I made my way along the road, careful to listen for anyone who was coming so that I might hide myself in the brush and bushes that lined the road. I had to be careful, for anyone who would be abroad at this time of night would surely be up to no good, and I wanted no part of that. I walked steadily, judging that it would take me eleven or twelve hours to reach the Widow Frederick’s humble abode, though the thought of it made me believe it was a mansion of Paradise, so did I esteem her kindness and my family’s love.
At the first opportunity, I went into some bushes and changed out of my uniform into the clothes I had taken. Then I was on my way once again. The day was sunny and clear, and indeed I became warm with my walking, so I took off my jacket. At about what I judged to be noon, I had some hardtack that I had put in my pack. It was hard to eat without water or coffee to soften it, but I managed to chew it and swallow, then I looked for a stream to take the taste out of my mouth, for although it had little taste indeed, the sensation I had was unpleasant and I wished to be rid of it. After about thirty minutes I came across a stream which I drank from since it appeared to be fresh and clean. I berated myself for not bringing a canteen, but I knew there would be other streams, the area being flush with them.
I walked on, seeing no one which I was glad of. Along about two o’clock, I knew I was nearing Winchester, so I took to the woods to avoid anyone from the army, my being a deserter once again. I made my way down hills and through small valleys until I came to the place where our cabin once stood. It was indeed a piteous sight to see it reduced to charred logs, and very few of those, the destruction being almost complete. I tried hard not to think of the happy and pleasant times I had spent there, which were many, but such memories overcame me, and I confess I shed some tears. Any man with a heart and tender sensibilities would have done the same, and I make no apology for having done so.
I went through a meadow which I knew led to a path that would take me to the Widow Frederick’s humble cabin, and after following the way for about ten minutes, I came to the clearing where the cabin stood. I hesitated at the edge of the clearing and there saw the most welcome and celestial sight that I have ever beheld. There was my Laurel, crouched over a row of beans, plucking them from their bushes and putting them in a basket. I supposed that the Widow and little Caleb were within the cabin. I stepped out into the sunshine, and, attracted by my movement, Laurel looked up. She drew back at first, not certain who this man was appearing without notice at the edge of the woods, but then as I drew closer, she dropped her basket, scattering the beans on the ground, and ran towards me as I did her. We met there among the rows, embracing, kissing and weeping all at once. After a while of this, I held her at arm’s length. “Let me see you! I have dreamed of this moment so often!”
She looked so beautiful in spite of having worked in the dirt in the hot sun. I felt as if I could look at her for an eternity, and hold on to her forever, but just then, the Widow Frederick came out of her cabin, attracted no doubt by the to do of our greeting. She came over to us.
“Caleb, is that really you? You’re so thin I didn’t recognize you at first. Are they not feeding you in that army?”
“No, m’am, nothing like the food I could get at home, and I bet yours is just as good.”
“Are ye hungry?” she asked.
“Yes, m’am, very.”
“That’s good, because I just fixed a whole mess of limas and have an old hen who’s quit laying so I can slaughter her and fry her up, and with some fried apples, I think that will make a dandy supper.”
“It sure will.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Laurel, let’s fix your man something to eat?”
“Widow Frederick,” I said. “Is Caleb awake?”
“No, son, he’s still taking his nap. He should wake up in about an hour.”
Of course I wanted to hold my boy, but he needed his afternoon sleep. The three of us walked up to the cabin and went inside, being very careful to keep quiet and to walk softly. I went back to the bed where Caleb lay. He looked like a little cherubium lying there. Laurel had told me about these baby angels and how they were shown in paintings and sculptures. She had seen these when she was at college. After all I had seen, I had begun thinking that I would like to go to college, after the war, of course.
I went back out to where Laurel was standing at a table by the stove, shelling the limas while the Widow was outside wringing the neck of the old hen. I pulled a chair over to her. “Here, sit down.”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. It’s easier to shell these beans if I’m standing up.”
I didn’t understand that, but it was her choice. I took the chair. “You are a sight for sore eyes,” I told her.
“As are you. How did you come to be able to be here?”
“It’s a long story, but basically Eleanor found where I was with the Union army. She took me to her mansion where she chained me in the basement. I felt so insubstantial by then I must have looked like a ghost with chains upon my feet. Anyone reading my mind would have found confusion and uncertainty as to what she would do next.”
“She is an unkind person.”
Laurel always had a soft way of talking about people, even the horrible cases.
“I would say she is the devil incarnate.”
She looked down. “Caleb, in spite of what she has done to you and our family I don’t believe any human being is pure evil like Satan. Something is driving her to do what she does.”
“What she will do is destroy all of us unless we find a way to stop her. That is why we must leave this area and try to find someplace where she cannot reach us, although judging by the past, that will be extremely difficult to do.”
Laurel sighed. “While it will be uncertain if we leave here for what is unknown, I believe from what you said that it is a certainty that this Eleanor person will continue to seek to harm us. Yes, we must leave. I will go with you wherever God leads us.”
I went over and kissed her. “No one has ever seen such a wife! God truly has given you to me, and I rejoice in that.”
We ate quickly and made preparations for our exodus, for that is what it was. We were fleeing danger as surely as the Children of Israel flew from Pharaoh’s army. By the time we had everything in readiness,we were tired, so we sat by the fire for a while.
“You be careful going into the wilderness,” the Widow said. “There are still Indians out there, and they might capture you and keep you.”
“We’ll watch out for them,” I told her.
“My great-grandmother, along with another woman, was captured by Indians. They took her up somewhere in what is now Ohio, but they managed to free themselves after a while. They determined if they followed the rivers they could make it back home. Unfortunately, the other woman lost her mind and began threatening my great-grandmother, so she left her and continued by herself. It took her six weeks, but she finally made it back. I remember her telling this story many times.”
“That’s some story,” Laurel said. “What happened to the other woman?”
“Someone found her and took her to Pennsylvania. Later on, her husband found her and took her home.”
“They were very lucky, I’d say.” Laurel looked at the fire.
“Yes, and the Lord was with them.” The Widow stood and stretched. “I’m going to bed. You young folks stay up as long as you want to.”
“We’ll come to bed shortly.” Laurel stood and embrace the Widow. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me—for us. Good night.”
We sat up a while longer and then, realized we wanted to make an early start, went off to bed ourselves, not knowing what the future days would bring. I did not sleep much. I saw again what I had been through in the past year, and they frightened me and kept me awake as well as any monstrous apparition.