What was he doing in our barn? His kind had already taken all our animals. We had nothing left to steal, so why was this Yankee skulking around our barn?
Now he’s coming toward the house. I grab papa’s gun and continue to watch through the window as the man stumbles onto our porch.
I’m shaking so badly, but I refuse to give in to my fear. My papa told me to be brave, so that I could protect the family, and so I hold my head high and clutch the gun even tighter.
I peer back out the window, and for a moment I dare to hope that everything is fine. The man is gone—or so it appears. Then I hear something bumping against the door. The thick wood timbers rattle against the jamb, and I jump, nearly squeezing the trigger and wasting what precious little shot we have. But the latch and wood brace hold, and my shaking hands loosen just a bit on the trigger.
A louder thump now, it sounds like when papa used to stack sacks of grain on the porch. I sneak another glance out the window, but I see nothing. But as I begin to pull back, I catch a glimpse of something dark, piled on the planked porch just outside the door.
Sprawled against the door, the man looks like the rag doll my nanna had made me. Maybe he’s dead? Could I be that lucky? I start to reach for the latch, then stay my hand. What if he’s just foolin’? What if he’s just waitin’ for the chance to get inside?
Again, I go to the window and peer out into the early morning gloom. The mist from the nearby woods swirls out across the meadows and it’s sinewy tendrils snake around the pillars of the porch and obscure the man’s features. All I can tell is that he appears to be older than I am, but papa always said that war aged a fellow early.
The man doesn’t move, and I’m inclined to believe he’s dead. Just then Tad tumbles into the room with all the exuberances that accompanies any ten-year old boy. I shush him harshly, and cast another look outside.
Catching my tension and my look, he rushes to the window and pushes aside the expensive lace curtains that mamma had brought with her all the way from Charleston. Excited now, and wanting to see if the stranger is carrying anything useful, he rushes to the door before I can stop him. However, I manage to stop him before he can unlatch the door and my scolding contains all the fury of my terrified fifteen years.
I have been in charge of the family for months now—ever since mamma died giving birth to our baby brother, who also died. Papa went off to fight the yanks nearly a year ago and left me in charge. It didn’t matter that I was only a girl, he said, I was the oldest and it was my duty to make sure that nothing happened to mamma and the boys.
All my scolding has awakened Jamie—sweet, angelic Jamie. With his thumb still tucked in his mouth, he toddles into the room and snuggles against my knees wanting to be picked up. He’s already six, and too old to be babied, but I can’t stop myself. He’s such a sweetheart. I bend down and heft him onto my hip. With him in one arm, and the gun in my other hand, I again look out at the body on our porch. The sun is starting to pinken the sky and now I can see small movements from the Yank on our porch, and not just the movements of the fog, either.
As I watch, the man’s chest slowly rises and falls—not much, but enough to tell me that he’s still alive.
I hustle the boys toward the kitchen, which is in the back of the house, and away from the man either sleeping or dying on our front porch. There’s not much to eat, some thin, watery grits, and some chicory coffee. Yesterday I had found some partridge eggs in a nest out in the old corn field. But there’s no one here to plow the fields, or plant the corn, although a few sprouts have sprung up here and there, so we might have a small gathering of corn come late summer (that’s if the animals don’t all eat the shoots). I’ve been trying to keep the shoots safe from the rabbits and other pests, but it’s not easy keeping an eye on two rambunctious boys and our meager crop.
The boys fed as best I can, I set about trying to do the chores. I go out the back way, the boys in tow, casting fearful glances at the house. I’m afraid that the man may wake up and make his way inside, but I have to do what I can to feed the boys. I set them to fishin’ in the small creek, while I work the small vegetable patch by the barn.
After washing the few items of clothing that we have, we head back to the house. I sneak into the parlor to check on the man, and his eyes open and pin themselves on mine. I step back into the shadows, but he isn’t fooled. He knows I’m here and he tries to call out to me. His voice is weak and gravelly, but I can hear clearly enough. He’s asking for water, medicine. Now, with the sun overhead, I can see that his shirt is covered in blood. Not dried blood, but wet, shiny blood. He must be wounded somehow, and the wound is still seeping.
Part of me says I should help him—after all the Good Book says that we should love our enemies—but I look behind me at the two boys standing wide-eyed in the parlor door and I know I won’t (help him). I can’t take a chance. I pull the expensive lace curtains across the window and hustle the boys towards the back of the house, away from the pitiful cries of the man on the porch.
Hours later, the cries stop, and I again look out. The man seems to have passed out once more. I slip out the back and fill a bucket from the well while the boys are napping. Putting a dipper into the bucket, I lug it around the front. I pause, staring up at the four steps as if they are the highest of mountains. Then, with my legs shaking so badly that I spill great puddles from the bucket, I creep up the stairs. Carefully, I slide my feet—first the right, then the left. Drawing closer and closer to the blue-clad man passed out on the porch.
Standing over him, I see that he’s really not much older than me. Despite the dirt etched into the lines on his face, I realize that he can’t be any older than 20, if that. Setting the bucket down next to him, I start to leave and a hand touches my ankle. I shriek and jump, nearly stumbling over the Yank, who is now awake.
He asks me to please help him, and I fumble my way down the steps and race around the corner of the house and into the kitchen. Slamming shut the door, I latch it and stand against it waiting for my heart to slow. I can still hear the man, bawling like a lost calf.
Angrily I think, he’ll wake the boys, and I start towards the front of the house to tell him to be quiet. Then, I freeze just inside the parlor door. What am I thinking? I race back to the kitchen and grab the gun that papa left for us. Back at the front door, I peer out the window and the man, seeing me, again starts calling for me to help him. Angry now, and knowing that the man is still too weak to be much of a threat, I open the door and brandish the gun at him. I tell him to be quiet or else, but I can see in his eyes that he doesn’t believe I’m much of a threat, he does, however, become still.
Supper consists of several turnips, and the left over grit gruel supplemented with a stringy squirrel. Having no bait, the boys were unable to catch any fish, but Tad did manage to kill a squirrel with his slingshot.
Although we don’t have much, I put a small amount of what we do have on a plate and using a broom handle I slide it up the porch to the Yank from the safety of the doorway. I also toss him a blanket before slamming the door shut and bolting it behind me. The Good Book may say to love our enemies, but papa taught us to be safe. So, he remains outside.
I think sometime in the night, the man caught a fever, because the next day he was shaking and delirious. I did what I could, but having no medical skill and no medicines, that wasn’t much. During one bought of calmness, when he was unconscious, I did open his shirt to check his wound. It was more grievous than I had suspected. His stomach was wrapped in a filthy bandage. When I peeked beneath, I saw that his whole abdomen had been ripped open. No one, except perhaps an experienced doctor, could help him. I knew I couldn’t.
He raged and tossed, shook and shivered for two days. The third day I arose and looked through the window onto the porch and knew that he was dead. The dampness of the night covered him, and his chest no longer rose and fell. I felt badly, but what could I have done? He was, after all, a Yankee, and we knew that they were capable of anything. Therefore, I had to think of my brothers and their safety.
I took one of mamma’s prize linen table cloths and wrapped the man—no, boy—in it. Then I dragged him to the back where I had the vegetable garden. The soil was already loose here, so digging him a grave would be fairly easy.
I started to say a brief word or two and felt tears straggle down my cheeks and pause at my chin, as I stopped halfway through my prayer. I didn’t even know his name. How could I ask God to watch over him, when I didn’t even know his name. Shoveling the dirt on top of his makeshift grave, I wondered when the fear would stop. I didn’t even understand what the fighting was about, I just knew that I wanted things to be the way the had been when papa was at home.
With a sigh, I dragged the shovel back to the shed. Another day was started, and I needed to find something for the boys to eat.
(This is my memory of one of my pasts. The imbalance created by my not allowing the ‘yankee’ into the house was corrected in this life by inviting someone I wasn’t very fond of to come into my home and join me and my spouse for a meal.)