This is the fifth 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 is glad to know her brother is alive in the prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Ga., but remains bitter about his imprisonment and the deaths of his friends Tom and Charlie.
Chapter 5: Tunnelers
“I don’t want you going to Martha Baxter’s today,” Ma said. “You come straight home from school.”
Betsy said nothing. Sometimes, she knew, that was the best idea and, sure enough, Pa came to her aid. “Well, I imagine they got a great deal farther than that,” he said.
Betsy had been coming back from the henhouse with a basket of eggs that morning when the first mounted soldiers had come racing down their street.
Pa went out front to see what the commotion was, and a soldier stopped to ask if he had seen anyone in the area.
“It appears that some prisoners escaped through a tunnel last night,” Pa reported when he came back inside. “I’d better walk with you to school.”
While Betsy washed up at the pump in the kitchen sink, Pa got his tall lace-up boots from the lean-to and began to put them on. They weren’t very comfortable, but they held his bad ankle firmly and made it hurt less when he had to walk any distance.
That was when Ma said she shouldn’t go to Mrs. Baxter’s after school.
“My goodness, they’re not going to stop running a block from the camp,” Pa went on. “She’d be in more danger coming back here than going to Martha’s.”
Ma looked shocked. “Do you think they’d come here?” she asked, but Pa just laughed.
“They’ll be halfway to Pennsylvania by noon,” he predicted. “If they have any sense at all, they’re either floating down the river by now or they’ve jumped an eastbound freight. Either way, they’re gone from here and good riddance to the rebel scum.”
Betsy put on her cloak and picked up her books, then gave her mother a quick hug and went out the back door with Pa. “Do you think they’ll catch them?” she asked.
“Hard to say, kitten,” Pa replied. “There’s plenty of woods and open land hereabouts. If the army had dogs, they might be able to track them down, but they don’t. I’m sure if anybody does catch them, it won’t be around here. They’re long gone.”
At school, the escape was all anybody was talking about, and everyone had heard a different story.
Some said there were 30 that got out, others said it was five. Dan Harris said they’d stolen guns from the prison armory, but nobody believed that. Finally, Miss Moyer said it was time for class and they would all have to wait for the next day’s newspaper to find out the facts.
Ten prisoners had escaped, Betsy learned after class, and none had been recaptured.
Mr. Jones had been driving by with an empty wagon as she was walking down the street and offered her a ride to Mrs. Baxter’s house.
She knew why he seemed to always be driving his wagon down the street. The wagon could hold eight pine coffins at a time. Some days, he only made one trip from the camp to the cemetery. Other days, he might make two or three trips.
Mr. Jones said the prisoners had escaped sometime in the night, and nobody knew they were missing until morning roll call. There were 10 men missing, and he agreed with her father: By now, they were as far from Elmira as they could possibly get.
“I hope they get caught,” Betsy declared.
“They might,” he nodded, and clicked his tongue to the off-horse, slapping it lightly with the reins to get it to keep pace with its partner.
Betsy studied his face for a moment, but he was watching the horses and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Do you like them?” she asked, and he turned to look at her.
“Well, I don’t hate them,” he answered. “I don’t hate anybody.”
“I do!” Betsy said. “If it weren’t for them, Charlie Stout and Tom Baxter would still be alive, and my brother Jimmy would be home where he belongs. I hate them all!”
Mr. Jones didn’t say anything, and Betsy finally spoke again. “You should know. You were a slave.”
“Yes, I was,” he agreed.
“You should hate them, too,” she argued. “They’re fighting for slavery!”
Mr. Jones pulled the horses to a stop. “Betsy, I don’t know what those boys were fighting for before, but they’re not fighting anybody now. And it doesn’t matter. We’re going to win this war. By now, everybody knows that. When the war is over, slavery is over and then everyone can go home.”
“Everyone who is still alive,” she said.
“Your Jim will come home,” Mr. Jones said. “Didn’t he say so in his letters?”
“How many have said that who never will?” she asked, but Mr. Jones only shook the reins and made the horses start up again.
He stopped the wagon when they reached Mrs. Baxter’s. Betsy stepped down from the buckboard, but Mr. Jones had something else to say.
“I could have stayed in Virginia,” he told her. “But my two brothers and I said we weren’t going to be slaves anymore, and we walked all the way from Virginia to Elmira and became free. And others said they weren’t going to be slaves, and came here and I put them on trains to Canada, and they became free. The first step any of us took was to decide we were going to be free.
“Your brother said he’s coming home, and I believe him. You should, too.”
Note: NeXt won’t be publishing “I Will Come Home” next Thursday while schools are on winter break, but check back Feb. 28 for Chapter 6.
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.