Miss Moyer dismissed school early on Saturday. The farm children were still working the harvest and some of them hadn’t even started back to school yet, and she said it would be a good chance for the town children to catch up their chores before the Sabbath.
Betsy was helping Ma put up pickles. Their neighbors next door, the Pierces, didn’t have a cow, and so Betsy’s family sometimes gave them milk when there was extra. But, because they had no barn, the Pierces had space for a bigger truck patch than most people in town, and so Mrs. Pierce had come to the door with a bushel of cucumbers on Friday.
Now the kitchen was filling with steam as Betsy and Ma boiled jars to hold the pickles.
Pa usually worked at the kitchen table where he could stretch his leg out and rest his bad foot. He had been a brakeman on the railroad until eight years ago, when two cars came together and smashed his right ankle.
Fortunately, he had finished grammar school and two years of high school before he went to work on the railroad, and he’d always had a good head for figures. Now he kept books for some of the businesses in town and for several of the farmers.
But the table was full of jars and spices and cucumbers today, so he was at the desk in the front room, bent over the hardware store’s ledger, copying numbers from a pile of sales slips into neat columns.
As Betsy was bringing in the coffee pot from the cook stove to set it on the woodstove, she saw a flash of motion through the window of someone coming up the front walk.
“It’s Mr. Jackson!” she said, and Pa turned in his chair as she opened the door.
The bank president came into the room. “Hello, Betsy,” he said, but then turned to Pa, who was getting to his feet. “This came for you, Harrington,” he said. “I thought I’d better bring it right over.”
Betsy looked at the letter as Pa turned it over in his hands. It was addressed to Pa, but she didn’t recognize the handwriting.
“What is this?” Pa asked. “There’s no postmark, no stamps.”
“It came inside another envelope,” Mr. Jackson explained. “From my brother in Baltimore. You’ll want to call your wife in.”
Pa continued to look at him, puzzled, and the banker smiled. “My brother knows a lot of people in a lot of places,” he said. Then he went to the door. “I’ll give you some privacy, Harrington, but remember, we’re all with you. I hope it’s good news.”
Ma was coming from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel as the front door closed. “Andrew?” she asked.
Pa opened the envelope and then sat down heavily in his chair as he saw the handwriting on the letter inside.
He unfolded it and began to read aloud:
“I hope this letter finds you in good health. I traded grandfather’s pocket watch to get it out of here and mailed. That was the last thing of value I had, but if he plays me fair, it was worth it.
“I don’t know what you have heard of Andersonville if anything but if Hell were a place on earth this would surely be it. It is just a high fence and men with guns to keep us in and little more. Whatever shelter we have we make ourselves from sticks and rags. There is little food and everyone sick and men dying wherever you look.
“But I am doing as well as anyone and better than most. My leg is all healed. I have lost a bit of weight but I am healthy. There is a group of us that take care of each other and you should not worry about me.
“I am sad to report poor Charlie Stout is gone. John Kelley is here and we tried to help Charlie and give him some of our food but he just went. Tell his folks John and me are awful sorry we couldn’t help him but we sure tried. Tell them he didn’t suffer too much. He just kind of wasted away.
“John is in the group with me and we watch out for each other. Elmira boys got to stick together, we say.
“Nobody ever gets mail so I don’t think you can send me anything. But you tell Father Abraham and everybody up north to send 300,000 more, because we sure do want this war over soon. We heard that Sherman is here in Georgia and we pray he will come throw open these gates.
“On that happy day, I will come home. John says tell his folks the same
“Your loving son and brother,
Nobody said anything for several minutes.
Finally, Pa folded the letter carefully and put it back in its envelope. “Betsy,” he said, in a quiet voice, “do you know where the Kelleys live?”
“Up by the girls’ college,” Betsy answered.
“Go tell them the news, that their Johnny is all right. Tell them we’ll bring the letter by later for them to read.”
Pa began to say something to Ma, but she had already taken off her apron. “Let me just shut the damper on the stove,” she said.
Ma and Pa would have to go visit Mr. and Mrs. Stout.
Text c. 2013, Mike Peterson
Illustrations c. 2013, Christopher Baldwin