The next town was Stephens City, which meant we weren’t too far from home. It turned out that we didn’t have to buy any whiskey because there was a doctor in town. A man came walking toward us, and I called, “Hello! Is there a doctor in town?”
He stopped and stared at Andrew. “What happened to him?”
“A boar attacked us, and we’re all lucky to be alive. Andrew here got the worst of it, so we need to have someone look at his wounds. They’re not that bad, but I’m not a doctor, and I want one to look at him.”
“He looks pretty bad to me. You’d better get him to a doctor quick!”
“We plan to. Is there one in town? Is he far from here?”
The man shook his head. “You’re in luck—Doc Stephens is about halfway down this street, to the right. He’ll be there unless he’s in the saloon next door. He has a kind of problem, understand? If he’s drinking, you will have done a better job patching this fellow up than the doc could do. It’s a shame, because he’s a good doc when he’s sober.”
I winced. The last thing we needed was a drunken doctor. “Thank you, friend.”
“You’re welcome and good luck. From the looks of all of you, you’re going to need it.”
I looked around at the others. It had not occurred to me with all that had happened how dirty and bedraggled we all looked, as I’ve heard people say, like “something the cat dragged in.” Because the boar was bigger and could do more harm than a cat, we probably looked worse that something the cat dragged in.
We went down the street and found the place the man indicated. The large front window had “Dr. James Stephens, M. D.” painted in gold across it. I looked in. No one was there, but I said, “Go on in and see what you can do to start treating Andrew’s wounds, all of you. I’ll go next door.” I had a grim expression as I went next door. I didn’t know what I would find, and I didn’t want to think about it.
When I reached the saloon, I went in and stood there for a moment as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. When they had, I saw an older man sitting in a chair with his head on a table, snoring loudly, an empty bottle of whiskey on the table before him.When I saw that, I knew we were in trouble.
“Can I help you, my friend?” The bartender stood behind the bar, polishing a glass.
“I don’t want anything to drink. My friend was attacked by a boar. I came in here to see what shape the doctor was in. My answer’s right there.” I gestured toward the doctor splayed out at the table.
He laughed. “That doctor ain’t doin’ any doctorin’ right now, as you can see. Even if he were stone cold sober, I wouldn’t take my best dog to him. He’s put more people in the ground than the undertaker. You’ve caught him in his habitual state.”
“But we need him.”
He shrugged. “A lot of people need him, but he doesn’t care. Go ahead and wake him up, but be careful. He usually comes out fightin’ when his sleep is interrupted. He’s even crazier when he’s drunk, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Thanks for the warning,” I told the bartender. I went over to the doctor, grabbed him by the shoulder and shook it vigorously.
“Now you’ve done it!” exclaimed the bartender.
I ignored him, and said, “Doctor Stephens! We need you! Wake up! Now! We have an emergency.”
He grunted and tried to take my hand off his shoulder. I shook it again, even harder. “Wake up, man! It’s important.”
He suddenly sat up and tried to punch me in the face, but he missed and fell on the floor. I stood over him. “Let me give you a hand up.”
He made no move, but continued to lie on the floor. Since he was a dead weight, as most drunks are, I wasn’t sure I could bring him to his feet. I grabbed him by the wrist. “Come on. Let me pull you up. I want you to come with me.”
He opened one eye. “Jus’ one more drink,” he slurred. “Jus’ one more before we go.” Falling to the floor seemed to have taken the fight out of him, but I didn’t know how long that would last. If I wanted to get him up and treat Andrew, I would have to act quickly. I bent down over him and said, “No! No more drinks right now! You can have another after you treat my friend. Come on! I’ll help you up!”
I got my hands under his arms and lifted his dead weight with great difficulty so that he stood on his feet, swaying back and forth. The bartender looked on, bemused.
“You could help me, you know,” I said to him.
“No sir,” he answered. “I tried helping to pull him up, and he broke my jaw. I ain’t anxious to repeat that experience. I’m sure you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do.” I slowly dragged Stephens toward the door. He wasn’t getting any lighter. Finally I guided him to the door, and we went out into the street.
I heard the bartender call from inside, “Remember what I said about him puttin’ people in the ground. And watch out. He’s usually sick to him stomach after he wakes up.”
“We’ll be all right, no thanks to you!” I told him, although I was unsure about what would happen.
Somehow I managed to drag him to his office and up the steps where we went inside to find Andrew lying on the examination table with his shirt removed.
“What took you so long?” Hiram asked.
“The doctor was drunk, sitting at a table. At first he wanted to fight me, but he took as swing and missed, but that calmed him down. The thing was, I had to drag him over here because the bartender wouldn’t help me.”
“I see,” Hiram said.
“If you’ll look at him, most of his wounds are on his upper body,” Laurel said. “Hiram has known exactly what to do. We’ve cleaned his wounds, put whiskey on them, and bound them up. I think he’s ready to go.”
I knew that Laurel would know something about what to do, but Hiram surprised me again. Apparently he knew more than she did. “How’d you know what to do?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “There were plenty of knife fights around the wharf. I just did what I thought was necessary, and when most of ‘em survived, I figured I must be doing all right. So I kept it up.”
“How many people like this did you fix up?”
He shrugged. “Maybe a hundred in the past two years.”
“That’s a rough place.”
Hiram shrugged. “I managed to get along, in spite of it all.”
“I’m amazed at all you were able to do—that you can do.”
He shrugged again. “You do what you have to when there’s no one but you sober most of the time. Or maybe that was all the time.”
Laurel looked at him hard. “You didn’t need to drink that whiskey.”
“Just think of it as my fee.”
I just shook my head and went over to Andrew. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better. I might survive. I had good doctors.” He grinned at Laurel and Hiram.’
“That’s good, because the so-called ‘doctor’ in this town is worse than useless. The bartender said he would take his best dog to him.”
“Oh. Well, anyhow, I feel like traveling again, so let’s get going.”
I nodded. “The sooner we leave this place, the better.”
During all this, the doctor had crawled into a corner and fallen asleep. I looked over at him. “Good riddance to that one,” I said. “Let’s get out of here as fast as we can.”
We loaded up again, glad to leave the doctor and feeling blessed that Andrew’s wounds could be attended to, but leaving us to wonder why we had come into town in the first place. If only we had known, we could have saved ourselves the time and effort, and been that much closer to home. But such was not to be, and we made our way out of town, walking slowly and thinking about what had happened.
We were blessed by good weather the rest of the way and had no more obstacles along our way. We didn’t even encounter a human being, much less a wild animal. That was all right with me, and I thanked God for our smooth passage. That evening, we came to a place I recognized, one near our house. I was excited to be home and prayed that nothing had happened to it. We had been gone a long time, after all.
We came to a long rise that led to the path to our home, and Laurel exclaimed, “I know where we are now! We’re so close! I could never forget what this looks like!”
We quickened our pace, and when we came to the last hill, we broke into a run in spite of our heavy loads. But when we topped the hill, we stopped when we saw what was left of our cabin. Actually, there wasn’t much left. It had burned to the ground. We had not left much there, but whatever little it was, it was completely gone.
Laurel burst into tears. “I can’t believe this! This is when you brought me home after we were married. This is where I gave birth and took care of Caleb. This is where we planted our garden and ate what we grew. And now it’s all gone! We were happy here until the war came and took you away. Damn you! Why did you go? Why did you go?”
I took her into my arms and tried to console her. “You still have all those memories, Laurel. By going to the war, I only did what I thought was right. We talked about it, remember? And we can build another cabin, and with Andrew and Hiram’s help, it will be better than the one that burned.”
“I don’t want another better cabin, no matter who works on it! I want our cabin!”
I could not her recall carrying on so about something that could not be changed, but then I thought, she had been through a lot—trekking for miles, being kidnapped, being in a flood and seeing someone attacked by a wild boar. I think all this had worked to strip her of whatever strength and optimism that she might have had left. I knew that she would regain both, eventually, but it was going to be hard for her and hard for all of us.
“All right, then, for now we’ll build a shelter like we did on the way up here and spend the night in it. In the morning, I’ll go to town and get supplies and see if anyone has any idea about who did this. We’ll be all right. I promise. We’ll be all right.”
She would have none of it, tearing herself out of my arms and sitting on the burned grass, a perfect picture of misery. Normally she would have not done anything deliberately to dirty her clothing, but such was the extent of her distraction. Hiram and Andrew had not said anything during this whole display, but they came right over to her. Andrew put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Caleb’s right. And you have me and Hiram to help. We’ll get it done. You know we will.”
“That’s right,” Hiram said. “Fixing all this will be easy compared to what we’ve just been through. We’ll all work together. You’ll see.”
Laurel turned her tear-stained face up to them. “Thank you, boys. I’m feeling a little better now. You just said the right words, and I’m so glad you’re with us. I love you as much as I love little Caleb.”
Hiram and Andrew both looked at the ground, embarrassed. There was silence for a minute, and then I said, “All right, let’s get started on the shelter. Pile all our belongings on that patch of grass over there that isn’t burned. I’ll look through the burned area to see if an ax survived the fire. I hope it did, because having one will make a big difference.”
We set to work moving our goods to the unburned grass, and then Andrew and Hiram and I scoured the burned area for any sign of an ax. Laurel worked on organizing what we had piled up, with little Caleb helping as best he could. He couldn’t carry much, so Laurel gave him some small, light objects to carry. He was happy to help, and he carefully placed everything he was given on the grass. He and Laurel made rapid progress, and so they finished their task by the time we had the corner posts put in. It wouldn’t take much longer to finish our lean-to.
“I hadn’t even thought of eating,” Laurel said. “I’ll start on our supper.”
We had found an ax, and I cut the poles we would need, while Hiram and Andrew moved them to the area of the corner posts. We attached the poles to the posts and then ran more poles across the structure so we could add pieces of bark for a roof. We did this the same way we had when we were on our way home, and worked more quickly since we were familiar with what we were doing.
We finished about the same time as our supper was ready, just as we thought. “Come and get it,” Laurel called as Hiram put the last piece of bark into place.
“There!” he said. “That’s done!”
“Good work, boys,” I told them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shelter built in so short a time. You learned quickly from our experience on the road.”
We enjoyed our supper. Laurel had done a marvelous job, as usual. After we ate, we quickly moved our belongings into the shelter and fixed places for us to sleep. We were all ready to start on the cabin the next day after I had gone to town and come back.
The boys, as usual, fell asleep quickly, so Laurel and I had time to talk before we did. “I would say we’ve made a good recovery from having our cabin burned,” I said.
“But we still don’t know who did it. Do you have any ideas?”
“The only person I know with cause to hate me would be Eleanor. I bet she did it.”
“I’d bet on that as well. What an awful, evil woman.”
“You’ll get no argument from me about that. Now kiss me and let’s do what we’ve been wanting to do every since we got here.”
“Well, you’ll get no argument from me about that as well,” I said, and then I was in her embrace.
The next morning, Laurel and I were up early, sorting some of our supplied. We let the boys sleep since we knew that they were exhausted from the journey and also from the previous day’s events.
“Do you want to eat now or wait and have something with the boys?” Laurel asked.
“I’ll eat now. I’m eager to get to town and come back as soon as possible.”
“All right. Ham and biscuits all right?”
“You bet. Just what I wanted, in fact.”
While Laurel fixed breakfast for us, I went over to the site of our burned cabin and tried to calculate if we could build a bigger one. After pacing off the distances I concluded that we could indeed. I went to tell Laurel the news.
She saw me coming and said, “It’s ready! Come and eat it all up!”
We sat on the ground, and Laurel brought me a plateful of food. Then she went to get hers.
“I’ve been out measuring,” I said, “and we have room for a bigger cabin.”
She nodded. “That’s good. We have two more boys now, and they’ll take up space.”
“I’m glad we have them with us. They’ve been a big help.”
“Yes, they have. The best. I don’t know what we would have done without them.”
We ate quickly, and I gave my plate to Laurel to clean although I didn’t know how she was going to since the well housing had been burned, along with the bucket and rope. I knew she would figure something out. I stood up.
I pulled her to her feet and took her in my arms. “It will be all right. I promise. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She nodded, smiling. “You be careful and come back to me. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
I stepped back. “I feel the same way about you. I need to go now.”
I started walking toward town, feeling the separation from my family with every step I took. I told myself I would be back soon, and that all would be well. It had to be.
Before I got out of earshot, I called, “I don’t think you’ll get this far, but if you do, start working on the garden. It needs cleaning and weeding. Good-bye!”
I hadn’t gone far when Laurel called out to me, “Caleb, come back! I want to give you a list of what we’ll need.”
“All right! I will!”
I went back to her and watched as she wrote out her list. Her reddish hair shone in the sunshine, and I noticed again how small her fingers were and how quickly and neatly she wrote. She looked up at me, and I was lost in her beautiful eyes. “Here you go, Caleb.”
“Huh? What? Did you say something?”
She smiled. “I said, ‘Here you go, Caleb.’ You were somewhere else for a time. Here’s the list of what I’ll need from town.”
I took the list and looked at it. “Yes, I can get all of these, easily. I’m leaving now. Again.”
“Don’t be long,” she said. “I can’t get enough of seeing you.”
I smiled. “You may be sure that with all the time I was without you, I won’t tarry to see you again!”
I went outside where Andrew and Hiram were already starting to build the shelter. As I watched, little Caleb came out and started helping them carry small branches one at a time to where they would build the shelter. I had to smile at the little fellow doing what he could. I wish more people were like that.
I walked quickly to town, mindful of Laurel’s admonition, and eager to return to her. I walked carefully behind the buildings along the street to the post office, so as not to see by anyone who would want to have a lengthy conversation with me which could be anyone. I slid along the outside wall of the post office without having seen anyone, turned the corner and went inside, praying that there wouldn’t be anyone at all inside, although there usually was.
As it turned out, I was in luck. It was one of those rare times when no one was inside, and as I came in, John Green had his back turned, sorting mail by throwing it into a number of slots in a box that sat on a table. He heard me and turned around.
“Caleb Dillard! It’s so good to see you! Where have you been? Folks have been saying your whole family was dead, and you with them, but obviously I guess you aren’t. What about your family?”
“They’re fine, Fred.”
“Well, where have you been?”
“Laurel and little Caleb were kidnapped and I had to go after them. I had no choice.”
“Lord in Heaven, of course you didn’t. What sort of man would take someone’s family from them. I’m assuming it was a man.”
“In fact, they were taken twice by two different bands of men.”
“Two! One would have been one too many! I never heard of such! Where in the world were you when all this happened?”
“The first time, we were in Missouri, and the second, Tennessee.”
“What awful luck! What were you doing so far from home?”
“I’d rather not say specifically. I’ll just say that I thought we’d be in danger if we stated here.”
“And you ran into danger after you left. It seems there’s no place that’s safe these days, what with the war and all. Just knowing about it does funny things to people’s minds. I hear all kinds of stories. But you’re back safe and so is your family.”
“That’s right, we are.” I didn’t want to take the time to tell him about Hiram and Andrew. In our small town, he would find out soon enough.
“Listen, John,” I said, “I have to get back to her. I just stopped by to pick up my mail, if there is any and to get a few things from the store.”
“I’ve been keeping it back here. I’m supposed to return it after a certain time, and that time was up two weeks ago but I had a feeling you’d show up again. Here it is. There’s not too much of it.”
“That’s all right,” I said, taking the slim stack of envelopes from him. I looked through them. Most were from the army, wanting who knows what, and there was one from Alphonso that I put aside to read when I got home. The last one, however, stopped me cold. I recognized the handwriting on the envelope as that of Kathryn’s. I tore it open with shaking hands and read this:
I will find you or your family and it will not go well for any of you. Believe me. Setting your cabin on fire was only a beginning. Beware. You have made me very angry and all of you will pay for it in a dreadful way.
I read it over again. “John, when did this one come in?”
He thought for a second. “Last week, I think. Yes, that’s it. About four days ago.”
That meant that she had some idea of where I was. How she could have, I did not know, but it meant that, once again, I would have to be extra careful. I was growing tired of having to do that, and hoped the situation would come to an end, and quickly. I didn’t see how it could, but I could always pray for a change in my situation. I turned back to John.
“Nice seeing you, John. I’ll see you the next time I come into town.”
“I hope you will,” he said. “Folks around here are fond of you, so don’t go running off again any time soon, you hear?”
I laughed. “I won’t if I can help it.” I left the post office and went down to the mercantile. Fortunately there was no one I knew in there, either, and soon I gathered everything up on the list and brought it to the counter. “You need some help carrying that?” Peter Hill, the manager, looked over his glasses at me.
“I can manage it, Peter, but thank you for the offer.”
“You sure? I got a boy to help me here just recently. I know he’d like to get out of the store for a while, and he’ll be glad to help you.”
“Well, on second thought, maybe I will take some help. What’s the boy’s name?”
“Clinton Dailey. His dad runs the blacksmith shop.”
“I know him. He never talked about having a son, but then I never talked to him that much, so that’s not surprising.”
Peter chuckled. “Actually, he has five sons. Folks say he’s glad to come to his shop, between the boys and his wife. If you know what I mean.” He winked at me.
A boy about fourteen years old came down one of the aisles. “Clinton!” Peter called. “Help Mr. Dillard take his purchases home.”
“How far is it?” Clinton asked me.
“About three miles.”
“Aw, that’s not bad. Are these your boxes?”
“Yes. You take this one right here and I’ll take the other one.”
We picked up our baxes, walked out of the store and started down the street. “Are you in school, Clinton?”
“Yessir. I just finished eighth grade, but that’s as far as I can go around here. I’d like to continue and go someplace in Winchester if we can afford it.”
“What would you like to do?”
“I’d like to be a teacher or a minister.”
“Maybe my wife can help you with that. She used to be a teacher before we got married and had a son.”
“I’d like that. That would be very nice”
“You can meet her when you get to my place. She’ll be glad to see you. I should tell you, though, that, unfortunately, our cabin burned down when we were gone. I don’t want you to be shocked when you see it.”
“How’d that happen? Do you know?”
I didn’t want to upset him, so I said, “We weren’t there at the time, but it probably was a lightning strike. But we know we can rebuild it.”
“I’d like to help when I could. My dad says I’m good at building things like that. He can’t do it, even if he is a good blacksmith.”
“That would be wonderful if you would help us.. We’ll talk when we get to where I live.”
We talked easily about all manner of things as we walked along, and I thought how pleasant it was to be with this young man and to find out what he thought. Before I knew it, we came upon the rise beyond which my property lay. Maybe I should have said “home,” for that was where my family was. We topped the rise and started down the other side, and while we were aways off, Hiram saw us and waved. “Hello!” he called. “Come see what we’ve done.”
I was surprised to find that they taken up all the branches from the garden and had made a good start with cutting out the weeds. It wouldn’t take them that much longer to finish doing that. We came up to Hiram and Andrew. “I’m so pleased at what you’ve done!” I told them. “We can finish this shortly after lunch. This is wonderful!”
Andrew beamed. “Thank you, Caleb. And Hiram worked as hard as I do, even though he’s not as big as I am. I tell you, he is a wonder!”
Hiram looked down, embarrassed. Apparently, he was unused to such praise. It occurred to me that he had had much of it in his life.
I turned to Clinton. “Boys, I want you to meet Clinton. He wants to help us with the cabin, and he tells me that he is good at building such things.”
“Hello,” Hiram and Andrew said, more or less in unison. They weren’t much on the social niceties.
“Where’s Laurel?” I asked the two boys. “I need her to tell me what to do with what I bought.”
Hiram pointed to the edge of the clearing where I could see Laurel sitting with Caleb in her lap. “She’s over there with little Caleb. She’s trying to get him to sleep.”
“All right. I’ll leave the goods here and not disturb them for now. In the meantime, let’s keep working on the garden.”
With Clinton to help, we made more progress on the weeding than I had originally thought. We’ll finish before lunch, I thought, and then we can start doing some planting.
After bout half hour, Laurel came over to see us.
“Hello,” she said, looking at Clinton. “Who’s this?”
“It’s Clinton Dailey,” I said. “He’s one of the blacksmith’s sons.”
She shook Clinton’s hand and smiled. “Yes, I know of your father. Don’t you have four brothers?”
Clinton nodded. “Yes’m. And all younger than me. They give my mother a merry chase, as she likes to say.”
“Clinton’s going to help us with the cabin,” I said.
“And he wants to go to Winchester and become either a teacher or a minister. I told him you would help him.”
“That’s very commendable. I’d be more than happy to help.”
“Thank you, m’am.”
“You’re welcome. Caleb.” She turned to me. “I’ll tell you where to put the things you bought if you’ll tell me where we’re going to rebuild the cabin.”
“In the same place, but it will be bigger. We can use the chimney since that wasn’t too badly damaged.”
“All right. I can carry something to the place, and I sure the boys want to help.”
“Oh, that reminds me . Wait a minute. I have something for these lads.”
The boys looked on curiously as I went through one of the boxes. I pulled out a bag and handed it to Hiram. “Take only one for now,” I told him.
“What is it?” He asked. Then he opened the bag and looked in. He wrinkled up his face. “What are these? “
Andrew came over and looked in. “You mean to tell me that you don’t know what peppermint drops are?”
“No. I never saw one before. They smell good, though.”
“They taste even better. Try one.” The two boys each took a drop out of the bag and put it in their mouths.
Hiram’s eyes grew big. “It’s so sweet and wonderful! I never tasted anything like this.”
I felt sorry for Hiram, who had apparently never had any candy of any kind, but I enjoyed watching his reaction.
Clinton took one next. All three boys sucked on the drops, closing their eyes at the sweetness. Apparently neither Clinton or Andrew had had much candy as well, so I was glad I’d gotten it for them.
Laurel smiled at the scene. “They certainly are enjoying the candy. I’m glad you got it for them.”
I smiled. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Laurel looked over at me and asked, “Was there any mail?”
“Yes, there were some letters from the army and one from Alphonso. I haven’t read it yet. I wanted to save it.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you heard from him. I wonder what he’s doing now.”
“I’m sure he’ll write about that in the letter. Oh, and there’s one more letter. I’ll tell you about that message later.”
She looked at me with a puzzled expression, but said nothing. We walked a little way beyond where the boys were and I handed her Eleanor’s letter. She frowned when she saw the return address, but then read it quickly and looked up, stricken. “Oh, Caleb, when will we ever be rid of that diabolical woman? She’s always there, frightening us or worse. It was she who had our cabin burned, and I just don’t know what she will do next.”
I shook my head. “Neither do I. Her evil is beyond understand, but I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to keep you and our family safe. I lost you once for a space, and I never what to lose you again. Look, the lads are finished with their candy. Let’s go organized.”
We spend the rest of the day working on the shelter and the garden. Laurel fixed a wonderful dinner for us with Hiram’s help, whom she said was a remarkably good cook. “Where did he learn to do that, I wonder?”
“I don’t know for sure. Possibly from the ‘ladies’ who helped him.”
“You know, that makes sense. They had to eat as well, and there’s no reason to think they weren’t good at it.”
After supper, we relaxed by the fire, sitting under the shelter that the boys had built, talking and laughing. I looked around at their faces and thought, this is what I have missed so much. I am truly blessed. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, or anyone else I’d rather be with.
Later, when all the young ones were asleep, Laurel sat beside me and I took her into my arms as we watched the fire die slowly. One thing led to another there, and then I led her to lie down where we had the sweetest consummation of our union I think we have ever had. I was happy beyond measure, even though, of course, I did not know what the morrow would bring.