It was sundown by the time John Quinton made it to the humble house in the small clearing—the familiar tulip poplar tree still languished over his childhood bedroom window, except the branches that he used to gaze at from his position at the sill were now grown long. It took a week just to drive the half-sodden horses through Tennessee and three days later, they were trudging through the waterlogged city of Lexington, Kentucky, where he had been born and raised on a farm. His green eyes opened briefly from the seat in the stagecoach to peer out the small window above his head. John smiled at the sight of the memorable log cabin, with nothing less than a crowd excitedly waiting for him to arrive.
John's vision began to spin, so he laid his head back down on the makeshift pillow on the tops of his hands. He was sprawled out on the seat with his knees pulled in, close to the bullet wound healing in his side.
The driver stopped the coach and John's companion in the stage with him, a retired Colonel, Geoffrey Pemberton, lifted the wounded war veteran's loosely wrapped bandage and examined the injury. He winced, and then patted John softly on the shoulder, knowing that it was unlikely the two would ever meet again. He uttered tidings of goodwill to the young man, praying that he would avoid infection, as he had seen enough young soldiers lose a limb or even their lives due to gangrene.
The Union army had figured the twenty-five-year-old First Lieutenant of the 10th Infantry Regiment would not make it another day, so they hastened the honorable discharge and sent him on home to his family, feeling that the appointed hero had served his country accordingly and must then die in peace, not in an infirmary tent surrounded by those with similar fates. John's brothers, Stephen and Kenneth Junior, or rather Kenny for short, had already been killed in battle almost a year prior. The president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had sent an urgent and classified letter deeming the young First Lieutenant Quinton to be whisked from the perils of war so that his mother and father need not suffer any more deaths in their family. He was quickly sent on his way shortly after being told he would likely die soon.
But here he was, nearly two weeks later, still thriving to stay alive, and the ghost of a grin gracing his lips at the welcome sight of his parents and relatives waiting elatedly beside the cabin, hands pressed together and handkerchiefs dabbing at faces. The group of people remained at the side of the small house until the equestrian let a pierce 'Whoa!' emit from his weathered lips and the stagecoach came to a slow stop. The carriage jostled and bounced with the moving weight of the driver, and soon the door was opened, where the gray sky met John's equally as pallor face.
Pemberton smiled over at the First Lieutenant and the man gently shook his hand. "Godspeed, Quinton."
John nodded his head, and at the same time heard the approaching footsteps and voices. He wondered for a moment just what he would see when he climbed out of the small enclosure. The war had erupted several years prior and had been at a boiling point in the Kentucky lands that they had inhabited all their lives. One portion of the city had sided with the Confederacy and touted many black slaves, and the other portion was fiercely against it. His family in particular had been one that would have preferred to remain impartial to avoid any kind of retaliation, although quietly supported the Union. That is, until the depravity had trickled into their neighborhoods, churches, and streets. John and his older brothers had taken a stand, vowing to protect the Union with their lives despite their mother and father's determined pleadings that he avoid such an unwinnable war. The trio of Quinton boys had declared that they knew what was best and would not stand for a cause against humanity. How naïve he had been then. The war had changed him—took him to a dark place. But the war had changed the entire country, so he tried to remove himself from any thought of that.
John could recall the disapproval in his parent's features as the twenty-one-year-old kid with barely a hint of stubble and gangly arms and legs proclaimed his dedication to fight men and boys he had played with in the church and schoolyard. He remembered the dirt-stained faces of his young cousins Christopher and Junior Meyer; the former had been fifteen and was slight and fair-haired with a weak heart, and the latter just a boy at the age of nine. They would be four years older now. The kids he had looked at so long ago as annoying little runts would be bigger, Christopher would be a man.
His younger cousins had been born and raised on the same property as John had—his Aunt Katherine and Uncle Irvin had made a home near the Quinton cabin about one hundred yards in the back. The wobbly wooden structure stood just before their small garden and had been altered by his father and uncle to accommodate to the family, despite the fact that the house's original purpose had been as a barn. John's father Kenneth had insisted that his baby sister move to the property so that his only living sibling would always be close. This was especially important when John's grandfather, Keith Quinton had died and had left the two as adult orphans. John found that he rather liked having the Meyers so close; he and Chris had spent their childhood often hunting and fishing together. He remembered many occasions in which he and his older brothers had instructed the younger man the correct way to hold a rifle, how to play games like mumblety-peg and cards, and how to throw a suitable punch.
John's thoughts trailed off to his older brothers just before the coachman swooped down to help him out. The cabin would be quiet now and unusually vacant without the loud clamoring of Kenny and Stephen's laughter, raucous jousting, and larger than life presence that John had admired as a child. Kenny had been an entire decade older and Stephen had been born a short year and a half afterward, so John had often found himself envious of their closeness and desiring of the maturity they had endured far earlier than he had. This could have likely explained his impulsive decision to follow the two off to war. He only hoped that being the last Quinton boy would be sufficient for his bereaving parents.
Finally, a weathered, bony hand took hold of his shoulder and practically hauled the First Lieutenant upright. All at once, the young man's vision swam just as his eyes embraced the familiar jade ones of his mother's. Her face almost seemed unfamiliar to him, as she had gained a considerable amount of age since he had last seen her. Lines now creased her delicate features, and the agony of grief and war had worn the unconquerable youth right out of her face.
"Ma," he said in a voice stilted with emotion, and then was pulled into a tentative hug. Her mouth pressed against the damp skin of his forehead firmly.
Her breath shook as she responded. "My boy. My boy is home, praise Jesus!" The smile that stretched across her lips appeared almost strained, but she moved out of the way and soon John was surrounded by people, both strange, yet recognizable at the same time.
His father stood tall and haggard next to his mother, squeezing first John's hand, then wrapping his arm around his mother Barbara, who was busily wiping at the joyous tears. Little Junior, who was now at least half a foot taller than he was four years ago, let an instantly familiar lop-sided grin clinch his cheeks. He also took John's hand, and then stepped closer to his parents, who wore looks similar to his own. Finally, out of the crowd stepped Christopher. The younger man had definitely grown up as John had expected, but he had not anticipated his cousin to gain so much of a wiry musculature. Chris had been raised to believe he was one short step away from his deathbed and had always seemed meek and sickly. His current appearance demonstrated how unfounded those fears had been.
"Johnny!" Chris said in a jovial tenor. "We're so glad you're home." His blue yes grew serious and he leaned in to speak in a quiet tone. "You need help gettin' inside?"
John wasn't entirely sure he could trust his legs, so he nodded once and was immediately flanked by the younger man. Feet went to the ground experimentally before John slid completely from the carriage and the muscles and skin protested the slight movement, but he shoved the pain away by holding his breath. He turned slowly, facing Pemberton, who had seen to him the entire ride to Lexington. "Thank you, sir," he said softly, saluting the Colonel, and then waved at the driver and coachman. "Good-bye, gentlemen."
Chris attempted to move toward the waiting quarters, with the door already open and the inviting comforts of home waiting, but John halted. He watched silently as the stagecoach was in motion once more and the slow-moving little horse-drawn carriage had cleared the crest of the hill that hid the Quinton farm from the rest of the city.
"All right," John said, throat hoarse. "Let's head in." His side had erupted into a maddening kind of throbbing, so he shuffled his body down the cobbled path leading to the doorway with the help of his cousin.
A smell wafted through the air that instantly ravaged his stomach—he'd been trying to live off of salt pork and hard biscuits for four solid years—his mother and aunt must have decided to prepare his favorite foods. The enticing scent of chicken, corn on the cob, and hoecake sent water flooding into his mouth.
"Oh, lord a'mighty," he mumbled. "I ain't had a good chicken dinner in four years. I'm nigh starvin'."
Chris chuckled in an easy way. "You look it. Nothin' but skin and bones."
"The army has a tendency to wear a feller down to the basics," John answered, then sighed as the two entered the house and the warm sensation of familiarity washed over his tired form, and he finally felt relaxed. He turned toward Chris and clapped his back lightly. "Look at you, now! Not a kid anymore, that's for certain. When'd you start growin' up? You was barely five foot tall when I last seen you."
Chris smiled cheekily, standing at his fullest height, which did not quite meet six feet. "Ma swears I grow a inch ever' month." Chris helped John over to their Grandmother Nettie's old rocking chair and eased him into it carefully. "'Sides," he continued. "It's been a long time."
"It'll definitely take some gettin' used to," John said, rocking gently in the rickety chair. He listened to the soothing creak of well-worn wood that had been the subject of many a night of attempts to fix it by his father, to no avail. "How you feelin', Chris?"
"A sight better'n you, at the moment," he said humorously. The boy had always had a cheery nature, and John figured Chris would have needed to be cheerful, thinking that his last days were always near. Ever day he lived, according to his physician and mother, was a miracle. "I ain't had a spell in three and a half years now."
The spells that Chris indicated were moments that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and the young man would stoop over and clutch his chest, suddenly winded and lightheaded. Rigorous work was strictly forbidden, however, keeping Chris inside had proven difficult for Aunt Katherine.
"That so?" John asked, feeling relieved. "I s'pose your ma won't have anything to fret over now. She sure enjoyed dotin' on you."
Chris flushed, embarrassed. "Well, I can thank my lucky stars about that." He stood suddenly, and John was again thrown aback by how tall this young man seemed. "You want me to check on supper? It smells about ready."
John nodded. "Thank you, Chris."
As he watched the lithe form meander away to the back of the small house where the lean to kitchen was located, he could not help but think that Christopher resembled his older brothers with the way his shoulders were set. He allowed himself to turn toward the fire, but his mind was back at the army barracks, and he was reminded of the last time he had seen the two men alive. Kenny and Stephen had aged considerably since they had left home. Kenny had barely approached his thirty-third year, but he had grown a full, dark beard and his brown hair, which appeared almost black in candle light, had begun to develop strands of gray. He could have easily passed as their father back in Lexington in such a manner. Stephen had also grown a beard, but he had looked as though he had not eaten in years. His face had taken on a gaunt, sunken dreariness, and the green eyes that had sparkled so easily in his boyhood had become dull.
They had both been ordered to attend the Battle of Fort Pillow in the middle of April of '64, as the 13th Tennessee Cavalry and the 11th U.S. Colored Troops were in desperate need of assistance, but John had been forced to stay behind due to a debilitating toothache.
The fire cracked and popped as it danced before his haunted eyes, but he did not jump or seem to notice. His mind was filled with images of the stiff, uniformed shapes of his brothers as they rode out with their men—a sea of Union blue—toward what would become a bloody assault on the Union troops, 231 killed alone. All he had done was grasp the hands of Kenny and Stephen from his meager, grimy tent, grimace and think of downing a bottle of whiskey and pass out to forget about his ailments.
He had not thought it would be the last time he would ever see them.
"Johnny?" came a low voice. He was snapped from his reverie and lifted the corners of his lips, noticing Chris' kind smile and the large porcelain plate of supper before him.
John's stomach twinged slightly with the thought of eating such a hefty portion, but he accepted it and regarded his cousin, who took a seat on a stool at the opposite side of the fire. "Thanks."
"Welcome," Chris said, shoving a hearty piece of hoecake into his mouth.
The First Lieutenant picked up his hoecake, which was buttery and thick, and bit into the warm, soft bread, and just the taste of food sent a ravenous need into the pits of his empty stomach. He closed his eyes appreciatively, making a low sigh of contentment.
Chris' blue eyes twinkled. "Good, ain't it?"
John chuckled for the first time in what seemed like ages. "Lord, yes."