combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007

Coming Home

          The early morning light played over the dusty roads and the green cornfields of the Ohio countryside. In the bright sunshine, the newly whitewashed house and its accompanying barn gleamed as if newly built. Inside the house, the floors and furniture were freshly scrubbed as if it were still spring-cleaning. Everything in the parlor had been carefully polished.

          In a bedroom, a thin middle-aged woman arranged her graying hair under her starched white bonnet. She patted and pushed her hair as if it could never be good enough.

          "Henry ... Henry, are you listening to me?" The woman's voice was thin and high.

          "Yes, Anna, I hear every word," he replied in a deadpan voice.

          "Now you hurry up and get yourself ready. I don't want to be late today. Are the horses harnessed yet? You know how you are." Her voice was nervous and shaky.

          "Yes, I'll be ready in plenty of time. We'll most likely be a little early. You're getting yourself upset." He spoke calmly, but after more than 30 years of marriage, there was little about her that surprised him.

          "How do I look? Is my bonnet straight? Is my dress wrinkled? Straighten your hat and clean your shoes. They're caked with mud." She spit out her words, as if he was about to interrupt her at any moment.

          "You look fine. Calm down and I'll go get the buggy." He tried to smile reassuringly, but his face wouldn't cooperate. He walked out the door, closing it with his fingers to keep it from slamming. His hair and beard were silver-grey, and his broad shoulders were stooped far past his actual years. His movements lacked the nervous energy that dominated her actions.

          In the cool shade of an immense white oak, his two horses waited. He climbed in the black buggy as if he were an old man. Slowly, the two horses pulled to the front porch.

          "Anna ... Anna," he called out, as he lowered himself from the buggy. "Let's go, you're the one who was in a rush."

          "Are you sure the train won't arrive before we get there? You know how forgetful you can be." Her speech remained hurried and jumpy.

          He sighed. "I checked with the stationmaster Saturday when I went to Jackson's Store. I've told you that every day."

          "I just don't see how you could be so careless and lose Billy's letter. It was the first letter he had written, since he joined General Grant's army. Are you sure you read it right?"

          "I know how much that letter meant to you. I'm just as sorry as I can be."

          The two dapple-grey horses plodded down the narrow country road, with silence reigning over the peaceful meadows and woods. The buggy jostled and jerked as it navigated the potholes and wagon ruts. Grazing cows and horses listlessly stared at them as they rode by.

          "Henry ... are we going to be there on time? Can't you make these horses go any faster?" Her breaths came in nervous bunches.

          "We'll be there long before the 10 o'clock train arrives."

          She fidgeted on the hard wooden seat. "I can't understand why he's coming home when the war's not over yet. Is he wounded?"

          "You'll see him in just a few minutes. Be still and let me handle the team." His hands trembled, but he kept them on the reins so she couldn't see.

          They rode on in silence. Nothing broke the stillness except for the occasional cooing of a dove. Soon the outskirts of the town could be seen. Stretching toward the heavens, the slender white spire of the Methodist church was visible through the trees.

          "Henry, do you reckon Billy's changed any? I always heard that the army will change a boy into a man. I hope he hasn't changed too much. Are you listening to me? I don't know what's got into you lately."

          He sighed again. "Yes, I'm listening."

          They passed one house after another. Dogs barked furiously and small children waved gaily from behind white wooden fences as they drove past each clapboard house. They passed through the middle of the town where Old Glory proudly waved over the county courthouse. The entire town seemed drowsy in the early morning heat, since no one was on the streets or on their front porches.

          "Do you reckon the train was early, and he's already waiting for us? Listen to me, don't stop at Jackson's Store. I don't want you doing anything that might make us late."

          He ignored her comments. He nodded at a couple of men he knew as they navigated the brick streets.

          "You don't seem as anxious to see Billy as I am. He was always your favorite. Don't you remember how the two of you hunted deer on the far side of the South Branch of Smith's Creek? I thought there never was a pair like you two."

          "I remember it well," he replied, proving that he had listened after all.

          She pointed. "There's the station! But nobody's on the platform. We must be the first ones here."

          The wooden train station was small and desperately in need of painting. Inside was one man who was stationmaster, baggage man, and telegraph operator. A single set of railroad tracks ran past the station. A few yards south, stood a large, dilapidated water tank, with the name "Smith's Creek" in faded white letters.

          He drove the horses to a hitching post near the station's platform.

          "We made it on time after all. I'll feel so much better when I see Billy."

          "I expect we may have to wait a few minutes. Trains are hardly ever on time these days," he said with little enthusiasm.

          "If you don't mind, I'll just wait in the buggy until I hear the train coming. Being out in the sun is enough to make a body faint." She tried to fan herself with her hands.

          "I'll wait right here with you. I've got no where to go until the train gets here." He rested his back against the hard seat.

          They sat in silence, since the station was devoid of people. Even the surrounding area was quiet.

          "Henry, it's hard to believe that a train full of people will be here in a few minutes. I want Billy's homecoming to be special. Are you listening to me?"

          "Yes, I've heard every word."

          A buggy came into view and hesitated before it moved toward the station. It came to a halt in front of a hitching post on the opposite side of the station.

          A tall, gaunt man stepped out of the buggy and walked over to the station platform. He just stood there alone, looking down the railroad tracks.

          "There's Parson Samuels waiting for the train. I wonder who he's waiting for?"

          Henry didn't bother to lookup. "I noticed him when he drove by."

          "Do you suppose we should go over and wait with him? He might enjoy having some company. You know how well he likes to gab."

          "I reckon so." Henry jumped from the buggy and helped her down. They headed toward the parson.

          He looked up as they approached. "Well good morning, Henry and Anna, how are you doing? I haven't seen you two since Sunday."

          "We're doing just fine, aren't we, Henry?"

          Henry nodded unenthusiastically. "We sure are, parson."

          "How are you parson?" asked Anna, "did you know that my boy Billy will be on this train?"

          "I'm doing just fine, Anna. Henry, how are your crops doing this year? I hear it hasn't rained enough for most folks."

          "The corn is doing fair, but I really can't complain."

          Anna didn't want to discuss farming. "My Billy has been with General Grant for going on two years now. Henry and I are so proud of him. But I'm sure you've heard all about him before."

          The parson nodded. "I believe everyone in town has heard about Billy. We're all proud of him for fighting with General Grant. If you folks will excuse me, I need to speak to the stationmaster."

          His footsteps echoed loudly over the wooden station platform as he went over to a door marked, "Stationmaster" and entered.

          There was a strained silence between Anna and Henry for several minutes. He acted as if he wasn't aware of his surroundings, but she stared expectantly down the tracks.

          "I believe the train is going to be late again, Don't you think so?" she asked.

          "I don't know." He wasn't watching the tracks.

          The parson and the stationmaster came out of the office and stood near Anna and Henry. They spoke quietly to each other.

          "I believe the train will be here soon. The stationmaster is out here with the parson." She held her bonnet down to keep the sun out of her eyes.

          Henry didn't respond and didn't seem to hear her. She gave him a worried glance and resumed watching for the train.

          In the distance, a small puff of blackish-gray smoke rose from the railroad tracks as the train rushed through the green, fertile Ohio countryside. It steadily grew larger.

          "Look, Henry! The train is coming. Don't you see it now?" She was as excited as a schoolgirl.

          "Yes, Anna, I can see it now." He didn't even look up.

          Soon the wide-mouthed smoke stack with its billowing clouds of smoke could clearly be seen. The shining, polished brass of the headlamp reflected the sunlight into everyone's eyes. As the train approached the station, it cut its way through downtown Smith's Creek.

          The wood car was behind the locomotive, which was followed by two brown baggage cars, two bright yellow passenger cars, and a small green caboose.

          "Can you see Billy yet? I can't see him." She was almost jumping up and down.

          Henry stood there without speaking.

          "Why can't I see him? Answer me, Henry."

          The bored passengers stared out at the station.

          Slowly, the train came to a halt, and a cloud of steam briefly obscured their view. The conductor and two other trainmen jumped off the train. The conductor came over to the four people.

          "Henry, why hasn't Billy gotten off the train? Parson, have you seen him?"

          No one answered her questions. They all stood in uncomfortable silence.

          "Conductor, my son Billy is supposed to be on this train. Where is he?"

          The conductor didn't know Anna, but he answered, "Lady, there are no passengers scheduled to get off at Smith's Creek." The stationmaster and the conductor then walked into the office.

          "Billy must have missed his train. Henry, talk to me. There's been a mix-up someplace." She held Henry's right arm with both hands.

          Neither Henry nor anyone else would answer her. The door to one of the baggage cars opened up. Several men appeared, and a plain, wooden casket was lowered out of the car onto a four-wheeled cart sitting on the station platform.

          "Anna." Henry spoke with a quivering voice. "I just couldn't bear to tell you. Our boy, Billy, is coming to us dead."

          "Henry, you never said a word to me. He couldn't be in that casket, not my Billy." She wouldn't look at the cart and its cargo.

          "How could I tell you that our only son was killed? I'm sorry, Anna, but I couldn't bear to say the words."

          "Anna," Parson Samuels spoke soothingly, "you and Henry can be proud of Billy. He died bravely fighting with General Grant. We will never forget him."

          "Henry, tell the parson. There has been a mistake. That is not my Billy. It can't be my Billy. He wouldn't do this to me." She looked away from the train and up at the roof of the station with its Stars and Stripes lazily wiggling in the light breeze.

          "Parson Samuels is right. Billy is gone. This is all I have thought about for days, Anna, I wanted to spare you as much grief as I could."

          "Henry," she whispered, "the sun is bothering me. I believe I'll wait in the buggy." She hobbled to the buggy as if she were an old, old lady.

          Henry hurried after her.

          She wouldn't talk to Henry on the way home. Her tears silently flowed down her blushed cheeks.

          He didn't try to speak either.

          She couldn't bear to look at the children as they returned home. The countryside now seemed so drab and colorless.

by Charles T. Suddeth
... who is a member of Green River Writers, is in the process of placing his mystery What the Bluebird Whispered, is finishing a thriller entitled Neanderthal Protocol, and has previously published freelance writing elsewhere, including this periodical.

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