This is the second chapter of a nine-chapter serial story to be published weekly in NeXt. The story, set during the Civil War, is about a young girl in Elmira whose brother is a prisoner of war in Andersonville, Ga. She can’t understand why the war widow she works for and the former slave who is sexton of her church don’t share her bitterness toward the rebel prisoners. That is not until the night she is confronted by a young Southerner who shares her brother’s intense desire to get home, and needs her help to do it.
Our story so far: In Civil War-era Elmira, 11-year-old Betsy has a brother who is a prisoner of war at the Confederate prison camp, Andersonville, and an after-school job helping the widow of one of his friends who was killed in the war.
Chapter 2: The Widow Woman
Betsy could see the prison camp from Mrs. Baxter’s front yard.
You couldn’t see the Johnny Rebs; they were behind the tall wooden walls. The only men you could see were the guards with their rifles, up on the high platform that ran around the inside of the walls, looking down at the enemy prisoners.
It used to be you could pay 15 cents and go up a tower next to the camp and look down inside, but they closed that, and tore down all the little places beside it, where you could buy candy and drinks. The tower was still there, but only the Army used it now, to keep an extra eye on the rebel prisoners.
Betsy had never gone up the tower. Ma said decent people wouldn’t do such a thing.
Pa had been in town when the first rebel soldiers were marched up to the prison, back when it was new. He said they were dirty and looked like they hadn’t eaten in a long time. Most of them didn’t have jackets and some were barefoot, he said, and the scarecrow in Mr. Simmons’ truck patch was dressed better than any of them.
The South didn’t know when it was licked, Pa said. That’s why they sent young boys and old men to war without decent clothes or food.
And that’s why Jimmy couldn’t come home.
In the beginning, when a soldier was captured, they’d exchange him for a soldier from the other side and he could go home. But Lincoln and Stanton figured that, if they kept sending the Johnny Rebs back to fight again, the war would never end.
So now Jimmy and Charlie Stout and John Kelley were all sitting in Andersonville waiting for the war to be over, and poor Tom Baxter was dead.
Some of the kids from school were down by the prison wall, trying to peek through the cracks to see inside.
Betsy turned her back and went back to picking up dead branches from Mrs. Baxter’s lawn. She still had to gather eggs and she’d promised Mrs. Baxter she’d clean the chimney lamps today and trim all the wicks.
Mrs. Baxter was sitting in the rocker on the front porch with Baby Tommy asleep in her arms. She said the only time she ever got to sit down for even a minute was when Betsy came to help.
“If some of those seem like they’d burn all right, could you tuck them under the back porch?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Betsy said, and started around back with an armload of branches.
There was a time when Mrs. Baxter wasn’t “ma’am.” She was just Martha Vanderleese when she and Tom and Jimmy had been in school. She was a year younger than Jimmy, and eight years older than Betsy.
But now she was a widow woman and a mother, and so, even though she wasn’t but 19, she was “ma’am” and “Mrs. Baxter” to Betsy.
Betsy went into the chicken yard, closed the gate behind her and shooed the hens out of the henhouse, then ducked inside and began to check their boxes for eggs.
She knew quite a bit about Mrs. Baxter’s situation. Mrs. Baxter talked to her like a friend sometimes, at the end of the day. She’d make lemonade or ginger water if it was hot out, or a pot of tea if it wasn’t, and they’d sit for a few minutes before Betsy went home.
Mrs. Baxter didn’t have many friends to talk to. Her father’s farm was a ways out of town. One of her sisters had married a man from Cooperstown and the other two had families of their own to care for, though they came by to visit sometimes.
But Betsy was there every day after school, and they talked. And people talked about her, too, in a kind way, but in a worried way, and everybody had an idea of what she ought to do.
Some thought she and the baby should go live with Tom’s parents in their big house downtown. Some thought she should go back to the farm and keep house for her father.
And they all said it was far too early to talk of such things, but a pretty young widow like Martha would surely find another husband, once the war was over and some time had passed.
What Mrs. Baxter wanted to do, she said, was to stay put and raise their son in the house that Tom had bought for them. She could do that if she could get her widow’s pension, but first she had to prove that they were married, and that he was a soldier and that he died in the war.
Then she’d have eight dollars a month, and with a truck patch and some chickens, a little thrift and maybe taking in some mending, she and little Tommy could get by. She had filled out all the papers, but the only proof she had that Tom was dead was Jimmy’s letter.
She copied it out and sent everything to the Pension Office. Some people said it wasn’t enough and others said it just took time, but it had been four months and she hadn’t heard back.
Meanwhile, Betsy couldn’t understand how she could sit on her porch and look down the block to where they kept the people who had killed poor Tom.
Next week: Another letter.
Made available through the support of New York State United Teachers and New York Newspapers Foundation. Text, ©2013, by Mike Peterson. Illustrations, ©2013, by Christopher Baldwin. The author has created a companion blog for readers to offer comments or ask questions. It can be found at www.weeklystorybook.com/comehome.