Back to the Past
True to her word, the old woman served us breakfast the next morning, eggs and fatback bacon. I couldn’t remember the last time I had an egg, breakfasts in the army mostly consisting of coffee and hardtack infested with weevils. Another soldier told me to eat around them, but I didn’t want them that close to my mouth, so I picked them off and threw them into the fire. They sizzled when they burned.
It was another clear day that promised to be hot later on. Andrew and I walked along easily, sure that our charade would hold since we were moving deeper into Southern territory. I found out I was wrong, though. We had made it almost to Front Royal when we were caught up with by a band of Northern soldiers on horseback.
As they came toward us, I said, “I’m sorry, Andrew. I was wrong. I thought we’d be safe.”
“You couldn’t have known, Caleb. What do you think will happen to me?”
The soldiers rode up to us. The lieutenant asked, “What are you doing here?”
I put on my best poker face, although I didn’t play. I had watched plenty of games, however. “We’re coming from Gettysburg. I’m under orders to deliver this prisoner to headquarters, which I thought was in Leesburg. Turns out it wasn’t so we’re on our way to try to find the HQ in the Valley. Do you know where it is?”
The lieutenant had studied my face while I spoke. “May I see your orders?”
I shook my head. “The commander said it was urgent that I go, so he didn’t want to take the time issue written orders.”
“Who is your commander?”
“Colonel Martin, of the 71st New York.”
“I see. We’re to head north to look for any stray bands of Rebs, but I’ll talk to Colonel Martin when I get back from that. I hope for your sake that your story is true.”
“It is, Lieutenant.” He thought for a long moment and then said, “I have my doubts about your story, so I’m going to take custody of the prisoner. We’ll find someone he can tell his story to and proceed from there.”
“But my orders—”
“You don’t have written orders. It’s your word, and I have no reason to trust you.”
I saw that he was resistant, so I said, “May I speak with the prisoner briefly and see if I can learn what he knows?”
The lieutenant hesitated. “I suppose that would do no harm. Go ahead.”
“We’re going to withdraw a distance since the information might be sensistive.”
Andrew and I went off about 30 feet, and whispered together. “This development will do me no harm: I’ll return to my unit, but you might be taken off to a prison. Wherever you go, write me when you can. I’ll also let Laurel know where we are.”
“Who should I send the letter to?”
“Laurel, I think. Yes, that’s it. That way she’ll know where you are without my having to write to tell her.”
“Good-bye, my friend. I hope that we’ll meet again soon.”
“As do I.”
As we went to rejoin the group, I shouted, “Go ahead and be stubborn fool! You don’t know what will happen to you! I tried to help you, but you won’t tell me anything. I hope they hang you!”
“You can go to Hell,” Andrew shouted, rather convincingly, I thought.
I watched them take him away, and he looked back with a pleading look. The lieutenant saw that and gave me a long, penetrating look, but they didn’t turn back.
I felt bad. We had helped Andrew and he had become almost a son to us, and so he ended up in prison because of my miscalculation. I felt it was my fault somehow, and did hope we would be reunited soon. Providence has many twists and turns, and I prayed to myself, God, please let Andrew know that You are with him, and that I am praying for him. I would write Laurel and ask her to pray for him as well.
Since the group had an extra horse, I rode with them back to Leesburg, where headquarters was. I found my unit, and the fellows had a number of questions about my actions on the battlefield since they had last seen me before the battle.
“What happened to you?” Abner asked. “I didn’t see you after that first day. I guess we got separated.”
I nodded. “I ended up all the way over on the right flank. I witnessed Pickett’s charge, although I thought they all must have been suicidal and so I stayed back and watched.”
“And then you captured a Rebel?”
“That’s right. I think he was running from the charges and strayed off a little too far. Say, what’s going to happen to him?”
“Depending on what he’s done, he could be executed or he could be sent to prisoner. The ones around here Prisoners captured here are remanded to the Old Capitol Prison. Have you heard of it?”
“I certainly have,” I said, thinking of the months I spent there and Adolphus and learning to play baseball. How long ago and far away all that seemed.
“You looked like you were some place far, far away.”
“Sorry. I was thinking of something. Is there any word on what we’re going to do next?”
“Well, rumors are that we’re going to pursue Lee, all the way to Richmond if we can, take the capital and bring this war to an end by next spring. It would be sooner, but we’ll be in winter camp for several months.”
“Yes, I know. I tell you, those are big plans.”
“Well, I think there are plans and then there’s what happens. We’ve seen that all too often. I think the war will last longer than that.”
“Well, maybe it will. We’ll have to see.”
Just then I spotted a black carriage coming toward us, and a chill ran down my spine. There were thousands of black carriages in the area, but I was certain somehow that this one belonged to Eleanor. I cannot tell you how I knew, but it was a certainty to my mind. She was the last person I wanted to see on this earth, particularly after all I had been through recently.
Sure enough, the carriage stopped, and the driver climbed down and opened the door. There came a voice out of one of my worst nightmares. “John, come here. You can greet your loving sister, can’t you?”
“You have a sister?”
“Yes, and she is very wealthy and powerful. I’ll have to go with her, Abner.”
“Go with her? Isn’t that desertion?”
I shook my head. “It would be for most men, but my sister has the ear of men who are highly ranked in the government and in the military. She gets what she wants. I will hope to see you again, my friend. God go with you.”
“You’re sure you’re coming back?”
“No. I’m certain of it. This is good-bye, maybe for good.”
“Well, then may God also go with you.” Abner hugged me, which was one of the few times that a man had done that. “I’ll see you in heaven.”
“That is a certainty.”
I got into the carriage and took one last look back at Abner. He looking puzzled and maybe a little bit lost, and I felt sorry for him.
I climbed into the carriage and sat facing the evil woman. I could not bring myself to even think of her name.
Her calm, warm manner changed in an instant, and he face became rigid and strained. She hissed, “What did you think you were doing, running away from me? I have given you so much!”
“You’ve given me so much? I would say you’ve taken so much from me. How can you say that?” I said, feeling a surprising sense of calm.
“I say it because it’s true. What have I taken from you?”
“So much that I can’t even think of it all.”
“That’s not helpful.”
“I don’t care.”
She was silent for a moment, and then snarled, “Where did you go?”
“Some place far away from you.”
“I can make you tell me the truth,” she spit out, and I had no doubt she could.
I sighed and said, “In truth I was trying not only to get away from you. I wanted to get away from this terrible war. I took my family and we started west, thinking we could wait out the war where no on knew us, but my wife was kidnapped, and I pursued her through three states until I caught up with her and we were together again. We came back to Winchester, but I was caught up by the army and went to Gettysburg with them. I survived that, and you know that I was in Leesburg when you caught up with me.”
She smiled slightly. “Yes, all this is what I have heard. You have told the truth.”
I shivered. Somehow she had learned everything that I had done, and I did not know how she did it.
“You will come home with me and learn of your next assignment. The war is changing, and it is vital that we have accurate information.”
“I suppose I have no choice.”
“I suppose you are right,” she laughed. With that, she called, “Home, Reynolds!” and we were off.