This is the eighth 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 discovered why eggs and milk have been missing lately. An escaped rebel prisoner from the nearby POW camp has been hiding in their barn.
Chapter 8: A Louisiana Tiger
“Stand back up!” Betsy ordered, but the reb stayed on the floor of the dark hayloft where he’d fallen.
“I can’t, ma’am,” he said. “It’s my ankle. I did something to it and I can’t hardly walk at all.”
“You can walk well enough to climb down the ladder and get into our hen house,” Betsy replied, holding the hayfork nearly in his face. “And well enough to milk our cow and climb back up here.”
“That took me near all night, ma’am,” he confessed. He looked at the sharp tines of the hay fork. “Could you just lower that fork a little, please? I ain’t gonna jump you. I can’t hardly even try.”
Betsy ignored the request. “Slide over to the edge and dangle your foot down in the light so I can see it,” she ordered.
His tattered trousers barely reached below his knees, and, as he put his foot over the edge of the loft into the light of the lantern, his dirty, bare leg was a sickly yellow. His ankle was swollen badly, an angry purple-green.
“I was running in the dark and I stepped in a woodchuck hole or something,” he said. “It caught tight and I fell. Might have busted it.”
“You surely did something to it,” Betsy agreed, staring at the joint.
“That’s why I’m still here,” he said. “I come out of the tunnel and seen one of the fellows running ahead, but this happened before I could catch up with him. I reckon they’re halfway home if they ain’t been caught.”
“They haven’t been,” she said, and realized she shouldn’t have told him that. She shouldn’t tell him anything. She should turn him in to the sheriff or to the army.
“It’s probably not half as bad as it looks,” she said. “They’ll take care of it back in the prison.”
His eyes widened and he scooted back away toward the hay, dragging his bad leg. “You can’t!” he said. “For the love of heaven, don’t turn me in. I can’t go back there. I’ll die! They’re all dying in there!”
Betsy didn’t lower the fork but she took a half step back. “Well, why wouldn’t I turn you in? It’s rebs like you that got my brother captured and who killed his friends.”
“Your brother’s a prisoner?” he asked, and Betsy wished she hadn’t told him.
“He’s in Andersonville,” she said, and saw his face when he heard the name. Even in prison, he’d heard about Andersonville.
“Where did he get took prisoner?” he asked.
“Knoxville, just before Christmas,” she said. “He was with Shackleford’s troops.”
“I didn’t have nothing to do with anything in Knoxville, ma’am. I’ve never even been there,” the reb declared. “I was in Virginia, clean on the other side of the country. I’m from Louisiana. My name is Seth Dussault. That’s a Louisiana name, sure enough.”
“I don’t care what your name is and I don’t care where you’re from,” she said. “Rebels are rebels. You’re all part of the same army.”
“By the time your brother got caught, I was in Fort Delaware prison,” he said. “I got caught at Rappahannock, with General Harry Hays and the Louisiana Tigers.”
“And if I let you go, Seth Dussault, you’ll go right back and join up with your Louisiana Tigers all over again,” Betsy said, “and this war will never be over.”
“I ain’t joining up with nobody no more,” the reb promised. “I just want to go home, ma’am. I’ve had all the war I want, I swear.”
“Quit calling me ‘ma’am’,” Betsy snapped. “I’m only 11 years old.”
“It’s dark in here,” he said. “Alls I can see is that fork in my face. I do wish you’d lower it a bit.”
Betsy let the hay fork dip slightly, but kept it ready, just in case. Neither of them said anything for a few minutes.
“My little brother Lucius is just about your age,” Seth said at last. “He turned 12 last month, I guess.”
“I don’t care to hear about your family, either,” Betsy said. She started to swing the fork back and Seth covered his head, but she just snapped at him. “Get out of the way so I can throw some hay down for the cow.”
He backed up and she took up a forkful and pitched it over the edge.
“I’ll bring you something to eat in the morning,” she said. “Stay away from our hens and our cow.”
Betsy finished pitching down the hay, returned the fork to its pegs and went back to the house without another word, though she heard Seth call a quiet “good night” as she climbed down the ladder.
She was glad Ma and Pa were in bed. She took her dinner from the warming shelf over the oven: a chicken leg, baked beans and a piece of cornbread.
Betsy ate the chicken and beans, then cut a sliver from the wheel of Herkimer cheese, wrapped it in a napkin with the cornbread and hid it in her boots in the lean-to.
She was about to blow out the lantern and go to bed, but she paused for a moment and left it lit while she went to the Bible in the parlor.
A few moments later, Betsy came back into the kitchen with Jimmy’s letters and sat at the table to read them by lantern light.
Next week: The conclusion.
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.