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Authors: Tim O'Brien

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BOOK: Shades of Gray
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Will set off, intent on proving that he could meet any challenge his uncle set for him. It would be easy enough to follow the creek downstream, but how would he know where to start back up to the ridge? And then it dawned on him—he had counted a dozen traps on the way upstream, so he'd know to climb to the ridge when he found the twelfth trap.

He had counted ten of them when Uncle Jed called after him, “Hey! You've missed your turn!”

Will's face reddened. How could he have overlooked not one, but two of the traps? Wearily, he trudged back to where Uncle Jed stood under a dead cherry tree. He made a mental note to look for its smooth gray trunk and the chunks of bark that lay on the ground below it so he wouldn't make the same mistake the next time. And then he groaned inwardly at the thought of dragging his aching body along this route again. And again. And again. . . .

The faint path twisted and turned as it descended steeply from the ridge. Several times Will almost lost it; but when he stopped and scanned the forest floor ahead of him, he was always able to see where their feet had scuffed up the matted leaves. How relieved he was when he could see a clearing ahead and knew they were almost back to the pasture fence! He'd done it! He'd shown his uncle! But he didn't have long to savor his success.

“You'll lead the way tomorrow,” Uncle Jed said as they stepped into the sunlight.

Will gulped. “I—I don't think I'm ready for that yet, sir.”

“I'll show you again, then. And call me ‘Uncle Jed.' I don't like to be called ‘sir.' ”

Will didn't answer. He'd try to remember not to say “sir,” but he wouldn't call him “Uncle Jed.” He'd already decided that. A man who'd refused to fight for the South was no family of his.

“Go tell your aunt she'll not be cooking any rabbits for dinner,” his uncle said when they came into the barnyard. “Then you can help Meg hoe the garden. I've got some repairs to do on the barn, 'cause someday I aim to have critters living there again.”

Will started for the house. Inside he found Aunt Ella sitting at the big oak table with Mama's things spread out around her. A lump rose in Will's throat when his eyes fell on the little ivory-backed mirror he'd seen his mother use so often, the tortoise shell combs she'd tucked into her thick, dark hair, and the roll of Belgian lace she'd been saving to decorate a new dress after the war was over.

Aunt Ella looked up at him. “I missed her letters so those last years!” she said, her eyes moist. “But I understood,” she hastened to add. “I knew she couldn't disobey her husband when he forbade her to write on account of Jed not being in the war. I would have written to her, anyway, but. . . . ” Her voice trailed away as she absently wound the lace around her fingers.

Disobey her husband? Papa had been white with anger when he learned that Uncle Jed refused to fight for the South, but
Will hadn't known that he'd put a stop to the letter writing. And Aunt Ella made it sound like Mama would have continued their correspondence. Why, then it was Papa who had sent Aunt Ella's letters back unopened!

Will was confused. Was it possible Mama hadn't cared that her sister's husband refused to fight for the Confederacy? That she really had meant for him to come here in spite of that? But if that was so, why hadn't she written to Aunt Ella after Papa was killed? Had she thought that would be disloyal to his memory?

Aunt Ella reached for the little silver frame that held the tintype of Will's grandparents. “When our parents died,” she began, interrupting his thoughts, “all of us children were parceled out to various neighbors and relatives.”

Will shifted his weight from one foot to another and cleared his throat. He had often heard the story of how his mother was adopted by a rich spinster cousin in Winchester, while his aunt had been taken in by a family in Culpeper County.

“We hadn't seen each other since your mother's wedding, but all those years we wrote every other week until—” Aunt Ella paused, then hurried on. “And ever since the war ended this spring I'd been hoping I'd hear from her.” Her voice broke, and she covered her face with her hands.

Will took a tentative step toward his aunt but then turned and hurried out the door. He was halfway to the barn when he realized he hadn't delivered his uncle's message. Slowly he walked back to the house. Aunt Ella was retying the ribbon around the box that held Mama's things.

“I was supposed to tell you there weren't any rabbits on the trap line,” he said from the doorway.

Aunt Ella looked up. “I'll make do,” she said, smiling.

“Maybe I just imagined she was crying,” Will muttered as he retraced his steps toward the barn. But he knew he really hadn't. He stopped for a moment in the shade of the oak that towered over the barn and watched his uncle riving shingles. Uncle Jed had clamped one end of the shingle he was working on to an upright section of log and pressed the other end against his stomach. As he pulled the sharp blade of the two-handled draw knife toward him, shaving curls of wood off the side of the shingle, Will watched in fascination, half hoping the blade would slip.

When Uncle Jed glanced up, Will reddened guiltily and stepped inside the toolshed to look for a hoe. Since he had often watched Fred tend their small garden while he listened to the tales and fables the old slave loved to tell, he didn't think he'd have any trouble working around the roots of the plants and chopping out the weeds.

Meg waved to him from the center of the garden. “Come work over here, so we can talk,” she called.

Will glanced at the long, evenly spaced rows of vegetables. In a few more weeks they'd have enough to eat, he thought with satisfaction as he began to hoe a row of beans.

“Not like that!” Meg cried. “Here, let me show you.”

Will was embarrassed. What must his cousin think of him? “Fred always did the gardening at home,” he muttered as he began hoeing again.

“I can't imagine having somebody else do your work for you,” Meg said. “Didn't you feel kind of useless? Hey, don't hoe so near those bean plants! We don't have very many as it is!”

“Why didn't you plant more?” Will asked, wishing his cousin wouldn't watch him so closely. He hoped he didn't look as awkward as he felt.

Meg answered, “We ate so many dried beans over the winter there were only a few left for seed.” She made a face. “Those beans kept us from going hungry, but without salt pork to cook with them, they sure weren't very tasty.”

Will knew what she meant. His family, like most of their neighbors, had practically lived on dried beans during the past two winters, and they hadn't had salt pork, either. “How come your pa doesn't raise hogs?” he asked.

Meg looked up. “He used to raise two every year. He'd work a couple weeks at harvest time for ol' man Smythe, and in the spring he'd get two piglets in return. Pa'd notch their ears and let them forage in the woods till winter, then he'd herd them back and feed them corn for a couple of weeks before he butchered them.”

“So did the army get your pork last year?”

Meg shook her head and grinned. “No, an old bear got it. You see,” she went on as she skillfully drew the dirt high around a potato plant with the side of her hoe, “Pa heard that the rebel scouts were coming 'round again, so he and the boys loaded everything out of the meat house onto his slide and dragged it way back in the woods. They hung it high up in a tree. Then they came home and took the top hinge off the meat house door so the door would just hang there, and they tossed some dirt and dead leaves inside and swept them around so it would look like the place hadn't been used for a long time.

“When the scouts got here, they didn't even go inside—
just looked in and went on their way. But when Pa and the boys went to get the meat, all they found was some scraps and gnawed-on ham bones. And big ol' bear tracks all around and scratch marks on the tree from its claws.”

Will hoed in silence, torn between a grudging respect for his uncle's cleverness and disgust because meat that could have fed the South's hungry soldiers had been eaten by a bear.

“Did your pa get any piglets this year?” he asked at last.

Meg's face fell. “Ol' man Smythe didn't ask Pa to help last fall.”

Will didn't answer. Another winter with no pork, he thought glumly as he loosened the soil around the roots of the next plant. He had done just over half of his second row, but already his shoulders were beginning to ache, and sweat was running down his face and stinging his eyes. He looked up as Aunt Ella came into the garden carrying a split-oak basket.

“I'm going to thin these turnips for our dinner,” she said. “They'll be a nice change from the wild greens we've been having. And I'll stew up the last of the dried apples.”

Will was relieved that the tiny turnips and their greens wouldn't be the entire noon meal. But how he wished it were dinnertime now! Already the handle of the hoe was raising blisters on his hand, and the combination of hunger and the hot sun was making him feel light-headed.

“Will,” his aunt said, straightening up and looking at him, “I need you to carry a bucket of water to the kitchen and then to chop me some kindling.”

What welcome words! He leaned his hoe against the stone fence and set off. At the spring, he poured a bucket of water over his head, bracing himself for the icy shock. Then he
refilled the bucket and carried it to the kitchen, where the fire was burning down to glowing coals. As he moved away, he saw the nearly full basket of kindling he'd cut the afternoon before and wondered why his aunt had asked for more. A wave of shame swept over him. Aunt Ella had guessed how tired and sore he was and had given him a chance to work sitting down in the shade! And he was going to do it—while his cousin worked in the hot sun. Her words came back to him: “I can't imagine having somebody else do your work for you.”

Miserable, he went to the woodshed, picked up the hatchet, and chose a pine log. When he came outside, Aunt Ella was carrying her basket of turnips and greens into the kitchen. He heard the sound of hammering and looked up to see his uncle nailing the newly rived shingles onto the barn roof. How hard they all worked! And how little they had to show for it.

Will thought of Doc Martin's parting words: “You'll do fine here—it's a lot different from what you're used to, but you'll do fine.” He carefully placed the hatchet blade in a crack near the center of the log and whispered, “I
do fine here. I will! And I'll show them I'm not useless, too.”


After their noonday dinner, Aunt Ella said, “Meg, take Will down to the river where Sam and Enos used to fish. Maybe he can catch something for our supper tonight.”

Will was elated. “I'll go dig some worms for bait!”

“The twins always used grasshoppers,” said Meg. “I'll help you get some out in the pasture.”

They walked slowly through the tall grass, swooping down
on the greenish-brown insects with their cupped hands. As Meg shook a grasshopper into the canning jar Aunt Ella had given them, Will thought of how his sisters had squealed when they saw even the smallest insect. But Meg didn't flinch at touching the raspy legged creatures.

“We've got more than a dozen now,” she said, holding the jar up for a better look. “Here, tie your handkerchief over the top while I find Sam's fishing pole.”

“How far is it to the river?” Will asked as they set off.

“It's through the woods a ways. We could go to the millpond instead, if you want.”

Thinking of his experience in the woods that morning, Will said, “That sounds like a good idea. And I know the way there—I saw the mill when we came yesterday.”

“Well, I'm going with you, anyhow,” said Meg, her chin set in determination. “I'd rather sit in the shade than hoe, same as you would.”

Will's face burned. Why hadn't he gone back to the garden after he'd carried Aunt Ella's water to the summer kitchen?

They walked along without speaking for a few minutes. Will deliberately set a fast pace, but Meg seemed to have no difficulty keeping up. Finally she broke the awkward silence.

“Mmm, do you smell that?”

Will nodded, aware now of a delicate, roselike fragrance.

“We'll have more blackberries than we can pick in a few weeks,” his cousin went on, gesturing toward the blossom-covered bramble bushes growing along the roadside. “When we had Bessie, we'd eat big bowls of blackberries and cream with every meal.”

“We picked berries at home, too,” Will said, “and Callie'd
make blackberry pies and blackberry cobbler. And she'd make jam. 'Course, that was before the war, when we still had sugar.”

“Whatever became of Callie and Lizzy and Fred?” Meg asked.

“After Papa was killed, Fred came back and worked for us till the war was over. Now he works at the livery stable in town. Callie got a job as cook at the hotel, but Lizzy stayed to take care of Mama. Doc Martin said he'd try to find a place for her.” He kicked away a stick that lay in the road. “I guess I'll never see any of them again.”

“I hadn't thought you might be missing your slaves, too,” Meg said in surprise. “I miss Sam and Enos, but that's different because they're my brothers.”

“I wonder what it's like in Ohio?” Will asked, quickly changing the subject.

“Well, they have cream for their blackberries in Ohio, 'cause the rebel army never camped nearby and took all the cows for beef. They've got plenty to eat, 'cause the rebel scouts never came through and took their harvest and their salt pork. And they could plant all their fields this spring, 'cause they still had horses to pull their plows and they hadn't eaten most of their seed potatoes and beans to get through the winter.”

Will struggled to control his anger. “They'll have flour to make crusts for blackberry pies, 'cause the Yankee cavalry didn't ride through their fields all strung out in a row and mash the wheat down into the ground. And they can grind their wheat, 'cause Sheridan's army didn't burn their mills. And,” he went on, his voice rising, “they'll have apples and
cider next winter, 'cause the Yankees didn't chop down their orchards for firewood. And in Ohio—”

BOOK: Shades of Gray
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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