February 10, 1862 Heck Greenley came through snow and ice yesterday with more herbs for Martha. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the herbs were no longer working. He stayed long enough to help Jeremiah and the boys slaughter two of the young pigs, though the moon was not in the right phase and the pigs were thin. We had no choice. What small amount of meat we had left after Christmas is gone …
“Sounds like Aunt Martha’s giving Mam fits,” Henry said as I dipped some broth for Martha from the beans Lucinda had started. He was stuck watching over Nate and Callie, though he’d wanted to help the others hunt in the woods. “Mam’s got her up in the chair so’s she could plump the featherbed.”
“She sounds so confused,” I said. “I’d better go help.” I picked up the bowl of broth. “Will you open the doors for me so I won’t spill this?”
He came past me, head down, shuffling like an old man. The constant fear and incessant bad weather wore on all of us, but especially the children, it seemed.
“Thank you, Henry, I said as he opened the door ahead of me.
Martha cried out, “Oh no …”
I moved carefully toward the kitchen door, the hot broth steaming in the cold air. Nate looked up; the confusion on his face stopped me long enough to say, “You and Callie play nice while Henry’s busy. Will you?” He nodded, but I could see he was near tears.
Henry closed the kitchen door behind me and opened the door across the dogtrot. Martha yelped again and I hurried into the bedroom.
She sat in her wheeled chair. The back bumped against the wall as she pulled at the edge of the featherbed that Lucinda held onto from across the bed. “Let go, Aunt Martha,” Lucinda said, her voice filled with aggravation.
I set the broth on the bureau, bent over and grasped Martha’s hands. “It’s all right, now.”
She let go of the mattress, but her eyes were full of tears when she turned toward me. “Oh, Livy. This here woman’s trying to steal my good featherbed. Can you help me?”
“That’s Lucinda Johnston. You remember her, don’t you? Lucinda’s only trying to plump up the mattress.” I tried to distract her with the broth, but she turned her head away.
“Ezra’s wife.” Martha smiled. “Hit’s mighty nice of you to come help Livy, with her so near her time.”
“Thank you,” Lucinda said, the exasperation in her voice replaced with hurt. She gave the mattress one last punch and laid a clean sheet and pad over it.
Nothing seemed to ease Martha’s breathlessness these days and I could see the little tussle with Lucinda had worn her out. “Maybe she’d rest easier in bed.”
Lucinda nodded. “I’ll help you put her back to bed.” She fluffed the pillows and set them against the headboard. “Martha, can you stand so’s we can help you lay down?”
“Sit right here by the pillows,” I said. “I’ll help you lay back while Lucinda lifts your feet.”
Once she was in bed, we laid the quilts over her. “Are ye warm enough?” When Martha nodded, Lucinda said, “I reckon I’d best go check them beans.” She gathered the soiled linen for the next day’s laundry.
I closed the door behind her and turned back to Martha. “Won’t you try some of the broth?”
She took a few sips, then turned her head. She let out a thin whine. “My feet, my feet,” she said, at last.
Giving up on the broth, I lifted the covers from her legs. I pulled the slippers off and shuddered. Her feet were so tight with fluids, even the knitted slippers no longer left their braided imprint in her flesh. Her feet had become pale bluish masses – the toes, angry, purple-red nubs. The fragile skin on top of her feet seemed in danger of splitting at the slightest touch from the liquids underneath.
“Let me put a pillow behind your feet to hold the quilts off of your toes.” I tucked the quilt loosely around her legs. “Is that better?” She nodded. I stood by her side, smoothing her hair until the moans died away and she slept. Even with the clean linens, the room reeked of her sickness in the warm air near the fireplace.
She slipped a little further away each day. I sat down in her rocker and pulled my shawl more tightly around me. I shivered against the chill at the edge of the warmth, thinking about the violence and loss we’d endured over the last eight months. Everything slipped a little further away each day.
Henry opened the door and poked his head in. “I’ll stay with Aunt Martha if you want to go help Mam.”
Thank you, Henry. She’s asleep for now, but call out if she wakes or if you need any help.”
“Is she sleeping?” Lucinda opened the bean pot to throw in some fatback. As she dropped it in, the cloud of steam carried the aroma of onions and the dried hot peppers she loved.
I nodded. “She’s so tired.”
“Poor old dear, her skin’s just hanging on her – except for them feet. Don’t look like there’s a speck of muscle left, she eats so poorly.” Lucinda gave the beans a stir. “Though, just about the time I think she ain’t going to make it through the winter, she finds the strength to fight with me.” She put the lid back on the bean pot.
I finished drying the breakfast dishes, hung the towel on its peg and began peeling potatoes. “I’ll fry these toward dinner. Do you suppose Mr. Toliver and the boy’s will be back by then?”
“Reckon it depends on how far –-“
“Shh.” I laid the potato and knife on the table and strained to pick up the distant sounds.
The sound grew nearer. “That’s the pigs,” I said.
“You reckon something’s after them?”
I went to the window and peered out, listening to the muffled sounds now building behind the squeals. “Grab the babies,” I said, turning back to Lucinda. “Someone’s driving the pigs toward the yard.”
She snatched the children from their play, one surprised child under each arm, and hurried across the dogtrot. A gust of north wind pressed against the bedroom door. As I struggled to close it behind us, the pigs dashed across the yard heading for the road, followed by a man riding Jeremiah’s gray gelding.
I struggled to close the door quietly, praying he had not seen me, and lowered the wood bar into its iron brackets on either side of the door. Turning to Lucinda, I said, “They’ve got Mr. Toliver’s horse.”
“Probably found the other horses, then.” She cocked her head as a wagon crossed the yard. “Oh Lord, they’ve got the mules, too.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Mollie don’t like the snow and ice. She gets sort of skittish on it and Dred has to let her have her way. And that’s probably Mr. Toliver’s team right behind them.”
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose in despair.
“Who are they, Mam?” Henry’s voice surprised me; in our haste to get the children to the bedroom, I’d forgotten he was there.
“Don’t know,” Lucinda said. “And we ain’t going out there to ask them.”
“The one I saw on Jeremiah’s horse was Secesh.” The wagons stopped; I heard the creak of old wood and boots striking the icy snow as men piled out of it.
“They’re headed for the smoke house,” Lucinda said.
Other men tramped up the porch stairs and into the kitchen. From out back the hinges on the cellar squeaked. Henry turned toward the sound, but didn’t speak. I stared at Lucinda, seeing in her eyes what I already knew. The men would leave us nothing.
I listened to their footsteps, going back and forth. One of the men stopped and lifted the latch to the bedroom door, pushing against the door. A jolt of terror possessed me. “Open up in there,” the man said. “Or I’ll break this door down.” Callie began crying and Nate joined her. Their noise woke Martha. She groaned.
“We’ve got the sickness in here,” I called back.
“What’s wrong with you’ns?” the man said.
Lucinda stared at me in astonishment as I said, “My mother-in-law has the Typhoid. The children have it too, now.”
“Oh Lord.” Everything was silent for a moment before the man yelled, “Typhoid; they got the Typhoid here.”
The word passed from man to man across the yard. They ran toward the wagons in awkward gaits, their arms full, no doubt. Something heavy, possibly a crock, crashed to the kitchen floor as men hurried out. Something else hit the ground near the porch, its contents sloshing across the frozen earth. Martha’s cow bawled and a man yelled, “Tie that cow behind the wagon. Let’s get out of here.”
The lines slapped against the mules’ sides, the wagon wheels groaned, crunching the ice beneath them. The horses and wagons hurried across the yard and onto the road.
“They got old Dred,” Henry sobbed against his mother’s skirt.
“Hush now,” Lucinda said. “Them mules will be back, soon as the soldiers unharness ‘em.”
I turned away from the tremor in her voice, knowing how unlike her it was to offer useless comfort, even to the children.
We listened for stragglers long after the sounds of the wagon faded away. “Reckon they’re gone now,” Lucinda said at last. “We best go see if they’s anything left.”
I lifted the bar from the door. “Henry, stay here with Martha and the children. Put the bar back as soon as we leave.”
“Keep it barred ‘til you hear the men come home,” Lucinda said.
We closed the door behind us, waiting for the sound of the bar in its iron slots before starting across the dogtrot. “Lord, they even got the beans.” Lucinda pointed to the upended bean pot, its contents still steaming on the ground where they’d melted through the ice. She clutched the rail and stepped off the porch onto the snow, slipping on some horse manure as she picked up the pot. “Here, take the pot so’s I can clean my shoes on the snow afore I go inside.
While Lucinda combed through the cabinets, I cleaned up the crock of salt pickles that had shattered across the floor. Most of the brine had seeped through the cracks between the floorboards. I set the bowl of pickles on the counter and poured the last of the brine from the remains of the crock over them. “Well, they left the potatoes I peeled.” I pointed to the bowl sitting on the table.
“They ain’t left nothing but the dishes in here,” Lucinda said. She closed the door on the bottom cabinet. I dipped a pan of water from the bucket, added some soap and knelt to wash the brine from the floor.
“They missed the flour barrel.” I pointed to where it stood, near my bed, covered with a cloth to make a table for the candle I used at night. “I think it’s still about half full.”
Lucinda sat down by the fireplace and pulled a pair of Jeremiah’s old wool socks over her shoes. Putting on her coat, she said, “I’ll go check the cellar and smokehouse.”
“Be careful on the ice.” I rose, as she left through the side room door, and went to check on Martha and the children.
I’d just closed the bedroom door behind me when I heard Jeremiah and the boys coming across the yard. “We’re in here,” I called out.
“Anyone hurt?” Jeremiah asked as they stomped their boots on the porch to dislodge the snow.
When I shook my head, he went to Martha’s side. She didn’t wake at the sound of his voice. He stood there a moment, and then turned back to me.
“Henry, would you stay with Aunt Martha and the children a while longer?” I said. “I need to talk to Mr. Toliver.”
“I’ll stay with Mam,” Amos said. “Henry and the babies will be all right here, too.”
Henry looked up at Thad. “Did you find any game?”
Thad shook his head. “Them Secesh run it all off with their noise, I reckon.”
Henry looked down, scuffing his shoes along the floor. “They took the mules, you know.”
“They got the mules?” Thad glanced over at me.
Henry’s voice shook as he said, “Mam says they’ll come back, but …”
Thad patted the boy on the shoulder. “I expect they will, if they get the chance.”
“Mr. Toliver,” I said. “I think they found our horses and mules, too. I know they had your horse.”
“I seen the ox, and my roan, over in the far woods,” Amos said.
Well, that’s a blessing, I thought.
Jeremiah looked at me, his eyes still rheumy from the cold. “Had that horse for twenty-seven years.” He gazed back down at Martha. “Near as long as I’ve had wife.”
The hounds were out in the yard, fighting over the piece of fatback from the beans, when we came across the dogtrot. I turned away from the sight, fearful that, soon enough, we’d be fighting over our own scraps.
Lucinda came around the corner of the house. “I’m going to check the cold box afore I come in,” she said, handing me several apples. “These must have rolled out of the straw when they grabbed the box.” She looked at Thad and Henry. “You two go check the potato piles whilst it’s still light enough.”
Thad nodded. “I’ll go get the dirt fork and a basket.”
In the kitchen, Jeremiah hung his coat and hat on the pegs behind the door. The room still reeked of brine. He glanced at the bowl of pickles and the pieces of crock I’d laid on the cabinet. Crossing over to the fireplace, he held his hands out to its warmth.
The latch lifted on the door and Lucinda backed through. I hurried to take the pitcher of cream and the butter bowl from her hands.
I put them on the cabinet while she took her coat off.
“How bad is it?” Jeremiah said, without looking at us.
“Well, with whatever potatoes and yams is out there and that half barrel of flour, this is all that’s left.” She glanced at me before hanging up her coat. “And they missed that meal or two worth of beans in the sack there on the shelf behind my bed.”
I pointed to the rafter in the corner by the fireplace. “A few hot peppers, some pumpkin slices and one bunch of onions.”
Thad came in with Henry and the babies. Thad carried a basket full of potatoes and yams and set them beside the cabinet.
“Where’s Amos?” Jeremiah asked.
“He’s still sitting with Aunt Martha.”
Jeremiah pulled a chair from beside the table, sat down and rested his face in his hands.
Lucinda looked around. “Suppose I could make some biscuits and gravy for supper. Maybe fry a potato or two.”
“Maybe we should save the biscuits for breakfast; we can do with fried potatoes and gravy tonight.” I sat down at the table and pressed my thumb against the bone above my left eye, trying to dull the headache that roared there. Numbness crept up my arms and across my face. For a moment, I wondered if I were suffering a fit of apoplexy. From Mama’s death, I knew the affliction sometimes came suddenly and quietly upon one in the midst of such turmoil. I pushed the thought aside.
At last, Jeremiah stood. His gaze wandered around the kitchen for a moment before settling on the door to the dogtrot. “Mayhap we should just go to Springfield,” he said softly.
Thad turned to stare at the door. “But, Uncle Jeremiah, what about Aunt Martha?”
Jeremiah only nodded and sat down again with a groan. When he looked up at us, the moist pain in his eyes told me he understood Martha would not survive the trip in this weather and that he would not – perhaps could not – ask her to try. His eyes begged our understanding.
Lucinda turned away from his gaze.
Thad said, “I reckon the game will be back in a few days, now that things have quieted.”
“If not, we’ll just lop off that old ox’s tail and make some soup,” Lucinda said. “Rest of him’s too tough to eat.”
I went to Jeremiah and patted his shoulder. “We’ll make do.”
While Lucinda sliced the potatoes, I took the colander out of the cabinet, put on my coat and the wool socks, to keep from slipping on the ice, and went outside. Kneeling in the last of the afternoon light, I scooped the beans from the mud and ice.
“What on earth are you doing?” Lucinda had followed me outside. “Them ain’t fit to eat.”
“We can rinse them off and reboil them.”
She stared down the road. “Damn Secesh.” Gathering her skirt between her legs, she squatted beside me and began picking beans out of the soggy dirt.
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