This is the final chapter of a nine-chapter serial story that has been 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 an escaped rebel soldier from the nearby POW camp hiding in her family’s barn. She knows she should turn him in and she blames all Confederate soldiers for her brother’s capture and the death of his friends in the war. But the rebel says he is done with the war and only wants to go home.
Chapter 9: A Decision
It was no accident that Betsy was part way between the school and Mrs. Baxter’s house Monday as Mr. Jones came by with his wagon.
Seth was still in the hayloft. She’d been sneaking him food, morning and night, since she found him Saturday and she still didn’t know what to do about him.
So she’d been walking extra slow, hoping that Mr. Jones would come along and offer her a ride.
He could tell she had something on her mind, but he just drove the horses and waited until she spoke up.
“You used to break the law,” she said, and he turned to look at her, sitting next to him on the wagon box.
But he didn’t say anything, so she spoke up again. “What you did was against the law, putting slaves on the trains to Canada.”
“Did you want to ask me a question about that?” he asked.
Betsy thought a moment. “I guess not,” she replied, but after they had driven along a little further, she got up her nerve again. “How many people do you figure knew what you were doing?”
“Besides the people I was doing it with? I truly don’t know,” he admitted. “I tried to be quiet about it, so people could pretend they didn’t know, if that was what they wanted to do. What they needed to do. But I guess most of the town probably knew at least some of it.”
“I guess if they thought it was so wrong, somebody would have told on you.”
“That seems likely,” he said.
“They probably talked about it, among themselves.”
“I suppose they probably did,” he agreed.
Betsy looked across to the low mountains on the other side of the Chemung River, all red and yellow with autumn leaves. “How much did you worry about it?”
John Jones shrugged. “About people talking about it, or about somebody getting me arrested for it?”
“Not a bit.” He raised his hands slightly toward his chest, tightening the knot of reins in his hands and bringing the horses to a halt at Mrs. Baxter’s house. Then he turned toward Betsy.
“What I did was right,” he said. “I don’t know what anybody thought about it, or what they said about it, and I never knew but that maybe I’d go to jail for it. But I know I did what was right.”
“Yes,” Betsy agreed. “You did what was right.”
She climbed down from the wagon as Mrs. Baxter came to the front porch. “Thank you!” Betsy called after Mr. Jones, as he drove away.
That night, when Betsy came up to the loft, she had a feed sack in one hand, and whatever was in it clunked on the ladder as she climbed.
“You’ve got to go tonight,” she said.
“But I can’t hardly walk,” Seth started to protest. Betsy cut him off.
“You can ride back to the prison or you can walk home,” she said. “But I can’t hide you here anymore. Put your foot out.”
Seth extended his leg and Betsy took some long strips of cloth from the sack.
“Now, watch carefully. I’ve seen my ma wrap my pa’s bad foot a hundred times.” She began to wind the cloth around Seth’s ankle.
“There’s some potatoes in there that you can bake in the ashes,” she said. “I was going to put in apples, but there’s still apples left on the trees, and under them, too. You’ll find plenty of apples.”
Seth watched her bandaging, shifting slightly and wincing a few times as she moved his foot.
“There’s a tin cup and a small bag of oatmeal that you can cook in it,” Betsy said. “I couldn’t sneak you any more bread or cheese, but there’s a can of sardines and a piece of paper with some matches folded up in it. Watch they don’t strike each other; you might want to put them in your pocket.”
“My pockets ain’t been proper pockets for months,” Seth said. “They’d fall right out.”
Betsy looked at him in the shadows and lantern light from below. She should have brought a pair of Jim’s breeches, but she didn’t want to sneak back into the house now.
“What can’t be cured must be endured,” she said, and tucked the end of the long bandage in to hold it snugly. “If you get to where you can’t feel your toes, loosen up those windings,” she said.
She reached into the sack and drew out a pair of tall hunting boots. “These are my brother’s,” she said. “They’ll hold your ankle in place. My pa has a pair just like them that he wears when he has to walk more than a little ways.”
“God bless you, Betsy,” Seth said, as she loosened the laces on the boot for his bad foot.
“Don’t ask Him to bless me,” she said. “They’re Jimmy’s boots and he’s the one needs blessing anyway.”
“I surely will pray for your Jimmy, Betsy,” Seth said. “I surely will.”
She helped him with the second boot and they climbed down the ladder.
Betsy and Seth stood in the moonlit barnyard.
“The Chemung’s four blocks that way,” she pointed. “Downstream is Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna River and that’ll take you clear to Maryland.”
Seth slung the bag over his shoulder and started to limp away, then turned back as if to say something more.
“Go home,” Betsy said. “Your family’s waiting.”
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.