The year doesn't matter; at least, it doesn't anymore. In fact, I'd rather not remember it at all.
You don't need to know much about me. My name is Catherine Whitaker; middle name's Elizabeth. The first thing you should know is that I hate my name. It sounds like one of them high society gals. Catherine. I tried to get people to call me Caty when I was younger. Good Lord, did my momma have a fit. Said it was horrible to ruin a good name like that.
Well, my momma's gone now, my daddy too; and my brother; and my sisters. Gone.
My momma died when I was eleven. She had consumption. She was so thin when she died; that bed just about swallowed her. She coughed up blood before she passed too. I have never forgotten that horrible sight. She lay there like a ghost, with a red patch on the covers all around her neck…then she was dead.
We sang Jesus Lead Thou On at the funeral. It was her favorite song. It was mine too, but I couldn't bring myself to singing after that
The rest happened too fast.
I was fifteen when the war started. At the time, I couldn't begin to imagine how God in His love and mercy could ever have condoned such a thing. So many died. There was corruption. Men killed over a sack of flour or a chunk of meat. I know of men who killed their brothers, and fathers who killed their sons. My friend Daniel Martin was shot because he deserted: and he had wanted so badly to go in the first place.
Then the fire came. It was an enemy raid. They torched the entire town and killed anyone who got in their way. My family got in the way. I don't recall most of it. I was running.
When I stopped, I was alone. I didn't know it then, but I really was alone. I had no one to go back to.
That's where the story begins...
It was cold as I made my way down the side of the riverbank. It was a steep hill, and the dead leaves from the birches made the trip all the more precarious. It had been about three days since the raid. I hadn't dared to go back to the village. What little food I had been able to grab from the house before running was nearly gone. I needed to find something; a farm, another village. But I was scared to travel on the roads, and there weren't any farms nearby that hadn't already been attacked.
The water was cold at least. I filled my empty canteen and washed my face and hands. Before me, there was a small plain and then a rocky bluff with a view of the foot hills. They rolled in endless droves of blue and green, misty in the morning light. It was beautiful country out here. Why did war have to ruin it?
"You lost, missy?"
I was on my feet in an instant, clutching the large stick I had been hiking with. A man was making his way down the hill. He was an older individual, husky set with a small graying beard and deep wrinkles. His overcoat was patched, and he carried a pack and a walking stick. He didn't seem threatening, but I didn't take any chances.
"Don't you come any closer, you hear me?" I snapped, brandishing the stick. The man wasn't threatened. He continued down the ravine, watching his footing on the leaves.
"Calm yerself now, miss, I don't mean no harm to ya. I'm just an old man tryin' to get down a hill." He stopped at the bank of the stream and leaned on his walking stick.
"So, are ya lost?"
"Not many girls go this far into the wilderness by themselves. You runnin' away?"
"No, I ain't."
"Well, you certainly ain't out for a Sunday stroll, now, are you?"
"No, I'm-" there was suddenly another cracking of leaves. I spun around. Another man was coming down the hill. He was younger than the first man, with brown hair that touched his shoulders. The first man spoke.
"Don't get yerself all agitated, miss. He don't mean no more harm than me, do ya, Jude?"
The younger man, Jude, was quiet. He paused at the sight of me glaring at him and waited.
"You just stay right there." I said, trying to keep the quaver from my voice. I turned to look back at the first man.
"What's your name?"
He tipped his hat. "Elijah V. Holbrook, missy. V's for Vincent if you wanted to know. My friend there is Jude Downey."
I looked back at Jude. The man was leaning against a birch tree now. He looked like most other men I had seen: tall, slightly rugged, strong. I guess you could have called him handsome. He nodded and tipped his hat as well.
"And what's your name, little lady?"
I turned back to Elijah. "Catherine."
"I hate my name," I said suddenly. "Makes me sound like one'a those prissy society ladies."
Elijah looked me up and down. Then he started laughing.
"Well, you sure don't look like no high society lady."
I glared at him, surprisingly hurt by his words. I couldn't help it that I was a mess. I had been on the run for three days. Elijah saw my look and stopped laughing.
"Calm down now, it was a compliment."
My glare stayed. What a sight I must have been, standing there with my stick, gritting my teeth and snarling at him. Elijah started to laugh again.
"She looks more like a wildcat, don't she, Jude?"
The other man was silent, but he smiled faintly.
Just then, Elijah spoke. "Now, look here, missy. We don't wanna hurt you none. We're just travelers, same as you. I reckon you're from that village they torched a few days back. "
I relaxed slightly as I remembered my family, their bodies strewn on the path. I lowered my eyes. When I looked up, Elijah had walked over. He gazed at me seriously.
"You won't last long out here alone, missy. I know that fer a fact. Now get your pack an' come on," he turned and began to walk along the stream. "An' put that stick down; you look like a wild injun."
I didn't want to trust them. I guess it had just become a habit of mine, not trusting people. I blamed the war for that. You could never tell what a person was thinking. Ever. Only God could tell that now. However, despite my suspicions, Elijah was true to his word. He even respected the fact that I hated my name and had taken to calling me Cat.
Elijah and Jude. Those were Bible names. I never once recalled a Catherine in the Bible, but that was fine. I reckon I would have had to like my name if it was in the Bible. Leastways, that's what my momma would have said.
"Catherine Elizabeth Whitaker, you respect that name, it's from the Word of the Good Lord himself."
She had me with Elizabeth though. I knew her name. She was the wife of that one priest who lost his voice till his baby was born because he didn't believe the angel. Then his son baptized Jesus and ended up getting his head cut off because he told off a king for sleeping with his brother's wife. If you ask me, the king deserved it.
I didn't mind the name Elizabeth. Momma should have named me that. Then I might not have been so much trouble about it.
Elijah and Jude weren't bad company. Elijah did most of the talking and decision- making. Jude sort of went along with whatever he said. I actually liked Jude better. He was a man of few words, but he was just as competent without them. When he did talk, his voice was calm and quiet.
Elijah was a wandering man. He had no family to speak of, and no home save the one he made for himself. He was doing the same thing I was: Trying to get away from the war. He and Jude were on their way to a farm that belonged to an old friend of his. His hope was that they'd find at least a small bit of good welcome there.
Jude's life was more complicated. He was a carpenter by trade who'd never had a family. He didn't care much for the war either, but a man can only say no so many times before he's taken for a coward. He'd packed up and left town to get away. Elijah met him on the road a few months back and they'd been walking together ever since
I didn't feel like telling them about my life. They already knew why I was on my own; I didn't see the point in reliving the details.
And so we travelled.
We stayed away from towns unless absolutely necessary, choosing to visit farms. Not all of the people were friendly, but we never stole anything or threatened anyone. And there was always the question of directions to our destination. Finally, after nearly a fortnight, we were close. However, the news we'd received from a neighboring farm wasn't good. There had been several raids by soldiers of our own army. They were supposed to be on the lookout for deserters, but that didn't stop them from taking what they wanted from the people they searched. They warned us to be careful how we traveled and to keep ourselves on guard at all times. It was then that Elijah decided I would be safer with some new clothes.
We were camped in a small clearing in the woods. It was full of boulders and the ground was mostly soil. A large tree had fallen across one side sometime back. The grizzled man had returned with an arm load of firewood. He dropped it next to the ring of stones I had made, where Jude was coaxing a small flame from a pile of tinder.
"We'll reach the farm tomorrow," he said. He looked at me. "You need something to replace that dress and those shoes."
I looked down at myself. He was right. My dress had worn thin at the elbows and the hem was in tatters. There were also small rips from my snagging it on trees or rocks, not to mention, it was filthy. My shoes were in worse shape.
"Might be a good idea ta get you a set a boys clothes," Elijah said.
I looked up at him. "Why?"
"Not all the men out here are kind, Cat, especially nowadays. You'd be safer not lookin' so…womanly."
I stared at him for a moment, not quite sure how to respond to such a comment. I wasn't that 'womanly,' was I? I glanced at Jude. He met my eyes for a moment and quickly looked away. I hadn't expected that.
Elijah was rummaging through his pack. "I'm goin' on ahead. Make sure it's still there. You got yer gun, don't ya, Jude?"
The man nodded.
"Good. If they're there, I'll prob'ly stay the night. I'll be back by mornin' though. If I don't come back in the mornin', come on after me, but be careful if ya do. An' if I'm dead, well, then the two a ya's clear out an' find yerself some work. There oughta be plenty for a carpenter with all these raids."
I stared at that man as he went rambling on. When he finally stopped, he noticed my looking and shrugged.
"Now, I'm prayin' none a that has to happen. I'm just settin' out some Maybes." He shouldered the pack and took up his walking stick. "Wish me luck, now."
With that, Elijah was gone. Jude and I sat by the fire for a long time, me watching the trees because I couldn't think of anything to say, and him staring at the fire because he didn't have anything to say. It was a nice system we had, Jude and me.
Finally, he went to get more firewood. I rummaged through our packs, attempting to make some sort of supper from the food supplies. There wasn't much. We'd gotten some cornbread and vegetables from the last farm we'd stopped at. The farmer's wife, Rebecca, had given me three jars of canned goods as well: blackberry and rhubarb preserves, and some pickles. She'd been a kind woman. Gave me a pair of stockings too, and tried to patch some of the rips in my dress.
Rebecca and Caleb (that was the farmer's name) had two boys named Malachi and Jedadiah. They were twins a little older than me. Rebecca showed me their pictures on the mantel. They had gone off to war as giddy as schoolboys. Rebecca hadn't heard from or seen them since.
"You keep your wits about you, girl," she said to me as we left. "This whole country's gone to hell." Truer words had never been spoken.
The bread was coarse. I cut a slice and skewered it on a stick to toast it over the fire, and then spread it with blackberry preserves. It was delicious. I tried to eat without dripping all over my fingers, something easier said than done.
Then I heard the gunshot.
I sprang up like a jackrabbit, dropping the rest of my supper on the ground. It was so silent I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. I walked to the edge of the clearing.
I yelled once and then figured it probably wasn't best to give away where I was. I went back to the fire, tossed the crust of bread into it, and waited.
It was a horrible wait.
I imagined Jude lying somewhere in the forest, bleeding and calling for help. What if the Home Guard had caught him and shot him without making sure he was even a deserter? I'd heard of that happening before. I kept imagining someone who was not Jude coming out of the trees and shooting me…or worse.
I heard footfalls.
If you had seen me sitting there, clutching my walking stick for dear life, you just might have laughed. I think I might have too if I had seen how I sighed with relief when Jude appeared out of those trees.
"You're alright," I said. Jude looked confused.
"'Course I'm alright. Did you think I got lost?" He dropped his wood on the pile.
"I heard a gunshot. I thought someone'd killed you."
Jude looked at me. Then he smirked and held up a grouse.
My eyes widened.
"Where'd you get that?"
"I scared up a few." He handed me the bird. "I hope you know how to cook it," he said. "'Cause I can't cook worth spit."
I turned the bird over. It was a bit thin, but it was better than nothing. I smirked at Jude. "I thought you of all people would be able to cook."
The man put a hand on his neck and shrugged.
"I can. I just don't think anyone but me would wanna eat it."
I laughed. "In that case I'd better know how to cook this."
And cook it I did. It was the best supper I'd had in weeks. We ate roasted grouse with collards, and blackberry preserves on bread. There wasn't any spice, so I basted the grouse in its own drippings. It was no sage and rosemary stuffed chicken, but it was warm and filling.
Elijah didn't come back that night. I prayed that he'd found his friend and was spending the night with a good meal and a warm fire, and that he'd be back in the morning to bring us along with him.
The dark came on fast. Jude took up a spot against the log so he could watch the trees. I lay close by wrapped in a blanket. The night was full of sound. Crickets chirped; an owl whoo-whooed close by. Bats flapped overhead, squeaking and squealing until my ears hurt. I saw glowing eyes in the depths of the trees too. There was scuttling and crunching. More than once, Jude sat up tense and put a hand on his gun; but nothing, human or animal, came into that clearing.
Elijah's voice woke me the next morning. He and Jude were standing at the other end of the clearing. Something was wrong.
"…lyin' there like cordwood, all of 'em, and that barn burnin'…." Elijah's voice trailed off and he shook his head. "Oh, but I gave'em a taste a their own medicine. Good Lord, I made sure a that."
I was on my feet now. "What's goin' on?"
I remember Elijah looking at me, his face as hard as a stone. I'd never seen him so angry.
"This damn war, that's what," he said something else under his breath and spoke to Jude again.
"I don't wanna just leave'em like felled pigeons. I meant to bury'em then an' there, but I didn't know if that young buck'd come back. I figured we'd go see if anythin's left. You up for that?"
Jude nodded and said something I couldn't hear.
I looked up from my pack. Elijah was holding up a bundle.
"These are for you. They should fit well enough."
It was as set off clothes; trousers, a shirt, a hat, and a long overcoat, as well as some boots. I felt myself shiver. These were a dead man's clothes.
"I took the boots off a farm boy, rest his soul. I figured he-he wouldn't be needin'em no more. Horrible thing…." Elijah trailed off again. He stared at the ground for a while before shaking his head. "Now, go behind those rocks an' try'em on."
The clothes were too big, but they didn't swamp me. The boots, however, fit surprisingly well. I rolled up the sleeves of the shirt and put on the overcoat. It was patched, with mismatched panels here and there, but it was warm wool and it kept the chill out. I emerged from the rocks carrying the hat.
Elijah and Jude were talking again, but Elijah stopped when he saw me. He surveyed the clothes and nodded
"Pretty close," he waved a hand. "C'mere."
I walked over. It felt strange to be wearing trousers.
"Put the hat on."
"How's it look?" I asked.
Elijah thought a moment. "Well, if you want the truth, ya look like a girl in boy's clothes," he thought some more and then picked up a handful of soil. "Here, rub some a this on yer face."
I looked at him like he'd asked me to eat it. He kept his hand out till I took the dirt.
Elijah inspected my face when I was done. "Better. Now we need to do somethin' about yer hair."
"Tuck it under her hat," Jude suggested.
"An' if she's gotta take the hat off?" Elijah retorted. "Even fake boys gotta have manners. An' ain't nobody gonna believe she's a boy with hair like that."
I didn't like where Elijah was going with this.
"What d'you propose I do with it then?" I asked, already knowing the answer. The man shrugged.
"Well, Cat, do you wanna cut it, or should I?"
I wasn't a vain person, no sir, but the one thing I had ever felt a shred of pride for was my hair. It was dark red-gold like honey.
"I'm not cutting my hair."
"Okay, I'll say it a different way. Do you wanna cut it or do you want Jude ta hold ya still while I do it? I'm givin' you a choice here."
I glared at both of them. Jude looked sympathetic, but I knew he would still do something if I continued to refuse. I hated conundrums.
I sighed. "Fine. But I'm not doin' it." I frowned at Elijah's smirk. "An' neither are you."
The man shrugged. "I hope you got a steady hand, Jude."
Well, you would have thought someone gave him a death sentence. That poor man looked so scared. He lightened up a bit when I stopped glaring, but his face was still unwilling.
"You can just…sit there," he gestured to the log. I sat down, holding the hat. I was seething at Elijah, but if there was one thing I'd ever promised myself, it was that I would never be the one to cut my own hair short. Jude came behind the log then with his knife. He was apprehensive again. Elijah didn't help the situation. He just stood there at the end of the clearing with his arms folded.
"Well, go on now; we ain't got all day."
I felt Jude take a lock of my hair. His voice was quiet
I almost stopped him, but I couldn't bear the thought of cutting my hair off. I had my mother's hair; the same right down to the little curls on the back of my neck. It was one of those things you'd rather have taken away than give up. And so I sat.
Jude worked quickly. In a short while, the ground around us was covered with mounds of red honey colored hair. My head felt lighter and my neck was cold. I brushed a hand through my locks. It felt so strange; piecey and uneven. I pulled away a few stray strands. My hair hung above my shoulders now. The thickness of it made it stick out some.
"Much better," Elijah said. "Now rub a handful a dirt in ta dull the color a bit."
I begrudged him the whole time, but I did it. The man ruffled it up and shoved the hat down on my head.
"There, now yer a boy. She look convincin', Jude?"
Jude looked at me for a while. There was a strange sadness in his eyes that I couldn't place. He nodded passively and then went back to closing his pack.
Elijah picked up his walking stick.
"Well, we'd best get goin'. Come on."
We buried the farmer and his family. Emmet, Elijah said his name was. They'd been friends before Elijah and his family went out west. That was the last time Elijah had seen him alive. It was a horrible sight, that farm. All of them were dead; Emmet, his wife, their two sons and daughter, and their hired worker.
I looked at that boy for a long time. He was no older than I was. And there he lay with a bullet between his eyes.
"I reckon his boys deserted," Elijah said as we dug some shallow graves in the garden. "Probably were hidin' em here and they found out." He leaned on his shovel. "This is all bullshit, ya know that?" he shook his head. "Home Guard my ass. They ain't no better than the northies. Not a smidge."
I didn't answer. I knew full well what northies were like; God knows I did. Elijah had a right to be angry.
"Who gives a damn about desertin' now, huh? I'm surprised they haven't all deserted. There ain't a point to it. Not no more there ain't."
I couldn't listen to Elijah anymore. I stuck my shovel in the dirt and walked towards the woodpile a few yards away.
"Where d'ya think you're goin'?" The man called after me.
"I'm makin' some crosses!" I couldn't hide the shuddering anger in my voice. Already the tears were forming.
We couldn't stay at the farm. Elijah had shot four Home Guards. He was as good as dead if they found him, and there was more than enough chance of that. One of the men had gotten away. He wouldn't soon forget Elijah's face.
We left the slain Guards were they lay. Elijah refused to bury them, and he wouldn't let us do it either. I went through the house and found some food. I had never stolen a thing in my life, but the people it belonged had no use for it anymore; they never would. The Home Guards' horses were still wandering around in the yard. They were well appreciated considering all the walking we'd done.
The months stretched on. Snow came and went. Birds returned. I saw three men hanging in a tree.
There were some things that never changed. Elijah swore. Jude cut my hair. I tried not to think about my family. It was an endless cycle of running and hiding.
They almost caught us once. Almost. They hit Jude in the shoulder.
We kept running. The only thing worse was that they were looking for Jude now too. Thought he was a deserter. I guess nobody understood that some men just don't like to fight. Not every man's a yellow-bellied coward. That boy Elijah never shot was a coward. He must have been one if he considered it service to his country to go around harassing innocent people.
Three months passed without a single drop of trouble from the Home Guard. We helped a farmer plant his crops. He was a corn-grower with a wife not much older than I was. That woman was trouble. Her name was Andrea. She was married, but she was a sly one. She had her eye on Jude the moment he walked in. She said things to him when her husband wasn't around that made my spine shiver.
Then she'd look at my shocked face and tell me I shouldn't be so jealous because she liked me too. Apparently my disguise was a little too good. One time, I walked past her and she grabbed me and whispered something in my ear that I won't dare repeat. That was it. I yanked my arm away.
"Let go of me," I hissed. That seemed to surprise her. She backed up and looked at me closely. Then her face turned smug.
"You ain't a boy, are you?"
I frowned and looked away.
"Your suspenders don't sit right," she continued. Then she laughed.
"Well, I'll be damned. You coulda tricked the devil himself, girl. What's your name?"
She gave me a look. "Your real name. Come on, I know your folks didn't name you after an animal."
I sighed. "Catherine. My name's Catherine. But don't call me that; I hate it."
The woman nodded.
"Fair enough." She looked me over again. "You oughta wash your hair."
"It's fine," I said.
Andrea put a hand on her hip. "It's greasier than an oilcan and there's enough dirt in it to start a garden. You're washin' your hair." She waved me into the kitchen. "Come on, I'll do it for you."
I couldn't convince her otherwise, so I ended up sitting in a chair with my head leaned back into a basin of water. Andrea was rubbing something that smelled like sage and lavender into my hair. She sighed.
"Girl, when was the last time you washed your hair?"
"I don't remember."
"Well, I'd say not since the day God created all this dirt that's comin' off it."
She rinsed off the soap and wrapped my hair with a towel. I sat up and wrung the water out, then shook my head around to fluff it up.
Andrea emptied the basin of water out the back door.
"Thank you," I said when she returned. The woman nodded.
"An' all this time I thought you had brown hair. I see why you had so much dirt in it. Ain't never seen a boy with hair as pretty as that." She frowned. "Did you cut it?"
"He did, huh? Well, he did a horrible job."
"It ain't his fault. I didn't want to do it and I'm not letting Elijah cut it."
Andrea came back from the front room with a small basket. "Well, I'm doin' it now. Sit down."
I didn't move. Andrea rolled her eyes. "Don't stand there gawkin' at me. If you're supposed to be a boy, you're gonna look like a good one, not a girl who's tryin' to look like a good one." She patted the chair. I sat down.
Andrea's change of heart was a little unnerving. She'd gone from whore to sister in a matter of a half hour. I liked her better this way, but I was still resentful of her attitude towards Jude. She was married after all. Didn't she have any respect for that?
"So, "Andrea said as she snipped away with a sewing scissors, "Where'd you find those two misfits?"
I paused. The raid came to mind. I shoved the memory away. I didn't want Andrea knowing about that. Instead, I was vague.
"I met them in the woods," I'm sure that was a horrible response, but it really was where I had found them.
"In the woods," Andrea repeated slowly. "What were you doin' in the woods?"
"I was lost, and we came to the same stream."
"And you just decided to go with them?"
"Why didn't you just ask for directions if you were lost?"
"I wasn't goin' anywhere. I was just running. I don't wanna talk about it."
"That's fine, hon, I'm just curious. Tip your head forward a bit." She snipped away another piece of hair. "Well, now I know why you looked so jealous. Were you doing anything with'em?"
That caught me off-guard. "You mean like what?"
"You know givin'em some company." I couldn't see Andrea but I could tell by her tone that she was grinning. "Come on now, you can tell me. We're both girls."
I turned around and stared at her. "No, I haven't done anything with them. I don't intend to."
Andrea raised her eyebrows.
"Not even with Jude? He's a handsome one ya know." She grinned at me. "Reckon he's real nice."
I didn't answer. I don't think I'd ever known a woman who was so openly shameless. I had to turn away to hide the shock on my face.
"Well, I guess we'll never know, will we?" Andrea said. "You don't have to worry, by the way. I don't think he likes me." She paused for moment and inspected her work. "Almost done, just one more side; turn you head to the right a bit; there we go."
Suddenly, there was a knock on the back door.
Jude appeared with an armload of firewood. He stared at us for a moment before walking over to the empty wood box.
"You cut this girl's hair?" Andrea asked without looking up. Jude frowned and didn't answer. Andrea looked at him.
"'Cause you did a horrible job."
"Cat's not a-" Jude started to say. He stopped short when the woman gave him a look.
"I ain't stupid," she said. "She was pretty convincin' though, I'll give ya that." she made one last snip. "Done."
I reached up and brushed away some loose pieces. It was smoother, and not as uneven as when Jude cut it; though, to his credit he had to use a knife instead of a scissors.
Andrea closed her sewing basket. "Well, you'd best go tell Ethan the truth so he don't have a heart attack when he sees her in a dress."
She looked at Jude, who was staring at me. "Well, go on."
Jude started. "Yes, ma'am," He cast one more glance at me before hurrying out the door.
Andrea watched him go. She shook her head.
"He's a jumpy thing, ain't he?"
Andrea gave me one of her old dresses. After months of wearing a boy's clothes, it felt foreign to be wearing a woman's, but it was nice to get out of the disguise for once. Ethan was still surprised when he saw me, even though Jude warned him. We stayed there a few more weeks before Elijah decided we should be moving on. Andrea gave me the dress before I left.
"Just so you have it," she had said. I won't lie, I missed her. There was only so much of talking to Elijah that I could take. And Jude never talked anyway, so he wasn't much help.
We went back into the mountains because the Home Guard was moving along the valleys nearby. I prayed they left Andrea and Ethan alone. At least no one had found us there. Elijah said they'd leave us alone once we left the lowlands.
But they found us.
It was utter chance meeting them in the woods. Jude said we should stay off the road, but Elijah's leg was giving him grief and he couldn't take the strain of hill climbing more than necessary. They came around a bend in the road, four of them on horseback. There was shouting and gunshots before we were able to get to shelter.
I can still see Elijah's face, telling me to run, looking back to the boy in the trees on the other side of the dirt mound. The old man's arm was covered in blood. There were men lying dead on the road. They were covered in blood.
The boy was riding a horse. He was taunting Elijah like a dog.
Then he shot him.
I screamed. I saw Elijah lying on the ground with a bullet through his chest. I was next to him, gaping in shock, holding his hand, muttering 'no' incoherently as if it would somehow save him from the imminent death that waited. Then another shot rang out; though, this time, it was Jude's gun. That boy toppled from his black horse like a ragdoll. Yellow-bellied coward.
Jude stood with the gun raised. His hand was rigid. I stared at him with silent awe. Then Elijah began to cough up blood.
He was there in an instant.
"Help," I whispered. I was trying to stop the bleeding. I don't know why; I knew it didn't matter anymore. Elijah's chin was covered in blood. I remember seeing not grizzled old man lying there, but a thin woman, a woman so thin she looked like a skeleton's ghost. And all the red spread out around her mouth. The blood soaked Elijah's shirt. He gasped and sputtered.
"J-Jude," his hand trembled as he struggled to lift it from the ground.
The carpenter grasped it tightly, leaning close to hear the hoarse whisper. Elijah's eyes were closing.
"Watch out for'er."
He died then, staring up at the trees and the sky, his blue eyes misting over. Jude looked into those sightless eyes and nodded.
I couldn't believe he was dead. A single gunshot. He'd stayed alive long enough for us to be beside him and then he was gone.
We were sitting in the camp now. Jude had made some coffee. I remembered when I used to hate coffee. It was so dark and bitter, even when it was the real thing, not just chicory and dirt. Now I drank it without question, holding the cup for warmth. It was getting cold again. Not cold enough for snow, but the air held a permanent chill.
We buried Elijah on a bluff clearing facing the east. It had been a journey for sure, but we'd done it. Jude dug the hole himself. I had wanted to help, but the quiet man insisted. So, I stood by and watched the horse and made a cross to put at the head of the grave. We had laid Elijah's body against a stump. In time, I walked over and knelt next to him. He was so pale. I don't remember what possessed me to, but I suddenly reached down and took his hand. It was ice cold, and I felt as though I was touching a piece of clay. There was no life in it, not even a spark.
Jude's voice brought me back.
"That should be deep enough," he stepped out of the grave and stuck the shovel in the ground.
I looked at the hole he'd dug. It was a shallow trench about two feet deep. "It doesn't look like much of a grave," I said.
"We'll pile rocks over after we've buried him. That'll keep the animals from diggin' it up." I nodded absently. Jude walked over to the stump.
"Help me, will you?"
Together, we dragged Elijah's body into the trench. It made an ominously hollow thump as it landed. We stood for a moment, staring at the figure lying in the hole. I had always thought that the dead were supposed to be peaceful, like they were just sleeping. Elijah did not look peaceful. He was pained, sad, so unlike himself in death. I didn't want to remember him like this. I looked away.
Jude took the shovel and began to fill the dirt back in.
"Start collecting stones," he said, "Pile them over here."
I nodded. There were plenty of rocks in the bluff clearing. After he finished filling the trench, Jude came to help me. We made a large cairn over the grave. I stuck the cross at the end of it. That was the eighth cross I'd made in the past year and a half. The first was for my family after I left. I'd carved their names in it and stuck it in the ground at the edge of our farm. The next six had been for Emmet and his family, God rest their souls. Now I'd made one for Elijah. It was one too many.
Jude took off his hat and we stood next to the grave in silence. I held a small bunch of Indian paintbrush and sumac. The man looked at me.
"I reckon I ought to say somethin', huh?"
"If you want."
Jude smiled faintly. "You know, he told me once I'd make a good preacher."
I felt the urge to laugh. "What did you say?"
"I told him ta shut his mouth," Jude chuckled slightly and looked down. I smiled. He was trying so hard to be light-hearted.
"Sorry," he said, "I shouldn't be laughing."
I shook my head. "I gather he'd want you to."
Jude smiled and nodded. "You're right, he would," The man looked up into the sky for a moment before speaking again.
"Dear Lord, we commend our friend here to your care and pray that you see fit to let him enter your paradise."
Jude paused, unsure how to continue.
"Amen," I finished.
Jude echoed quietly. "Amen."
We bowed our heads and gave a moment of silence. Finally, Jude glanced at me. "They sing at funerals, don't they?"
"You don't happen to know any funeral songs, do you? I haven't been to one in so long, I can't remember any."
I looked at him and back to the mound. Then, it came to me.
"It's not really a funeral song," I said.
"Sing it anyway."
I didn't want to sing it. I hadn't been able to sing it since without tears coming to my eyes. But Elijah deserved something.
I took a deep breath, determined to keep myself from crying, and sang my mother's funeral song.
Jesus, lead Thou on 'till our rest is won;
And although the way be cheerless,
We will follow calm and fearless.
Guide us by Thy hand to our fatherland.
If the way be drear, if the foe be near,
Let not faithless fears o'ertake us;
Let not faith and hope forsake us;
For through many a woe to our home we go.
Jesus lead Thou on 'till our rest is won.
Heavenly leader, still direct us,
Still support, console, protect us,
'Till we safely stand in our fatherland.
Though I fought to keep them back, the tears came. My voice shook, but I kept singing until the end. Jude joined in on the last verse. His voice was a warm tenor, neither high nor deep. I liked it.
But even Jude's voice couldn't soothe the ache I felt in my chest. It was as if my family was dying all over again. I had lost another father. Why did so many people have to die? It wasn't fair.
Jude looked at me with that look I'd see so many times before; he wanted to say something, but he didn't know what to say or how say it. Slowly, he reached out and put an arm around my shoulder.
I once said that Jude was a man of few words, that sometimes he was more competent without them. There were no words that could have been more consoling than the feeling of Jude's arm around my shoulder. I closed my eyes and cried into his chest, and he wrapped the other arm around and held me tight. I felt him rest his chin on my hair. I finally understood what Elijah had said. I needed Jude. And he needed me.
After a while, I stopped crying and wiped my eyes.
"I'm sorry," I whispered as I moved away from Jude. I couldn't bring myself to look at him. I felt ashamed for crying so much. I wasn't a little girl anymore; I should have been able to control myself.
I put my hat back on and walked away. Jude called after me.
"You have a beautiful voice."
I stopped half way to the horse. I felt like crying again.
"He would have liked hearing it."
Yes, I reckon he would have. I hadn't sung that song in years. I never thought I would ever again. Well, God had proved me wrong.
Jude and I left after that, the boy's horse carrying what few things we owned.
We didn't look back.
The war ended with a crushing defeat. I guess I wasn't surprised. I figured with all the deserters giving up, it wouldn't be long. So many things happened after that.
There was a march south to the coast. The carnage was unimaginable. The army destroyed anything in their path; farms, towns, bridges. Entire cities were burned to ash. Men, women, and children slaughtered in their beds. When it finally ended, the land was a hollow shell.
Jude and I traveled northwest towards the mountains. It took a long time to get used to Elijah being gone. He'd been as stubborn as an old mule sometimes, but that was what made him Elijah. Even Jude felt the pain of his not being there. Elijah had been a person to follow, trusted to make frugal decisions. Now that task fell to Jude, and he was still getting used to it. He wasn't a scared weasel or anything; he just wasn't used to leading anyone but himself.
He had promised Elijah that he would take care of me, and he intended to do so, but it wasn't easy for him to make the transition from follower to caretaker. He once asked me why I'd even chosen to stay with him.
"I can't even figure out what to say to you," he said. "Why don't you find some poor old lady who needs help in her house? I'm sure there's plenty of them around here now."
I looked at him incredulously.
"Do you honestly think I'd rather spend my days makin' food for some old woman instead of for you?"
Jude stopped. He turned as though he was going to say something, but no words came out.
I waited nervously for his response. I had definitely surprised him. I had surprised myself. Given, I knew what I was implying, but I wasn't sure how Jude would react to it. I thought of the time I'd sat in Andrea's kitchen, trying not to think about Jude while she cut my hair and talked about how handsome he was. I hadn't wanted to believe it then, but now after being with him for so long, I couldn't ignore it. Jude was a good man. And he was the only one I was liable to find in a hundred miles. Most of the rest were dead.
After I spoke, Jude turned around. He was looking at me now, and for the first time, his face was not one of apprehension or serious, or simply blank. It was relieved. A relief mixed with the same bittersweet sadness I had seen when he first cut my hair. Slowly, he walked toward me. I held his gaze as he stopped. We stood silently, looking at each other.
That was the first time Jude kissed me.
It was a soft kiss, light, but by no means nervous. It was everything. Every single unsaid word and unacknowledged feeling. Every unexplained look of sadness and longing. They flowed out though this one small act; no longer bottled inside tormenting him.
When we moved apart, Jude was smiling. Smiling as I had never seen him smile before. Later, he told me that he had wanted to cry, but was too worried about what I might think of him. I was crushed when I heard this. I told him that no one should be ashamed of crying; whether in mourning or in joy. After all, Jesus cried, and I'm sure it was plenty more times than the Bible mentioned. He was true man too. If He'd cried, I reckon Jude had a right to the same.
We travelled for a long time, looking for a town that was still in one piece (if that was possible anymore.) We found one eventually, but it had no church. There was, however, a judge who had set up temporary residence there.
The marriage lasted less than five minutes. There was no ceremony to speak of. We stood in front of the judge's desk with our arms linked together, me wearing Andrea's faded dress and Jude with his hat tucked under one arm.
I had made Jude cut his hair beforehand. Owing to the 'horrible' job he'd done on mine in the past, he asked me to do it. I did, and also ended up shaving his face myself because he was making a pig's ear of his jaw. I realized then that I had never seen Jude with short hair. I decided I liked it better.
My own hair had begun to grow out as well, much to Jude's relief. Sometimes at night, after we were married, he would run a hand over it absently, fingering the smooth strands as though they were gold. It made me feel safe.
Elijah was right, what he said that day so long ago in the clearing. Jude was never wanting for work. Everywhere we went there was something for him to do. He helped rebuild houses, barns, stores, and even a church. I liked the church building best. There was plenty of work for me to do too, and I became friends with several of the other women. It was a beautiful church when it was finished, small and quaint, and painted white. We sang a lot during that first service, in four part harmony too. I hadn't heard harmony like that in so long, and I don't think I've heard it since. All those voices praising God like nobody was listening. It was angelic.
Four years later…
We built our house near the foot of the mountain. It was a beautiful blue mountain; misty in the morning and mixed with fire in the autumn. The land had belonged to a farmer named Silas, who'd hired Jude to help with his planting and butchering, and also to mend the barn roof. There was no house to begin with on that small farm. The original one had burned down long before. Instead, the old man and his wife Sarah lived in a large wagon. I helped Sarah tend to her goats and she taught me how to make cheese. I had never eaten goat cheese, but it tasted good.
At the end of the season, Silas announced that he and his wife would be leaving and moving into the town down in the valley. The land was ours if we wanted it. Silas wouldn't hear of accepting any payment. He said that Jude was a hard worker and an honest man, and that he wouldn't leave it with anyone less. He handed Jude the deed, they shook hands, and that was the end of it. Sarah gave me her goats, keeping two kids to take with when they left. And just like that, we had a farm.
Jude fixed to build us a house before the winter. Thankfully, autumn was warm and the fair weather stretched on near to the end of November. It was small house, but it was warm and cozy and it was ours. We'd lived there nearly four years now. In that time, our goat herd had grown considerably, so much so that I was able to sell the cheese and meat in town. Sarah always bought some from me.
And that house? Well, you would have thought it was a mansion in the capitol. After the first year, Jude had filled the place with intricate woodwork and carvings. He made all of our furniture too. I don't believe there was a finer house on that whole mountain, or a finer carpenter for that matter. Life was good to us.
The next year, I gave birth to a baby. He was a little boy with a hair like his father and his mother's eyes. We loved him more than anything in the world, our little Jonathan. Sadly, he'd died less a month later, and God in His wisdom had not seen fit to grant me anymore children. I had cried for days, finally knowing why Elijah had sworn at God so much. Why had He allowed so much death to come upon me in life? It was a question I often asked after we lost Jonathan. For a time, I feared He would take Jude away from me too. Oh, the times I prayed for that not to happen. Thankfully, at least for now, it hadn't.
We lived at the foot of that mountain, with our goats and chickens and Jude's fancy woodworking. The mantelpiece was full of carved animals that he had made for me. My favorite was a little red squirrel with his paws wrapped tightly around an acorn.
I couldn't imagine a better life. I guess there are a lot of people who say that, but I was sure of it. I had Jude, after all, and I loved him from the bottom of my heart.
Even if he still couldn't cook worth spit.