It was a warm spring afternoon, but storm clouds were coming in from the south and the breeze blowing in from the ocean little more than twenty miles to the east had a cruel bite to it. The young man on the grassy hill felt the chill through his thin coat, but still he stood, looking away from the little band of sheep milling around in the shade of the old beech-tree on the hillside, their bells clanging and clanking. Their sheep-ly sounds escaped him, however; there was a great, moving mass of men in the field below. The whirring of drums and indistinct shouts were carried by the wind, and they seemed to swirl 'round him, engulfing him until he could see only the marching columns of men in muslin shirts and floppy hats and the strutting officers circling with their sabers drawn; could hear only bellowed commands and the low rumble of the resting men in the white, ordered tents nearby. The young man watched in awe with his little red mouth open in wonder and his strong, straight shoulders wishing to trade the trembling little lamb they were supporting for a long, heavy rifle; wished to take off his homespun shirt and put on a woolen coat with those shiny brass buttons instead.
"Johnny! O! Johnny!" A woman's voice invaded his masculine thoughts, and the farm boy spun around to see his tiny fat mother waving her apron at him from the porch. "Don't jus' stand there, you little fool, bring those sheep in afore it rains! Quickly-like, Henry's waiting."
Johnny—for it was his name—looked one last time at the drilling soldiers in the pasture before taking up his staff and whistling for the spotted mongrel to help herd the sheep. A door slammed then, and out ran little Louisa, who was fourteen and no longer little but still the youngest of Johnny's five siblings, her skirts flying up to show little leather boots pattering up the hill. "Johnny—Johnny—!"
He turned to her and saw only her red-rimmed eyes before she flung herself into his arms, sobbing miserably and clutching him tightly. "Louisa, what—?"
"Oh, God Almighty, I know Henry's going to do it, Johnny, I know it!" Her voice broke and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"Help me bring the sheep in, and dry your tears," he said, trying desperately to comfort her but without much success. "What is Henry going to do?"
Louisa flung her little braids over her thin shoulders and waved her arms at the stragglers as the sheep bleated their way into the barn. "He's going to do what he threatened. He's—he's—he's going to enlist."
"Enlist with who?" Johnny felt relative confidence in Louisa's answer.
"Yankees, Johnny. And Edward and Tom and Nathaniel are saying the same thing."
Johnny's face changed so swiftly Louisa felt a slight stirring of fear in her heart. A shadow had descended on her brother's face, a shadow that darkened his fair complexion and hid his twinkling eyes. It was almost as if a shroud had dropped between them.
"Close the door behind you," he said, and strode purposefully out of the barn. Louisa hastily closed the sheep in their pen and latched the door; the rain was beginning in earnest now, and she splashed back into the dilapidated house where a storm of her own was brewing.
Like a good girl, she went to tie an apron around her waist and clatter about in the kitchen, but then, like a report of thunder, masculine voices erupted in angry shouts from behind the kitchen door. Her mother, a bawling fishwife of a woman herself, made a loud racket with pots and pans to try and mask the argument, but quickly gave up and wrapped Louisa in her floury arms. Together they huddled, scarcely daring to breathe, while the following heated debate, one that had rattled the windowpanes in that house before, took place in the drawing-room:
"…Jonathon, I will not stand to have that secessionist talk in my household."
"Well, Pa, when the Confederate States of America wins this war, you'll be humming another tune, mark my words."
"Aw, shut up, Johnny, you're fooling yourself! Everyone knows them Rebs are ten percent dandies and ninety percent niggers."
"You shut your mouth, Nathaniel. The United States won't last one battle what with that old man Lincoln at its helm!"
"Jonathon Alexander, one more word against Mr. Lincoln and I'll take a willow branch to you. I did when you were young and I will now."
"Do it anyway, Pa, teach him a lesson. His head is so full of that secessionist garbage he can't think straight."
"It is not garbage!" A sickening thud marked eighteen-year-old Henry's reception of a well-aimed punch. A wordless, primordial bellow then issued forth from the drawing room, and Louisa and her mother dashed forward to open the door. What met their eyes made them gasp in unison.
Johnny, his freckled face red and wrathful, lay on the floor writhing and struggling against his four brothers and aging father. "Secessionism is a dangerous theory," Louisa's father was saying gravely, "and nothing but blood will be spilt on its account. My sons do not commit treason against this country. If you continue on this path…then you are no son of mine."
Johnny ceased all movement at this pronouncement, but there was a blackness in his face that reviled Louisa. With a hatred that she had never seen before, he pinched up his mouth and spat at his father's feet. "Then I am now a stranger in this house."
Louisa's throat clenched, and she cried out, "Pa, don't let him!"
But her father drew himself up, and the darkness shadowing his features nearly matched Johnny's. "Get your things and leave my house. I shall die before I let you set foot in my doorway again."
Louisa's other four brothers let Johnny go with shock and horror on their young faces. Johnny leapt to his feet and left the room with hardly a second glance backwards. A heavy silence followed, and Edward, the youngest at fifteen, began to sniffle. Louisa felt her stomach heave, but she forced herself to remain calm.
"Henry…will you still enlist?" she asked after a moment.
Henry's handsome features hardened. "Yes, Louisa. I am quite determined now."
"I hope you fight, son," said their mother, "and I hope you kill enough Rebs to redeem your brother of his blasphemy."
"That is impossible," shot their father, and he went into the kitchen.
Edward, Tom, and Nathaniel turned their adoring eyes to Henry. "Henry, I'm enlisting with you," said Nathaniel. "Mother, I have to."
"And I," chorused Tom.
"And so do I," Edward said, lifting his stubborn chin.
"I cannot stop you! I cannot!" their mother cried, and put her apron against her eyes and hurried into the kitchen after their father.
Louisa clattered up the stairs, panting, to find Johnny in his room, tossing shirts and a pair of shoes into a canvas bag. She hovered in the doorway for a moment, fearfulness gripping her stomach with a sudden icy chill.
"I am going south, Louisa," he said without turning around. "To Virginia."
"Have you planned it already, then?" she whispered.
He gave a sharp nod. "Yes. I've pondered this since South Carolina seceded. I intend to enlist there."
Louisa felt her knees begin to tremble. "You will fight…against your own brothers?"
At this, Johnny turned sharply. "They are brothers of mine no longer, if you believe your father!"
She flinched at his hateful tone, and his shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry, Louisa," he sighed. "I really am! But…I'm nineteen years old and have never done a thing for myself. I had to separate my brain from Pa's…I just wish it didn't have to be today."
Louisa's heart gave a sharp contraction, and she took his hand.
"But they will see, someday, how wrong they are. When the C.S. is an autonomous state, they will be sorry!"
Louisa had to step away.
Johnny tied up the bag and slung it over his shoulder, and they looked in silence at each other for a long moment. Then he gave a heavy sigh. "Goodbye, Louisa. You were always a precious soul. Will you pray for me, even after what I've done?"
Louisa flung her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "Oh, Johnny, I shall. Every waking moment!"
"Goodbye, then," he said again, and together they went down the stairs, and he went off into the rain, and turned away down the lane. Louisa watched him go, and continued to watch long after he had passed from her sight.
Louisa would bid four more tearful farewells, but these were to her brothers in blue. They each hugged her and kissed her forehead before they left, but she did not watch for their blurry shapes to pass over the northern horizon; nor did she spit at the passing columns of grey-clad young men when they tramped past the little homestead, as her parents did, and run gleefully out to troops in blue, looking and hoping. Instead, she would lean over the fence when the butternuts passed by, searching each passing face with hope that did not flag until the last cloud of dust had passed, and turning sadly away as her heart closed up her love and put it aside again.
That summer, cannons and ambulances clattered past, and corpses littered the northernmost end of Louisa's pasture. Her mother gave her water to dribble down their dying throats, with express warning to let the Rebels die in the dirt like dogs, but she gave it to them anyway, and prayed fervently over the young ones that looked like her Johnny, hoping that some Southern woman would do the same for him if—God forbid it—he lay dying in her pasture.
Word came later that week that Edward, the poor dear, had been caught in the frenzy farther north, only a mile or so from home, trying to save the Yankee banner from a Rebel artillery. Louisa's mother took to her bed, and Louisa cried bitterly for a while over the thought of her dear dead brother, but then life needed to be gone on with, and so it did.
The next month, news came to their town of Tom's death, him being killed defending the Union cause in the west. Louisa was too numb to take much notice, but she shed wretched tears when they sent him back from Missouri and the narrow casket was lowered into the very dirt he had farmed. A wooden cross with his initials and the dates 1845-1861 was all that adorned that lonesome grave under the beech-tree, raised alongside that of the youngest son.
The new year came and went, and with the advent of spring, Nathaniel and Henry returned from the orchards of Tennessee to sleep beside their brothers on the grassy hill, lain together in death as they had died in battle. It seemed a windier season than Louisa remembered, and the chill breezes sighed through the grass and tugged at her skirts as she stood at the four derisory headstones, sounding so plaintively human that she would spin around and call their beloved names, in the hopes that one—just one!—would hear her and come running.
And so spring grew into summer, and the bluecoats came marching up from the south. Louisa watched fearfully from upper rooms as cannons and caissons were wheeled past their little house once again, and her spindly knees knocked together when she heard the early-morning sounds of tramping feet and coughing soldiers. One afternoon, she saw the familiar blur of Rebel uniforms approaching the house, and her mother bawled for her to come inside, but she disobeyed and looked desperately for the Rebel with the broad shoulders and freckled face. But these Rebels were scruffy and thin, with dark beards and stained coats. A wrench of disappointment made Louisa's eyes tear, but she forced herself to turn away and run inside, to the crush of her mother's thick arms and her father's heartbroken face.
That month, a hot and sunny morning was disrupted by the distant thunder of cannonade, and the sharp popping of rifles made the windowpanes clatter in the parlor. Louisa huddled in the cellar as the shrill screams of dying men and the sickening sounds of fighting echoed from outside. A bullet punched a hole in an upstairs wall, and there was a shriek and a heavy thud as a man fell onto and bled out on the cellar doors.
Hours passed until the fighting ceased, and Louisa emerged from the cellar to find her little house all but a cemetery. The wind was back, hushing between corpses and gasping men, stroking their hair and stirring a pant leg here and there, giving the impression of movement. The stench of death was all around her.
"Louisa, come here and water the poor Yanks," called her mother from the porch, a jug and ladle in her hands. Louisa was then obliged to go between the carcasses, shaking shoulders and calling greetings to see who was still alive. The Yankees took her offerings gratefully, but once Louisa was sure her mother wasn't looking, she went to the dying Rebels with tenderer hands than had ministered to her comrades. As she approached one mortally wounded lad, he stirred, and the water jug fell from her hands and smashed on the ground. It was the Rebel she had longed to see for the year past, stretched out along the fences he constructed, his head down and pillowed on grass he had rolled in as a boy, his heart bleeding out into the dirt his brothers slept in.
"Johnny! Oh, Johnny!"
At the sound of his name, Johnny looked up, and his eyes filled with tears. A trembling, bloodstained hand reached up and hid them from Louisa, but her Rebel's mouth quivered, and then her heart broke. "Oh, Johnny, darling. What have you done?" So saying, she dropped to her knees and shaded his face from the hot August sun, letting it beat down upon her back instead.
"Hello, Louisa," he said, shifting onto his side with a grimace. His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat several times. "How is the old home?"
Louisa took his hands, noting the dirt and blood but caring not, and replied, "We get on all right."
"And have your parents filled your head with Yankee ideas yet?"
Louisa's heart clenched at the way he referred to their mother and father. "No, Johnny. But I am not a Rebel, either."
"Good, good," he said quietly, squeezing her fingers. A moment passed, and then he said, "How are Henry and Nathaniel doing? Edward? Tom?"
Louisa looked away, blinking hard, the light wind taking her hair and loosening it from the pins that held it to her head. "We buried them there, under the beech-tree."
Johnny's face whitened beneath the dirt and blood, and he covered his eyes with one hand. "Oh, God. Say it isn't so."
"Edward was killed at Bull Run last June. And Tom in August, at Wilson's Creek. Nathaniel and Henry were killed at Shiloh—Tennessee," Louisa answered, her eyes stinging in turn.
Johnny was silent for a long time, and when he spoke, his voice was faint. "Bury me next to them, Louisa? Won't you, someday?"
Louisa pressed his hands to her cheek. "Yes, Johnny."
"Say," he went on, "could you spare a cup of water for me? My throat is parched."
Louisa leapt up. "Of course! Please—let me go and fetch some. Wait for me!" She dashed into the house and took a cup from her mother, who looked on in confusion. A quick dip of the cup into the well bucket and she was dashing back again.
Johnny was sprawled awkwardly on his back when she returned to his side. Glistening red blood stained his fine grey coat, turning brown at the edges, and though Louisa could not see its source, she saw the bits of flesh and bone flecking his chest. "Oh, Johnny!" she cried. "Look at you—you're hurt."
"Not badly," he said, valiantly. "Just sit by me for a spell, and I'll feel better."
Louisa sat in the bloody grass next to him and helped him drink his water. But the ashen tinge to his features remained, giving Louisa a sick, foreboding feeling in the pit of her stomach. She kissed his cheek and found the skin cool against her lips. "Johnny…let me bring Mother out to help you. You are wounded."
"I shall let you do no such thing, Louisa," Johnny said passionately, grimacing terribly with the pain it caused. "I would rather die than let your parents see me bleeding in a Rebel suit."
"Johnny, can't we put this behind us?" Louisa answered with equal emotion. "Mother and Father have buried their four sons…let them see their fifth, even just once! Let Father say the Our Fathers, or the Hail Marys, just like he used to. Let them tell you they love you. We do, Johnny, we do!" Tears sprung anew, and she put her head on his breast, weeping like a child.
Johnny put a hand on her hair. "There, there, Louisa," he said, his voice quiet. "Dry your tears. It is not that I do not wish to see my father again, it is…I do not think I could bear to have him refuse to see me."
Louisa sat up, her heart breaking but knowing he was right.
Johnny watched her kindly. "You've grown since last I saw you, you know. You're taller."
"I wore hoops once, before things got scarce," she replied, unable to keep the pride out of her voice.
"I had always hoped I would be there when you had your first dance," he said, "just to make sure the boy treated you nice."
"Come home, and when the war is over you can!" Louisa exclaimed.
Johnny shook his head slowly. "You don't understand, Louisa. I can never come home again…"
"Don't say that," Louisa warned. "Someday, Father and Mother will see their errors and forgive you!"
Johnny bit his lip and didn't reply. Instead, he closed his eyes and sighed heavily. "Pray for me, won't you? Now?"
"I will pray with you, Johnny," she replied. "Recite the Our Father with me."
He took her hands, and together, they whispered, "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."
Johnny smiled, though he did not open his eyes. "Louisa...?"
"If you like, you may run and fetch our parents."
Her heart leapt with joy. "Oh, Johnny!" She made to stand up, but Johnny opened his eyes and caught her hand.
"Louisa, you will bury me with our brothers when it is my time?"
"Yes, Johnny, darling. Of course."
"Kiss me before you go, dear Louisa," he said, tugging at her hand.
She bent and kissed his cheek twice. "Oh, Johnny, my heart is glad to know you will be home again soon!"
He smiled softly. "I will indeed, Louisa, and I am glad for it. Give them my love, won't you? And Louisa…tell them I'm sorry. So very sorry."
Louisa nodded wholeheartedly, and ran happily into the house. "Father! Mother!"
Her mother came out of the kitchen, hastily tucking a handkerchief into her apron. "What is all the fuss about?"
"Oh, Mother, Mother!" Louisa cried, tears of joy springing to her eyes. "Johnny! Johnny has come home! He has returned!"
"What is this about Jonathon?" her mother said, trying to sound calm, but her voice breaking on the upward swing.
"He is hurt in the yard, but he wants you to come out and see him," Louisa said, catching her mother by the arms and giving a little skip.
Her mother's whole face lit up. But then the light dimmed again, and she said grimly, "He is not to set foot in this house, Louisa."
"Oh, Mother, don't say that! He has repented," Louisa exclaimed. "Please, go out and see to him. He lies wounded in your yard!"
"Louisa, do not try my patience!" her mother cried. "Go, leave me be!"
Louisa bit her lip, but scurried from the room, her hope dampened but still very much determined. "Father. Father!" She pounded on his door once before opening it and bursting inside. "Father, Johnny is home! Go to him, please!"
He put his book down and gazed at her with watery blue eyes. "What are you going on about, Louisa?"
Louisa took a deep breath and sighed. "Johnny was hurt during the fighting, Father. He is bleeding outside in your yard. He sends you his love and his sincerest apologies. Go to him!"
Her father put the book back up. "Go back outside and tend to those soldiers. Do not bother me with your nonsense."
Something snapped in Louisa's heart. "Father, your only son is begging your forgiveness while he lies wounded in the hot sun. Yet still you refuse! Do the Scriptures not say, 'And why dost thou not pardon my transgression, and take away my iniquity? for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be'? Do they not say, 'And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses'? Please, Father!"
"Do the Scriptures not say, 'Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee'?" her father shot back.
Louisa stomped her foot. "Father, please! Please!"
Her father pinched his lips and remained silent. Louisa's heart sank. But then, slowly, he shut his book and locked it away in a drawer. "Very well, Louisa. Bring me to him."
Louisa's heart sang, and she skipped into the kitchen. "Father is going to see him, Mother."
Her mother tossed her scrubbing brush into the bucket and got up faster than Louisa had ever seen her move. "Bring me to him, Louisa!"
They waited with itching impatience for Louisa's father to come out of his study, and then Louisa led them quickly outside. She hardly noticed the bloating bodies piled at her feet, so focused she was on the sprawling figure by the fence. "Johnny! Johnny! I've brought them!"
But Johnny didn't answer.
Something heavy settled in the pit of Louisa's stomach, and her hurrying feet slowed. "Johnny, I've brought Mother and Father…"
There was something peculiar about the way Johnny was lying. His arms looked strange, and the wind tousled his fair hair in an unsettling way. Louisa heard her mother gasp and say, "Oh, God. Oh, God, no."
Louisa stumbled forward, her eyes blurring up with tears. His freckled face was pale and still; his mouth was open just a little bit. It was true—he was dead. Her Johnny had gone home after all!