Where I’ve Been – Part 9

Oh My God! I wrote this last night when I could not sleep. I’ve regained my muse, my desire tow rite, my… well whtever it is, I hope it doesn’t leave again! And here you have Part 9. It has children and loss in it, so I think I did indeed pound out some grief as I wrote. I feel a lot lighter in spirit today, more rested despite the late night, and more calm.

And once again I am reminded taht writing is therapy, for me.

Where I’ve Been – Part 9

Chris looked out over the expanse of the camp, and watched as the tents fell one by one, collapsing like old, tired horses onto the ground in the early morning fog. He felt the hum of activity, the anticipation of striking out, and his bones vibrated with the memory of his own adventures, long ago. It had been much like this, yet the memories had been packed away for so long, they were shrouded in fog like the morning in front of him. Better not to remember, he decided, since some bits weren’t so pleasant in their retelling.

It had been a month and a week, and he was glad their visitors were moving on. Despite the quiet goings-on, and the lack of problems with them being here for a short time, Chris couldn’t shake the feeling of dread he felt, like a claw in his chest. Something was going to happen, and he was afraid to even think of what it might be. He was worried it was going to involve his daughter, and Barley. For several days now, she had been quiet and withdrawn, and Barley, normally steadfast and friendly, was avoiding company, a dark thundercloud seemingly hovering over him.

He wondered if Barley would leave with the army, or stay here. He also wondered just what was going on between him and Nessa. He’d seen them holding hands, and how flushed her face was when she would come into the house after spending time with him.

He hoped to God and prayed that Barley wouldn’t break her heart again.

He heard a horse come up behind him, and turned to see Hammond drop to the ground beside him, one hand on the pommel. They nodded to one another, and Hammond moved to join him, looking out over the expanse.

“Weather’s likely clearing for them to get a good distance today.”

Chris grunted and nodded. The more distance from them, the better, he thought, and he turned to Hammond.

“This is more than a casual drop-by. What’s up, friend?”

Hammond smiled his wide toothy smile and shook his grey-mopped head. “I’m a book, am I?”

They both chuckled, and then sobered. Hammond nodded towards the camp, and then looked Chris straight in the eye.

“Some of the women want to keep the children this army brought in, when they leave. They’re having it out with the Captains.”

“I expected as much.” Chris said, tiredly. He turned towards his own horse, happily grazing under a nearby tree, knowing that Hammond wouldn’t have been sent for him if he wasn’t needed to referee.

“Mikaela has already gathered the Council at the church, and the two leaders. She’s waiting for us.” Hammond added as he swung back into his saddle, grinning. “She’s quite adamant, and I’m afraid we’ll get there too late to see the start of the fireworks.”

“Leave it to her to cause a fuss, eh? Well, can’t say I would stand in her way.” Chris replied thoughfully, mounting up himself. “Shall we?”

With one last look at the people threading their way through the mist, Chris turned and brought himself back to the present. There would be time to reminisce later, when all was taken care of.

——–

Nessa watched Mikaela as she glared at the older captain, hands on her hips, a few of the other women from the town behind her.

“Its not right, you know, letting them trapse off into disease, starvation, and God knows what else.” She spat.

David picked at a fingernail with a pocketknife, and looked disinterested. “This isn’t up for debate, sweetheart. They’re valuable to us. You take them, we need to replace them.”

“Replace them? They’re children! How can they be other than mouths to feed?”

The hum of conversation came to an abrupt halt. Nessa knew her father had come in the back door, and turned to find him striding up the centre aisle, Hammond behind him. He stopped at the front, and nodded to London and Turner, both sitting and enjoying the show. Maury sat just behind them with Barley. Nessa caught Barley’s eye, and he winked at her. She blushed involuntarily, and then looked at her hands. Hammond slid in beside her, and reached across to tweak his son, who had sat with her, as close to the front as possible.

“Thanks Hammond.” She whispered, and he smiled. He then winked at his son and stood to sit with London and Turner.

“Mikaela, what is going on?” Chris asked, and he strode between her and the Captain. The younger captain, Justin, stepped back a pace, and blinked, crushing his hat in his hand. Despite his relinquishment of his bars to Barley, he was still considered an officer until Barley decided if he was leaving with them or not. He kept glancing over at Barley, hoping he would take over, but Barley just sat, watching it unfold, his cap on his knee.

“This… This… Troll won’t even consider letting the younger children stay behind.” She fumed, waving her hand in the direction of David. “What kind of an army lets children into its ranks?”

Chris held up his hand and turned to the women behind her. “Do all of you agree with her, that this is something you want?”

The three women behind Mikaela nodded, and Nessa could feel the tension in the room mount. She had personally seen most of the children when they had first arrived, and she knew just how much they needed stability. This would be good for the town, and good for the children. She knew Mikaela had it well in hand, and had not felt she needed to stand with them.

Nessa heard a rustle to her left, and watched as Jessica rose and walked to the front of the church. All heads turned, and a few murmurs followed as she took her place with the women.

“I agree as well.” She said quietly, folding her hands in front of her. Nessa blinked. Jessica had certainly made huge strides, and for her to stand up in front of everyone, and speak was a miracle. She glanced at Maury, who was staring at his daughter, his mouth open in surprise. Barley was smiling, and not looking at all surprised.

She felt a hand on her leg and looked down at Kensi, who was craning his neck. “Are the kids here?” he whispered.

She looked around. She saw a couple of their own children, but of the dozen or so children in question from the army, only Lisa, the eldest of them was present. She looked down at Kensi and a plan hatched. If they were going to save these kids more travel and hardship, they would have to railroad the Captain into it.

“Kensi, can you find them?” she asked quietly, as the discussion echoed around them.

He nodded exitedly, and she shooed him out the edge of the pew. He ran down the aisle, paused at the door and whispered to Lisa, who nodded, slipped out, and followed him. Nessa turned back to the front just in time to see both Hammond and Barley quirk an eyebrow at her, and this time, it was her turn to wink.

——

Jessica’s heart was hammering in her chest. She stood, just behind Mikaela, and clasped her hands into her skirt to keep them from shaking. She had just stood up, not thinking, and now, she was in front of the whole town.

“Jess?” Beatrice, Turner’s wife, whispered to her, and put a hand on her arm. “You ok?”

Jess could only nod, not trusting herself to speak out loud just yet. She couldn’t believe what she had just done, and not exactly sure how, either. She flickered her glance up to her father, hoping he would not be angry with her. When she saw her brother smiling at her, and her father’s surprise, she relaxed slightly. She knew this was not like her to be so bold, but here she was.

Her resolve returned as she looked forward at the captains, and she squared her shoulders. Bedamned if she was going to let these kids go through any more horror! They belonged with families who would teach them, clothe them, let them play and be kids. They deserved that.

She’d gone reluctantly to the camp, on the request of her brother with some shoes and books for the eldest of the group, Lisa. After sitting with her, and shyly visiting for a brief time, something had made her go back the next day, and offer to read to Lisa. From there, the other children had gathered and begged her to read more. It felt natural to sit with them and read, teaching them letters, numbers, and words. She’d not felt this happy in so long, that it became a highlight of her day very quickly.

It had made her so mad when she’d finally heard the stories of how they had come to travel with the army, that she had gone home, and split kindling in the woodshed for nearly an hour, thwacking the cedar blocks with the splitting axe over and over and over until she had enough little split sticks to build ten thousand fires. Only then, sweaty, disheveled, and tired, did she feel better.

It was the first time that Jessica had ever gotten angry about anything, and she had looked at her hands afterwards, shaking and red from the axe, and realized it felt good to let it fly instead of keeping it bottled up as fear. She didn’t feel so lost anymore, suddenly. The purpose of her emotion around the story of those children made her feel alive, and not so afraid. That night, she had hugged her brother for the first time. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw tears in his eyes as he held her close to him and nearly squeezed the life out of her. Funnily enough, she hadn’t cried herself.

After that, she had gone to the camp every day, sometimes with the other women, sometimes by herself, and she had read to them. She helped Mikaela find shoes and socks and warm clothes for them. She had baked bread, cut hair, and in some cases, hugged them when they were cold and in need of something more than the meager bedrolls they had.

She had helped Lysette spirit the children into town after dark and let them sleep on the floor of the schoolhouse on cold nights, the belly of the woodstove in the corner almost red from the hardwood stuffed into it. The children bundled into their bedrolls, childlike excitement taking hold of their normally quiet demeanours, and they ate toasted bread with butter and popcorn, made on the stove. Jessica had stayed late the first night, the firelight licking the old, yellowed posters of multiplication tables and maps of Old America. She read them the story of Pinnochio, and by the time she got to the part with the whale, they were all asleep.

These children were important to her. She hadn’t felt this strongly about anything since before she could remember. It had felt good to be part of something, to do something meaningful. More than simply taking care of her father.

On her other side, Madeline Price, London’s wife, had her arms crossed and scowled menacingly at the Captains on the other side of the church. Madeline was a force to be reckoned with on a normal day, and this had her riled beyond belief. Jessica felt the determination radiate off of the woman, and was glad for a bit of a shield.

But she had stood up, and wasn’t going to sit back down until they had made those children safe.

“Is there anyone else?” Chris asked tiredly, and perched himself on the edge of the altar. “I’d rather get this over with soon so we can get back to seeing our guests on their way.”

The murmur from the crowd took over, several creaks from the pews emanating as people turned in their seats to look around. Slowly, some of the other townspeople stood in their seats, and nodded, silently in assent.

“I see.” Chris said, and turned to David, the Captain. “Tell me why you need small children to do the work of a man in your army, Captain. I’m sorely tempted to side with the women here, since we have to live with them after you are gone, and I am a hungry man.”

Justin looked uncomfortable, and kept his eyes on the floor. David looked up at Chris and grunted. “They run. They fetch things. They grow big enough, we give ’em a gun if we got one. Every body we have helps us get where we’re goin’.”

The crowd began to all speak at once, and the woman began shouting.

As Chris opened his mouth to quiet the crowd once more, the back doors of the church slammed open, and Kensi walked in, Lisa by his side, and behind them, a group of small disheveled heads gathered. The entire church went silent, swivelled as one to the doors. Jessica caught Lisa’s eye. Somehow, her new friend gave her strength and she took a deep breath.

“I would teach them if they stayed…. I can teach them.”

The entire church swivelled back to the front to see Jessica moving to the front of the group of women, and put a hand on Mikaela’s shoulder. Mikaela added her own voice. “With the help of everyone in this place, we would care for them.”

The women nodded, pressing behind her, and Chris held up a hand, an amused expression on his face.

“Jessica, you are sure you would take this responsibility? We have a school already.” he replied.

Lysette Geralad stepped forward from her seat in the crowd and gestured to the children. “I can use the help. I’ve been the teacher here since Katherine died, and seen so many of you sit at my desks. But I can’t handle this many students all learning to read and write at the same time.”

Jessica silently thanked Hammond’s wife, and felt more tension leave. It would be ok. She let her shoulders drop, and widened her smile. Chris caught her eye, and his own expression softened. She knew he would help them then. The children would be staying.

The audience in the pews again began all speaking at once. Nessa raised her voice above the din, causing everyone to swivel once more to the centre of the church. “Why don’t we let the children speak for themselves?”

Jessica watched Nessa nod to the group of children behind her, and they surged forward. Peanut, and another small girl with wild, dark hair shot through under the arms of the older children, and made their way to Mikaela. Lisa stopped by Nessa, her simple, stern expression making her look well beyond her years. A few other of the children stopped with Lisa, some stood in front.

“Well?” Mikaela said, everyone turning at her voice. She looked down at the two small beings looking up at her. “Tell us what you want.”

“They want to stay, all of them. We voted.” Lisa said, her small frame giving way to a voice that echoed into the sanctuary, causing everyone to turn again from the front of the church to the pew where Nessa and Lisa were standing. In the murmurs and children’s echoes that followed, David began sputtering, and walking towards Lisa, swearing, his fists balling, his intent obvious. Jessica stepped out, and before she knew what she was doing, she was standing in front of the Captain, looking him straight in the eye, toe to toe.

In her mind she was cringing, and fighting the urge to turn and run. But outwardly, she had somehow found her strength. He tried to walk past her in the narrow row, and she side-stepped in front of him again. He made as if to push her, then thought better, and attempted to go around her again. She wouldn’t let him. She saw both her father and brother stand, sensing danger.

“Don’t you dare, Sir. These children are staying.” She said quietly, and firmly, crossing her arms.

David gestured at her, looking at Chris. “Do something about your woman.” He said through set teeth.

Chris just chuckled and shook his head. “She’s not mine, Sir.”

Jessica looked past the older captain to the younger one, who had all but crushed his hat in his hands. He looked up, and their eyes caught. She inclined her head towards the angry man in front of her, and he cringed. Was he that much of a coward that he wouldn’t help? It was obvious he did not want to get involved, but for pity’s sake, he was part of this mob of people. She raised her eyebrows, and saw him visibly let out a breath. She saw red, and felt herself boil over.

“Sir, can you not call of your dog?” She shouted out, causing more muttering from David, and Justin to simply stare at her, as amazed at her boldness as the rest of the gathering was. “Can you not control him?”

Mikaela joined her, and she felt the older woman pat her arm. “Its alright dear.” She muttered in her ear, and pulled her away. “Come, let’s get these children packed up and away from the camp. Can you do that?”

Jessica took one more look at both the older Captain, then the younger one, and she let out a breath of tension that she hadn’t realized she was holding. She felt her hands begin to shake again, and knew that Mikaela was helping her leave before she lost her nerve, or said something stupid to incite more confrontation. The crowd was humming with conversation again, and Chris had stood and was attempting to calm the older Captain. It was done. Her children would be staying.

As she turned to walk away from the front of the church, she felt an arm around her shoulders, and looked up to see Barley, cap on his head, and a happy, amused expression on his face.

“Little sister. You and I are more alike than we knew.” he whispered in her ear. “Let’s get these kids safe, shall we?”

“OK kids, we need to follow Miss Benson and Lisa now, ok?” He said to the group standing behind Nessa and Lisa.

Lisa turned and began herding the smaller children out through the door, and Jessica looked down to see the small, dark-haired girl slip her small, delicate hand into Jessica’s larger one.

“will you read to us, lots?” Her small voice asked, her eyes round as saucers.

“Of course I will.” said Jessica, and felt her heart swell.

———–

Barley stood beside Justin and looked out at the muddy field that was now empty save milling people, bending to pick things up, standing in groups, their breath fogging above their heads. A wagon stood to one side of a group, loaded with tents and equipment, loops of leather traces attached to the old whipple tree and yoke.

“That’s going to become punishment duty, you know, dragging that thing.”

Justin ran his hands over his hair, and sighed heavily. “I know, but its better than humpin’ it on backs. We can be faster now, if nuthin’ else.”

The two men fell silent again. Barley was waiting for Justin to ask. He knew he would, and even now, he had no idea what he was going to do. Leave, or stay. He had mulled over seeing the army further south to the border and then travelling back, but he wondered how smart that was, considering he might be walking right back towards advancing government troops. He also thought it might not be the best time to travel alone, given the Spring snowstorms in the hills could come on in an instant and leave you stranded for days.

Nessa crowded into his mind, and he felt his heart aching in his chest when he thought about leaving her. In the days since they had opened up to one another, he had felt as if he were flying. The stolen kisses and late nights holed up in the hotel turned surgery, reading to one another by candlelight, simply holding one another until they couldn’t stay awake any more and walked home in the crisp night air.

Justin coughed beside him, and he looked at the slight man, wishing things were different. He wasn’t a warrior, Justin. He was meant to be a scholar, or a tradesman. if things were different, he would make a good addition to the town here. He wondered if his humble manner and shy demeanour wouldn’t be good for his sister, but then pushed the thought out of his head. Now was no time to be daydreaming silly romantic notions about his family.

“Sir, if I may.”

“You may.” Barley replied.

“Will you be rejoining us when we leave?”

Barley ran a hand over the back of his neck to relive the tension, and kicked at the ground in front of him.

“Justin, its not an easy decision to make.” He said, and squinted out, watching the people, remembering their names, watching their disheveled and battered ranks fall in. David was walking out front, attempting a muster to account for all bodies.

“I know.” Justin said quietly. “I’d rather stay here too. There are a lot of people out there who would. But its not like we have a free choice. The children staying behind-”

“Is a good thing Justin. They don’t deserve what is in store for this lot.” Barley finished. “I don’t know. I am needed here just as much if more people come, especially if government troops arrive.”

Justin nodded slowly, and settled his cap back on his head. “You are a good captain, Sir. We need someone to temper… well, to keep thing in order as they should.”

“You would do well with that duty, Justin.” Barley replied, setting his own cap on his head.

“You would do better, Sir.” Justin said emphatically as he turned to Barley. He saluted, bringing himself to attention. “I must rejoin my troop.”

Barley saluted back, and watched as Justin strode back towards the rest of the group, and absorbed the young man’s words. He needed to see his family, and Nessa. they would have the same questions, and maybe help him come to an answer.

As he walked back up the road towards the town, he went back and forth in his head. Stay. Go. Stay. He knew his loyalty to his home was strong, and there were no cons to staying. It was the obvious choice. But the people of that army needed him, or they would be walking into their death. The older captain was not thinking logically, and he feared for their safety blindly following him into the South. If he went, it was likely he would be leaving behind everyone here for another long stretch, of which he could not measure.

“Damn it.” he muttered, and kicked a stone ahead of him. It was so frustrating! He stopped, the trees on either side of the road bare and grey against the sky, and he stared up at the craggy branches in desperation.

“Lord help me.” he said slowly, the prayer strange on his lips. It had been a long time since he had prayed. “God, I just don’t know what to do. I love her, I love my family, but these people… I need guidance, I need-”

He stopped as he saw Turner walking up the road, a large canvas rucksack on his back, his familiar crooked walking stick in his hand. Beside him was his wife, Beatrice. She looked drawn, white, and her eyes were red-rimmed.

“What in-” Barley muttered, and strode ahead to the man. “Turner! Ho!” he yelled.

The man stopped, and as Barley reached him, he noticed the grim set of his face, the shadows under his eyes. As he registered who it was, he scowled and went to pass him. Barley stepped in front of him.

“Where are you going?” Barley asked, fearing the answer.

“None of your business, Benson.” Turner spat back. Beatrice looked pleadingly at Barley.

“That is Captain Benson to you, if you intend to join our guests leaving today.” Barley said, provoking the man, pulling himself up to full height. He figured if the man was going to be an ass, he could at least go with that. It had been all he could do to be civil to the man, and he was through.

“Get out of my way boy. You don’t order me.” Turner muttered and tried to push past him.

Barley put his hand on Turner’s shoulder, and shook his head as the man stopped and raised his eyes to Barley’s. Barley had an insult on the tip of his tongue and it died on his lips. The grief and sorrow poured out of Turner’s face.

“Tell me why then.” He said instead.

“You don’t care.” Turner growled, fisting his free hand,and stopped, backing up a step. Beatrice stepped up and grabbed Turner’s fist, tears forming once more in her eyes, shimmering as she looked away to wipe at them. She held fast as he tugged, and gave up.

“Try me.” Barley said.

Turner looked away, then up to the trees Barley had just been contemplating. Barley watched the emotions flickering. The sadness, the sorrow, then anger. He wondered why this man had been so bitter towards him this whole time, why he had been so against him, so angry at him for nothing more than what Barley assumed was coming back. He wasn’t a threat to the man, but felt sometimes as if Turner hated him for something so horrific, he wondered if he indeed had done something to him that he couldn’t remember.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Turner finally said, looking away. “You don’t understand truly what it is like for us that stay behind, do you?”

Barley cocked his head. “Why don’t you tell me then? And while you’re at it, I want to know why you hate me so much. What did I do to you that has made you so angry? Try as I might, I can’t figure it out.”

Beatrice choked back a sob and reached for Barley. “We don’t hate you…” but she stopped with a look from her husband. He looked back to Barley, and Barley felt the waves of bitterness emanate from him.

“They all left. All of them, including you! And no one cared about us, what we would feel. And then you….” he yelled, running clawed fingers through his hair. “You waltz back in here, proud as a peacock, and it was as if you never left! Everyone forgave you. Everyone celebrated you coming back. But no one cared that… we were still alone.”

Barley understood suddenly, all too clearly, just what had happened. He looked to Beatrice, who nodded, seeing the realization in Barley’s eyes. Barley felt the sadness permeate him, the impact of their loss entering him.

“You’re going out to find them, aren’t you?” He said quietly, stepping to Turner, reaching out for him one more time.

Turner didn’t react. His mouth worked into another scowl, looking straight ahead as Barley’s hand reached his shoulder. What could you say to deter him? His grief was overwhelming, and Barley, despite what Turner thought, did well understand just what the man was going through. Should he stop him? He wasn’t sure, except for the obvious turmoil he was putting his wife through, he was tempted to let the man go. Demons like that had to be slain, each in their own way. If Turner needed to go out and look for his sons to find peace, then that was what he needed to do.

“I won’t stop you Turner. Just remember that you are leaving family behind if you do. This isn’t the right way.”

Turner grunted and looked at his wife. “She don’t care. She’s replaced them with those runt refugees.”

Beatrice hung her head, and Barley felt himself coil up again. The man was impossible! He shook Turner’s shoulder, and growled himself, patience gone.

“You know better than that, man! Beatrice could never replace your boys. She-” Barley started.

“Don’t tell me what I know! You don’t know shit about what I know. My boys are gone, they haven’t come back, and I’m going to find them. Now get out of my way.”

With that, he slapped Barley’s hand away and pushed him aside. He strode off, but stopped a few paces away when he realized his wife wasn’t following.

“Bea.” he said tiredly. “Are you coming?”

Barley watched as Beatrice stepped up and touched Barley’s arm. “He’s a good man, Barley. I’m so sorry. Ever since you came home…”

“I know Bea. Its ok. Go with him.”

She shook her head, stood up as straight as she could, and called out to her husband. “Turner.”

He shifted his weight, but didn’t acknowledge her. She grimaced and took a steadying breath.

“If you go, Husband, you go alone. I won’t follow you, and I won’t forgive you for leaving me. Ulysses, Princeton, Orwell… They’re gone. They cannot be replaced. But we have a home, and three empty rooms that can be filled. I won’t apologize for wanting this.”

He waited a moment more, and then continued walking around the corner on the road, the bright red end of his crooked walking stick waving back and forth, the rucksack’s bulky frame hiding his head from view.

Barley looked Heavenward. “That was quite a sign.” he muttered, put his arm around Beatrice, and they watched until Turner was out of sight, her tears soaking into his shoulder.

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