In the mid-afternoon Sally Kincaid walked down to McKendrick’s alone. It was not unusual for her to do so; and surely they might expect someone to come down and see how they had fared, knowing there had been fighting so near there that morning. So she reasoned with herself as she walked. It was a reasoning mixed with a little dread of knowing just what had transpired during the fight, and yet a need to know at least what the McKendricks could tell her.She was welcomed by the McKendrick girls with perhaps a little less restraint than usual, in the lingering excitement of the day; and had soon heard all there was to tell. She was shown the broken fence-rails lying in the garden, the wreck of the henhouse and the bullet-scarred tree trunks in the orchard; and was treated to a number of opinions on what the action had meant. To these Sally could but listen and try not to let any tell-tale expression of her thoughts cross her face. She knew too much to join in this conversation.Through all this Sally was only half aware of small Lucy McKendrick lingering near her elbow, following in her footsteps as she walked with the others, but never speaking. If she had paid closer attention she might have seen Lucy watching her, looking up at her with large eyes as if there was something about Sally that she was curious to know, or a decision she was trying to make about her.When good-byes had been said, and Sally was walking alone across the yard to start for home, she found that Lucy was still with her. She had taken a fold of Sally’s long skirts in her hand, and her face was still upturned to her earnestly. The questioning in it was so palpable that Sally stopped, and leaned down toward her.Lucy took her hand in both of her own as if to lead her somewhere. “I want to show you something.”Her voice was hushed and important. Sally smiled down into her big eyes. “You do? What is it?”“It’s this way,” said Lucy, tugging her toward the woods. “It’s a secret. You have to come and see it.”Sally smiled again, and allowed herself to be led. Once or twice before she had let Lucy lead her, in what she knew was the imparting of a supreme confidence, to her secret haunt in the woods, where she had been shown a treasure such as a white stone from the creek bed or a bird’s nest in the heart of a honeysuckle bush. She expected another such confidence was in store now. She followed Lucy over the crossing stones in the creek, and deeper into the brush, climbing over the fallen dead boughs that the little girl crawled under.They had gone what Sally began to think was quite a long way, out of sight and sound of the house. Aspen trees leaned together above them, and tall weeds filled the spaces around the trunks. Lucy stopped, and pulled at her hand again.Sally looked—she had a glimpse of gray and her stomach jolted suddenly. For a strangely horrible second she was certain that the child had found a dead soldier lying there in the shade of the aspens. Then she saw the chalk-white face, the closed eyes and the bloody sleeve—a low cry escaped her. She rushed forward and fell on her knees beside him in the weeds. “Jim! Oh, Jim—”Jim opened his eyes in dazed confusion as she choked back a sob. “Sally…how’d you…”“Lucy brought me. Oh, Jim, are you hurt bad?”“I don’t know. I got hit in the arm.” He closed his eyes again.Sally turned to Lucy, who was standing watching with her finger in her mouth, and by an apt chance had the old tin cup in her other hand. “Lucy, will you take that and get me some water from the creek? Hurry.”Lucy turned and went, and Sally feverishly dug out a small pair of sewing-scissors from the pocket of her dress. She ripped the bloody sleeve and pulled it away from the wound. She shuddered at the sight of the lacerated flesh, but the urgency of the moment overcame her weakness. Turning up the hem of her skirt, she tore a strip from the edge of her petticoat to use as a bandage, wielding the scissors so hastily that she just escaped slicing her own fingers.Fortunately it was not a serious injury; the bullet had torn through from back to front, leaving an ugly flesh wound that had been bleeding slowly. Sally, with no experience in treating wounds, could not know this, but acted upon common sense. When Lucy returned in a few minutes, holding out the tin cup to her with wet hands, she washed the clotted blood away with another scrap torn from her petticoat, then wrapped the clean strip of cotton around Jim’s arm, tearing the ends and knotting them securely. Jim gritted his teeth and winced, but no sound came from him other than the hiss of his breathing through his teeth.When she had finished Sally bent over him again, sliding her hand beneath his head. “Can you walk, Jim, if I help you? They told me at McKendrick’s that the Yankees are still looking for stragglers—they’ll come back and find you here.”“I can try,” he said.He pulled himself up, slowly, to a sitting position, and then with Sally helping him, managed to get on his feet. Sally put her arm around him, giving him her shoulder to lean on. But after only a few steps he shook his head, signaling her to stop, and collapsed against the foot of the nearest tree, trembling all over from the effort.“It’s no good,” he gasped, shaking his head weakly. “My legs feel like water.”Sally dropped down beside him. “But you’ve got to, Jim! You can’t stay here.”He had his eyes closed again, leaning against the tree with his injured arm cradled in his right hand. “Sally, where am I supposed to go? The troop’s gone…they’ll have counted me dead or prisoner. The Yanks are all through the town.”“If you could only get home—it’s just across the bridge. I could go over and tell your pa, and he’d come and get you—”Jim opened his eyes. “No! Don’t let him come—with the Yanks crawling all round here, he’d get arrested if they caught him helping me—thrown in some stockade or hung.”Sally wilted down disconsolately in the grass, her elbows on her knees and her fists clenched by her ears. “If you could just find someplace to lay and hide till the Yankees have settled down, or moved…not our place; they might search it…and you couldn’t walk that far.”Suddenly she lifted her head. “The old smokehouse! Jim, remember? It’s not so far off—there’s the cellar underneath it. And it’s on the McKendricks’ land, too. The Yankees know they’re Union sympathizers; they wouldn’t search there.” She was on her knees, her hand touching his shoulder. “Listen, Jim—if you rest here till after dark, could you make it as far as the smokehouse? I’ll come back when it’s dark and help you. Then you’ll be safe for a little while, and we can think what to do.”Jim nodded, slowly. “I can make it. Try, anyway.” He looked at her. “But Sally, I don’t want you taking any chances—”“I won’t. I’ll be fine.”She had forgotten, until she turned her head, that Lucy McKendrick had been standing by the whole time, watching them and listening. A new flicker of apprehension crossed Sally’s face. Hesitantly, she turned to the little girl and put both hands on her shoulders. “Lucy,” she said, “will you do something for me? Will you not tell anyone about Jim being here? It’s very important, Lucy—that nobody, nobody at all, knows about it till after the soldiers are gone—until—”“Until the war’s over,” Lucy filled in.Sally laughed a bit hysterically. “Yes, that’s right. Till the war’s over.”“She knows,” said Jim with a faint smile. “I told her all about it yesterday.”Sally gave him a quick look. “Yesterday? Then—she knew—” She looked at Lucy again, the pieces fitting together. Sally smiled, a little tremulously, and leaned forward and kissed her. “Thank you,” she whispered.Lucy’s round eyes followed her as she stood up, perhaps not fully understanding.“Try and crawl back here in the bushes a little,” said Sally to Jim, bending over him to help; “that way you can lie still in there, and if anyone comes by—they shouldn’t see you. Then Lucy and I’ll go home,” she said, “and I’ll be back—tonight.”
* * *The old smokehouse, disused for many years, stood a few rods back in the woods behind the McKendrick farmhouse. It had been built against the side of a slope on a chinked stone foundation, with a small wooden door in the front giving access to the cellar-like space underneath. The older McKendrick children and their playmates had made good use of this dark and damp space in years past, turning it into a house, a fort, a cave at will; but of late years even this use had ceased, and the smokehouse stood silent in the green forest, the cracks between its boards widening and moss growing over the stone foundation and the crumbling roof.After dark, when she was certain her mother and brother were asleep, Sally slipped out of the house, with two old blankets under her arm. Rolled up inside them was a small bundle of food, a pair of candles, and the rest of her torn petticoat ripped up for clean bandages.The night was moonlit, with an occasional unsettling rush of wind through the treetops, and only the thought of Jim kept her going through the black shadows that strewed her path, her heart beating in small hammer-blows of nervousness. At the end of her journey, when she thought she had found the place under the aspens, it took her a few worried moments of groping about in the brush to find him—his whisper, once he was certain it was her, guided her to the spot. As she clasped his hand in the dark half her fears seemed to fall away; the warmth and life in it was enough to reassure her.The trip to the smokehouse was made…long, slow and fumbling…though mercifully by the end of it both had lost all sense of time. Jim leaned heavily on Sally, forced to stop and take a breath what seemed like every few steps. In patches of blackness under the trees where the moon did not reach, both stumbled, unable to see what was under their feet. Branches impeded their path, reached out at them like the prickly fingers of silent adversaries surrounding them; and every once in a while Sally’s heart leaped into her throat at the uncouth shape of a bent tree gray-white beside them, transformed by terror into a silent watcher.But at last the moonlight shone on the open space in front of the tall black shaft of the abandoned smokehouse standing up above, and the ordeal was over. Slowly still, they made the last few steps across the little glade. Jim slid to his knees and leaned against the mossy foundation of the smokehouse, while Sally felt along the little wooden door for the rusty hook that held it closed. She found it, fought with it a minute, then wrenched it open, and the door moved with a creak that made Jim start and jerk his throbbing head up abruptly.Sally crawled in, battling her revulsion at the feel of the cold, damp, dirty ground beneath her hands, littered with crumbled old leaves and twigs which instinct told her were more than likely the remains of rodents’ nests. She worked open her bundle, struck a match with some difficulty against the uneven stone wall and lit one of the candles. Its flicker showed nothing more dreadful than the cramped, dirty space she had expected. But it seemed so much smaller than when they were children, as she wedged the candle in a corner and unfolded one of the blankets; too small even to spread the blanket all the way out. Sally could just sit up without her head brushing the roof.She helped Jim drag himself inside and lie down; then pulled the door shut, wedging it with a stub of rotted wood to keep it that way. The candle wavered in a draft from some unseen chink in the stonework. Sally sheltered the flame with her hand and glanced uneasily up at the walls, hoping there was no crack big enough for the light to show through.She crawled into the narrow space between Jim and the back wall, trying not to jar his wounded arm. She expelled a quick, short breath, and let herself down on one elbow beside him, feeling suddenly weary.Very gently, she brushed his temple and the cheek with the thin scratch across it. Jim turned his head a little bit, to look up at her. The light from the single uncertain candle was too low for them to see more than the outline of each other’s faces.He sighed, a whisper of a sigh that turned into a slight cough of pain. “All I’ve been wanting...for a long time,” he whispered, “was to have you near me…” He closed his eyes and smiled. “Took kind of a lot to get it.”Sally did not answer; something held at her throat so she could not.
She looked up at the candlelight moving against the undersides of the old floorboards, hauntingly the same as years ago, yet the pattern of the wood unfamiliar from the years of moldering that had passed between. How much less painful life had been in those days when the battles they fought, and the wars from which they had taken shelter in the old smokehouse, were only the harmless wars of their own imagining.
To be continued...