When the first soldier died, Emily and Rachel wrapped his body in cloth, and some of the soldiers dug a grave in the family cemetery, and they had a small service for him. The ones that were able attended, and the Evans family looked on.
Death was a normal part of life, especially a life as hard as theirs. People died. Animals died. More were born. And the cycle continued. But something about this man—this stranger—coming to her farm to die made Emily think harder about soldiers in general. For once, she entertained the notion her father, brother, and fiancé wouldn’t come home. Had Jakob, Papa, and John been buried with respect on some farmer’s property, or had they decomposed with fallen brethren on a foreign battlefield? She didn’t want to think too much about it, but couldn’t stop the thoughts from surfacing. It seemed the life she had once known was getting dimmer with memory, while her unknown future was speeding toward her at a breakneck pace. She would probably never again dance with Jakob under the stars at an Independence Day picnic, or brush her thigh against his while they sat in church together. That thought hurt. Poignancy and regret pummeled her as the soldiers silently stood around the grave of their friend. She could only hope that her men had gotten the same respect.
Later, Emily was doing the wash, while most of the able men were working on chores: chopping wood, fetching water, cleaning the barn, and more pasture work. Emily was lost in the tedium of stirring the pot, when she heard an exhalation of air behind her. She spun around to see Isaack lowering himself at the base of the nearby tree. He’d been up and about, in spurts, during the day, although he spent most of his time on his pallet in the barn with the other sick men. She was happy to see his coloring looked better, but the thin sheen of sweat on his brow concerned her.
Walking over to him, she felt of his forehead. After the heat of the fire, though, it only felt clammy.
“I’m alright. I just needed out of the barn for a while. Feel the sun.” His voice was raspy, yet seemed kind, although he still had that dangerous feel about him. Emily wondered what it was about him that made him seem that way. Was it his dark hair, so wild about his face, coming down well below his collar? The stormy eyes? His untamed beard, rough and shaggy? Or the fact his clothes were so tattered and torn she could see more skin than was appropriate. Of course, they all sort of looked that way, and Emily decided it might be the set of his shoulders, or the way he held his arms stiffly at his sides, as if his muscles were tensed and ready for a fight all the time.
“I’d be happy to give you a haircut and a shave, if you like, after I finish with the wash,” she offered, in an attempt to get him to relax. Emily regretted the words almost as soon as she uttered them. She hadn’t offered any of the other men haircuts, nor anything as intimate as a shave. But something primal inside Isaack made her insides restless. When he was in the barn with the others, she could easily distract herself with the endless chores about the farm. But with him outside, watching her, she was helpless against the onslaught of fidgetiness.
Isaack quickly turned all thoughts of Jakob to guilty feelings when he was around. She wasn’t sure why, except there was a longing there that shouldn’t be. A longing to talk to Isaack, to get to know him, to see him smile, to know what was under that untamed, dangerous exterior. And Emily understood it was utterly wrong.
“I’d be much obliged. Thank you.” He spoke low, sending a tremor through her body, even in the heat of the yard.
“Well, if you can manage a wash in the creek while I finish up, you’d feel much better.” She turned back to her work, dropping a bar of soap at his feet. Emily willed herself to focus on the task at hand, and not let herself get carried away with fanciful thoughts of this man she didn’t know.
When she looked back, Isaack wore a smile. An actual smile, aimed at her. It took her breath away.
He didn’t speak, but grabbed at the soap and managed to stand, leaning heavily on a walking stick as he made his way through the path in the woods.
She wondered if he was strong enough to walk all the way to the creek and back. He hadn’t been out of bed long, a few days at most. But he seemed to understand, as she did, that exercise and sunshine were good for the soul. And she tried not to worry too much about him as he was gone. By the time she was hanging the laundry on the line to cool, he still wasn’t back, and she began to worry a bit. But by the time she was finished and hanging sheets on the line to dry, he was back and resting under the tree again. She had no idea when he’d made it back, only that she was glad he hadn’t fainted in the water and drowned.
She went inside to get her scissors and a towel, then out to ask Mr. Potter if she could borrow his straight razor, since Papa had taken his when we left. Emily was glad Mr. Potter was the soldier around while she looked for a razor. She didn’t want to ask Abe, afraid Abe would want her to shave him too. There was a distinct difference between Abe and his leering looks, and Isaack and his quiet watchfulness.
Emily stood behind Isaack cutting his hair in an uncomfortable silence. For some reason, her hands shook, and her breathing was odd. It hitched around with the pounding of her heart in her chest. It was as if she’d been running around the house, but knew it was because of Isaack and his nearness, and the intimacy of what she was doing. She didn’t understand her feelings around this man. She’d never felt anything like it before, but it was a torturous bliss she couldn’t explain. Instead, she forced herself to pretend it was little Jaimie instead, whose hair she had her fingers buried in, whose scalp she scratched as she finger combed the hair to grab clumps of it to cut. She only hoped she didn’t do anything with this wonderful feeling to embarrass herself.
If the hair cut was going to be this awkward, what would touching his face to shave it be like?
She found out soon enough. Sitting cross-legged in front of him, she focused on the hair she was about to remove instead of the gray eyes focused intently on her, and the lips she was working around. As she snipped away the longer beard with scissors, Emily couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since Isaack had seen his face. She wondered if it would be angular and hard like the rest of him, or soft and fleshy like Jakob’s.
Thoughts of Jakob sent a shock through her. She paused with the scissors in the air, as she remembered her fiancé and the war he had been forced off to fight. Emily filled her mind with his face as she remembered it, tanned from working in the sun, bright green eyes shining happily at her, the dimple on his left cheek when he smiled.
Jakob. She must remember Jakob.
She was wrong to think of things she shouldn’t want with this man in front of her.
Isaack’s eyes searched her face for answers to the questions he wasn’t asking. Emily’s lips thinned as she resolved herself to get this over with. Isaack wasn’t her love, Jakob was. Any fantasies she entertained to the contrary were just that—fantasy. And it would be an absolute betrayal, to think of Isaack that way while Jakob was fighting to come home to her.
She tamped down the fluttering, and ignored her irregular breathing, as she focused on shaving Isaack’s beard off. When his face was finally revealed, it was as she’d expected: hard and angular, with chiseled cheekbones that emphasized the gray of his eyes under bushy brows. If anything, it made him more dangerous looking, as his eyes still looked at her, squinted with questions he didn’t voice. She ignored his eyes, even as she ignored the fluttering in her belly that she’d never felt with Jakob.
By the time she’d finished, she was shaking so badly with nerves, she was afraid she would cut him. But Isaack never flinched, he just sat there letting her rasp the razor across his skin. He continued to stare at her, with that intense look in his eyes, and Emily finally crumbled. She couldn’t do any more with him.
“There you go. All done. I’m going to start supper. You should go lay down. You look tired.” She stood, gathering her things, and fled, feeling foolish. It wasn’t like anything had happened, but she’d obviously felt an attraction to him, and actually entertained it, before the reminder of Jakob had slapped her in the face. And the fact she’d had to be reminded of Jakob was a shame. As her intended, he should be forefront in her mind at all times, even though she hadn’t seen him in two years.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Rachel and Emily sat at the kitchen table. It had become a routine for them since the soldiers had come. Most of the time, they just rested and enjoyed each other’s silence, but tonight Rachel let Emily in on her plans.
Emily had stopped doubting her mother’s crazy schemes a long time ago. When the North had blockaded the Mississippi river, making it impossible to sell their cotton, Rachel hadn’t batted an eyelash, converting everything to corn. She’d used credit at the general store, and planted the fields with corn instead of cotton, and they’d managed to keep their heads afloat for the two years since, even managing two yields a year to make up for the lack of muscle on their female-run, family farm. So, even though she was nervous about the Union soldiers on their farm, so far nothing untoward had happened, aside from Abe, the slightly flirty soldier who was relentless, yet seemed to be harmless. Rachel seemed to know what she was doing.
“So, what’s next, Mama?” She asked, curious to know if her mama actually had a plan, or if she was deciding what to do as they went along.
“Well, it was surely serendipitous that these boys showed up when they did. But we will help them, and they will help us. We just brought in the last of the harvest, and I’m going to see if I can’t talk a few into staying behind to help with the next yield. I’ve already talked to Mr. Potter about helping with the planting next week, and he seemed happy to oblige.”
Mr. Potter was the New York corn farmer who’d loaned her the razor, and seemed a personable fellow. A bit older than the others, he seemed thankful for the rest from the grueling pace of soldier’s life, eager for the farm work.
“I feel like we’ll lose a few more before the sick ones begin to get better, but in the meantime, we’ll keep feeding them and giving them shelter. Once they start getting better, we’ll put the ones who are willing to work. We’ll butcher while they’re here. The holes in the chicken house needs repairs, and the corn crib needs some better fortification, and there’s always fences to mend. There’s corn to shuck, and chores to do. We can make this farm profitable before they leave, and then the bankers won’t be able to take it.”
The unasked question had been lurking in Emily’s mind for days now, and she had to ask it. “What happens when Papa comes home, and the farm is filled with men he’s spent the last four years fighting?”
Rachel’s eyes softened, and she reached for Emily’s hand. “Your father is a reasonable man. I’m sure he’s just as ready for the fighting to be over as everyone else. He would be grateful we’ve been able to keep the farm for him to come home to.” Her smile was watery, and Emily almost regretted the question.
“I’m sorry, Mama. You’re right.”