More from Storm’s Promise (still a story just mulling in my head)
August 26, 1863
Stormy’s gaze drifted to the pile of fresh turned earth. Was his pa buried underneath? His chest hurt thinking about it. He’d never known his pa to raise his voice or say an unkind word. What would he have done had he been here today? There’s wasn’t time to be thinking on it now. They had maybe five hours before the moon rose. If he wasn’t back with his regiment, Wilson and the boys would for sure come charging in here and make good the threat.
Ma brushed her hands across her face. “The day you left I went lookin’ for your pa to tell him what fool thing ya up and did. I found him tangled in the harness at the corner of the corn field. Don’t know whatever happened. Just thankful that crazy mule didn’t bolt and drag him all the way to Kansas.” She walked to the sagging porch of the cabin. Shoulders back, steps spry. “You listen to the rest of this here story, then you hie it on out of here b’fore the neighbors see you.” She patted the splintery porch beside her, then laid her hands in her lap, palms up.
Storm grimaced. Tiny brown hands, they were. Callouses lay against the palm of each long, slender finger like the dot of an exclamation point.
“He weren’t never quite the same after ya left, Storm. I’d find him some nights just a standin’ in the yard lookin’ down the lane. He always wondered what he did or said to make ya leave.”
“He didn’t do nothing, ma. I was—”
“You was foolish, boy. And by the looks of things you ain’t got a whole lot smarter. The idea of ridin’ with scum and pretendin’ to be fightin’ for freedom of some kind or ‘nother. It don’t make no sense to me a’tall—youngsters and old men alike aiming their shootin’ pieces at one another. For what? Whose freedom you fightin’ for? Them colored folk? You don’t even know none exceptin’ old Leonard over at the Perkins’ big house, and he’s already a free man.” She shook her head. “No, son—truth be knowed you’re a fightin’ because it’s jist in ‘ya to fight. Ya came into this world kickin’ and yowlin’, and I reckon ya might go out the very same way.”
“Where’s Pa? Is that his grave yonder?”
Her eyes brimmed with tears and she brushed them away with the back of her hand. “They’s a loaf of fresh bread on the cupboard, and buttermilk in the well. You’re welcome to it, then be on your way. I ain’t gonna leave no matter how long ya yammer about it. And I don’t think you want to be here a sittin’ and talkin’ to this old lady when them friends of yours come back.”
“You don’t aim to tell me about Pa, do you? Why? Is he hiding? Ma, please. Let me help you. Let me try to make straight all those years I left you here alone. I…I didn’t know.”
“Best way I ever learnt to take wrinkles out was to sit ‘em under a hot iron. I reckon ya got a few of them folded-over places, son. It’ll take more’n fussin’ about us to straighten ya out. I hate thinkin’ on it, boy. But it takes a lot of fire to render out what’s good in a man sometimes. Likely you be one of those kind.”
“I can’t leave you like this, Ma. They mean business. They’ll burn you out. They have orders. Maybe if we hurry we can even give help to some of the neighbors.”
She shook her head. “You go back behind the house—down there by that little branch of water where you always snuck off to fish. You sit and think a spell, but don’t come back, you hear? No need for you to know nothin’ else but what you’ll find out there.” She leaned and brushed his cheek with her lips, then pushed herself off the porch and commenced pulling weeds around the big stone that served as a step.
Stormy stood for a long time, willing his ma to look up once more.
“Ma? What about the girls. Could you tell me where they might be?”
She continued to pull at the weeds, smoothing the earth with her hands when she pulled a clump big enough to leave a hole. “Hannah went west to Kansas with her man. The others are scattered here and there. Far as I know they’s all safe.” When she started humming some church song he knew he was dismissed.
Fear for her shivered down his spine, but he couldn’t fight her. No one ever went head to head with Leeza Dey and won—not even Pa. Well, he’d go sit by the creek awhile, like she said, but he’d not leave her. Wouldn’t make much difference if Wilson shot him for deserting, or Ma shot him for staying. He’d pick her up and move her out himself if he had to. But he’d not walk off again.
The path leading to the creek was well worn, though wild blackberry bushes snagged at his woolen britches as he passed. The same bushes that scratched his bare legs as a kid. Funny how things changed—and didn’t change. If only he could’ve gone back into the cabin. Was the bed still positioned across from the window? Was the nail by the stove still there? That nail never held anything, unless ma was headed for someplace special, then her apron would cover it’s rusty head. Ma’s aprons. Her weekday aprons were spotted and worn, their colors faded from so much scrubbing. But her Sunday aprons, he swallowed. Why did the remembrance of a silly old apron make him want to bawl? Her Sunday aprons were white as snow, and stiff as the preacher’s collar. She changed her aprons daily, yet they were always the same. Predictable. Safe.
Safe. He caught his breath. Was Ma wearing an apron today? The only time she ever took it off was on the rare occasions she rode with Pa into town, or to go to Sunday meeting. She’d hang it on that nail by the stove, and put it on again as soon as she came through the door. He turned to retrace his steps, then stopped. His ma had listenin’ ears, she called them. It was uncanny how she knew what was happening in the world around their rocky hill farm. She knew when the birds quit singing, and the insects quit buzzing, that something or someone was present—somewhere. She could tell you if a hen cackled because of pride of a new-laid egg, or if a snake was in the nest. She’d hear him coming if he went back now. He’d give her a bit to busy herself. With luck she was packing.
Crows cried overhead, warning of his presence in the otherwise silent woods. He should have asked more about his sisters. Who’d they marry? When? He surely had nieces and nephews by now. He swallowed a lump of remorse for what he missed and what he may never know.
The path narrowed and he would need only a few more steps to enter the small clearing he’d declared his own private place. He managed to insure his privacy by convincing his sisters it was a ghost burial ground, complete with a mound of dirt and a sign he’d made from an old shingle. When they’d teased him about the small size of the grave, he’d countered with the fact no one could ever see a ghost so how would they know how big they were?
He side-stepped through the last tangle of overgrowth, then froze. It was just as he remembered. Almost as though someone had kept it cleared from the encroaching wilderness. And the grave was still there, only it was a fresh mound of dirt—man-size—and the weathered shingle bore a new sign.
He knelt to read the inscription on the crude cross stuck haphazard on the mound of dirt then fought for breath as he recognized his pa’s scrawled letters. Stormy Dey, son of Samuel John Dey and Leeza Walker Dey. Born November 15, 1837. Storm gasped. White letters signaled the newly scratched finish of the epitaph—Died August 26, 1863.