Authors: Tim O'Brien
“I guess you didn't love Virginia enough to fight for her,” Will said smugly.
His uncle pushed his hat higher on his sweating forehead. “That's the Virginia I love,” he said, swinging his arm in a wide arc that took in the woods and hills and the mountains in the distance. Then he scooped up a handful of small clods. “And this is the Virginia I love.” He crumbled the dirt and watched it trickle between his fingers. “And I didn't want any part of bloodying Virginia's soil.”
As his uncle turned to pick up the next post Will felt a sense of relief that the conversation was over. He didn't know quite what to make of the man.
“When I went in the store yesterday to mail your letter to the twins, the men were talking about repairing the mill,” Will announced at breakfast a few days later.
“They say when they plan to start?” his uncle asked.
Will nodded. “They're meeting there this morning.”
“After you check the trap line, we'll go on down. I'll gather up some tools for us.”
It was nearly midmorning when they arrived at the mill. A stack of fresh lumber was piled by the waterwheel, and half a dozen men stood near it. No one spoke as Uncle Jed and Will approached.
“Thought you might need some extra hands on this job,” Uncle Jed said, pushing back his hat.
The men glanced quickly at one another and then looked at the miller. But before he could speak, a young man who looked vaguely familiar to Will stepped forward. His eyes traveled insolently from Uncle Jed's hat to his dusty boots and back up to his face. “Don't guess we need
help, but I reckon we could use the boy,” he said.
Will's heart almost stood still.
Uncle Jed gazed levelly into the younger man's eyes. “Well, Tom, let me know if you change your mind,” he said quietly.
It was Tom who looked away first, dropping his gaze to Will. “Run on over to the store and tell Pa we need them nails now,” he said.
Why, Tom was Hank's brother! Will swallowed hard, realizing
that Uncle Jed had already turned toward home and now Tom and the other men were waiting to see what he would do.
“Myâmy uncle needs me. IâI'd better go with him.”
Tom's lip curled in derision. “Suit yourself,” he said.
Will could feel six pairs of eyes on him as he left. Uncle Jed was passing the spring when Will caught up to him. For a few minutes, neither spoke. Then Uncle Jed said, “You could have stayed. It might have made things easier for you in the long run.”
“I didn't want to stay,” Will said shortly. He was seething with indignation. Tom Riley had no right to treat Uncle Jed like that, even if he hadn't been in the war.
Will listened for the sounds of hammering as he approached the mill a week later. He'd wanted Meg to show him the way to the river that afternoon, but he was afraid that if he didn't go to the pond, Uncle Jed would think it was because of what had happened when they volunteered to help repair the mill. And he'd be right. Will could still feel the men's eyes boring into his back. He dreaded meeting them again, especially Hank's brother Tom.
His spirits rose when he didn't hear any hammering as he drew near the mill. Maybe they'd finished the repairs! But then he saw the little knot of men clustered around the waterwheel.
At first, they didn't seem to notice him, but when he stood up to cast, he saw the miller glance in his direction. For a few minutes Will kept his eyes fixed on the cork floating on the still water, but then he slowly lifted them and saw the men
talking among themselves. Suddenly Tom Riley broke away from the group and headed toward his father's store, his body stiff with anger. Then, as the others nodded, Mr. Brown left the group and began walking around the pond toward Will.
Puzzled, Will concentrated on the cork again.
“Having any luck?” the man called as he approached.
“No, sir,” said Will. “Not yet.” And not the last three or four times he'd gone there, either.
Giving Will a friendly clap on the shoulder the miller said, “Well, you ain't been here very long.”
Just then, Will's cork bobbed and went under. He jerked the line and quickly landed a bluegill.
“Couple more of them, and you'll be having a fish supper,” said the man.
“Yessir,” Will said, skillfully working the hook from the fish's mouth. Then, feeling he should say more, he asked, “How's the mill coming along?”
The man studied his fingernails for a few moments and then sighed. “Not so well. Oh, we've got the rotted boards replaced,” he said, following Will's glance toward the patchwork of new and aged boards on the mill's exterior. “It's the works that's troubling us now. Can't seem to get that fool wheel turning no matter what we do.”
“That's a real problem.”
“So it is,” the man said. Then he leaned forward. “But, sayâthere's something you could do to help.”
could do? What do you mean?”
“Your uncle worked for a miller over in Madison County when he was a young man, and I'd like him to take a look at the millworks for me. Would you tell him that?”
Will felt a tug on his line. “Another bluegill,” he said, glad for the chance to collect his thoughts before he answered. Uncle Jed had said to let him know if they changed their minds, but he'd said it to Tom. Tossing his line in again, Will turned to the miller. “I think you'd better send Tom Riley with that message, sir.”
“So that's the way it's going to be.” The miller sighed. Then, standing up, he added, “Can't say that I blame you, though.”
Will watched Mr. Brown walk back around the pond and join the other men. Again he saw them look in his direction and then nod their heads. Finally, they all set off toward Riley's store. Will sat for what he thought was at least another hour before he gathered up his two bluegills and started home.
“Mr. Brown said he'd like you to take a look at the millworks,” Will told his uncle that night at supper.
“Did you tell him I would?”
“I told him he'd better send Tom Riley out here to ask you.”
“Tom's a stubborn young man,” Uncle Jed said slowly. “I doubt that Luke Brown can get him to do that.”
Will stared down at his plate. Now he'd ruined everything. And he was just trying to do what he thought Uncle Jed would want.
A little later, while Meg sat on the porch step with the coffee mill on her lap, grinding buckwheat for the next morning's breakfast gruel, Will carefully filled the oil lamps and trimmed their wicks. Suddenly he spoke. “I don't see that Tom Riley has much right to look down on your pa for not fighting since
he only went to war because the conscriptors got him.” And since he fraternized with the enemy, he added silently, remembering the shiny buckle Tom had gotten by swapping with a Yankee.
Meg shrugged. “He probably hates to think that Pa was smarter than he was about avoiding the conscriptors.”
“Maybe so,” Will said. He sighed, wondering if the miller would be able to convince Tom to come and ask for Uncle Jed's help.
It was almost a week later when Will saw Tom Riley coming across the pasture to where he and Uncle Jed were working on the fence. When Tom reached them, he stood as if at attention, not meeting their eyes.
“I have a message for Jed Jones from Luke Brown, the miller,” he announced. “He needs help fixing the millworks.” Then he turned on his heel and retraced his steps as grasshoppers exploded from the tall grass in front of him.
Uncle Jed tamped earth around the post that Will held in place. Then he straightened up and mopped his sweating brow with his handkerchief. “Well, looks like Tom finally got around to delivering that message.”
Will nodded, almost weak with relief.
Uncle Jed went on. “We'll go on in there tomorrow and act as if none of that unpleasantness ever happened.”
Will nodded again, silently resolving to avoid Tom whenever he could.
But when they reached the mill early the next day, Will
realized he needn't have been concerned about avoiding Tomâhe was nowhere to be seen.
“Glad to see you, Jed,” the miller said, shaking hands as several of the other men echoed his greeting. “And you, young man,” he said, turning to Will, “have you come to help or to catch some more of them bluegills?”
Before Will could answer, his uncle replied, “He's come to watch. It's a good chance for a youngster to learn something.”
Will followed the men into the cool, dusty building and down the plank stairs to a dark, earth-floored room filled with the machinery that turned the millstone on the floor above. When his eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the wheel pit, he saw from the new wood that parts of the gears had been painstakingly repaired. Then he looked up at the complicated system of belts and pulleys that turned the gears and saw that all of the belts were new.
Following his gaze, the miller explained. “One of the Yankee foraging parties was a mite unhappy that I didn't have any flour or cornmeal for them, and they took it out on me by ruining the millworks. Slashed the belts with their sabers and banged the notches off the gears with my own ax. But I guess I was lucky. If it hadn't been the middle of a wet spell, they'd have burned me to the ground.”
“Looks like you did a right good job on these gears,” Uncle Jed commented as he ran a hand over the nearest one.
“What I haven't been able to manage for the life of me, though, is to get those new belts to turn them. They just slip right off the pulley,” said the miller. “I never had this kind of problem before.”
Uncle Jed nodded, letting his gaze run from ceiling to floor and from wall to wall, studying the arrangement of gear wheels and pulleys. Finally he spoke. “I think I see the problem. Shouldn't take too long to set things right.”
He set to work, adjusting the pairs of pulleys and making sure they were absolutely parallel. Will watched, fascinated, until the miller's wife called them to dinner.
Will followed the men up the steps and out into the brightness of noonday. A cloth-covered table had been set up in the shade, and his mouth began to water as the smell of fried chicken reached his nostrils. And then he saw the bowls of steaming mashed potatoes, green beans cooked with great chunks of salt pork, and corn pudding. This was more food than he'd seen at one time for years!
Noticing his reaction to the heavily laden table, one of the younger men grinned. “The Yankees may have messed up the millworks for ol' man Brown, but earlier in the war he did a lot of milling for them, and the government finally paid him. That's how he can afford to fix the mill now, and how his missus can set a table like this one. He just bought her a cow and a whole flock of laying hens, too.”
“Mr. Brown worked for the Yankees?” Will asked in dismay.
“Son, when armed men tell you to grind grain, you grind it.”
Will didn't like to think of Mr. Brown working for the enemy. But he had to admit the miller hadn't had much choice.
Mrs. Brown heaped Will's plate high with food. “Now, will you be having lemonade or milk with that?” she asked.
His unbelieving eyes turned toward the two pitchers, one filled with gold-flecked juice and floating chips of ice and the other with frothy milk.
Smiling at his indecision, the plump, pleasant-faced woman poured him a glass of lemonade. “Drink this now and have some milk with dessert.” Then, leaning closer, she whispered, “I've made cherry pies.”
Will took the glass and managed to thank her. Then he sank to the ground and began to eat. The taste of that first bite of crisply fried chicken brought him a rush of memories. Memories of a time when food like this was taken for granted. Memories of the family dinner hour with Callie's succulent meals, Charlie's wisecracks, his little sisters' giggles, and his parents' quiet conversation.
“Why, you've hardly touched your dinner! Aren't you feeling well?” Mrs. Brown's concerned voice interrupted his reverie.
“Stomach's shrunk, no doubt,” said Uncle Jed. “Give him a little time for it to stretch.”
Later, when Will carried his empty plate and glass over to the table, Mrs. Brown beamed and cut him a thick wedge of pie. “Everything was delicious, ma'am,” he said, watching her fill his glass with milk.
“I'm glad your stomach stretched enough that you could enjoy it,” she said, smiling.
The heavy meal made Will sleepy. He yawned as he followed the men down into the dark wheel pit, but its coolness revived him. He watched Uncle Jed work, impressed by his careful, confident approach to the job and by the other men's obviously
increasing respect. Wasn't there anything his uncle didn't know how to do?
At last Uncle Jed straightened up. “That look about right to you, Luke?” he asked.
“Sure does,” replied the miller. “Let's try 'er out. Will, you go raise the sluice gate.”
Will hurried up the stairs and dashed out the door. Just above the mill wheel, a wooden gate had been lowered to divert the water from the mill race directly to the pond. How was he supposed to raise the gate so the water could drop down onto the huge waterwheel? The control must be inside, he realized.
Will ran back into the mill. Against the wall was a wooden lever. He released its T-shaped handle and used all his strength to push it down, feeling the tremor of the gate inching its way up. He locked the lever into position and stood at the narrow window, watching the stream of water fall onto the waterwheel. The huge wheel gave a shudder and slowly began to turn. Gradually it picked up speed, and above its creaking, Will heard the steady slapping sound of the belts as they whirled around the pulleys, the hum of the turning gears, and the triumphant shouts from the men in the wheel pit. Uncle Jed had done it!
Will had to see for himself. He raced down the stairs, passing the men as they were hurrying up them. Alone in the wheel pit, he watched the millworks in operation. Uncle Jed had known just what to do, he marveled. At last he tore himself away from the hypnotic spell of the machinery and ran up to the floor above where the miller was emptying a sack of wheat
into the funnellike hopper above the millstone.