It started with Jamie scratching his head, and in typical little boy fashion, being reluctant to bathe. When Mama insisted everyone take a bath in the kitchen, dragging in the washtub and going through the ritual of oldest to youngest, with Jamie being last, he finally relented after Emily promised to heat him up some fresh water to add into the tub for his bath.
Rachel scrubbed him well, removing all the lice from his hair with the lye soap and a comb. She’d washed bedclothes earlier in the day, and after Jamie’s skin was red from the thick bristles of the scrub brush, she allowed him to get out.
Her precautions were too late though. Four days later, he had a fever and a rash. A week later, he was hallucinating. And twelve days after the first fever, Jamie was dead.
He shouldn’t have died. He was a healthy boy, raised in the sunshine, corn-fed, and robust. He wasn’t a war-riddled soldier, weakened by fatigue and starvation. Jamie shouldn’t have gotten sick, like they had. But they’d brought the disease with them, and as diseases go, nobody knew exactly who would be struck next. Unfortunately, it seemed to favor the young.
Emily was in a fog as she stood next to her mother by the grave, tiny in comparison to the three soldiers’ graves already there. Grief blurred her vision, as she watched all the freshly turned earth in the meadow behind the house. So much death. She hugged Irene tight to her side, the little girl crying tears she didn’t understand. Her playmate and tormenting little brother was gone. Emily didn’t know if she was old enough to understand the ramifications of death, or if after today, she would be over the loss. She hoped the latter, if only for her sister’s peace of mind. She knew she wouldn’t get over it so easily.
A hand fell at her shoulder—Sergeant Major Breck—but she didn’t acknowledge his presence. She could only stare at the tiny hole in the ground, and watch the men as they lowered the small hand-made casket into it, sniffling back her tears. He had brought this here. He had brought all these sick soldiers. Emily gripped her hands into tight fists at her side, using Irene to hold herself to keep from pounding her fists into Breck’s shiny uniform.
She hated him. Hated these men. It was fine when they were sick and pathetic and she was helping them. But they’d spread their sickness. Her little brother was dead. That didn’t even include the men of the farm, and their possible deaths at the hands of these men or men just like them. Emily hated everything about them right now, and his hand still on her shoulder was like a cold vise.
Emily knew these men had seen death—too much death at their own hands. And they knew that if they hadn’t stopped at the Evans farm, Jamie would still be running through the corn, fishing at the creek, and tossing rocks into the road. They knew they had killed him.
After dropping a small bouquet of baby blue wildflowers into the grave, Rachel turned and wrapped her arms around her younger daughters and led them away. She was stoic, dry-eyed, even though grief was now permanently etched around her mouth, aging her considerably.
Emily stayed behind, unable to leave her baby brother alone in the ground.
“Can I do anything for you?” Breck was sticking around too, and his company wasn’t welcome. Emily just wanted to be alone, to mourn her brother while she could. She knew soon enough, there would be more chores to do, and life would go on, but for now, she just wanted this final time with her brother.
She shook her head, trying to smile. “No, thank you. I’m fine. You all have done enough.” You all brought the disease that killed my baby brother. “More than enough.” She turned her back on him before he spoke again, dismissing him.
“I’d like to do something to help, Miss Emily.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes, and it was the final straw for Emily. Spinning around, she held him with a glare.
“I’m trying to be polite, Mr. Breck.” She didn’t use his rank on purpose, hoping to let him see exactly what she thought of him. “But you have used us since you got here, and the fact you are trying to use our grief to get even closer is despicable.” She clutched her skirts to keep from pummeling him with her fists, blinking back tears as she spoke. “You must know how much we hate you being here.”
Breck blinked, but dropped his smile, for which Emily was grateful. The pretense made her so tired.
“I liked the boy. He was a great help and pleasant company to me.”
“The boy was my baby brother, and you used him to shine your boots. You’re no better than the rumors say. You killed him, you son of a bitch!” She flung her hands to her mouth at her language, having shocked herself, but Breck only chuckled at her, patronizing. It made her so angry, she very nearly lost herself.
“As you wish, Miss Emily. But we’re here if you change your mind.” His words, like a sneaky promise, slithered up her spine.
Emily let out a helpless huff as the Sargent spun on his heal and retreated, leaving her in her grief.
One man stood back from the rest, watching the proceedings, as alert as a Mountain Lion, stalking prey. As Emily turned her back on Breck’s retreating figure, she saw Isaack leaning against a tree in the distance. His face held a heart-wrenching sadness to it, but it was as if he couldn’t not watch. He seemed to be forcing himself to attend the boy’s funeral. He held himself stiffly, a twist to his torso as his body followed Breck’s departure, even though he himself stood resolute in the same place.
Emily payed him no mind. She turned back to the grave of her brother.
She allowed silent tears to fall and the memories to come crashing in as she sank to the ground. Emily indulged in every single one: the time Jaimie had stepped in a hornets’ nest and come running to her, crying and covered in welts, when he’d caught his first fish at four years old, and tried to keep it under his bed, his penchant for finding and eating berries until his belly ached. Her shoulders shook as her heart broke at never seeing his smile again, hearing his laughter.
She succumbed to the tears, as they ran down her cheeks, but eventually, she knew she needed to get back to the house. Mama was entertaining the preacher, who had travelled out from town, and may need help. She had duties she didn’t need to shirk.
A presence followed her back to the house, twigs crackling behind her, echoing her footsteps through the woods. Emily turned, and saw Isaack freeze in his tracks, about twenty paces behind her. He’d stayed behind and seen the misery she’d thought was private. But he made no move to comfort her, for which she was grateful. He only watched her, as if she were a frightened rabbit who might bolt at any moment.
The familiar flutter of desire floated around inside Emily, but it couldn’t poke through the heavy grief filling her. Not even thoughts of Jakob could do it. She found herself shrugging at Isaack’s anxious eyes, and turning away from him to go home.
She needed some familiarity around her, but nothing seemed familiar knowing Jaimie wasn’t there anymore. The house looked empty, even with the Preacher’s buggy out front. Letting herself inside, Emily found Irene and Louise in the living room, playing quietly with Irene’s doll. Emily smiled at the two girls. Louise hated to play with the doll, but did it today, to soothe her sister. Watching the two, she made a vow to be strong for her sisters.
The preacher’s voice came from the kitchen, solemn and self-important.
“… not very appropriate. People are talking. I can preach about Christian duty and helping the downtrodden as much as I can, but the truth is, these men have killed the sons and husbands of the town. They’re not likely to forget. Or forgive.”
Emily stood just outside the doorway, knowing it was wrong to eavesdrop like this, but unable to show herself.
“I understand your concern, and I appreciate it, Preacher. But these men needed help, and so did we. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
It was times like this, when Emily remembered her mama was educated in the north, way beyond what most of the people in town were. She’d even spent a little time with Emily and the other children, teaching them to read and write from some of her personal books she’d brought along from Boston. Granted, she hadn’t had time for much, but at times like this, when people tried to get her to do something she didn’t like, she’d pull out her fancy words, like mutually beneficial and it usually put people in their place.
She imagined her mother sitting across from the Preacher, her shoulders ram-rod straight, her mouth downturned. Anger at Breck resurfaced, only it was redirected at the Preacher. She embraced the useless emotion, instead of wallowing in her grief. How dare he use this moment to lecture her mother about propriety?
“I’m only thinking of Miss Emily. Surely having all these… young men around isn’t healthy for her.”
Emily’s ears perked up. Where they talking about her in town? Would something get back to Jakob when he came home?
“Emily is perfectly safe, Preacher. She’s a smart girl who isn’t likely to get into trouble with these boys. That’s all they are, and you’d do just fine to remember that.” Rachel’s quiet voice was deceptive. Emily knew the Preacher was making her mad, but she would never lose her temper. Not like Emily was about to. Tiptoeing back to the front door, she opened and shut it loudly, announcing her arrival.
“Do you want me to get supper on the table for Preacher, Mama?” She strode into the room, hiding her anger by busying them at the stove. The very idea that these sick men, who had all been so grateful for their help, would take advantage, and she’d be stupid enough to fall for it, was riling.
“No, thank you. Your mama just gave me some butter milk.” Preacher smacked his lips together, making a satisfied noise between his teeth. “I’ll be on my way.” Taking Rachel’s hands in his, he offered, “I’m so sorry, Rachel. Please let me know if I could be of some assistance to you.” He repeated the gesture to Emily, giving a small squeeze, and left.