Episode 1: Return to Albright Acres
The hinges buckled as the wagon wheels slid into ruts on the familiar dirt road. The grooves forced our path, running so deep we had no choice but to keep moving forward. Luckily, for my brother and I, these tracks lead home.
Another bump. The wagon bed rocked, rattling the pine boxes behind the wagon bench. The dead, they’re the lucky ones. As survivors, we’re left to remember—no matter how hard we tried to forget.
Al leaned back and placed his hand on the coffins to steady them. “I almost thought we’d make it. All of us, coming home alive.” He laughed nervously, and I knew a joke was coming. It was his way of clearing the air, his way of keeping it together. “Kind of makes you feel lucky not to have the name James, doesn’t it? As a family, we’re two for two.”
“Names have nothing to do with it. Neither does luck.” I leaned forward and snapped the reins as if the horses could pull me away from their bodies and take me to a time when my father and older brother still lived.
“Guess we’re just better at dodging bullets then.” Al chuckled and wiped the sweat from his brow, pushing the grime off his face and into sand-colored hair.
I glanced sideways at him. “Maybe. Sure wish one of them would have made it. In Pa’s absence, Jr. could’ve run the place with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back.”
“Well, he wasn’t so good on the battlefield, was he?” His voice trailed off and his expression hardened. “Looks like it’s up to you and me to make things work.”
I whipped the reins again, urging the two young buckskins to pick up the pace. The wagon jerked to the right and rocked to the point of almost tipping.
Al swore and spit blood into the grass. “Easy! I nearly bit my tongue off.”
I forced a gruff laugh. “Serves you right. That’s the good Lord telling you to shut up and stop mocking your fallen kinfolk.”
He smiled, blood streaking across his teeth.
The rough road smoothed into a flat, grassy trail, and the horses itched to trot. I pulled the reins tight, forcing them to stop. I tied the leather straps and jumped off the wagon. The road continued on to the right, but our destination was straight ahead where a fallen tree and carefully stacked underbrush concealed the road. The average passer-by wouldn’t take a second look, but I could just make out overgrown tracks under the pile of patchy thorn bushes.
“That Ellie’s a smart one. Hide the road to avoid visits from looters and the Confederate and Union soldiers.” I tipped my head to the side and smiled at her cleverness. There was no doubt, she’d also removed the sign marking the road to Albright Acres, while allowing the mile-marker to Richmond to remain intact.
Al leaned back and rested his boots up on the bar in front of him. “Ah, Ellie. What I wouldn’t give for a glass of her fresh-squeezed lemonade right about now.”
I grabbed a pair of gloves out from under the bench and tossed them at Al. “Get down here and help clear this spot.” As I pulled on my gloves, I thought of the last time I’d seen Ellie. Everyone had lined up in front of the house to say goodbye as we left for the war. Man, she’d looked pretty that day. Her hair had been pinned away from her face, dark waves flowing down her back. “You’re right, lemonade does sound good.”
Al snorted. “Aww, Pike. Who are you kidding? You’re not thinking of lemonade.” His boots clomped on the wood as he jumped down. “You’re dreaming of warm brown eyes and stolen kisses.” He batted his eyelashes to poke fun at me. “I bet that Ellie has grown into a fine young lady. She’s even old enough for marryin’.”
“I wouldn’t repeat that if I were you. The war may be over, but it’s still not safe to talk like that.”
“Someday things will be different. Color, class, it’ll all be irrelevant.”
I pursed my lips and wished someday was sooner. “Someday.”
We worked for an hour or two, clearing a path large enough for the wagon to fit through. We stopped to rest before tackling the final obstacle: the fallen tree.
The air went silent, no birds singing in the trees, no animals ambling through the tall grass. Sudden stillness. A rumbling moan rolled deep in the woods and a group of birds stirred, flying straight into the air. Al’s eyes darted around, and he stepped forward, listening.
I grabbed his shoulder.
He jumped and let out a holler. “Hey, don’t do that.”
I laughed, a real laugh, pleased with myself. “I don’t know how you made it through the war. I’ve seen children with more guts than you. Come on, this last tree isn’t going to move itself.”
I walked to the end of the log and stepped over to the other side. The branches drooped under thistles, vines, and dead leaves. I pulled the hatchet from the holster on my belt. A glint of sunlight flashed on the glass compass window and the tarnished bronze cog Pa had worked into the handle. He’d made one for each of us; “a survival tool” he’d called it. How right he’d been. Not only for the number of times I’d used it in camp, but it had been a weapon of last resort many times on the battlefield.
As I hacked at decaying bark, the rancid fumes of rotting flesh stung my nose. “What the—” I blinked rapidly, coughing as I choked on the stench.
“Give it up,” Al said as he wrapped his arms around the trunk. “You’re not going to get me a second time.”
Using my boot, I moved aside the branches. Clouded blue eyes stared back at me—the gaze, petrified with rigor mortis. Maggots crawled through the bark and leaves, fleeing the corpse’s dirty red beard. “This is no joke. Look.” I pointed to the body, still covered in the threadbare gray of a Confederate uniform. “He was one of us.”
Al scrambled to my side. His hand immediately flew over his nose. “Damn. Another dead body.”
I nodded to the sling wrapped around his shoulder. “Probably shot in a battle and wandered away for help, or maybe infection and fever took his wits. You recognize him?”
“Well, we can’t leave him here. Go get a blanket from the wagon. We’ll wrap him up and put him in the back with Pa and James.”
As I worked the body from the tangle of branches, the forest moaned again. I stared into the hollow, the shadowy holes in the thicket stared back like the empty sockets of a skull. The June air hung heavy, blanketing me with the feeling that someone was watching us.
“Let’s get moving. I don’t want to be out here when it gets dark.” I spoke in a deep, loud voice, hoping to ward off anyone that might be hiding nearby.
Al returned from the cart. “You and me both. Death seems to follow us everywhere we go.”
Stay tuned! Episode 2 posts Friday, September 19, 2014.