not close. The cup fell through and broke on the rock step below the porch.

 

 

The Reverend had been a little more than just hot, like he said.

His right arm had truly gone numb on him.

The doctor came the day after and said Mr. Hoppe’s blood had gotten hot and given him the pains. The hot blood had hurt his arm and probably things inside as well. Overheating wasn’t an unusual thing, but the Reverend had just gotten way too hot.

The doctor thought maybe, when the weather cooled, the arm would start working again but he didn’t know for sure. The one thing that was for sure was that Reverend Hoppe was not to do anything for a long while.

“A moving body don’t heal,” the doctor said.

Our entire family went to visit him after the doctor left and we weren’t the only ones. The whole Hoppe house was full of people, as was all of the yard. Parishioners, neighbors, all those he had helped over the years. As soon as they found out what had happened they had dropped what they were doing and came to check on the man who never failed to check on them.

One group at a time was led into the bedroom where he was resting. He looked very tired and his eyes were puffed up. Mrs. Hoppe said to us in a whisper that though he wouldn’t admit it she was sure he still hurt in the chest now and then.

After their short visits most of the people stayed around in the house or the front yard to visit. People didn’t get together often, because of the traveling, and when they did they never wasted a chance to chat, no matter the reason.

Most felt Mr. Hoppe’s running had done him in and all agreed he needed to slow down.

The Reverend, however, had different ideas. To everyone who came into his room and told him to slow down, he said the same thing.

“Just got a little hot is all,” he would say, “let old Shag get the best of me. Rest a few days and then I’ll be ready to go.”

Finally, after the fifth or sixth time of him saying it, Mrs. Hoppe couldn’t stand it anymore.

“It wasn’t just the heat, Samuel!” she said loudly. “You hurt your insides and you’ll move when I tell you!”

Everyone was stunned, especially Moses. His mother had never raised her voice before, that anyone could remember. And for sure not to the Reverend. It was such a blow, not even he could talk.

She was nervous then, and leaned into him.

“I love you,” she said softly, her eyes wet. “I’ll not have you leave me.”

Reverend Hoppe looked at her a long while then smiled as best he could at the unease raising her voice had brought to her.

“No,” he said, “I don’t suppose you will.”

Mama went to Rose Hoppe’s side and stood by her.

“And I’ll bring the rope to tie you down if I have to,” she said.

A little while later everyone moved out of the bedroom and closed the door so the Reverend could rest.

“He won’t be short for help,” Grandpa said, “I’ll garn’tee that.”

He moved out into the main room of the house, to where my father was standing. Father was looking longingly out onto the unplowed field the Reverend had been working when he dropped. It was one of his best.

“I ain’t much for plowin’,” Grandpa went on, “but I’m hell for bossin’. S’cuse my mouth, Mrs. Hoppe. Anyway, me and the boys will be here to help. I’ll boss ‘em one end of that field to the other.”

“No need, Grandpa Turner,” Moses said, “I’ll take care of the work now.”

Moses had started feeling bad right away about not helping more with the farm chores, even though his not helping was what his father wanted. You could see it bearing down on him. He was always on the verge of crying and was having trouble looking the visitors in the face, thinking they blamed him for the sickness of a good man. No one even hinted such a thing but that didn’t help Moses’ turning it that way in his mind.

Grandpa put his hand on Moses’ shoulder.

“We’re comin’ boy,” he said. “Bound to be enough here for everybody. You’ll need to whip me to keep me away and for one thing you ain’t big enough to do it and for another thing whippin’ time seems a good waste of plowing time.”

Moses looked down at the wood floor, kicked it, then looked at Grandpa.

“Yes sir,” he said, the first small grin I’d seen on his face since his father went down.

“You’re the young ‘un your father wanted,” Grandpa said. “Remember that.”

It was while Grandpa was talking to Moses that Sarah and her shriveled parents came in the front door. Sarah heard what Grandpa said, looked at Moses, smiled, and came right over. Grandpa moved aside as if his attention was needed someplace else.

It was the first time, I’m sure, that Moses had seen her since he told her he loved her, and I wondered what he would say now. Or what she would say. I figured it would be a hard thing to be embarrassed while your father was in his sick bed.

She came right up to him and he got to kicking at the floor again.

“Moses,” she said, as grownup as you pleased, “how is your father?”

“A little better, I guess,” he said.

“I hear he was working a field, plowing. Those things happen when it’s hot like this, it was nobody’s fault. I’m sure he will be all right. I want you to remember that, and that I’ll do anything I can to help.”

For some reason her talking that way, all kind and big, was the last thing Moses could stand. Big tears began rolling down his cheeks. I turned away, knowing he had to be embarrassed to death for sure now, crying in front of a girl.

But she didn’t seem to make anything of it. She just put her arms around him and hugged him. Slowly, uneasily, he raised his own hands to her back. She whispered in his ear. In a minute he was better, and dried his eyes, and wasn’t red in the face at all.

I glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed the strange goings on but, if they did, none of the adults let on to it. Was it they figured them to be grown up?

After Moses was better, Jess walked over.

“My country boys,” Sarah said, gently, as he did. “What am I going to do with you?”

Jess smiled and shrugged.

“You all never came back to tell me about your campout,” she said, changing the subject. “Did you take care of that present you got?”

“As best we could,” Jesse said.

“Does that mean you need some more?”

“No,” Jess said with a sigh, “at least not right away.”

“Well don’t let that mean you’ll make yourself strangers. It gets tiresome in town.”

“We’ll come visit,” Moses said, “we will.”

It occurred to me as I watched them that they looked all grown up to me too.

 

 

Next evening at supper my mother had worries about the situation of a downed holy man.

“What about Sunday?” she asked. “Who’ll preach the service?”

Grandpa took a big bite of his sausage.

“Seems to me we need more prayin’ than preachin’ right now,” he said.

“God hears more on Sundays,” Mama went on. “He put it aside for rest and worship.”

“Then go on in and talk to Him at your church, if that’s where he abides. Don’t need no pulpit pounder for that.”

“I was just wondering,” Mama said, giving up.

“We going down to work tomorrow?” I asked my grandfather.

“Might just as well.”

“Tomorrow?” my father questioned.

He was having trouble with the idea of Jess and I working the Hoppe’s sharecropped field even if it was to his own good. You could see the trouble he had with it in his creased forehead.

“Needs to be soon,” Grandpa said. “I don’t figure working a field is below these boys’ place in life, no matter their house on the hill.”

Father’s face turned a little red.

‘‘Now, I never said they couldn’t work, never once, although neither one has ever yet taken an interest in the business. It’s not a small task and not a small thing to wonder why they would plow a field before they took that interest.”

“I never figured I could cipher good enough,” I said, lying.

Truth was, I didn’t know how he sit in that room looking at the same papers all the time.

“It’ll be yours someday,” my father said. “You and Jess will need to show some interest soon.”

“We will, Father,” Jess said, “I promise.”

“Soon ain’t tomorrow, though,” Grandpa said, “or whatever time we need to get the Reverend’s crop out.”

“Didn’t say it was,” Father said. “I’m just hoping Samuel gets well enough to handle his own cropping before long.”

“The doctor didn’t promise anything,” Jess said, then stopped a fork full of food halfway to his mouth. “What if he doesn’t?”

Father put his right elbow on the table.

“Moses is getting older, he’ll soon be able to handle it if Samuel can’t.”

“But he’s going to be a general,” I said.

“Maybe, maybe not,” my father said.

The next day Grandpa got us up before dawn. I was awake before he shook me, though. I was looking forward to helping Moses and spending the entire time around my grandfather. My hope was he would get around to telling Indian stories again.

But he was all business and he was right about being a boss. He had it down pat.

He got Moses and Jess to working the plow. Since they weren’t use to it, he put one to holding the plow handles and the other to staying up front with a hold on Shag’s halter. They weren’t the straightest rows I’d ever seen but the field was getting turned over.

Grandpa put me to feeding the chickens and hogs and to helping Mrs. Hoppe, since so much of her time was spent helping the Reverend. It was woman’s work mostly, but I didn’t mind it much knowing I was the youngest and that Shag would have made short work of me.

Grandpa didn’t do much at all. He walked about, scanning the hills and leaned his long rifle against a tree, staying by it most of the day. There didn’t seem time for stories, though he had all the time in the world. Every once in a while someone would drop by and ask how the planting was going and Grandpa, from his shade tree, said it was hot but we was making it.

And so it went for several days. Father came down the road a time or two on his horse and in his landowner suit. He stopped at the road’s edge and watched a while but never came over.

After the plowing and harrowing we all went through the field, Grandpa included at last, and used our sticks to punch holes and plant the corn.

Through all this time Reverend Hoppe watched. At first it was from his open bedroom window, then from the front porch. After a while, two or three times a day, he made his way to the edge of the field. It was a pitiful thing to watch. He had to stop and get his balance after every few steps. He looked old, used up. Mrs. Hoppe didn’t like him moving around like tha, but there wasn’t nothing she could do about it.

He would watch us work, his eyes sad and dreamy. His arm hung limp by his side and ever so often he would look at it, then the field.

And every time any one of us passed close enough, he would say thank you and God bless you. It got so you didn’t even want to go by him.

He seemed really ashamed that we had to do his work. That was the way I figured it was with anyone who had spent all his time doing other people’s work. It had to be hard taking what you had always given.

But through it all we got the corn out, though we all knew it would have to be a late fall for it to make it.

 

October, 1853

 

That corn crop didn’t make it.

The first frost came too soon and it was a heavy white one. Dropped the first week of October, when the ears weren’t half grown. It shriveled them and made the few kernels that were there look swoll and sickly.

It was a disappointment to all of us. That was the Hoppe’s biggest field, and though the earlier fields the Reverend put out made it, losing the biggest put a shadow on the whole year. It halved what he would have normally gotten.

It was probably because of our long faces that Grandpa tried to put a good light on the frost.

“You know,” he said two days after it hit, “a good frost starts the leaves to changin’ and the turkey and deer to movin’. Since it’s stayed a mite cool and shows no sign of lettin’ up, we might oughta get our hunt in. Won’t be time soon, what with the Reverend’s harvestin’ comin’ up. You all rattle on down to Moses’s place and see if he has a hankerin’ to go along, long as his folks don’t mind.”

That definitely put the hurt of the early frost out of our minds. We were finally going hunting, and with a frontiersman!

Moses, who was more upset about his father’s loss than anyone else, took the asking real good. His face lit up more than it had in weeks. He asked his mother and father.

They were sitting in the kitchen, the Reverend propping himself on the table with his good left arm and, of course, they was no problem with him going.

“Turkey,” his father said. “The thought of a fat bird sets my mouth to watering. Could probably give me the strength to run around the house and then harvest corn with my teeth.”

After he agreed, Mrs. Hoppe grudgingly gave in.

The major problem with giving in was, of course, my mother. She moaned and fretted but knew there was no turning Grandpa around. She listed the horrible things that could happen to us then told us to go and have a good time, though she for sure wouldn’t be having one waiting for us.

Father said a turkey or deer could save the price of a hog.

So it was that the second week of October of 1853, with me nine, Jess twelve, and Moses about to turn it, that we got to go on our first bona-fide hunt. It had been an eternal wait.

Moses stayed the night before so we could all be off and gone before dawn. We went to bed before the stars came out so the night could get along and be gone.

Grandpa got up early the next morning but, if it wouldn’t have been for disappointing us, I don’t think he would have gone. His face had started drawing tight and his mouth had begun clenching the night before. Though he said nothing we all knew it had to be his teeth again, just a couple of months after the last go-round. It dulled his mood considerably.

“‘Ot dammit,” he said on making his way to his bed, “gettin’ old.”

“Papa?” Mama said.

“Nothin’,” he mumbled with a gritty voice, “nothin’.”

It was still wearing on him the next morning when he got us up but he tried not to show it.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

He had on his buckskins, as usual, and his long rifle was clutched in his hand. I gazed at the rifle and gazed at him and thought of he and Phillip Tobias in the wilds all those years before, hunting and stalking. And here we were going to do the same.

“Ready,” I said.

The other two boys were already awake, like me, and it didn’t take us long to make our way towards the kitchen door. Mama was there and followed us as we went out.

“Be careful,” she said. “Don’t shoot a rock and have the shot come back at you.”

“Shoot a damn rock,” Grandpa grumbled, “and we’ll skin it.”

“Oh, Papa,” our mother said.

The morning was fresh and crisp. The frost iced things like a light snow did. In the east the sun was red and fearsome. Just above the trees, in the valley in front of our house, the fog that had made the frost was rising and sat just above the trees like clouds that had got hooked there. Those trees, that early, were dark clumps that, when the bright sun came out later, would become bright yellow maples, less bright yellow hickories, gold-brown oaks and red sassafras’. I took it all in and felt chilled and excited and the air entered my lungs like an elixir, making them feel new and clean.

I liked the fall more than any other time of the year. Everything was fresh, like the spring, but more so. The changing leaves set it apart and made it the best season. It had always been a wonder to me.

I had been read my bible and had heard the Reverend Hoppe’s sermon’s and that knew the Lord rested on the seventh day, enjoying what he had done. I had always imagined that seventh day as an autumn one.

We hadn’t gone far before Grandpa spoke to us over his shoulder. He whispered, even though there was no chance of any game being that close to the house.

“Fall in behind me, boys, single file like In’yuns. Be quiet and step around any limbs and dry leaves. If I stop sudden like, don’t plunge up my rear.”

He started forward then stopped again.

“And if’n anybody has any bis’ness, take care of it now.”

Cool, outside mornings always made for business. Jess had the least and so just turned a little and made a stream that smoked all the way to the ground. Moses and I, however, had to ease off our own separate ways and find some shrubs to hide behind. It wasn’t two minutes and we were back.

“Must a had that under pressure,” Grandpa said.

We headed off over the first wooded hill in single file just like Grandpa wanted. Me, then Moses, then Jess. There was no other sound but our soft steps and breathing and a lonely bird talking now and again. As we topped the first ridge several squirrels, working the ground to bury their winter nuts, scampered in all directions.

We were going west. Grandpa didn’t say how far and we knew better than to ask.

The sun slowly made its way up, running red then yellow rays through any opening in the changing leaves. The fog lifted further, slowly but surely disappearing into the sky that was just as slow going from dark and specked to blue and open. I looked ahead and saw the muscles working under my grandpa’s leather buckskins, saw the butt of the long rifle, saw the powder horn and shot-filled pouch laying easily at his waist and saw the back of his white head stay level and not rising and falling with his steps, all because he was walking even and straight-footed like an Indian.

Daniel Boone had crossed the Appalachians out east, Grandpa and my schoolbooks had told me so. He had gone over and lead friends over and had dropped down on the west side into a land untouched and full of danger. He saw, looked and took, and people talked about him still. Those following him must have felt like I did that morning, like there was no distance too far to go, like there was nothing they couldn’t do, like the only thing between them and the next ridge was God. My strides took were in long steps in the way I figured theirs must have.

We went what seemed to be four or five miles. The farther west we went, I knew, the less chance we had of seeing anybody. Go far enough and you ran into the Mississippi. None of us spoke.

The sun was an hour and a half up before we stopped. I was proud in that I did not plunge into Grandpa’s rear.

We stopped on the top side of a little gully. The trees were thick on either side of it but it was open on its slopes and down the middle, where there was nothing there but briars and a few tall weeds.

Grandpa got down on his haunches and pointed at the thinnest line of a dusty run that weaved down the lowest part of the gully. It was no more than a place where the grass had been laid over and, from the hundred or so feet away that we were, you could hardly make it out.

“See that path over there,” he said, hardly loud enough for us to hear.

We nodded.

“That be a turkey trail. I been scoutin’ it for a while now. Seen a couple once, early summer, but had mercy on ‘em so they’d go to fat. Figure they oughta be greasy fat by now. Let’s ease in these scrubs around this oak and wait. We may catch them comin’ in from the open ground.”

We sidled into the bushes with exaggerated slowness so as not to make any noise. Grandpa sat nearest the gully so he could shoot if need be. We rolled in behind him, all of us finally finding a seat.

He levered back the hammer on the long rifle to check and see if his powder was dry. I knew he had ramrod loaded before we left the house. It looked long and deadly.

I knew I shouldn’t, but was about to explode, so I leaned to Grandpa and asked in a whisper.

“Can we talk?”

Grandpa levered the hammer back down.

“If we do it real quiet like, and you shush should I raise my hand.”

“I can hardly see the trail. Can we move closer?”

“Not if we want a bird. By my word, it’s there.”

“Was it a big turkey you saw?”

“Big enough.”

“Can they smell us.”

“Not likely, but they can see fer all hell.”

“Can you load fast enough to get two?”

“Doubtful.”

“How long before they come?”

“Maybe we best not talk after all.”

Jess and Moses looked at me like I was the dog’s vomit.

“Grandpa,” Jess said, “I just have one question. After you get this bird, do one of us get a chance at the next shot?”

“Figure so,” Grandpa said.

“Hot damn,” Moses said, a little louder than he should have.

He flung his hand to his mouth.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Forgiven,” Grandpa said.

We got quiet then and waited for the game.

I watched Grandpa close. Every now and then he would close his eyes and cringe. His teeth, I knew. Each time it happened he would get a hard look and shake his head to himself as if he was disgusted. I felt sorry he had to feel so bad when we all felt so good. But Grandpa was tough and I knew the idea of getting old was wearing on him more than the ache. But no matter what wore him, none of it seemed fair, his getting old and his having the teeth to prove it.

We continued holding our tongues, knowing it was what Grandpa wanted.

Time rolled slowly, pleasantly, as autumn days have a way of doing. Breezes and crisp trees.

It was probably forty-five minutes later that a faint noise came from the direction of the cut. It was Grandpa, of course, who heard it first.

I saw his back stiffen and he slowly raised the long rifle to a higher position.

Leaves were crackling at the top of the draw. I could see nothing but I could hear the faint steps, mysterious and chilling. I could hear Moses’ breathing, behind me, get stronger.

Grandpa put a finger to his lips.

The sounds got a little nearer. I felt my heart pounding my chest bone. But still nothing. Could something invisible make such a noise? Grandpa slid his finger onto the trigger.

And then it was there, big and pretty as you please, there where nothing had been just before. Fifty or so paces away, a faint outline through the trees. A turkey. A big one. Even at that distance I could see the beard.

He was also nervous, as nervous, as Grandpa was prone to say, as a soiled woman in church. His head rocked from this side to that. putting both of his beady eyes to use. He was not really looking our way, only all over, listening to that voice breed in him since his kind began.

He was walking like his feet were hot.

Grandpa placed the butt of the rifle on his shoulder and bent his head to take a bead. He cocked the hammer.

I felt like I needed to take care of business again. I watched Grandpa’s face, watched for the moment he made the shot.

His right eye held steady and the trigger finger tensed. I knew it would be a god-awful sound so I tensed my head down into my neck. Grandpa’s face was solid, unbroken. It was time.

And then I saw the wince, the tiniest of a run of pain that pinched his right jaw and jerked his eye.

The gun exploded and I nearly jumped out of my pants! Grandpa jerked back and smoke rose in a cloud that overran all of us, yet even through it I could see the dirt explode behind the turkey like a tiny tornado.

The bird cleared the ground by two feet then got hold of itself, squawked like anything but a turkey and flapped it’s wings to fly away, the noise of his going loud and strong even over the ringing the blast had left in my ears.

Grandpa had cleaned missed it. And I knew why.

He closed his eyes, bowed his head. His voice came out harsh and cracked.

“Gawd-damned sad old man,” he said.

“Shoot, Grandpa,” Jess said quickly, “you only just missed him.”

Grandpa looked in Jesse’s direction like he couldn’t see him.

“Cold miss. Can’t kill a bird at a stone’s throw. Use to I could of rocked the bastard from this far.”

The more he thought of it, the more it worked on him. He put his eyes on the ground and shook his head. It was the longest of times before he said anything.

“Yer old Grandpa looks a fool, don’t he boys? Strut around in these old buckskins and think I’m someone people look to, and all the while they must be talkin’ and laughin’. Think I’m addled, probably. I know they do. Can’t say I blame ‘em. I ain’t nobody no more and they know it.”

I wanted to say something so very, very bad. But nothing came. I was embarrassed that something should happen to make my Grandpa feel and talk that way. Embarrassed that he let it slip out in front of me when I know he’d rather it have been kept in his own mind. And, because I was embarrassed, nothing left my stupid mouth. I knew thoughts would come later when they wouldn’t matter, but just then I was lost. So were Jess and Moses.

I don’t think Grandpa would have heard us anyway. He was alone, in a place where others could not arrive.

“Took you huntin’, I did. Took you huntin’ and you thought you was with a woodsman, a fighter, a man you figured knew the wilds and I look the fool and miss the damn bird. Cause I’m old, tired and old. Cause my head is rotten. They laugh at me, I know they do. But believe me, boys, weren’t always that way. I remember when I was young. We’d stroll into a town when towns was few and far between. We’d stroll in, guns over our shoulders, and they’d all come out to look. Little ‘uns would point, men stand to the side, girls would whisper. We was In’yun fighters. We walked proud and rightfully so. Folks knew of us. I remember. I can see it clear. Met your grandma that way, struttin’ through a town. Did I tell you that? She was pretty and I was struttin’ and we was young and the sun shone like it don’t today, and tomorrow never mattered a tinkers damn. There was tomorrows to hell wouldn’t have it.”

He squinted his eyes as if he was seeing something.

“She walked up to me all proud and careless and I knew here was a woman like none other, one who would spit with you or at you, whichsom’ever, as pretty as pretty could be made. She’s in your blood, boys, she be the one what made you spined. And she was proud of me, of what we done. Did I tell you we attacked the Shawnee’s village in north Ken’tuck? Tell you that, did I? Me and Philip and Kenton, all of us. Went in and shot and tomahawked and killed those heathens what had attacked the settlers. We was young and not scared of nothing, all of us. Killed them warriors dead, any one of them what moved. Took care of that trouble. Hunted too. Hunted for the forts. Shot birds three times as far as that son bitch I just missed, swear I did! Wandered, saw the land, trees as big as mountains. The buffalo ran like the ground was nothin’ but them, like the hills were alive and waved with black water. You shoulda seen it. So many birds flyin’ over you could knock ‘em down with sticks, earth and sky movin’ as far as my eyes could see, which was damn far. Had my eyes, then, and my teeth. Had my senses. You’d a been proud of me, boys, I swear you would a. Kilt In’yuns with the best of them, I did.”

Grandpa quit staring at the ground then, and looked at us. He was having trouble bringing his eyes to bear.

“You know,” he went on. “I hear old men talkin’, sayin’ things like they wish they was young and had it all to do over again. Say they’d do it different. Ain’t that way with me, don’t want nothing different. Just want to do it again, is all.”

 

 

 

We started back not too long after Grandpa had his say.

He seemed tired and it was a long walk back to the house. We fell in line behind him like we had on coming to the turkey run.

We were all lost in our thoughts and Grandpa was having trouble looking at us. I think he regretted what he said no sooner than he said it.

We were probably halfway back when he came up short and brought our tromping to a halt. It was early afternoon.

“Hells fire,” he said, “why should I short you boys just because I’m addled? ‘Scuse me, I ain’t thinking so well. Which of you wants to shoot first?”

If we were rocked on our heels by what he had said, what he said then put us back to flatfooted.

“Really?” Jess questioned.

“Said so, didn’t I?”

“I’ll go first,” Jess said.

It went to Grandpa’s frame of mind that he hadn’t even reloaded after missing the turkey. He poured a load of powder from his horn down the barrel of the rifle, followed by some wadding, packing it home with his ramrod. He then took one of his homemade lead balls that looked as big as one of my eyeballs and wrapped it in a light cloth and rammed it home after the powder. He then turned the rifle business-way and primed the pot below the cocked hammer. We watched all this in awe. There was a lot to do and he did it in no time at all, as easy as breathing.

He handed the gun to Jesse, who had to brace himself under the weight of it. Grandpa turned and pointed to a hickory sapling thirty paces away. It was four or so inches around.

“Aim for it,” he said, “head high.”

Jesse licked his lips, looked at us, then raised the gun to his shoulder. We backed several paces away to his side.

The end of the barrel was wobbling like the tree limb a squirrel was on. I figured he’d be lucky to hit a tree the size of our climbing oak, which was as around as I was tall.

Jesse gave a little wince then jerked the trigger. One look he was there, the next look he was gone.

Smoke blew, the gun boomed and Jesse went flying by us in a fast blur! The first marks he left on the ground was a good five feet back and they was made by his hind side. He sat there, gun still in hand, wide-eyed, looking like someone needed to help him.

The tree was unmarked.

Grandpa, toothache or not, couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

“Next,” he said as he chuckled.

I looked at Moses, Moses looked at me. Our looks told Grandpa that was one test of manhood that we would just as soon have wait.

“All right,” Grandpa said, bending over and taking the long rifle from Jesse, “let’s head house ways.”

We all fell in behind him again, satisfied without doubt to walk along quietly.

In a little over an hour we were moving out of the woods west of our house. When we got to the front porch Grandpa took a seat on the top step. He had gotten over the fun he had had with Jesse and his jaws were tightening up again.

We went on in and through the house to the back to the kitchen. Father was standing there with my mother. He looked us over good.

“Where’s the game?” he asked.

“Saw a turkey,” Jess said, “but didn’t get him.”

“You’ll probably have better luck another time,” he said.

Mama, who was in the process of making something, rubbed her hands on her apron. She could work and work in the kitchen and house all day and that was the only part of her that got marked up, her apron. I always had trouble ciphering through that.

“Where’s Papa?” she asked.

“On the porch,” I said, then stared down as if I was scared to say what I had to say next. “I think he’s got a toothache.”

My father shook his head.

“Oh my,” Mama said, her forehead creasing, “and not so long since the last.”

She continued wiping her hands on her apron while she headed towards the front porch. Me, Jess, and Moses followed.

Grandpa was gone.

 

Summer, 1858

 

I have often wondered how things turn around and come out like they do, how something that begins as a kindness can flow and run gently downhill until, when you look back, you realize it was what started something that turned out horrible. An act by my father in the late summer of 1858 was one of those things. It began as a bright kindness that churned and turned into something dark and mean. I look back on it now and I shake my head. How?

Sometimes I think I just puzzle over things too much. Maybe bad things are just meant to be, like Grandpa says wars are, and the figuring of the whys only make it more hurtful. All I know is I just wish it did not have to happen.

The passing of almost five years can make a huge difference, especially if you started out real little. I went from nine, in that summer of our first campout, to fourteen. That’s a leap. I grew a lot and my face started getting hairy.

Jesse went from twelve to seventeen and Moses was right behind and in them there was more difference still.

Jesse was still the largest and it looked like he would remain so. I was getting taller and slimmer but there was no way I would catch Jesse. In the summer of 1958 he was already edging past six foot. And, like my Grandpa, he had no fat. He was broad shouldered and long armed like him too.

Moses never made it that big, which was strange since his father was the biggest of the group. Moses grew tall, though still several inches under Jesse. He also never filled out like Jesse did. He looked destined to be tall and slim, a shade over skinny. I figured I had an even chance to catch him.

It could have been the work that kept him lanky. That fall of 1853, after our hunt with Grandpa, we helped get in the Reverend Hoppe’s crops like Grandpa had promised we would. Father still wasn’t happy about it but he wasn’t exactly sad either as the crops would not have amounted to anything without me and Jesse. Even at that the profits were slim, like Moses.

By the following spring the Reverend was a little better, though by no ways ready to work as hard as he had done before. His right arm remained worthless and began shriveling.

It remained for Moses to take up the bulk of the work and he took it on like his father would have, at a run. The only difference was he wasn’t waylaid like his father always was, not out doing church chores. He stayed pretty well to task which made for a bettering of my father’s humor. The Hoppe’s, it looked like, would finally make a full crop.

Another thing Moses took on was his father’s attitude about needing help. He didn’t want any, only the little his father tried to do, and that wasn’t much. Mrs. Hoppe saw to that. It didn’t take a rope to keep the Reverend at bay, like my mother advised, but it was a chore Rose Hoppe managed only by staying on him all the time. After a while I think Reverend Hoppe took to liking being able to concentrate more on his church. The year or so after his attack we heard the best sermons ever and the sick got visited without fail. Mr. Hoppe got to thinking it was God’s plan. That’s an easy thought for a preacher. Myself, I kind of figured it was a hard way for God to get to something.

So Moses took to farming with a vengeance. He plowed and he planted and there was no amount of our asking that would allow him to let us help. Jess and I discussed it and we decided he was still feeling bad about not helping all those years before and was trying to make up for it. It looked like his father’s close call was a scare he could not get over. We finally quit pestering him about it, knowing it bothered him.

Grandpa, who had been so sure and pushy about helping in the first place, told us we made the right decision.

“Last summer we was dealin’ with a boy,” he said about Moses. “This year he sprouted chest hair, and maybe frightfully.”

This all meant our time with Moses was cut considerably. Not that we never got together. We were still closest of friends and once or twice each week his father forced the issue. We fished or camped or did whatever we wanted and the fields just sat. I guess the Reverend Hoppe didn’t see as much chest hair as Grandpa did.

But even on those days, Moses was different, you could see it. It was in his eyes and the way he talked. He was much more serious. If not serious, then clouded. He had obviously lost more than tears in that field where his father fell.

I kind of went my own way with a lot of things because, compared to them, I was still very young. When I wasn’t with Jesse, or Moses and Jesse, I was wandering around on my own, fighting imaginary Indians and traipsing through the woods, imitating my Grandpa. I had more time to play by myself. Mostly because Jesse was too old for such games anymore and had started, whenever he could stomach it, working with my father.

It drove him to distraction, I know it did, but a day or so a week he helped Father in his office. He did it because of what Father had said when we decided to help the Hoppe’s and Grandpa bit at Father for complaining about it. Jesse, who was as true to things concerning family as Moses, decided to make a point of showing interest in the business. But it killed him. He came out of that room after a day of numbers and letter writing and looked like the blood had been drained from him. He was just not made for inside work. Grandpa knew this and shook his head, but held his tongue. Mama knew it too, but was still happy about it because it pleased Father and she thought that someday Jess would eventually get used to it. Father never noticed Jess’s discomfort as he was in hog heaven.

Along with the office work Jesse even took to taking the landowner rides with Father, though he drew the line at wearing a suit.

They looked quite the pair, Father and Jesse. Jesse was tall and erect in his saddle while Father, in his suit and hat and with his stomach over the saddle horn, looked small and hunched though more than just a sight proud. It made his day to have someone meet them on one of the roads around the property, someone who had not run into them before, and he got the chance to introduce his son to them, his son who was following in his footsteps. All the people around our parts knew Jess already, of course. It wasn’t the introduction Father looked forward to bringing out, it was the son.

I did not relish my time to come with Father and his papers and rides and actually hoped Jesse did such a good job that I wouldn’t have to get involved. After all, I figured, he was the oldest son and the oldest was expected to take the yoke.

Thing was, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the money side of things and I just wanted to be outside. Outside playing, or outside with Grandpa.

It took a while after the hunt where he missed the gobbler but he finally did take us hunting again. He didn’t come back for a week after our first hunt and Mama had been worried sick. But wherever his wanderings had lead him they must have brought his hard thoughts to an end.

Though he got older like the rest of us, and his teeth still bothered him once in a while, he started handling it pretty well. Aging and losing teeth didn’t exactly make his days but he gritted and never again let his feelings out like he had done the day he missed the turkey. The woods, that lonely week he wandered, must have spoken to him.

I often thought he went and found Phillip Tobias’ resting place, though Grandpa made no mention of it if he did. I don’t know why I thought that, I just did.

But no matter the reason he took us hunting, Jesse and Moses and I, and success we had. We all got use to the long rifle and to a scattergun my Father had that he loaned to us. Used enough to them to be able to knock a squirrel from a tree, all of us. It was wonderful. It was the happiest we ever were, hunting and wandering, when possible, with the old frontiersman.

At least that’s when I was the happiest. Jesse, however, might have had times that bested my happiest. He acted like he did because something happened that I think we all knew would happen. He and Sarah took to courting.

The timing of it came out of nowhere. They saw each other, sure, on Sundays and at school and such, and one other time when we were two years older and she pilfered us another bottle of peach wine. That time even I took a drink and, I have to admit, kind of liked it. Being addled on likker sometimes has its place it seems, though rare it should be. Sarah took a lot more than the first time too and argued and teased with Jesse as she was ever prone to do. That business and all else was going on as always before.

Till, one Sunday just after Jesse’s seventeenth birthday, he came home from church real nervous. He strolled around like he needed to spit bad. I saw it and Mama saw it. But we knew Jesse’s pride would not allow him to talk till he decided to get his nerve up, so we just waited. And then that evening he asked if we could have supper a little early. Father, who liked things in their normal order, and who had not noticed his unease, frowned and asked why.

“Because,” Jesse said, his voice sounding like he’d bit-sucked a persimmon, “be…because I kind of asked Mr. Hoffman if I…I could go over and parlor sit with Sarah tonight. He said I could.”

I wanted to laugh but Mama elbow walloped me in the side. Father looked puzzled, then pleased. Mr. Hoffman’s tavern was a booming business. Grandpa only smiled and, as only Grandpa could, got to the gist of the matter.

“It ain’t the papa yesin’ that put things right, there’s got to be a girl in the brambles here somewheres.”

“Well,” Jess said, red as a tomato, “she kind of said yes too.”

“Figured as much,” Grandpa said.

It came, then, that Jesse spent a lot of time in the Hoffman’s parlor. He also spent a lot in father’s office while Moses spent a lot of time in his father’s fields. I spent a lot of time pestering Grandpa. The world seemed right and quite kind and going on as it should.

Until Moses’ father asked that Godforsaken damn favor that turned out to be the kind act that sent everything wrong.

 

August, 1858

 

The big news came, as all big news usually came, from St. Louis in Father’s specially mailed Missouri Republican.

Things had been happening head over heels in America, things, for the most part, about slavery and the bad feelings growing between North and South. It made for a lot of lively discussions at our supper table.

As we got older Jesse and I took a greater interest in things of such temper and felt obliged to voice our opinions. My Father liked this, even though we didn’t always agree tit for tat with him. He figured his years of reading at mealtime had paid off.

Jess and I took a harder stand against slavery than he. Slavery was just something he couldn’t understand where we, however, got to hating it. We had never seen it. There were no slaves in our part of the country. But we had heard all the terrible stories about whippings and the hard work and families being separated. Never having seen such things had a tendency to make them sound even worse, bad as it all had to be in the flesh. And I suppose the Reverend Hoppe’s strong feelings had swayed us a lot. Grandpa, for his own reasons and in his own way, sided with us.

Mama had no strong thoughts either way about the black man’s plight, she just hated the talk of war and fighting.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act came about in 1854 and that really stirred things to a boil. It was decided that those two states could exercise popular sovereignty, using the ballot box to vote if they wanted slaves around or not. Pro-slave thugs from Missouri rode into Kansas to stuff the box and that’s where the trouble began. Fights and murder followed and Jess became really angry, as he had at the bullies who interrupted our campout. I think he would have fought had he a way to get there.

The thing that really brought the Kansas-Nebraska Act home to my father was the fact that it was pushed through congress by his favorite politician, Steven Douglas, our state’s own senator and a man my father had the great pride to be able to admit to meeting. It put Mr. Douglas in a national light and Father brought up the subject of Kansas-Nebraska and his knowing Douglas often, to whoever would listen.

“Yes,” he would say every time, “I know Douglas personally. Knew he was a ground shaker the day I shook his hand.”

Then, on a hot day in August 1858, came the news by way of the Missourian that Douglas and his opponent for congress, a man from that new Republican party by the name of Lincoln, were going to crisscross the state debating. One of the stops was to be in Jonesboro, a town within a day’s ride of Jefferson.

“By God,” Father said at the supper table that night, too excited to even sit down, “I’m going to go and talk to Douglas myself. And you boys need to come with me. Talk is he may be president someday and I know him well enough to introduce you.”

That was without a doubt exciting news to Jesse and I, as we had never been any farther than Jefferson.

“You coming too?” I asked Grandpa excitedly.

“Day I cross a county line to see a politician,” he said, “is the day you can shoot me.”

I did not ask my mother as I knew the answer. She would not go because she was not interested in politics in the least, other than the politics of peace. She could not vote, she did not care, and her home had to be kept.

Word got around we were going and that Sunday after service Reverend Hoppe stopped Father and Mama at the door longer than usual by holding on to my father’s hand after their handshake.

It was a left-handed shake for the Reverend as his right arm had shriveled to almost nothing. But over the years, as the right dwindled, his left arm took on what the right lost and became large and muscled. He had even put a heavier crosspiece between the handles of his plow so he could plow once in a while and help Moses. He used his left arm in the center of the crosspiece to steady things and it was a sight to see to watch him handle that plow and the horse with just one arm.

But handle them he did. That was the Reverend Hoppe. I often wondered how much bigger his left arm could get.

While using that large left arm to keep my father on the church steps, he asked if he and Moses could come over that evening to talk.

I went up to Moses, standing under one of the large maples in the front of the church, and asked what the visit was about.

“Can’t say,” he answered. “Papa said he wanted to be the one to bring it to your father.”

Mystery is an exceptional occurrence in a small community as ours and I was eat up with the want-to-knows.

“Come on Mos’” I said, winking as well as a fourteen-year old could, “you know me. I won’t spill it”

“Your right,” Moses said, “I know you.”

Jess had found Sarah, as he always did after service, and they came walking over with her hand on his elbow.

My interest in girls had finally peaked and so I could look at Sarah with a qualifing eye. She was, without a doubt, the prettiest young woman around.

That morning she was wearing a soft, white linen dress that went to her ankles and showed off her slenderness. Her full hair had lightened as she got older into a soft reddish auburn and she had combed it back off of her forehead. Her face was soft, unmarked, and had a pleasant, tiny plumpness that added character to her looks and framed her straight teeth. Her eyes were still that vivid blue and held more than enough of that Sarah fire.

“Tell me what you two are up to,” she said when they got close enough.

“Nothing,” Moses said. “He’s just pestering.”

“Country boys are that way,” she said, “especially when their brains have been addled by peach wine.”

We smiled together at our secret.

I often wondered about Moses’ feelings about Jess and Sarah. Whatever he felt he kept it inside. Only once in a while, when they first came into sight as they had just then, you could catch a wisp of something in his eyes. But in a second it was always gone.

She had become to him a best friend. His best after Jess and me I suppose, though sometimes I think I might have trailed her in his eyes. She thought nothing about touching his arm or hugging him if needed and it was like Sarah not to care if it raised eyebrows. Few brows were raised in the long run, as everyone knew her. Jesse appreciated their closeness though I do believe she held as many secrets with Moses as him.

But, in the end, there was no doubt Jesse was her choice. It was in her eyes, as it was in his.

I asked Jesse what it was like having a lady friend, one evening after one of their parlor sittings. I was surprised he had bothered to answer me.

“What do you mean?” he asked, as if his thoughts were elsewhere.

“I mean, what’s it like? Do you kiss her?”

“Shut up, Tom.”

“Why?”

“We’re in her house, what do you think?”

“Not even a good-bye peck? Heck, it’s not worth it if you don’t get a good-bye peck.”

“Shut up, Tom.”

He had gotten undressed and was on his bed in his back, looking at the ceiling.

I had tried to find my answer by making manly remarks that would maybe break him loose, but it was clear they had been stupid and that I had failed. Problem was, there were things I really wanted to know. So, because I wanted to know real bad, I had to swallow and just plain ask, even though it was hard to do.

“I was just wondering,” I said sheepishly, “what you talk about and things like that.”

He eased up on me then and answered, not taking his eyes off the ceiling.

“Things. About what happened to us the last few days since we last talked. It’s funny, I want her to know every little thing and I want to know every little thing from her. If I had to sit and listen to what happened to you or Father or Mama, I’d want to fall asleep. But anything that happens to her I can listen to. I guess I mostly like to see her talk. And if it’s something good, and she smiles, that’s best.”

I stared at the ceiling myself and imagined some girl I’d like to talk to and, he was right, it made for a pleasant thought. There was no doubt my attitude about girls had took a drastic turn.

“What about if she tells you you’re wrong?” I asked, knowing that he knew I knew she often enough did.

“Don’t care, don’t bother me. I like her sometimes better for that. Wouldn’t be Sarah otherwise.”

I harrumphed.

“Don’t let her apron-string you, Jess.”

“She won’t. She likes me telling her she’s wrong just as much.”

I was surprised he hadn’t taken offense, but he didn’t.

“I tell you,” he said, “it’s a hard thing to understand. Her not being there would be like being thrown into a dark room and you wouldn’t care about it being dark. Wouldn’t be no need for light because there wouldn’t be anything in the world you’d care seeing.”

It was strange hearing Jesse talk that way, kind of soft and confused. Jesse, who always had all the answers.

“But,” I went on, “how do you even hear in a house with a tavern? Don’t the likkered men make it hard?”

“Shut up, Tom.”

Anyway, getting back to that Sabbath, Jesse looked tall and proper and proud in his Sunday suit with his Sarah at his side.

“So,” he said to Moses, “why you coming over tonight?”

Moses rolled his eyes.

“And they say girls are nosy,” Sarah said.

 

 

 

Samuel, Rose and Moses Hoppe got to our house that Sunday by midafternoon. Mama had invited them for supper.

When they got there everyone stood in the front foyer and chatted and carried on like they hadn’t seen each other in ages, much less only a few hours earlier.

But I suppose it was kind of a special occasion. Though we lived close together by country standards, and though the Hoppe’s sharecropped my father’s land and Moses and my brother and I were best of friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hoppe had never been to supper at our house before, or Mama and Father to theirs. That thought hit me as we all stood there and I wondered why. Thing was, that wasn’t unusual. Most of the people who came to stayed and eat at anyone’s house were relatives.

Mama finally invited Rose Hoppe back to the kitchen to help finish what needed finishing and Father motioned the rest of us to the front porch to some chairs we had carried out there earlier.

Grandpa drew out a pipe and lit it, something he did only on special occasions. I had never seen the other two ever smoke even though it was something considered normal for men.

It was August, but the day was surprisingly cool, with a stiff breeze to knock out the humidity. It felt good on the porch.

Small talk ran a while with Father and Samuel Hoppe, of course, discussing crops. It had not been a good year.

Thanks to Moses the planting had been on a timely basis. The problem was the weather. The winter had all been horribly cold, the spring unusually wet and the summer terribly dry so far. Everything looked shriveled and sad and none of my father’s renters were going to earn much money which, of course, meant my family wouldn’t either.

No amount of prayers or calls for prayers seemed to help but the Reverend continued to be of good mood. God would provide, he promised over and over. My father must not have held as much confidence in the Lord as his mood all summer had plunged considerably.

He was complaining even then and the Reverend Hoppe was still promising divine help.

“Preacher’s right, Alfred,” Grandpa said, “no one’s likely to go to bone, not as long as the damn deer are walkin’ and squirrels barkin’. Sorry, preacher.”

Reverend Hoppe smiled.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” he said. “And if rain comes soon we can still make do with the corn.”

“Let’s hope so,” Father said in a serious tone. “Let’s hope so.”

“Hope and lead balls,” Grandpa went on, “got us through in the old days when there wasn’t enough cleared ground to grow a weed. Money weren’t nothin’ nobody had an’ hope was a barg’in.”

The conversation rambled a little longer until the Reverend finally took hold of it.

“The reason I wanted to come over, Alfred, is to ask a favor. Word is you’re still planning to go to Jonesboro to see Douglas.”

“That me and the boys are,” my father answered, leaning forward in his chair.

“Well, here’s my favor then, if you have a mind. Moses still wants to soldier, as you know, and we’ve been writing letters to the powers that be to get him into West Point.”

“So I understand.”

“But letter writing and getting answers back is as slow as cold molasses. We’ve even written Senator Douglas and he was nice enough to scribble a short answer but he made no promises. It’s obvious he’s a busy man and there’s the problem that getting a call to West Point is like mining gold. What I was wondering was, since you know the man, could you write and ask if he would take the time while he in Jonesboro to meet Moses and me? An eye to eye meeting means a lot more than a letter any day of the week.”

You could see my father swell up, just at the Reverend’s asking.

“Why, of course, Samuel, it would be the least I could do. I’m sure I could arrange something. I’m a strong Democrat and Douglas knows it.”

Grandpa looked at Moses and let a puff of pipe smoke roll away.

“So,” he said, “you still got your eyes on bein’ a gen’ral, do you?”

“Yes, sir, Grandpa Turner, someday.”

“Take the place of Anthony Wayne. Mad Moses, it’ll be.”

Moses laughed.

“I hope not too mad.”

“Just want you to know, it’s an honorable path to go down. The first Moses had his share of battles, near as I can recall, didn’t he, preacher?”

“That he did. And I’m proud of this Moses too.”

“It’d be four years wouldn’t it?” I asked.

“Four hard years,” said the Reverend, “and we would dearly miss him. But he’s close a man and his time is his.”

Grandpa grunted his approval.

“If I get the commission,” Moses added quickly.

“For sure, Moses,” my father said, “if there’s a man to see to it, it would be Douglas. From what I’ve been reading he’s good as president.”

“If this slavery abomination doesn’t sink him,” Reverend Hoppe said. Then added, gravely, “I can’t say I agree all together with his politics concerning the south and those poor shackled souls there. I have to say I lean to being a republican behind Lincoln, especially since Douglas’ part in Kansas. But I feel deep down he’s a man of honor who thinks he’s doing what’s best, and I would surely like his help.”

“And we’ll see what can be done about getting that help,” my father said.

 

September, 1858

 

A month after the Hoppe’s asked for my father’s help, on the fourteenth of September, the men of the two families headed southwest for Jonesboro.

All the men, that is, except my grandfather. He wished us well then headed into the woods, saying he preferred squirrels that lived off nuts.

Father had done well by Moses and boosted his own standing even higher than the considerable heights he thought it already stood. Through a democratic bigwig in Chicago whom he had met at the earlier Douglas gathering, he got a message sent to Stephen Douglas. At the time the Senator was still in Washington. Senator Douglas wired back that he would be more than happy to interview young Mr. Hoppe, as he called him, at Jonesboro, and would do so sometime during the day of the debate. He would not promise when, only that he would.

Father passed the information on after the service the last Sunday of August, in front of as big a crowd as he could accidentally muster. Moses beamed and thanked him and came as close as I had ever seen Moses come to hugging a man. Mr. and Mrs. Hoppe were thankful also, Mrs. Hoppe almost to the point of crying. My father, the gentleman landowner, had raised himself to a pinnacle he loved occupying.

So on the fourteenth, a few days before the debate at Jonesboro between Douglas and Lincoln, Samuel and Moses Hoppe came to our house and we left from there on horseback. The Hoppe’s owned only one riding horse so and my father did them the further favor of letting Moses ride one of ours.

I got Jeez, short for Jezebel, a spotted gray mare and the smallest animal we owned, which was in line with me being the smallest rider of the day. But she was the calm, easy-going sort, and because of that I didn’t mind the idea of riding the runt.

We took the northbound road that passed both our houses several miles to where it intersected one that turned southeast. Since I was young and the area around Jefferson had been the total of my life up till then, it didn’t take long before we were going past woods and prairies and homesteads that I had never seen before. I took them all in with the awe of a country boy, as Sarah was apt to say. They looked an awful lot like the places around Jefferson, but that didn’t matter. I was going on an overnight trip as one of the men, in spite of my mother’s protests, and I was going to eat it all up.

September can at times be miserably hot in southern Illinois, even if it is the month autumn starts, and we had a day to start our trip that looked to be one of those hot ones. A soft breeze rode out of the northwest, swaying the leaves and helping to cool the body a mite. The sun shone large and alone in the blue sky.

There was a very little talk at first, just the pleasant sounds of the saddles and straps creaking and the gentle clops of the horses’ hooves. I cannot say I gave a hoot about Stephen Douglas or any debate he was about to have with a republican, but I sure did appreciate the need to see him as it allowed me to be along that day.

After a while the gawking got old and my mind started to wander.

I imagined other travelers on that road. Soldiers going to fight, Indians going to fight the soldiers, (most roads around there had started out as old Indian trails), strangers heading into a new land. And it was that last picture that made my mind float an image of my father.

He had fallen a bit behind the Reverend and Moses and Jesse, the road being too narrow for more than three horses side by side, and had left enough distance between so that their dust would not swallow him. I was behind him. The thought was there and so, it seemed, the opportunity, so I closed the small gap and fell in beside him.

“Father,” I said, “I was wondering.”

“Yes,” he said, holding his gaze on the road ahead.

“We’re traveling down this road and it’s a new road to me and I was just thinking. Could this be the road you traveled when you first came into these parts?”

He paused, then turned and looked at me with his head tipped.

“What you really want to know, Thomas, is where I came from. Am I right?”

I shrugged, then nodded yes.

“I understand your asking,” he said, “and no, this is not the road, though I did come to this country from the east. But you’ll know no more. My early life is my business and I intend to keep it that way. You may feel you have a right and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but that’s the way it is.”

I said, “I was just wondering.”

He looked back ahead.

“But let me tell you this much,” he said. “I did not come here because I was an outlaw.”

I was glad that the other three could not hear because I began stammering like someone with a bad case of the slows.

“Well, I, uh, we…”

“I hear more that you give me credit for, Thomas. I’m not just the man who makes the money and addled in all other respects. You didn’t know I was around the corner of the house when you and your Grandfather had your conversation. But he said he was joking when he said that about me being on the run when I came around and married your mother, and I know he means it. And he’s right, it’s a silly joke. I am a man of honor.”

“Sure he was just kidding. And so was I.”

I was taken aback. My father and I had few serious conversations. He never took a lot of time to talk to Jess and I about personal things and it was hard having this talk run the way it was starting to. I had meant nothing. My mind had only floated what I thought to be an innocent image. But I seemed to have struck a sore spot with my question, one that he had for a long time wanted to itch.

“Your grandfather may have been joking, but did he start you to thinking?”

“No. No.”

“You think a lot of him. You spend hours pestering him, wanting to do things. Do you think that highly of me?”

“Yes, Father, sure.”

I wasn’t even sure it had been a question, but answered it as one just the same. I’m not sure he heard my answer. The itch had not been relieved.

“I came and fell in love with your mother,” he said. “I made good with the land your grandfather had no interest in, made a fine living so you and the rest of us could have the best house and home around Jefferson. I do not hunt and I do not tell stories, but I do do well at what I do. Isn’t that right?’

“Yes.”

“Then that’s what you need to know about me, not where I came from or why.”

I could think of nothing to say.

He went on, again holding his eyes on the road ahead. His voice seemed a little different.

“Your grandfather said something else that day,” he went on. “Do you remember what it was?”

I remembered. He had said that no matter how my father acted, he loved Jess and I more than we knew.

I nodded to my father that I remembered.

“Good,” he said, falling back into silence.

 

 

It was dusk as we closed in on the outskirts of Jonesboro. The land had become a little hillier and the fields smaller because of it.

Jonesboro, from the distance, looked small and untidy as compared to Jefferson, though I knew it to be bigger.

“How big a town is it?” Jesse asked.

“Five, six hundred,” my father answered.

“Nothing looks like home, does it boys?” Reverend Hoppe asked.

“No, it doesn’t,” Moses said for the three of us.

There was a little bunting and some ribbons hanging here and there, but for the most part nothing that told of the fact that the next day a whopper of a debate was planned. I was surprised. The Missouri Republican had reported the debates were getting attention nationwide and that anyone who was planning on attending was going to be in on something special. I expected some high minded decorations and people shouting from the street corners and maybe some drunks like at the tavern Sarah’s father owned. Instead I saw a clapboard town that didn’t match up to the one I knew as home.

But though the excitement was not overpowering, the place was crowded. People walked the streets and the sides of the streets in large numbers and it made the going slow.

My father had pulled strings and arranged for us to stay at the home of a democrat. A man of means, my father had said.

“Good thing we have a place,” my father commented as we worked our way through the milling groups. “I doubt this town has lodging for half this number. Every grassy spot will be taken tonight.”

Although I was a little let down by the lack of decorations the crowds did make for a carnival look and I found the excitement rising in me. One man in a red, white and blue top hat walked by with a donkey in tow and a banner on the animal announcing it as a ‘Douglas Horse’.

We weaved our way through it all, asking for directions twice, and before long came to a large house on the east side of town. The size of the building was an indication my father had been right about our host being a ‘man of means’.

We went in and shook hands all around and, after he and Father got through the small talk, the man announced that Lincoln had gotten to town earlier in the day but that Douglas was still to arrive by train the next day. It was with added pleasure that he announced that Lincoln had received a piddly welcome by his supporters and in fact had received more boos than cheers.

With that we ate and the adults talked and before you knew it the time had come to call it a night. Even though the house was large we soon discovered that this democratic high roller had overbooked in his generosity to board folks. More arrived later than there would be beds for and Jess and Moses and myself were pushed out into the barn. The Reverend volunteered to join us but our host would have none of it. As it was my father and Reverend Hoppe were forced to share a bed. It was after ten when the three of us settled down onto some straw on the barn floor.

At first light we were up as Father thought it best we meet the Senator’s train and tag along behind the man, knowing he was going to have a busy day and that our time to talk to him would be a chance opening.

After a large breakfast we made our way to the railroad station. It was midmorning and a crowd was already gathering.

It looked like the day was not going to be as pleasant as the day before. The sun was already hot and a steaminess filled the air. The many men in their suits and ties, like Father and the Reverend, were in for a day of sweating.

Father found a man on the edge of the platform who had a group milling around him and looked importan, and went up to him and told him who he was and what we wanted. The man looked at some papers in his hands and finally said, yes, Senator Douglas had sent word ahead that time was to be made for us.

“But,” the man said, “it is an historic day and I cannot say when that may be. But I will tell the Senator that you are here.”

My father said he understood and thanked him, but his voice said failure would not do.

History or not, I was not paying a lot of attention to what they were saying. It was not the crowd or the noise that had my mind, it was the railroad.

I had not been far in my short life and I had not seen much, and one of the many things I had not seen was a railroad.

I had heard of them as we had looked at drawings of a train in school, and it seemed unbelievable to me that something so big, that was not pulled by horses or mules, could actually exist.

But there were the tracks, big pieces of metal sitting on big pieces of wood, and even though I could see them I still could not imagine something moving on top of them, powered by steam. Who could have thought of such a thing? Where did they even begin to find enough iron for the rails? I wanted to ask the Reverend about it because it seemed to me that only God could have managed such a thing. But I knew the looks I’d get if I asked, so I didn’t.

A little while later a band and a cannon drew up to the platform. The gun was small for a cannon, but the hole in the end of the barrel was still ten times the size of the balls Grandpa’s long rifle took.

“Lordy,” I whispered to Moses, “I hope they pay attention to where they shoot that thing.”

Moses, the soldier want-to-be, laughed at me.

“They’re not going to put a shot in it, Tom! What did you think?”

I had missed humiliation by not asking the Reverend about the railroad and God but it had snuck in the back door just the same because of that forsaken cannon. Father and the Reverend and Jess had heard Moses’ answer and all had a good laugh at my expense. The rest of the day, I decided then and there, would be a quiet one for me.

Half an hour later, in spite of the noise of the crowd, a small rumbling came from the south. It started off low and far off but for sure it was there, a vibration in the air that had to be traveling miles. I knew it had to be the train and it awed me.

Then, minutes later, smoke rose over a nearby hill and suddenly the engine pulled round a corner. It was a huge metal contraption spouting smoke and steam and noise and I realized that my question about God having a part in it would not have seemed so stupid after all. Surely the walls of Jericho had fallen before such noise and bluster.

As the machine closed in the band started playing and the cannon boomed, a noise that put me on my tip-toes. Smoke swallowed the men around it in an easy way, and though the noise had startled me, I decided a cannon blast was not so bad after all. Years later I was to find out different.

The engine passed by and there was a large railroad car behind it. When the tail end of the car drew even with the platform I could see a standing area on the back and a half dozen men there. All wore broadcloth and linen suits and tall hats. A short stout man stood in the middle front and I knew without being told that he was my father’s savior for the nation, Steven Douglas. He waved his arms in long sweeps to the crowd.

If he was to be the man to save us all from a civil war, he did not look the part. He was the shortest of all the men around him. shorter than inches than me, and had wild thick hair that tumbled to his back collar when he removed his hat to wave it in the air. He seemed almost neckless, his large head planted on wide shoulders. He moved from side to side in the way of short, stout people, using small quick steps. He was, I finally decided, a turtle without a shell. After a long spell, the crowd finally quieted down and he put his hat back on before addressing them.

Then I found out something. A man can be small in body, but if he could talk with authority, it did not matter. He truly stood a chance of saving something and the look of the body fell behind his spoken words.

Stephen Douglas’s voice was full and his words rolled out clear and strong, each being built perfectly before it left his mouth.

“Friends,” he bellowed, “I have come from the city of Cairo, south of here, and I can see why it was named after that great biblical place over the vast ocean and in the African desert. It sits like that city on a great river and it feeds onto the boats of that river all that you here produce, which is why your land is also named after a famed area, being called Little Egypt. You and your hard-won farms are truly the breadbasket of Illinois. The sons of Jacob could not have dreamed of such bounty as yours when they were sent searching for grain!”

The crowd cheered and he fell silent to accept it. I was surely impressed and I could see Reverend Hoppe had been grabbed too, by a politician that started a speech with a bible story.

When the crowd finally lowered their arms and voices, the Senator started again.

“But I have come here to do more that admire your farms, though they are truly deserving of my admiration. I have come to debate my political adversary and speak for all here who love America and know the right way for her. I do not dislike the man I debate, I merely know him to be wrong and want him to be proven so. I so intend to prove.”

Another roar. I was finding that politics had a lot to do with roaring.

“My opponent is an admirable speaker and has a way with jokes and stories, which in itself is good. I admire and can tell a fine tale myself when the mood hits. But when he goes from good stories to telling untruths and misguided political chatter, he must be taken down, taken down in the arena of open debate. Taken down, I say, and chastised. I so intend to do.”

Again the cheers.

“Our debates so far have turned on the slavery question and that, my friends, is good. It is a question that runs the risk of tearing us asunder and lay our land and children to waste. To waste, that is, if his extremist point of view prevails. He sets it upon himself, and those of a like mind as his, to tell all the rest of the country what path they should take in connection with the black man. I, however, do not pretend to tell people how to run their lives and businesses. That is not the American way. I endorse and am the greatest advocate in your Senate today of what has always been the American way of deciding issues, and that way is called popular sovereignty! It is called the vote of the people affected! It is the building stone of out our constitution!”

A big, big roar this time. As the noised died down, Stephen Douglas looked at the ground as if contemplating his next sentence. When his face lifted, a small smile creased it.

“Last month,” he said, “we had two great debates in the north of our fair state, at Ottawa and Freeport, and I have noticed something interesting about my opponent’s speeches as we have headed south. His protestations against the peculiar institution that is slavery has softened. With each stop his talk about the position of the black man in our society has hardened against those self-same blacks. I do believe by the time we reach the southern tip of our great state, Mr. Lincoln will own two or three himself!”

That brought forth a roar of laughter along with the cheers. It was well known that the southern half of Illinois was not a stronghold for the Republicans. Men slapped each other on the back and punched their fists into the air in front of them. Douglas let them have their way as long as they wanted, laughing along with them.

“I would like,” he said at last, “to talk to you some more but the day is running away and I should not give away the better parts of my speech before I stand on the debate platform. So with that in mind, let us go now to meet our opponent, knowing we are right in the Lord’s eyes, knowing also that we are the protectors of our forefather’s dreams.”

The cannon boomed again, the band started playing and Senator Stephen Douglas made his way through outstretched hands towards a door in the side of the depot.

We followed, as best we could, my father in the lead. He was not a big man and had never been a physical man but that day he cut through that mass of people as if he meant business. He finally worked his way to the man we had talked to earlier, who was just about to disappear into the depot after Douglas. Father pulled the man to his face him and whispered into his ear. The man did not look entirely pleased but nodded just the same and motioned Father to hold his place. He disappeared for five minutes then poked his head out just enough to see us and motioned for us to enter.

Stephen Douglas was in the center of the room surrounded by men who all seemed to be talking at once. He did not seem to be entirely listening to any of them. When he saw us he smiled and nodded for us to approach. He caught my father’s eyes long before we got there.

“Alfred Wills!” he said. “How long has it been?”

“Eighteen-fifty,” my father said, puffing with pride.

“Eight years? Surely not! When Mr. Morgan said you and your friends were waiting to see me, I felt prideful. It’s a pleasure to see such a strong supporter and his friends. You all are the type of Illinoisans I came to see, rugged settlers.”

I looked at Senator Douglas and listened to him talk and soon learned something. If his speaking abilities had not dispelled all of my ideas about matching greatness to size, listening and watching him up close surely did. It’s hard to explain, but the man just plainly gave off a glow of power. Not in his muscles and not in his hardness, because it wasn’t that kind of power.

It was the power of confidence and intellect, a power that said he knew his place and his abilities and that others knew them too. It said that a thing would be done if he so asked, and I understood why father said he would be the man to come to. I also understood why he could stand there with people babbling around him and hear and yet not hear them while motioning us over without hurting the blabbers feelings in the least. He had, without a doubt, the right. I wondered if all famous politicians were made that way.

He was a man many said would be president. He was, I had to admit, what I thought a president should be.

It was a hot day and he was sweating from his speech, but his suit coat stayed firmly over his shoulders. He took my father’s hand firmly and shook it in both of his.

“Alfred Wills,” he said again, making sure Father knew he remembered him, “you are a welcome sight. You and all these blessed downstate democrats. Maybe now that I’m with people of your sort I might be able to rest nights. I was not able to on my way here from Washington. I can’t sleep in daylight and every night the way along the railroad tracks was completely lit by my burning effigies. And it hasn’t been much better upstate, except they prefer to boo to burning.”

I didn’t know if he was joking or not, as those around him kind of laughed and kind of didn’t.

“Well, your home now, Judge,” my father said, using the term he knew only Douglas’s best friends used, “and we’re proud of your stand on Kansas-Nebraska. You’re the only one with sense in that matter.”

“If only sense bought votes,” he replied, rolling a wad of tobacco around to the front of his mouth and spitting a chunk of spit expertly into a nearby spittoon.

I admired the spit shot and the fact that none dribbled on him as much as I admired the fact that all through his speech outside there was no way of knowing he was carrying a load. The quid, now that he was in a room with only men, was given an obvious bulge in his right cheek.

“And these fine folk,” he said, motioning to us, “who are they?”

Father introduced Jesse and me. Even though I was a head taller than him, I felt small.

“Fine boys they look to be,” he said, before looking at Reverend Hoppe and Moses. “And this must be the good Reverend and his son about whom you wrote.”

As Father introduced them Moses was nervously brushing the leftovers from the last night’s stay in the barn off his hair and clothes. He swallowed hard before putting his hand in the Senator’s.

“Moses,” Senator Douglas said, “you’re a strapping one too. I hear you want to go to West Point.”

“Yes, sir, always have.”

“With your father’s blessing?” he asked, swinging his gaze to Reverend Hoppe.

“With my blessing and as proud as a father could be,” Reverend Hoppe said, holding out his left hand.

Stephen Douglas took it, not even letting on he noticed the shriveled right.

“This country can always use good young soldiers,” he said. “It was built on the backs of those who have the heart to serve, like young Moses here. We should have been lost years ago without them.”

The Senator held the Reverend’s hand and eyes a little longer, then said something in a half whisper that he would have had to know would be heard throughout the room. That power glow had long since silenced everyone else.

“Tell me, Reverend, are you a good democrat?”

It was the question I had been dreading and, since I was the youngest and most igernent of the four of us, one I’m sure the others had thought about too. Because, all of us knew, the Reverend Hoppe could not lie.

Moses looked like he was about to be hit by a rock.

The Reverend’s voice was firm, yet you could hear in it a whisper of doubt.

“No, Senator, I am afraid that, though I have no bonds to any party, I lean to the republicans, if only because of their stand on freeing the slaves.”

The room feel so quiet you could hear the squeaking of the saddles of the horses outside. Senator Douglas’ face held stone still as he continued holding Reverend Hoppe’s eyes. Then, ever so slowly, a half smile crossed it.

“Then tell me, sir,” he said, “can you be swayed?”

Reverend Hoppe half smiled back.

“Perhaps,” he said.

“Then come to my debate with Lincoln this afternoon and I will attempt swaying. In the meantime, Mr. Hoppe, prepare young Moses and his mother for his leaving, for I intend to see he gets one of the Illinois appointments to attend West Point.”

Tense faces around the room suddenly beamed, none more so than those of Reverend Hoppe and Moses. They were as much stunned as happy.

Douglas let go of the Reverend’s hand and slapped his back and then Moses’ back, setting the others in the room to joined in.

Then, just quickly as things had started, things came to an end. Senator Stephen Douglas apologized but said he had to be on his way to the debate, and that the Hoppe’s would hear from the proper authorities in time.

Then he left, taking the air with him.

And me, and Jesse, and my father and his father congratulated the fellow whose dream had come true.

 

 

The debate was to take place at the edge of town.

By the time we got through with our celebration at the train depot and my father had accepted the many thanks offered from Mr. Hoppe and Moses, the area closest to the debate platform was taken. The crowd of democrats from the train station had followed Senator Douglas over while the republicans had already gathered there ahead of them.

It was a boisterous crowd, but most of the carryings on between the two camps was in good humor and laughter broke out often.

The platform had obviously been hastily erected. It was of fresh cut lumber and was barely higher than the tallest men’s heads. Somehow I had expected something more fancy, as I was told it would be an historic occasion. We were, because of being late, a long ways back from the podium.

Half an hour after our arrival several men strode up onto the platform. One was Senator Douglas, and his supporters cheered him loudly. He raised his hands to them.

There were a half dozen or so other men there also and all wore suits and looked normal as can be. All except one.

He wore a suit too, but was the tallest, gangliest man I had ever seen, his pant legs several inches off the top of his shoes. He also wore a stovetop hat, which added to his long look. He was at least six inches taller than the next tallest man and a foot or better taller than Douglas. Jess and I elbowed each other and giggled when we saw him.

“Who’s Treetop?” Jess asked Father.

“That’s Lincoln,” he replied.

Since he was another politician of power I knew I would have to hold my judgment till he spoke, having learned my lesson from accepting my first thoughts of short, squatty Mr. Douglas.

A man walked to the front of the platform and began talking about the coming debate and in time introduced the two debaters, to the loud cheers of their supporters. Each group tried to outshout the other.

As the man spoke a breeze picked up through the surrounding trees and the crowd murmured here and there and it became harder and harder to hear him till I could make nothing of what he said at all. His was just a garbled voice that got louder and softer, louder and softer, coming and going with breeze and crowd noise.

Senator Douglas finally got up to speak first and his speech came across the field to us like the speech of the mam who introduced him, to where I couldn’t make out much of anything.

When Lincoln got up I could not make him out either, only that his voice was high and squeaky, a hard thing to believe from a man his size, causing Jess and Moses and me to get some laughs out of that, in spite of my father’s dirty looks.

And so the debate went for us. One man spoke, was cheered, to be followed by the other and more cheers. We could not make out near enough to make sense of it. In no time I got bored and began wishing I was out of the hot sun.

Then, after what seemed forever, it was over. The two men shook hands and waved and the crowd started moving. My father wanted to congratulate Douglas on winning a debate he never heard, but the press around the two candidates showed that to be an impossible idea so we decided to head back to Father’s friend’s house for another night in Jonesboro.

My father turned to me as we walked as a group down the street.

“So, Thomas, what did you think of the debate?” he asked.

“Don’t know one way or another about what they talked about,” I said, “but one thing’s for sure. They was the funniest looking debaters I ever saw.”

Everybody but my father laughed.

 

May, 1859

In May of 1859, two things happened.

Moses’ leaving for West Point was the first.

True to Stephen Douglas’ word, around the end of 1858, letters began arriving from Washington and the army. They said that Moses had truly been accepted and that he was to fill out form after form, mail them back, and unless he heard different be at West Point the first day of June the following year.

Moses was happy and full of pride and everybody who saw him congratulated him, he being the first person from anywhere near Jefferson to be appointed to anything. He was the talk of the area, most especially at our church, and Sunday after Sunday he drew a crowd. Though Jesse didn’t say anything, and he and Moses stayed the best of friends, I think it bothered him some that Moses was getting all the backslaps. Sometimes I think he wished he had applied, particularly when Sarah made a fuss over Moses.

My father was in hog heaven. People knew what he had done and his standing as a man of prominence rose. His rides became an everyday affair, in the hope of seeing someone. He rode his horse with his back more erect and his head held several inches higher.

We understood his pride and even Grandpa, who was the only one who dared bring him down a few notches now and then, didn’t take the opportunity. It was an honorable thing he had done and, though he surely did do it partly because of the esteem it brought, he also did it, we knew, because of his strong feelings for Moses. You would never hear my father admit that, and he didn’t, but we all knew it. And because of it we were proud too.

And that was the first of the things that happened in May, 1858.

The second was that on the second Sunday of the month Sarah came to our house for the day, after church, and she and Jess talked on the front porch. And what came of their talk changed all our lives, then and later.

I heard their talk, beginning to end.

It was one of those days in May that make up for all the hot ones at the end of the month. The temperature was perfect, the sun out in a sky floating with clouds. A light breeze blew kind of lazy-like. Some of the early, small daisies and rugged sweet williams were up and blooming and bouncing around in the tall grass, having their way with the wind.

We had our church service and afterwards Sarah climbed into our carriage next to Jesse. Father dutifully promised the Hoffman’s she would be home by dark.

We ate a late meal then sat stiffly in the front parlor making conversation. My mother, especially, like to talk with Sarah. She was just seventeen, same as Jess and Moses, yet her and Mama discussed the things Mama and the women her age talked about. Sarah was world wise enough to hold her own in those conversations. It was chatter about other people they knew, cooking, who was having a baby and who probably would be soon. Talk womenfolk enjoyed and men rolled eyes to.

Mama’s eyes lit up every time Sarah came around. Sarah was smart, just like my mother, and friendly and outgoing, like Mama too. I guess they were alike in a lot of ways. But one of the things I think Mama liked best about her was that Sarah used her smarts to speak her mind.

Mama had spent her life around strong-willed men. First Grandpa, then my father and now Jesse, who looked like he was going to have his own large supply of strong opinions. And although she was sharp as a tack, I think she just got use to listening. If she spoke up about something in a strong way it had to be a subject she really wanted to be heard on.

But Sarah was different. If she had something to say, to anybody, she up and said it and usually in no uncertain terms. Grandpa called it pluck.

I think in Sarah, Mama saw the pluck she wished she had had more of over the years, against her house full of headstrong men.

There was no doubt Mama was pleased with the budding courtship, and if Mama was pleased, Father was pleased. Concerning things of the heart, no matter his willfulness on everything else, he gave way to Mama. It was the one subject where her opinion was offered and heard.

After several hours that Sunday of Mama and Sarah carrying the talk, Jess suggested he and Sarah go sit on the front porch. In most courtship’s the young folk never sat alone as it wasn’t considered proper. But Mama wasn’t big on proper, at least not all the time, especially when it came to her Jesse and his Sarah.

It was late evening by the time they went out to sit. Father and Mama decided to stay in the parlor and read. Grandpa was going stir crazy and so grabbed his long rifle and headed for the woods, promising to be gone for just a while. This time he didn’t invite me as was often his way.

Which left me, as quietly as I could, to make my way quite by accident to Father’s office, to a chair next to a window that opened onto the porch. I was fourteen and figured I had as much right to sit there as anywhere. Accidentally.

At first they were very quiet, Jess and Sarah, and all I could hear was the breeze and the birds that were beginning to stir. Martins mostly, heading for their nests with food for their young and being loud about it.

I knew Sarah and Jess had pulled their chairs close together and wondered if they were holding hands. But I didn’t look to see, not wanting to give away my accidental location.

It was Sarah who spoke first.

“So,” she said, “Tuesday Moses will be leaving.”

“Yes.”

“He’s so happy. This morning at church was as happy as I’ve ever seen him. But I also think he’s also a little scared.”

“Who wouldn’t be? He might not be back for four years. It’d be too expensive for him to try to.”

“Will you miss him?”

“Sure.”

“Me too,” Sarah said, sighing. “I don’t understand wanting to be a soldier. I’ve never told him that, he’s so happy and proud, but I truly don’t understand it.”

“Soldiers can become famous, can save their country. I think it sounds exciting.”

A pause.

“And you?” Sarah said after a while. “Would you leave me to become a soldier?”

The sound of Jesse’s voice changed and I knew he had turned to look at her.

“It’s not something I want to study to do, like Moses does,” he said. “But if there’s a war, yes, I’ll go and fight.”

“A civil war?”

“Any war. It would be a person’s duty.”

“But it looks like the next war we’ll be fighting between ourselves over the slaves. And there’s a lot of folks in these parts who think a they aren’t worth a fight. Is that a war you would fight?”

“Yes. For the slaves and for the union.”

“And if I asked you not to go? Or your mother? You would go just the same, wouldn’t you?”

Jess didn’t answer.

Sarah said, “I don’t blame you, I just don’t understand.”

“The war or the cause?”

“Either.”

“You sound like my mother.”

“And I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

An easygoing breeze slid through the window and across my face and I closed my eyes to enjoy it. It was strange to hear them talk that way, as if they’d been secret-sharing close friends for years.

Of course they had always been friends, but when they were little it had been a childish, teasing friendship, and didn’t really count. Only in the last few years had they become the friends that could sit and talk about everything and anything. I thought about what a warm friendship that would be, to have it with a girl and not another boy. It would be something nice.

“And it’s still just going to be you and Tom who take Moses to the train?” Sarah asked. “Mr. Hoppe didn’t mention changing his mind?”

“Moses won’t let him. He says he understands that the farm work is going to be a lot harder without his help and that the Reverend should stay and tend to it. It’s bothering Moses a lot to be leaving it all to his father. A whole lot. Maybe that’s why he looks a little sad to you. Thing is, though, the Reverend’s doing good. I’ve never seen a man with one arm do as much as he does.”

“And now he’ll do it all,” Sarah said, “and it’s not easy as you think. You can tell that he and Mrs. Hoppe want Moses to go as bad as Moses wants to go, I told Moses that. I told him not to worry, his father and mother have lots of friends. It’s hard to think, though, that they’re not going to the train.”

“Truth is, I think they’re glad Moses told them not to. It’s going to be tough enough as it is without stretching it out. They all know that.”

“Well, I’ve decided I’m going.”

“Sarah,” Jess said with a touch of exasperation, “it’s a long, hard ways.”

“And I’m going. I suppose taking a fellow off to be a soldier is a man’s job, but you’re just going to have to put up with me being there. I’m not seeing off a soldier, I’m seeing off a friend.”

And that was that. I couldn’t help but smile at Jesse’s silence.

Another minute and Jesse spoke.

“Sarah.”

“What?”

“Sarah, I, uh, I, uh-” Jess stammered, his voice cracking. That was definitely not like Jess. “Oh shoot, can I show you something?”

“Show me?” Sarah said, her voice puzzled. “What do you want to show me?”

“Here,” he said, and I could hear them getting up and move to the east end of the porch.

I was dying to know what they were going across the porch to see, but could not risk looking. I could tell by the sounds that they had stopped at the east railing.

“Look.” Jess said. “You see that far hill? On the other side of the trees?”

“Yes,” she answered.

I knew they had to be looking at the farthest rise on our property in that direction. It was a grassy hill on the opposite side of the woods from where we had made our first camp, years before, when Sarah had supplied the wine. It was the highest spot for miles and from its crest you could see the rooftops of Jefferson and, were it not for the woods on its shore, the Mississippi to the west. We had walked there often when we were little, Jess and Moses and I, and had looked out and talked and looked out some more.

“That’s the highest place around,” Jess went on. “It wouldn’t be too hard to get a road to it though. I’ve talked to my father about it. Asked him if someday I could have it for my own and he said yes. You should see it from there, Sarah. You should.”

“I’d like to, since your father is going to let you have it. You need to take me there some day.”

“It is beautiful.”

“I’m sure it is, yes.”

“I-I plan on building a house there. Myself. No one will have a better place for a house.”

I strained to hear Jesse’s voice. I had never heard him so bashful about talking, not Jesse.

Sarah waited too.

“Shoot, Sarah,” he said at last, “what I’m wondering is would you like to live there too?”

“Jesse Wills,” she said, “are you asking me to marry you?”

“Yes.”

“Then ask me.”

Suddenly his voice got stronger.

“Marry me, Sarah. Will you?”

I heard her take in her breath, a soft rush of emotion that put a stop to Sarah’s talking, not an easy task.

I could not believe what I was hearing, even though we had all known it would come to his asking, someday. It was just that, now that it happened, everything seemed so different. My brother did not in any way seem a boy anymore, nor Sarah in any way a girl. No matter her answer, they had moved into a different world and I, in some way, with them.

I don’t know what they were doing. I suppose they were standing on the porch’s edge, eyes meeting. It seemed an eternity before Sarah spoke and when she did her voice was as soft as the wind drifting in through the window.

“Jesse,” she said, “my Jesse. Do you remember what I said that night you first camped out? When you and Moses and Tom came for the wine?”

“Yes,” he said. “You said you wanted to be with the person who loves you the most. And I—”

“Shush. Let me finish. I said that for you that night, Jesse, and I didn’t think you paid attention. But I haven’t changed my mind. I want someone to love me more than their father and mother, or any of their family. It sounds selfish, but I do. It would make me so happy, and if you’re not happy, life’s not worth living. I truly believe that. I’ve had a lot of nights by myself to think about it and, selfish or not, that’s the way it will have to be. You’ve picked a beautiful spot on top of that hill, Jesse Wills. A house there, with love, would be a happy place. Would I live there with you? Depends. Depends on what I just said. Can you love me more than anything else? Can you love me so much it hurts because, Jesse, I love you so much it hurts. When I see your face, when I see you walking up to me, it makes me so happy and hurts me so much I could cry. I love you as much as I want to be loved.”

I leaned back into the wall and closed my eyes.

My brother found his voice for keeps. When he spoke this time it came out in a way that left no doubt.

“Sarah,” he said, “I love you more than anything in the world. If I built that house on that hill and you wanted me to, I would burn it down. I would burn it down and scatter the ashes to hell and back. I will do whatever it takes for you to know that I love you, Sarah. Whatever. Will you marry me?”

Sarah sobbed.

“Yes,” she said, “yes.”

And then I heard them rush into each other’s arms, and being where I was finally embarrassed me. So I got up, quietly, and left.

 

 

The following Tuesday I went to the Hoppe’s house to wait for Jesse

there.

He had gone on to town to get Sarah. It was the day to take Moses to the train station.

I never mentioned what I had overheard to Jess, knowing he would not cotton to my hearing. Maybe so much so that he would wallop me. So I decided I needed to be sure and act surprised when they told my mother and father, which I figured them to do right away. But they never told them and I had to ride that day of Moses’ leaving with what I knew all bottled up in my insides. It was not an easy thing to do.

When I arrived at the Hoppe’s, Moses and his mother were rechecking his bag.

Mrs. Hoppe’s eyes were red. Moses had a stunned look on his face. Mr. Hoppe had stepped outside for a while.

It was a quiet house, where every noise seemed like a thunderclap. Mrs. Hoppe and Moses were talking about mundane things, like how long the train trip would take and was he sure he didn’t want them to go along to the station. You could tell in her voice she was just asking to be asking.

“No, Mama, “ Moses said, “we can say good-bye here just as well. Papa would end up losing another day in the field and that would just make me feel worse.”

“Don’t you worry about the fields,” Rose Hoppe said, “not one single time. We will be fine. You just do your best and come see us if the chance arises. If not, we’ll see you when you are a soldier. Your father will bust a button on that day, believe me.”

“And you?”

“Yes. Yes, Moses, me too. You know that.”

“Don’t worry about things here,” I said. “Jess and I are around to help.”

Moses smiled and put a hand on my shoulder.

“You are my best friends,” he said. “Thank you.”

I meant what I said and Moses’ reply had started a choke in my throat, so I decided to keep quiet from then on, knowing it would not help for me to get soft. I was a man, after all, and that wasn’t expected from a man.

Our carriage pulled up outside, with Sarah and Jesse in the seat.

“We need to be leaving real soon,” Moses said. “Best I go talk to Papa.”

He walked down the two steps of their back porch and headed towards an oak tree next to the field there. Reverend Hoppe was standing there, looking out over the plowed rows. He had been standing there ever since I arrived, just standing there and looking to the west.

Moses walked up to him and as he got close Mr. Hoppe turned and tried to smile. They talked then but were too far away for me to hear. Then they ran out of things to say and stood looking and yet not really looking at each other. Finally, Reverend Hoppe reach an arm out in an unsure way and in a moment Moses fell into his chest and wrapped his arms around him. Mr. Hoppe was half a head taller and pulled his son’s face into his neck, running his hands through the hair on the back of Moses’ head. I could not see Moses’ face but I could see his father’s.

I had expected many things that day. I had expected Moses’ mother to have tears in her eyes. I had expected it would be hard for me to hide my own, and Jesse and Sarah also.

But I had never expected to see Reverend Samuel Hoppe cry. Yet he did, standing there cradling his son’s head. And he did not care that I saw him, nor Jess and Sarah, who had just come up to me.

And I thought maybe, sometimes, it was good for a man to cry, and it was silly to be ashamed to. For if that man, as good and strong as he was, felt the need, then the need was righteous.

As quickly as they had fallen together they came apart, shook hands and then Reverend Hoppe turned and walked to the barn where Shag waited alongside the plow. Moses stood, his back to us, and watched him go, then stood a while longer after he had disappeared into the building. Finally he turned and came to the house.

“How you doing?” Jess asked.

Moses’ eyes were red, but he managed to smile.

“I’m ready,” he said.

He grabbed his bag and we went out the front door to the carriage. Grandpa was standing there, in his leathers, his long rifle butted into the ground and his hands folded over the top of the barrel.

He looked at Sarah.

“Still a goin’, young miss?”

“Yes,” she said, a touch of orneriness in her voice. “I have to make sure these men don’t get lost.”

Grandpa grinned.

“Pluck,” he whispered to himself.

He turned to Moses.

“Long trip, Mr. Moses.”

“Yes it is, Grandpa Turner,” Moses said, “but I’m ready.”

“I envy you. If I was forty-years younger I’d tramp along. But I couldn’t abide no train as my trampin’ was always afoot. Came further on my heels than you’ll go when I come from the east. Good thing about your trip, ain’t no In’yuns likely to take on that frightful iron beast, even if there was any left who’d a mind to.”

“I suppose not.”

Grandpa moved his hands off the top of the barrel to a foot or so down on the side.

“Been thinkin’ about you goin’ off to learn to soldier, and come to the mind that it’s a good thing. Maybe an edicated soldier can think his way out of a fight now and then, and save the blood.”

“I never thought of it that way, but I hope your right.”

“Anyways, Mr. Hoppe, when you get there and they see you bear a right fine shootin’ eye, give credit where credit’s due.”

“I will,” Moses said, holding out his hand.

Grandpa took it and they shook a strong shake.

“Best go,” Jess said.

There was room on the carriage seat for three and I let the others have it, climbing into the back to sit on the boards.

Mrs. Hoppe, still crying, hugged Moses one last time, and then he climbed in.

I looked back as we drove off and saw Mrs. Hoppe standing in the road next to Grandpa. I could also see Mr. Hoppe through the trees in the field in the back of their house.

They all three became smaller and smaller, then finally disappeared in the distance.

 

 

The train station we went to was to the west, along the Mississippi, on tracks that ran alongside the Mississippi all the way to across the river from St. Louis. From there, Moses was to catch another train to the east and West Point.

We got there a little after noon, an hour and a half early, and sat on the wooden platform next to the tracks to eat some sandwiches my mother had fixed. A half dozen people were there, including the train agent.

The talk was small, meaningless. We were all trying to ease the time away.

Then, in the distance, we heard a whistle blow. The agent came out onto the platform.

“Be ready, everybody,” he said. “Train will be here in ten minutes.”

We got to our feet and turned to the south, to watch for it. Jesse spoke after a minute.

“Mos’” he said. “We got a surprise for you, me and Sarah. We’ve told no one, not even our parents. We wanted you to know first.”

“What is it?” Moses asked.

Jess put his arm in Sarah’s and grinned ear to ear.

“We’re getting married, Moses. We’re waiting till you can come back and be our best man, and then we’re getting married.”

Moses’ face was surprised for a second, then it fell away for the briefest moment to something else, past surprise. Jesse hadn’t caught it.

But I did. And so did Sarah.

I had been there so many years ago, when Jess had run off ahead with the peach wine. So many years ago, it was sad to think it.

Had been there as a younger Moses stood under her window and spoke so deeply from his heart that, after he said it, he ran away in embarrassment.

“I love you,” he had said.

And now, though no doubt he had to be expecting them, words had come from his best friend that shut a door forever to him and for the briefest heartbeat, his face had fallen.

But he recovered quickly.

“Congratulations,” he said, mustering a wide smile.

Sarah moved forward and hugged him.

“And you will be our best man?” she asked softly.

“I’ll be proud to,” he said.

And Jess slapped his back and he Jess’s and I joined in the celebration as if I too had heard it for the first time.

And before you knew it the train was there, all ungodly noise and smoke and commotion. Sarah was crying and the agent was hurrying everyone onto it and then it was moving and Moses was leaning out a window.

And he was smiling and waving but then, when he was almost too far away to see it, I caught that fallen look again.

Then he, like the people around his house hours earlier, became a dot that faded northward.

 

 

My parents and Sarah’s parents were overjoyed when, the Sunday after Moses left, Jess and Sarah announced their desire to get married. All gave their blessings. Mama was happy that they were going to wait till Moses could get home again, which could be years. She wanted to see more age on both of them. The wait, I heard he tell Father, would also give Jesse time to work on his house on the hill.

Their betrothal was the talk of town and the church. Everybody agreed it was s proper match and, to the last person, all said they had figured it since both were children. It was one of the big goings on of 1859.

Many other things happened in 1859.

The biggest news that went beyond Jefferson was that our nation was sliding ever so quickly over the cliff towards a civil war.

John Brown tried to free the slaves in Virginia, failed, and was hung in December. It was a deed and hanging that told a lot about a person’s mind. Everybody had a reaction that ran to the heart of their beliefs.

My father, who hardly ever cursed, did curse John Brown when the news came of what he had tried to do. And when they sentenced him to hang, he let loose with another rare outburst.

“They should stretch and quarter the son of a bitch,” he had said at the supper table, startling all of us, even Grandpa.

His was not an uncommon view in southern Illinois. Most people supported the North and union but didn’t care for a fight for the nigras. The country needed to stay together, but that was it.

Blacks were looked down upon, for the most part, and not much cared about. No one own slaves but most saw no trouble with others owning them.

Reverend Hoppe was one of the exceptions, in his wholehearted hatred of slavery. He could not abide it. He wanted whatever needed done to be done to rid the country of it and, even though people had been killed in the uprising, John Brown struck him as a martyr. He overlooked the deaths, a strange thing for a man of the cloth. A war to end slavery, he often allowed, was a righteous war.

Jess and I talked about it when we were alone and decided we agreed with the Reverend but to keep the peace we kept our thoughts to ourselves, especially at the supper table.

Grandpa’s opinion was that Brown needed hanging.

“But,” he said, “don’t see no harm in stringin’ up a few slaveowners ‘longside.”

Mama held her tongue like Jesse and me, except that the idea of a war worried her to death. Jess would be turning eighteen in 1860 and she knew where his unspoken loyalties lay. And I was not far behind, heading for sixteen.

Sad thing was, John Brown was only the beginning of the thing.

Every day that my father’s St. Louis Republican arrived the news got grimmer and grimmer. The politicians argued, the abolitionists railed, southern gentlemen grumbled angrily and threatened to fight.

Then came 1860, followed by ’61, and all hell broke loose.

 

April, 1861

 

Reverend Hoppe’s man was elected president and when Lincoln went to Washington the south left.

Frightening news followed frightening news till the middle of April came and word arrived that the south had fired on Fort Sumpter in South Carolina, a place I had never heard of before but from then on would never forget. That, at last, meant war.

The news beat Father’s paper. The year before had brought the telegraph to Jefferson. It’s coming had hurt my father’s pride deeply.

Still, people asked him what the paper said and he gladly told them.

Jefferson Davis was the president of something called the Confederate States of America. Lincoln had put out a call for volunteer troops to quell the uprising.

I had long since passed my fear of storms and tornadoes and Indians but somehow that fear of southern heathens had never completely passed. And now the hollow feeling of a war, with them, churned my insides.

I laid awake at night thinking it would not really happen, as probably did everyone else. Everyone, that is, except the radicals on both sides.

Someone, we thought, would surely come up with an idea. Someone would find an agreement. No one would allow this to happen. It simply did not seem possible.

But like everyone else in history who stared at the dark night and thought war would surely never come, we were all of us wrong. It laughed and came. War was one childhood nightmare that always came true.

There would be armies. There would be battles. Americans were going to kill Americans. We were no better than anyone else and our time had come. The call for volunteer troops came to Illinois and, as we all knew, Jesse wanted to join. He was almost to his nineteenth birthday when he came through the door with the news from Jefferson.

“A group is forming to go to Centralia. They’re mustering a regiment there. I’m planning on going.”

My mother stood down the hallway from the open front door, her hands knurling her apron, her face shocked with pain.

“No,” she moaned.

My father was in the doorway to his office.

“Jesse, there’s no need,” he said. “Word from Washington is the fight will be over in six months and it’ll happen out east. There’s no chance you boys will get there by then.”

Jess paid him no mind.

“Sam Bledsoe is going and Charlie Marsh and Ambrose and Silas. Almost everybody my age.”

“That’s not everybody,” Mama said. “And wait, see, tomorrow they won’t be going.”

“I am,” Jess said in his headstrong way.

“What about Sarah?” she asked, grasping.

“I didn’t see her today. But it’s not Sarah’s choice. I’m going.”

I stepped up to Jesse.

“Me too,” I said, all sixteen, almost seventeen years of me.

Mama’s face tightened up.

“No,” she said in a harsh whisper, “that will not happen.”

She walked up to us. Jess looked at me.

“You can’t go,” he said, “you’re too young. They won’t take you. That’s that.”

“I can lie.”

“No, you won’t and if you do I’ll tell them. Then I’ll kick you from town to here and back.”

That angered me.

“You say what you do and I say what I do. Do you think you’re the only one who can say what they’re going to do?”

“We’re not talking about it,” Jesse said.

Mama folded her hands in front of Jesse’s chest.

“Listen to me,” she said. “Please. I understand what you feel. Others are going and you want to too because of that.”

“It’s not that. It’s my country, Mama, I owe it to my country. What if Grandpa hadn’t fought the Indians? What about the revolution, someone had to fight it? It’s my country and we’re freeing the slaves and I’m going. And yes, I won’t be left behind.”

“There’s no fight here for the nigras,” Father said. “It’s a fight for the Union that Lincoln wants and a fight too late for you to make.”

“I’ll fight for the Union but I will also fight for the slaves. Myself. And if I’m late getting there, I’ll have at least tried.”

“But our land? Our business?”

“You took care of it by yourself before me and you still do most of it now, plus Tom is old enough to start learning things.”

“And your house?” Father went on. “You’ve only just started it.”

“It’ll have to wait.”

“You’ve got this all worked out, you think,” Father said with a touch of anger. “You’ll go fight for a lot of damn black field hands and leave your mother and me, leave our land, our livelihood. You know the hard times that’s happening here now. I’ve talked about it till I’m sick and no one listens and everybody thinks I’ll keep things going like I always have before. Well, I could use some help.”

He stepped forward two steps before continuing.

“We’ve had two bad years already. The winters have been too cold and wet and the summers too dry. We’ve gone in the hole the last two years and this spring has been wet and all the renters are late again planting. And now a lot of them will get hotheaded like you and be leaving to fight this silly field hand war and even less will be put out. And you, you’ll just leave too, as if you owe us nothing, as if you owe me nothing.”

I was taken aback by my Father talking that way, even though I knew the last few years had worried him. We had lost money and, though I hadn’t noticed our lives changing, he was not used to losing money. It ate at him.

But Jess was not prepared to hear about doom and gloom hanging over our business.

“Is that what this is about?” he asked harshly. “Let the others fight just so we keep making money. Do you want me to work all the fields myself?’

“No, I’ve never wanted that.”

“Then there’s no reason for me to stay while the others are going. Do you think I have no pride?”

“I think you have too much and for all the wrong things.”

Jesse’s face flushed a deep red and I knew he was close to exploding. But he must have thought better of it.

“I’m not talking about it anymore,” he said through clenched teeth. “You all can do as you want but I’m going to do what I think is right.”

Mama put a hand to either side of his head and turned his face to her.

“Let’s not talk business,” she said in a choked voice. “I don’t care about what happens here, my Jesse, I care about you. I know what you see as your duty but this war scares me to death. Where would I be without you? Or Tom? Am I to give you both up for something that will help others, but not us? Does that make me selfish? Do you think less of me for loving you that much?”

"Mama --"

“Shhh, listen to me, please. I want you to make me a promise.”

Jess began shaking his head in spite of her hands.

“No, I won’t promise anything.”

“Hear me out, please. If you leave now there’s nothing to keep your brother home. I can’t watch him all the time. I know him, he would lie about his age. He’s just like you when it comes to what he feels he needs to do. Isn’t that right, Thomas?”

I looked at her but did not answer, and that was answer enough.

“And if you go, and if he goes, and if something happens to both or either one of you, I won’t want to go on. There would be no reason.”

She looked hard into Jesse’s eyes.

“But I know you’ve made your mind up,” she went on, “and him too, and I cannot stop you if that’s what you really want. But promise me this. In two years Tom will be eighteen and that’s a man. Wait till then and if this horrible war is still going on, then you both go together if it is. At least I know you’d be looking out for each other. I would feel so much better about that. You see, I’m not so selfish, I would give up both my boys. But together, when the time is right, side by side, one watching the other. Will you promise me that? Will you wait on him?”

“No.”

“Please, Jesse.”

“No, Mama. No, I can’t promise that, not when the others are going now.”

“Oh,” Mama said, putting her face in her hands and starting to cry.

Father stepped out of his office doorway and into the foyer.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said,” he told Jesse. “I think your wrong in going but I’m sorry for what I said. “

Jess nodded. Father went on.

“When are the others planning on leaving for Centralia?”

“A week from today.”

“Then will you at least give some thought to what your mother said till then? Don’t just throw it out without thinking about it.”

Jesse sighed and nodded.

“I’ll think about it,” he said, “but don’t expect me to change my mind.”

“Fair enough.” our father said.

 

 

Two days later I went with Jesse to help him work on his house, though it wasn’t much of a house then.

He had been working on it the better part of a year and a half, whenever he could get away from his work with Father, but that amounted to only a few hours a week. Most of the first months had been used up gathering and laying out the large rocks that would make the foundation. They came from a creek bed on the other side of our ground and had to be hauled or drug by oxen. Once at the site they were sorted by size and shape and laid out as the base of the building to come.

It was going to be a large one, to be sure. Jesse wanted what he wanted and though it wasn’t going to be as big as our house, or even close for that matter, it was still going to be bigger than most any in our area.

After the foundation was set lumber had to be slowly gathered and cut at the sawmill in Jefferson, piecemeal as Jess could afford it. Father loaned him a little now and then but the bigger share had to come out of what he was being paid to help Father, which wasn’t a whole lot. My father was a big believer in figuring room and board as payment of services rendered.

So, all in all, it was a slow go, but it didn’t matter as it looked like he had time aplenty. He and Sarah had agreed to wait for Moses to come home before marrying so he could be their best man and that could still be two years off, upon his graduation.

Neither Moses or his father had the money to get him home any sooner, even though he had had a summer break each of the first two years in West Point. It bothered Mr. and Mrs. Hoppe, to be sure, but it was a fact that as much as the bad planting years had hurt my father and his end of the business, it hurt his renters even more. And Reverend Hoppe still had his church duties on top of his farming. So, as always before, he was late getting things out, a hard habit in good years and a burdensome one in lean. The lateness rubbed my father rawer than ever.

So time was on Jesse’s side as far as his house on the hill was concerned.

I could tell that there were days that both Sarah and Jess had second thoughts about their promise to Moses. Both felt that maybe they had been overly excited at the time they made their announcement to him, and in asking him to be their best man whatever the cost. I know they were burning to be married.

Moses, in several of the letters he had sent them, had told them not to wait. A thing, I knew, that must have been very hard for him to do.

But a promise they had made and if ever there were two people inclined to be strong willed about keeping a promise, it was them. Neither one was ever likely to back down from anything, anytime.

That May day I helped was another beautiful one and Jess and I were in the process of laying out boards for an outside wall. We were mostly working, not saying much. Fact was, not much had been said from anybody since Jesse’s announcement that he was going to enlist and fight. Mama and Father were giving him his time to think and give his answer about waiting for me. They knew he could not be rushed. But deep down, though, they just had to know what his answer would be. I did.

Jesse would go. He had promised to think about waiting and think he would, but in the end Jesse would go. I had seen him on the night of our campout, had seen his reaction when he was riled, knew from that how his heart beat.

He could not stand bullies, he lost all sense when it came to them. And he, like me, saw the slave owners as bullies. He had a good spirit and a good spirit could never abide seeing them in any other light, not if that good spirit listened to Reverend Hoppe’s sermons.

Yes, Jess would go. I’m sure he was just not looking forward to telling everyone so it was only a matter of everyone remaining quiet till he decided to say speak.

Grandpa was remaining quiet like our parents, if only because he wrote the book on biding time till ready. And I would remain quiet for that reason also, and another.

What Mama had said was true. If Jesse left to fight it would be too much for me and I sooner or later would follow. I wouldn’t be able to stand it otherwise and yes, they were right, I would do whatever it took to join.

And though I would have liked to tell Mama and Father and Jesse not to worry about it, I couldn’t do it. It would have been a lie I could not have passed off. They would have easily seen clear through it.

That was why Jesse hadn’t gotten angry and attempted to make me swear I wouldn’t age myself in order to get into the army, because he knew me as I knew him and would know it wasn’t a promise I would keep any more than he would in my place. My heart just wouldn’t allow me to stay home if he went.

Which made me feel selfish. Selfish that I was making Jesse’s decision so much harder that the damnable hard one it was, that decision being to fight.

We had both heard Grandpa’s stories about fighting and wars and, horrible as they were, found in ourselves the strange excitement that’s bored into all men’s souls for all time. The sad, grisly desire to join in the battle. The wish to have people look at you and say you took up a just cause, even though the soldier on the other side was pulled by the same thoughts. It was this pull that rested in all men and made for all wars and I had it as did Jess. I would definitely go if Jess did.

So since I did not know what to say to him about it and he did not know what to say to me, we were both lost in our hidden thoughts like the rest of the family. And so we worked that day and made small talk about the weather, how true the boards were, and little else.

It was midday while we were sitting under a tree on the edge of the clearing that we could see a carriage making its way in our direction. It didn’t take long to figure out whose carriage it was.

Sarah’s father, Henry Hoffman, the proud owner of the only tavern in Jefferson, had bought it years before. It stood out from all others. The body and top were black, like most carriages, but the wheels, spines and hub were a bright red. Carnival colors. It was hard to believe he could have thought the red looked pretty. Rumors were he got it in payment for a debt from a passing tonic salesman years before.

As it was he never bothered changing the wheel color, people began accepting it without pause, and everyone around Jefferson could tell whose carriage was coming from a long ways off. There was something that locked your eyes on those spinning red wheels.

From a half mile away we could see it was Sarah, alone, bumping along in her father’s standout carriage.

I noticed Jesse out of the corner of my eye. He stiffened a little. He had not seen her since he had told us of his intentions.

She brought the horse to a stop fifty feet from us and tied him off to a sapling in the shade and started out way. We both got to our feet.

Sarah had a long, purposeful way of walking, in many ways not unlike a lot of men. Although she wasn’t but a little taller than most women, she looked tall in that her strides were long and she swung her arms strongly at her sides. It wasn’t something that made her unattractive, not in the least. If anything, the long-legged look it gave her added to her prettiness. And it also gave one the impression that she always meant business, which was usually true.

“Jesse Wills,” she said when she was still thirty feet away, “I don’t appreciate a lot of things and you found out one of them.”

“What’s that, Sarah?” he asked.

She came up to him.

“I don’t appreciate being the last one to know about a decision the one I’m engaged to has made, not in the least. I first found out yesterday from people in town what your plans are. That’s kind of humiliating.”

“I’m sorry,” Jess said, his voice strong, “but I didn’t tell anyone in town either, except the boys. I was going to tell you this weekend. A few days wouldn’t have changed anything.”

She had her hands on her hips as if she was still bowed up but then, ever so slowly, they dropped. It looked like she didn’t have it in her to stay angry.

“I know,” she said softly. “I know it was your decision to make and your decision about the telling, I guess. I would have just liked to have talked about it with you. Do you see?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

She looked to the side, at the ground.

“Truth of it is,” she said, “you did tell me once that that’s what you would do if it came to war. It’s just sad to know it came to it.”

Jess stepped forward and put his arms around her.

“It’s something I need to do,” he whispered to her. “I’ll go and I’ll come back and we’ll live in our house. I promise.”

“Do you? Do you promise not to do anything foolish and come back to me?”

“I love you, Sarah, and nothing will keep me away.”

“I just know how you are. I know how you will do anything, anytime, when your heart is in it. I know you.”

“It can’t last long,” Jesse said. “The South has nothing to fight with.”

“Nothing but what’s in their hearts too. There are men like you down there so I would not say it will not last long.”

She eased back from him and looked into his eyes.

“What about what your mother has asked?”

Jesse looked back at her but did not answer.

“I stopped at your house looking for you,” she went on. “She told me.”

“I’m telling her and everyone else tonight,” Jesse said at last. “I’m going. I must.”

“She only wants you to wait for Tom, if the war lasts that long. Is that so much?”

Jesse fell silent again. Sarah turned to me.

“And what about you, Thomas?” she said harshly. “Would you really run off? At your age?”

The time for me to be quiet had passed.

“The war may not last,” I said.

“What kind of silliness is that?” she asked, truly angry at me now. “The war may not last! What is it? Why do all of you feel that fighting is so damn important? Do you think people will think more of you if you go get yourselves killed? Let me tell you, I will think less. I will think you are the most stupid, selfish people I have ever met if you go to war just to prove you can fight. Do you understand me, Tom? Do you see that there are more people involved in your decision than just yourself? Do you?”

“That’s not the only reason I want to go,” I said, taken back on my heels a little.

“What other reasons?”

“I…I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.

“Neither do I. Just put any stupid ideas out of your head. Don’t kill your mother for something you can’t explain.”

I wanted as bad as I ever wanted anything to tell her why I needed to go as Jess was going to go, but I could not. Because, the truth was, I did not understand what I was feeling myself.

She turned back to Jesse.

“And you,” she said in a gentler voice. “You won’t change your mind?”

“No.”

“I talked to Charlie Marsh today. He has. He’s not going. He’s waiting a while to see if he’s really needed. So are Sam and Silas, they’re waiting too. Ambrose is the only one still going. And you.”

Jess creased his forehead.

“You sure?”

“Yes. It makes sense, Jesse. It could be over so fast you won’t even get started. Listen, there is no shame in waiting and seeing. Look at Moses. You read his letter. He’s learning to be a soldier and the government is asking even him and his classmates to wait till they graduate, so Moses is not going yet. There’s no shame in that. Around here about the only one’s going are five, ten years older than you. Several of your father’s renters are going and now only their wives are left to get out the crops. Someone may have to help them, if everyone is going to eat this year. Wouldn’t there be honor in doing that? Men at home are as important as the men in uniform, the armies could not exist without them. So what would be the problem in waiting a few months? No one would think any less of you, and some might think more.”

She had him to thinking, I could see it. It was turning on him and turning hard.

“Sam and Charlie aren’t going?’ he asked.

“No,” she said.

“And Silas.”

“And Silas. And by week’s end Ambrose might change his mind. You’re all too young, Jess. Give it a while. There will be plenty of time to join later, if need be.”

“I don’t know, Sarah,” he said. “I don’t know.”

“I do. If it’s so hard for you to decide then let me help. Let me tell you that it would be best, the right thing for you to do, for everyone’s sake. Even yours. Don’t you trust me?”

Jesse stared at her with soft eyes. He forced a smile.

“This summer,” he said. “I’ll give it this summer until the crops are out. I guess I owe everyone that much.”

“You owe us nothing,” Sarah said. “We owe you. All of us who love you, all of us who need you.”

The breeze picked up slightly and pitched the grasses and flowers over in front of the rocks and boards that would someday be a home. It made all the talk of war seem meant for someplace far off.

Sarah looked around at all of it.

“This will be a beautiful, happy house on a hill, won’t it, Jesse? It will be so nice here. You, me, and our children. No one will be lonely, will they?”

Jess looked too.

“No,” he said, “no they won’t.”

 

The summer rolled away and things happened about the way Sarah said they would.

My father had a total of ten tenant farmers. Three of them, all in their late twenties or early thirties, left to join the Union regiment at Centralia, as did a large part of the people their age in and around Jefferson. They had a parade in town to see them off. There was a lot of cheering and a lot of crying.

Sarah had also been right about their friend Ambrose, the last one of the group of nineteen year olds who had talked about joining the army. He, like the rest, finally decided it would be best to wait a while and see what developed. Parents, it seemed, held a lot of sway with their boys. Ambrose’s decision made Jesse feel a lot better.

A good part of the people in our part of Illinois had southern sympathies but no one, that I knew of, went south to join any Confederate army. If they didn’t join the Union army, they stayed home and cursed Lincoln.

Of the seven tenants left three were older men, all well over fifty. None had the strength to get much done. Of the other four one was Reverend Hoppe, a little younger but his shriveled arm and preaching duties kept him behind things just like them.

He was also bothered by the fact that his injury kept him from joining the fight to free the slaves as he wanted with all his heart to go.

The tenant problems meant that Jesse and I got involved in helping, as much as we could, in getting out of the crops, especially the fields of those who had gone to fight. Our working the fields bothered our father a lot but not enough for him to forbid us doing it. It was the only way anyone would make a living and having to stay and help kept Jesse farther from the army.

But even our working the fields didn’t make enough difference as far as anyone making even half of what they usually did. This in spite of the fact that the war effort was making other farmers, in other places, much richer.

Another summer of drought had fallen over us, the third in a row.

The war, the delayed plantings, the drought occurring when money was to be made. There were days when Father sat in his office and did nothing but stare at the walls. Jesse, who had been spending less time there with him because of the outside work, didn’t even bother going in on those days.

The summer fell into the fall and then the winter. Nothing seemed to be happening on the battlefields except for Bull Run and a few small skirmishes around and about Virginia. Generals sat around and trained their armies and went into winter quarters and everyone began to believe that maybe there wouldn’t be a real big fight after all, just marching and threats. Everyone, that is, but the trained soldiers. They had to know what the spring would bring.

The lack of fighting served the purpose of dampening Jesse’s fire for joining in. He just went with the flow of things and before long wasn’t talking about it much at all. He spent his time brooding about the hard times, like everyone else.

Only one person didn’t take time to brood. In spite of all the war and money troubles storming about us my mother, for the time being, was happy. She refused to pay attention to any of those pesky problems. Her sons were still home and food was still getting to the table and that was all that mattered.

Jess and Grandpa and I spent the winter hunting. When he wasn’t doing that, Jess was moping over Sarah. All of us wondered what the spring would bring.

Letters from Moses said he was doing the same and praying that things would get better and feeling bad he could not be there to help. But spending the money to come home, even in the best of times, would have been a hardship. In times like his father and the rest of us were having, it was out of the question.

Finally, the spring of 1862 came and with it the rains, again. It looked to be more of the same, with the planting delayed. Everyone felt we were living under a curse.

Clouds hung in other places too. In early April, in Tennessee, a Union general from Illinois named Grant got into a fight with a Confederate army. Thousands died. Everyone was stunned. No one dreamed that thousands could be killed all at once. That had seemed out of the question.

Word came that one of father’s tenant farmers, a man in his late twenties named William Tyler, was killed. He had a wife and three children, the oldest seven. They never saw his body, only got a letter. Rumors had it he got blown to pieces by a cannon but that was only a rumor and could not be proved.

The fake war was over. Even the firebrands on both sides seemed saddened.

It became May, and then June. The crops were only half out. We were all wore to the bone. Father hadn’t made one of his rides all spring.

Then one day in the middle of the month a heavyset man in a suit came to our house about midmorning. He and Father went into the office and closed the door. They were still there when Jess and I came home for lunch. Jess thought about knocking and going in, but did not.

Late that afternoon the man left, even though Mama asked him to stay for supper. He and my father shook hands a long time.

Jesse asked at the supper table who he was.

“Just a business associate,” Father said, not looking up from his plate, “no one you need to be concerned about.”

We looked at each other with puzzled faces but did not pursue it. It did not seem to matter.

But two weeks later another visitor came, and this one did matter. A lot.

 

June, 1862

 

It had been a hot day and Jess and I had spent it working hard. We were dusty and tired and washing up on the back porch, discussing how nice it would be to be like Grandpa and just wander off for a few days.

“Sometimes,” I said to Jess in a whisper, looking over my shoulder as I did, “I think Grandpa is just a bit lazy.”

Jess laughed.

“I wouldn’t let him hear you say that. Anyway, I wouldn’t say he was lazy. He’s done his share over the years, only his work was Indian fighting and helping the country get settled. That had to be harder than what we’re doing.”

“It may not have been easy, but it would have been a damn sight better than following a stinking plow horse.”

I had come to the conclusion that a seventeen-year old was more than old enough to let a cuss loose now and then, as long as his mother never heard.

“I guess,” Jesse said.

“Come in, boys,” Mama called, “I’ve got you some food.”

It was while we were making our way into the kitchen that through the open front door we heard some voices in from the front yard. One sounded loud and angry. That worried us. We worked our way through the house to the front porch.

Our father was at the bottom of the steps talking to someone in a blue-gray uniform with a double-row of buttons and a small billed hat, and that someone was Moses. I could not believe it was him and that it took me a full half minute to realize it. It took Jess that long too. Someone young can change a lot in three years. He wasn’t much taller, nor heavier, but he stood ramrod straight and his face was darkened by the shadow of a beard that had been peach fuzz before.

His face was also red as he talked to Father. His was the voice that we had heard anger in on the other side of the house.

“How could you do it?” he was shouting loudly, his arms waving before Father’s face.

“It was my right,” Father said.

Jess made his way down two steps in their direction. His voice was happy, the surprise at seeing Moses having left him blind to what was going on.

“Moses!” he cried, a huge smile on his face. “You’re here, I can’t believe your here!”

“Shut up,” Moses said, not taking his eyes off Father, “I’m not talking to you.”

Jesse came to a stop on the middle step, his face stunned.

“Moses?”

“Shut up, I said, just shut up!”

Moses turned his attention back to my father.

“Go on,” he said with tight voice, “tell me how you could be so pitiful to do such a thing to us.”

“I’m not talking about it,” Father said.

It took a while for Jesse to find himself but he finally did, just as my mother got to the front door, her hands rolling nervously in her apron.

“What are you talking about?” Jesse asked.

Moses at last looked at him.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know,” he said with disgust. “They tell me you’re his boy, tell me you’re the next in line to be rich trash like him. They tell me you’re a Mama and a Papa’s boy.”

Jess was still stunned but I could see the back of his neck turning red.

“For the last time,” he said slowly, “what’s going on?”

Moses laughed, although his anger made it come out a cackle.

“Don’t tell me. You really don’t know? That’s rich. Papa doesn’t tell his little boy everything then, does he. Doesn’t tell him he’s selling the land out from under my family, not that you’d probably give a damn.”

The world came to a stop then, while Jess and I and our mother took in what was being said. Our surprise at Moses being home was gone. Other surprises had taken hold and too fast. It was one of those times when the mind could not make the mouth work, at least for a while.

Jesse went down another step and put his eyes on our father. He regained himself long before Mama or I did.

“Is this true?” he asked.

Father was shaken and his face a little gray, but he straightened a little at the question.

“It’s my right,” he said. “It’s my land and I will do with it what I want.”

Jess shook his head quickly. Words were hard for him.

“To who?”

“James Pickens. A business man from St. Louis.”

“The man that was here the other week? The one you wouldn’t talk about?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“He thinks he can make a landing on Murphy’s Branch to ship out wood and produce from around here for the military. He thinks there’ll be a war in the west too and the military will need those things. He’s rich and has the money.”

“The ground the Reverend uses?” Jesse asked, more to himself.

“And the Tyler’s.”

“But her husband is dead!”

“It’s my ground,” he repeated, holding his ground. “I’ll do with it as I want.”

He stiffened even more then. Somewhere in him he gathered the airs of his pride, his pride at being a man of importance.

“Don’t you understand?” he said in the direction of Jess, Mama and me. “I’ll do as I want because it’s what’s best for us. He offered twice what the ground was worth. Twice! Nothing is being done on it any way, the crops aren’t coming in, no one is around to put them out. I did it for us, we need to be secure and I’ll not have us losing everything.”

“We can make it without this,” Jesse said.

“That’s for me to decide.”

“Is it? Don’t we have a say?”

“Isn’t this just wonderful,” Moses said to Father. “When were you going to tell everyone? When it was over and done and the money would make things easier? Hell, you know better than anyone this bunch will do anything for money, don’t you?”

“Moses,” Mama said, her voice pleading, “you can’t believe that.”

“Can’t I?”

He laughed then, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. I had never heard him sound that way.

“I found out before you, isn’t that something,” he said. “You know how? My mother wrote me because my father never would have. He thinks whatever happens is God’s will. He even thinks there’s still good even in this man. My father sometimes lets his God make a fool of him, so I had to hear it from my mother. I could hardly read the letter. She must have been shaking and crying, knowing her. I rode a train all the way from New York to here, never got off once. I thought about this man here all the way and I can tell you there’s no good in him. He’s filth. He’s money hungry, he’s a son of a bitch.”

Father clinched his fists.

“You’ll not come to my house and talk to me this way! You or no one else will tell me what I will do with my own land!”

Jesse took the final step to be beside him.

“Get the money back,” he said.

I could hardly hear him. Mama sobbed behind me.

“I won’t,” Father said. “It’s too late. The man has a contract and he’s not the type to tear it up and I wouldn’t have him it anyway. I did it for us, someday you’ll see that.”

“But what about us?” Moses asked. “What does my father do now? How does he survive?”

“He still can preach.”

Moses let out that cackling laugh again.

“Preach? Oh, yes, yes, he preaches. To a bunch of damn hypocrites who expect him to do it for nothing. Preach to them plus do every other damn thing they want. Sure, God and the hypocrites like you will fill my father’s table. Or will you too ashamed to go back to church and face him?”

Father tried to ignore the question.

“He can help the other tenants farm,” he said. “They all need help now.”

Everything Father said disgusted Moses more.

“There’s hardly enough in the share you give him now to live off of and he’s supposed to make it on less than that?”

“He can stay in the house. Pickens said he didn’t care since he was a preacher.”

Moses blew up then.

“Charity then!” he screamed. “My father is allowed charity by you and your fat assed rich friends. He’ll love that. You’ll take his pride on top of everything else.”

“It’s his own fault!” Father shouted back. “Things would be different if he’d only farmed the ground like he should of!”

Moses sprung then, a motion so fast there could be no way he thought about it. He struck my father on the side of his face with his right fist and Father buckled to his knees.

“No!” Jesse screamed, lunging forward into Moses’ chest to hurl him backwards.

My mother cried and flung her hands to her mouth and I was too shocked to move. All I could do was listen to Jesse’s enraged voice.

“No,” he screamed again and again. “no, no!”

Moses stumbled until he was almost on his back. He steadied himself at the last second, spread his feet to gain hold, then swung long round blows into Jesse’s body. Jess stayed down, his face on Moses’ chest, then suddenly drove his right fist into Moses’ stomach. The air came out in a burst and Moses’ eyes went white. Jesse righted himself and I could see in his face that blank, hard look that had scared me so much the night he beat the men who had attacked me.

“Jesse!” I yelled, but it was too late.

He hit Moses once in the face, a blow that cracked in a sickening way and Moses fell on his back in the rising dust, his legs failing him as if they had been cut off.

“Jesse!” I screamed again, knowing the rage was still in him and that he could not stop.

Jesse moved forward.

“Gawwwdammit!” a voice boomed from the corner of the house.

Grandpa stepped around.

“Stop it!” he yelled. “Gawddammit, stop it now!”

Jesse came up short like someone waking out of a nightmare. He turned to Grandpa, his mouth open and gasping for breath and I became like my mother. I started to cry, seventeen or not.

Moses pushed himself backwards on the ground, sliding on the back of his fine uniform. His right eye was already starting to close.

“So this is how it is,” he said, spitting blood, hate heavy on his lips. “All of you against me and my family. This is how it is. I hate you. I hate every one of you.”

"Moses --" Grandpa started to say.

“I hate you,” Moses said again, “I hate all of you.”

When he had moved himself twenty feet away from us he got to his feet. He stood for a while, trying to hold himself still, then straightened stiff and erect like the soldier he was, picked up his hat and started walking away down the hillside. It was sad to see him walking so proud when his uniform was a mess and his gait so unsteady.

We all watched him go. Even Grandpa was too shocked to find the thing to say that would stop him. And then he became a speck in the swirling heat and was gone. A part of our family, almost like Jess and me, and he walked away with a blackened eye.

The dead summer air closed in around us, as if it had life, as if it had decided to choke us.

Jesse turned and walked up to Father, who was back on his feet. His right cheek was a little red but otherwise he didn’t look hurt.

Jesse pointed at him.

“Get back the money,” he said in a breathless voice. “Give them back the land.”

“I can’t,” Father answered, “and I wouldn’t if I could.”

“Give it back!”

“I won’t.”

Jess pulled his thoughts together and when he spoke again it was through tight lips and with eyes that were barely open.

“No one will ever touch any of my family, I’ve always promised myself that. Never will I allow that. But hear what I say now. Give the money back and make things right.”

“I can’t. Won’t.”

“Then,” Jess said, his words full of disgust, “I want nothing to do with you. Ever! I want my land on top of the hill where my house is, you owe me that, you owe me at least that. But other than that I want nothing from you. Nothing! Understand me? I don’t want to talk to you, I want none of your money. I want nothing to do with this Godforsaken land and your business in it. Nothing. Ever!”

He had to think some more before he spoke again.

“I always knew you were cold,” he said then. “You never wanted anything to do with me or Tom when we were growing up, but we got used to it. But I never would have believed you could do a thing like this.”

“It was for us, to maintain our position. You have to see that, surely. We will not be mere farmers!”

“But we are!” Jesse yelled. “Don’t you see? We farm misery and hate! We’ve done a hell of a job of it. It allows us to hold our position!”

“Jess,” my mother said from the top of the steps, “it will be all right. Everyone will calm down and see reason. Please.”

Jesse looked at her then back at Father.

“Remember what I said,” he told him.

He walked around the end of the house then, past Grandpa, towards his place on the hill.

“Jesse!” Mama cried out.

Grandpa looked after him, after the young man who had taken on his height, and also his curse of being headstrong.

“Let him go,” he said.

 

 

Two days passed and still Jess hadn’t come back. Mama was beside herself, but Grandpa told her to rest easy.

“He’ll be back,” he said “when he’s thought things through.”

Grandpa attempted to talk to my father, but Father would have none of it. He went to his office after the fight and stayed there. He came out to eat and go to bed then back to his office again in the morning, as if things were normal, as if nothing had happened.

“It’s my land, Alfred,” Grandpa said to him once. “Mine before you ever come around. You’ve took care of it but weren’t yours to sell.”

“Yes it was,” was all Father would say. “I did what I needed to do.”

Nothing else.

Moses didn’t come back. No one left the house to check on him.

“That’s Jesse’s task,” Grandpa told Mama and me. “Rest of us would do more harm than good. Let’s give them both a couple of days and if neither comes around by then, I’ll go talk to the Hoppe’s.”

But there was something else there that kept us from going right away. At least I know it did me.

I was ashamed to face Moses, or the Reverend or Mrs. Hoppe. And shame, I have found, will freeze you faster than fear any day of the week.

The evening of the second day after the fight Mama called me into the kitchen. She had a cloth sack in her hand.

“Here,” she said, “take this food up to Jesse.”

“Mama, you know what Grandpa said.”

“He has to eat. I’ll have him eat if I have to take it myself.”

I nodded and went out the back door. Fact was, I wanted to go see him. I needed to know things would be all right and only Jesse could tell me that.

The sky was overcast. It didn’t look like rain really, just a sky full of gray, dark clouds, except in the west where the sun, big and orange, had just enough room to be between those clouds and the horizon.

It felt like it took me forever to get to the spot where Jess was building his home.

He hadn’t done anything in the two days since he’d went up. It was the same as the last time I was there. It was just the foundation, most of the outside walls, and about half the timbers to support a roof, like before. Not much had been accomplished in the last year for that matter. Too much farming work had taken our time.

On the inside north wall he had built a lean-to with some boards to make a shelter of sorts. It wouldn’t have been much protection had the dark clouds decided to rain but he didn’t look like someone who cared if it rained. He was sitting inside this angled cover, staring at the sun through the open outside wall. He did not pay any attention to me as I came up.

He looked bad. His hair was a mess and the remnants of dusty, dry sweat streaked his face. His eyes looked empty. I squeezed in to sit beside him.

“Brought you some food,” I said, putting the sack beside him.

He glanced at the sack as if it were nothing, then turned back to the sun. We were quiet for a while, the only sound the wind travelling through the dark clouds.

“It isn’t right,” he said finally, his voice hoarse. “It isn’t right, what happened. Not to Moses, not to nobody.”

I didn’t say anything, only gave him his time.

“Everybody has worked so hard to get to where we’re at,” he went on. “Why did it have to come to this?”

“It’s not so bad, Jess,” I said at last, “it can be made right again.”

Jess shook his head and looked down.

“No. The ground’s already sold.”

“Then we can find them some other. Father can take his money from the sale and buy some ground someplace else and let them farm it.”

“That money will go to pay debts. I know, Tom, I’ve seen the books. We were getting in a bad way and when word gets out of the sale the people we owe will come running.”

"Then why --"

“Why didn’t I tell you all? What good would it have done, for you or Mama or Grandpa to know? We were trying as hard as we could as it was. No, the money’s gone.”

I struggled for an answer.

“It can be made right,” I said again. “Somehow.”

Jess looked at me for the first time.

“Can it? How do you figure to take Moses’ fist from Father’s face? How do you figure to take mine from his?”

He had me. I turned away.

“He was gone almost three years,” he went on. “All everyone wanted was for him to come home then he comes to this. How is that made right?

“It’s Father’s fault.”

“Is it?”

“All right, maybe not everything,” I said. “But I know one thing for sure, stupid as I am, nothing will happen if all you do is sit here. It’ll be hard, but you got to go see him. And the Reverend.”

It took a while but he finally nodded.

“I know,” he said, “that’s all I’ve been thinking about all this time. It’s a hard thing to face.”

He stared at the sunset a while longer.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll go.”

“Good. And for now, you eat.”

He still didn’t seem very interested.

“I guess,” he said.

 

 

The next day was still overcast. I was on the front porch before sunrise. It stayed dark longer than usual because of the clouds.

I heard the grandfather clock in our house chime nine and then saw Jesse’s form in the distance, heading for the main road that would go by the Hoppe’s, trying to meet it and not come close to our house. I ran down the hill to him.

He did not stop walking as I came up and did not turn to look at me.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

He had washed off his face and arms but his clothes and hair were still roughed and dusty.

“With you,” I said.

“No.”

“Yes, Moses is my friend too. If someone gets mad, I want to be there.”

“Nobody is going to get mad again.”

“You can’t speak for Moses. I’m going, Jess, you can’t stop me.”

He quit walking suddenly and turned to face me. I tried to stand straight and meet him eye to eye.

“Okay,” he said finally, as if too tired to argue. “But don’t talk, I’ll do the talking.”

I nodded. We started off again.

When we got to the house the black carriage with the red wheels stood outside. Jesse stopped and stared at it a long time. I didn’t know what to say, as usual.

Finally, he took in and let out a long breath and went forward again.

The horse shied and kicked up some dust as we came towards it. Right after, the front door opened. We stopped at the edge of the yard.

It was Sarah in the doorway. When her face met Jesse’s it went hard.

“Sarah?” Jesse said.

She turned to speak back into the house.

“Everybody stay inside,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

She closed the door, came down the steps and walked to five feet of us.

“What are you doing here?” Jesse asked.

“What are you doing here?” she answered.

“I came to talk to Moses.”

“He wants to talk to you, too. So does the Reverend. But I told them I would not allow it.”

“What?”

“I would not allow it because I would not have you hitting people again.”

"Sarah --"

“There’s only one thing you can tell these people, you can tell them the land is still theirs to farm.”

Jess looked away in an uneasy way.

“I can’t,” he said softly. “I can’t.”

“Then there is nothing for you to do here. Go home to your mansion.”

"Sarah, listen --"

“No, I won’t listen! Jesse, how could you do such a thing? How could you hit your best friend? After you haven’t seen him in years? Your best friend? Explain that to me.”

“He hit my father.”

“He did not, don’t lie to me. He was angry, and rightfully so, and he accidentally bumped him, but he did not hit him.”

Jesse looked at her, his forehead creased.

“Did he tell you that?” he asked.

“Yes, and I believe him.”

Jesse’s face grew a little red.

“And you don’t believe me? I’m lying?”

She sighed heavily and I could see the anger rising more in her too.

“I don’t know what to believe about you,” she said. “I thought I knew you but now I’m not so sure, because the Jesse Wills I thought I knew would not let his best friend come home after being away years and treat him like you did. Because the Jesse Wills I knew would not allow his father to do to these fine people what he did. God, Jesse, I knew you were helping your father run things. You talked about it, everybody knows. You had to know what was going on and you just let him do it!”

I started to talk but Jess cut me off.

“Is that what you think?” he asked. “And everybody else?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I see. Things are pretty well cut and dry then.”

“Cut and dry? What the hell does that mean? You’re part of the business, you make it right!”

Jesse shook his head.

“It’s not for me to do,” he said. “It’s my father’s decision.”

“Then,” she said, her rage peaked, “you’re a coward on top of being a bully! You’ll live in that big house with your father in his fancy suit and let him do as he wants and be happy about it, won’t you? Just as long as you can stay there and be rich and someday have it all and be heartless just like him. Isn’t that right? As long as you can live there and have all you want, you don’t care about your friends. So live there and be a coward!”

"But --" I started to say.

“Shut up, Tom,” Jesse said.

"You --"

“Shut up, Tom!” he shouted.

I could see his back stiffen, his God forsaken pride taking hold, and I knew better than continue. He stepped one step closer to Sarah.

“So,” he said, “I’m a coward and I’m a bully. What about Moses? What is he?”

“Moses would not have done what you’re doing. Moses would have been a man and stood up to your father for what was right. That’s what he was trying to do when he went to your house, when you decided to blacken his eye. Moses has always had more feelings, more strength, I see that now. He would have come out today and stood here and faced you down, if I had let him, but you probably would have hit him again.”

Jesse’s face became of a mask. His voice became hard.

“Then maybe you better quit wasting your time out here with me and start taking care of your Moses, your wonderful Moses, since he’s so much a better man than me. Go to him, if that’s what you want. That is what you want, isn’t it?”

She did not answer right away.

“Isn’t that what you want!” Jesse in a louder voice.

Sarah flinched. Her lips quivered and tears welled in her eyes. It took a while for her to gather herself enough to answer.

“Yes,” she said, at last, her voice thick. “Yes, that’s what I want.”

Jesse’s rigidness lessened a little.

“Then you shall have it,” he said.

They stood half a minute more, neither making an effort to talk. Then Jess turned and started away.

“Come along,” he said to me as he went past.

I did not want to leave but the same feelings that kept me from visiting Moses by myself kept me from speaking. I was just too young, too stupid and too hurt by everything.

I followed my big brother up the road. Neither of us looked back.

 

 

I knew there was only one person I could talk to about what had been said in front of the Hoppe house.

I got up early the next morning, before anyone else. I could not sleep. I went downstairs to the room at the back of the house where Grandpa slept.

Mama and Father did not wake up. Or, if they did, they did not bother getting up. Jesse was still up at his building site.

I found Grandpa on the floor, on a blanket that he had folded over for thickness. He always slept on the floor when he spent the night in the house. Beds had never suited him.

The last year or so had been hard on him. He still disappeared for days in the woods and still dressed in his buckskins and still brought home game now and then. But his age was showing. Try as he might, everything he had done easily before was much harder to do. Walking, moving, shooting, all of the things that made him happy. And his teeth still bothered him, though he refused to have any more pulled.

He talked the same, though, and he was still erect and still took long strides. But he was getting older, and it was showing.

I could see his shadow on the floor in the dull light that was not of the night and still not quite the day.

“Grandpa,” I whispered.

“Yes.”

“You awake?”

“I’m talkin’.”

The honest truth was I don’t know when he ever slept.

“I have to talk to you,” I said.

He sat up and scuttled back till he was leaning against the wall underneath his open window.

“I’m here,” he said.

I told him about the trip Jess made to the Hoppe’s to try to make things right and about what had happened.

“Hell,” he said after I was done. “This has gone far enough! Bull headed damn snot noses! I’m straightenin’ this thing out today, come hell nor high water.”

“How?”

He eased up to his feet slowly, not letting on it was hard.

“Never mind that. Where’s your brother? Up at his place?”

“That’s where he headed.”

“Your father’s addled and the rest are actin’ like a slew of ijits. I’m usual for things runnin’ their course, but there ain’t no runnin’ with this herd.”

I could tell he was shaking his head, even though it was too dark to see.

“Grandpa?”

“What?”

“I’m not scared of the war or much else in this world. But I’m scared of this. All of it.”

He was silent a while and I knew he was looking at me.

“It’ll be light in a while,” he said. “Things is always better come daylight.”

We moved out of his room onto our small back porch. We sat side by side on the top step and quietly waited for daylight. It was still the better part of an hour away.

Before long, mixed in with the crickets and katydids and tree frogs, we heard the sound of feet moving through the darkness, in the woods behind the house. We both strained to see who it was.

It wasn’t long before Jesse stepped out of the tree line, heading for where we sat. He stopped twenty feet away when he saw us there, before he came forward again.

“Grandpa,” he said softly, nodding at him.

“Out kinda early,” Grandpa said.

“You too.”

“Misery hankers company.”

Jess never answered right away and Grandpa gave him his time.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said finally. “I wanted to talk to you. But I need to do some things inside first and I don’t want to wake them.”

Grandpa nodded and Jesse slipped by us and moved quietly into the house. Fifteen minutes later he was outside again and was carrying the blanket from his bed. It was rolled up and there were things inside the roll.

“Provisionin’ your homestead?” Grandpa asked.

Jess shook his head.

“Can we move away where we can’t be heard?”

We got up and followed him to the edge of the woods. Jess seemed to be having trouble talking and when he finally did find his voice did he did not look at us.

“I’ve been thinking. Seems that’s all I can muster myself to do. And I’ve come to the end of it. I…I’m leaving for a while. Going out on my own.”

My insides sunk, but if what he said bothered Grandpa, he didn’t let it on.

“Leavin’? Where to?”

“I don’t know for sure, possibly north, but away from here. I’ll come back, probably, in a while. Thing is, would you tell Mama? It would only be worse if I did.”

“If your man enough to go, you need to be man enough to speak your peace.”

“Grandpa,” Jess said, his voice stronger, “I’m a man. But you know this is the best way. And don’t judge me by my going, didn’t you leave your family out east when you took to the frontier?”

“Did, surely I did. But I weren’t runnin’ from troubles of this kind, I was runnin’ from a poor life and poorer days to come. I was lookin’ to make somethin’ out of the new land, out of myself. That’s not why you’re a’goin’. We both know that.”

Jess looked at me, but not in anger. I guess he was relieved he didn’t have to tell about what happened between him and Sarah.

“I’m going, Grandpa,” he said then. “There’s no changing my mind. Will you please do me the favor and tell Mama?”

Grandpa didn’t answer his question.

“Not right, boy,” he said. “This isn’t what you want and this isn’t what that girl wants, you’re just neither one of you willin’ to gut it up and wallow. Stay here and things will come around and people will forget. Leave, and the issue’s settled.”

Jesse held out an open hand and waved it.

“Father refuses to make right on what he did and I don’t think he could if he wanted to. Moses can’t be talked to and she doesn’t want to marry me, she said as much. I’m ready to move on and without a good reason not to.”

The light was getting stronger but being slow about it. Above us, dark shadows of moving birds rolled in the trees. They were louder than the bugs.

“Let me tell you somethin’, boy,” Grandpa said. “Pride is a fearful horse. If you decide so, you can ride it your whole damn life, but at the end of the journey you’ll have got nowhere.”

Jess looked to the dark windows across the way, then back to Grandpa. He looked younger there, in the half light, than his twenty years. But when he talked he did not sound young.

“I’m going, Grandpa,” he said, “I’m going. I’ll write to keep Mama from worrying, that I promise, but I am going. It’s what I need to do.”

Grandpa looked the opposite of Jesse. He suddenly looked older than the old man he already was. I think his stomach had finally sunk like mine.

He put his right arm out and grabbed and squeezed Jesse’s shoulder. Jesse touched the top of his hand a long while. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing back into the woods.

July, 1863

 

It’s strange how time moves, depending on how your life’s going.

When I was little I got hold of it by the seasons by things that I did year after year at the same time. Such as in the first of July. Every year, Jess and I and Moses would go out the first week or two of the month and pick blackberries. We knew where all the good patches were. Everybody looked forward to our going, including our families, because it meant the best pies of the year.

Grandpa would mix up a god-awful concoction from roots and pig droppings and give it to us to rub on our ankles to keep off the chiggers. It would take a long time of wearing it before you didn’t notice the smell.

“Never seen a hog itch, have you?” he said every time, as we made faces while we put it on.

Then we would go get our berries. And from year to year I would think about the last year’s pickings and it seemed like only a week or two had passed since then. I could see things in my head just as I had seen the summer before. It didn’t figure that a year had past.

Christmas was the same way, and our mushroom hunts in the spring. And, as we got older, our rabbit and squirrel and deer hunts with Grandpa. Year after year they came and went and then were upon us again.

Those were good times. Life was an adventure and your mind was always on the next exciting thing and the days flew past.

But the year after Jesse left was not good times and because of that the time drug on day by day, in a sad way.

He wrote every month or so like he promised. At first the letters came from towns in Illinois we never heard of. Then, by spring, they were coming from Chicago. They never said much, only that he was healthy and that he hoped we were the same. We never wrote back because he never gave us an address.

The letters meant little to Mama, which was no surprise. They were only letters and not her son. She fell quiet, didn’t keep her house in any way like she had done before. She did not keep herself well either and aged what seemed to be ten years. Her hair got some white. She would smile with her mouth when she saw me looking at her, but it never reached her eyes.

It was hard to believe but Father took it as hard as Mama. I guess because it started sinking in what he had done to make Jess leave. He tried to act interested in his business and went ahead with the sale to the man from St. Louis as he said he would. But the money went to the creditors, as Jesse had said it would, and did not help us much. His younger renters stayed gone in the army, another was killed and those that were left bowed up at giving him any of his share from the harvest because the war was making times hard for them and theirs. They were also probably afraid he would do the same thing as his creditors to them in time and wanted what they could get while they could get it.

Father made little effort to force them. He didn’t take any legal action or get uppity, like those he owed. He didn’t look to care a damn.

Grandpa saw all this and declared more than once that he was going to go to Chicago and drag Jess back by his hair.

“I was there before anybody,” he told me, “and could find the place by smell alone if I had to.”

But it was a hollow threat. He was old and Jess’s leaving had been hard on him. He missed him and also felt he should have done more to stop him, and all in all it aged him. It was past the time of going anywhere but for short walks into the surrounding woods. His buckskins were baggy on him now and his teeth and hair were going at a pace that aggravated him no end. As much as his heart was in it, no way was he ever going to Chicago.

Which left me. A silly, confused seventeen-year old, wishing things were as they had been.

All this made for time moving a lot different than it did for blackberries and Christmases. It drug on from one day to the next, like a crippled man.

What made it worse was that, as miserable as our life on the hill had become, we more and more faced it alone. Seldom did we talk to anyone else and never did we do any visiting.

Going to church on Sundays was the first thing we quit doing and that made the aloneness worse as it had always been the best part of our week, where we met friends and kept up with gossip. But after what had happened between our families, we just could not bring ourselves to face the Hoppe’s.

Mama and I discussed it once and we figured that the Reverend being the Christian man he was would eventually come to us and ask us back in spite of everything. Forgiveness had always been high on his list.

But I guess he had been hit harder than even he could overcome. He never came around and, because he didn’t, it made it harder for us to make the first step. And as Sundays followed Sundays it just became accepted that church would never happen again. That first step is a sorry thing.

The Hoppe’s left the farmhouse where they had always lived, even though Father was right and the new owner said that as a preacher the Reverend could stay. It was just not in his blood to take anything that looked like charity. I swear, there are times now I think pride is the worse curse riding the back of this world.

They moved in to a shack on the outskirts of Jefferson. That’s the best I could describe it, a shack. It was more down than up. They rented it from one of the merchants, having never saved enough money to buy a home. What they had before wasn’t a lot but this place was worse by far.

The Reverend took odd jobs about town, at least what he was capable of doing with his one good arm, and helped farmers in the area get out their crops. But never the people who rented ground from us. He tended to their soul’s needs but could not bring himself to come near anything to do with the Wills’.

I learned these things from people I saw when I went to town to pick up things. I was the one sent every time because my parents wanted nothing to do with it. They chose to stay in our quiet house. I really did not like going but had no choice.

You do not keep secrets in a land as ours and everyone soon knew what had happened and all felt the same about it. No one could believe what had been done to Reverend Hoppe and his family. The Reverend who, at one time or another, had helped every one of them.

They did not tell me this to my face but it was there. To my face they smiled as usual and acted friendly and sold me what I wanted, but as I walked away and moved down the street no one made a special effort to come over and talk to me. Or even wave. Faces turned and people whispered. It got so I cherished leaving and going back to our place, changed and bitter as it had become.

Only once on one of my twice a month trips did I see the Reverend. He was outside the blacksmith’s pitchforking hay with his large, good arm. I made a small wave and he saw it and nodded quickly, but his expression did not change and as fast as he nodded he turned away. It wasn’t unfriendly, really, it was actually more the look of someone embarrassed. I do not know if it was the hay pitching or the fight between our families that caused it, I just know that right then neither one of us was ready to cross the street and talk.

I never saw Moses. I heard he stayed around the rest of the summer but our paths did not cross. I also did not see Mrs. Hoppe. I always went into town in a direction that took me a long way from coming near the tavern Sarah’s father owned. That way I never ran into her either.

In October I met Charlie Marsh, one of Jess’ friends who had also decided not to go join the army after all, and he said that Moses and Sarah were courting. They were going to church together as she and Jesse had done and her and Moses had made promises to each other before he left to return to West Point in the middle of September. I didn’t ask what he meant by promises and he didn’t seem inclined to say. Truth was, he didn’t seem too inclined to talk to me at all, like most other people. But I was sure promises could only mean one thing.

I did not tell anyone at home about what I heard as it didn’t seem worthwhile to. We just ate a silent supper that night like so many nights before. The few times we did talk, as always, it wasn’t about anything much at all, just talk for talking’s sake.

The same way that Grandpa and I hunted just for hunting’s sake. We did not travel far as he wasn’t up to it and along with that being in the dense woods always made the loneliness of everything seem so much greater, like you were trapped.

And so we moved through a year, slowly. Weeks took months. Jesse was gone and friends were scarce. Summer seemed hotter and winter colder. Christmas came and with it a letter from Jess hoping we were well, but still it held no return address.

Then winter was gone and the spring flowers finally, finally bloomed. Before long it would be time for blackberries, blackberries I would pick by myself.

 

 

The blackberries did come in early July and also other more important things.

The war was going on with terrible casualties, and the battles were going bad for the North. Time after time Lincoln sent out a general to face Robert E. Lee and so very many men had died for nothing. People were numbed by it. It did not seem possible that so many could die or be maimed for no good purpose.

Then in July had come Gettysburg, a name that had meant nothing to most folks until then but soon was one that would never be forgotten, followed by Vicksburg. We had finally won something. Again, at a ghastly cost. Now men were dying five or six thousand at a time on each side. But victories were victories and with the numbness came hope. Still, everyone knew the South was still strong and that a lot more fighting needed to be done.

Our Mother worried all the time that Jesse would join even though his letters showed that he hadn’t. I wondered why. I could not believe that since he did not want to be at home he would not just go ahead and do what he had wanted to do in 1861. Something had changed his mind.

But mine had not changed. Rumors were that the president was going to appoint Grant the general over all the armies and that in the spring, if not sooner, Grant would be in charge of doing whatever it took to win the war. The nation had come to realize that Grant was a fighter. Things would not be pretty.

Lincoln, everyone knew, would be making another call for more volunteers or maybe even start drafting people. It did not matter how it came about, I had decided that I was going.

I had heard of the deaths from our area and had seen John Kerns, a man from Jefferson, walking about slowly without his right leg, it was gone past the knee. He had lost it at Stones River. A ball had cut through it and they had said that the bone had been broke apart and that all that held it to the rest of him was some meat. At least that was what the rumors were. John, it was said, would not talk about it. He just hobbled along, a skinny, pale man with big eyes, and kept to himself. He looked like but half a man without the leg and looked in his face to be half alive also.

The thought of what happened to him sickened me as did the thought of the men who had been killed and what that meant to their families. I was not stupid enough to think that going to war would be a great experience. I did not expect to be a hero.

But I was going to go. Scared as I was, I would work to find a way to get to where I could join. It wasn’t just because I wanted to see the slaves free, there were times that I could not see them worth anybody’s leg, much less their life. And I can’t say my cause was saving the Union as the Confederates might could make a good country for themselves, as good as we had then in the North.

Maybe it was Grandpa’s blood that drove me, that desire to be a part of things. Maybe God was whispering in my ear about right and wrong as He saw it or maybe I didn’t want to be shamed by not going. Maybe.

It was all confusing to me.

 

 

On the second last day of July I was in the front of the house having just come in from taking care of our hogs and hoeing our garden. We depended on both of them for food, a lot more than in the past.

Just as I was walking past the front porch I heard a strange scream come from Mama in the back of the house in the kitchen. What I heard was more a yelp than a scream and I ran up the stairs and down the hallway.

When I got to the kitchen I saw my mother hugging a man just inside the back door. It’s hard to believe but I was stunned by her doing it because I could not recognize who it was. It took a long time before it sunk in.

It was Jesse.

The day he had left, a year before, he had looked so young, too young to be leaving. But that day he did not look young anymore. In fact, he looked a lot older than his twenty-one years.

His beard had darkened and he had grown it long enough to be able to trim it with a scissors, but no longer. It was a dark brown with runs of reddish brown. His hair was the same color and down to his shoulders and had waves in it for the last few inches. He had never worn it that long before.

His deep brown eyes had tiny wrinkles on the outside corners, wrinkles that looked good with his weathered face. He was wearing cotton pants and a loose fitting shirt that showed his dark arms, arms that looked a lot stronger and were covered with darker hair, to match his beard.

Fact is, he looked a very strong and healthy man. There was no confused boy there, like the one who had left, hurt and sad. If he felt sadness now it showed in his face that he could handle it. I knew my brother and this was him as a man. I guess he had turned a corner.

Mama could only hold him and cry and run her hands across that long hair on the back of his head.

“Jesse,” she said, “my Jesse. Your home! Can it be your home!”

“I’m here, Mama,” he said. “And how are you?”

“Me? Oh, dear, I’m fine, I’m right as rain. You are home, don’t you understand, you are home!”

He looked over her easily and at me.

“Brother,” he said, “you’ve grown.”

“So have you. You’re still a lot bigger than me.”

“Time,” he said. “Give it time.”

He came forward then and wrapped me in his large arms along with Mama.

We were standing there together, saying nothing, when the footsteps came down the hall. Father stepped into the doorway and stopped.

His face had been sad and harsh lately, but in the first moment that he saw Jesse the harshness eased. I think I saw his lip quiver. When he spoke his voice was even and soft.

“Jesse. Jesse, how are you?”

Jesse answered him in the same way. There was no anger there, only a desire to talk a little.

“I’m fine, Father.”

Father nodded slowly.

“And,” he said, “are you home to stay?”

“For a while. I can’t say how long.”

“I understand.”

Neither made a move towards the other but neither seemed to want to turn away either.

“Well, it’s good that your here,” Father said after a while. “It’s good that you’ve come to see us. Will you stay for supper?”

“Stay for supper!” Mama said through her tears. “Of course this boy will stay for supper. He’ll not leave till he eats a meal with me!”

Father smiled then, a tiny sad smile.

 

 

Grandpa had stayed out in the woods the night before and we were worried he had plans to stay again that night of Jesse’s return. But things went right in all ways that day and he showed up just as Mama had supper ready. It felt good to have everyone at the table again after so long a time.

Jess told us about where he had been.

“Went north. I had a little money with me so for the first few weeks I just traveled. I decided I wanted to make Chicago. I guess because you had been there Grandpa.”

“I got some questions for you,” Grandpa said, “but I won’t be hinderin’ you with them now.”

“What did you do there?” I asked.

“First thing, I got a job. I worked the wharves on Lake Michigan unloading and loading the ships coming in there. You wouldn’t believe how many there were. They told me they had been busy before but with the war and all it was almost twice as busy. They looked to fill the whole lake. Supplies and things for the troops they’re gathering together in the state. It was hard work but I liked it. I met a lot of people, some just over from Europe. Germans, Irish. Good people but tough as nails.”

“What did it pay?” Father asked, as I knew he would.

“Very little. I made enough to take care of myself but most of those folks had families and it was hard for them. They lived in shacks and their children were dirty and a lot of the time sick. I admired them, those workers.”

“And then you decided to come home,” Mama said.

I don’t think she had ever stopped smiling.

“Yes,” Jess said, not looking up from his food. “Thought I needed to see how things were.”

I knew that that probably meant he wanted to know about the sale of the property that had started all the troubles.

“Nothing has changed much.” I said. “Everything’s about the same.”

He nodded slowly but didn’t say anything. I was glad for that.

“We would have loved to have written you,” Mama said, “but you didn’t give us an address.”

Jess lifted his eyes to her.

“To be honest, Mama, I didn’t want anyone to come and try and find me. I missed you all, but I needed to be alone.”

“But, Jess, do you know how worried we were?”

“I wrote, that was the best I could do.”

“I was ready to come,” Grandpa said. “The trip weren’t nothin’ I was bothered about.”

“I figured that much,” Jess said with a crooked smile. “Kept an eye out for a man in buckskins coming down the dock. Told the men I was working with to make room if he did show up.”

“There’d been regrets on your part had I made it.”

“That’s why I kept a lookout.”

“Well, you’re home now,” Father said.

Jess looked at him and nodded.

“Yes,” he said.

That night we sat on the front porch and talked and swatted mosquitoes, at least all of us swatted except Grandpa. It really wasn’t so bad as it could have been for July. The weather was a little cooler than usual, which kept the hateful things down some.

It was a year for katydids and their noises had filled the outside air every night. That night they were scraping again. The sky was half clouded and the stars that did show through were bright and large. The moon was half full.

Mama and Father went in first and Grandpa and Jess and I stayed on the top porch step, saying we would soon follow.

“Father seems different,” Jess said after they’d gone.

“Been some wind taken out of him, I suppose,” Grandpa said. “Told you years ago the man cared more for you boys than he put on. It hurt him that he drove you away.”

Jess looked out at the dark trees.

“But he could have tried to right things, even after I left. Why didn’t he?”

“Don’t figure I can answer that as I’m not in his skin. One thing is, we’re still in hard times and he didn’t sell out from under anyone else. Maybe that speaks for somethin’.”

“That probably speaks for the fact that nobody made an offer.”

“If that’s your figurin’ things will never look up around here.”

“I know,” Jess said with a sigh, “I know.”

“Things aren’t too good for us around Jefferson,” I said. “Everyone blames us for the Reverend being put out.”

“It was us that did it,” Jess said.

“Yes, I know, and it makes for cold shoulders when I go to town.”

“What about church?”

I shrugged.

“We don’t go anymore.”

“Don’t go? You haven’t gone since I left?”

“No.”

“This is really something. How could all this be?”

“People argue, people fight, people leave,” Grandpa said. “You expect anything else?”

Jesse shook his head.

“I guess I did think things would turn around after I was gone a while, figured maybe my leaving was what everyone needed. I thought maybe Moses would come back and talk to you then, or the Reverend.”

“Looks to me like you had a weighty opinion on your part of things,” Grandpa told him. “And I seem to recall you leavin’ for other slights too, maybe.”

Jesse didn’t answer him.

“Now,” Grandpa said, probably trying to change the subject, “tell me about Chicago.”

“Things have changed since you were there,” Jesse said. “I doubt you would like it. It’s a filthy place for the most part, houses and shacks all bunched up together. Took me a while to get used to it. It stank. The people were always dirty unless they was one of the rich ones who lived on the outside edge of the place, especially the children. They played on the street where the bedpans were tossed out, where dead animals were. A lot of folks was sick. It makes you feel like you’re always dirty. A big city isn’t much of a place, especially if you come from wide open country like this.”

“Wasn’t nothin’ at all there when I seen it,” Grandpa said. “Just a fort and a few trading houses and In’yun huts. Did you see the remains of the fort? In’yuns burned it but I figure there should ought be something there.”

I tried to pick out Jess’s face in the dark but couldn’t quite do it.

“I didn’t see it, Grandpa,” he said. “I looked, but no one could tell me for sure where it had been, only the general area. And there’s warehouses and brick buildings there now.”

“Gone?” Grandpa said in a puzzled voice. “And nobody could say where it had been?”

“Not for sure. Most of the new people didn’t even know there had been a fort.”

“What about the beach where we made our fight? Where all the children was massacred. Could anybody show you that?”

Jess shrugged.

“An older man showed me where he thought it was but there’s wharves there now.”

I could not see Grandpa’s face in the dark either. He said nothing and kept facing straight ahead.

“But,” Jess added quickly, “I went to the wharf where the old man said to go. I’m sure it was the right place. I could imagine it being the place, anyway. It felt kind of funny standing there, knowing all the brave fighting you did. I felt like I had been there, if that doesn’t sound igernent. That’s what made me think it had to be the right spot.”

Still Grandpa didn’t speak. It was like he had gone into himself. Jess and I waited, the katydids kept up their talking. Grandpa moved around on his seat.

“Nobody ‘members,” he said. “Has it been that long? Wouldn’t be no Chicago if that stand hadn’t been made. Well, hell, time passes, always has, always will. Not too wise for any man to figure different.”

“There’s those that will write it down and remember,” Jess said. “I just didn’t find them is all.”

I was glad Jesse said that even though it didn’t sound like much.

“I s’pose,” Grandpa said. Then, after a moment, “But that’s not here nor there.”

“We know you were there, Grandpa,” I said.

“That’s well enough for me.”

We let things sit a while, each of us thinking our own way but all of us, I know, ending up in the same place. It was Grandpa who said something first, and to Jesse.

“What I want to know is why you chose now to come home. There’s more to it that just a visit.”

Jess nodded.

“There is,” he said, “you’re right. I come home to celebrate my brother’s birthday, just a few days off. You only turn eighteen once.”

“You came to see me turn eighteen?” I asked.

“Turn eighteen, that is,” Jess answered, “and then join the army.”

I didn’t say anything right away.

“Did you think I forgot, Tom?” he went on. “I made a promise to Mama that if you went I’d go with you and I know you. You are going, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “as soon as I can. I’ve kept my promise to Mama too. But right after my birthday I’m going.”

“Damn,” Grandpa said, “does your Mama know this, boy?”

“She hasn’t asked and I haven’t brought it up,” I said. “But I doubt she’ll be surprised. I’m glad you never said anything tonight, Jess.”

“No use ruining things the first night.”

“Damn,” Grandpa said again, “things move faster than this old man can figure.”

I fiddled with my knees, trying to get myself to say the next thing I needed to say to Jesse.

“You know, you don’t have to go with me, not if you don’t want.”

“What makes you think I don’t want?”

“You said you didn’t care for Chicago, and you’ve had your chance to join for the last year.”

Jess sighed.

“Truth is,” he said, “it don’t mean as much to me now as it did when the war first started. I’m not saying the slaves don’t need freeing, I didn’t change my mind about that. What’s right is right but I guess I just started to see things differently. A lot of things that mattered a lot just didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. Maybe I was looking to impress people then and I don’t have that need now. I don’t know, maybe when I saw all those poor and sickly folks in Chicago, I come to the idea that we needed to be doing other things aside of killing ourselves. Fighting just wasn’t worth what it was before.”

“Then don’t go, Jess.”

“No, and it’s not just because of my promise to Mama. I’m going because I don’t like feeling like I just said. I want to get back some of what I felt before I left. I don’t feel right about myself now, I feel like I’m wronging somebody. Maybe myself.”

I didn’t say anything else. I was glad he was going to go and that was the truth of it.

“Jess,” Grandpa said. “I’m glad to hear some of what you just said. And I know your needs for joinin’, both of you. I ain’t so old to have forgot them. I know you think you’re doin’ right but endmost, don’t matter much what I think anyhow, it’s your minds to make. Just don’t wait long too tell your folks. They need knowin’.”

Jess said, “We’ll tell them soon enough. There’ll be a call for troops before long. We’ll go then. Maybe it will happen in Jefferson.”

“I heard two days ago there will be someone in town before long to hold an enlistment rally,” I said. “But it’s Moses, Jess. He’ll be here next month or two, after he graduates. They say he’ll be a Captain.”

Jesse took it in.

“That’s all right,” he said then. “It’s our town and we’ve a right to join as well as anybody else. We’ll join then.”

“We can go someplace else, I’m sure.”

“No, other men we know may come up. It’s our duty to fight with them.”

I rubbed my knees some more because then I knew it was time to tell him what else I had heard in Jefferson, and I did not want to.

“Jess,” I said, my voice sounding like it belonged to someone else, “there’s something else I found out about Moses when he comes back. He’s…he’s… shit, Jess, he’s to marry Sarah.”

I felt Grandpa jolt a little beside me. He was between me and Jess and I hadn’t told him. I could not tell what Jess did. I wanted to close my eyes but it seemed a stupid need, as it was dark anyway. So I just sat there and waited.

“I figured as much,” Jess said in a whisper, after a long, long while.

Grandpa studied the next porch step down.

“You know,” he said, “this could be the time for you to go see Moses and bring this mess to an end. Its damn sight had time to run its miserable course.”

Jess shook his head, though just barely. His voice still wasn’t very strong.

“No,” he said. “I went right after our fight and never got to see him. She wouldn’t allow it and he wouldn’t stop her and now they’ve made their decision. Guess that’s my fault too. I ran. You told me not to and I did anyway. But the thing is I gutted it up and made the first move. The next will have to be theirs, the way I feel.”

“Might be you’re the biggest of the three of you. Might be you’ll need be the one to do it again.”

“Then it won’t happen,” Jess said.

 

September, 1863

 

The call for an enlistment rally went out for September 12th. As soon as Jess and I heard we told our parents what we intended to do. I think they both knew what was coming.

Mama was upset but she didn’t cry like I thought she would. She only looked at the floor as if she couldn’t see it. We tried to carry on the conversation in a good way, telling her we would be fine and we’d be home before she knew it. She gave us smiles that meant no more than her look to the floor.

Father had the same expression but did say he understood.

It had been a month and a half since Jesse had come home. He stayed at his skeleton house on the hill. He did not work on it but he also did not stray from it, coming down only to visit Mama and Grandpa and me.

He and Father had not mended fences, at least not in a way that allowed them to talk for any length of time. Jess was still mad and way too proud and Father was just way too proud. They talked now and them, but it was small talk like two people who did not know each other well and who just needed to make conversation to pass the time. It looked like things would never be the same between them, no matter how much time both had to think about things.

So things were still not the way they had always been when September 12th came and Mama kissed us in the kitchen, her eyes wet, and we made our way down the hill towards Jefferson.

It was to be Jess’s first trip to town in over a year. I don’t suppose anyone knew he was back as I had not mentioned it on my trips. He didn’t say much as we went and I left it at that, figuring that was what he wanted. He kept his eyes on the road ahead and his back as straight as he could make it.

We passed the house where the Hoppe’s had lived. I saw Jess’s head turn to it as we passed. It was closed up. It looked sad, lonely, like it needed the Reverend around it to smile and joke with any people going past. The grape tunnel in the back was grown over in weeds. Beyond the back of the house the field that Reverend Hoppe always seemed to be plowing was gown up in weeds and grasses too.

The new owner had done nothing so far with his idea about using Murphy’s Branch as a supply route. Nothing had been built there for such a thing and rumors were he had given up on the idea for now. Rumors were also that it didn’t hurt him a bit as he had money to burn. In any case, he didn’t look to be in any hurry to have the Reverend’s old place farmed again.

I wished, as we walked past, that he had gone through with the damn Murphy’s Branch idea. It would just have been better if all the pain and trouble had been for some purpose, useless as it might have been.

Neither of us spoke about what we saw. Our hearts weren’t in it. We went on in to town.

Red, white and blue banners hung from the buildings on the main street. Horses were everywhere and the whole street was full of milling people. A small band of a ragged sort was doing its best to play some martial tunes but they were far better farmers and store owners and clerks than musicians. You could not recognize anything they played. Still, they were trying very hard and that made them worth listening to. Everything in the town had a carnival feel.

We drifted down the main street. Few people noticed us, as a lot of them were strangers. It looked like the call had gone out to a lot of the surrounding towns and had been well received.

Of those who did know us, most nodded their heads quickly then turned away. Some stopped and stared at Jess before they knew what they were doing. They were puzzled and it showed. None took the opportunity to talk to us. Jess paid them no mind and we headed for where the crowd was thickest, in front of Henry Hoffman’s saloon.

A table had been set up on the ground in front of the wooden walkway that went past the door. A man in a blue military uniform sat at the table with a book and papers in front of him.

We eased forward till the crowd was too thick for us to go up any more. I worked on my tip-toes to better see the man at the desk. Jesse had no trouble seeing over the heads in front of him.

The man was looking at his paperwork and not paying any attention to the crowd at all. It was a crowd of mostly men, with a smattering of women here and there, most staying in the shade under the overhangs of the buildings.

“Jesse! Jesse! Hey, Jess!” a voice yelled from behind us.

We turned. Two men were pushing forward towards us. They were Silas and Ambrose Young, two brothers. Silas was Jess’s age and Ambrose a year younger. Jesse and them had traveled through the same grades together in school. They were part of the group, along with Jesse, who had talked about joining when the war started. But like him they had changed their minds.

They were a strange pair. Silas, the oldest, was small and skinny, with wavy dark hair. Ambrose had the wavy hair too but was tall and heavy set, a good ten inches bigger than his brother. He also had a small, high voice, where Silas, who was so much littler, had a deep, loud voice. When I first saw them I thought of that Sunday after church, years before, when they had tried to run up the Maple tree that Jesse finally beat.

Silas liked to use his big voice while Ambrose was for the most part quiet. He tended to let Silas do the talking.

“Damn, Jess,” Silas said, slapping him on the shoulder, “ain’t seen you in a while! When’d you come home?”

“Few days back. How you doing Silas? Ambrose?”

“Fine,” Silas said, “just fine. Damn you’ve changed.”

“Suppose we all have,” Jess said, shaking their hands. “It’s good to see you.”

They didn’t shake my hand. I hadn’t left the country and wasn’t their age.

“Come to join?” Ambrose asked with his high pitch, saying his first words.

He was one of the few people in the crowd taller than Jesse.

“Probably,” Jess said.

“And you?” Silas asked me.

“Yes.”

“Good, good. Least there’ll be someone else we know who’s going.”

“What about Charlie and Sam?” Jess asked.

They were the other two of that first group.

“Charlie joined a year or so ago,” Silas said. “He was down at Vicksburg with Grant. Sam hasn’t joined and I don’t figure he will. Least ways, we couldn’t get him to come with us today.”

“Charlie joined, did he? And fought?”

“He surely did join. His folks say his letters put him in a fight.”

We all thought about that a while. Someone around our age had beaten us to the punch and gone to be a soldier, a soldier who had done battle. We all felt a little jealous of Charlie.

The crowd started talking around us. We looked ahead to see what was happening.

Moses came out of the saloon door. He had Sarah on his arm. She was in a dress that was a pretty shade of yellow, her brownish-red hair long and to her shoulders. She was smiling and looked beautiful.

Moses was in a blue army dress uniform. He looked competent, everything tied and buttoned. On his head he wore a round brimmed army hat. I had seen drawings in Father’s paper and knew he was wearing the dress of a Union officer. He had patches in a bar shape on his shoulders and I knew it was his rank but had no idea what that was. People whispered to each other when he walked out, all erect and proud. He was obviously a person held in high regard in Jefferson.

Beside him walked a skinny, bearded man in a suit. He held his head high too.

I glanced out of the corner of my eyes at Jess and Silas and Ambrose. The Young brothers did not look directly at Jess but you could tell they wanted to, knowing like everyone else what had happened between he and Moses and Sarah.

Jesse kept his face forward and tried not to show anything, but I knew him well and I saw the muscles work in his face and the narrowing of his eyes. He was looking at Sarah again and it was hitting him in a hard way. Her walking out on Moses’ arms and them looking so good together made it worse. Had to.

The crowd cheered for Moses and Sarah and the skinny man. The man put up his arms and stopped them. When the noise died down, he spoke.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said loud enough to be heard by all. “Most of you know me but for those who don’t, allow me introduce myself. I am George Harris and I am proud to represent you fine folk in the esteemed body of the House of Representatives in Washington. Done it for years and get prouder every day.”

The crowd gave him polite applause.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he went on, “we come here today with a high calling. Our country is in battle. The battle is continuing even now. This fine young man and neighbor of yours, Moses Hoppe, and myself, have traveled through all the south of our great state and have asked of all the men we’ve seen what we intend to ask of the men here today. So here Officer Hoppe will ask what needs asking, in his home town, with his beautiful bride to be at his side. President Lincoln needs an army to put down the rebellion. Our country needs brave fighters to stop this insurrection.”

A few boos came from the back of the crowd at the sound of Lincoln’s name. It looked like a few of those who did not care about the black slaves had come to the rally. But their boos seemed timid and soon died away as the people around them began growling. In Jefferson, that day, the mood fell with the Northern cause.

“This is what we ask you brave fellows,” Representative George Harris continued. “We ask you to answer your presidents call, answer and be loyal to your country and to your neighbors. We also ask the brave wives and mothers and children to let their men go. It is for the life of our nation. Will you do that?”

Again a cheer with a few calls of ‘yes’ coming out of the crowd.

“This young, trained soldier, your own Moses Hoppe, is to be a leader in this regiment we are raising. He has gone to West Point, as you all know, and has been taught well and graduated with honors, twenty-sixth in his class. Are we not proud of him?”

A truly loud cheer went up then. Moses nodded his head and tipped his hat.

I could see in his manner that the Moses we knew was changed. He was no longer the unsure person, the one who depended, most times, on someone else to come up with the answers. When we were little that someone else had been Jesse. Now there was a sureness to him and I could see it, but I could also see something else in that brief hat tip.

He had not changed as much physically as Jesse. He was still about the same size as when he left for West point and was still clean-shaven. But he had definitely changed in all other ways. He too, like Jess, had become a full man. Along with that, though, it looked like he had become a full soldier, a person of bearing. His tip of the hat and his grin that looked as much as a sneer showed a haughtiness, a touch of overbearing proudness. Just as I read Jess’s thoughts as the group came out onto the tavern steps, I read Moses’ then. He had been like another brother and the changes were there for me to see same as if I’d been with him for hours.

The politician kept on speaking as it was their inclination to do. Sarah eased away from Moses’ side to join a group of women in front of the next store. When she took up her new position she turned back to the crowd and, for the first time, saw Jesse. Her face dropped and along with it her smile. I glanced at Jess and saw him catch her eye.

For them, I am sure, the world fell quiet. The droning of the speaker faded away, leaving just them and their thoughts. They held each other’s gaze for a short time, but yet a long time. It was Jesse who looked away first. She held on a bit longer before she turned back to Moses and once more put on a smile, but not the same smile. It quivered at the edges.

“And so,” Representative Harris was saying, “without further delay, I give you Moses Hoppe.”

The crowd clapped the loudest it had all day and a few men raised their hats. Moses stepped to the front of the walkway. He held up a hand to ask for quiet.

“Friends,” he said, his voice loud and forceful, “you all know what is happening in the war, I don’t need to tell you. We have won great battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The South is falling back on all fronts and rumor has it that General Grant will take charge of all the armies. In the spring there will come the final push to end this terrible conflict, here in the west as well as in the east. President Lincoln has called for troops to make this last push and we have come here to Illinois to help gather those troops. Before you at the table sits my adjutant, Captain Wilbur Simms. He and I will lead the troops we gather to Cairo for training then to where we are ordered to go. He is ready to sign up any man who thinks it is the time to be a patriot. To be an American.”

Past the edge of the tavern’s front corner, in an alley, I saw Reverend Hoppe edge up to where he could better see Moses speak. He was in his Sunday preaching suit, all black and neat. His head was raised with pride. He was slowly squeezing and opening his good left fist while never taking his eyes off Moses.

Moses went on.

“I call to you now, friends and neighbors, to join us. God is on our side, which puts us on the righteous side. With His guidance we will be victorious. Thank you.”

His talk had been short but it was the shortness that made it work. Country people took to such squeezed speeches.

As the crowd cheered men hugged their wives or lady friends, or sons their mothers and fathers or fathers their wives and children. Then one by one they made their way to the line in front of the table. I looked at Jess and Silas and Ambrose.

“Let’s go,” Silas said, “we’re burning daylight.”

He and Ambrose fell into place.

“Jess?’ I said.

He had been staring into the side of the tavern, his mind somewhere else. He turned to me then and smiled a sad little smile.

“I guess so, little brother,” he said softly. “I guess so.”

We got behind the Young brothers. There were probably ten men in front of us and twice that many gathering behind. Some who stood on the outskirts of the crowd could not get past their hard feelings about fighting a war to free blacks. I knew most of them and where they stood on that matter. They eased away as if disappointed and also ashamed and made their way down the street.

Sarah walked over to the Reverend and stood beside him and they both watched Moses as he stood behind his Captain Simms. Simms was leading the first of the men through the signing of their papers. Moses looked past the first few to take in the rest and it was then that he saw Jess and me.

His face reddened. He looked away, then back at us, then away and back again. He whispered something to the Captain before breaking away from the table and walked in our direction. He moved stiffly, his hands locked behind his back. He came up beside us and without looking at our faces spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“Follow me,” he said harshly, “I want to talk to you.”

He walked off across the street to an open spot in front of the building there. I glanced at the alley. Reverend Hoppe and Sarah were watching. So were some of the people nearby who were from Jefferson. I turned to Jess. He nodded.

“Let’s go,” he said.

We walked over to where Moses stood, his back to us. As we drew near he spun around. His eyes were hard as they fell upon us.

“What are you doing here?”

“We’ve come to join,” Jess said evenly.

“Why here?”

“This is our home,” Jess said. “I came home to join with my friends.”

“And how many do you think you have?”

I had been right in my judgment about him. There was an arrogance there and a coldness I never thought I would hear in him. Maybe it was only us that brought it out in him, but he was not the easy, friendly person we had fished and hunted with so many years ago. He was nowhere near that person.

Jess ignored his remark and said nothing. He stood there and held Moses’ gaze.

“I think it would be best if you joined someplace else,” Moses said. “You need to join, but not here.”

He waited for an answer but when one didn’t come he went on.

“I wonder, Wills,” he said to Jesse, “why you haven’t bothered joining before? There was nothing to stop you, no one for you to leave behind. I figure maybe you just didn’t have the stomach for it. So, yes, join, you need to. But go someplace else.”

I wanted to leave as I felt he was right and it would be best. We could go north to one of the places Jess had been and join there. I wanted to tell Jesse that.

But Jess did not move to leave. He continued staring at Moses.

“I’m joining,” he said finally, “and I’m joining here. You’ll have to find some other way to get me to leave other than telling me. I’ve never taken much to telling, you know that. Now let me take my turn at telling you something. I’ve come here to join the army and fight with my friends. I’m a citizen, like you, and now I want to be a soldier. I’m man enough to do that, to become a soldier and act like one. Are you?”

Moses’ jaw tightened and I was afraid he was close to doing something. Then, suddenly, his body loosened up. He seemed to have come to a decision.

“Very well,” he said, finally, his military bearing back in place. “Join. As I said, you need to and it’s about time. I will train you with the others, no better, no worse. I’ll treat you the same, that is my duty. But listen to me now.”

He moved closer.

“I want nothing to do with either of you. If it’s not something to do with our duty as soldiers, you do not talk to me. We will not associate as there is nothing for us to say. Is that understood?”

Jess took his time about it, but finally nodded.

“Good,” Moses said.

He walked away in his stiff walk to the signing table. We watched him

go and then I turned to Jesse.

"Jess --"

“Let’s get back in line.”

We did. Sarah and the Reverend were still watching us.

 

 

Captain Simms told us to report in a week.

He was very businesslike and looked to be in a hurry to get to everyone

in the line. We would go to Cairo to join the rest of the regiment. Moses

looked through us for whatever was on the other side, as if we didn’t exist.

We shook hands with Silas and Ambrose Young and told them we would meet them there in a week and head to Cairo together. They were very excited and I felt my own stomach churning, but Jess was solemn. He was as businesslike as the Captain.

We headed down the main street in a direction to take us out of town and went past the shaded overhang under which Sarah was standing. She watched us go past but made no effort to speak. I don’t remember Jess even looking at her.

Just as we were passing the last building before the road broke into open country a man’s voice called from behind.

“Boys! Wait, please!”

It was the Reverend Hoppe. He was quick-stepping it down the boarded walk in front of that last building. We stopped and he came up to us. He stared at us a long while as if he was looking for words.

“How, how are you doing?”

“We’re fine, Reverend,” Jess said. “You?”

Reverend Hoppe shrugged.

“I’m good. You joined, did you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“The army needs good, strong young men like you, yes it does.”

It struck me that we were talking as if we didn’t know each other. Maybe we didn’t.

It was the Reverend who decided then that enough was enough.

“The reason I wanted to talk to you,” he said, “is I saw you talking to Moses. It was good to see you three together even though I know he wasn’t friendly. I’m sorry for that.”

He paused. I could not believe that he was having trouble finding words. He had always been the biggest man I ever knew, by size and by heart. He had never been scared to say or do anything and here he was, finding it hard to talk to us.

“I’ve tried to talk to him,” he said then, “ever since he’s been back. Tried to get him to forget what happened and go see you. But I haven’t had any luck. He’s my son and I’m very proud of him, of what he’s accomplished by going to West Point. He’s a soldier, what he always wanted to be, and a good one from what I’ve heard. But the military has made him harder, more set in his ways. He’s not the same Moses who left. He’s become rigid. Part I guess is the soldier schooling, but not all. He’s let what happened eat at him till I don’t think he’ll ever get past it. And that hurts me.”

Jesse shrugged.

“I don’t know what to say, Reverend,” he said.

“Well, I just wanted you to know it’s good to see you both again. Especially you, Jesse. You’ve been gone a while, I know.”

“I’ve seen you a few times around town,” I said.

“I know that too,” he said. Then, after a while, “How are your parents?”

“They’re getting along every day,” Jesse said. “These are hard times for everybody.”

“They haven’t been to church in a long time. I want you to tell them we miss them and would like to have them join us again. Would you do that for me?”

Jess held his gaze.

“My Grandpa says that there’s no use doing for someone else what they need to do themselves. He says it only makes thing worse. I’ve come to find he’s right about most things and he’s right about that. It’s something you need to do yourself, Reverend.”

Reverend Hoppe chuckled to himself, a small, boned chuckle.

“Of course,” he said. “You’re Grandpa’s right. I do, I surely do. You know, boys, I’ve done myself in a fine way. I’ve run around these parts all these years thinking I was doing right by people, thinking I was setting a good, Christian example, acting kind of special. And here the last year or so it’s like I forgot there’s a good book. Leastways it seems I’ve skipped some of the pages as it suited me. I’ve let myself be filled with hate and convinced myself I had the right, a sad thing for one who’s just plain sure he’s a man of God. I’m sorry for how I’ve been, boys.”

“You’ve had a right to feel that way,” Jess said, “you were wronged.”

“Was I? Where did I get that idea? Your father ran his business, that was all. He owes no apology. I’m the one who owes all of you the apology.”

“It’s not that easy to see,” Jess told him. “Maybe we’ve all been fooling ourselves. Maybe we’ve all been guilty of thinking we’re the one who’s right.”

“I knew better, though. At least I’ve always preached as if I did. And now I’ve poisoned my son to where he won’t forgive and I fear I’ll answer to my God for that.”

He held out his hand to Jesse and they shook. Then he shook with me. His eyes were wet.

“Tell your folks I’ll be out to see them in a week or so. By that time we’ll all have somebody gone and may need the company.”

“We will,” I said.

We turned to leave.

“One more thing,” Reverend Hoppe said. “Remember what your Grandpa said, will you? Maybe you can meet Moses halfway some time or another, you’ll have the chance. Please try, won’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Jess admitted. “I wish I could say.”

The Reverend let it stay at that.

“Be careful,” he said. “Come home to us.”

We nodded then started off again.

It was late afternoon before the road took us to the bottom of the hill in front of our house. I could see a figure standing under the trees just down from the porch, a dark figure almost lost in the shade there.

As we got closer I could see it was our mother. She was standing by herself watching us come. Her hair was falling on her face. Sweat was beading on the hair, as if she’d been there a long time.

We stopped ten feet from her.

“You’ve done it then, haven’t you.” she said weakly. “You’ve done it. You’re going to leave.”

“Yes, Mama,” I said. “In a week.”

She shook her head.

“I finally have you both back and now you must leave.”

She came forward then, her dress dragging in the dust. She put her arms around me and hugged me as tight as I can remember. I held my arms at my side, afraid to return her hug.

After a minute she turned to Jesse and hugged him, softly crying, burying her face in his shoulder. He put his arms around her and she seemed to be swallowed up.

“We’re going together like we promised,” he said.

Then he spoke in a light way, trying to be cheerful.

“We’ll probably be bringing home a chest full of medals.”

Her right hand went up and touched the side of his face.

“Damn the medals,” she said. “Bring yourselves home.”

 

 

Before the week was out we had one more good-bye to say.

Three days after enlisting, as I mounted the stairs to go to bed, I heard Grandpa come through the kitchen door and shuffle into his back room. Mama and Father were already in their bedroom. Jess was at his house.

I smiled to myself. Grandpa had left the day before we went to join the army and now had finally come back. It had been one of his longest wanderings in years. I think our joining had something to do with it. Grandpa always got better hold of things when he was alone in the woods.

I was going to go back down the stairs and see him when I heard him grumble under his breathe. It was a low moaning grumble that could mean only one thing, a tooth was giving him fits.

I decided to let him be for the night and went to bed thinking of getting up early and seeing him when he would maybe feel better.

Sometime before daylight he got up from the floor in his darkened room. He made the reach above his sleeping place to get his long rifle from the pegs in the wall there.

As I was dressing by my window I looked out and saw him walk down the hill towards the woods in the west. An early morning mist was sitting at the wood’s edge and he stopped in it and looked back at the house.

He seemed to be a part of that mist, so still and silent, as he stood there. I waved at him, doubting he could see me inside the dark house. I’m not sure but I think I saw his hand come up. Or maybe I only think that. He disappeared into the woods.

An hour later as I stood in the kitchen with my mother we heard a shot that sounded like it was a few hills away in the area where I knew he watched a deer trail. I smiled at Mama.

I said, “Grandpa’s having luck early. I’ll go and see if he needs some help dragging it in.”

I caught up to him an hour later at the edge of the deer trail.

The rifle was too long for him to reach the trigger so he had cut a forked stick. He had made some good clean cuts on that stick with his big hunting knife, as if he was particular on how it was made. The end of it was still in his hand.

He was sitting with his back to a huge hickory. The end of the gun barrel was on his chest. There was a big hole in the back of his head, a smaller hole in the front, and the tree was covered with splattering.

He looked like he maybe had decided to take a nap. His face was smooth. The wrinkles were gone.

 

 

I think about my Grandpa all the time. There aren’t many hours that pass when he doesn’t come to mind.

I know that the shot Mama and I heard echoed beyond us that day. The sound, I am sure, rode hundreds of miles over trees and woods and valleys until it came to rest in the lost hollow where another frontiersman lay, buried. It rode to that old friend and to their time, when they were alone in the wilderness and both were young.

I think often about Phillip Tobias, and all the other people Grandpa knew. Some, like Phillip, that we knew about because Grandpa had told us of them. The rest, so very, very many of them, that he never mentioned. I hope someone remembers them too.

I sit at night, most every night, and close my eyes to the dark and I see my grandfather. I never talk. Grandpa always did all the talking.

I just think about him. About how he died. And about his life.

I figure he’s someplace living it again.

 

 

 

BOOK TWO

 

 

The War

 

The Journal of Tom Wills

October, 1863

 

We became soldiers.

It’s hard to believe. You start out something, someone, and then you become changed, someone else. And then it’s like what you become is what you always were and what was before never was. That sounds strange to me, saying that, but that’s how it feels, like I’ve always been a soldier.

But a lot of things happened before I became one. Some good, others not so much so.

We went to Cairo as Captain Simms instructed us to do on the day we enlisted. Jesse, me, Silas Young and his big little brother Ambrose. We left together from Jefferson with a change of clothes and a little food in the rolls we carried on our backs. It felt like an adventure, but a frightening one at that. Silas got to talking before we got to the edge of town.

“Here we go,” he said in his big voice. “Gonna fight, we are. We’ll win this damn war.”

“What makes you so sure?” Jess asked.

“You know your father gets the paper. The South’s just about run out of food and money. They’ll play hell keeping up with us.”

It looked like being a soldier required a good bit of cussing on Silas’ part.

“Don’t know that you need a lot of money to fight,” Jess said. “Bullets can be made cheap. I figure those Southern boys got a lot of fighting left in them.”

“Didn’t say they wouldn’t fight,” Silas countered, “just said we’d win and come home with bragging rights. Bragging rights that will have the girls swarming us like flies on a cow pie. Isn’t that right, Ambrose?”

“I guess,” the bigger Young said in his tiny voice. “I just hope we don’t have to be gone long.”

Silas laughed at him.

“You missing home already?”

“Just as soon not leave it, that’s a fact.”

“Ha! You never acted that way. What about you, Tom?”

I looked up at Ambrose. His face truly did look sad. It seemed a pity in such a big person. I thought I would give him a little help.

“Can’t say I care about leaving either. Not rightly use to it.”

“Well I’m ready,” Silas said. “If this war hadn’t come along when it did to give me a reason I’d a gone anyway. I’m tired of following plows and slopping hogs and cutting hay and picking corn. No way I was gonna live my life that way, I ciphered that a long time ago. That’s dull times and an early grave.”

“Your family’s done well by it,” Jess said.

“True enough, it’s in my papa’s blood, I guess. Isn’t it, Ambrose?”

Ambrose shrugged.

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“But it ain’t in mine,” Silas went on. “My blood runs to a more worldly way. I need to know I accomplished something that didn’t have something to do with dirt. Yes, sir, I gotta move.”

And talk, I thought.

“To each their own,” Jesse told him.

“Yes, sir,” he said back, “to each their own, their damn sure own.”

That first day was nothing but sun and we trudged on in the dust and the heat listening to Silas mostly, the other three of us just adding a line now and then. Truth is, after a while, I got use to his gabbing and was kind of glad he talked so much as it made the time move faster and kept my thoughts off what we were leaving. And we had left a passel.

Burying Grandpa had been a Godawful thing. It was almost more than Mama could stand, that along with us leaving. It was almost more than I could stand too.

Reverend Hoppe held the funeral, even though Grandpa wasn’t the most loyal of members. That made no difference to the Reverend. He always said heaven could be found in many different ways, and he could not forget Grandpa’s kindness when he was sick, even though us boys did most the work.

It was the first time my parents had seen their preacher since the falling out. The three of them talked a lot together before and after the service. They looked to be making amends. I watched them and thought it a shame it had taken Grandpa’s passing to do it, though I’m sure he would have liked the idea. Probably would have laughed under his breath about it.

A lot of people came to the service. No one mentioned how Grandpa died. I guess it was one of those things no one had a good way to talk about. They just all felt it was a great loss.

We put him in a plot in the cemetery next to the church because we really didn’t know what else to do. It didn’t quite seem the proper place for him, too nice and neat and not wild enough, but he had never mentioned how he wanted things done and we were sure he wouldn’t have wanted to be planted up around the house someplace, where we’d be gawking at him all the time. That would have aggravated him for sure.

I could not bring myself to cry, not the day I found him or the days that followed or the day of the funeral. It wasn’t in me. There are times, I guess, that death surpasses what it really is and just does not seem real. I always knew he would have to go someday, and most likely ahead of me in spite of my stupid childhood hopes to be the first, but when he did I went to stone. It took a while before I could let myself see him as dead. I figured to go to sleep a few times and then one day he would come back from his longest wandering and be asleep on the floor in his room. Somehow. Someday. I would tell him about my army adventures and he would nod.

After we had him cleaned up and in his casket, when I was with him by myself, I made an effort to close his mouth all the way. It was sickening to feel his skin so cold and hard but I did try anyway. I knew Grandpa could never have stood for someone gawking at his aging teeth. But he had been dead too long and was too stiff and I could only manage to close it partway. In the end, I didn’t have to worry. Mama thought the big holes in his head were too much for anyone to see and so she left the casket closed.

It was a cold, chilly day when we buried him and, like I said, the crowd was large. Over by the road that passed in front of the church I saw Mr. Hoffman’s black carriage with the red-spoked wheels. Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman and Sarah were in the carriage, the women with shawls pulled over their heads. They did not come into the cemetery and I did not see them milling around later. Moses did not show at all.

We put my Grandpa under the ground and then it was time for Jess and I to leave.

 

 

We stopped before dark on that first day of our journey to join the army in Cairo. We wanted time to gather wood and make a camp so we went off the road a couple of hundred feet and camped next to a small creek. We were tired and it wasn’t long after dark, when we had finished eating, that we all shut up, even Silas, and rolled up into our blankets. The nights had started getting colder and that blanket felt good, just not good enough. I laid there and looked up at the few stars I could see through the tree limbs. I thought about how good my bed at home would feel and then I thought wasn’t that a hell of a thing. Hadn’t been gone but a few hours and already I was pining. I got mad at myself, thinking I would be in a real fix if I didn’t grow up and look at things as they were. I was not going home for a long, long time.

To get my mind off home I started it wandering over things. The first thing that came was what happened two days after the funeral when I went to Jefferson to fetch some things for Mama. What happened is I had seen Sarah.

I had finished my fetching from the mercantile and was heading down the street when she came out of her father’s tavern right in front of me. Neither one of us wanted to be the one to change direction so we ended up meeting at the foot of the tavern steps. Even though she was wearing an old blue dress, something a woman would wear to work in, she still looked pretty, as usual. She nodded at me, kind of stiff.

“Tom. How are you?”

“Fine, I guess,” I said, stiff enough myself.

“I’m sorry about your grandfather. I liked him a lot and he was always good to me. I guess he was good to everybody.”

I nodded. We couldn’t really end the conversation there but I was stymied about how to go on. She went first.

“So you and your brother will be leaving soon for the army.”

“Yes, just a few more days.”

“I still think fighting is stupid but I suppose it does have to be.” she said. Then she creased her forehead and her words got stronger. “Thing is, why did you have to join Moses’ regiment? Was it to upset him? He has a lot on his mind and he doesn’t need to be bothered. Was that what it was about?”

I could hear a touch of the Sarah anger and that caused me to rile.

“Why shouldn’t we? We’re from here too. Moses don’t run everything around here, uniform or not.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just what I said. Jess said it was our town too, and our friends who were joining, and that we had a right to go with them.”

“Jesse. I should have known it would be Jesse.”

I stood there quietly, knowing it would not due for me to go on right then.

“It just didn’t seem right,” she went on, “joining in his face like you did. He has so many responsibilities now, so many people depending on him, that he didn’t need that. It would have been just as easy for you to go elsewhere.”

“The Reverend didn’t seem to mind.”

“The Reverend just doesn’t realize what Moses is up against. I know though. He tells me.”

“I’m sure he does.”

She looked ready to pop, but then drew back.

“I don’t want to fight with you, Tom, not with you going to war along with everyone else. I only want you and your family to know that I love Moses. I love him with all my love and I want to be his wife.”

She did not know that I had heard her and Jesse on the porch the night he proposed, that I heard all the things she had said. And she could not know that I was thinking, even though it was just me she was talking to and in the middle of the street at that, that the way she had talked to Jesse that evening seemed so much stronger than the way she had said what she just did.

I shrugged before I spoke.

“Why is it important for us to know that?”

“You…you need to know it was not the fight that made me go to Moses and accept his asking to marry. It’s because I know for sure he is the one I truly need, that he was the one all along. I want everyone to be at peace with that.”

“You mean Jesse, don’t you? He’s the one you want told.”

She clenched her mouth.

“Not only Jesse. Everybody.”

“Am I to pass the word?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll doubt I’ll see any of you before you leave, I’m getting things ready for Moses and me to marry. We’re going to as soon as he gets his first leave.”

Again there just wasn’t much feeling in her voice. Or maybe it was just me.

“Anyway,” she went on, “it’s a good thing he’s not here now. He wouldn’t like me talking to you in the street like this. But he’s gone on ahead to get things ready for his troops. So, will you pass on what I said?”

“I wouldn’t care if he was here now,” I said, ignoring her question. “It would be nothing to me. He’s the one who won’t let things go. He’s the one who talked to Jess and me like dogs the day we enlisted.”

“Do you blame him?”

“Wrong things was done by everybody.”

Sarah shook her head.

“I don’t see that. His family was wronged and he was beat up trying to talk it out. I don’t blame him for being mad.”

“It wasn’t that way,” I said. “I was there, Sarah. Jesse never wanted to hit anybody, he was just trying to get Moses off my father. Moses had hit him and then hit Jess. I saw it, though I don’t care if you believe me or not.”

I guess she must have seen in me that I couldn’t be lying as she actually seemed taken back.

"But I was told --"

“When Jesse came down to the Reverend’s house he was coming to smooth things over. But he never got a chance, you jumped him and hit at his pride and Jess has a powerful pride.”

She looked to be searching for words.

“Thing is,” she said finally, her voice not as strong as before, “even if what you say is true, Jesse did nothing to stop your father from selling the land.”

“He didn’t know. He hadn’t been told, none of us had. If we had known Jesse or Grandpa would have stopped it. After the contract was signed it was too late.”

“Am I to believe that?”

“I told you, Sarah, I don’t give a hoot what you believe.”

For one of the few times in the years I had known Sarah Hoffman she was without words. She looked almost sick. She looked inclined to turn away but her body would not follow. She started to say something then shook her head, her lips quivering. What did come out was not what she first intended, I’m sure.

“Anyway,” she said, barely loud enough to hear, “will you pass on my message to everyone?”

I nodded. She moved around me to continue across the street. After a few steps she stopped and turned.

“Tom?”

I faced her.

“Please,” she said, “please, all of you. Be careful.”

I nodded again. When she turned to start on her way that time, she didn’t stop.

I laid in my blanket half asleep and thought about seeing Sarah. I had not told Jesse or anyone what she said. I thought about it, thought about it a lot, but in the end decided not to. It would not chance things that I could see and would only hurt Jess more. I considered it again as I laid there and decided it was still best to say nothing. Maybe someday I would, I thought. Maybe someday.

And then I fell to sleep.

 

 

Two days later we made Cairo. It sat on the Mississippi about as far

south as Illinois went, where the Mississippi met the Ohio.

As we got nearer the town we started meeting other men on the road heading south. Two were from Jonesboro, the town where we had seen Lincoln and Douglas debate. They were John Crisler and Amos Freid, both farm boys who were a few years older than Jesse and Silas. They were average sized men, friendly enough, and smiled at each other same as we did when Silas talked and talked. That made them good enough companions and so we were glad they stayed with us. Others from more faraway places fell in with our group too and by the time we got close to Cairo there were twenty or so of us.

It wasn’t hard to find where we needed to go when we got there. In fact, we didn’t have to go into Cairo at all as the open country on the north end of the town, the direction we were coming from, was a large open area full of tents. A lot of people were milling around the tents and the surrounding fields. A table was set up under a large cottonwood at the edge of the road and Captain Simms, the same officer who had signed us up at Jefferson, was behind the table again. Next to him were some other men in blue Union uniforms. We got in line and as we got up to the table we had to give our names to one or the other of the two men with Captain Simms. They marked us on a list.

Captain Simms counted us as our names were being marked. He was a tall man, probably in his early thirties, with blonde hair and a serious face. I would get to know him well in the weeks to come and would find him to be a good, fair man, but I never saw him smile.

“Twenty-eight of you,” he said after his count was done. “Not near enough. I’ll send a few more over as they come. For now, this is all you need to know. We are forming the Eighty-Sixth Illinois regiment. A regiment is one thousand men. Your names have been marked in for the Fifth company. A company is one hundred men. Can you remember that?”

Most all of us mumbled yes. Captain Simms was quick to tell us to speak louder from that point on and also, from that point on, to address all officers by their rank.

“Yes, Captain,” we said, kind of together.

“Again!”

“Yes, Captain!” we said, loud and together.

He had us repeat several times that we were the Fifth Company of the Eighty-Sixth regiment. He made sure we called him Captain each time.

“The Eighty-Sixth, Captain.”

“Again!”

“Eighty-Sixth, Captain!”

“Good,” he said then. “Here is what you will need to know for now. On the ground over there you will find some tents that sleep four each. Put them up. Stay together, for you are a company. There are some supply wagons in the middle of the grounds where you will be issued rations for the next several days. Your name will be marked as you draw your rations. Make them last, as no more will be issued until I say. At dusk tonight you will report to your tent where you will stay until morning and at dawn a call will go out for you to rise and dress and report to the parade ground over there.”

He pointed to an open field.

“Be there within thirty minutes of the call. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Next time louder. I have no more time for you now more are coming in behind you. Move on, men.”

 

 

It was the next day that I realized I was, for sure, a soldier. The thought came to me as I stood in the hot sun in the open area. This is how it came to me.

We had gotten our tents the day before as instructed and Jess and I and the Young brothers decided to share. It was a squatty thing with a flap opening in front. It was so low that the only way to get in or out without rubbing your back on the ceiling was to crawl.

The food they gave us wasn’t much either. Salted beef and hard tack. I’d heard talk of hard tack and the stories were true. It was too hard to break with your teeth. One of the men we talked to at the camp, a fellow who had been around, said the best you could do was boil it. The salt beef was so salty as to have no other taste. They also gave us some coffee. The closest place to get water was a stream a quarter mile from the camp next to a woods where everyone was relieving themselves. We had been given a small metal canteen and we all filled ours from the stream but I had drunk mine dry before dark.

One of the sergeants who had been at the table with the Captain when we arrived walked through camp just before sundown and called out for everyone to get in their tents. He was too late for us. We were worn to the bone and had already been there a while. None of us had talked or eaten much. I think we all felt a little addled.

Since none of us had taken a bath in days we had to come to an agreement on how we would lay in the cramped tent. Our feet, we decided, would have to go to the same end. We handled the cramped by saying no one could roll unless all agreed. We were worse off than most as Jesse and Ambrose were larger than average. It was a miserable night and none of us slept.

The next morning we choked down some more beef but didn’t have time for coffee, a thing I didn’t care for anyway, and made a mad rush to the clearing the Captain had told us to go to. There were hundreds of men there. The two sergeants got us into several lines of sorts and told us to stand at attention till the Captain came. It was there, while we waited, that the thought about being a soldier rolled over me.

I was hot. I was welted from the bugs and flies that had gotten free rein in the tent the night before. I was hungry. Every time I had taken a bite of the rock-like hard tack I had thought of Mama’s good, good bread. I had even got to thinking about how good some of her lye soap and the washtub would feel as I stunk to high heaven. My feet were sore from the long walk to Cairo and my ribs bruised from where I had been elbowed all night. I hadn’t gone to the bushes yet, didn’t know when I would, and my hair was matted to my head. I felt like one of our hogs except they answered natures call’s whenever they wanted. I was flat out miserable.

But I had been told to get to that clearing at the bugle’s sound and I had. I had been told to eat the miserable food and I had. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would be told more things I would and wouldn’t do and I knew without a doubt I would or wouldn’t do them as ordered. And that’s when it came to me.

I was a soldier.

I had a huge load of things to learn about the ins and outs of it, that was a fact, but I was doing as I was told no matter how much I did not like or understand it and would continue doing so. I was just plain too scared and confused to do otherwise. Which, I decided in that muggy sun and sad dust, made me a soldier. Which caused me, bad off as I was, to stick my chest out a mite. It had been a long time coming.

After a half hour or so, with none of us talking because the sergeants had told us not to, Captain Simms came up in front of us. He walked down our lines slowly and took us in. How he kept from laughing, I don’t know, but he did. Course, I found out later he never laughed. Finally, he came to a place in the middle front and began talking.

“Gentlemen,” he said in a strong voice, “as I told each of you when you arrived here you are to be members of the Eighty-Sixth Illinois regiment. You can be proud of that, starting now. I would like to give you a long stirring speech but there is no time and there are those who rank me who will have that privilege. What I want to tell you today is this. You will be part of a disciplined army that will help subdue the Rebels, but first you must be trained.”

He held up a small black book in his right hand.

“This is the Regulations Manual of the United States military. You will each be given one. You will learn it. You will memorize each part. It tells you the many different marching movements, how to load your weapon, how to dress, in fact, everything you will be expected as a soldier in this army to know. You are now ordered to learn it. Today, as soon as I am done speaking, you will begin learning the basics of marching and standing at attention as explained in your manual. Sergeants Brockwell and Morgan and myself will lead you. Let me warn you, today will be just a taste of things to come. In the next weeks you will march, march, march, drill, drill, drill. You will learn as a group how we must fight. With no hesitation, you will learn this. With no hesitation you will obey each order. This is the way of soldiers, the way of battle and the only way to perhaps live through any battles.”

He lowered the book.

“Now let me tell you other things that will happen and then we will start. For our drills here we will use poles for weapons. They will do just fine for now. In a week, after we are sure everyone who signed up is accounted for, we will board a train for Camp Douglas, outside Chicago, and…”

I felt my throat rise into my mouth. Chicago! Grandpa’s Chicago. Jess had seen it and now I would! I swore to myself, whatever it took, that I would find where Fort Dearborne had been and that I would stand where he stood. Whatever it took!

Captain Simms went on but I heard little. It was something about getting our weapons and uniforms and other things at that Camp Douglas, something about the Eighty-Sixth coming together as a regiment there, where we would complete our training and meet our general officers. Something else about how we could not leave or we would be charged as deserters.

But I heard little of it. Because, I was going to Chicago.

 

 

A little over a week later, like the Captain had said, we left Cairo. I was glad of it. I did not like the place because it was close to the river and it stank like the mud there. After a while even our drinking water began tasting like the way everything smelled. I even took to drinking coffee in the hopes it would overtake the taste, but still I noticed it.

The heat and humidity never let up which was another thing I did not like. People started getting sick right away. Several died.

The Captain was true to his word. We marched and marched and drilled at our turning and at our standing and shouldering the sticks that made due as guns. We got up and ate, then drilled, ate just a little at noon, drilled again, ate supper then drilled till almost dark. It got so I looked forward to the hardtack and salted beef because that meant at least we weren’t drilling.

None of the others cared for the place and the drilling either and we talked in the evenings about how much we didn’t like it, while we studied our manuals.

“Worse that school,” Silas said once, “and I damn well hated school.”

“Which is why you weren’t no good at it,” Jess said with a grin.

“Well, I ain’t no good at this either. I come to kill rebels, not be killed by some raddle-brained sergeant marching me in stupid circles with igernent sticks instead of a gun. Damned if that ain’t the lamest thing of all. What are we supposed to do, jab the Rebs in the butt with those sticks?”

“He’s not killing us, I don’t think,” Ambrose said, serious as could be.

“Well if he ain’t, he’s damn sure wearing us down to near it.”

“Didn’t you know we’d have to march?” I asked.

“I’m not addled, I’m just not happy.”

“I figure the Rebels can wait killing till we know the proper way to do it,” Jesse said. “Might be we’ll fare a better chance not being killed by them that way and the Captain said we’ll get our guns and uniforms in Chicago.”

“Never lost nothing there either,” Silas griped in his loud voice.

We had become closer friends with Amos Freid and John Crisler, the Jonesboro men, and they had set up tent beside ours. They were with us that evening as we talked.

“I have to admit,” John said, his voice a mite softer than Silas’, “I wasn’t figuring on going so far away either. Was kind of hoping I could stay close enough to get home now and then.”

Silas took his eyes off the manual he wasn’t really reading anyway and looked over to his side at John.

“What’s that you say? I wasn’t planning on Chicago eithe, but I never once figured on any Rebs coming around here for killing.”

“I know,” John went on, “I guess I’m just not thinking too good.”

Amos, who was about my size and the better part of bald, spoke up for his friend.

“Well, thing is, John has a little more to lose by leaving than the rest of us. I ain’t hitched, and from what I gather none of you are either, but he sure enough is. Got a little girl that don’t make it to your knee and a boy just born. Don’t you?”

John Crisler smiled as he sat there picturing his little ones.

“That I do,” he said. “And a pretty wife to go with them.”

I gazed at him smiling and wondered about how hard that must have been, up and leaving a well done family like that. I had found it hard enough to leave Mama and Fathe, and they were but my parents and old at that. Wasn’t likely either would change much before I returned. But young ones changed by the day and maybe could forget you if they were young enough. I knew what it felt like to be a patriot and a hater of those who owned slaves but I did not know that I was enough of either to leave if I had children to raise. Course, there was the conscription Lincoln had started and people in certain places were being made to go whether they wanted to or not, but it was a haphazard thing and easy enough to get around if you kept yourself scarce. No, John Crisler could have stayed home and yet he came. I sat there and truly admired him for the coming.

Amos Freid said, “Those young ‘uns are one of the reasons I come along. We been friends a long time and I kind of promised them I’d tag along and stay with their father. I’m a unionist, mind you, and might have joined just the same, but I came for them mostly. Wasn’t much else I could do.”

“That’s true,” John said, “Amos is sure a friend. We roamed a lot of hills and woods together when we was little, like brothers, which neither of us had.”

I thought of Moses then pushed the thought out of my mind.

“You’re kind of like me and Silas, and Jess and Tom then, ain’t you?” big Ambrose said. “We all came to fight and look after each other at the same time.”

“By God,” Silas said, “if we look out for those we came with plus let it spill over and kind of give a look to everyone else now and again, we ought to have all the looking-out-for any bunch could need. We ought to all come out of this fit and proud. If those damned sergeants don’t wear us to a nubbin’ first.”

I thought about what Silas said and did find some comfort in it. It was a good group of fellows around that fire and if a man had to be away from home and going someplace to fight, it was at least good to know you were with people you felt good about. It warmed me in a way, like a present at Christmas. Things right then didn’t seem so bad after all, in spite of all the marching and drilling that Silas hated so.

Jesse took up for the sergeants.

“Brockwell and Morgan don’t seem so bad. We could probably do worse. They work us hard and shout some but I suppose it’s for our own good. Both have been to battles themselves so I don’t think they’d want to take time to teach us anything useless.”

“I don’t mind the teaching,” Silas commented, “it’s just the over and over I can’t abide. I ain’t without a brain. Once or twice should be enough.”

“Sergeant Morgan sure has an ugly scar aside his head,” I said. “Where did they say he got that?”

“Stones River.” Amos said. “Someone tried to bash him with a gun butt.”

“And he’s coming back for more!” I said. truly impressed. “That’s something.”

Nobody commented, all of us putting our minds to the idea.

Two days later with the weather still hot and humid even though it was October, we packed up what little we had and headed for the middle of Cairo. They said we would catch a train to the north there. As we moved in order down the dirt road I noticed how well we stayed together, even though we hadn’t been drilling but a couple of weeks. We were four abreast, as always. It looked a little ragged here and there but it was marching just the same. We were privates, we had been told just a few days before. We had a rank, low as it was. And here we were, already, heading off in order like soldiers, the sergeants at our sides prodding us along.

I soon learned something I was to come to know all too well. A large group of men marching in order on a dirt road can raise nothing short of what had to be called an extra big cloud of dust. It rose like a monster above us. It choked and made you squint and left a taste it in your throat that hung there, like the coffee and muddy water we’d been drinking. This was going to be one part of soldiering I could never learn to abide. I was proud to be marching but I found no pride in that hateful dust.

The road we took brought us down to the edge of the Mississippi, just on the inside of the willows that grew on its bank. I could smell the muddy, brown water going by and see it too, in spite of the dust. The willows on the opposite bank were so small, because of the distance, as to look like no more than some green humps. It didn’t seem possible there was so much water in the whole world much less right there. I tried to take it all in.

It wasn’t long before we came to a pitiful looking shack set up on posts, to keep it out of high water I supposed. It had enough holes and cracks in it that you could see light through it from the other side. Standing around it, some up, some down, were a group of dogs and four or five children. The children were as ragged and torn looking as the house, all dirty and skinny, and gave us the same dumb look as the dogs. A look that said they saw us and were kind of interested but then again really weren’t. It’s hard to explain, but that’s how it seemed to me. They all looked all the same size, though none were any taller than any regular man’s thigh.

Our march took us less that a stone’s throw from the cabin and as we got up to it I noticed something else. Those children were yellowed! As God is my witness, they were. They were of white people, like all of us marching by, but their skin looked yellow. Jess caught me staring and leaned in to me to whisper, as we had been told not to talk. The sergeant, at the time, was quite a few rows behind us.

“Wood choppers’ young ones. Their father makes a living chopping wood for the side wheelers. See the stacked wood to the side? Not much of a living though. I’ve seen others before.”

“But they’re yellow!” I said, a little louder than I should of.

“No vegetables or ‘tatoes. If you don’t eat right, and hardly no vegetables at all, that’s the way it is. I saw little ones like that in Chicago. Woodchoppers always have lots of children cause some of them don’t make it.”

He leaned back away, noticing the Sergeant moving back towards our part of the line.

Yellow children. I could not believe such a thing! There had been poor families around Jefferson, that was a fact, and I had always felt sorry for them, but never had I seen them turn yellow. And I could not believe the wide, empty eyes that hung on us as we went past. I wondered if they were really seeing us or were just thinking how sad things was and we just happened to be in the way of their stare. I felt kind of sick to my stomach so I turned away from them. It was the only thing to do. They disappeared behind me.

We continued our way into Cairo. We stayed close to the river and could see several side wheelers pulled into the bank with men running around them loading and unloading things. I gave them the eye as best I could through the dust cloud. They were the first steamboats I’d ever seen and they made for a busy place. The war was the biggest part of the business, I was sure. People along the side the road watched us pass. Men, women, children, all looking at us hard. You could not tell if they approved of us or not.

Except for a wave now and then, and mostly by the children, none of them did much of anything. We passed some large wooden and brick buildings and I knew they were warehouses for the material being unloaded from the boats.

We turned up a street away from the river, one just barely wide enough for our four-wide column. The warehouses and other businesses gave way quickly to houses. They were sad looking places, all wood and bowed with the rot. The people around them who watched us pass weren’t as well off as the merchants and workers on the riverfront. In one place we passed a group of black children, all of them small, like the yellowed woodchopper children. A dead horse lay just a few feet away from where they were sitting and it stunk no end. They didn’t seem to notice it, just watched us with the same empty eyes as were in the earlier bunch. I wondered if they were the children of freed or escaped slaves, figuring they had to be. Jesse was gazing at them too. He didn’t whisper to me this time. They were dirty and, like the others again, didn’t have shoes. One was a small boy, probably not four years old, and his nose was running into his mouth in spite of the heat. Dirt was streaking the snot. I looked away again.

I was getting the idea that Jefferson was the only place in the world where the young ones weren’t pitiful. I wasn’t feeling so good about soldiering and marching anymore, not near as proud. No one seeing us pass seemed to care about what we were doing and the sights so far had been sickening. I wanted to go home and get into Mama’s washtub and scrub myself raw with her lye soap. I marched with my head down towards the ground. Jesse glanced at me a while, then away.

Finally, with Captain Simms in the lead on a horse, we came to the railroad tracks and a small, rough station. The Captain whirled around on the brown mare and called for us to halt. He came down the line and told the sergeants to let us fall out and rest while we waited for the train to be prepared. I could see, down a ways from the station, an engine with a lot of cars in a side track.

There was no shade and so sitting on the dirty edge of the road wasn’t much of a rest. Jess looked at me.

“How you doing?” he asked.

I looked back and wondered if I was as dust covered in the hair and on the face as he was.

“I’m fine,” I said, though I know my voice sounded small and weak.

“Different country, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“For sure,” I said.

“Things aren’t all like home and you’ll find that out. But when we get to Chicago and into Camp Douglas I’m sure it’ll get better. The camp’s been there a while and is outside of town, more in the country. It’ll be just soldiers there.”

“You saw young ones like that in Chicago?”

He nodded slowly. I wiped dirt from my eyes.

“Do you think those black ones use to be slaves?” I asked him

“I don’t know. But they don’t belong to anybody, not here in Illinois.”

“I hope the ones we free do better than that. Wouldn’t seem worth it otherwise.”

In another hour the engine on the side track blew smoke and made its loud noises and came on up to the depot. There had to be twenty-five cars on the back of it, not passenger cars like Moses had left for West Point in or Senator Douglas had come to Jonesboro in, but cars that were surrounded by wooden slats that ran the same way as the ground, and wooden roofs. There were just a few inches of space between the slats. The Captain and some of the other officers saw to the loading of their horses in the first car then the next was pulled up to the platform and our line started to move as the men began getting in it. They looked to be putting about twenty in each, which was going to make them pretty crowded. But I didn’t care. I only wanted to get away from where I was at.

We were put in a car in the middle of the train. We all took a seat against the slatted outside walls, sitting in some straw that had been scattered about. It was at least better than the wooden floor would have been by itself. Most kept to themselves and listened to the noises the train made as it moved forward for the next car to be loaded. It was midafternoon before the last was filled then the engine took off and this time didn’t stop.

It was my first train ride but it lost its newness real fast. It was noisy as the iron wheels hit the joints in the tracks and now and again some wood smoke from the engine floated in around us, burning our eyes and making it hard to breath. The side door had been left open and one man after another rose and peed out into the air. I was glad I wasn’t sitting downwind of that opening. In the rear of the car were a couple of buckets for those who had to do more than pee. We had some hardtack and salted beef in our rolls but I didn’t see anyone eat. The most anyone did was sip every so often from their canteens. We had been told we would get to Chicago late the next day. That seemed a long while and I surely hoped it wouldn’t be any longer. Darkness came and it got a little better as things cooled off. I laid my head back but there was no way sleep would come. I got through the night thinking about cool fall evenings on our front porch, though the eyes of the children I’d seen that day poked through the good thoughts now and then.

By morning I was just too hungry and forced some of the beef down. Even it tasted good. John Crisler was sitting to my right and I looked over at him as I ate. He was trying to write a letter on a small piece of paper but the back and forth movements of the car was making it hard. John was all the time writing home and I understood it because he had little ones. I had only managed to do write once since leaving Jefferson. Most evenings, even if there had been enough light, I was just too tired. But John never failed trying to get one out every couple of days. He always used a little nub of a pencil and I was amazed as it never seemed to get any shorter. Pencils were at a premium and I supposed he intended to make that one last the whole war. He was one of those people who bit at the tip of their tongue as he wrote.

“Another letter, John?” I asked to get the talk going.

“Yep.”

“You’re a good one to write so many.”

“I want them to keep me in mind.”

John was a nice person, and he stopped to talk.

“Don’t stop on account of me,” I said.

“Ah, I’m not having much luck and I need a rest from it anyway,” he said, putting the piece of pencil and the paper in his shirt pocket.

“You must be a strong union man,” I went on, “to want to do your duty so bad you’d leave a wife and children.”

“It’s true I believe in this fight. The Union needs saving and those poor black folk freed, but those are not the biggest reason I left.”

“It’s not?”

Jess, who was to my left, turned to us to listen. I didn’t say anything else, knowing it would be prying if I did. John was quiet a bit then shrugged his shoulders and went on.

“I…a…I needed money.”

“Money?” I said, puzzled.

You could see it wasn’t easy for him but you could also see he wanted to say it, like it maybe would make him feel better.

“I come from a pretty poor family. The wife too. It’s been kind of hard on us, what having no land but what our cabin sits on. I do odd jobs for a living. Cut wood, hire myself out to farmers, butcher, such as that. I also hunt and fish a lot. We ain’t starving, mind you, but we’re just eking by. The girl came and then the boy, and that made it worse. Not that I mind, that’s for sure.”

He smiled.

“You should see them, cutest as ever was. She favors me and he favors the wife, except for his size. She’s tiny and he’s big as a horse.”

Jess and I smiled with him, knowing a big boy is a proud point for any man.

“He don’t hardly ever cry either,” he went on. “Neither did little Janey, I guess because their mama took such good care of them and made sure they ate right. His name is Bill. Billy-boy.”

“He’ll be a big help some day,” Jess said.

“That he will, ‘specially if I can come by some ground. Thing is, we ain’t got a chance of getting ahead without getting hold of some and with the work I do it didn’t look like it would ever happen. Then the conscription came around and Ed March got a call to go. He’s a year or two older than me and his father is a rich store owner in Jonesboro. Well, Papa March didn’t cotton to his son going and, truth is, Ed wasn’t too much for the idea either, so old man March put out the word he was willing to pay the three hundred dollars substitute price. Ever heard of that?”

“Yes,” Jesse said. “If you give someone three hundred dollars they can go in your place. I was in Chicago for a while and there was a lot of that going on up there. You joined for him?”

“I did. Hell, three hundred dollars is more than I can make in years. It’s our only chance, I figure. It’ll give us the start on some land when,,,when I get back. I just hope they’ll remember me.”

All of a sudden John Crisler’s eyes filled up with wet and he quit talking. He turned his head away so we could not see, him not knowing us too well. It’s an uneasy feeling to see a grown man tear up and I felt embarrassed for him. But I understood. It’s not often you have as much as he had and it wasn’t at all fair for him to have to let it go. He didn’t have any more say over his poor birth, the way I saw it, than that Ed March had over his rich one.

After a minute he turned back to us and started talking again, I guess trying to show us he really didn’t let himself go that much.

“Anyway, Judith and the children went to live with her folks. They’re not that well off either but he does own a little ground and he puts out a big garden and, all in all, I suppose they’ll eat as well as I was ever able to feed them. It’s just the little ones are just so little and if this thing drags on too long they might forget who their papa is. That’s why I intend to write. And Judith says she’ll be sure to read all my letters out loud, even to Billy. Just wish I had the money to have gotten my likeness taken so they’d have that to look at too.”

With that said he sat quietly a while, then drug out the pencil and paper and went back to writing.

“I’m not much for spelling,” he said to me with a little grin. “Maybe once in a while I’ll ask your help with a word, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m no speller either,” I said, “but I’ll be glad to give you any dumb idea I might have about how some word goes, as long as you don’t call me igernent.”

John grinned a little bigger.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said.

 

 

We pulled up to Camp Douglas at four that afternoon. For all of us in that wooden train car it wasn’t a minute too soon. The country had gotten flat the last few hours of the trip. I looked out at it through the slats and I did not care much for the flat, grassy ground. The trees looked small too. I liked my woods and hills better.

We unloaded one car at a time, same as how we loaded. It took just as long and as everyone trailed out they were directed to a large field off to the side. As I walked to my place in line in the field I noticed a whole slew of buildings in the distance. They were made of wood and were laid out in straight rows. I shivered as I stood gawking. It was not only flatter in northern Illinois, it was colder. The October air was out of the north and it was wet-feeling. I had on a long sleeved shirt but it wasn’t enough and I hoped they wouldn’t wait long before giving us some more clothes to wear. Ambrose was a few down from me and I heard him lean to his brother and whisper.

“Kind of wish we could march around now whether you like it or not.”

“Freezing’s ‘bout the only thing that could make me appreciate it,” Silas said back, “and I want to so I must be about froze.”

“Quiet in the ranks!” Sergeant Morgan called out.

As we were still getting into line some officers on horses came riding up from the direction of the buildings. When they got within eyesight, I could see one was Moses. He was riding just behind a large man on a big black horse with a long tail. The man wore a wide-brimmed hat and had a long sword hanging from his belt. He looked powerfully important. He was probably close to fifty, I guessed, and had a full, long beard. I knew I had to be seeing the man who was to hold sway over all of us.

Moses was stiff-backed as he rode his horse and kept his head straight ahead. Not once did he look in the direction of us men. His chin was held up and, though he didn’t have a sword like the big man in front, he did have a pistol at his belt. Jess was eyeing him too.

I knew Moses so well I could tell he was the same as when we saw him on enlistment day at Jefferson. You could see it in that back and high chin. Moses Hoppe the soldier was proud of his position, not that pride at doing good is a bad thing but when it makes you feel mighty, like it looked like it had Moses, it was something that soured on others.

Then, I thought, how could I be so sure? Didn’t he have a right to sit tall because, after all, he had worked hard and went away to learn to be an officer. Maybe I was feeling soured because of the falling out between our families and was just reaching for a way to put it all on his shoulders. Could be, Tom, I thought, you need to give him a chance. The old Moses could still be there someplace and that would be nice.

We were lined up in four lines, all southern Illinois volunteers, a hundred or so of us. It took up a good piece of ground to do it and I was impressed. We watched them carefully as the big important officer and Moses rode to a spot in the front of us.

The sergeants called us to attention, attention was something we had down pat. We got quiet and the officer with Moses heeled his horse a few steps forward. He took his time and eyed us slowly several times end to end. He made quite a show in the looking, the putting out of the big body and beard and fancy uniform and sword. It wasn’t no fun standing at attention when you felt like shivering and running for shelter. I found myself wishing he’d get done with it. Finally, after putting his right hand on the handle of the sword and cocking the elbow out, he began his speech.

“Soldiers,” he called out, more than loud enough for us to hear, “welcome to Camp Douglas. I am Colonel Hargraves. I have been put in command of the Eighty-Sixth Illinois regiment. I am to be your commander and I am proud to be in that position…”

And on and on he went. We definitely got the patriotic talk Captain Simms said we were due and all the while I was turning blue. He had been in battle, he told us. He knew how to fight, he told us, and if we would follow his commands he would lead us to victory. We would for now be given uniforms, that was one part of his speech I was ready to hear, and we would be given quarters. And then we would drill. In the spring we would join a larger army someplace and would be a part of the defeat of Rebels. Colonel Hargraves had a voice as big as his body and it made for quite a good talk, a good, long, long talk. Finally, when I had gotten where I really didn’t care what he said anymore, he started winding it up.

“Soldiers,” he said then, “you know your sergeants and you know your Captain Simms, who will be commander of your company. Company Five of the Eighty-Sixth Illinois. Now let me introduce you to my second in command, Major Moses Hoppe.”

Moses rode forward. When he spoke I knew I did not have to question myself any more about how far his proudness had gone. When he talked it was clear by his voice and the hold of his head that he wanted us to realize who he was. It was not merely good pride coming through.

“Men,” he said, leaning forward on his saddle horn. “some of you know me. You are from my part of the state, some from my home town. I am glad you have joined this army, but let me tell you this. You are here to become soldiers and you will become soldiers. You will follow commands and you will drill until all formations are done precisely and without question. I will see to that. Any insubordination, any deviance from orders, any act detrimental to this army will be dealt with severely. It must be that way if you are to become the soldiers you need to be and your country needs you to be. And that you will become, let there be no question about it. Your company will bring honor to our state and to our Union. It will be part of one of the best, most disciplined regiments in this army. That is my promise to you and that is all that needs to be said. Now follow your Captain’s instructions and you will be assigned quarters and uniforms. That is all. Thank you, Colonel.”

Silas leaned over to me.

“Our Moses has gotten a mite uppity,” he whispered.

I didn’t answer for fear I’d be seen doing it. They had me that much scared at least.

 

Winter, 1863

 

We got our place to live and sleep. Camp Douglas was a big camp, to be sure, stretching on and on, barracks after barracks. I could not believe so many soldiers could be in one place at one time. It was filling so fast that all the biggest barracks, the first built there, were already filled by the time we arrived. We got a smaller one, one that looked like it had been thrown together a mite fast. It was made up of rough log walls about six-foot high with a canvas top that was peaked over it. The top looked like it had been taken off a tent and the front door was a flap. There wasn’t much room. Jess and I stayed in it with Silas and Ambrose and John Crisler and Amos Freid. That made it tight but we were all glad to be with folks we knew. We settled in to live there. Like everyone else in that camp, we set a kettle that had been left by those before us over a firing spot in front of our place. It was nice to boil our meat now and again, even though firewood was a hard thing to come by. In the evening and the mornings the whole surrounding country became gray with smoke. The lights of those fires went on forever.

I have no real gripes about our log cabin house with the tent roof except that it was in northern Illinois, a cold place that got colder and a place that fell in my esteem as the temperature fell. That canvas roof made for a breezy sleep. We had a little stove in the corner, but at night it didn’t take off the chill. On real cold nights the log walls frosted on the inside. And though I admit I had few gripes, I griped about our hut just the same. I soon learned it was a God-given right for all soldiers to gripe and moan and, believe me, we made the best of it.

Especially Silas. To him, griping was an art. He went so far one evening that he made a gripe we felt covered so much in one sentence it had to be the best grumble ever created.

“‘Ot’damn,” he said that night after rolling into his blanket, “it’s so God awful cold on this floor on account of that worthless roof that it makes me want to get up and put my frozed head into that stinking smoke that won’t leave ‘cause of those dreary-assed clouds that hang over this piss-pot country night and day.”

Jess was the first to catch what had been shot at us and started laughing and said it had to be the best and longest ever, which got us all to laughing, even Silas. It made me say I finally knew why Ambrose was so big and quiet. Never having had a chance to say anything he must have always just sat around and ate. We all laughed again at that except for Ambrose, who laid there mulling over whether he had been slighted or not.

Moses, our Major Hoppe, was right about how we would spend all our time. All day long, except Sundays, was spent marching. There wasn’t a blade of grass left in any open spot for what seemed miles because that was what all the other soldiers of all the other regiments there was doing too. It made the dust we made on our march out of Cairo look trifle small.

The sergeants and Captains Simms took care of our day to day drilling. We faced right and left, shifted right and left, turned like on a hinge, learned how to toss out a swarm of skirmishers. There was no end to what that danged manual had it in for us to learn and no time too long for us to take to learn it. I did not figure my shoes to last for long. Moses rode among us most days, but said little to the men, talking only to the officers. He rebuked them if their men didn’t hit the right stride at the right time and that sent them after us. That must have been the only thing he was hired to do, it seemed to me. If he ever in his rebuking had noticed Jess or me or any of his old friends from Jefferson, he never let it on.

At least we did get our uniforms that very first day. Blue coats, three shirts and pants and some nice boots that I ended up figuring not to last very long. We were also given a hat that was pushed down in front that they called a kepi. Like everyone else did, and for that reason only, I crushed it down a little more. I never figured why.

And, at last, they gave us a gun. It didn’t look nothing like Grandpa’s smoothbore long rifle, the only other gun I had ever really known. With the bayonet it was almost as tall as me. We were told it had a grooved barrel which they said made the shot go farther and more true, though I found it hard to believe any shot could beat those that Grandpa made in his younger days, smoothbore or not.

But it was that bayonet that really got to me. It was long and pointy and really a frightful thing to see. I found it hard believe I was expected to stick it into another man and it made me my stomach roll just thinking about it, and I was for sure ready to be scared to death of anyone who wouldn’t think twice about sticking me. I simply did not like the thing.

But I was proud of my uniform and the kepi, and not only because they helped me stay warm. I wished I could have gone home and worn them to church or to town. I was also a little proud of how we looked drilling. Dog tired at the end of every day, but proud all the same.

And so we settled in to our routine, a soldier’s life. Things didn’t change much, at least until Silas got sick and Riley Meade came around.

 

 

It was into the first of December when it all happened. Silas woke up one day feeling a trifle bad but got up just the same and tried to drill with us. You could see he was having a hard time of it so during a rest Jess went to Captain Simms and told him. The Captain looked Silas in the face, could see he wasn’t shirking, and told him to go to quarters. He even said it in a nice way, kind of like he was a mother or a grandma, but that was the way Captain Simms was for the most part. His only problem was he never smiled and never once didn’t look worried.

It was a Friday when Silas got sick and when we came in from drills and checked on him he wasn’t there. This bothered Ambrose a lot, till a little later when Silas came dragging up, looking about as down as a man could look. He was coming back from the area where benches had been set up for the men to answer the call. His color was nowhere near right and he was stooping and leaning every few steps. We got him and put him inside our hut on his blanket and covered him up.

“The runs,” he said through clenched teeth. ‘‘Got the runs terrible bad…bad…bad.”

His voice crackled.

There were always a lot of men sick in that camp, as you had to figure there would be when so many were forced together in one place. Off to one side, a half mile or so from the main camp, was a graveyard with wooden markers. There wasn’t a day that went by without us seeing someone wrapped in a blanket being carried out there. It made you wonder. There was a big white barracks that was the hospital close to the graveyard and the most of the people who ended up getting buried came from that hospital. The men who had been in the army a while warned us about going there or any place the army doctors worked. No matter if you were sick or shot, they said, that was one place to stay away from as they killed you quicker than staying away. That never made any sense to me because I didn’t figure the army to be run by stupid men, and who but a stupid man would keep a place that made men die sooner. But like everyone else I grew to fear the hospital because there was no way not to believe those who had been around the longest.

So when Silas got sick he made sure we realized he wasn’t sick enough to need to be put in the care if the army doctors. And none of us could bring ourselves around to thinking he needed to go there, even if he did look terrible sick, as there was no way we could see that kind of sick happening to any of us. So we told Captain Simms the next day that he was still sick, but we figured by his looks that he would be better soon, and the Captain said he could rest Saturday too, which meant that the next day was Sunday and because of that he would have three days of rest in a row. That would put him to better, we felt, especially with all of us looking after him.

But he did not eat and things kept coming out of him before we could get him to the place for it, and when we weren’t trying to drag him there all he could manage was to lay in his blanket and moan. Most of the time he didn’t know anyone was with him. That seemed sad, especially since Silas was such a talker. But we wanted to keep him company just the same and we all stayed in our log hut Saturday night.

It was an hour after sunset and we were laying around talking small talk when the heavy canvas flap that served as our door flew open of a sudden and a man rushed in with the cold air. I made a jump from my back to my knees without having to use my elbows and everyone else came up and about too.

The man busted in, closed the flap and made himself flat against the inside wall, holding the canvas back just enough to peek an eye out around it. He was puffing hard and there were a lot of noises going on outside. I could hear some men shouting in the distance, their shouts coming closer. Jesse stood up in the far corner, his forehead creased, and tried talking to the man.

"Who are --"

The man turned to him quickly and put a finger to his lips and shushed Jess.

“Quiet, friend.” he said, in a voice with an accent I had never heard before. The words rolled off his lips as if they wanted to be certain before they left his mouth. It was an Irish accent, I was soon to learn, but right then it surprised me about as much as the way he had just entered our cabin.

He was a little under six foot and was wearing a Union uniform under a soldier’s overcoat. He had his kepi on and it was pulled down over the right side of his head so that it caused the ear there to bend. His hair was long and black with a few strands of white and was flopping out from under the hat. He was husky and had big fingers and dark eyes. He was, we were to be told eventually, forty-two years old.

The men’s voices outside were getting closer and as they did he widened the eye he was using to look out with while squinting more closed the eye he wasn’t using.

“Where’d he go, dammit, where’d he go?” one of the voices was saying.

“The son of a bitch!” the other voice said, I guess because he didn’t have an answer.

I could hear feet shuffling around somewhere in front of our hut, probably looking at it and all the others there on the same pathway, a lot of looking to be sure.

"Listen --" Jess said, trying to make a start again.

“Please now,” the man said in a whisper, “let ‘em pass.”

Jess said nothing. I looked about. Ambrose’s mouth was open wide. John and Amos had gotten up and were standing to the side of Jesse. I thought about going there too as I was closest to the stranger, but I didn’t want him to do something to me because I tried to.

The feet outside shuffled around a while longer, turning this way and that.

“The son of a bitch,” the same voice said again, then the noise came of their feet running down the pathway to fade away and the man sighed and slowly lowered himself to a sitting position, his back against the wall.

He gave it another half minute after things had quieted down and then took another small peek out the flap.

“Goddamned bloody Englishmen,” he mumbled out the side of his mouth, “if it weren’t for them traveling in packs they’d be none left.”

“Who were they?” Jess asked.

He let go of the flap and turned to face Jess.

“Two scoundrels of a lineage that still bows to queens. Had the unmitigated gall of accusing me of stealing their brew. Saddest thing I’ve yet seen.”

He turned his head and took us all in then, one at a time, in a way that said he was truly interested. Then he reached in his overcoat and brought out a bottle and held it out to Jesse.

“Care for a slug of English rum?” he asked.

Jess shook his head. The man pursed his lips, jerked the cork and downed a long draw. He never even winced. It may as well have been water. He sat a minute saying nothing and catching his breath, then let out a belch.

“Not bad,” he said before stretching out his legs as if he intended on staying a while.

“And who might you be?” he asked Jess.

It was a good thing he didn’t ask me as I was so entranced by the sound of his accent that I doubt I could have answered. Jesse didn’t seem to have a problem as he told me he’d met Irishmen on the wharves in Chicago the year he was gone.

“Jesse Wills,” he said. “And this is my brother Tom, and John Crisler and Amos Freid, and that’s Ambrose and his brother Silas.”

“I see,” the man said.

He nodded his head and smiled at each one of us in turn. It was a friendly smile but a deep one too, like he was thinking with his teeth. I had a feeling I was going to like him.

“Come to be soldiers, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jess said. “We’re all from the south of the state.”

“Not from up here, then? Good. Too many accusing Englishmen up here for my liking. Your names have a better sound to me. My name is Riley Meade and I harken from New York, by way of Kilcullen. That’s in Ireland.”

Ireland took longer than any of the other words to rolled off his lips.

“Mr. Meade,” Jess said while reaching out to shake his hand, still a little suspicious. After they were done I reached out and offered mine.

“Sir,” I said as we shook, his grasp feeling like I was being swallowed in two hands instead of just one.

“Sir!” Riley Meade said, cocking his head. “And have they knighted me?”

I didn’t know what that meant so I said nothing. He went around shaking hands with everyone else.

“Riley will do,” he said as he did. “Sure one of you won’t try a dollop?”

John Crisler had been eyeing the rum, I’d noticed, and this time he nodded.

“Don’t know that I wouldn’t,” he said.

Riley wiped the mouth of the bottle under the elbow of his greatcoat, then handed it over. John took a draw and at the end of it his drink his face squinted up and his eyes watered. He must have liked it though, as he sighed afterwards.

“That’s good,” he said.

Jesse shrugged and took the bottle and swallowed some too. After he did he handed it back and Riley offered it around again but got no takers.

“How did you come about being around those men who accused you of taking the rum your drinking?” Ambrose asked, meaning it.

Riley looked at him a long while before answering.

“We was playing cards, they being my main occupation in life. I was into a losing streak and so, when opportunity was offered, I borrowed the rum to make things even. That makes it far this side of stealing.”

“How much did you lose?” I asked, finally finding my tongue.

“Oh, I never lose, son, I just sometimes don’t win proper. Pleasant abode you got here.”

“I suppose,” John said.

“Where are you staying?” Amos asked.

“No place just yet, only got in a day or so ago. Was in Ohio, mulling around, when I heard of the troops being gathered here, so I decided it was time for me to join up again.”

“You were in the army before?” I asked.

“Couple of years ago, at the wars start. A ninety-day wonder, I was. Lord, boy, how old are you?”

“Eighteen,” I said loudly, upset in the way that he’d asked.

“Eighteen? Eighteen? And you come to fight?”

I nodded.

“Weren’t there no girls at home to keep you peckering?”

Talk of girls embarrassed me and I shrugged, knowing that making an uppity stance by answering him loud was losing hold.

“Come with your brother, did you?” he went on.

I nodded. Riley looked long and hard at Jesse as if taking measure of him. Jesse and Ambrose were the only ones there as big as him and Jess held his size better. Jesse didn’t blink.

“And you joined not just to join,” Riley Meade went on. “You joined because he joined.”

Jess was took back just a second at being read so fast and then his face went back to what it had been.

“I joined,” was all he said.

Having gotten up to shake hands, Riley put his back to the wall and slid back to having a seat. There was something of a grin on his face as he travelled down and looked at Jess.

“South-staters,” he said. “I like that.”

Everyone else who had been standing sat down too. Riley took another shot of the rum and it was then that Silas moaned. Riley lowered the bottle slow and gazed across the dim room at him in his blanket. Silas was on his back and the bad light made his face look more wasted that it was, and it was plenty wasted. Riley used the bottle to make a motion Silas’ way.

‘What’s wrong with him?”

It was Amos who answered.

“Sick. Been that way for two, three days.”

“Ague and spewing?”

“Some.”

“Shitting blood?”

“Yes, sir, a lot.”

“Gut doubling him over?”

“Yes,” John said, “he hurts.”

“He’ll be dead in a day or so,” Riley Meade said straight out.

“No!” Ambrose yelped, coming halfway to his feet as if mad.

“Sorry,” Riley said, “I realize your kinship. But fact is I’ve seen before what has taken him. Got the dysennerry, the bloody flux. Lot of it around here this winter. When it takes a final hold of the guts and don’t let up, he ought to be in the hospital.”

“No!” Ambrose said again, knowing what the old soldiers had said. “He’ll die there sure!”

“That he will. But it ain’t him for you’re taking him there, it’s for you. You’ll have it too if he stays. It’s catchy, it is.”

Ambrose’s faced pinched up and tears came to his eyes. He slumped back to sitting.

“Tell me,” Riley said, looking at the rest of us, “when you fetch water do you go upstream or down from the shit trench?”

“Cross the way here,” Amos said. “It’s closest.”

“Downstream then. Don’t know that it’s a fact, but in Ireland we found it better to go upstream. What good could there be in drinking below?”

“But it didn’t stink,” John said.

“Don’t need to, ain’t the stink what kills you. If that were the case we’d die at every hog pen.”

Ambrose had his head down in his hands. Riley turned to him.

“Sorry I’m blunt, boy,” he said, “but what is, is. It’s the flux he’s got and not saying it won’t change it. And being your brother, and if he knew what I knew, he’d tell you to put him in the hospital to die. I can’t figure a brother any other way.”

It got to me, him talking to Ambrose like that, making him fear for Silas.

“How could you know for sure!” I said, anger rising in me.

“I know, young Tom,” he said in a gentle way. “Where I come from, the winters is cold and the summers pleasant, and in the winter the most that die die of clogged chest and in the summer it’s the bloody flux. But when you got so many together as here, the flux knows no seasons. I seen it and I know it, as Ireland knows it. I wished I didn’t but wishing don’t make things so. Tomorrow he needs to go to the hospital.”

He took another slug of rum. I had like him at first but now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe he was just a likkered drunk who liked to hurt people’s feelings. We were quiet a long while, no one other than Riley Meade wanting to look at anyone else. The only sound was Ambrose’s sniffling, then that got quiet too. He lifted his head and wiped his nose and eyes on his sleeve.

“He’s right,” he said then, as strongly as he could muster. “Tomorrow we take Silas to the hospital.”

I suddenly felt empty. I looked at Silas and heard his harsh breathing.

I hadn’t come to be a soldier to have something like this happen. This was not what was supposed to be. We were supposed to become heroes and go back home proud!

Riley nodded and reached for the back of Ambrose’s hand.

“That’s good, boy, that’s good.”

Then he turned to me.

“Bear with me, young Tom, I’m harsh but not meaning to be. I come from times and places where not many chances are given, and those what can try to give them. Your friend Silas will be giving you a chance by going there. It must be a chance took.”

I knew he was right but it didn’t make me any less mad, only I wasn’t mad at him anymore.

“And,” he went on, “if you boys don’t mind, I’d like to stay this night.”

We were too sombered to say much. As usual, it was Jesse who did the talking.

“Your welcome here, Mr. Meade,” he said.

 

 

 

The next day we put Silas in a blanket then picked him up and took him to the hospital. It was not easy walking with so many feet being so close together and we had to take small steps. Riley helped us, taking a place at Silas’ head. Other soldiers watched as we passed but none stared for long, so common was it to see someone carried in a blanket.

Silas had not been altogether awake since going to sleep Saturday afternoon. His breathing came in spurts and he still mumbled to himself. It was frightening to hear him do it.

Ambrose had a hurt look on his face as we stumbled along but he did not talk. He had not talked since the night before.

It was a cold day, rightfully so, as it was December. We tried to keep the blanket over Silas’ face but it was not easy. It took a long time to get him to the long, white building we had been told never to go near. We went into the first door we saw. It was warmer inside, but still a lot colder than you would of thought it should have been for a place where sick people were, and there were a lot of them there. The outside walls from end to end had beds and all looked to be filled with this one was just one of several buildings. The men in those beds, those who felt like it, looked at us as if we were a strange sight. The rest, the ones who must have been bad sick, were on their backs and made no effort to pay any attention at all. There was a lot of coughing going on and it was strange how it worked as it came in bunches. One man would cough and in a second ten, fifteen more would follow, all rasping coughs from thick throats, and then the sound would die down. Then someone would cough and start it off again like a sickening echo. We did not go any further than just through the doorway, so surprised were we by it all.

Finally, a woman in a full black dress came up to us. She wore a dark robe and had what looked like a black wing on either side of her head. You couldn’t see her hair. At her waist was a cross with Jesus on it. Her sight stunned me as much as so many sick people had done and Riley saw my face and whispered to me.

“She’s a nun, of the Roman church.”

I had thought that, having heard of them, but she was the first I’d ever seen.

“Yes, men,” she said when she got close enough, “what do you need?”

She looked young for a nun. For some reason I had always thought they were all old. Ambrose was up at the front end with Riley.

“My brother,” he said, “he’s sick. Bad sick.”

“I see,”’ she said. She had a kind face. “Bring him next to the stove and put him down.”

The pot-bellied stove was in the middle of the room and the heat from it felt good as we got up close. We laid Silas long ways of the hallway and the nun knelt next to him. We had all gotten close to him because we were his friends but I doubt I would have gotten so near had he been a stranger. But she didn’t seem to be bothered that he stunk from messing himself or that he was full of something bad. She looked in his eyes and put her face to his mouth and opened his shirt a little to look at his chest. Just as she was doing that a man in an officer’s uniform came in a door and started to work quickly from bed to bed, staying just a bit with each man. He was in a frightful hurry and didn’t say much to anyone as he went. The nun saw him and called out.

“Doctor, could you come here please?”

He gave her a look that said he had other things to do, then sighed and came over. He did not acknowledge us.

“Yes,” he said, in the hurry as he was, “what is it?”

“They just brought him in,” she said, motioning to Silas.

“Give him a bed, I’ll get to him when I have time. I’ve got two more buildings to work through and they say I have a gun wound who’s just come in. Some fool shot himself.”

“I just thought,” she said in her soft way.

He couldn’t look past that.

“Oh, very well.”

He leaned over Silas and looked at him close. He asked a couple of quick questions that Ambrose answered then stood up, still never having looked at us.

“Take him to building two,” he said to the nun, “and give him a bed, like I said. Also give him a dose of oil of turpentine, if he’ll swallow it.”

He went by us to continue where he left off in his rounds.

“Is it the dysennerry?” Riley asked to his back.

The doctor stopped slowly as if he didn’t want to, then turned around to face us. I was afraid he’d be mad at being interrupted again and at first he looked it, but when he caught our faces all in a pitiful row, it looked like the sourness went out of him. He sighed again and nodded his head.

“Yes,” he said, his voice much easier. “Yes, it’s dysentery.”

“Will he die?” Ambrose asked, the words catching. “I’m only asking cause I’m his brother.”

The doctor got easier still.

“We’ll give him a warm bed and opium and blue mass to go with the turpentine. Let’s just wait and see. I’m sorry, but I have a lot to do here and I’m the only doctor.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ambrose said.

The doctor nodded and went back to where he had been.

“Follow me please,” the nun said.

Building two was packed full too but there was a bed almost to one end and we put Silas there. The nun told us we could go.

“I’m his brother,” Ambrose repeated. “Can I stay?”

She nodded.

“For a while, maybe,” she said.

The rest of us left to go back to our hut. I was glad to go. The hospital had muddied my mind. When we got back Riley said that, since it were a Sunday, there had to be a card game going someplace and if he looked hard he was apt to stumble over it. He said he would come back later and see how things was going.

“Aren’t you afraid those men from last night will catch you?” I asked him.

“No, least not near as afraid of that as afraid I’ll miss a good game. A man has to live, you know, and without my cards I’m afraid I’d go begging.”

“You want some of us to go with you, just in case?” Jess asked.

“No need for that, thank you, young Jesse. You wait on word of your friend.”

“You think they’ll get him better today?” Amos asked him.

“Just wait,” he said.

Just a couple of hours later, about midday, we were sitting around in the hut. We had finished a meal of boiled beef, having not had anything since sunup. Amos was smoking a pipe, something he often did. No one felt like talking much, being as muddied of the mind as me. I went outside, thinking I needed to, and also thinking I might need to scrounge up some firewood. With so many people in the camp the nearby woods had been cleaned out long ago and a person had to go a long ways to get an armload. I decided searching was better than mulling about Silas and that I’d best get started. It was almost dark when I got back with my load. As I was coming up to our doorway I saw Ambrose dragging down the pathway between the huts next to us. He was walking very slow as if his feet were giving him trouble. When he got to our hut he kept going on by.

“Ambrose,” I called, stopping him.

He looked up. He was crying, and I knew what that meant.

 

 

We got permission from Captain Simms the next day to miss the morning drill and go give Silas a proper burial gathering. Riley went with us. He had come back to our hut just before daylight and was surprised Silas had went on so fast.

“I figured him for a day or two,” he said in his forward way.

When we got to the graveyard by the hospitals some soldiers were in the middle of burying the dead from Sunday and the night before. They were scratching away in the dark dirt and there were four bodies rolled up in blankets in a row on the ground outside the back door of the middle building.

“Which one is Silas Young?” Jess asked one of the two who happened to be doing nothing but leaning on his spade.

He shrugged.

“Don’t know,” he said in a tired way, “we just bury them.”

“He was from building two. He had the bloody flux.”

“Bed near this end?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, he’s done put away. There.”

He pointed to a fresh dirt mound two over. We walked to it. The loose dirt from his grave spilled onto the ones next to it, they were so close. There was no wooden marker yet. Jess turned back to the man he’d talked to, his voice harsh.

“How would you have known whose name to put up where?”

The man shrugged again. He seemed embarrassed but only a little. He went back to working with his helper to keep from messing with us. That next hole looked a long time coming, the way they were going at it.

We gathered around the mound he was pretty sure was Silas’. Ambrose gauged it hard. There was no sun and a cold wind was playing with the ground. It was coming out of the north.

“He’s bunched in with so many,” Ambrose said, looking around. Then, “How do I tell Mama and Papa?”

“You put pencil to paper,” Riley said.

“But how do I tell them?”

I gauged the grave myself. It looked awful small, even for Silas. He’d be griping about it if he knew.

“I suppose we ought to pray,” Ambrose said after a while, “‘cept I don’t hardly know how. Been to burials, but never been in charge. Can’t remember what they said, the ones in charge.”

None of the rest of us were inclined to be in charge either. Ambrose looked at Riley.

“I know you never knew him, Mr. Meade, but you’re older. Been to more graves, know more of the right things to say. Would you speak?”

Riley had his kepi off and the cold wind was making his hair run wild. He nodded.

“Your right, Mr. Ambrose, I seen my share,” he said, his heavy accent not bothered by the wind, “and I would be honored to say what my been-there tells me to.”

Riley gazed down, gathered his breath and began talking to the dirt, his words fogging as they left his mouth.

“Receive Mr. Silas Young here, if you’ve the mind, dear Lord. He were a country boy and no bad has ever been in the heart of any country boy, that we know. I did not have the privilege to make his acquaintance but we are as we have friends and these boys here seem as fine a group as I have come to meet. They take in strangers, they look after one another and they talk well of their parents and home and that makes them and their lost one resting here as good as good is and surely as good as You require. You done the same Yourself, if memory serves.”

He cleared his throat, to keep a strong voice, before he went on.

“Young Silas come a long way, thinking to serve his country, but the flux cared little for that and he died before he did serve. But I know you won’t hold that against him. He died a soldier just the same as a bullet would have took him, never complaining to the end, from what I gather.”

I looked over at Jess but he paid me no mind.

“So we ask you this, Lord,” Riley went on. “Come spring they’ll be rains and sun and flowers and grass. You seeded those flowers in multitude, an easy task for You that leaves us with a beauty we certainly didn’t earn. Still, if you’ve a mind to, let the posies and others be here come the warming of the earth. Let them all rise up here then, and the next spring and the next after that. Let him smile amongst all the colors and even as these pitiful wood markers rot and perhaps this place is lost, let Mr. Silas lay peaceful in those springs, asleep and yet also awake. I am sure he would be happy with that, and so would we. Amen.”

The rest of us mumbled amen after him. Riley lifted his head and looked at Ambrose.

“Will that do your Silas?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Ambrose said, tears welling, “I believe so. If I can remember, I’ll tell Mama and Papa.”

We walked away together then, bunching our collars to the wind. In the distance that same wind carried us the sound of the drilling going on, officers hollering and the clumping of hundreds of feet. You could not see it as they were on the other side of the camp in the open fields there but the clear cold wind made it sound as if they were next to us. We figured to go back to the hut, since the Captain had given us the whole day to talk over Silas, and it hadn’t taken hardly an hour. Silas, of all people, would not have wanted us to volunteer to march.

“You know, boys,” Riley said as we moved along, “I only got here but days ago. The officers are usually on the lenient side about these things and I don’t think I’d have any trouble coming on over to your company, as it were, or stay in your warm shanty, since a place has opened there. Would you be of a mind to let this old man rest among you?”

We all nodded slowly but looked to Ambrose.

“Sure,” he said in his slow way. “I don’t see why not.”

“Thank you, boys,” Riley said. “I’ll try not to hinder you.”

That night, at dusk, the drummer played taps. I had listened to it every night since we got to Camp Douglas of northern Illinois and had thought it a sad sound, but not overly so. But I now knew that that night was the first night it would beat over Silas in that chilled, full graveyard, and that suddenly made it a very sad drum. It caused me to wonder if it would be sounded over any of the rest of us. That was the first time such a thought had come to me because I did not believe such a thing as one of us dying would ever happen. We had come together, all of us alike. We were not to die, not like some of the others at the camp. They, after all, had run the chance all along, since we didn’t know them.

But Silas had died and changed all that.

Then I thought that thinking so much about those of us still in the hut was a dishonorable thing to be doing on the day of Silas’ burial, so I made my mind quit and only listened to the drum to be listening.

 

 

The next day Riley went to the field for the first time to drill with our company. The evening before he had gone to see the Captain and got permission to join us. Like he had said, it was easy done. They wanted the right number of people for a unit and that was that.

Tuesday was still cold, like the days ahead of it, and for once it felt good to march around and drill. Staying warm was probably the only thing that made it worthwhile. I noticed that the best of our company were Jess and Riley, which made sense enough. Jess, because he was always the best of any group doing anything, and Riley because he had been through it before. What made Riley good was he didn’t have to think about what he was doing and what made Jess stand out was that he was so smooth and sharp about his turning.

We hadn’t talked with Riley any about his earlier join-up and I was looking forward to someday doing it. I wanted to find out if he’d been in any battles. I decided, though, that I needed to get to know him better before I got too nosy.

I could see Moses on a horse across the field from us, watching all the companies drill. He was usually someplace gawking and none of the soldiers in the regiment liked the idea of him coming their way as it meant he was about to get stiff and uppity and speak out about how those he was watching had to be better, or that they weren’t trying. Everyone in the regiment was getting to know him from his actions on the drilling field and his actions when someone got out of line, like not making their barracks by taps or maybe leaving without permission.

Moses was quick to hurt and humiliate the offender in any one of the many ways the army had. He didn’t give second chances. I heard men talking around their fires all the time about the boy major, as he was becoming known. What they were saying wasn’t nice to hear and I never owed up to the fact that I knew him. I dreaded the chance of him someday coming up to us and making it known we were acquainted. I didn’t like getting eyed, and eyed I would have got. It would have been the way of a soldier in camp to eye a person for knowing an officer, especially if the officer was a bother.

But so far Moses had not let on that he knew any of us or wanted anything to do with us, which was good and bad too. It meant I didn’t have to worry about being eyed but it also meant he was still hateful about what had happened.

It was plain as day he was never going to be ready to put it behind him. Sometimes, when we were marching and I needed a thought to keep my mind off it, I would look over at him and try to see him not as a major. It wasn’t hard to do because it hadn’t been so many years before that he wasn’t. My thoughts would get him off his horse and onto the ground with me and Jess and no one else, where he would laugh and carry on about some of the things we did. It was sad to think those times of doing things together were gone for good but I knew for sure they were, as well as I knew we weren’t likely to ever get together and talk about them. Jess and Moses’ pride stood between them, as did Sarah, and I was off to the side of Jess, too close to him to do different than he did. Thoughts of us every getting together again would just have to stay something I used to pass the time.

On that day, Riley’s first with us, we marched and marched and Moses eventually made his way to our part of the field just before it would have been time for everyone to get a short rest and a bit of salt pork and hardtack and water. He stopped and watched as Captain Simms called out a marching order and Sergeants Brockwell and Morgan picked it up and shouted it out along the line.

“Shift right, fighting formation!” came the call that was echoed to everyone, which meant we were to get from our four wide marching formation to a shoulder to shoulder fighting line on the right.

We all made an extra hard effort at doing it because we knew Major Hoppe was giving us the evil eye and it took just a minute or two and all of our company was in the line with our muskets at ready. It had been a busy morning and I got that uncomfortable feeling you get on a winter’s day when you had a lot of clothes on to keep warm and were sweating into them. It made for a bound up feeling where the clothes were and a chilled one on the neck and face where they weren’t.

After we had finished falling into line the Captain was ready, I knew, to tell us to fall out and eat a bite. But before he could Moses called to him.

“Yes, Major?” Captain Simms answered.

We stayed in place expecting the worse.

“Captain,” Moses said, “what is wrong with these men?”

I can’t say for positive sure but I felt his eye caught Jess and me in the line.

“What do you mean, Major?”

“Have they not been drilling? Have they not been looking at their manual?”

“Yes, Major, they have been, every day,” Captain Simms said, knowing full well that Moses knew we had as he had been there. There was a look of worry and a trifle bit of anger on the Captain’s face.

“Well, it does not look like it to me, sir!” Moses said, loud enough for all of us to hear, plus the companies on either side. “If they are so slow and careless with their movements on a day of battle it could mean the loss of our line. I will not have it! I will not tolerate shirking, even during drills.”

The Captain, who had made his way up to Moses’ horse, was definitely getting red in the face now. Everyone knew that Captain Simms had been in battles, though he never talked about it, and everyone knew as well that Moses had not. To me it seemed wrong for him to talk to the Captain that way but I knew that he had the right. Captain Simms never said a word when he got up to the horse, only stood there and waited.

“This is what will happen,” Moses went on. “They will not stop to eat. They will set up the right and left fighting line from marching formation intil they do it right. If they don’t do it right, they’ll miss evening meal too. Proceed, Captain!”

Moses cocked his chest out a little more for all to see and ran his eyes up and down the line as if making a dare. I could see Captain Simms was biting at the braces but he held his tongue and turned back to us.

“Fall into marching formation!” he called.

And miss meal and water break we did. While the other companies rested, we marched. That put us in ready position to hear the catcalls and smart remarks from them, a natural enough thing that everyone did and the officers did not stop.

“Get it right, boys!” one would say.

“Damn good salt pork, if’n I do say myself!” another called out.

“How did you all end up being left footed?” a runty private in the third company asked us.

We only marched and mumbled but not loud enough for the officers to figure out who did the mumbling. By the end of the day, without our break, we were more worn to the bone than usual. As we made our way back to our canvas-topped wooden hut, no one said much but Riley.

“That little West Point dabble mouthed Major is like a puff tick! He ne’er happy till he’s got all your blood. I seen overly proud officers before but he beats them all, wet behind the ears and slobbery of mouth. Why did he lay his beady eyes on us? We were as good as the rest and better than some.”

“I do believe I’d like to put a boot into the boy-major’s butt,” Amos said roughly, which was something for Amos as he was usually even headed.

“I wonder where he came from, to be that way?” Riley asked.

“We know him,” poor Ambrose said while thumbing his hand at Jess and I.

“Do you now?” Riley questioned, genuinely interested.

“He’s from our home town of Jefferson. Me and Jess and him and Silas went to school together.”

“With that cocky little rooster? You don’t say?”

“Didn’t we Jess?” Ambrose said to Jesse, looking for help from a smarter corner.

“Yes,” Jess said, his face as sweated and dirty as the rest of ours, “that’s right, Ambrose.”

It didn’t look like Jess was going to be drawn too far in.

We had our muskets slung in all different directions, now that we didn’t have to hold them any certain way, and as we continued trudging along Riley brought his from hanging down at arms-length to dropping it across his right shoulder. He could see Jess was a dry well so he turned to me.

“Grew up with him, did you Mr. Thomas?”

“Yes we did. Fact is, if it weren’t for my father he wouldn’t be an officer now. Father knew Senator Douglas and helped Moses get into West Point.”

“The hell you say!” Riley said. “That dead politician they named this camp for?”

I knew Jess would have rathered I didn’t get into things but Moses and how he had acted had gotten my goat, so I just didn’t look Jess’s way and kept right on.

“Yes, that’s right. He died last year, I believe. It was in my father’s paper.”

“And he got Hoppe into West Point?” John asked, as surprised as Riley.

“He did, with my father’s help.”

“So you’re friends with the Major?”

There it was. I cussed to myself. I had let my mouth overload my brain and I caught Jesse’s hard glance out of the corner of my eye.

"Well, not really so much," I said. "We kind of knew his family a little.""But you --" Ambrose started out.

“That’s right,” Jess said, putting him to quiet, “we only just knew them a little. They lived a ways from us.”

Ambrose was puzzled but he had enough smarts to grab the hint and shut up.

Riley looked back and forth at the three of us. His eyes were working as he did, and I knew his mind behind them as well. He looked at Jess the longest.

“Thing is,” he finally said, “were he always such a rooster? Or were it the schooling that done him in?”

“Don’t know,” Jess replied, keeping his face straight ahead. “We hardly knew him.”

 

 

The week before Christmas we got a letter from Mama. It had been three weeks getting to us. It was only three pages long but she said a lot. She always did.

First off, she wondered if we were being fed well and did the army have any greens of any sort to give us, as sickness followed those who missed their greens. We had not written her yet about Silas’ passing as we figured she worried enough as it was.

She also wanted to know how we took our weekly baths. I knew she could never be allowed to find out that only twice since we arrived had we heated water in our pot and put soap to skin. It wasn’t so much the cold, it was the lack of soap. She couldn’t be in on that or, I was sure, we’d have a wagon load before long, one way or another, and that would have been a hard thing to take if others found out.

She had more worries to question us about and that worrying took up all of the first page and a little more.

Worrying over, she went on to say that Reverend Hoppe had come to the house the week after we left and she was very happy about that. He had visited with them and had asked them to return coming to church. She didn’t say what he had said, exactly, other than the church part, but I figured they had maybe smoothed things over somewhat. She was greatly proud he had come and truly enjoyed the visit as visitors after the falling out had been few. But Father had acted suspicious and a little surly, she noted. He would not talk about much and had said after the Reverend was gone that he was still not going to church, his thinking being that people were looking down on him for what he had done, she thought. But she was going if she had to by herself and she told him that. And up till then, that is what she had done. Having to drive a carriage by herself was not going to keep her from her God.

Then she mentioned that the house was so terribly lonely, what with just her and my father there and him not saying much anymore. She missed us, her two bright boys, terribly, she said, but her mind had gotten hold of the idea that we were to be gone for a while. Being together, she knew, we would bring ourselves back. But almost every day, she wrote, she found herself wondering when Grandpa would through the summer kitchen door. She found herself often thinking he was off on one of his long wanderings and that he would be home soon, she was so used to him being there. He always had been since she was a little girl. She felt foolish when daily it came to her that he would not be coming.

She was just an old, stupid woman, she figured, and that was why her mind did her so. It would all be well when we came home.

It was not as it used to be but her and father had food and the house and they would be fine. We were the ones, she was thinking, who did not have enough of either and so we were not to think of them but only take care, ever so care, of ourselves. She would think of us at Christmas, she said, and would buy us both presents and give them to us the day we walked in even if it was in the summer heat. She ended the letter with --

I love you so much,

Your Mother

At the bottom of the last page, under her name as if she had almost forgotten, she mentioned that she had seen Sarah at church a few times and each time she had asked how we were. Jess read the letter first and then handed it to me. He didn’t say a word.

 

Winter, 1864

 

One Sunday just after the new year, right after sunup, Riley got out of his blanket and stepped outside to throw a log on the coals under our pot. I woke up with him and followed him out. It was a sunny day and not terribly for January. Riley rubbed his hands together and looked around.

“I do believe our weather has broke, at least for today. Should put some of the boys out with their minds on games of chance. I do believe I’ll wander and find a game.”

“You like your card playing, don’t you?’

“That I do. Started as a little bugger, a lot littler than you, I suppose.”

“My Mama says it’s a sin,” I said, regretting it as soon as it left my mouth.

Riley did not look bothered and broke a smile.

“Well, your mother could be right. I’ll not put it upon myself to question a Christian woman. But the fact is, back in Ireland, there was sometimes no better way to get coin. Life itself is a gamble after all, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Yes, I guess,” I said, glad I had gotten past offending him.

“So I suppose I’ll not look this day off with a stupid eye and waste it. A game I’ll find.”

“Can I go with you?”

“Sure, Mr. Thomas, come if you want.”

He looked around.

“I believe I’ll go east today. Those English dogs with the bitter rum were on the west of this camp.”

It may have been bitter, I thought to myself, but he sure had drained it.

So we went east a pretty good ways, almost to the edge of the camp on that side. The soldiers there were in the white buildings that had been built first but which had filled up fast, leaving us new arrivals to be put in less solid places. Outside the front door of one of these barracks three men were seated around a turned over wooden barrel, cards in hand. A group of five other men lounged around them. We strolled up and Riley watched a while.

“None of you boys playing?” he asked the loungers.

“No,” said one, pulling his pipe from his mouth, “they done cleaned me out. There’s no mercy at that table.”

“Quit your griping,” one of the players said with a sour face. “You had your chance.”

“Might I have a chance?” Riley asked.

They didn’t even bother looking up.

“I suppose,” the talker said, just as sour as earlier.

Thanking him, Riley borrowed a ragged, stiff-backed chair and sat down. I got behind him and watched closely as I had never seen cards played for money before.

Riley had often said he never lost and at least that time he looked to be right. I had no idea what the cards meant but it wasn’t long before he started gathering in the coins. One of the others won now and again but for some reason Riley had little money put out those times. When he did win he went on and on about how he sure was being lucky that day, that he normally lost without fail. The other players started looking a little rough after a while, in spite of Riley’s claims of luck. In fact, I think those claims tended to rub them worse. Those standing about with me, especially the one who had mentioned it being a rough game, did not help matters any. They seemed to be happy with their friends losing.

By noon Riley had some bills to go along with the coins. I was open mouthed about so much money being lost. Didn’t those men have any reason to better keep their money? Surely some were married? But all seemed as determined as Riley to keep playing the game.

Then one time, as Riley mixed the cards and the others were talking between themselves, I saw him use the little finger of his left hand to slide a five cent piece from the man next to him into the cards. When he straightened the cards on the table by their edges, the coin appeared in his pile. It had happened so fast I could not believe it and if I not been studying so close I would have missed it altogether. I shot a look at everyone else, knowing what trouble there would be if they had seen. One of the men at the table glanced up at me.

“What’s wrong with you?” he grumbled.

“Nothing,” I said quickly.

“Stand back a mite, Tom” Riley said to me over his shoulder, “you’re in my sun.”

“Hell yes,” the man said with a bite in his voice, “stay out of his sun for damn sure.”

Riley won that hand too.

“How come you never lose when you deal?” the same man asked.

“Tell you the truth, I don’t know. I did pray this beautiful morning, as it were a Sunday, and I suppose the good Lord is giving me a kind eye for doing so.”

The man curled his forehead.

“Are you being mouthy?”

“Not meaning to!” Riley said, a little too surprised.

“How much money of ours have you got, Irishman?”

I was beginning to feel a little uneasy. Maybe they had seen him after all. They were all a lot older than me and I did not like them bulling up.

“I don’t rightly know,” Riley said, “I haven’t counted it.”

“Well, I think you’re a gambler by trade and this was nothing but a friendly game. We weren’t asking for any damn gambler!”

“Me? A gambler?” Riley said with a laugh, taking off his kepi and slapping it to his knee. “Not I! In fact, just this morning I was telling Tom here how my Mama, God rest her large soul, always considered it a sport tied to sin. I seldom do it, being one fearful of hell’s fire.”

“I thought you said it was the Lord who give you the luck.”

“He were,” Riley said, the smile leaving and the hat going back on his head, “and he also gave me the luck to see three smelly, black-minded dog turds trying to make others believe they had sense to play a good game.”

The man looked like he’d been slapped. I swallowed hard and glanced behind me for an open path.

“What did you say?” the man asked.

“What was that?” one of those next to him shot out.

“I said my part of this game is over. I’ll not play with scalawags and pointy headed crybabies, pitiful though they be!”

The man across the table jumped forward and as fast as a blink took a long swing at Riley but just as the fist got near his face Riley jerked back and it went flying by into the face of the man on Riley’s left. Pipes began falling from mouths and people began getting to their feet. My stomach sunk and I wished for sure I had not followed Riley out to the fire that morning.

For a big man, Riley was quick. He raked his pile of coins and cash, plus a little more, into a fold he made in his coat then flung the barrel up and into the air. Coins and cards went flying, as did cuss words like I had never heard before. Most folks were having trouble deciding between the money and us though a couple of the loungers did start our way.

“Go boy!” Riley shouted at me, turning and heading away himself.

His feet were as fast as his arms. I could see the two loungers who were coming had nothing in the way like the men on the other side of the table and that they were about at us. With my heart in my throat, the second before they were where they could grab me, I pulled over the stiff backed chair Riley had been in. The first one stumbled on it and the second one stumbled on him and down they both went, all legs, chair and arms. I spun and followed Riley down the pathway, seeing he already had a stone’s throw lead.

The voices came from behind us, sounding like they had on that first night when he had rushed into our hut. I wondered as I ran if he ever finished a game with a plain old good-bye. Then, in spite of the noise of our pursuers, I could plainly hear Riley Meade laughing and cackling at the top of his voice and finally, in spite of being scared to death, I began laughing too, why I couldn’t say. Riley was in front of me running with long strides and his shoulders back, his hat in his right hand and his left holding the coat closed on the money and that in itself was a sight to see. Once he made a jump over a mud hole and when he landed on the other side a burst of gas left him, loud and clear as day, which made us laugh all the more. It was strange, seeing as how I was running the risk of getting a good beating, to feel so good about things, but I did. I had never been quite that way before. It was a passing into manhood, I guess, that laughing in the face of a beating.

We ran in and out of pathways, between buildings and huts, past and through large groups of men, and as we did the men chasing us fell farther and farther behind, the milling groups wondering at our passing and slowing them down. Finally and at last, you could hardly hear them anymore. I was finding it hard to keep my breath, what with wanting to laugh as I ran. We ran between some buildings to be behind them, where no one was about, and slid around a tree there and put our backs to it.

The men chasing us finally got to the area of the front of the buildings and then ran on past, cursing and shouting at no one in particular. After they were gone it took us a couple minutes to catch our breath.

“Why did you say that to them?” I asked between gulps.

He was bent over and didn’t bother straightening to answer.

“It was time for that game to end. There was no way there weren’t going to be a ruckus sooner or later, no way an Irishman was going to walk away a winner in a game of chance with those boys. We needed surprise on our side, so surprise them I did.”

“You mean you knew all along there’d be trouble?”

“Yes, I surely did. Most places in this fine land an Irishman is considered a lout and a drunk. I’m not denying both aren’t the case many a time, and in my situation for sure, but lots of my countrymen aren’t such a way and still we all carry the curse. Did you suppose the poor black man was the only one thought lowly of, Thomas?’

“I got nothing against Irish people.”

“And how many do you know, now?”

I shrugged sheepishly.

“You’re the first.”

“As I figured, which was one reason I wanted to stay with you boys. Not many of my fellow countrymen be in this camp and I needed to be with people who either didn’t know or didn’t care I was a gambling Irishman. The only one among you who knew of us was your brother and that first night he showed me he had a good heart. Out east, where I had my first enlistment, we were a large group and many died a soldier, not that it made much difference to the way most other folks thought. But here we’re few and far between.”

He started taking the money out of the fold in his coat and putting it in a pocket, which made for quite a droop.

“Riley,” I said, my breathing better, “I saw you steal their money.”

He straightened and cocked an eye at me.

“Did you now? How many times?”

“Just once, when you slid the nickel into the cards.”

“Just the once then?” he said, relief in his voice. “Then I’m not slipping so bad. That’s good to know.”

“You mean there was other times?”

“The whole game through.”

“But why? You were winning.”

“I win fair and unfair. I knew what the end of this game would be and I was just trying to teach them a lesson about being crude to foreigners.”

“So you don’t always cheat?”

“No, I always pilfer a coin or two. It’s as I told you, Tom, I always partake of winnings any way or another and most times both ways. Life’s too short to take half steps. By the by, let me congratulate you on your movements in a ruckus. Tipping that chair on such short notice was a sight to see and would have been had if it were done by a man well up on such ruckus ways.”

“It was that or get whupped. It didn’t look like you were intending on staying.”

Riley smiled.

“Now you’re learning, Mr. Thomas.”

He gave a quick look around the tree. It sounded like our card playing friends were long gone.

“Let’s say we make our way back to our humble abode,” he said. “This day has been full enough for a man my age.”

When we got there everyone else was out front around the pot and fire.

“Where you been?” Jess asked, a Mama look about him.

I told him the story, all except about Riley’s cheating. He was not happy about what he was hearing.

“What’s wrong with you, Tom! You could of been hurt!”

“The boy’s a thinker,” Riley said, “so there weren’t much of a chance of that.”

It was a powerful compliment, coming from him, and I puffed a little. Eighteen and had almost been in my first real man-fight. I wished I was back home to tell some of those my own age.

“Just the same,” Jess said, “it could of been worse. But you say he tumbled a chair and gave you a head start?”

Jess seemed a mite puffed himself and that made me feel good too.

“That he did,” Riley said. “I’ll take him in a ruckus any day.”

Amos said, “Shoot, kinda wish I could of been there. Would have been the most excitement I’d have had in this place since we got here.”

“Don’t be so down, Mr. Amos,” Riley said, “you and all of us will get excitement enough when we march against the Rebels in the spring. You’ll be wishing for a boring Sunday by the blaze when the balls begin to whistle.”

Riley sat down on a box we had acquired, stretched out his legs to get more comfortable, tipped to the side and let roar a surprising shot of gas. He looked to be fighting a large load of it that day. He licked his lips.

“Too bad those dogs didn’t have a bottle for the borrowing. I could use a skussel and that’s a fact.”

John was across the fire working on one of his many letters home, still making due with that stub of a pencil. He truly had a light touch.

“What have you done to make a living, other than gamble?” he asked Riley.

Riley took off his kepi and scratched at the full hair on the top of his head.

“In Ireland I was a farmer’s son, not unlike the most of you. Dirt poor potato farmers who had to share the most of our hard work with the landowner. Sons of the English dogs, the most of them landlords.”

Ambrose was the only one of the group who knew my father made his living as a landowner and I was glad of that as he was far too slow to catch the idea and bring it into our conversation. Not that my father treated his sharecroppers in a bad way, like Riley was saying they did in Ireland. I just felt it didn’t need to come up.

“Potatoes?” John went on, his farmer’s curiosity grabbing him. “Was that all you grew?”

“Pretty much so. It were all anyone planted. What we didn’t eat or give to the owner, the culls that is, we gave to the hogs for their pleasure so as when they got fat we could have them for ours.”

“And when did you come over?”

“In forty-six, it was. A long time ago, or so it seems now. There was the famine, you see. You boys hear of it? The potato famine, it was called over there.”

None of us had.

“The hell you say? Then again, why would you? What it was, I guess, the ground just give up on us, was no way it was going to accept another spud. Couldn’t even beg a potato to grow. They just laid in the ground and rotted year after year and when that was all you had, it were a sad state of affairs indeed. People boned up and died. Lost a little brother and sister the second year along. They were the littlest and the littlest went onward first.”

He said it in his heavy accent as if he was just telling a story. It didn’t seem to sadden him a lot, but then again, I thought, it had been a lot of years before. I had just been a baby then myself, making that was forever to me.

“Is that why you came over?” I asked.

“That it were. Folks were getting off that island right and left, especially the young ones, any way they could. Most came to America as this place was a glint in everybody’s eye. I got hired as a deck boy on a ship and earned my passage helping the cook and dumping shit and swabbing what needed swabbing and taking a beating when someone got into a foul mood enough to feel they had to give one. Those ships was a rough row to hoe. I seen men flogged to the bone. I got by without that but I walked a straight and narrow line, let me assure you. I was scared to where all I could do was walk and work. But it were worth it as it got me here.”

I was put on my heels. It was hard to imagine such a thing when your own home was warm and full of food.

“My grandparents came over from Germany,” Amos said. “I could hardly understand them but I remember them talking about it. Did your people see you off proper when you left?”

“That they did,” Riley said, putting his cap back on and leaning back and grinning at the memory. “I remember it well. They gave me a wake, they did, the whole village.”

“A wake?” John said. “I thought wakes was for dead people?”

“So did I,” I agreed.

“Not in Ireland. A wakes a party and the Irish a have a love to be sure of a party, no matter how cheap the drink. You get a wake at birth, at marriage, at the birth of your child, at leaving, at getting over a sick spell or, if you don’t, your dying. Wakes is a requirement as much as breathing. There’s only so many reasons you’re put on this world and one be not to waste a chance at a wake. My leaving wake was a powerful event, as far as I can recollect. All my friends and family came as I was one of the first to make the crossing from my village. Even the ones I took at cards came, such was their friendship and forgiveness, and that was a large number in itself since we all fingered decks. It were a wake to remember, dancing and joking and arms around whomsoever you wanted, and the kisses for free! Ah, yes, I left with many a song. Plodded on board that sorry ship the next day as sick as my mother’s soiled goat and got sicker as the waves rolled by. Got my first boat beating for spending too much time losing my insides over the rail. But it was surely worth it. A man gets only one going-away wake, same as the birthing and the dying.”

“Where did the boat land?” I asked.

“New York. More Irish there than the shacks can hold. Too many, for my liking, so I moved on. I left to be away from the sickly and dying as the Irish in New York was both. Traveled away from there and been traveling since. Seen the biggest part of this good land. Why else come? Done any job I could to stay in food and pants. Tanned hides, dug ditches, drove railroad spikes, any and all things. And gambled when I could do so without getting brained. A good life it’s been. Then this war came and I couldn’t help but join, figuring I owed that much. Stayed with it ninety days then left, then got a case of the guilts as I got here in Illinois, so joined again. And here I am.”

“And your family in Ireland?” Jesse questioned. “Hear from them?”

“Well, I was it as far as children was concerned with my Mam and Pap, what with the babies dying, and I haven’t heard word nor letter from them since I come. Guess I’ve moved too much for any letter they might have sent to catch me.”

“Did you write?” John asked.

“No, but try not to think lowly of me, writer as you are, Mr. John. It was a place I wanted to leave and they were of it. And I don’t think they would have cared for my writing. It would have made them feel the worse for staying behind.”

“But you don’t even know if they’re alive,” Ambrose said, the first words he had spoken, and I’m sure they came because Silas was on his mind.

“Oh, they’re dead, of that I’m sure. It’s a beautiful country, let me assure you, green and fresh as the day God planted it, but old age weren’t meant to be a part of it. You died young if you stayed.”

Again, no great sorrow in his voice, and I guess that came from being Irish too. He got up then and headed for the hut.

“Suppose I ought to hole up the winnings,” he said, not bothering the hide the fact from us of what he was going to do. “Pockets gets holes.”

 

 

 

We got through January and things began looking better, at least as the weather went. It was still cold but there was no snow and the wind that blew didn’t quite have the feel that it could saw right through you. At least it was that way by the end of the month.

We continued our marching and drilling till it got to the point that you could do it in your sleep and, I swear, sometimes it seemed I did. I guess that’s what the officer’s wanted. In battle, we were told, there would be no time for thinking.

We spent most of our free time wondering what would happen in the spring when the war would start again. Papers came into camp now and again and we would come by one or listen in at other fires while someone talked about what they had read or heard. It was looking for sure that Grant would command the army and everyone knew what that meant. There would a fight.

The man believed in fights. No way was he likely to cut and run like so many of the other Union generals had. The way we had it figured we would get to see him. He had come from the west, it was a cause for strutting that he was from Illinois, and had won Vicksburg and the mountain fight in Tennessee and we just knew he would come back west and take us and go knock the Rebels in the head. Everyone speculated and speculated on that idea to where it got that we were all prepared for it. We would fight and it would be with Unconditional Surrender Grant, as the papers called him.

When we weren’t speculating, or drilling, we were talking among ourselves, making jokes, and trying to keep Riley out of gambling fights. That in itself was full time work. The man gambled as if there was nothing else more important in the world and fact was to him there wasn’t.

All this being together and doing together made me feel good about things. I enjoyed it. I was with my brother, who I had run with my whole life, and soon I got the feeling I had known the others as long as him. We became close in that silly hut with the canvas roof, like a family, and there wasn’t one there I wouldn’t fight for.

The second last week of the month we had an election, another first for me. Each company, which was a hundred men or so, was divided into squads of twenty-five or thirty. Each squad had to vote on one of the enlisted men to be moved up from private to corporal in order to give the sergeant a hand with ordering the men around. It was a high honor to be picked, more so than being an officer, for none of the men had been asked about whether or not they wanted the officers.

We were told on Saturday to get together and come up with a corporal by Monday morning. Everyone was excited as it broke the monotony and gave us a lot to surmise about around the fires on Sunday. It was a task no soldier took lightly.

Thing of it was, our squad came up with our choice for corporal real quick. We had it said and done by midday and didn’t even need a paper vote to do it like a lot of the other ones did. People just got to talking and mumbling and slowly but surely started gathering around the one most all of them had in mind from the beginning. Jesse. Everyone knew he had got onto to the maneuvering the quickest and, like when we were children, everyone had long since started coming to him when a question about anything arose, knowing he usually had a good answer. Plus he had the size and carried himself straight enough to look like he ought to be someone in charge. He was the only one surprised by the talk and tried right off to back away from it.

“Now, wait a minute,” he said as they circled him, “I don’t know about this. There’s others here older and better than me.”

You could see he was proud about the offer but it wouldn’t have been like Jesse to hop on any wagon first off.

“What about Riley?” he asked. “He’s served before and been in a fight. I think he’s be better for it that me.”

Riley, who was on Jess’s right shoulder, put his arm around him.

“Listen, Mr. Jess, the officers would draw up and into a laid-down conniption fit and die slow if this group of Illinois farm boys put an addle-brained scoundrel up for enlisted officer, that they would. And the fact is you are the best man here, me included, and I’m not shamed to say it. I been in battle but what few fighting brains I got I left there, along with droppings in my pants. No, boy, you got more gumption in your pee wag than I got in all my lazy, old carcass, red-faced as I am to have to say it.”

He really didn’t look that red-faced about it to me.

“I don’t know, Riley,” Jess went on.

“We do, Jess,” John said, “and I don’t figure we need your permission to do it.”

“I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you all.”

Riley turned to me.

“And who, Thomas, has this lad ever disappointed, can you tell me that, son?”

And Riley was right. Jess had always been as least a trifle higher at anything than anyone else. Shooting, running, thinking, all of it. I stood there powerful proud that he was my brother and that they were asking me my opinion.

“Can’t think of anybody,” I said.

“There, from the mouth of babes,” Riley said, though I wasn’t entirely happy about how he put it.

“What else was he to say?” Jess said, laughing. “With me standing here and knowing I’d wallop him for an insult.”

“Come on, Jess,” I said, “just do it. Everyone chose you fair and square.”

The thirty men around cheered and called out to him and he really didn’t have any choice, though I think he was ready to go along with it from the beginning.

The next day, first thing in the morning, we lined up in ranks on the marching field. It wasn’t long before Moses came out on his horse to see us. He still rode uppity and talked the same. He began working his way down the line, stopping and talking with the various captains of the companies. He started at the far end of the line and at first we couldn’t hear much of what was being said. Soon though, he was close enough that I could understand he was finding out who had gotten elected. After each man was named he said ‘Very well’ and moved on. He got to our Captain Simms, who walked up to meet him.

“Captain,” Moses said, one hand on his hip and the other one holding the reins, “who has been chosen squad leaders for Fifth Company?”

“Step forward as your names are called,” Captain Simms said over his shoulder and then began calling out the men’s names. “Private Stephen Miller, Private Jesse Wills, Private Aaron Holt, sir.”

Moses’ eyes shot over to Jess stepping up and his face grew hard and red. You would have sworn he’d been deeply insulted. It seemed forever before he spoke again.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” he said with a barking voice, “but I cannot accept that election.”

Captains Simms’ shoulders shot back and I knew he was truly shocked. None of the other new corporals of any of the other companies had been spoken against.

“Major?” he questioned.

Moses pointed at Jesse.

“I will not accept that man’s election. They will have to do it again.”

Captain Simms was stymied. I wasn’t, because I knew the why, but I was getting very angry. I could not believe Moses was doing what he was doing in front of the whole regiment. The squads on either side were leaning forward to get a hold of what was going on, as was Sergeant Brockwell, who was standing a few men down from Jess. Jesse remained his step ahead of the line, holding himself erect and his eyes ahead.

“Sir,” the Captain said through clenched teeth, “the men have had their say and I cannot but agree with their choice.”

“Well I do not,” Major Hoppe said, on the edge of blowing up, “and I’m sure Colonel Hargraves will agree with me. You will find someone else, is that understood? Let me know at my tent tonight.”

I think Captain Simms was as mad as Moses was mad, but Moses was the major.

“Yes, Major,” he said, probably wanting nothing more than for Moses to move on.

Which he then did. Jess stepped back on his own into line. I could see his face was set in a stiff mask like it had been when I stopped him from beating the Brandon’s on our campout so many years earlier. After Moses had spoken to the last company commander and rode off, Captain Simms walked up to Jess and whispered to him.

“Come to me this evening, after dismissal.”

“Yes, Captain,” Moses said.

The Captain moved away.

“Oh Lordy,” I heard Riley mumble to himself, “Mr. Meade has done tied myself to a bunch Major Rooster don’t like. Lordy, Lordy.”

Late that afternoon we finished drills and as everyone else was leaving the field Jess followed after Captain Simms, who was heading for his tent. I went along behind. Just as the Captain got to the front flap he turned and waited. He held back the flap and motioned to Jesse.

I stopped two steps behind. The Captain looked at me and wondered, knowing Jess and I were brothers.

“I don’t care if he’s there,” Jess said.

The Captain nodded.

“Very well,” he said.

The Captain had a folding bed and a small writing desk and a trunk in his tent. It looked comfortable enough. After we had gotten in and closed the flap he faced us with his hands folded behind his back. He never took off his wide-brimmed hat.

“Tell me what’s going on here, Private Wills,” he said to Jess, “because I can’t understand it. I’ve watched you from day one and can see you’re going to be a good soldier. You took to your manual and the men respect you. I have to say I agree with your company in choosing you and I don’t understand the Major’s reluctance. Reluctance, hell, it was downright upsetting to him! You’re from the same town, correct?”

“Yes, Captain.”

His expression hardened even more.

“I don’t want to hear this is a personal feud.”

Jesse didn’t look to want to answer, so the Captain looked at me. I nodded.

“Then I’ll have no part of it,” he said angrily.

That meant something as the Captain had never seemed a man who would anger easily.

“We cannot have civilian problems riding in on the soldering we have to do,” he went on. “Ever! I won’t ask what it is about, because I don’t care. This is not the time and place for it and the Major knows that as well as any officer should.”

Then he stepped forward and, even after saying he wouldn’t ask, he did.

“You two are about the same age. Is this about a woman?”

Jess looked again like he was stuck for words, this time really stuck, but he did answer after a bit.

“No, not altogether, Captain.”

“Damn,” the Captain said, “Damn, damn! We do not need this. Private, I intend to go to the Colonel. The Major is a good soldier, or at least he was highly thought of at West Point from what I gather. The only thing that is keeping him from being a damn good soldier is battle experience and that will come soon enough. But he knows this cannot be done and I will take this fight to the Colonel and, if I have to, to the General, and let things fall where they may.”

“No, Captain,” Jesse said, “please don’t do that, I would just as soon you let it drop. Let the men pick someone else. There are others who can do better anyway and no good would come of an uproar over this, not for anybody.”

“I appreciate what you saying, Private, but there’s more to it than that. It goes beyond you and the Major and whatever silly feud you two have running. This is an army matter. We have politicians who are generals only because of their connections and I’ve seen men die because of it killed because some addled senator thinks he’s the next Napoleon. But there’s no controlling that, at least not by people of my rank. Washington will sacrifice men to get what they want out of the politicians. But when grudges or favoritism come to the front with the volunteer army, then that is even more wrong because it is us in the field who are in the thick of things, and in the thick of things together. When we march against the rebels, feuds will mean little. No, Private, this cannot stand.”

“I understand what you’re saying, Captain,” Jess said, “but I really would prefer to have my name withdrawn from consideration. That is my right, isn’t it?”

Captain Simms studied him, then studied me.

“And you, Private Wills,” he said to me, “do you think that it would be best for your brother and the rest of us if I let things alone?”

“I don’t know about doing right by Jesse,” I said, “but I know it’s a hard thing changing his mind if it’s been made, Captain.”

The truth was I wanted Jesse to get out of it. His being corporal didn’t look worth the trouble it would cause, were it possible to get any worse between Moses and us.

Captain Simms walked over to his small portable desk and sat down in the chair behind it. It was getting dark in the tent. He struck a match and lit a kerosene lamp on the table, then used the same match to light a filled pipe he pulled from the desk drawer. The match looked awful close to burning his fingers by the time he did all this but he never seemed to notice. Our shadows started flickering tall and skinny off the walls. After he had everything going he leaned back in the chair and sighed.

“God save us from Rebel minie balls and stubborn people,” he said, finally. “Very well, Private, if you wish to withdraw, I’ll allow it, though I still do not like it. But this ends here, I’ll see to it. Go back to your company and ask them to have another choice by morning.”

We nodded and started out but something was burning at me and I was young and stupid enough to want to go ahead and ask it.

“Captain?”

“Yes.”

“Well, sir, I don’t know how to ask this but your older than Moses…a…Major Hoppe, and so I was just wondering how it was a…”

“How it is that I’m a Captain and he’s a Major? Is that what you want to know, Private?”

I nodded.

“Yes, sir,” thinking how really igernent I was to have asked.

He took his hat off and tossed it on his bed.

“I was in the army in the fifties when there wasn’t any fighting and it took forever to get a promotion and you were sent to god-awful places to spend your time. Deserts and bogs and swamps, without your family in most cases. I got tired of it and resigned. Soldiers back then were bastard calves, what with no shooting going on, and a person could make a lot more in the civilian world. Then the war started and I offered my services, but even young men fresh out of the Point was thought of more highly than us old army men who had quit. After all, it looked to the war department like we had turned our backs. So there you have the ranking system, Private. Some generals are politicians and some old soldiers are captains and I suppose that’s fair enough. But the bottom truth is Major Hoppe is a good man. He has only one fault that I can see, but I still want him respected. And I do not want anything we’ve said leaving here, is that also understood?”

“Yes, Captain,” Jess and I both said, moving for the flap.

I stopped just as I was starting to lean into it.

I said, “Too bad there weren’t any wars going on the first time you were a soldier, Captain.”

The Captain took his pipe out of his mouth, looked at me the longest time, then cracked the smallest of smiles, one of the few I ever saw him have.

“Yes, Private,” he said then, softly, “too bad.”

I bent over and followed Jess out of the tent, falling in beside him as he walked away.

“Thanks for coming with me, Tom,” he said, “but I don’t want any questions out of you about why I did what I did.”

“I know why you did it. You kept the peace.”

“No, you’re wrong. I’ve only stretched it a little, is all.”

When we got back to the hut they were waiting for us by the outside fire.

“So,” Amos asked, “what did the Captain say about the Rooster’s fit?”

It looked like Riley’s name for Moses had stuck.

“I told him someone else needed to be corporal and he said that was fine with him.”

A few of the rest of the squad were gathering.

“No,” John said, “we elected you for a good reason and I don’t see the good of changing that.”

“I want to know what prickly pole you stuck up that little squirrel’s butt,” Riley said.

Squirrels must have been worse things than roosters to Riley. Jess looked Riley and the others standing around listening.

“I’m not going to say anything about what doesn’t apply here,” he said. “But we do need to get to it and find someone else. The Captain said so.”

Riley leaned in on Jess’ shoulder.

“Then later,” he whispered.

So we gathered the squad together and just at dark elected John Crisler. Riley would have none of his name being put up and John wasn’t exactly fond of the idea either but we finally persuaded him. He accepted, and though he still wasn’t sure he could stand up to the job, it made him proud we had thought enough of him to ask. Jess was the one who had put his name in the hat.

Later, we sat around inside the hut and Riley pushed Jess to find out what had happened in Jefferson.

“I need to know the juicy bits and pieces,” he said. “Gossip be an elixir that heals those of low position. And also you owe us as much as we have to daily face the Rooster together.”

So Jess told them, leaving out, I noticed, anything about Sarah. He only told what had happened between our father and the Hoppe’s over the land. I was afraid maybe Riley would think less of us, knowing how he felt about his family being tenants in Ireland. But I shouldn’t have.

“Is that all there is to it? Their skins must be close to blood. Hell, that happens thrice daily in all parts of this cold world. Did they think your father had rights to his very own land?”

“But they had been there for years,” Jess said, “and there was really no good reason for selling.”

“Still, life be hard and then you die. Young Rooster’s family would not have made it on the Emerald Isle.”

“His father and mother are better about it,” I said.

I dared not mention Sarah, since Jess hadn’t. Ambrose was from Jefferson but he listened like he was hearing the story for the first time too. Silas I’m sure, had he been alive, could not have kept quiet.

“So it’s only our friend on his high horse who still holds the grudge,” Riley said. “That I should have figured.”

Suddenly I felt a tinge of regret.

“But he wasn’t always that way. When we were little he was as good a friend as there was.”

“So it is, young Thomas. People age and some harden. And if they do that means there had to be a spot of hardness all along, just ready to grow, sad as that is. And here he is our major. Sometimes it seems the world gets so small it weighs on our throats. Anyway, I don’t think it’s anything we can’t survive as this is a rugged bunch.”

 

 

The next few days we noticed that Moses did not show up on the drilling field. It wasn’t until the third day that I overheard a soldier from another company say he heard the Rooster had gone home for a month’s leave. The soldier was wondering what he had done to deserve it, other than ride around on his horse and make everyone’s life miserable.

I felt my belly drop. I knew what Moses’ going home meant. That night, just before taps, I got Jess alone outside by the fire.

It was down to embers and made Jess’ face glow red. It was a cold night, no clouds, and so there were more stars in the sky than could be imagined. It wasn’t an easy thing, looking at those stars and thinking on what I had to say to him. I hemmed and hawed a while about how cold it was.

“You could have told me that inside,” Jesse said finally.

“That’s true,” I said. “Jess, I found out something today. Moses has gone home for a month.”

He shrugged.

“So?”

“Well, it’s, you see…I saw Sarah just before we left Jefferson and she told me something.”

He looked at me, his face balled up.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Didn’t think it would change anything and figured it would only make it worse. I told her the truth about what had happened, how you never knew Father was going to sell the land and how you blew up about it when you found out. I wanted her to know she was wrong about you, though you told me never to tell her. It wasn’t none of my business, but I did it just the same, Jess.”

I was waiting for him to tell me off but it never came. He only changed the look on his face to a tired one.

“That’s all right,” he said, “I don’t care that you told her. If I hadn’t been so bullheaded I would have told her myself. It was just that when she got in my face that day I couldn’t believe she could think those things of me. I couldn’t understand her thinking I could be that way, as well as she knew me, but now I see how it could look that way to her. Everyone else thought the same. Thing is, what did she say? Did she believe you?”

“I think so. She almost cried.”

“Cried?” he repeated, his face worried.

“But Jesse, my telling her didn’t look like it changed things to her so I didn’t say anything else. But she did. She said when Moses got his first leave they were going to get married. And today I found out Moses isn’t here because he got a leave.”

He had been holding his thumbs curled into his pant pockets but when I said what I did his arms dropped to his side. His shoulders even bent a little. I didn’t know what else to say and it was surely a time I needed to say something. I wished then I had brought Riley out with me.

“I never really thought they would,” Jess said, so low that I was sure he was only saying it to himself.

He turned away from me and faced upward towards the sky full of stars. The embers crackled. Through the night air I could hear the muffled sounds of talking and laughter in the surrounding buildings.

“Damn it, Tom, why didn’t you tell me all this before,” he said then, mad after all. “Did you think I couldn’t take it? Did you think I didn’t need to know?”

“Jess, I don’t know. Hell, Jess, I’m not near your age! Sometimes it’s hard for me to work things through, you know that.”

A hot coal popped through the air, barely missing me. He never said anything. He never even moved. It must be hard to know that a thing you had dreamed about for the longest of time would never happen. After a minute or so I shuffled my feet just to have something to do.

“Go in,” he said then. “Just go on in.”

I did. I stayed awake, waiting for him. Long after the fire must have died out he stumbled into the hut and rolled into his blanket.

 

Spring, 1864

 

Big news came the first of April and broke up our boring days of marching and trying to stay warm.

It started off with the news in March that Grant had after all been made commander of all the union armies. And then we found out he had made Sherman the general of all the armies in the west. We decided that it would be us and Sherman in the spring, after any Confederates igernent enough to get in our way. After all, Illinois was about as far west as you could go, and we were all westerners.

Then the first week of April we were lined up and told each regiment’s orders would be posted that evening. It was a rush to get to see the board and the most of us got the word from the people in front of us who got it from the people in front of them. And the word caused everybody in the Eighty-Sixth Illinois to lose their breath a long while.

We were not going to be with Sherman. We were not going to whip the western Rebels. Nowhere near that. We were going east to a place in Virginia called Brandy Station, to be a part of the Army of the Potomac!

We would fight the rebels run by Lee!

It was hard to believe.

“Army of the Potomac!” Riley said. “Shit and be damned, cuss it all to hell! I come west to join and then I get sent back east! Haven’t they got enough dirt-butted New York snot noses to do the fighting there?”

“Is that why you came to Illinois?” Amos asked him. “To get away from Lee?”

“Eh, well, hell no,” Riley stammered, trying to act insulted. “I just don’t fathom the workings of the military mind, is all.”

Corporal John Crisler was shaking his head.

“No,” he mumbled, “I’ll be farther from home still.”

I did not have time to try and cipher everybody else’s state of mind as I was too wound up about it myself. Army of the Potomac? Did that mean we would have a big fight in Pennsylvania, like Gettysburg was? Or maybe in Virginia, where so many battles was fought they couldn’t be counted? I was scared and excited at the same time. It would be an adventure to go home and talk and strut about, that would be for sure.

As it turned out, of all the regiments training at Camp Douglas and the surrounding places, only two had been given orders to go east and we were one of them. We talked long past taps that night of the day we found out.

“Bobbie Lee,” Riley kept saying over and over for his part of the conversation. “I just don’t like that man.”

Two days later we were marched into Chicago to catch a train east. It looked like General Grant’s armies would not be ones to waste any time.

I had not been to Chicago as the enlisted men were not given any time off to leave Camp Douglas and do any looking. Only the officers were allowed to go.

It was as I had it figured. I had seen the dirt and filth of Cairo and, since Chicago was so much bigger, I knew it had to be just as bad. And it was. Wooden shacks were built up side by side. Grown people and horses crowded the streets and they paid no attention to us, as if it was our natural born duty to go east and get shot. The children were dirty and tired looking, but at least they did take the time to look at us as we marched by. Now and again we saw men riding herd on big groups of hogs and cattle and the people walked through and around them with as little attention as they were giving us. Us and the hogs were in the same boat in that city. I was powerful glad I had been born in the country.

I was marching next to Jesse.

‘Where’s Fort Dearborne?” I asked him.

“Nowhere near here,” he said. “It’s up by the lake and from what they tell me we won’t be going anywhere near there to catch the train. The station’s in the south part of town.”

There it was. I had made it to Chicago and had promised myself I would go and stand where Grandpa had fought, and now I wouldn’t.

We trudged along through the pig and cow manure, in spring mud up to our ankles. On our backs we carried our knapsacks which were miserable heavy to begin with but were even worse in the bad footing. In each we had a blanket, an overcoat, a dress coat, two dog hair shirts, short stockings, spare boots and a pair of shoes. We didn’t have any balls or powders just then, thank God, only our long muskets over our shoulders.

Moses was on a horse at the side of the regiment with some of the other officers and he was telling everyone to keep moving and not slow down. That seemed to me to be an easy thing to say from a horse. As far as I could see ahead and behind all there was was rifles over men’s heads, sticking straight up in the air. And all you could hear was grunts and the swooshing noises of boots being drug out of the mud.

So it was with relief that we got to the train tracks, where cars like the one we had ridden up from Cairo were waiting on us. And, like at Cairo, the horses were loaded first. It was nightfall before the men were loaded and the trains finally started moving out. I stood and looked through one of the cracks in the side of the car. All I could see was the glow of a lot of lamps in a lot of windows in the shacks of Chicago. I apologized to Grandpa in my mind. I would come back some day, I promised him and myself, when I got out of the stupid army. When I got back from fighting Bobbie Lee.

 

 

It was a long, long trip and it gave us a lot of time to talk. We were far enough back from the engine that the noises it made did not drown us out. The men a few cars farther up were not so lucky. But being farther back meant you got more of the stack smoke and so when you did talk, you did it in between the short breezes of fresh air.

The second day after leaving Chicago, just after noon, John drug out his stubby pencil and a small piece of paper to do some writing, to tell his wife and children where he was going, I suppose. He scrunched up under a shaft of light to do it. Riley was sitting across the car watching him.

“There’s a good man,” he said.

John smiled at him, though his heart wasn’t in it. He could not bear the thought of being a lot of states away from his wife and daughter and little boy. He was getting sadder and sadder mile by mile. I think he would have given back that three hundred dollars of substitute pay in a blink if he could of, and if it would have gotten him home. I wanted someday to be married but I was glad I wasn’t just then.

“I just hope they stop long enough at the other end of this trip to let me post it,” John said.

“Make the time,” Riley said. “The army thinks of no man’s feelings.”

He watched John try to work the short stubbed pencil a little longer then reached inside his coat and rooted around for something.

“Went to the sutler’s wagon Sunday past,” he said. “Got myself a few things.”

The sutler’s were not kindly thought of by the men in the army. Rumors were most had paid a politician under the table for the right to bring their canvas covered wagons to the camps and sell to the men. And because of the payment and because they knew they were the only game in town they upped their prices considerable. A lot of them, I had noticed, were army age, and I wondered why they weren’t fighting like the rest of us instead of taking what little money most soldiers had.

But they had some things I would have like to get hold of. Extra socks. Tins of beans. Needles and threads. Jess and I discussed going to the wagon, as we had money Father had given us, but we knew that John and Amos and Ambrose didn’t, and so we didn’t go. We did not want them feeling bad or think that we were showing out about our father’s wealth. And we had assumed, since we hadn’t seen him go, that Riley had stayed away for the same reason, though he had gambling money aplenty. So I was surprised when he said it outright, in front of those who didn’t have. He wasn’t usually the type to do such things.

“You did, did you?” Ambrose said, not smart enough to be hurt. “What did you get?”

“Oh, not much, young Ambrose, just a few things the man was overstocked with and so allowed me to cut a bargain, as it were. A bargainer I am, if I can be so insolent as to brag.”

He finished pulling the load out of his pocket.

“One thing I got for a little of nothing was this fine wad of paper and a couple of leaded pencils. Seeing you writing there, John, made me think you might have a use for them. I doubt I ever will.”

He handed the writing things across to John, who was surprised. I felt a little guilty about wondering if he was flaunting his visit to the sutler.

“Thank you, Riley,” he said. “But are you sure?”

“I only got them because I pushed the bargain, and leaded pencils can do too much good to be wasted.”

“You won’t have to worry about me wasting it.”

“That I know.”

John went to work on his letter, going at it a lot faster with a decent pencil and paper to use. It got me to thinking I needed to write home again and tell Mama and Father about where we were going. I usually did all the writing because Jess wasn’t big on it. He would read what I wrote, and sometimes sign the letter, but seldom got up the desire to do it himself. I didn’t mind. I liked to write. It was just that there wasn’t much good time with good light for it, and this journal took up a lot of the time I did have.

Riley got up and moved to the door and peed out the opening. Then he came back and took his seat on the straw across from John. I was on one side of him and Jess on the other, with Amos and Ambrose on either side of John. We had almost talked ourselves out the first day of the trip and had said little on this one. We had been told there was one more day to go and I hoped that was right. With the conversation dying it was getting to be about as boring as the marching had been back in Chicago. I was also getting the dry mouth from the salted meat and hardtack and did not care for the soured water in the barrel at the end of the car. I was trying to make do with what I had brought in my metal canteen. I looked over to Riley and decided I needed to get him talking again. I liked to hear his accent and he always had the best things to say.

“Riley, did you ever make it to the south when you were wandering?”

“I did, and a beautiful country it is. Just so hot and moist in the summer that you could cut the air with a dull blade. I didn’t care for that, coming from a land that was moist, but nowhere near so hot. So I didn’t stay long.”

“Did you see any slaves in the cotton fields?”

“Did, and not just in the fields. They use them for all things down there that they are too proud or contrary to do themselves. Cook, clean, even raise their children if you can fathom that. But mostly in the cotton fields and barns, seven days a week, only a little shorter day on the Sabbath. Never thought of that! We’ve gotten only Sundays off lately, have we not?”

“So I guess we’re slaves,” I said, laughing.

Riley laughed a little while with me, but not long.

“No,” he said, “hardly, boy. You can’t imagine how sad those black folks are. At least, downtrodden as we are to the rooster Major, we have a good laugh now and again. Not that the black folk didn’t laugh. I saw them often roll with a good joke. It was just that it didn’t last long and when it stopped, it stopped. Not a trace of laugh was left.”

Our talk had gotten Jesse’s attention.

“You sound like you were on a plantation,” he said.

“You right, young Jesse. One of my many jobs was driving cotton wagons to market in New Orleans. I worked for a Charles Timolson, a proud man he was, who owned an eyeful of land just outside that city. Everyone called him Mr. Charles. Hired whites to run herd on his blacks and to drive his cotton to market on the wharves. I wouldn’t have nothing to do with the first job and no owner was about to let a black man do the second. The summer and fall of fifty-six, it was.”

“You worked for a slave owner?” Jess asked, his face a mite rough.

“Don’t begrudge me that, if you please. I wanted to see the whole of this land I had come to and a man has to eat no matter where his heart sits. So I went to work for Mr. Charles, him having the reputation of being better than most. A good enough fellow, to be honest, even to his slaves most times. Course, the same could not always be said for his overseers. They did the dirty work for him usually, and did it with a pride befitting men of a lower level. Rode about in the heat with those blasted straps. They would have done it for nothing, I think.”

“What?” I asked, thinking of Reverend Hoppe and his sermons. “Beat the slaves?”

“Sometimes.”

Riley looked across at John, who had quit writing for a while to listen.

“Corporal Crisler, I have a question of you. You have been a fine corporal since elected, all here would agree, and have an exceptional grasp of that fine book of rules we are obliged to live under. Rules, mind you, that I hold in the deepest respect. But this is a sullen trip at best, and there is something else I got from that sutler, at less of a bargain to be sure. Bought it under the wagon, let’s say. And it could go far in making this an easier trip, were your corporal mind to go blank by my purchase.”

He reached in his pocket and brought out a bottle. Rum, I had no doubt.

“Would you mind, sir,” Riley went on, “a pilfering of a few skussles?”

John looked side to side, knowing full well no sergeants were in the car. He was a little nervous, but what else could he say, holding a new wad of papers and a pencil to match.

“I suppose,” he said with half a smile and a shrug.

Riley jerked the cork with his teeth.

“To women’s warm bosoms,” he toasted, “and not just me Mother’s!”

He downed two long slugs, then brought the bottle away and looked at it like he was admiring a colored sunset. Like usual, he never winced. He passed it across to John, who suddenly got a lot less nervous and took a quick slug himself. Amos did too, but Ambrose passed. Jess got his, then offered to me, and it had been such a long ride that I could not help but want one myself. I could not keep from wincing as Riley had but at least I did not cough and hack, though the stuff tasted like hot, burned beans. I wanted no more of it and handed it to Riley, who was nice enough not to mention my watering eyes. He took two more long slugs, a feat I had to admire as an impossibility.

“Lord forgive me,” he said, “but it tears your troubles from your chest, don’t it?”

He rested the bottle between his legs and laid his head back. I wanted to spit. Jess, like Riley, had not been taken back by his slug either and it looked like his mind was still on Riley’s stay at a southern plantation.

“Didn’t you try to help the slaves at all?” he asked.

“There were men floating in the swamps what did that. I did not like what I saw, but I bide my fights. I’m with you now, aren’t I, Jesse?”

“Why didn’t Mr. Charles just sharecrop his land out?” I asked, thinking of my father and his solution.

“You’d have to ask Mr. Charles that,” Riley said, “though I would imagine there was a lot more money in the slaves. And money he had, going by the big, white house he lived in.”

“And he had his slaves beat?” Ambrose asked, as interested as the rest of us.

“He did. Most often just a lash or two for malingering in the fields or taking too long to eat or answering nature’s call. That last was a favorite way the field hands had of catching a rest and I saw the overseers often ride into the bushes to check on them, man or woman. It was usually the drivers who swung the whip, and most times on their own. It was their job. Mr. Charles was a religious man and so he kept clear of the dirty work. I only seen him take after a slave once himself.”

“A man, for not working hard enough?” Amos asked.

The train was going back and forth along its way, the steady hitting of the joined rails so loud you had to talk over it to be heard. But right then, waiting on Riley to tell us about slaves and those who owned them, I doubt anyone heard the clanging rails. I know I did not.

“No,” Riley said, “not a man. A woman, it was.”

I saw Jess’ mouth come open and I know mine did too. A woman?

“She was his housekeeper, you have to understand,” he said, twirling the bottle between his legs. “Tried to run away. Angered him to biblical proportions, you see, him thinking he treated her so well and yet she tried to go north anyway. He did not like it, he said, but he had to show the others so as not to let them get the same idea. He had her tied to my wagon and had all gathered around to see. Had her come out without a shirt, a big breasted woman she was, but too scared to be embarrassed. He took a whip to her and beat her back raw. She quit screaming after the first dozen or so, just took to shaking and talking in tongues. He had what he felt was a righteous anger and he gave her fifty as hard as he could, counting them as pretty and even as you please. I tell you boys, I’d seen sailors flogged on my crossing but I had never seen a person taken to like that. It went to her bones, ragged skin hanging from her back and on the leather. You could not believe such a thing, were your father to tell you and all because he thought he had been so good by her. The other blacks just stood there with eyes on the ground, thankful, I suppose, it wasn’t them. Even the man she called her husband. When it was done Mr. Charles put his hands on his hips and looked around as if he had merely taken a belt to a mouthy son. I could not believe that. Splattered in blood and her there in a boneless ball it looked like and him acting like he had done right by all men’s beliefs. I knew I needed to keep my tongue if I did not want to taste swamp water but my tongue was beyond me. He saw me ready to talk and must have gathered my intent, as he looked at me and asked what I wanted to say. I told him I wasn’t thinking about words, I had my mind on the line. He looked at me, a queer look he had. ‘What line?’ he said to me. The heavenly line on judgment day, I told him. Did he figure to be on the right or the left? ‘The right,’ he said, as if I was a damn fool for asking, me knowing he attended services weekly. Perhaps, I says, and perhaps too she would be in front of him and he could look at her back on the way to God’s throne. And when she was asked what right she had to enter she could merely turn about and show Him that back, which could possibly be answer enough for your right to entrance too as, due to the family ties, I doubted God would look too fondly on a scourging. I told him that, and then I shut up.”

Riley picked up the bottle and took another drink. He was not mad as he told the story, he had only told it. But I felt an anger in me and so did the others I knew. And maybe a little something else too.

‘What did he say then?” Jess asked, the first to find his tongue. “Did he threaten you?”

“No, Mr. Jess, he didn’t, that were the strange thing. He only looked at me like he couldn’t understand what I was saying, like I was talking gibberish. The overseers gave me the same look. Only those black slaves seemed to understand. I left that night and never even asked for my pay.”

The story he told had beat all of Reverend Hoppe’s best sermons on the subject and I sat and thought on it. I was glad it had been him and not Jess who was there, as Jess’s answer to a bully went different ways, and it would have surely been the swamp for him. Riley offered the bottle around again and only Jess and John took him up on it.

“So you went back north then?” Amos asked.

“That I did, as fast as these tired boney legs could carry me. Ended up in New York, the state and not that filthy city. Got a job as a farm hand for a farmer who believed in working his own ground. Cussed like a sailor and kicked his dog twice or more a day and went to church only when his fat wife made him, but still a far higher Christian than Mr. Charles, of that I was sure. Stayed with him till this blasted war started. Joined the first of sixty-two, a nine month wonder I was. Marched up the peninsula with McClellan. He were a good enough general, though a trifle gutless. Still, guts or not, we had the slimy bastards on the run till Lee came along. Blast that man, that’s why I just don’t like him! He believed in fighting till the last man was standing, a considerable longer time than the Little Napoleon did. We scuttled back so fast we left the bodies to rot. Had my taste of soldering life for a while, at the very least, and so when my nine months was up I didn’t sign again. Went west then to stay away from prying eyes, as conscription rumors were flying like bats, figuring this war would be long over before long once Lincoln found someone as bloodthirsty as Bobbie Lee. But here it was, a year or so later and he hadn’t and I got the guilts again about my new land needing me so I joined with you western boys. And now, as my wretched luck would have it, it looks like Mister Lincoln has found his man and plans on sending me to him.”

“What was being in a battle like?” I asked, now that the door had been opened.

Riley patted my leg.

“Let’s talk about that later, Thomas. For now, try and keep your mind on your marching. Just let’s say that speeches and flags are fine enough, but it’ll not be words that fly when Grant gets us, and that you will be learning soon enough.”

John gave Riley a long look.

“So, Riley” he said, “would you have joined had you known it was Lee you’d be facing again?”

Riley needed a skussle before answering.

“I’ll not lie,” he said when he was done and had wiped his lips, “probably not. Principles is like stair steps, always leading to a higher place. They come in different numbers to different men. I’ve got mine but they would never get me the second floor as I’m looking for a landing in the middle perhaps, upstairs never having had a grip on me. Others would probably go to the top regardless but that has never suited me. I wanted to serve, but it was not Lee I wanted to fight.”

He said ‘Lee’ like someone might have said ghost after spotting one in their bedroom. Afraid of being made fun of, but scared just the same.

“I understand,” John said. “Lee scares me too.”

“And well he should,” Riley said. “His eyes don’t blink and blood don’t blind him.”

We rolled along then in silence. All of us had enough to think of for a while.

 

 

Early the next afternoon we pulled into Virginia.

The land had been changing, I had noticed, having stood by the open door often to watch it go by. The hills had become big and rocky. No more were the oaks and hickories so tall that they took up half the sky as it looked like they had a rough time taking hold in those rocks. The dirt turned red and most of it was covered by pines instead. It was all alright to look at but I could not have stood the thought of living in such a place, so different it was than from where I came from.

We came to a stop for some switching to be done and when it was done the train fell into a long turn to the right which, if I had my directions right, was south. Riley came up beside me. A gathering of buildings went past along with one a train station with a name on it. He squinted his eyes at the name.

“‘Well, be damned,” he said, “I know this place! Been on this railroad before. Over there a short ways is Manassas, where the Bull Run fight happened. Lot of good men fell there. Go far enough that way, and not too far at that, and you can talk to Abraham himself about this business.”

‘Washington?”

“Yes, sir. Head on those northward leaning rails instead of these southward and Washington it would be.”

I looked out at where he pointed and then to the area where he said the Bull Run battles was fought. I imagined soldiers marching along in rows, putting their guns to their shoulders and firing. It looked a lot different there than what my mind had seen in my father’s Missourian. It was real dirt and real trees.

Not too long after that the train started slowing down. Off in the distance, if I leaned out just right, I could see tents no end. Then a smaller group of a dozen or so tents passed by, a short distance off from the others, and I almost stumbled out the opening at what I saw around them. Women in dresses of all colors, standing among their tents and clotheslines and waving at us, their high voices coming in above the clamor of the train!

“Oh my!” Riley said with a sigh, as if he’d just set his eyes on a Christmas dinner. “Heaven save me! Here, young ladies! Here! And how are you?”

He took off his kepi as if he wanted to be polite. Other men from the other cars started calling out and soon the whole train was alive with their yelling. As many as could from our car came to the opening and I had to hold on for dear life to stay inside. The ones in the know in our car started hollering too. I could see Jess’s face off the side and, though he wasn’t yelling, he was smiling.

“Who are they?” I shouted into Riley’s ear.

“Ladies plying the oldest trade, my boy, and darlings they are at that, aren’t they? We must be sure to remember this place.”

“What trade?”

“Whores!” someone behind me shouted, tired of my stupidness.

I wanted to ask him how it was he figured I was to know that, but it would only had deepened my embarrassment for asking. I took to waving and shouting too as if calling out to whores came natural to me. When I thought I was beginning to overdo it, I leaned in close to Riley.

“The officers allow this?” I asked him.

“Not allow, but then again, not disallow.”

I could not believe the number of the ladies, not figuring that many whores in the entire country, much less Virginia. That seemed to be a passel of sinning. As I gawked, they being near enough to do so, I noticed some looked my age or maybe even younger. I was shamed to have them see me see them but was unable to move inside. Finally, though, we got past and I pulled myself into the car. The others had already taken their seats and were discussing the sights.

“That was something,” Amos was saying, his mouth gaping.

“A soldier runs on more than just food,” Riley said. “Other aches need easing.”

He turned to me.

“A little struck, are we, Thomas?”

“No…no,” I said, not wanting to be known as someone not worldly wise, even if I was as wide-mouthed as Amos and, I noticed, Ambrose.

Riley laughed and went back to his bottle.

“For the innocence of youth,” he said as a toast.

 

 

I had thought that Camp Douglas was a sight to see but it had been nothing as compared to the Army of the Potomac camp at Brandy Station, Virginia. It went on forever, people and wagons and cannon and tents. It made more sense of the number of whores I’d seen, if even only a smidgen of the men there went to sin with them. I was in awe.

The Eighty-Sixth Illinois was given a piece of ground to set down on and our tents went up quickly to join the others. For the next day or so nothing happened. Some of the men who had been there the entire winter told of doing nothing but sitting and eating and lounging around. It was kind of aggravating as it looked like they had not had to march and drill at all. Then again, most had already been in battle, so maybe it wasn’t so unfair after all.

It had been a long trip from the train to our area and some of the veterans we passed felt the need to welcome us.

“Lee will make short work of those pretty new uniforms,” one said.

“Cannon fodder,” several shouted.

“March pretty now,” one fellow felt entitled to say, “but you’ll find it harder as skeletons!”

I could not figure why they had to say those things, plus a lot more, to us. Weren’t we on the same side?

“Never mind them,” Jess said, “they do it to all the new regiments. It was done to them.”

We found out a few more things other than they had not been marching as much as us, once we had settled in. Like to the south of us was a river, the Rapidian, and across that river was the Confederate army. That chilled me. Those heathens I had feared so much as a child was but miles away. And, as we were often told, more than ready to fight.

“Have your fun now,” one old timer told us, “cause when Grant meets Lee the bodies will pile thicker than flies on a cow pie.”

I tried to take my mind off the talk of the veterans by watching things happen. I saw mounted couriers of the officers fly down the narrow pathways between the tents, hollering for anyone in front to clear a path, a thing they meant. Found out that at night the hillsides looked like the stars had fallen, so thick were the campfires. I found tents put up in the middle of everything, bigger ones, with banners and flags and those reckless couriers in front of them, and was told they were the tents of the generals. Found that just outside the perimeter of the camp were wagons after wagons of material and food, so much that you would have thought the whole country had to be doing without. Found that those who had been there a while were bored but still dreading warm weather and dry roads because that meant the fight was on.

And after just a few days of doing nothing I found out that no matter what the other regiments were doing, Moses and Colonel Hargraves felt we still needed to drill. And so we did. Captain Simms and the sergeants got us out into the open ground around the main camp, giving the veterans a chance to ride us some more. Our Major Rooster was in the thick of our training as before, I guessed so he could show out to all the folks there. Whenever he came close enough I gave him a hard look and I know Jess did too, as if he was an arithmetic problem that needed solving.

I tried to figure by his look whether he had married Sarah or not and Jess, I’m sure, was doing the same. No letter had come with that message but then none had come since the week before leaving Camp Douglas and I could only guess that they were all lost in trying to catch up with us. And even if we had gotten one, I wasn’t so sure Mama would tell us if they had exchanged vows, knowing how she was. She wouldn’t be apt to do anything that would bring Jess to a bad mind.

Nothing much could be told by watching Moses prance around on his fine horse. Always if he saw us, like it’d been since we joined, he gave no notion of it. He only rode by and spoke sharply to the Captain and went on his way. But, and maybe it was just me, I think I noticed a little more stiffness in his back, if that was possible, and maybe a snickering smile now and again. If Jess notice the same thing, though, he never let it on and we never discussed it.

 

 

A week after we got to Brandy Station the whole regiment and an Illinois artillery unit gathered on an open field to drill together. It was my first good look at the cannons. I had seen them being pulled by the teams, of course, but never set up and ready to fire. It was a sight to behold. One set up next to us, the men running around it as if they were trained animals, like the horses that had brought the cannon up. One of the men wasn’t very big and the wheels of the thing was almost as big around as he was tall. Behind the cannon a ways sat the caissons, big long boxes on wheels that held the powder and balls and it was the job of some of the men to run to it and bring it all forward. I swear the ball they carried up was bigger than my head! We hadn’t been told to stand at attention yet so Riley was next to me with his hands crossed on the stock of his musket to allow him to lean.

“That’d be a Napoleon,” he said. “If my eyes aren’t failing me I’d say about a twenty-four pounder. Would make them eight inch balls.”

“God,” I said, thinking of the puny cannon I’d seen at Jonesboro when we’d gone to the debate, “it’s big for a fact.”

“Not the biggest yet, though. There’s a thirty-two pounder, which would be a ten incher.”

I commented no more. That was enough. They finally got the thing loaded after a lot of hollering and tamping with long poles that had cloth ends and then the officer of the group called for all to stand clear and gave a rope a jerk. There was no way I could ever have been ready for the blast. The air and noise hit like a board and took your breath! I couldn’t help but jump back as it sounded like hell was coming up from underground with a blast! And to top it off the whole line of cannons fired along with the one next to us and it seemed to me the world was coming to a smoky end. A quarter mile away a tree line started going to pieces in dirt and wood and leaves as if a storm was hitting it spot by spot. No sooner had they fired than they started to reload and it was less than a minute that they were firing again. That woods could expect to be nothing in no time at all and it had probably took a hundred years or more to grow that big.

After several more firings by the artillery unit we were told to move forward and form a line and for one of the few times since our drilling had started we were going to be allowed to load and fire our rifles. I pulled the powder wad from my pouch and rammed it home then put a minie ball after.

The minie ball was so much different from my Grandpa’s small round shot. It was long instead of just round and kind of pointed and had three rings around it, to make it go farther and more true, they’d said. It was also hollowed out from the back end so that if it hit anything hard like bone or a lot of meat it would spread out and rip things to pieces. I had once tossed one as high as I could into the air and when I caught the thing it had stung my hand, it was that heavy. After we had loaded we put the muskets to our shoulders and fired into the torn woods at imaginary Rebels lined up there. Hundreds of guns went off at once, adding more ring to my ears that were already ringing from the twenty-four pounders blasting away. It was then, for the first time, that I felt chilled.

I went rapidly from proud to scared. Perhaps someday I would walk down the main street of Jefferson and have the folks admire the returning soldier but first, I realized, some things would have to happen. Heavy minie balls like the one I had tossed so slowly into the air would have to pass through that same air someplace else, so fast that you could not see them. They would hit men and expand and rip their bodies to pieces. Bullets just like the ones I carried so harmlessly in my pouch would come my way also, as they did those who would be hit. It had to happen. There was no way around it. And those cannon, those damn cannon, would shoot those big twenty-four or twelve or thirty-six pound balls not into a woods but into a line of human men, fellows like me with families of mama’s and father’s and perhaps children at home, fellows who had figured it was somebody else who would be dying and those firing the cannon would be like those sad enough to be in front of them, just trying to stay alive although in a short while a lot of them wouldn’t. Those inconceivably big balls and canister would make parts of men disappear. It came to me as an unbelievable thing that the thought would occur to someone to turn those horrible flying circles of metal upon flesh and blood but there, in that field, the realization came to me that it was a thing that was going to happen. What also would happen would be that some dirty Southern devil would try to cross a field with his rifle lowered and that Godforsaken bayonet on the end, that thing that gave me nightmares, and he would try to push it up inside me. It would happen. When the weather warmed, it would happen. I may yet get home and walk proud down the streets of Jefferson but first I would have to face and see terrible things and no way could I skip them and go to the end of my soldier road, as much as I would have liked to. I thought of the Reverend’s sermons and my other reasons for joining and right then they didn’t seem so powerful, right then I was eighteen and truly scared of dying before nineteen and did not want to be where I was at. Like the mama’s boys I had made so much fun of when I was little, I wanted nothing more but to be at home with her. Yet the thing was that I was there, with no way to change it.

So deep was I in my own thoughts that I did not hear the Captain’s order to reload and fire again, making me behind everyone else in doing it. That made me have to hurry to follow the order and to catch up but I did it because that was what I was trained to do, and I would do it again on the day when it would not be woods I would be firing into but skin, blood, bones and guts. I had no choice but to finish the course I had set myself on, no matter what God had in mind to let happen. Yes, I would shoot my minie balls and perhaps kill other men so that I could live, and I could not see that doing so in any way made me look selfish.

 

 

April warmed to where everything started turning green and the weather got very pleasant. Even though the drying of the roads was a thing we knew we needed to fear you couldn’t help but like the idea of winter being left behind. It had been a long one and tents and huts made it longer still.

One Saturday, one of the few we had been allowed to do with as we pleased, while we were sitting around the outside of the tent enjoying the weather, Riley came back from a short wander around the camp. I was surprised, figuring he’d be gone all day looking for a card game to win at and then run from. That was why I hadn’t asked to go with him.

He came up to all of us sitting around our kettle and plopped down on an empty box. Jess grinned at him.

“No good games, Riley?”

Riley took off his cap and scratched his head.

“Oh there’s games, and fools galore to be lightened of their money, but I come to a mind that there was something else we all needed to be doing today, seeing as it is a Saturday and a pretty one at that.”

“What would that be?” Amos asked.

“Well, boys, I’ve decided it’s time we go visit the ladies.”

In my stupid state I was flustered at what he meant but Jess and John and Amos got it right away.

“The whores?” Amos said, rolling his eyes. “Think we should?”

“You know what the officers said about us leaving camp,” I put in quickly in hopes of dampening things. “They don’t take to that lightly.”

“Who do you suppose those girls are servicing then?” Riley wanted to know. “Men, we will be leaving before long to take our fight to the Rebels. I do not believe the officers will begrudge us partaking of the delights those pretties offer. Why do you suppose they haven’t run them off? Just because a man’s a soldier doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to relieve his pee-wag, now does it? Now, I have had a good run of luck against some of those around here pretending to be card players and would look upon it as an honor if you would let me treat you to this feast, each and every one of you. What do you say?”

I did not know what to say. I knew how it worked, the other thing the pee-wag did, but had never done it and the thought of trying to with some strange lady I wasn’t betrothed to, and who would be a lot more practiced, put the stomach turn on me. Amos, though, was giving it hard thought.

“Got to admit,” he said kind of sheepish, “they for sure looked pretty from the train.”

“Breasts and butts,” Riley said. “Hell, yes, they’re pretty!”

Jess looked at me. I had always suspicioned he had done more than just work in Chicago. The times I had seen him drink when Riley had a bottle to offer told me he wasn’t a stranger to a saloon, and anyone in a big city who wasn’t a stranger to a saloon probably wasn’t a stranger to a lot of other things. I could tell he wanted to add something to the conversation but was trying to figure what I would think of it. What he wanted to add must have outweighed any wondering about me, though, as he didn’t gauge me for long.

“I don’t know, Riley,” he said. “you shouldn’t have to pay for all of us.”

It wasn’t agreement but it was close enough.

“Shouldn’t, true,” Riley told him. “Want to, yes. You boys took me in and I’ll not forget that. And I haven’t much use for what I’ve got stowed right now anyway. I would consider it an honor to pay and a chance at dabbing a pee-wag should not be taken lightly.”

“How…how much do you think it will cost?” Ambrose asked.

“That’s my worry, Mister Ambrose. Yours be to enjoy.”

My stomach wasn’t feeling any better. First off, I was afraid of getting caught by the officers. Second, I was afraid of what I could or couldn’t do and the know-how of it. But neither one of those things was something I could admit to without looking like a mama’s boy so I decided to follow as the others did.

“Oh, my,” John said, the corporal coming out in him, “why are you fellas doing this to me? I can’t go, my Judith wouldn’t forgive me if she found out, and I couldn’t live with myself even if she didn’t. But the thing is I’d be in worse trouble than you if it was found out, whether I was along or not.”

“You’re a scholar and gentleman,” Riley said, “and I’m proud of you for that. Your Judith should count her blessings. But you could just wander off to some other tent tonight for a visit, little knowing what us scoundrels are up to, now couldn’t you?”

John sighed.

“I suppose.”

It looked like the rest of them were leaning to going and so, scared as I was, I began reaching for straws.

“But…we’d have to take a bath, wouldn’t we? And it’s still a mite cold.”

Riley didn’t laugh but I could see it was all he could do not to.

“Bath if you want, young Tom, we’ll keep you from freezing. But as for me I’ll go as am, as it’s not a gentleman they will be expecting anyway. Theirs is not the work aimed at gentlemen. So, what say you? We leave just after dark?”

Amos rubbed his hands nervously on the front of this pants.

“I think I could go for it,” he said. “It’ll be battles before long and I don’t see anything wrong with us enjoying ourselves. I’m religious, mind you, but there was such things always going on in the bible, weren’t there?”

No one wanted to touch that question, for fear of the answer. Jesse gave me long, last look, then his eyes went down.

“I suppose I could go,” he said, “but I’ll pay my own way if it’s the same to you, Riley.”

“Understood,” Riley answered, then he put his eyes on me.

“Sure,” I said, trying to sound as worldly wise as I could, “I’m ready to go.”

“Me too,” Ambrose said, though there was never any doubt where he stood. He began hiking his pants up at the sides, as if in anticipation of taking them the other way.

 

 

I took my bath, as did Jess and Amos, in a wooden barrel we borrowed from a couple of tents down. It seemed the only right thing to do, even though our tent was chilled all through. Riley sat and watched us and shuffled the hot water in off the fire but was true to his word in not taking one himself.

We sat quietly then, waiting for taps to sound. Riley had come up with another bottle and he and the rest were taking their draws, to build their courage, I guess. John had left an hour earlier, taking his corporal obligations with him to the tent that had loaned us the bath barrel.

I didn’t drink any draws and my mind ran in circles. I was glad about taking the bath and ran it over and over in my mind how it was the proper thing to do. It seemed to me a thing you should do before getting close to a girl, no matter the girl. Girls didn’t go for the stink, I had always been told.

Finally, too soon, the horn played taps. Amos looked up and a big smile crossed his face.

“Time,” he said.

“That it is,” Riley agreed, taking his time at corking the bottle, as if it were nothing but a stroll he was getting ready to go on. “This is how we need to do it. I circled around today and found where the big trees are on the side we want to leave camp by. Guards always take to standing under the big trees. I suppose it’s to keep the moon from walloping them on the head. Anyway, there were a gully a center distance from two of those trees, a long ways from both, and I figure that gulley will cover us well enough. So follow me, if you will, bringing your pee-wags ready for work. I guarantee it’s a job needing done.”

He gazed at me when he said that.

“We’re behind you,” Jess said.

I went out last. It was a night of a half moon, which meant that the shadows were more than dark enough to hide in. I was glad for that. We started worming our way around the tents, staying on the dark sides as much as we could. Voices came from the most of them, some laughing, some cussing, some just talking. It made me wish I was back in ours doing the same. I did not like anything at all about our trip, worried from start to finish about it, and not knowing about which part to worry the most. That being the case I made my mind up to stop thinking and just follow, hoping for the best, whatever that could possibly be.

Finally, we came to the outside tents, past the last dying fire, and Riley stopped us there with a raised hand. Ahead of us was the gully he’d talked about. To each side, several hundred feet each way, were the big trees. The moon made it too dark under the trees to show anyone there but there was for sure no one between them.

“I suppose they’re underneath,” Riley whispered, “or else nowhere at all. So stay close and let’s make it to that ditch as fast and quiet as the lost souls of the night, shall we boys?”

Holding down in a bent over crouch he began the run to the ditch. The rest followed, me still last. I felt a lot better when we got there and found myself breathing hard, even though the run had been nothing to speak of. It felt like the night we had crept up behind Mr. Hoffman’s tavern to get our peach wine from Sarah. I expected to be attacked any minute, though this time not by likkered devils. We worked our way through the gulley until it petered out, which was a good quarter mile from the camp’s edge. We came out there, not trying very hard to hide anymore.

“So here we be,” Riley said, all smile, “and not a mile that way there be some of the finest form the good Lord made. Let’s go and treat them well.”

We walked along side by side. We hadn’t gone very far when we heard voices off to our right and my heart came up to choke me. We stopped and squinted our eyes that way. It wasn’t long before another group of men came into view, barely close enough to pick out their blue greatcoats. They looked at us, then waved, and Riley waved back.

“See, Tom,” he said. “there’s other pilgrims about with ideas tonight.”

I didn’t answer and so we continued on. After half an hour of hard walking we could see the tents we were looking for. We could also hear the laughter of men and ladies, some of it very loud. I wanted to crawl under a rock. There were several large fires about the tent and figures were crossing back and forth in front of them. It occurred to me that I was probably going to be the youngest one there that night and probably the only one who would have no sure idea how the pee-wag thing worked, as it was used with a woman. And with that thought, finally, I had the one worry I needed to worry about the most. Still, I kept up with the rest of the group. If I was heading for humiliation I was not going to start it early by falling behind.

As we neared the first fire I could see three women and a couple of men around it. They were talking and taking draws from a bottle being passed. The women were dressed in flimsy dresses without the puffy things underneath, which made them look very small and showed out what they had to show. I did not want to put my eyes on them any more than I wanted to see any of them take the puffy things off, and I’m sure I looked quite a bit addled. One had blonde hair and the other two dark. One of the dark haired ones heard us coming and turned our way, putting her hands on her hips like a man.

“And what have we hear?” she asked loudly, far too loud. “More? Can this be true? Has this whole army come to do business tonight?”

“Looks like it,” the other dark haired one said.

I could not see much of what their faces looked like but the rest of them was a different story. The second one was skinny and the first one kind of heavy. The big one’s breasts weren’t much in her clothes, I guess because they amounted to a lot to keep there.

“You have had a few soldier boys so far,” Riley said as if commenting on the weather, “but at this point you’re dealing with men.”

“Oh, shit,” the skinny one said, “an Irishman.”

It was my first bad cussword from a woman, but the sight of the big ones’ breasts made it mean very little. Riley took off his hat and did not seem offended.

“Yes,” he said, “and a moneyed Irishman at that, young lady.”

That got her interest though she didn’t look convinced.

“Right,” she said with a sneer, “and you’ll pay us right after, without fail.”

One of the men with them laughed. Riley smiled a bigger smile and put a hand on her arm.

“And what is your name, lovely,” he asked.

I was closer now and could see she was missing quite a few teeth.

“Angel,” she said.

“An Angel of hope, I’ve no doubt.”

“Just Angel.”

There were a lot of men at that camp and people were moving all about, in, out and around the tents. Some were walking off with a woman into the woods. Strange noises were coming out of those tents and woods, laughing and odd talking, grunts and whoops. I had a scared feeling I knew what those sounds were about and it seemed to me they should have been enough to bring out every officer for a hundred miles. I wanted to slip back and wait for my friends in the woods but was afraid of coming upon someone in the middle of a whoop. The men who were not in the woods or tents were mostly talking and grabbing at the women who also weren’t otherwise busy. The spots the men were grabbing were the embarrassing parts, though none of the ladies seemed to mind much. Riley, unlike me, paid all these things no mind, his attention being on the toothless skinny woman.

“Now dear,” he was saying, “I’ve no doubt it’s a busy Saturday for you and your pretty friends here, and I know your time is as precious as your smile.”

Her smile looked a ways short of precious to me.

“So,” he went on, “I feel an obligation to move these proceedings along. Business is business, my dear, and if there is one thing I know about business it’s that someone must be in charge, or travesty follows like the plague. If you might bring that person to me here, I feel we could quickly bring this to a profitable conclusion for all involved.”

“What?” she asked.

“The lady who is the boss, as it were. Might I see her please.”

“Well, why didn’t you just say so.”

“Just a minute,” one of the men with them growled, “we was here first.”

Yes, you sure enough were, I thought. Riley pulled the woman around so that the man and his friend could not see what he was doing and reached into his pocket and showed the woman a roll of bills. Her eyes got as wide as her toothless mouth dropped.

“You ain’t here now,” she told the man who had complained, without even looking at him. “Stay here, Mr. Irishman.”

She turned and disappeared towards the middle of the camp.

“This ain’t right,” the same man said.

“Oh yes, it is,” Riley said, then reached into his greatcoat to bring out what was left of the bottle that had been worked on earlier. “And might this make it righter?”

“Oh, well,” the man said, licking slobber from his lips as he grabbed the bottle, “I’ll not trifle with an Irish gentleman.”

He and his friend went off then, happy at their luck. About the time they disappeared among the fires and tents the skinny woman was coming back with a woman who wasn’t skinny or overly big, but kind of on the just right side. She had reddish hair and as she got up close she smiled and I could see she had all her teeth too. It was a friendly smile from a pretty lady, at last, and I felt a little better about being there.

“And who might you be?” Riley asked her.

“Mary,” she said, her voice as thick with an Irish accent as his.

Riley was completely bam-boozled, the first time I could remember seeing him so. He leaned back and held his arms out as if catching rain.

“Glory be, can this be true, dear Lord! A lady of the Emerald Isle, it is, and a ravishing one at that! I have not had the pleasure in many moons. And where are you from, little miss Irish?”

“Dublin.”

“Been there, seen that, and a lovely place it is, which is only right by you.”

“Enough,” Mary said, still smiling but obviously ready to get down to business. “Angel said you want to talk.”

“Bargain, as it were. But I fear I may have met my match in finding an Irish woman to bargain with.”

“You may have,” she said, “because the price does not change no matter the country you come from.”

“Now, dear, let us not talk of monetary things in front of the youths. They may not understand the ins and outs of the deal and need not be bothered with it. If we could just wander away a minute I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”

“Wander we can, but the price is the same.”

Riley looked enthralled of her.

“Oh, my heart aches, it surely does. But, please, just a moment of your time.”

And with that he led her off to the side and tilted his head to her and they talked. I looked around. Amos and Jess and Ambrose, like me, were looking at the large and skinny dark haired women and the blonde who was short but in no other way like the first two. She was kind of plain in the face, but pretty just the same, with small bare feet sticking out from under her light dress. She did not look a lot older than me and she was staring directly at me. I tried to hold her gaze but could not. I began looking around as if interested in the camp. When I looked back, she was still staring. I wondered if I just looked so stupid that she could not get a handle on it. I felt my face getting red and was glad it was too dark for her to see that it was.

“Ladies been here long?” Amos asked, breaking the silence.

“Long enough,” the big woman said. “Where you boys from?”

“Illinois,” Ambrose said, real loud and hard as if he was wanting them to know he had something important to say.

“Westerners then,” she said, “that’s good. I’ve found westerners to have a strong appetite when it comes to rolling with a woman, kind of like they’ve been without a lot.”

“Maybe it’s not the lack but the quantity that makes them good,” Amos said, sticking his chest out.

“I doubt that,” the big one replied.

“I hope your friend gets done with Mary fast,” Angel said then. “I can’t be wasting my time here for long, not with so many around tonight.”

“Then go,” Jess said.

She looked up at him but you could see she quickly decided not to get mad.

“Oh, not that I don’t want you boys’ business,” she said quickly. “It’s only that I hear the army is moving out soon and a girl has to make do while she can.”

“You don’t aim to follow us down when we go to whip the Rebels?” Amos said his chest pushing out a little more yet.

“I don’t want no Rebel boys kilt, and no Yankee boys kilt either. I’ve been with both and don’t see the reason in it. There’s better things to do with spare time.”

“Too hell with politics,” the heavyset one said, “don’t nobody even get on it.”

The blonde had looked at them to follow their conversations, but when it got quiet again she turned her eyes back to me as if making me go red was the only worthwhile thing she had to do. I was glad then when Riley and Mary made their way back. Riley was still smiling but he was doing it while shaking his head.

“I have met my match, boys,” he said. “Miss Mary is not a woman to be taken lightly, let me tell you that. But a bargain is struck. Now to commence the business for which it were struck.”

“That’s right girls,” Mary said, “payment has been made for each man one trip.”

I looked to the woods, thinking that coming upon a whooper had to be a better thing than what was about to happen. My stomach came to my throat and I knew that had I tried to speak then it would have come out like I had a mouthful of rock. I could have used a slug and wished dearly that Riley had not given the bottle away.

Skinny Angel clapped her hands to her hips, pleased at the outcome. She glanced at Mary, seemed to have caught a look, then grabbed for Ambrose’s hand.

“Come on, big ‘un, I got a tent over here.”

“A…a…” Ambrose managed, then was dragged away as if he amounted to nothing.

“I’m with you,” the large one said real businesslike, putting an arm around Amos and almost making him disappear in it.

“No problem that,” Amos said.

When they had gone, Mary gave Jess a smile.

“And what is your name?”

“Jesse,” he said, holding her gaze.

“From the bible?”

“Like Mary.”

“So it is,” she said, not taking her eyes off of him, “so it is. Well, follow me then, Mr. Jesse from the bible.”

Riley gave a taken back look, but there didn’t look to be a lot to it.

"But, Mary, I thought as a fellow countryman we would -- ah, but I understand it. A tall handsome boy, he is."

Mary walked over to Jess and took hold his arm. Jess caught my eyes, then looked beyond me and I knew that the young blonde lady was coming up to my side. I felt like someone was sucking the blood that had been running to my face straight out the soles of my feet. I dared not look her way.

“I had been with a fellow from New York, just a bit back,” she said as she closed, “and he had promised to return. But I think I have enough time for this fine young man here.”

Her voice was as young as she looked and I still did not face her. When she finally got to touching my upper arm I expected her hands to send me to shivering like a wet dog, but they didn’t. The touch was warm and I felt no sin coming from it. It felt like any other soft hand touching my skin. In fact, finally having her touch me and not just stand there staring at me made it better. My breath started coming back. Maybe, I thought, you can get through this without looking the fool after all. I have to admit I liked the feel of her fingers. She looked at me, then at Jess.

“There’s a resemblance,” she said in her high little voice.

“He’s my brother,” Jess said.

“I think more highly of Illinois,” Mary said with her Irish accent.

Then she turned Jess and they walked away. I saw Riley eyeing me close.

“You go on now, young Thomas,” he said. “I need to be finding my own way to a lady.”

Even though the blonde girl’s touch had made me feel better, I still was nowhere near ready to talk. I let her ease me away from the fire. I walked along beside her, trying not to let any part of my body, other than the arm she had hold of, touch any part of hers. But it wasn’t easy. She had a way of letting her near hip bump into the side of my leg at each step. That bump had a very warm feel to it and I knew my face was getting red again and the rocks were returning to my mouth. We wandered around to a small tent on the edge of the camp. It looked like a military tent, though not even close to as big as any general’s. I wondered how she had come by it. She opened the flap and pulled me inside.

A candle burned on the ground by the far wall. There was nothing else but a couple of blankets piled on the dirt floor. As soon as we were inside she closed the flap she stepped over to the blankets, grabbed her dress by the bottom and pulled it up over her head. She threw it over to the side and stood there buck naked. It had come about so fast I did not realize it was being done and when it was over all I could manage was stand there as if gut hit.

I had never seen a naked girl before. I had thought about it a lot, I’ll not deny, and always looked over my shoulder for the devil when I did, but that was all I had ever done, thought about it. I always figured you’d see but one and that would be your wife and that only by accident, as I had always been of the mind that such things as husbands and wives did was only conducted in the dark. I did not figure it was supposed to be seen by anyone, what you did to have children. And here the blonde girl had dropped her clothes as easy as taking a drink of water. I knew, of course, it was in her line of work to be naked with men but, like in the husband and wife way, I thought the business would be done without light. The sight of a naked woman was meant to do but one thing and that was to bring down the wrath of God. Between my gawking and the fear of the wrath of God, my feet and body stayed planted.

“Well, now,” she said, “I don’t figure you got to take anything off if you don’t really want, but you will have to at least unbutton and drag it out.”

I still stood there.

“What?” I said.

She stepped one step to me and pointed down between my legs.

“Drag it out? Remember?” Then her eyes went a little more open. “Oh, wait a minute. You’ve not done it before, have you?”

That comment somehow chunked the rocks out of my mouth and I found my voice.

“Sure I have,” I said. “Sure.”

“Then let’s get on with it then, others are waiting.”

She came up to me and I noticed a faint odor. I don’t believe she had taken time to bath like I had and that surprised me. Not that it was all that powerful, it was only that I figured all girls for bathing on a Saturday. She reached down for my pant buttons and so deep was I in wondering about her smell that it made me jump. She jerked her hand back.

“What is it?” she asked. “Did you have a pain?”

I didn’t answer.

“Am I too ugly?”

“Oh, no, no,” I said, not making a move to do anything myself and feeling the fool because my mind was running in all ways with all it’s might.

“Listen,” she said, “I don’t have time for this. We need to get it done. I’m sure you’re not carrying anything no other fellow has ever carried, so just drag it out and I’ll help you get done what men need done. I was scared once but, believe me, it ain’t no surprise once you done it. So can you unbutton?”

“You was scared?”

“A long time ago.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty,” she said, easy as you please.

“And you done it a long time ago?”

“I was eleven first time. But I’m not of a mind to tell you any more and we haven’t the time if I was. There’s other men out there needing my time.”

She backed down onto the blanket and laid on her back, in a room as lighted as could be. I knew for a fact God’s wrath would be righteous in coming on us then.

“Unbutton now,” she said, “and come here.”

“I-I can’t.”

She sat up quickly.

“It’s going to cost whether we do it or not,” she said, kind of sharp.

“I think Riley’s done paid.”

“The Irishman?”

I nodded.

“Why would he pay for you? I wondered about that.”

“He said he wanted to,” I answered, the words sounding like there were coming from somebody else.

“Do you suppose he won’t be mad if we don’t, as he’ll pay just the same?”

“If he is, I’ll pay him back.”

“You got the money?”

“I got money.”

“Then I’m really confused. He paid, though you got the money, and now you won’t, but you’ll pay him back. I’ve seen men waste their money, if you figure it by time spent, but I’ve never seen it wasted like this. Listen, I’m here, and I won’t break you in half. Or if I did, you’d be the first.”

The rocks were in my legs as well as my mouth and I did not move.

“You sure I’m not ugly?” she asked again.

“No. No, you’re not ugly. I just don’t have a mind to tonight.”

She got up, studied me one last time, then reached over and grabbed her dress and as fast as she had lost it, had it back on.

“Well, I got to go then,” she said.

“Where’s your home?” I asked quickly, thinking I had to say something, though saying that was pretty pitiful.

She ran her fingers through her hair.

“It don’t pay to talk,” she said in a nice enough way, “and it don’t mean nothing neither. Good-bye, Tom, you be careful fighting your war.”

She went by me, patting my arm as she did, then went out the flap and was gone.

I stood there in that room, with those blankets laying on the dirty ground, and felt foolish. And yet was glad I had not unbuttoned. Neither of us, I believe, would have felt any better by it, and maybe both of us worse, though her probably only a little. I gave her enough time to where she would have moved a good ways off, then went to the flap myself. I ran my eyes about in the dark and did not see her. I started to walk back to the fire where it had all started and hoped as I did she was not going to be there, especially if she was there with plans on telling the others about the fool I was.

The only person there was Riley. He was sitting on a log that had been pulled up close to the flames. He leaned back to take me in.

“Tom? That were quick work. I thought only us old men had trouble when it came to quick.”

I sat down beside him and kept my eyes on the fire.

“Didn’t do nothing,” I said. “I’ll pay you for what you’re out.”

“I don’t care a whit about the money. These girls need it bad enough, no matter what service they provide. It’s the not doing that has me baffled.”

I shrugged.

“How come you’re not with someone?” I asked.

“Oh, I gandered around some but decided to come back here and wait on Mary, when your big brother is through. No one I seen seemed a match for her, by a long shot. A fine looking redheaded Irish woman is a firebrand hard to beat.”

I did not comment and did not lose my watch on the fire and so he took his time and pondered me a while longer. The laughing and whooping was still filling the night air. It was cool, the darkness moist with spring dew. It made me think how warm the blonde woman’s touch had been on my arm and then second thoughts took hold. I rubbed my hands in front of the flames.

“So, young Tom,” he said then, “do you plan on doing nothing with that thing but piss?”

He had me pegged, I knew, and there was no reason to deny that that’s all I used it for.

“I’m sorry if I let you down,” I said.

“You’ve not let me down. Your pee-wag might have argument with you, but not me. You’ve nothing to prove to this old man. I only brought you here because I know we were leaving to fight soon and thought maybe you and the others needed a good time before we did.”

“I know and I thank you, but I guess I’m someone who needs to be married. I don’t know why.”

“I understand,” he said, putting an arm on my shoulder, “and that’s an admirable calling. I must admit, in one way or another, an Illinois boy rises in my esteem on a daily basis. Were I so clean living.”

Something was bothering me and though I hadn’t really known Riley Meade that long as far as days went, it seemed like I had always known him, and I felt of all those I was around just then he would be the one to ask.

“Riley, not being married is the only thing that has bothered me all along about being a soldier. I know I took the gamble of dying when I joined this army and I can accept that. I’m not scared, too much, of getting killed. I figure when you go it’ll be to a better place, especially if you were trying to free the slaves. But the thing that would bother me would be that I would die never being married, never having a wife to love, like John. Or children. That’s something I really long for. I go to sleep nights now thinking about it, a house and folks waiting for me there in the evenings. I’ve seen that house a hundred times in my head and I think I would never get tired of going there, day after day, as long as my wife and young ones was there. Sounds kind of boring, I suppose, to a lot of folks, but not to me. I guess that’s why I couldn’t do anything tonight. A wife means too much to do bad by, even one you don’t have yet.”

“How do you stand with the girls at home?”

“Oh, I know some as friends, pretty ones too. But none that I’ve courted or that I’m sure would want to court me. Shoot, I only just turned nineteen.”

“I bet they’re biting at the braces waiting for you to come calling, too,” he said. “Fine, stout lad like you. And I know what you mean about longing for the niceties of the home. I’ve had a good run in this life, that be sure, and most days I wouldn’t trade my wandering ways for nothing. But now that I’m old I get a hollow feeling now and again. I think about how happy my kinfolk was back in Ireland, at least before the famine. How my mother would smile when she heard my father tromping for the door. How he would tickle her while she tried fixing the ‘tatoes. Even poor men are happy when in love. Myself, only been with whores or soiled drunks, some so strange and ugly I had to creep up on them thoughtful and slow-like to get things straight. And, in all probables, they’ll be all I ever have. You’ll do better than me by going home and latching on to one of the rosy cheeked farm girls. It’s a good thing to want to do.”

“But I got to get through this war.”

“Listen to me. There’ll be hundreds of thousands of men marching come warm weather. Do you know how few of all them are scratched up to die? Not many, when you figure the total. No, Thomas, you’ll do your duty then go home and find you that girl who you won’t have to pay for, and you’ll be the better for it. And maybe you’ll not be too embarrassed to invite a ragged Irishman to the wedding wake, eh?”

I had to smile.

“How will I know where to send the invite?”

“We’ll figure that later, that’s a small fence to hurtle.”

I felt a little better but I did not have the heart to tell him I was still scared. I had seen the cannon balls. I had shot the minie balls. Dying, when those things started flying, looked a real possibility.

“And Riley,” I said, hesitating a little, “do the others have to know?”

“Know what?”

I was right, he had been the one to talk to. A few minutes later Amos came up out of the shadows, alone. He swaggered up to the fire.

“Whew!” he said. “That big woman knew her work. I figure I’ll rest easy a while now, and so will she.”

“So you say,” Riley commented.

Next came Ambrose, who looked as surprised about things as he came back as he had leaving. He didn’t speak, only crouched down across the fire from us.

“And how was your respite?” Riley asked him.

“What I did was fine,” he said. “It was fine.”

“Only fine? A pretty slim thing like that were only fine?”

“Well, I guess.”

“As long as you’re happy,” Riley said. “But refrain from whooping and hollering if you can, Mr. Young.”

Five minutes later Jesse came up and Mary was still with him.

“You brought her back,” Riley said. “That was a gallant act, Jesse.”

“Why would that be?” Mary asked.

She didn’t look any worse for the wear to me. Her hair was still in place and her smile still pretty.

“Why,” Riley answered, “I have been waiting patiently for my turn, if you’ve the mind, sweet Mary.”

“Come along, then,” she said, “if you’ve still got money.”

They left and the rest of us sat about the fire in silence. I can only imagine what they were thinking about, but I was thinking about what I would say to them, especially Jesse, if they ever wanted to talk about how I had done. I was also thinking about getting out of there and getting back where we belonged. It had to be close to midnight and it would be getting light early, what with no clouds in the sky. What seemed an eternity passed and then Riley came back, his clothes rumpled more than usual. Mary didn’t come with him. Jess look a little disappointed.

 

 

We left the whore camp right after Riley rejoined us and made our way back through the dark. It was good to hear the noises of the men and women die behind us as we got farther away. I did not figure on ever visiting such a place again.

We finally reached the head of the gulley that would get us past the guards that Riley said would be under the trees. We got into it and went into a crouch until we came to the other end, the spot where it was only a short run to our camp’s edge. Riley poked up his head and looked about then dropped back down into the gulley.

“Looks clear to me,” he said, “but the shadows is deep. So let’s do this fast and be done with it.”

We started across the open area, me last again. I was sick and tired of feeling scared and wanted only to be back in our tent but ten yards from the first tent a voice came out of the dark and a figure ran out in front of us.

“Halt!” he hollered. “Who goes there? Halt!”

A couple of the fellows in front of me yelped and went about two feet in the air but none stopped, only put more speed to their run. I was more stunned and more stupid, however, and I came straight up to a dead stop, shivering head to toe. I wanted to scream but the sound never came out.

“Halt! Halt there!” another person said from behind the one who had jumped out at us. “All of you men there, halt!”

The second man made to take after the rest of the group but only followed to the shadows of the first row of tents, stopping there and watching them disappear into the pathways.

“Damn you,” he hollered again, “I said halt!”

But being smarter than me, they didn’t. Heads began poking out of the nearby tents, followed by a lot of chattering. The first man came up in front of me and I saw he was a soldier of my rank with his musket crossed in front. A sentry. The second man came up then, talking with anger as he did.

“I knew you men weren’t doing your duty tonight,” he said to the sentry. “This is the fourth bunch I’ve had a hand in catching since I put all of you to it. Don’t you know what sentry duty means? Don’t you know I could have you shot, just as if I’d caught you sleeping?”

The sentry, like me, was too scared to talk. The second man, an officer by his hat, came the rest of the way up to us. It was Moses. He came to a quick stop when he recognized me.

“You,” he said.

I said nothing. After a stare that went on forever he turned to the sentry.

“Put him under guard with the rest of them.”

“Yes, Major,” the frightened sentry said.

I believe had I tried to run he would have put a minie ball through me, to insure Moses’ good disposition

 

 

I sat the rest of that night, and the most of the Sunday that followed, in a tent with eight other men who were in trouble. Three had been caught sneaking in the night before by Moses, like me. Three had gotten into a drunken fight. One had deserted but hadn’t made it far. I didn’t know any of them and, after a little talk, we all had gotten lost in our own troubles. It was cold in the tent as no fire was allowed and we didn’t have blankets. Guards stood outside the flap. We hadn’t been fed or given anything to drink. I don’t believe, what with the lack of food, the cold and the worry, that I had ever been more frightened and miserable in my life. The deserter was almost beyond himself with worry, seeing as how his was the worst offense. He had gotten a letter saying his father was sick but no one who could was willing to let him go home so he had tried on his own. Now he was scared of the firing squad, though I told him I didn’t see how they could shoot him as he was only trying to see his sick father. He didn’t seem to take much comfort from my words and I couldn’t blame him. The army was a harsh place to make a mistake. I was scared witless myself, and all I’d done was go whoring.

One reason I was so shaky was because I had heard Moses threaten the sentry with shooting and all he’d done was get lazy on his watch. He hadn’t had a whole falling out with him. Would he shoot me, I wondered? Would someone who use to be a friend do that? I hoped not, but it was a deep bitterness that had hold of him. And he was the Rooster, the one who did things by the book. I wished I had my manual to see if whoring was a firing squad offense.

Saddest thing of all was I hadn’t even done anything with the whore and it probably wouldn’t make any difference. I sat there thinking maybe I should have gone ahead and dropped my pants.

No one came to see me Sunday morning but I wasn’t surprised at that. Even if Jess had tried I was sure it wasn’t allowed. So I sat and stared at the wall and the poor souls with me and thought about how I never dreamed soldiering would come to that. Just after midday the sentry poked his head in.

“Private Wills,” he said.

“Yes,” I answered, but it came out a croak.

“Come with me.”

No one else had been called in all the time I had been there. Was my going good or bad? I was afraid to think. I got up and followed the sentry’s head out the door. It was bright sunshine outside and I was glad to feel it.

The tent for wrongdoers was on the outside edge of the camp, a little away from everyone else, and I saw no one but the sentries.

“Follow me,” the same one said.

He walked ahead with his musket crossed in front of his chest and another fell in behind me in the same way. Two stayed by the tent. Going through the camp with the guards made me stand out like a sore thumb, and I wanted to crawl into a hole headfirst. Men looked at me and cackled, some making what they thought for sure were funny remarks though they were a long sight from it to my ears.

“What’d you, boy,” one said, “droop your drawers?”

“Nah,” said another, “he most likely got drunk. Looks like a drunkard to me.”

“Step lively. They can only shoot you once.”

And on it went. I decided to stare into the back of the man in front and not look around. It was the only way I could ever make it. Finally, we came to a large tent, an officer’s by the size of it. I was ordered inside and was glad of it.

It was Moses’ tent. He was standing in his best uniform behind a small camp desk. On a chair across from him sat Captain Simms. Neither looked too happy. I attempted to give them a salute but it came out fairly lame and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t return it. Sad try that, Tom, I thought. I stood there and waited. It was Moses who spoke first.

“Private Wills,” he said, not beating around the bush and not acting like he knew me from Adam, “what were you doing outside of camp last night in full disregard of standing orders?”

He did not sound like any Moses I had ever known.

“I don’t know, Major.”

“You don’t know? You try to make fools of the whole regiment and the best you can do is you don’t know?”

I didn’t say anything then, had no idea what to.

“Well, let me help you if you’re that dense,” he went on. “My idea, Private, is that you and your friends went to be with some whores. You were coming from that direction. Or did you think the officers were so stupid they did not know a whore’s camp was out there?”

“I-I didn’t know how stupid to think the officers were,” I said, stymied and scared.

“What was that!”

I can’t be sure, because things were a little muddied just then, but I think Captain Simms smiled a trifle.

“I mean…I don’t know what I mean.”

“You and your friends broke regulations to go whoring, isn’t that it?” Moses said for me.

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, Major.”

“I suppose a whore is the best any of you can do,” he said.

That got my attention and I forgot a little how frightened I was and gave him a hard look. He gave me a smirk that only he and I could read. Captain Simms didn’t make a move and if he had smiled earlier, he wasn’t then.

“So,” Moses said, “it’s whores you put ahead of your duty. That’s so pathetic I can hardly stomach it. What I want to know now is who were the men with you. Name them, Private.”

I kept quiet.

“Name them, Private!”

“I want to know why what I did that was so wrong,” I said. “We weren’t ready to march and what we did didn’t harm no one.”

“This is the Army of the Potomac. This is not some place to come and play games with your drinking friends!”

“I remember a time Moses, when we snuck off from a camp and no harm came of it.”

He exploded. His eyes went wild and his face turned red.

“You will never address me that way!” he screamed at me, coming around his desk as if ready to swing. “I am a Major of this army and nothing else to you! Do you understand? Damn it, do you! I don’t want to ever hear a word from you about ever knowing me.”

Captain Simms jumped up and got next to him in a way that kept him from getting any closer. The Captain had a shocked look.

“Major,” he said, as calmly as he could, “there’s no need for that.”

He turned to me.

“You will address the Major by rank, Private. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Captain,” I said, straightening and looking at Moses head on.

I didn’t care what he did to me then, I wasn’t going to fall back. Moses looked at the Captain as if he was having trouble bringing him into focus. He turned at last and walked back to his desk.

“I ask you again, Private,” he said in a tight voice, “who was with you last night?”

“I don’t know, Major,” I said.

“Tell us,” the Captain said.

“I can’t, Captain.”

He didn’t seem too bothered by my answer. I think he understood and only asked to be asking.

“It doesn’t matter,” Moses said then. “I have an idea. Ruffians have a way of continuing in their flaunting of regulations and some day they will do it again. It’s only a matter of time. But for now you must be dealt with so you will never consider abandoning camp again.”

He turned and glared at me.

“Do you know the punishment for desertion in the face of the enemy?”

I felt my heart sink but did not let my face show it. Captains Simms creased his forehead.

“I’d hardly call what they did desertion in the face of the enemy, Major. Nor would I think would the Colonel. This man broke a regulation, but not that one.”

“In my eyes he deserted,” Moses said, “as sure as if we were facing an enemy. What he did shows a flaw of character that will come out again and probably cost men their lives. Absent without leave, the only one of our regiment of all the men caught last night. I will not tolerate it. We must have discipline, or we will be lost. You know that too, Captain.”

“I know that, sir, as well you know it. I have disciplined men myself when needed. But I have never found whoring to be an offense linked to cowardice. I have watched Private Wills, have talked to him, and do not find him anything but a soldier trying to do his duty. He marches and follows orders. What he did was wrong and discipline may be required, but it must fit the crime. Personal feelings cannot, must not, enter into it.”

Moses jolted and looked ready to yell again but the Captain did not flinch. So Moses caught himself and a hard little smile came across his face.

“I had no intention of treating this man as a deserter, Captain. I only said that to get his attention. But he, and all others in this regiment, will learn to follow orders.”

The Captain nodded.

“So tomorrow he will ride the wheel,” Moses said. “He will be put on it tomorrow morning in front of the regiment, in front of his company, and will spend the entire day of drilling on it. Is that understood, Captain?”

Captain Simms looked like he was ready to say more, but he let it go.

“Yes, Major,” he said, sighing.

Moses turned and put his back to me again.

“Then have him escorted back to the prisoners’ tent.”

 

 

I did a lot of thinking that night, in the dark cold with the rest of the prisoners. There was nothing else to do.

The Captain did not believe riding the wheel was the right punishment for whoring, I knew that by what I had seen. So either Moses was an extra harsh officer or else he was using his rank as an excuse to get at me. I wondered if, where I to ask him, the Captain would go to the Colonel on my behalf. Seeing how he was, I thought maybe he would. But I did not want to put him in a place to get into trouble as he had stood up enough for me as it was.

So that left my mind to run on Moses. How could someone change so? It was an aggravating question, especially for one in my position. Sure, he had been hurt, his whole family at that, but there was more to the way he was than a grudge at a slight. I saw that clearly after the visit to his tent. His eyes, his face, the way he held himself. He had become someone who had not existed before and that seemed a hard thing to do. It got me to thinking that maybe what he was when we were little was the untrue Moses. Perhaps what he had turned into, the person with mean eyes, was the true one. I sat in the tent with the other soldiers in trouble, living in my own misery at what I had ahead of me, and thought it a sad thing to have happen, even if it were God’s will. Moses had been that good a friend.

But all of it was beyond my changing it. I decided I would not let him know I cared, or that anything he did bothered me, though I knew what he had ordered for me the next day surely would. A few weeks earlier a man had been put on the wheel and I had seen it. I did not want, with all my heart, for it happen to me. I was terrified of it, a coward of it. But Moses would not see a coward, if I had the will.

And it was not only for Moses watching that I would have to be strong. I knew I could not give sway to my pains for another reason. Jesse would be there to see. And Jesse was a person, if ever there was one, who would not tolerate a mistreatment of his brother. It would without a doubt fog his mind and cause him to lose his senses. That was Jesse in heart and soul. He was hard to rile but of all that could happen in this pitiful world to get him riled that would be one of the things to do it. No, I could not have him getting into trouble on account of me because what Moses would do to him, if he had the chance, would be far worse.

So there it was. I sat that whole night and ran over it again and again, telling myself what I had, had, had to do. I would have to take my hurts and humiliation in stride, maybe even smile through it if I could manage to man up that much. Being tough would keep my brother on even footing and I owed him that much.

I think that was the longest night in my life. I did not fall asleep until almost sunrise and no sooner did I than one of the guards came and shook me awake. He also woke up several of the other men. He ordered us outside the tent and from there we were led away in different directions. The terrified man who had deserted to be with his sick father was left behind. I guess his punishment was a harder thing to decide and so he would have to sweat over it a little longer. Or maybe his crime had to have a trial. Either way, I felt bad for him.

It was a pretty, sunshiny day. There were almost no clouds in the sky. The spring grass was a deep green. I don’t know if that made me feel better or worse. I was led by two guards to the open ground used for marching drills. Troops were lined up there and it looked like my whole regiment. The closer we got, the more humiliated I got. It was a thousand times worse than being little and having the other children laugh at you in school, and that had always been a damn bad position. These were not boys and girls who would forget what happened to you in a couple of days, these were men whose respect you wanted above all things, men who you wanted to see you as a man and not a child-boy being punished. I glanced over them and saw a thousand pairs of eyes were looking only at me. I wanted to shrink away to nothing. I picked out a spot in the blue horizon, behind all the troops, and stared at it.

We stopped in the middle of the line and when I brought my eyes down I saw my company there. Jess was beside Riley in the second row and he had a hard look on his face. I knew it was time to gut it up. I also saw John and Amos and Ambrose. I gave them what I thought would look like a cocky grin and wondered as I did if it looked as pitiful as it felt. They gave me uneasy grins in return, all except one. Jesse. He stared at me, and when he wasn’t staring at me he was giving Moses a dreadful eye.

Moses was standing in front of the line with Captain Simms. Beside them was a caisson from one of the artillery groups, with several of the artillery soldiers standing around it. It had a boxed compartment with a lid over it to keep the powder dry and big wheels with wooden spokes on either side. There was also a wheel bolted on the back for an extra. The extra one was about four feet off the ground in the middle and was tilted about halfway between straight up and flat down. Moses was standing beside the caisson and that extra wheel. Everyone was at attention. Moses put his hands behind his back and held them together there. He stepped forward a couple of paces.

“Men of the Eighty-Sixth Illinois!” he said real loud, looking up and down the line. “I told you on the first day we gathered as a regiment that I would not tolerate any disregard of the military regulations, regulations of which each of you is more than aware. My intention was to have the best trained and most disciplined fighting unit from our state and my intentions have not changed. We will follow regulations! This man, Private Wills, was as aware of the regulations as you and still he thought it his right to leave camp without authorization, as if he was not bound by the same rules. Most of you stayed in camp this past weekend because it was your duty to do so, but the Private and some of his friends thought they were not bound by the same honor and duty as the rest of you and so they left camp to do as they wished. Their feelings were they were of a higher standing than the most of us, I suppose, and so they could do as they wanted.”

My embarrassment wasn’t easing by any means. It just kept growing and growing by bounds. Eyes were not only on me now, I felt, but were burning through me. I felt myself slump and, though I tried to hold it, I felt my fake grin run off. Fact is, I would have like to cry but there was no way I could do that. I’d rather have been shot than accused of being uppity as Moses was accusing me. I caught Captains Simms running his eyes over the ground as if he were embarrassed too. Moses only stopped long enough to look down the entire line before he started in some more.

“But no one, no matter how important, is of a higher place in this regiment. No one! That must be understood. And so today Mr. Wills will ride the wheel. He will be tied on it now and will stay on it until we are done drilling. He will go where you go, where our artillery goes, and that way he will see that he is no better than any of us. And I hope when the day is over he and anyone else who thinks they can disobey regulations will think again. I will not allow it and the army cannot afford to tolerate it and the next man who leaves without permission will suffer worse. That is my promise.”

He turned to the guards and nodded and they took me by the arms and led me to the caisson. I knew what I needed to do but hesitated in spite of it as I got to the extra wheel. When I did I noticed Jesse out of the corner of my eye making a move like he was coming forward to me. Riley reached out and put his right arm across his chest, stopping him. Moses noticed the movements too and I expected him to order them back to attention but he said nothing, only kept his eyes pinned on Jess like he was making a dare. I knew then I had to act more a man and less a baby, and damn soon.

I forced the cocky grin back on my face and crawled up onto the wheel and laid down on it on my back. My crouch was just above the hub that stuck out past the spokes. I put my arms and legs out to make an X so that my wrists and ankles were on the rim. The guards tied me there with short pieces of rope. When they were done Moses walked over and checked the knots. I kept my eyes on him in the hope he would look at me so I could stare him down, but he never brought his face up to mine.

“Very well,” he said after he was done checking. “Captain Simms, start your drills. A half hour stop will be allowed at midday but otherwise I want this regiment to march until an hour before sunset. Understood, Captain?”

“Yes, Major,” Captain Simms said, carrying a look almost as hard as Jesse’s.

Moses nodded and walked off the field.

“Double time to the right!” the Captain called out.

I saw Jess, his eyes still on me, making the moves by habit. He was stone-faced. It was a look I had seen only a few times and I knew it put him close to the anger that addled his brain. I made sure he saw me grinning, even as the wagon pulled off and jolted my back against the hard spokes.

Those wooden wheels had no give to them and they slammed against my backbones in a hurtful way. I tried to think of it as no worse than the riding in the back of our carriage and looking at the stars when I was little, but I couldn’t hold my mind to it

That field had ruts and ditches, worn there by a hundred drills, and the artillery unit was riding along fast to keep pace with the infantry. The order was given for the men to form a battle line and as they did the drivers pushed the horses into a trot to be able to come up on the side and front of the regiment and set up as they would on the day of a battle. That trotting and bouncing caught me off guard and my crouch slammed into the wooden hub.

I had thought that by tensing myself and trying to time the caisson’s bouncing I could maybe get through the day pretty easy. It was the kind of thinking you do when you’re young and have the mind that you can handle anything. But that slamming of my vitals into the hub brought me back to my senses real fast and it sunk in to me that the day had just begun. The pain was the kind to make your stomach turn and hurt. It was also the kind you wanted to rub but there was no way for that. So I just yelped and gritted my teeth and decided I had to keep my arms and legs stiff so I would not bounce.

But in only a short while I found that that was also going to be impossible to do. The wheel was tilted at too much of an angle, causing all my weight to be put on the ropes. They bit into my wrists and ankles and my muscles soon started to ache. I started moving between tightening my arms and legs until I could stand it no more, then trying to relax until the next rough spot bounced my vitals into the hub, when I had to tighten again.

After wheeling around into position the caisson stopped to let the artillery men set up their cannon and go through the motions of loading it. For a brief while I was able to breath heavy and try to regain myself. But too soon the order was given to fall into marching formation again and go to another part of the field to practice it all over, like we did on normal days when no one was riding the wheel. Again I wasn’t ready and my vitals took a blow. Not twenty minutes had passed and already I felt ready to scream. There was no question about putting on even a pitiful grin then. All I could do was close my eyes and grit my teeth and try somehow to hold myself just right at just the right time.

And so the day went. Minutes seemed like hours and the sun, which had been so pretty and cool earlier, took on the face of a demon. It burned my eyes and heated my face and forehead. Salty sweat ran into my eyes and stayed there. In an hour I was as thirsty as I had ever been in my life. The soldiers riding on the caisson paid me no mind as if I was no more than a carcass on the side of the damn road. They did not try to hit the rough places but they didn’t try to dodge them either as they did not want to get in trouble themselves. I did not blame them. They knew as well as anybody how closely the Rooster watched things.

Once, through my clenched eyes, I saw Moses the Rooster standing fifty feet away and taking me in as if I was nothing more than a thing to look at and be bored with. He had been my friend but at that moment I came to truly hate him. I wanted to beat his head into that hateful wheel he had put me on.

I lost sight of where Jess and the others were. My world became the wheel, a place of hard corners and pain. I tried and tried to think of pleasant things, but any soft and pretty memory that came to me died when the next move cut the ropes into my skin or beat the wheel into my back or vitals. I began to think of the things I had been scared of as a little boy, things like Indians, southern devils and storms, and felt I would have gladly taken any of them on headfirst if I could only be gotten off of that Godforsaken, damnable caisson wheel. It wasn’t long before the wheel became a living thing, laughing through smirking teeth at hurting me.

By the time the half hour break came at noon and things mercifully stopped for a while, I had completely lost all ideas of the passing of the day. It simply had not moved as a clock would take it, it only existed to go on forever and ever. I lowered myself gently onto the hub and took the strain off my arms and legs. No one came near me, all knowing it wasn’t allowed. Most paid me no attention as I was no one but a fool who thought himself better, like Moses had told them. I did not see my friends and really did not want to.

For the briefest of minutes I felt better, though I was so thirsty it felt like my tongue was swollen. But just when that better feeling was getting hold the rest was over and the men hopped on the caisson and it went bouncing off again and all the hell I was in came back. I closed my eyes and looked at the lights flashing inside my head. I came to a point where I did not care anymore.

The world swirled away and I felt not a part of myself like I had done once when I was real little, barely old enough to remember it, and had run a high fever. My memory of that time had always been a vision of my mother coming to me with the cold bucket of water and washcloths in her hands, a person rolling and shimmering the dark shadows in front of my eyes, looking nothing like Mama. I knew that I remembered it that way because my mind had been so hot and fevered. If she had not come to my bed with the cool water, I probably would have died.

The visions that came to me that afternoon on that wagon wheel were like what I had seen that delirious night so many years before. People passed before me, blurry people who turned and rolled magically in a gray mist. I saw Mama again, and then Grandpa, and thought how nice it was that he wasn’t dead with a hole in his head anymore. I also saw my father in his silly suit and the Reverend on the pulpit and me and Jess and Moses under the grapevines and the chickens eating the rinds were as big as donkeys. I saw our church on the hillside and the tombstones and markers were floating in the cemetery and Sarah was up in the air with them. I wanted to holler at her to come down but knew she would only laugh at me. I saw a plow horse in a field with legs no taller than a squirrel’s. I saw the sun rise above the woods east of our big house, saw that sun burn through the trees like a candle through a curtain. I saw Grandpa again and he was walking into that burning curtain. I saw so many things, all of them strange and fevered, and in spite of my misery I found my mind awed and curious.

The afternoon and the wheel and the pain and the things I was seeing became one, like dirt and water being thrown into a hole at the same time. That is the best way I can describe it. It was a torment of mud added to and stirred, made in another world. My mind simply left me. I guess it was a blessing.

Then, and it took me a long to realize it, I felt the warm grasp of hands on my arms and legs. I opened my eyes and tried to focus on what was happening but my eyes weren’t ready to see real things too well. Sounds came to me then and it was Riley’s deep, Irish voice that put my mind to working at last.

“Take it easy with him, lads,” he was saying, “it’ll be a while till he holds himself up.”

They were carrying me in their arms and soon I felt the shade of a tree and the cool of grass on my back. That brought me back down to where my hurts were coming on again. My arms and feet and crouch ached, and my muscles everywhere felt as stiff as boards, like they were mad at me. I felt a canteen at my mouth and the cold water came to me and I tried to take it all before it was stolen away again and then I was choking and coughing.

“That’s all right then, boys,” Riley was saying, “let him on his side to cough. It be the thing to bring him back.”

He was right, of course. After getting the catch out of my throat all I wanted was some more water and it came my way. I squinted my eyes and started to be less addled and saw it was Jess at my right shoulder holding the canteen. I wanted real bad to talk to him and after I was filled with water I did, though there wasn’t a lot to my voice.

“I…I didn’t holler out, did I, Jess?”

His eyes were wet. He smiled at me past those wet eyes.

“No,” he said, his words cracking, “you didn’t holler out.”

“No,” I said, wanting to agree with him.

Then I looked at him even harder and beyond his eyes and smile I saw a rage like none I had ever seen before.

John and Amos were taking the cut ropes off my hands and feet and they started stinging like hell’s needles were in them.

“I wanted to come see you, Tom,” Jess said, “I did. But they stopped me.”

“That he did, and that we did,” Riley said. “It would have done no good and would only have only served the purpose of putting him there with you. But it were a battle, young Thomas. Your big brother is not one to stand in front of, and that’s a fact.”

“I’m glad you didn’t come,” I said. “They were right. It’s over now and no harm that I can see.”

His face told me that Jesse saw things a lot different. That face scared me.

Soldiers were passing around us on their way back to the camp and most couldn’t help but slow down and gawk at our little group. Then I saw a figure walk up to stand just in front of us. It was Captain Simms, and he was looking down at me and shaking his head.

"Never seen a man ride the wheel for so long," he said, more to himself than anybody. "Much less ride it for --"

He stopped what he was saying.

“Whoring,” Riley said, finishing his sentence. “Whoring’s what we done. I took the boys and feel bad about what happened here, but not for the whoring. What we done hurt no one.”

The Captain raised his eyes to Riley.

“I know,” he said, finally. “I know. And nothing like this will never happen again. I promise you that.”

Jesse drew John’s arm under my shoulders to replace his, then stood up. I wanted to grab him and pull him back but my arms would not allow it. He walked straight up to Captain Simms. Captain Simms did not move and held himself to face Jesse head on.

“Nothing like this ever Goddamn well happen again,” Jess said, his anger making him sound like someone else.

“Wills,” Captain Simms said, never flinching, “you will not talk to an officer that way.”

Jesse brought up a hand and pointed a finger at him.

“I know it wasn’t your doing, Captain,” he said. “But I’m telling you now, by all I hold dear in this damn world, this will never happen again. Ever!”

The Captain held Jess’ look a long while. Then he turned to Riley.

“He can rest three or four days until he feels well enough to drill with the regiment.”

“The Major might have something to say about that,” Riley said.

“He can rest three or four days until he feels well enough to drill with the regiment,” Captain Simms said again.

Riley nodded. The Captain turned then and walked away. I watched him go. Jesse came back to my side.

“But I didn’t holler, did I,” I said again.

 

May, 1864

 

I cannot believe I have written as much as I have in this journal. I began it as a whim of sorts and now I see it has grown to a lot of pages. I guess I just like to write. I always have. There is something powerful to me about putting words together. It is a lot better than talking. I do not like to talk, at least not like Silas did, but I do want to write. I want to build from my thoughts in the way a carpenter builds a house. When this war is over and I come to making a decision about the rest of my life, I know in my heart I will do something that will allow me to write.

What I have written here is all true. I say that for the benefit of those I would like to have read it. My children, my grandchildren, maybe even their children. I want you all to know that it is all part of my life, all the important things that have come to happen. I hope that by coming to know these things you will come to maybe know me.

I wrote the first part, the part about when I was little, the year Jess was gone to Chicago and things were so sorrowfully lonesome. It gave me something to do and helped me figure things out. This last, the part about being in the army, I have written during any spare time I have had, usually around the fire in the evening or on the weekends.

Riley has often commented that I like to write more than even John, but so far he has not offered me a pencil and paper like he did him. I guess he knows I can afford to buy my own.

I wrote a large part these last several days while I laying around getting over riding the wheel. Captain Simms was true to his word and I was given time to mend. We never found out if he got grief for it from Moses, but if he did he got by it. I got all the time I needed and milked the opportunity to do nothing as that chance doesn’t come often in the army. Truth be known, I really wasn’t in that bad a way once it was over and I had water and food and a while to come to my senses, just a mite tired and a little bruised and cut around my wrists and ankles. And a little tender between the legs. All those things healed well enough. Other things did not.

I have no desire to be friends with Moses again. I want nothing to do with him. I’ve seen him a couple of times now that I’m back to drilling with everybody else, have seen him prance by on his big horse, and he doesn’t even bother looking at me. In fact, he does his best to keep from it. Me or Jesse. When we get home I hope his life with the army keeps him away from Jefferson for good. I don’t feel bad about wishing that, not anymore, and I think Jess feels the same. What was, years ago, will never come back. It’s kind of like Grandpa and his memories of being young and fighting the Indians. If you let the things that use to be wear at you, it brings you down. It brought Grandpa down so much it killed him.

Lately I have stopped writing and have sat and read all I have already put down. I have to laugh at some of the things we did, especially when we were young and igernent. Some of the other things make me powerful sad, but I guess that makes me no different than anyone else in this world. Life is happy and life is sad and seldom anywhere in between. I’ve noticed that. Grandpa, were he alive, could probably tell me why. Riley, if I caught him in the bottle, would gladly try to explain it, but I doubt I would understand him.

One thing I have found out by reading through my journal is that so very little of it is about me, where I was the middle of things. Seems, until now, it has always been about what has happened to Jesse, or to Jess and Sarah, or Grandpa, or Moses, or his father, or my father and mother. But seldom me. I suppose that’s because I am still pretty young and have not had too many opportunities to do much. But then, Jess is only three years older and a lot I have written has been about him.

It gets me to wondering. Could it be that I am just surrounded by folks who are strong about things of life? Could it be they have cast shadows over me? I hate to think that. I want my children and grandchildren to someday read this and have a prideful feeling about who I was and what I did. Not that I expect them to be proud of everything I have done, that’s for sure, but I do want them to see that I have stood out in a lot of ways, right or wrong. That is why I have decided to quit writing, for now.

We have moved south of Brandy Station, Virginia, and are heading for the Rapidian river. Grant, old Unconditional Surrender, is with the army, telling General Meade what to do. Rumors are we will the cross the river and on the other side General Lee is waiting with his army. The camp is alive with talk. Men and wagons and horses and cannons are everywhere. It is hard to believe so many thousands could be put together. It is all commotion. Riley says it will be a big fight when our brood crosses over to meet the Rebels, because neither of those two, Grant or Lee, is afraid to slog through blood. Those are his exact words.

So there will be a fight. I will be part of it. When it is done, when this war is finally over and only then, will I write some more, and I will have something to say about me. I will have been through a passing of my own. Hopefully, I will be glad to tell of it but, no matter what, I will tell.

Sometimes I lay and imagine those who are yet to come and they are sitting and reading all this and all I will yet write. I truly hope it makes them stick their chests out a little. I also hope that those who will read it a long time from now, and who never had a chance to meet me, will wish they could have. It’s one of those imaginings that, had I said anything about it when I was little, Jesse or Moses or both of them would have told me I was igernent. But it is what I wish. And it isn’t igernent if nobody knows it.

 

The Battle of the Wilderness

May 5 to May 6, 1864

The Army of the Potomac, of which Tom and Jesse Wills and their friends were members, along with the rest of the of the Eighty-Sixth Illinois, had been resting all winter like a huge lake of humanity in the Virginia county side north of the Rapidian river. On the flowing in of warm weather and the drying of the roads the time had come for it to move, a time the whole nation had been holding its collective breath for.

One of that nation was Emily Wills, who read things in her husband’s Missouri Republican just at dusk on the first of May, then went to the darkness of her bedroom to cry.

On May 4, 1864, a Wednesday, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Gordon Meade set the Union army loose and that human lake coursed like water down a hillside, separating and flowing through the low easy paths that lead to the pontoon bridges placed across the Rapidian. From a distance it seemed a living, unstoppable flow of men and caissons and horses as far as the eye could see, loaded down with dry powder and deadly lead balls, too many to be halted and too massive to be turned, a machine meant to drown something in blood.

But a distant onlooker would have been wrong contemplating such things for across the river a dam waited, a dam that would convulse the Union army’s flow upon itself, a dam that did not know the meaning of a backward step. That dam was the Army of Northern Virginia and its commander was Robert E. Lee.

His intention was not to give up an inch of southern ground and Grant’s intention was to eliminate Lee’s army no matter what ground it stood to protect, and both were men whose determination knew no bounds. Together they would bring about a spring and summer unmatched in America history for agony and death, and it all started on the south side of the Rapidian.

The country there was a tangled intermeshing of scrubby trees and briars and vines, known by the locals as the Wilderness. It was an impenetrable mass of hooded, green darkness, half a dozen miles across, where cannon and artillery would be almost useless were a fight to occur in it. And a fight in it there would be. Lee intended it to happen there so that his smaller force could have the equalizer of the shadows. A fight of minie balls and bayonets, a battle hung upon the nerves of men who would be asked to kill each other face to face. Men from big towns and small towns, rich men and poor men, married and unmarried, country bumpkins and those who considered themselves aristocrats, men with blood flowing and fragile hearts so easily stopped.

On May 4th, 1864, 122,000 Northern soldiers crossed a river in Virginia to fight 70,000 Southern soldiers. By May the 6th, 25,000 of those men would be casualties, either wounded or dead.

It was the beginning of the unspeakable slaughter.

 

 

On the Wednesday that the Army of the Potomac started moving to cross the river to meet the Confederates Tom Wills was as excited as he had ever been in his life, as were most of the soldiers in the army who had not yet been in a fight. The winter had been a long, tedious one and even though the move meant there would be a battle at least it meant something different, an adventure of a sort perhaps. The veterans knew otherwise and were not nearly as excited. They could have easily stayed in camp all the summer and the next winter too.

Riley Meade was the only veteran in the Tom’s group and it showed. He was grouchy on the fourth and let it out as everyone put on their backpacks and prepared to fall into formation.

“Damn the luck!” he said. “Going to fight Bobbie Lee while everybody else who was in Chicago is going south with Sherman to enjoy the view!”

“I doubt they’ll be enjoying any view,” Corporal John Crisler said. “Grant’s everybody’s boss and he intends on them fighting too.”

“But it’s not Lee, not that villain.”

“Don’t know why he bothers you so much,” Tom said, “it won’t be him shooting at us, it’ll be his men.”

“But he has a damnable way of putting them in a place to shoot at us with advantage. The man gets fevered on a call to arms and we’ll pay dearly not to be going south with Sherman, mark my pitiful word.”

“I’m ready,” Ambrose said with quick excitement, rare for him as he was not generally quick about anything. “The faster we go and fight and whip them, the sooner we go home, and I’m more than a damn sight tired of drilling.”

“I’ll second that,” Amos Freid said. “It’s just a shame they wore our boots out before they marched us off to campaign. I reckon new ones will be a long time coming now, if ever. Still, it’s good to be going.”

“Come talk to me in a few days,” Riley mumbled. “I’ll wager a change of heart.”

Jesse looked at Riley and hoped the gloom would leave him after the march started. Everyone needed to keep their spirits up and Riley was usually very good at doing that. The night of the trip to the whores had been his idea and though it had been hard for Tom in the long run, Tom had gotten over Moses’ mistreatment and all the rest of them had remained excited about the going, commenting often how nice the visit had been. Yes, they needed Riley to cheer up and Jess had no doubt he would, given time.

Sergeant Morgan moved past them, hurrying them.

“Move along, boys,” he said, “the Eighty-Sixth is set to move out after this next regiment. Let’s get a move on. Be ready now.”

He walked on to the next group of Illinois boys to give them the same message. Jesse and the rest looked across the way at the dust rising on the main road as regiment after regiment was falling into line and marching off to the south and all, as they squinted, thought about how much they hated the idea of the dust they would soon be eating. But the knowledge of the dust did not change their moods. Riley remained sour and the rest stayed excited.

True to the Sergeant’s word it was not long until the call went out for them to fall into marching formation which was four abreast, muskets to shoulders. After forming up the only thing to be seen by any of them was the backs and heads of those in front and hundreds of bayonets pointing to the sky. Tom and Jesse and Riley and Ambrose made one row, while John moved ahead to the front row of the company as befitted his position as a corporal. That put him six rows up. Tom had managed to get an outside position, next to Jesse.

They got into the rhythm of the march quickly and before long were moving at a brisk pace southward and the dust that disgusted them no end came up fast. Behind them, in spite of all the marching feet, Tom could hear the rattle and shake of the artillery being pulled along by the horses. The last pieces of equipment that would fall into line, he knew, would be the canvas covered ambulances they had seen moving about the last few weeks. In their part of the camp alone they had noticed hundreds sitting hub to hub. He put them out of his mind as quickly as they had fallen in.

The march proceeded along briskly until it suddenly came to a dead stop, a routine that would be repeated all that day. While they waited, Tom glanced out past the edge of the road.

The Virginia countryside had turned a vivid green, having sucked up the sun from the warm spring days. Wildflowers had sprouted, all red and yellow and blue, huddled small in the tall blades of endless grass. The flowers and the grass flowed away to the pine forests that covered most of the hilltops. It was pretty country but different than southern Illinois where the majority of trees were big oaks and hickories. But the flowers were the same. They looked pleased with themselves, pushing out their colors through the sea of green. He wondered if they were up at home too, on the hillside down from his father’s big house. He bet they were. For a minute he felt a tinge of homesickness, but only for a minute, for there was no time for that. He was moving out to make something of his life and had no place for home just then.

Yet another kind of sadness came upon him due to the flowers. He started musing that, in all probability, those flowers would be the last a lot of the men would see and that was sad, beyond a doubt. The last flowers of spring to appreciate, along with autumns that would not come and Christmases that would never arrive. All of those things would happen again, but not for a lot of them. The permanence of what could happen hit him and it made him want to go and take a close look at each flower, one by one.

But you’ll see them next year at home, Tom, he told himself. You’ll see them and have a lot to talk about besides.

Jesse saw his brother stare off at the fields and knew what he was thinking as he almost always knew what Tom was thinking. He was pondering the flowers.

His brother had a different heart than most, Jess knew. Where most men would look out at the flowers and maybe for a short while think how pretty they were and then move on, Tom would think beyond the pretty and see something else, probably something deeply felt. Maybe a thought about life in general or about how the flowers reminded him of a certain person or place. It was his way. In years earlier, when Tom had come to him with questions about why things were as they were, Jess had figured him to take to the life of a preacher someday since preachers took thoughts beyond the regular path, like Tom was inclined to do. But now Jesse felt different. He did not see a preacher in his little brother anymore. He had too much wryness about him, like Jesse did.

He had finally decided Tom was just a person who had strong feelings about right and wrong and strong sorrows for those who were hurt, however the hurt came. He was, in the long and short of it, a thinker with a kind soul.

He had often seen him sit and write in the journal he was keeping but Jesse had never asked to read it. Tom had not offered it to him, which meant it had to have some of Tom’s deep questions in it, questions that would embarrass him if someone saw them. He probably thought Jesse would think of them as a woman’s thoughts, all worrisome and silly, and that would be humiliating to any country boy.

Jesse had always wanted to tell him he would not laugh at him. In fact, he wanted to tell him he admired him for the way he was, for the heart he had. But as it would embarrass Tom to have Jesse see his writings, so it would do the same to Jess if he tried to tell Tom his of admiration, or of his desire to read the journal. Men just past boyhood always had troubles with those sort of things.

Jesse not only wondered if he could Tom safe but also with keep him of an easygoing mind. After all, Tom was only nineteen and someone that young could be easily be overwhelmed by death and suffering, especially when they were the type who held a deeper heart than most people.

As for himself, Jesse was ready, having already seen enough of the world to be callused, though he had told no one at home about it.

The waterfront in Chicago had been a rough place where filthy bars drew the hard sad men who worked the wharves, tough immigrants who did backbreaking labor for a little of nothing. And men like that, wasting what they knew they should not waste on cheap liquor that dulled their minds, were quick to anger and frivolous about life in general. He had seen a lot of fights but one in particular stuck with him. Two men decided to have it out over a whore who Jesse thought too ugly for either to worry about. But the rum had its hold and the eyes of the men and working women around the bar had them, and so a fist fight became a knife fight and soon the youngest of the two had ended up with his stomach slit open. He was a young German boy no older than Tom was then. His opponent had wiped the knife blade on his pants and walked back to the bar to go on about his drinking, knowing the fight was over and that no law existed there. Jess had seen no reason to get involved while the ruckus was going on, not knowing either of the men, but felt obligated to go over and kneel beside the German boy after it was over.

He had dark brown hair and blue eyes and a stunned expression on his face, using those eyes to look blankly from Jesse to his entrails and then back to Jesse. He said the same thing in German several times and Jess wished he knew what he was saying and then once again he said it and died, his death coming upon him with shivers and glassing of the blue eyes. They also lost some of the color.

It had been death at its most primitive and it stank and it sickened and Jess wondered what Tom would do in a battle if he saw such a thing. Would it addle his mind so much that he would do something foolish? Would he forget what to do next? Tom was young and Tom felt things and it was a worry to Jesse. He promised his mother that he would bring him home, that being the only reason he joined. But he wondered if he really could. Maybe he would not be capable of it and that worried him more than he could bear.

The march wore on into the day, going well past noon. They moved, only to stop, then move again. Each time they halted the dust would settle around them but in the distance it could be seen rising above the troops who were still marching and then they would start again and it would rise upon them once more. The sun was hot, made more so by the heavy packs they were carrying on their backs. Already they were passing greatcoats and other pieces of extra clothing that had been discarded by men in front who could not fathom any reason to carry them.

Every few minutes an officer would rush by on a horse, calling for the men to move aside, each one in a hurry to deliver the messages they carried. Tom wondered why they did not move off the road into the grass, a place the horses would have no trouble running, and leave the road to the men.

Once, just ahead of midday, Moses trotted down the line of the Eighty-Sixth on his horse, leaving the position he’d been holding at the front of the regiment. He called to the men to stay closed up, though that was no problem as the frequent stops gave plenty of time to do it. Tom reasoned he was making the men pay attention to him for the same reason the couriers made them move aside. It seemed officers felt more highly than usual of themselves on a march that meant something.

At about five in the afternoon they began moving down a hillside and below them flowed a large river. Three walkways, barely wide enough for a wagon, had been laid across the river, held out of the water by flat-bottomed pontoon boats that had been placed under them every few feet. The troops were trailing across these bridges, officers positioned at the head of each walkway to keep the men moving. Everyone knew it had to be the Rapidian they were about to cross, as well as they knew what was on the other side.

A group of officers sat motionless on their horses in the area where the ground flattened just ahead of the riverbank. As the men ahead came abreast of these horsemen a cheer was going up with some of the troops waving their hats above their heads. Everyone craned their necks to see what was going on.

One of the horses was a few feet ahead of the others and the man on it was staring at the men intently. He was a little man, sitting hunched in a blue army coat with no markings of rank on it. He had a dusty, slouched, wide-brimmed hat on his head, a beard on his face and a long cigar clenched tightly in his teeth. Once in a while he would raise a hand to the rim of his hat to acknowledge the cheering but otherwise he sat stone still. Riley leaned across from the other side of the line.

“It’s Grant,” he said.

All four of them stopped craning and held eyes on the General over all the Union armies.

“Shoot,” Tom said, just as the men around him began raising their voices to cheer, “he don’t look like much, does he? Just a little man with a big cigar.”

“Yes,” Riley replied, “but he plans on running that cigar up Bobbie Lee’s arse and for that we’ll all pay.”

Tom looked at Grant intently, wondering what he was thinking. Had he seen the wildflowers? If he had, did he hold the same thoughts about them? Or was he a big enough general to force the thought of flowers out of his mind?

But he found nothing in Grant’s face. If ever there was a man whose thoughts could not be read, Tom could see that General Ulysses Grant was such a man. He stared at all of them as if seeing under their skin, clenching a cigar that was not even lit. His eyes spoke of a mind in motion, although his body was still.

Quickly then they were past Grant and stepping upon the walkway that led over the water. It bowed and rolled under their weight but seemed a lot sturdier than it looked, the horses that were crossing never changing their gaits. The water rolled by, gurgling around and about the pontoons.

Across the river could be seen another level area just off the riverbank, the road running over it before disappearing into a woods. Soon they were off the pontoon bridges and filing into the trees, the trees closing in on them quickly.

It was not what back in Illinois they would call a clean woods. Vines and briars surrounded the scrubby and twisted trees. There had been a finger of woods just like it near the Wills’ house and the only good that had ever come from it, as far as Tom and Jesse were concerned, was that it had always been a good place to go with Grandpa and find mushrooms in the spring, the kind their mother floured and fried and everybody loved to eat. They considered them a delicacy as they were only up a week or two the whole year. But other than the mushrooms that woods was as useless as the one they were then crossing through looked to be.

It was not long before each began wondering where the Rebels were. Tom questioned aloud if maybe they were behind the scrubby trees, waiting to ambush them like Indians.

“Surely not,” Jess said. “I don’t give the officers much credit for sense but I surely hope they would have been smart enough to check that out.”

“There’s no checking Lee out,” Riley mumbled.

“Shit!” Jess cursed. “I wish you’d quit carrying on about him! Could be Grant is just as smart, maybe smarter.”

Riley was taken aback at Jess’s abruptness but, it seemed, only a little.

“Sorry to dwell on it, Mr. Jesse, but the man is a devil for fighting and these damnable forests would be an appropriate home for a devil.”

“I got to admit,” Ambrose said, “I don’t cotton to marching along in here. Do you figure it to end soon?”

No one answered as no one had any idea.

“One thing,” Amos put in, “there’s a bundle of trees to hide behind.”

“We’ll get out of here before we fight,” Jess said. “Armies always fight in the open these days, it’s the way it’s taught. Rebels aren’t Indians. They’ll fight civilized.”

Darkness comes early in a place like the wilderness and the whole line came to a halt in a gray twilight. This halt lasted longer than any previous to it. Then, without warning, word was passed down the line to make camp. Tom and the others looked at each other in surprise, all wondering where that many men could find a place to bivouac in the mishmash of vines and trees. John came back to them from his row farther up.

“Damn,” he said, “hell of a place to camp.”

“I would imagine it’s getting hard keeping track of folks,” Riley said, “and it be likely Ulysses don’t want to bust out of this morass till everyone has trundled over the river. Least that’s my guess, for what it’s worth.”

Jess smiled at him, past his short temper caused by Robert E. Lee’s hold over the Irishman.

“Your guess is usually worth a lot,” he said to Riley.

They moved off to the side of the road and gathered wood as quickly as they could, hoping to beat the dark. Firewood was plentiful in amongst the scrubby trees and they carried what they found to a place under a pitifully small oak, a place with a large enough open area to accommodate them. They kicked around to clear a spot for the fire. After the fire was built a searched was made for more wood, enough to get them through the night.

Amos had walked a few steps and was reaching down for a dead limb when he jerked up straight. Tom, next to him, sidestepped quickly thinking Amos had seen a snake. He searched the ground where Amos was looking but saw nothing move, then his gaze fell upon what had made his friend jump.

A skeleton laid on its back in the vines. Tattered rags of clothes hung on it along with dried brown skin inside the cloth. A cap sat off the back of the head with strands of brown hair creeping out of it. The vines trailed over the skeleton’s whole length with some wrapping the bent legs and arms while others ran across the face to put leaves and stems through the teeth and empty eye sockets. Amos and Tom backed away slowly as if afraid a quick movement would cause it to rise. The rest of the group came over to see.

“Damn,” Amos mumbled.

Riley squinted his eyes to help imagine a skin still across the bones. Then he pointed a few feet farther on to another skeleton lying deeper in the undergrowth. It was as deteriorated as the first, which meant it was impossible to tell what color the cloth had been.

“Chancellorsville was fought hereabouts,” Riley said in a whisper. “Been about a year now, by my reckoning. I suppose these boys are leftovers.”

“Damn,” Amos mumbled again. “Do you suppose there’s more?”

“I don’t figure we’re the only ones unlucky enough to have picked a spot in these woods where bones lay, do you?” Jess asked, unable to take his eyes off the dead men. “Don’t see any reason to move if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Young Jesse is right,” Riley said. “There was enough widows made by that fight that I suppose others of this army will have the pleasure of their company tonight also. Might as well make the best of it. Poor devils might enjoy the companionship, as it were.”

“Wondered what killed them?” Tom asked. “Can’t see any bullet holes or anything.”

“No,” Riley said. “but bugs and wolves have had their feast and that leaves little to go by. They’re dead, and that’s enough.”

“Best we get back to making a fire,” John said, wanting a reason to move away from the bones, “it’s getting darker by the minute.”

By the time they had the camp the way they wanted the sun was gone behind the trees. Bugs came out with the darkness, some chirping in the brush while others flew around the tips of the fire. A few mosquitoes dropped to pester the men but not enough to make things miserable. Frogs bellowed in some distant slue. An owl hooted nearby, trying to put the scare into a rabbit.

They made coffee and tried to use it to wash down some hardtack and salt pork but nobody was very hungry, the bones being just a few feet away. Tom was glad they were past stinking. He felt a little sick to the stomach as it was just because of their presence and a smell would have surely put him to puking. Along with everyone else he found himself glancing at them over and over again. The fire seemed to make the bones glow and in the process of that made the eye and mouth sockets look darker and deeper. The flickering flames gave the impression that the things were moving somehow and when that happened Tom turned away, only to look back a few moments later. It took a while before anyone had the desire to talk and it was John who broke the silence.

“You know,” he said, “I never really joined this fight with the slaves or the Union in mind, I joined for the three-hundred dollars substitute money and I’ve made no secret of it. My family needs that money. I need it, if we’re ever to have anything. So it’s been for my wife and babies that I’m here. But the last few days I’ve been thinking, and them poor dead boys over there have brought it home. A lot of good men with a lot less than I got have been killed. They done it for their own reasons, but they done it. So I’ve thought more about all the rightful things this war is about and I believe in it, and that’s why I’m here too. Along with the money.”

“Your children and wife will be proud of you for the money as well as for you coming to the fight,” Riley told him, “of that I’m sure.”

“Well, I just wanted you all to know. What you men think means a lot to me.”

John felt embarrassed then, so he fell quiet.

“I come to stop slavery,” Tom said, not that they didn’t know it but because he wanted the talk to continue.

“Me too, I guess,” Ambrose said. “And also because Silas had joined up.”

He shot a glance at the bones.

“One good thing is,” he went on, “he got buried at least.”

“Yes,” Jess agreed. “You know where he’s at.”

Riley stared at the fire and spit into it.

“Boys,” he said after listening to the fire sizzle the spit, “I’m here on account I felt I owned this America land something, like I told you. But I’d be lying to you now if I didn’t tell you I got a bad feeling about it, and it don’t shame me to say so. My mother, God rest her soul I suppose, had a way about feelings. When she felt a tinge of sad out of nowhere, something sad happened, and that’s a fact. A burial wake was usually in the offing. Times are I think I took that curse from her and I feel a tinge of sad now. It doesn’t bode good for the fight coming.”

Jess was bothered again by Riley’s moping but this time he was not angered by it. He only wished he would have kept it inside, knowing how much Tom rode on his words. So he felt he had to make light of what Riley said.

“Now, Riley,” he said, “Mr. Lee will get his comeuppance when he meets us. Not likely he’s ever seen such as our like. This is a big army and he’ll soon be falling to it and afterwards we’ll all be going home. There’s no doubt about it.”

Riley glanced at Jess, then at Tom, and inwardly cursed himself for what he had let come out.

“Oh,” he said, “that’s a fact, Jesse, and I know it as well as you. My bodings don’t mean nothing untoward will happen to any of us, it just means bad times ahead like when my mother thought them. But there’s not one here who can’t weather a few long days. We all knew they’d be a’coming when we joined, now didn’t we? It’s just a fight we’ll be in and then we’ll go home heroes. Thing is, I always figured myself to make one fine hero, handsome as I be.”

“I can just see you marching down a street in your soldier’s uniform,” Amos said, “waving at the whores.”

Everyone laughed a little, especially Riley.

“Never occurred to me, Mr. Amos,” he said, “but it could be a way to impress the girls, now couldn’t it. And a few medals to wear in the parade could increase the odds of peckering further, not that I need any help. “

“I just hope there’s no puddles for you to jump,” Tom said.

“Why’s that?” Amos asked.

“Riley has trouble carrying a fart over a puddle,” Tom answered.

Everyone had another good laugh.

All around them, scattered in the maze, were the other men of the Union army. The smoke from all the fires did not travel up in that place and the air was becoming rank with it. The heavy air made the conversations of the other groups a smaller noise than the bugs and frogs. Tom looked at the bones again and wondered if their spirits were enjoying the talk.

“Do you suppose we ought to take time to bury them?” he asked.

“If they give us time in the morning it may not be a bad idea,” Jesse said. “But I don’t figure us to get the time. We’ll probably make an early start of it.”

John said, “The talk at the front of the line was that we would be on the march again before daybreak.”

“Then the best we can do for those boys is leave them with a prayer,” Riley said, although he did not offer to lead.

No one else did either, none of their hearts being in the place where they wanted to dwell on death.

The night seemed as if it would never come to an end and eventually several of them started to try to get comfortable enough to sleep. Then, just around midnight, a noise floated in over the trees and thick smoke. It had gotten itself up to where the air was clear and cloudless and sounds carried well before it floated down upon them, a sound to be heard easier than a voice only yards away. It was the noise of creaking leather harnesses and wagon wheels and the clomping of men and horses. It filtered over them until they began to raise up one at a time to listen to it.

“Do you suppose we’re moving out already?” Tom asked, staring at the other faces caught in the fire’s glow.

“No,” Riley said, cocking his head to the sky to better hear the sounds, “this army has put down for this night. And, if I got my directions right, what we hear is west and south of us. Ulysses’ got nobody there. No, boys, that’s not our army you’re hearing.”

No one bothered trying to sleep after that and no one spoke anymore. They merely sat and stared at the fire, trying to catch its comfort, trying to ignore the sounds and skeletons they shared the night with.

 

 

It was an hour before dawn when shouted orders came down the road for the men to get up and prepare to march.

Tom rose stiffly to his feet, feeling strange and detached from himself as if his legs didn’t belong to him. He also felt alone even though all the friends he had in the world just then were only a few feet away. He had had the feeling before, often, as a child. It had come when the storms and tornadoes were in the air and the whole family had fled the house for the storm cellar. His parents had been with him then, and Grandpa and Jess, and still he had always felt alone and weak because in the end it was not really up to them what would happen if the winds took hold of their shelter. It was out of their hands and out of his hands too, just as the day coming was destined to be out of his hands. It would not be for Jesse to help him when they met the Rebels, he knew, or even himself. What was to happen was beyond them both, and knowledge of that kind put a numbness in a person’s legs and a hollowness in their stomach.

It was fear he was feeling, Tom knew, fear pure and simple, and his mind ran with what he needed to be sure to do. He had to be sure he did nothing silly, or nothing sinful in case the worse came.

He looked at the others and saw in them what he was feeling. They were shouldering their packs and getting their muskets from where they had leaned them into each other, all their faces blank. They had trained and marched and drilled and now what being in an army was really about was close to falling upon them, and they did not want it to be so.

Fires were doused and the men gathered into the road. Officers raced by on their horses ordering the men to hurry and fall into line. It was hard to do anything once the light of the fires was gone but that did not matter as men stumbled and lurched into each other, none wanting to be the last in place. Tom, Jess, Ambrose and Riley once more worked themselves into the same row, then they stood and waited. The woods became like a living thing, alive with men and anticipation.

“How are going to go anywhere?” Amos asked from a row behind. “Hell, I can hardly see my hands in front of my face.”

“Like cattle,” Riley grumbled, “like damned cattle.”

The dirt road, which had not been much to begin with being just a break in the trees barely wide enough for a wagon, was even less in the dark. Men who were trying to push themselves into the line stumbled on the road’s ragged edges, causing others to loose footing. Curses began filling the moist air. Finally, after a long while, things settled down as everybody finally found a place.

But even then they did not move but merely stood and waited for orders, orders that never came. An hour passed and light began filtering through the woods from the east and still they did not move.

“What’s going on?” Tom asked.

“An army this size is like a stretched rope,” Riley answered. “When it moves, the whole moves or nothing moves at all.”

Some of the men left the ranks and went to sit at the edge of the road or relieve themselves behind a tree, but not any of the men in the group around Tom. They remained in line, lost in themselves.

Maybe, Tom thought, nothing will happen after all. Maybe we won’t move or fight this day. Maybe the Confederates got scared overnight and were surrendering.

But deep within himself he knew none of that was true. The Rebels were not about to surrender. There would have to be shooting first. His mouth went dry and he knew no amount of water would quench it. It was a thirst beyond the reach of his canteen.

Then at last, several hours after sunrise, the column started forward. Slowly, just a few steps at a time, but forward just the same. Tom was glad of it as anything was better than the wait.

At first the only sound was the clumping of hundreds of feet, then new sounds hit their bodies, like slaps to the chest. They were the hard, popping sounds of muskets being fired. Tom jerked a look at Jesse who was walking beside him. Jesse reached over and gripped his shoulder.

“We do as we’re told,” he said softly. “Follow orders and stay together and things will be all right.”

Tom nodded as he knew his brother was right. It was all he could do.

The at first disconnected firing of muskets became more numerous, so many that the separate shots began running together and it sounded like one long rolling eruption. Tom found himself wanting to pee.

But the urge to relieve himself was about the only feeling he had. His body, which had felt somewhat numb before, now bore the feeling of not belonging to him at all. He gazed down at his legs and could just as well been looking at someone else’s. The heavy musket had no weight. He felt no pressure on the bottom of his feet as he walked. His muscles and blood, it seemed, had moved away from him, seeking a safer place.

But his mind remained and it told him that they were moving at a faster pace towards the firing, that a big fight was raging ahead and that he was being pushed along to be a part of it. He could hear his panting come back to him as if his head were in a bucket.

Captain Simms was at the head of the company, maybe ten rows up from them, walking sideways and calling out something that Tom could not hear. Sergeant Brockwell was right behind them, two rows back.

“Steady, boys,” he kept saying, his voice no more excited than if he were talking about the weather. “Steady, boys, hold together now.”

Ahead, Moses moved away the front of the regiment and worked his mount down the line, the horse having problems moving through the dense growth just off the road surface. He stopped just twenty feet from Tom’s row.

“Move along, Eighty-sixth!” he was yelling, waving his sword in a circle over his head. “Move along! Duty calls!”

He turned and went back forward, still shouting and waving the sword. Tom lost sight of him in the mass of men and upraised muskets. The firing got closer, so close that there would be no hearing anybody before long.

No feet. No arms. Just breath in a bucket. Tom’s body went forward in time with those ahead, his brother beside him.

Then a new noise came to him, if that were even possible in the clamor of men and animals. It was a slicing sound in the green leaves of the surrounding trees, up high where they were thickest. Tom found himself hunching his shoulders down without even thinking about it. What was it? What could it be? His mouth got even drier when he realized it was the sound of minie balls cutting their way through the trees. He had heard the faint sound of a musket ball as it traveled away many times while hunting but never the sound of one coming in his direction. It was different altogether. It was the sound of dry autumn leaves in a driving wind, only greatly compressed, as if the wind were only a few inches around and in a hundred different places. He hoped no one was watching him cower, then he looked around and saw everyone doing the same thing.

“God,” he whispered to himself, “oh God, oh God.”

The sounds of discharging musket got louder and it became impossible to tell any one shot from another. There was only one long, sustained, horrible crashing with no break. The swishing of the minie balls in the trees was lost in the power of the shooting.

He had no idea how far they had gone. Had it been five minutes since the first shot? Ten? An hour?

They continued traveling forward, now in a trot, the officers still shouting, the men moving along in a dulled trance. It occurred to Tom that no one had loaded a musket. Shouldn’t they at least do that? He looked to his side. Jess’s face was set, as was Riley’s. Even big Ambrose looked more than just dumb.

Riley switched from carrying the musket in both hands to the left alone, freeing his right to reach inside his blue coat. Tom watched while Riley talked and gestured to Jesse while handing him a leather pouch. Jess shook his head and pushed the pouch away, all the while trying not to lose the pace, but Riley persisted and finally Jess took it and put it in his coat. Tom could not hear what was being said nor did he have time to inquire.

Orders were being shouted down the line, the men issuing them cupping hands to their mouths.

“Form a firing line to the right! Form a firing line to the right!”

Sergeant Brockwell caught the call and yelled it as loud as he could to the men around him.

“Fifth Company, form a firing line to the right!”

Then the reason for all the drilling took hold because Tom and the rest of the men started breaking off to the right, without thinking, attempting to build a single file line of men, shoulder to shoulder, a line that would face ahead and be prepared to fire at anyone to the front.

But they soon found that it was not going to be an easy thing to do. The vines and briars started men stumbling and if one stumbled then the man he fell into stumbled also. Trees rose up to be in the way, dead branches had to be bypassed.

A torrent of sound rushed over them all. Men cursing, the incessant firing ahead, minie balls whistling through the trees, now a lot closer to their heads, horses neighing and screaming in fear and men calling out words that no one else could understand.

Along with the noise came other things. The heavy odor of burned gunpowder, the dank smell of the dead leaves. Eyes began to burn and tear.

“God,” Tom said to himself again.

What am I doing here, he wondered?

“Form a line to the right, Fifth! Form a line!”

Jess tripped and stumbled in front of Tom, but caught himself before running into anybody. Riley was beside them, with Amos and Ambrose beside him. Riley started talking very fast as if he wanted to say all the things about battle that he had put off saying before. His words came out in a torrent.

“Stay with everyone else. Keep an eye on the sergeants. Brace before you shoot. Don’t get left behind reloading. Watch out for your friends and don’t worry about what you hear, it’ll not be what you hear that will hurt you.”

And on and on he went, as if there was no end to what needed saying.

To the right, Tom thought. Stay with Jess and go right, forget everything else.

It took what seemed forever for the regiment to fall into a firing line. This was not a drilling field. The noise was unbelievable, the ability to trot through the woods impossible. Tom became afraid the Rebels would circle around them before everyone was in place.

Then with a jolt he came to the end of the line and it was his turn to fall into place. He faced forward, his mouth open and gasping for clean air, his eyes straining to see.

The musket firing sounded different because he was now facing it head on and there were no trees to absorb it. The noise blasted into his body like a door being slammed in his face. Ahead he could make out vague figures at least a hundred feet away, vague figures in a gray smoke with flashes of fire coming out of them.

The Rebels, he knew, shooting at them. With a strange tranquility the thought came to him that he was in a war.

A man a half dozen spots down the line was standing, Tom saw him plain as day, then there came the sound of a punching, muffled thud, like no other noise he had ever heard in his life and the man went down in a clump as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. There was no dramatic wave of the arms or a cry of pain, the man only grunted and fell upon himself, his body shrinking into a circle around the place where the ball had entered just before he fell to the ground, motionless, it all happening so fast and yet so slow. Tom had seen deer fall in the same way, legs cut out from under them by a man’s rifle and he thought, now I see, same as a deer, a man dies same as a deer.

Sergeant Brockwell was behind them shouting out the orders.

“Fire!” he yelled. “Fire and reload! Fire! Fire!”

Tom slammed the butt of this musket into the ground, drew a power bag from his ammunition pouch, bit it open and poured the powder down the barrel, rammed it home with wadding then followed with a minie ball, amazed that he did not drop anything, amazed at how easily he did it all. The other’s in the line were doing the same and all were done at about the same time. He shouldered the musket, pointed at the smoky figures across the way without even giving a thought to aiming and jerked the trigger. Muskets all about him were going off, a noise that numbed the ears and he did not hear his own and wasn’t sure he felt the strong kick against his shoulder.

The smoke was like a morning fog, deep and impenetrable, but it was a horrid fog that clogged the lungs and burned the eyes. He wanted to see what the shooting had done to the men they were shooting at but the acrid smoke made that impossible. Officers were shouting to reload, reload and fire, reload and fire, and he did and somewhere along the line someone whooped, whooped loud enough to be heard over the din and those next to Tom joined in the yelling and so he did too, screaming out for no reason other than it seemed a time to be screaming. And then his musket was loaded and the fog had lifted somewhat from the first round, just enough to make out those goddamned Rebels across the way and he shouldered the musket and whooped and pointed again and once more the smoke, the din of it all, swallowed him within a stifling, heavy blanket that could not stop the balls of the men across the way, death balls swooshing around him from the return fire. Men started to grunt and fall and he took a quick look to either side to see if any near to him had been knocked down and found them all still standing, reloading, yelling, a fever of mindless movements and ranting upon them.

A horse and rider was behind them and Tom knew it was Moses and he was shouting out, racing up and down the line with difficulty, the limbs and trees blocking his way.

“Forward!” he yelled, leaving Tom amazed that he could hear the voice. “Forward! You have forced them back, Eighty-Sixth! Forward! Push them, push them!”

Captain Simms was close by, shouting the same thing, and other officers along the line took up the cry and the regiment as a whole bellowed as one and began doing as ordered, some firing and then moving up, some moving up with guns loaded, hundreds of men crashing through the weeds each taking his courage from the man running and shouting next to him.

Tom saw Jesse look over his way, dark powder stains rimming his mouth, his eyes open wide. He said nothing, only looked at Tom. Tom returned the look and nodded and made the two steps that put him up even, and only then did Jess start forward again.

I am in a battle, Tom thought, fighting in the war his mother hated.

Riley moved up along with them, several places down from Jesse, and he like some others was calling out, his Irish accent standing out above the other shouting.

“Move away, you slave beating sons of bitches, move away and go to hell!”

Tom wanted to shout out something too but his beating heart and shallow breath would not let anything intelligible come out, only a coarse, dry screech of sorts. So he listened to Riley and felt stronger through hearing his friend’s blistering words.

Yes, he thought, move away you sons of bitches!

The line plunged forward, stooped into the fire hitting them, some men falling to the stray shots coming from the Rebels, but not many, and Tom could see the slave beating sons of bitches falling back through the brush, some quickly without looking behind, others more slowly, stopping now and again to fire their musket.

A ball whistled close by, the sound and air of it causing him to duck again and then he went on, bent over at the waist as if leaning into a rain storm and all the others began bending the same way because it was truly a storm they were walking into. But those who were hit fell in spite of the lean, their strings cut.

He passed a man on his back holding a bloodied leg, blood spurting between his fingers.

“Oh, Jesus,” the man said, “oh Jesus, someone help me.”

But the man was not looking at anyone in particular to help him, only staring in disbelief at his bleeding leg, and so Tom and the rest passed him and the next man he passed was laying too still to be alive and the next was on his side, bent over at the waist and holding his stomach and the next and the next.

Noise, smoke, yelling, but moving forward.

They reached the spot where the Confederate line had been and for some reason took it for the place to stop, all of them together, as if of one mind, stopping and putting the muskets to their shoulders to fire at the fleeing Rebels from the place where they had fired at them. This was not what the officers wanted and as one they were screaming at the top of their voices.

“On! Push them! On! Don’t stop, damn it, charge them! They’re running, damn it, they’re running, don’t stop!”

But the men had pulled up, overwhelmed at their little victory, each wanting to stand where the enemy had been, wanting to claim the ground and so for the moment the charge had died away.

Before them, fifty yards wide, was a clearing of sorts, devoid of the trees but still overrun with weeds and vines. The rebels were disappearing into the woods on the other side, disappearing and leaving their dead and wounded on the ground and a cheer came from the Eighty-Sixth Illinois, a cheer that Tom found a voice to joined in with.

“Forward!” Captain Simms shouted, his sword in his hand, ignoring the cheer. “Forward, men, forward, damn you, don’t stop now! We have them, don’t stop now!”

His voice came through to them and they began doing as told, each thinking it was done, the war already won.

But out of nowhere came the creaking of harnesses and the terrified neighing of terrified horses. A Confederate artillery battery was winding its way the edge of the clearing, the drivers cursing and beating the animals, and the sight of the three guns put the Rebels infantry to cheering and the greater part of them were turning and firing and the Union men bowed against the lead storm again and advanced, though much slower, their disbelieving eyes entranced by the cannon.

Tom watched in terror as the huge guns were being loaded, wanted no more than to turn and run, but he knew he could not, could not, could not as long as the rest kept moving ahead and he looked over his shoulder at men trying to fall back. One was being beat by an officer with the side of his sword, laying on the ground and taking the blows like a dumb animal, like a hog staring dumbly at the knife heading for its throat, and Tom looked forward again and the men around the Confederate cannon backed away and other men reached forward for the igniting ropes and pulled them and the cannons all went off at once. It was a roar that made it seem that the earth was exploding open, the concussion flying through the air and emptying the lungs, sucking the air away like the searing draft of huge fire. Tom went to his knees, involuntarily, and just a few feet down from him things happened that his stunned mind could not believe. He saw it as if in a trance, a spectator, outside of himself.

Men went to pieces. They were thrown back like dolls hurled in anger, bouncing and rolling as if boneless. Arms and legs and heads flew off bodies, twisting and hurtling through the deep powder smoke. Where there had been ten or twelve men grouped together, in each of the places where the grapeshot struck, there was nothing but blood and smoldering body pieces and open air. Tom felt a blow to the side of his face and when he slapped at it came away with blood and bone matter and he could do nothing but kneel and look at what he held in his hand. Look, look and hear…

The screams. The screams his grandfather had told him about. Anguish cutting the air, demanding to be heard. It came to him, the screams and his Grandpa’s words, and he heard nothing else.

“Ain’t no heroes in a war like you think, only people screamin’ cause they’re gonna die…”

Tom began shaking and talking to himself, his head to the ground, his voice cracking.

“But I don’t want to die, Grandpa,” he said softly, the taste of dirt in his mouth. “I don’t want to die.”

He had decided to stay there and keep his head close to the cool ground, to hell with everyone, when a hand grabbed his shoulder and jerked at him.

“Tom! Tom!” Jesse shouted. “Tom, are you hurt?”

Tom gazed up at his brother’s face, barely able to see it.

“Tom, it’s Jess! Are you hurt? There’s blood on you!”

Tom shook his head.

“Not mine,” he said, the voice coming from someone else.

“You have to get up, Tom!” Jess shouted. “You have to get up, we’re moving back and they’re reloading!”

It took a few moments for Tom to realize what his brother was trying to tell him and then he looked around and was stunned to see the line rolling back like one long living thing, back to where they had started from. Some were running, some crawling, only the dead and those badly wounded remaining where they were. The officers were trying to stop them but could not, their voices lost in the terrible screaming that rent the air.

“Tom,” Jesse shouted again, “we have to go!”

“It’s the screams, Jess,” Tom said, his voice still low. “Do you hear the screams, like Grandpa said?”

Jesse pulled him to his feet.

“Come on, Tom, we got to go.”

Jess took him by his arm and lead him back towards the wood line they had just charged from. Everyone was moving back, hundreds of men scrambling to get away from the cannon. Most were still in the open ground when the three guns roared a second time and the blast smashed through the trees and limbs and any men unlucky enough to be in the way. The screams arose again from those hit by the canister balls while terrified bellows erupted from those unhurt by the firings.

Officers were at the wood’s edge, forcing the men to get back into a line and face the enemy. Those who did so hunkered down to the ground thinking perhaps that the weeds there would stop the next volley of the hundreds of rounded, iron bullets.

“Fire at those gunners!” Captains Simms and the other officers were shouting. “Kill them! Aim, don’t point! Kill them and we will push the rest back! Fire now, kill them!”

The men who were crouched down in the new line understood the sense of what they were being told and began feverishly putting a heavy fire into the Confederate artillery units, who were working just as feverishly at reloading the guns. Few followed the order to take their time and aim but with everyone concentrating their fire the minie balls began taking their toll, several of the artillery men began dropping like rag dolls. The Rebel infantry were firing in return but the Union men would not give up. Again and again Tom and Jess loaded and fired with the rest of the soldiers around them. The cannons boomed once more but the carnage was less as the Union men were farther away and more spread out.

Several minutes had passed when, without warning, a deafening explosion tore the Confederate artillery units to shreds. It came with the suddenness of a lightning strike, throwing the surviving men and cannons high and away into the air. Both sides bent to the ground and stopped firing, so shocking was the explosion, and it only took a few seconds before all realized that one of the ammunition caissons to the rear of the guns had blown up, taking the others with it. Some of the Rebels were hurled a third of the way across the field. The men in the Union line began cheering anew, their voices as one.

The officers would have none of the cheering, however, as it wasted time.

“Forward! Now! Take them, now’s the time, men!”

Moses was down the line a hundred yards from Jess and Tom and he be seen riding back and forth, urging the men on. Captain Simms was much closer and they could hear him.

“Let’s do it, boys!” he yelled. “Let’s finish it!”

The men raised another defiant yell and started running across the field again. Tom fell in step, hollering in a voice that he was unable to hear. He glanced to the side and saw his brother and Ambrose and, farther down the line still, Riley and Amos. He felt a craziness that led him to want to laugh at their black, powder-stained faces, forgetting all about the blood and gore on his own.

The Rebels were still stunned by the explosion of the caissons and only fired a few desultory shots before beginning to fall back another time.

“Fire, then the bayonets!” someone shouted.

So they all fired once more then started forward with their muskets leveled, the twenty-one inch blades of their bayonets pointing the way.

We’re taking them, Tom thought, we’re taking them! The Eighty-Sixth is taking them!

They hit the wood’s edge where the cannon had been and as Tom worked his way around the smoking, stinking terrain he passed a horse kicking its life away. Men about the horse were contorted into ripped, gory fetal balls. Smoke rose the bodies.

He only glanced at them a moment then continued on, trying to stay close to those he had charged with.

The enemy infantry was getting a hold of itself and most of the men were forming a new line a hundred feet into the woods. Minie balls started whistling by in as great a numbers as before, like huge, furious lead bees. Tom stooped again and moved on through the trees. He put the musket to his shoulder and pointed it at the enemy line and pulled the trigger then stopped in surprise when the musket didn’t fire. A half minute of panic ran through him before the realization came to him that he had not reloaded since the last firing. He grounded gun butt into the leaves and rammed home another load.

Men were firing and screaming around him, the woods alive with the mind-numbing uproar. A smell of burning leaves floated through the trees to meld with the odor of burning nitrates. Tom’s eyes watered, his throat burned and he wanted nothing more than a fresh draught of clean air and a ceasing of all the horrid noise. He rubbed his eyes on his sleeves then started on again. It was hard to see anyone but he could make out Jesse a dozen feet to his right. Jesse glanced back at him and stopped moving until Tom started again. Tom tried to smile but could not tell if his lips had even parted.

The cheering had stopped. There was nothing to cheer about just then, so dismal was the gunfire and smoke. Everyone was creeping ahead quietly as if trying to approach some animal they needed to kill for supper. Leaves fell from the trees, cut away by the minie balls.

Tom came to a large oak and moved to go around it, Jesse disappearing on the opposite side. The Confederates were regaining themselves over the loss of their artillery and their firing was getting heavier. Men were grunting from the striking bullets, dropping on all sides. Tom’s gaze jerked from one to the other as they fell. He continued moving around the oak.

He came upon a wounded Confederate and the sight startled him, causing him to fling the musket in the man’s direction. But he did not fire, catching himself in time, realizing the enemy soldier was not a threat.

He was sitting up, his back against the tree’s trunk. His clothes were ragged and torn and through the soles of his shoes Tom could see skin. He had lost his hat and the dirty brown hair was matted with sweat and dirt. There was blood all about him and on him yet he was smiling, the front teeth fully exposed in a mouth wide open. The open mouth was as covered with blood as his clothes but the smile was there just the same and Tom was surprised at that. Then it came to him with a jolt that the man was not smiling. His cheeks had been ripped away by a shell that had passed through both and the teeth that were left were exposed because of the missing skin. His mouth was gaped open because there was no way for him to keep it closed.

The man looked at Tom with blank eyes, the wide, blank eyes of a dumb, dead animal, only they were still alive, still seeing. The jaw quivered as if wanting to talk but the quivering only brought forth more blood. Then the man took his eyes off Tom and turned them upward to the green leaves above him. Tom gingerly worked his way past the man, forcing himself to look away. He had seen all he cared to see.

In spite of the minie balls flying all around and the hellish sounds of the battle beating upon him, Tom felt sick. He wanted to stop and empty his stomach but knew he could not afford to as a bullet chunked into the tree only a few feet to his side.

He needed to reload, he said to himself, reload and go on forward with Jess and his friends. He did not want to be left behind. He stopped and went through the reloading then shouldered his musket and took a few steps, thinking he would fire if the air cleared enough to catch a glimpse of a Rebel.

Forget the man without cheeks, he told himself, there are Rebels enough trying to kill you up ahead for you to be worrying about one who could do no harm.

But he could see nothing and had decided to go a few steps and shoot into the smoke regardless of what he could see when it occurred to him that he had not fired earlier, which meant he had just stuffed one load on top of another.

Or…or had he shot and forgot about it? And if he hadn't and his musket was double loaded, what could he do? How could you be so stupid, he thought! Damn, how --

He was struck a blow so strong that it flung his body backwards in a paralyzed clump into a briar patch. He could not fathom what could have hit him so hard, so hard that it dazed his mind and made his arms and feet worthless, so hard that even after he had rolled onto his back he could not catch his breath. He gawked around in astonishment looking for what had run into him, but nothing was there. He was by himself, the others having gone ahead into the thick smoke bank.

What happened, he thought? What happened? He raised his head and found that it wobbled in a disconnected way. He searched for his arms and feet and they were there but that was all for they would not obey him.

He dropped his head back onto the ground and closed his eyes to let things rest. He still had not breathed. He realized the important thing right then was to pull his body back into his control and start it to breathing. He forced his mind on that request, concentrating on his chest, but still the air would not come. Try as he might it just would not come.

He decided he needed to see why. It was a very calm decision. He did not feel panicked at all, he simply needed to see why things were as they were. He needed to look himself over again. Find out, his mind said, find out what the problem is.

Again his head wobbled slowly into an upright position and with considerable effort he opened his eyes and tried to get them to see. A faint rushing noise was beginning in his ears.

He looked at his legs a second time then followed them up to his chest.

The front of his shirt was bloody, all red, and the stain getting larger as he watched. He looked at it as it worked its way across the material and knew, even though his mind was not working well, that he had been shot. His mind told him so, because his mouth could not.

You’ve been shot, it said, in a very detached way.

He tasted blood in his mouth. He did not like that. He did not like that at all.

The rushing noise was getting louder. It sounded like a flat board being dragged across dry leaves except that the sound was not on the outside but on the inside of his ears. It grew louder and louder as he went longer without breathing. He could hold his head up no longer so he let it fall back onto the briar patch. He did not feel the stickers of the blackberry vines as they pushed into the back of his head. He wished he had spit the blood out before letting his head go down but knew it was too late for that. He wondered why he felt no pain. He closed his eyes again, unable to keep them open.

And then he felt the first tinge of panic. You must breath, the panic told him, you must breath.

But it was not a strong panic, as it was being pushed by a mind that was too numb to carry more than just a touch of fear, and it died away as the sound in his ears increased, going from a rushing noise to more of a roaring noise. It roared so loud that it pushed in his head from the sides, shutting out the feeling of suffocation.

Must breath…must…breath…

A light formed in his eyes and it grew as the sound grew, each feeding off the other.

The light was far way, just a tiny sun surrounded by the faintest of haloes. It got closer and he realized he still was not breathing and the light got closer still and the sound in his head louder, as if all the dried leaves in the world were being pushed into his brain. He stared at the light within his closed eyes and it got closer still, filling up all the space inside his eyelids and finally he did not care about the lack of air, nor the noise of the leaves, only the light mattered. The light that grew and held a secret within and he made the reach for it with arms that did not move and in doing so he welcomed it, following his reach to within it and felt a peace about crossing over, away from the noise. Away from the noise and into that merciful light.

 

 

Jesse Wills advanced through the dense smoke. He quickly worked his way around the oak tree. The entire line advanced with him another twenty yards and then it came to a stop as the fire from the Rebels increased to an unbearable level, making everyone think the same thing. They needed to stop and return fire.

The enemy soldiers, most in the open but some half hidden behind trees or bushes, looked like ghosts. Ghosts that were sending a steady fusillade towards Jesse and his compatriots, a firing that showed up as sharp flashes running out through the smoke, flashes accompanied by a deafening, unending roll of sound.

As one, the Union men decided to return what was being given and the two lines stood rooted, hurling minie balls at each other. It was form of warfare that was repeating itself at a hundred different places in that strange, slugging fight that was to become known as the Battle of the Wilderness.

Of course none of the men there knew anything of a name for the history they were creating, they only knew that what was happening was unbelievably terrible, that men were being maimed and were dying and that no orders for it were being given anymore. It was simply shoot, shoot, shoot and wonder with a cloth mouth if you were going to get shot in return.

Some gun barrels were so hot from the incessant firing that they came to a point that one load too many was forced down them and the powder exploded from the heat onto the man packing it home, sending the ramrod through the air like an iron arrow. Some of these arrows went a long, long ways, while others ended up in the hands or heads of the men who had been handling them.

The sparking explosions from the muskets and from the few cannons that had found an open place to do their work started fires in the dry leaves, so that added to the sound of gunfire and yelling was the sound of the cracking flames and the chilling screams of wounded who were unable to drag themselves away from them.

Wounded men who could move fell away from the line and made their way to the rear, plugging any blood flow as well as they could. Some, too weak to move themselves, were helped by healthy soldiers, sometimes because the wounded man was a friend, sometimes because those helping wanted nothing more than an excuse to remove themselves from the incomprehensible carnage.

Lost in all of this was Jesse Wills, doing as the others still in the line were doing, loading and firing, loading and firing. Time became an unmarked quantity and what could have been five minutes could just as well have been an hour. Passage of the day, in that piece of the world, was marked by noise and misery and nothing else. Men simply stood and did their best to kill one another.

This was why Jesse was not really sure how much time had passed before it occurred to him to check on Tom again. He fired the load in his musket then brought it down to his side and held off reloading while he turned his head to the left to search for his brother.

The next man, someone he did not know, was ten feet away. A vague, smoke-covered line stretched away from him, but nowhere in that line did he see Tom. He narrowed his eyes to focus them through the haze but still he could not pick him out. Then he remembered them separating to pass around the oak and thought maybe that had caused them to wander apart. He looked to his right.

He saw Riley, several men over and, next to him, Ambrose. He screamed Riley’s name at the top of his voice and even at that he had to do it three times to get the Irishman’s attention.

“Tom!” he shouted through the din, mouthing the words. “Tom, have you seen Tom?”

It took a while to understand but finally Riley began looking about, grabbing Ambrose by the arm to have him search too. Then both turned back to Jesse and shook their heads. In spite of the smoke Jesse could see the worry etched on Riley’s face. It made Jess, for the first time, feel hollow and queasy. He waved at the both of them then turned to move down the line to his left.

He went a long distance as measured by the brush and scrubby trees in that place, and all the way men were shooting and falling around him. He not only looked at those standing but also paused to check those on the ground. Many were already dead, while some were in the last throes of life, but he did not see Tom’s face among them. He went farther than he thought possible for them to have become separated and still did not find him.

It came to him, finally, that his brother had to be behind the firing line. The thought completely drained him and an unfathomable hurt rode over him. If Tom was behind, he knew, then he was most likely down. Shot. Maybe dead.

He shook his head and cursed himself for letting the thought even cross his mind. If Tom was behind, he reasoned, he could just as easily be in a stunned trance like he had been earlier after the artillery had opened up on them. Yes, damn it, that could just as well be it! Tom could be to the rear, shocked by everything and unable to move.

Jesse berated himself again. He should have kept a better eye on his brother. All his fine promises were coming to nothing. He was letting Tom down, and their mother.

“Damn it, Jesse!” he said aloud, his voice lost in the swirling battle going on around him. “Damn it!”

He decided to work his way back to the oak. He knew that if he was spotted by an officer it would look like he was deserting the firing line but that was something he could not worry about as other things were more important than their damn fight.

He turned to make his way back but, in the moment he did, all hell broke loose. An eerie shriek erupted from the Confederate line, a yell that sent a chill down Jesse’s back, a yell he knew had to be the charging cry of the Rebels he had heard so much about. With its coming the whole Confederate formation began crashing forward through the undergrowth, one solid, deep formation of men that ran as far as the eye could see, so far that it looked unstoppable.

Jesse could not know it, but the enemy infantry had been reinforced by a regiment that had only then gotten to the field and with the added number the Southerners felt invincible, enraged, and they screamed out their yell as they and plunged forward to kill any Yankees they found.

The Union ranks broke immediately, long before the Confederates got to them. There was no time to consider anything else as what was coming at them flourished death in their faces.

Jesse found himself being knocked backward by his comrades. Each time he tried to move sideways in the direction he thought the oak was a new group would run into him and it would carry him along, forcing him to weave his way among them. Before long he had gone more paces back than to the side, group after group pummeling into him, all the while bullets were whistling by and men were falling. Wounded men were grabbing at his pant legs and that Godawful yell of the Rebels was getting closer until finally he pulled up and twisted and turned in a panic.

He had no idea where the oak was. He had no idea where he was.

His heart sank and he felt the urge to exact revenge on somebody, anybody, because the whole damn world was trying to keep him from his brother!

“Bastards!” he shouted, spinning about. “Bastards! Bastards!”

He raised his musket to fire at them, any one of them, but it was knocked upward by a wild-eyed, stumbling soldier in a blue uniform, knocked up just as he pulled the trigger and the minie ball roared harmlessly into the treetops.

He cursed and worked frantically to reload, to reload and kill every one of the insane devils, not caring that the enemy was closing in, closing and shooting and bayoneting any Union man not fast enough to get out of their way, yet Jesse did not care, not in the least.

He had reloaded and was shouldering the gun when someone grabbed at his upper arm. He ignored the tug and flung out his arm to beat away whoever it was. But the tug came again and again he pushed it away once more and yet it came again and he screamed with rage and turned with the idea to shoot whoever it was that was stopping him.

It was only when his eyes finally registered upon Ambrose’s terrified face that he stopped.

“Jesse!” Ambrose yelled. “Jesse, don’t shoot, it’s me!”

Ambrose was hunkered down below the level of Jesse’s musket barrel.

“Jesse!” he yelled again, “Jesse!”

All the sounds about Jesse faded into nothing as his eyes bore through Ambrose.

“Jesse!” Ambrose pleaded. “We got to go back, they’re coming!”

The words brought Jesse back. He looked about and the sounds came on him again. It was true, the confederates were getting very close and he could not kill all of them. And if they got to him, he would never find Tom.

“Jesse!” Ambrose shouted again, his voice filled with desperation.

“All right,” Jesse said slowly. “All right. Let’s go.”

They turned and moved to the rear, dodging around a fire that was consuming a heavy thicket of scrub trees and vines. They held their breath, the wood smoke being more than they could stand. They passed orderlies who were in the process of putting wounded men on stretchers, who only moments before had been far enough behind the line that their work was not endangering them, but who could now see different. Those who already had a man loaded started to the rear as fast as they could while those who did not turned and did the same. The wounded who had not yet been picked up screamed out to them as they passed, but the orderlies dragging the empty stretchers paid them no mind as the panic induced by the yelling Rebels had overcome them.

Few officers were trying to stop the retreat. They felt the irresistible urge to move back same as the men of lower rank.

Then, ahead of them, those withdrawing could see more Union men, reinforcements, and those men were forming a new line. The sight threw a jolt of energy into the exhausted Yankees and there was nothing any of them wanted to do more than join that new line, get behind that new line.

Fear could be read upon the faces of the men forming up the line, a fear multiplied by the terror and pain in the faces of their comrades closing in upon them as well as by the yipping sound of charging Rebels. Officers were moving among the men in the new Yankee line, trying to steady them.

“Hold your fire!” the officers were yelling. “Hold your position and your fire!”

The new men wanted to shoot, so desperately wanted to shoot that their legs were jumping underneath them, but to do so would have killed more of their own army than the enemy’s.

Everything moved in the strange slow motion of that day until Jesse and Ambrose and the rest of those falling back from the Rebel onslaught pummeled into the reinforcements, breaking openings to get past them, moving them aside stiffly like doors on stuck hinges. Most of the new men looked like they wanted to follow their comrades and in fact some did, only to be cursed and beaten back into place by the officers behind them.

Several high ranking officers were on horses a few yards behind the new line, calling for the retreating men to stop falling back and form up with the reinforcements. It was then that the reinforcements opened fire and the blasts of their guns drowned out all voices, even those of the charging Confederates.

The Rebel line looked as if it had imploded upon itself, men falling in rows, with those not struck stumbling upon those who were. A cheer rose from the new union line, soon to be joined by those who had retreated through them. Those who had fired began the frantic dance of reloading muskets and had done so by the time the Rebels regained their senses enough to advance another half dozen paces. Again the Union line fired an enormous volley and, even as brave as those solders of the Army of Northern Virginia were, it was more than they could stand. They began rolling back in confusion, much as Jesse and the men of his line had done minutes earlier.

The Union line cheered and this time the majority of those who had been retreating joined them, most stopping and turning about, their breath coming back in bursts as they joined in the cheering.

The area where the new line had formed was at the edge of a small roll in the ground, a depression only several inches deep. The officers on the horses saw this hump in the terrain, also saw the futility of the charging and countercharging, and put out the call for the men to dig in in the depression. The officers in the line began repeating the order and soon all the men who were not in the process of shooting at the Confederates were clawing at the earth with any tool they had. It was an order all agreed with.

Jesse and Ambrose dug in with the others, starting with their hands. But it was not long before they, along with most of the other men, had their metal food plates out of the packs and were using them to scrape and mound the dirt.

The enemy across the way seemed to have gotten the same idea and, though a few desultory shots whistled into an unfortunate man now and again, for the most part no one on either side was interested in anything but putting themselves as far down into the ground as they could.

It is amazing the amount of dirt a man can move, even with primitive tools, when his life depends on it. In only minutes the men had holes more than deep enough for them to scuttle into on their stomachs, the dirt pushed high in front of the holes. No one payed any attention to the roots and dead limbs that tried to slow them. After digging in the men the men gather dead limbs that had fallen from the scrub trees and piled them on the dirt.

It was only after the mounds had been constructed to their satisfaction that the men fell behind them, totally exhausted, trying to ignore the sporadic noise of bullets thumping into the piled dirt. It was middle afternoon and it seemed an eternity had passed since the leaving of the road that morning to form the first line, an eternity marred by death and maiming.

In other distant parts of the woods the battle was still raging, sounding like hundreds of different strokes of lightning. Some of the men scuttled to the top of their small earthworks to set muskets on the dirt and fire at the Confederates, as if the distant sounds were putting them to shame. A few of the Rebels in the opposite works did the same. For the moment Jesse and Ambrose did not join them, content to continue catching their breath. The air once more began to fill with the choking smoke.

“Jess,” Ambrose said finally, not bothering to lift his head from staring at the ground. “I didn’t figure it to be like this. I had it in my mind Silas had it right when he said we would shoot once and charge and the Rebs would surrender. He said they could never stand up to the likes of us but they don’t seem to have the mind to surrender. I guess Silas was sure enough wrong, weren’t he? I think we’ll be fighting for a long time, won’t we?”

Jesse didn’t reply. In fact, he never heard as his mind was on Tom. He pushed himself erect and craned his neck to look up and down the line.

“Don’t do that!” Ambrose yelped at him. “Lord God, Jess, stay down!”

Jesse was losing patience with his big, slow friend.

“Damn it, Ambrose, I’m looking for Tom! I didn’t see him when we fell back and I don’t see him now.”

“Oh, well, he’s around,” Ambrose said, not bothering to raise up and join in the search. “He’s just separated from us, is all. Hell, you couldn’t see anything and it’s easy to get lost when it’s like that. But he’s around, you’ll see.”

Both men were sweating, disheveled, a heavy mixture of black powder stains and red dirt streaking their faces and arms. Both had lost their kepis. Jess, still sitting upright, began wriggling out of his cumbersome backpack.

“Damn thing’s not worth carrying,” he said angrily.

Across the wilderness hundreds of men had come to the same conclusion and packs lay across the ground almost as thick as bodies.

Behind him he saw a small hickory sapling that was almost completely shot in two several feet above the ground, so intense had the firing been intense. It chilled Jesse to see it.

But the thoughts back packs and severed saplings did not stay with him long. His mind had only one objective just then, to find Tom.

Where was he? He searched the faces about him.

Two men came scuttling up and it took a while before Jesse realized it was John and Amos. Both were as black and filthy as he and both held the same haunted looks.

“Tom,” Jesse said, “have you seen Tom?”

“Tom?” John answered, his face drawing into a grimace. “You mean he’s not here with you?”

Jesse shook his head.

“Damn,” John said.

Amos looked too worn to speak.

“What about Riley?” John asked after a while. “We were looking for him.”

“Riley too?” Jesse said.

It numbed him. It was getting to be more than he could bear.

Minie balls were still slicing through the trees and into the earthworks. Not as many as before, but enough just the same.

“Damn, Jess,” Amos said, finally finding his voice, “get down. You’re gonna lose your head like that!”

“I told him so,” Ambrose added, his eyes wide in his darkened face.

“I’m looking for Tom,” Jess said, not making any effort to lower himself, “and now I guess Riley.”

“We’ll all look soon enough,” John said. “This firing has to slow down before long, can’t be many more balls in the whole damn world. And getting your head blowed off won’t do either of them any good.”

Jesse did not want to stop searching but he saw the truth in what John said. Taking one last long look around, and finding nothing, he lowered himself below the top of the mounded dirt.

Why didn’t they stop shooting, he thought? What was the sense of it?

“Maybe Tom’s behind us someplace,” Amos said. “And Riley too.”

“Could maybe be,” Jess replied, “but I don’t think so. I saw both of them once, ahead of this spot.”

The conversation ended then. Each fell silent, dulled by his own thoughts. They held those thoughts and did nothing else, not even bothering to join in the firing.

The afternoon wore away slowly. Across the Wilderness generals were ordering a continuance of the fighting but the men had different ideas. They had killed about as much as they were going to kill for that day. In most places, as was where Jesse and his companions were, the fighting slowed, dying away like a snake with its head cut off.

All through this time the wounded who were able to crawled in spite of their pain towards the nearest line that held friendly troops. Men with mangled and dangling arms and legs, dragging those useless parts with them as best they could. Men with faces so bloodied it blinded them, men holding their insides in with one arm as they drug themselves along with the other. Rebels and Yankees, passing by each other while making their agonizing journey to where they felt they needed to be.

The ground between the trenches looked alive, a strange creature that rolled and wriggled as far as the eye could see. Many of those that formed that eerie movement fell still soon enough, their wounds too grievous to support their desire for life. Some that might have survived their wounds fell dead from stray bullets which struck them when they raised their bodies too high, or struck them as they tried to work themselves over the piled dirt, ending their piteous passage but a few feet from safety.

Jesse’s eyes followed any of the wounded who came close enough for him to see, in the hopes that one of them would be Tom, or Riley. But none were.

Those too seriously injured to move began raising their voices in cries for mercy, cries that begged for help, for water, for any sort of relief from the agony. It was a sound that cut past all the other noises on the battlefield, a sound that those who survived the battle were never able to accurately describe. It was a torment unto itself, those cries.

The dead laid thick, looking like so many separate mounds of filthy rags, contorted and turned about in harsh, unyielding shapes. Their skin had turned a sickening brown color under the dirt, as if they had somehow been roasted. Flies had gathered upon them, not in the least bit disturbed by all the commotion.

None of those in the trenches chose to eat, but those who had it took long draughts of water, their thirst severe due to the heat and smoke, as well to the voices of the wounded crying for water. They drank deeply, those who had water, thinking there was not enough of the liquid to be had in the whole sad world.

Then, just before dusk, another terror was added, as if the day could not end without more. Somehow in all the firing that was going on flames broke out in the no man’s land between the line the Fifth held and the enemy line across the way, the dead leaves and limbs fueling it with a mad efficiency. It spread quickly and the wounded began scraping insanely at the dirt around them, trying to drag themselves away from the flames. Some could not move fast enough, however, and the pitch of their screams increased as they saw the fire approach them until the moment came that it was on them. It was then that the tormented shrieks became unearthly, a release of pain and horror so intense that it numbed the minds of those behind the earthen lines.

They became entranced by the movements of the flames and those crawling from them. It was a thing you did not want to see, but that the eyes would not leave. Slowly, fitfully, as the screaming increased, the shooting slowed down, though it did stop altogether. Hatred can become too great for reason.

The firing prevented those who wanted to help from leaving the protection of the trenches. They could only lay on their stomachs and watch the nightmare unfold, like onlookers at an execution.

One after another the severely wounded were burned alive. Those still waiting on the flames continued pleading at the top of their voices.

Suddenly, in the midst of all the tumbling sounds, Jesse heard a voice that riveted his attention.

“Jesse, boy, is that you? Jesse Wills, is that you I see there?”

It was the deep Irish brogue of Riley Meade. Jesse raised his head further above the dirt to search for it.

“Riley!” he called out. “Riley, Riley!”

“Here, Jesse, here! Here, boy, do you see me!”

And then Jesse did. He was in the vines and leaves straight ahead, closer to the Rebel line than the Yankee line, at least a hundred fifty feet away. He was on his stomach, waving his right hand over his head. He had lost his kepi and in the growing darkness and smoke Jesse would not have known who it was, were it not for the voice.

“Riley!” Jess shouted back.

The flames of the fire were but a few feet from him.

“Riley!”

The voice rode across the chasm again and it was a strong voice, as if Riley Meade were willing it to be so, with whatever breath he had left.

“Jess, boy, listen to me! I’m tore up bad, I can’t move. Do you hear me, boy, I can’t move!”

Jesse did not answer. He did not know what to say. For the briefest insane second he began moving over the mound, moving over it to go and drag his friend to safety, but as he did a ball exploded in the dirt and sent it into his face, causing him to fall back.

Riley did not wait for an answer to his call. He started yelling again and when he did all the other sounds faded away and Jesse heard only him.

“I’m not scared of dying, Jess, you know that, but no man needs to die this way. Shoot me, boy, shoot me before the fire gets me!”

“Riley!” Jess shouted again.

All the eyes in that part of the line fell on Jesse and Riley. Even the ones with too much hate, who had never stopped firing, put down their muskets to watch.

Captain Simms, who was directly behind that part to the trench, took a few steps in Jesse’s direction.

“Shoot me, Jesse, do you hear me? Shoot me, don’t let me die like this!”

Jesse’s hands shook. He felt as if his body did not belong to him. Captain Simms hunched over and walked a few steps towards him.

“Wills,” he said, his voice stern yet even, “keep your musket down. He’s one of our men, and we don’t kill our own.”

"But --" Jesse said.

“Boy! Boy, please, shoot me!”

Jesse gripped the rifle.

“Wills!” Captain Simms shouted.

The fire had reached Riley’s feet. He let out a scream and reached his right hand into the air, the palm opened, the fingers extended, making the reach in hope of finding an invisible arm hovering above, an arm that would carry him up and away from the relentless flames. He reached and he reached, the fingers curling over and over in the air.

“Ahhhh! Do it, Jesse! I see you there! Do it!”

“Wills!” the Captain yelled.

Riley screamed again, the fire licking at his ankles.

The world shrunk to Jesse and Riley.

Jesse raised the musket, stopped it halfway to his shoulder, then raised it some more. He wondered what it was that had put him there.

Riley moaned.

Suddenly, faster than the thought came upon him, Jesse took quick aim and squeezed the trigger.

Smoke burst from the end of the barrel and for a moment Jesse saw nothing. Then it cleared away and his eyes fell on Riley’s upraised hand.

It was closing, slowly, into a quivering fist. It was not a fast closing but ever so slow, as if it now had all the time in the world. After the hand squeezed shut the arm lowered it gently into the leaves. The fire eased upon it.

Jesse turned and slid down into the hole, bowing his head into his knees.

Captain Simms ran up, heedless of the gunfire, his face red with rage. He came to a halt in front of Jesse.

“Private,” he yelled, his voice overriding the tumult, “I ordered you not to fire! We do not kill our own. This is war! Men die, and sometimes hard.”

Jesse raised his head to face the Captain.

“Not that man,” he said.

Captain Simms looked ready to say more, but then his face softened and he thought better of it. He gazed at Jesse a long time, looked out at the burning body of Riley Meade, then slowly turned and walked away.

Jesse lowered his head again.

No one else spoke to him.

 

 

The sun rose blood red.

It was red because of the smoke in the Wilderness, the smoke that rode along with the misty fog. It took the normally yellow-gold sun of sunrise and turned it red, giving a red hue to the trees and ground and air. The men who had lived through the night were awash in it.

It had been an unbearably long night. The cries of the wounded had lasted to well after midnight before finally falling away to only a few. Everyone was relieved when the cries started fading, even though all knew what it meant.

Some fools had continued firing, even in the darkness, the single shots carrying well in the damp air.