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
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
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
"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
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
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
"We made it on time after all. I'll feel so much better when I
"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
"There's Parson Samuels waiting for the train. I wonder who he's
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
The wood car was behind the locomotive, which was followed by two
brown baggage cars, two bright yellow passenger cars, and a small
"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
No one answered her questions. They all stood in uncomfortable
"Conductor, my son Billy is supposed to be on this train. Where
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
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
"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