The lantern on the table was turned down low, making a golden glow in the dark room.
Betsy went to the cabinet by the sink, reached up and dropped the two quarters from her hand into the shaving mug that sat next to the clock. They fell with a soft clink onto the other coins.
She untied the string of her cloak, gathered it from her shoulders and went out the kitchen door to hang it on its peg in the lean-to. It was early enough in the fall that she didn’t need it during the day, but she was happy to have its warmth in the morning, walking to school, and at night, coming home from Mrs. Baxter’s.
She went back inside for the lantern and walked across the dark yard into the small barn. The cow turned in her stall to watch as Betsy came in and went to the ladder.
She hung the lantern on a nail, climbed into the hayloft, took the fork from its pegs on the wall and pitched down several generous forkfuls of hay. Then she clambered back down and used the rake to gather it up by the wall for Pa to find in the morning.
Pa could pitch hay or any other work around the house, but his busted-up foot made it hard to climb ladders.
Betsy went back to the kitchen and turned the wick up on the lantern until the flame burned almost white. If Ma had gone to bed first, Pa would have blown out the lantern before he went to bed. It didn’t matter; there was a glow from the coals in the front room fireplace and it wasn’t that dark anyway.
But it was nice to come home to the lantern’s welcoming glow. It was as if Ma had stayed up to give her a hug.
Jimmy’s letter was another thing. It made her sad to think of Ma sitting at the kitchen table, alone after Pa had gone to bed, looking at Jimmy’s letter and reading it slowly, yet again, again.
Ma had not had much schooling as a girl, and it was hard for her to read. She didn’t like to, if she could get Betsy or Pa to read for her.
But she knew Jimmy’s letter by heart. It had come in late March, nearly seven months ago.
Betsy stood by the table and read it once again herself.
“Dear Ma and Pa and Betsy:
“By now I am sure you know I am not with the Army and I suppose you are worried but I am alive and I am all right. Some of us got cut off in the fight at Knoxville and was captured by Longstreet. I was at Libby but now am at a prison in Georgia that they just opened called Andersonville.
"I got shot but just in the calf of my leg and it went right through. I could not run away but it is pretty much healed up and I won’t even limp anymore when I come home. I hope it is soon. Ma, I remembered how you cared for Pa’s foot and so I kept it draining like you did and it is going to just be two round scars one on each side.
"I do not know that I can send more letters. I would have from Libby but was sick from the wound. I am fine now, but there is not a lot of mail here. If you send some paper and a envelope I might get it but don’t worry because I might not. Also money, same thing.
"Charlie Stout is here tell his folks and he said John Kelley but I have not seen him. Tom Baxter was wounded bad and died. Tell Martha he got her letter and knew about the baby and was glad for it. I will come home. Pray for me. I will come home.
“Your loving Jim
Andersonville, Georgia, March 10, 1864”
Betsy read the last part again, the part about him coming home, as she always did. Then she folded the letter carefully, carried it into the front room and tucked it back into the Bible where it belonged.
They had all heard that the boys were missing, and then Charlie Stout wrote his parents a letter from Libby Prison in January. But they knew nothing about the others until Jimmy’s letter came.
First Baptist Church took up a collection for Martha Baxter, who had a tiny baby to care for, and Mr. Jones, the sexton, told Betsy that, if she would help Mrs. Baxter with the baby and the house, the church would give her 50 cents a week.
Pa asked Ma if it was charity, but Ma said they didn’t need charity before and they didn’t need it now but somebody needed to help Mrs. Baxter and why shouldn’t it be Betsy? She was 11 years old and already did most of the chores that Jimmy did before he went to the war.
Betsy opened the warming shelf over the oven and took out the plate with her dinner: A piece of last Sunday’s ham with fried apples-and-onions.
The first fall apples were ripe but tart, better for cooking, especially with onions and a touch of brown sugar.
Betsy got a fork from the drawer and sat down to eat.
Text c. 2013, Mike Peterson
Illustrations c. 2013, Christopher Baldwin