This is the fourth 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: Betsy’s brother Jimmy has smuggled a letter out of the POW camp in Andersonville, Ga., to let them know that he is alright but that his hometown friend Charlie Stout has died.
Chapter 4: Kindness
“It was a kindness for him to say all that about Charlie,” Mrs. Baxter said. “Your brother is a kind and thoughtful man.”
She had done laundry that day and, when Betsy came from school, they hung the sheets on the line together. Now they were sitting on the porch, shelling peas and drinking cambric tea while the baby napped beside them in a basket of clean diapers and towels.
Betsy kept her eyes down at the bowl in her lap as she spoke. “I don’t know that he said anything very comforting,” she replied. “Poor Charlie couldn’t even eat. It seemed very sad.”
“Even bad news is news,” Mrs. Baxter insisted. “It helps to have a picture in your mind, to know at least a little about it.” She reached up to dump the peas from her bowl into the larger pot on the table, then took another handful of pods and put them in her lap.
“To know that your Jim and that John Kelley were there with Charlie at the end, that has to gladden his parents’ hearts amid the sorrow,” she went on. “I know it gladdened my heart to hear that my Tom knew we had a son. I was afraid my letter didn’t get to him in time, that he never saw it.”
They said nothing for several minutes, then Mrs. Baxter spoke again. “I shouldn’t say this, but I’m glad John is there.” Betsy looked up for a moment, but didn’t say anything.
“Goodness knows, I don’t mean I’m glad poor John is in prison,” Mrs. Baxter went on. “But I’m glad Jim isn’t alone. John was never a close friend; Jim and Tom and Charlie were always together while John was always working at his family’s store. Still, he is from home. I’m glad Jim has a friend for company.”
“I’m not glad of anything,” Betsy declared. “And I don’t care about anything else. I just want Jimmy to come home! Nothing else. Nothing else will ever make me glad again, ever!”
Mrs. Baxter’s eyes began to fill with tears and Betsy suddenly realized the terrible thing she had said. Her brother might yet come home, but Mrs. Baxter’s husband never would.
“I’m sorry!” she said, and now she began to cry, too. “I didn’t mean it!”
“Of course you did!” Mrs. Baxter said. “Of course you meant it!”
And she put her bowl on the table, and took Betsy’s bowl, and then reached over and the young widow and the young sister held each other and wept. It was the first time Betsy had cried since the day Jimmy’s first letter arrived and they knew he was a prisoner.
But now little Tommy began to cry, too. Mrs. Baxter wiped her eyes, and laughed, and picked him up from the laundry basket. “Did we wake you up, little fellow?” she asked. “Did those foolish girls wake you up with their caterwauling?”
She played with the baby until he stopped crying, and then put him to her shoulder and patted his back.
“When I first heard about Tom, when your parents brought Jim’s letter over, I thought my life was over,” she said. “I thought I would never smile again. And then I looked at little Tommy and I knew there was much, much left before me.”
She reached out and cupped Betsy’s cheek gently with one hand. “Jimmy is coming home. I know he is. Jimmy will come home.”
Betsy was thinking about Tom Baxter, and his widow, and his son, and her own brother, as she walked home. She barely heard the wagon slow to a stop until the voice said, “Would you like a ride?”
It was John Jones, the sexton at her church, the man who had given her the job of helping Mrs. Baxter after school. He held a hand down, inviting her to come up on the seat beside him.
Betsy took his hand and stepped up onto the wagon. “Thank you, Mr. Jones,” she said, and the black man smiled back.
“Mrs. Baxter says you are a great help to her,” he said, as he shook the reins and started his horses up again. Betsy wasn’t sure what to say, so she said nothing, and, after a moment, Mr. Jones spoke up again. “I heard you had a letter.”
“Yes,” Betsy answered.
“He’s going to be all right,” Mr. Jones said. “He’s going to come home. I feel it in my bones!”
Betsy still didn’t know what to say. Mr. Jones had been a slave in Virginia, until he and his brothers escaped and came north to freedom, in Elmira.
Then he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Nobody in Elmira talked about it, but everybody knew it: John Jones had helped a lot of slaves to freedom, sending them in railroad boxcars up to Canada, where nobody owned people, where people were free.
But now John Jones busied himself with burying the rebel soldiers, those who enlisted to preserve slavery but then died in the Elmira prison.
He didn’t just deliver them to the cemetery. He kept track of each grave. Mr. Jones even put a slip of paper with the name of the prisoner and his regiment in a bottle around each dead man’s neck, so that that particular reb’s body could never be lost and forgotten.
Betsy rode beside Mr. Jones in silence until they came to her house.
Next week: A prison break.
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.