This is the seventh 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 has been wondering why her family’s chickens seem to have been laying fewer eggs suddenly. Then her father says that the cow had not been giving as much milk the past few days.
Chapter 7: The Egg Thief
By Sunday morning, Betsy knew why there had been fewer eggs lately, but she still had to be polite to Mrs. Baxter’s father.
He came up to her as church was getting out. “Martha tells me you’re having trouble with your hens,” he said.
Pa and Ma were talking to someone else, and Betsy hoped they wouldn’t notice Mr. Vanderlees and join in the conversation.
“Oh, they’re much better now, thank you,” she said. “I think they must have just been a little under the weather for a time.”
“Well, you need to watch them carefully,” Mr. Vanderlees cautioned. “One gets a little sickly and the next thing you know, the whole flock is gone. I’ve seen it happen too many times. Chickens are funny creatures that way.”
“No, they’re fine,” she said. “I checked their beaks for crustiness around their nostrils, and there wasn’t a bit of it, nor around their eyes, either. They walk around with just as much spring as ever. Feathers bright and smooth just like it was Fair Week!”
“Well, that’s good, young lady, but you keep a sharp lookout for a time, you hear?” he said. “It can sneak up on you sudden.”
“I surely will, sir,” she said, and tried to change the subject. “Are you bringing your corn to the mill this week?”
“Not sure,” he admitted. “We’ve had it cut and put up in shocks for some time. I’m thinking maybe the end of this week, if it stays sunny like it has. I know Martha must be pret’near out of chicken feed by now, though she’d never complain.”
“It’s getting low, sir, yes,” Betsy said.
Mr. Vanderlees nodded and looked across the churchyard to where some women were fussing over his grandson while Mrs. Baxter watched and smiled.
“That girl never does complain, and that’s good,” he said. “I taught my girls it does no good to complain. But I wish she would ask for help when she needs it. Self-reliance is good, but being stubborn, well, now, that’s a fault.”
He glanced down at Betsy. “You could always tell me if she needed anything, you know. You’d be doing us both a favor.”
“Just some cracked corn,” Betsy said, then added. “And her widow’s pension, but you can’t do much to hurry that, I guess.”
“That I can’t,” he agreed. “And I think it’s a disgrace. To lose a fine young man like Tom and have them act like he never existed? It’s been near eight months now! A disgrace!”
For a moment, he looked like he was going to spit, but he stopped and put a rough hand on Betsy’s shoulder instead, and his voice softened. “I want you to know, Miss Betsy, how much our family appreciates the way you and the other folks from the church help our Martha. We are truly grateful.”
Betsy had learned the truth about the chickens the night before.
When she came home Saturday evening, she took the lantern as she always did and went out to the barn. She hung the lantern on a nail as she always did.
As she climbed the ladder, the lantern below threw her shadow on the roof among all the other shadows it cast, but it lit things up enough that she could see the hay fork in its place on the wall.
The floor was in shadow, though, and, when something crunched under her foot, she had to bend down and feel under her boot to find out what it was.
Whatever had been stealing eggs from the hens had been bringing them up here to eat. And whatever had been stealing eggs from the hens had also been stealing milk from the cow.
And Betsy wished, oh, how she wished, that it wasn’t too dangerous to bring a flame up into the hayloft, because right now she wished like anything that the lantern were in her hand so she could see what was up there in that loft with her.
Instead, she walked calmly over to the wall and took down the stout, wooden-handled fork with its two, long, sharp iron tines, just as if she were about to throw hay down to the barn floor as she always did, and she went over to the pile of hay in the corner of the loft, just as she always did.
And she pulled back the fork just as if she were going to take a big forkful of hay as she always did, and she said, “You come on out of there or I will stick you like a bullfrog!”
Betsy took one step closer and held the fork back even farther. “I will! I swear! And I don’t care what I hit!”
And the hay moved, and then a bare foot came out at the bottom and two hands, raised, came out of the top and slowly, a raggedy, long-haired, dirty young man with a scraggly beard rose up out of the hay into the half-light from the lantern below.
“I give up, ma’am, please don’t stick me,” he said, in an accent that told Betsy exactly who he was and where he had come from.
“You’re a reb!” she declared. “You’re one of those Johnny Rebs who tunneled out of the prison last week!”
“Yes, I am, ma’am,” he confessed, and his left leg buckled and he fell to the floor.
Next week: Betsy keeps a secret.
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.