Authors: Gilbert L. Morris
Â© 1996 by
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a real cool cat!
eff left the thick woods and paused to look down on the house lying in the Kentucky valley below. Warm memories of days gone by flashed through his mind.
“I sure do hate to leave this and go back to the war!” he muttered. Then he shrugged his shoulders, hefted his flour sack full of slain rabbits, and made his way along the winding path, down the side of the mountain into the valley still misty in the early dawn.
The War Between the States had forced him and his family to leave Kentucky, which refused to leave the Union, and relocate in Confederate Virginia. This had been his first trip back since before the war began more than a year ago. It seemed sometimes that the fighting would go on forever. Often nightmares of Bull Run and other battles he had endured came back with sharp intensity, and Jeff would wake up in a cold sweat, thrashing around.
War hadn't seemed so terrible when, at fifteen, he had persuaded his father, now Captain Nelson Majors, to allow him to join the Confederate army as a drummer boy. Now, as he thought of how the war might last for years, he grew despondent.
His time with his friends the Carters was at an end. The bright August sunshine had brought a rich tan to his face, and he had enjoyed every day of his visit. Leah Carter and Ezra, the young, wounded
ex-prisoner, were home safe; he could assure his father that little Esther was doing well with her foster family; and his father's troops needed the supplies he had collected. He couldn't stay any longer.
As he reached the foot of the mountain and made his way across a small creek that bent like an elbow, he cast a quick glance at the water, wondering if he had time to go fishing. He brightened. I'll get Leah. We can have one more fishing trip before I have to leave.
That thought cheered him, and he lifted his head and walked quickly to the Carters' small farmhouse. Going around to the back, he dropped his sack of game on the ground and pulled out his sharp knife to begin skinning the rabbits.
“Well, looks like you got enough to feed all of us.”
Jeff looked up to see Mrs. Carter emerge from the house. She was strongly built, with pretty green eyes and blonde hair that was caught at the back of her head in a neat bun. She had been a second mother to Jeff Majors, and her daughter Leah had been his best friend since both learned to walk.
“Got five rabbits,” he said proudly, holding up one of them. “Fat and thumping too. Nothing like a good mess of fried rabbit and poke salad, I always say.”
Mary Carter looked amused. “I hope you'll let the rest of us have a bite or two, Jeff. You brought an appetite like a panther back from the war.”
He knew she was as fond of him as if he were one of her own children.
“I'll go get breakfast started. I'm fixing you one of your special treats for supper tonightâapple pie!”
Jeff's teeth flashed in a broad smile. “Apple pie! Make one just for me, will you? I haven't had good apple pie since I first left Kentucky.”
Jeff turned back to the job of skinning rabbits. Leah's mother watched him for a few minutes as she cooled off from the hot kitchen.
He was tall for his ageâfifteenâwith the blackest hair possible, as dark as a crow's. He had large hands and feet that he still hadn't grown into, and a pair of eyes so black that one had to look close to see the pupils. He had been stringy when he left Kentucky with his family a year ago, but now had begun to fill out.
When Jeff had the rabbits skinned, he brought them to the back porch, laid them in a row on the table, and then washed his hands thoroughly in the basin. After he threw the dirty water into the flower patch below the railing, he reached for the towel hanging from a nail by the back door. He stepped inside and smiled at Sarah Carter, working with her mother at the kitchen sink.
“Well, I've done my part,” he announced. “Now, Sarah, we'll see if you can cook them.” A sly look came over his face, and he grinned, “Tom told me to be sure and sample your cooking. Said he wouldn't marry a woman that couldn't cook.”
Sarah, at eighteen, was one of the prettiest girls in the Pineville area. She had dark brown hair and very dark blue eyes, which she focused on Jeff now. “My cooking's good enough for him. I never saw him turn anything down of mine.”
Her face flushed slightly.
Jeff knew she didn't like to be teased about his older brother. They had been very much in love before the war but now were separated for who
knew how long; nothing was certain anymore. Tensions weren't helped by the fact that Tom was a sergeant in the Confederate army while Sarah's brother, Royal, was a Union soldier.
At once Jeff realized he was on dangerous ground. He said quickly, “Better get a letter written if you want me to take it to Tom. I guess I'll be leaving pretty early in the morning.”
He walked into the living room where he found Mr. Carter playing with Esther, Jeff's baby sister.
Dan Carter looked up, and a grin split his craggy face. “This baby's a lot smarter than you ever were, Jeff. Why, when you were your sister's age, I don't think you had any sense at all!”
Jeff picked the child up. The baby stared at him with wide blue eyes, and he tossed her in the air, making her scream with joy. “I guess she is pretty smart, Mr. Carter,” he said. “Maybe girls are just smarter than boys.” He winked at Leah's father as he tossed Esther once more.
Dan Carter returned his wink and then, gathering his long, thin legs beneath him, rose slowly from the rocking chair, moving carefully as people do who have known much sickness. His once lustrous brown hair, Jeff saw, had faded to a dull, gray-streaked, muddy brown, although his light blue eyes still shone with determined pride. His mouth was firm under a scraggly mustache. He'd been wounded terribly in the Mexican War and would never regain his former strength and vitality.
“Not feeling too well today, Mr. Carter?”
“Oh, I don't complain, Jeff,” he protested. “As long as a man's able to get up and walk and get some good vittlesâand be with his familyâhe shouldn't complain.”
“Guess that's right.” Jeff carried Esther on his shoulders across the room to where an older Carter child, Morena, sat on the floor making shadow figures against the floorboards in the bright morning sunlight that streamed through the open door.
Morena's hair was fully as blonde and her eyes were as blue as baby Esther's. She smiled up at Jeff but didn't move.
Jeff reached out and smoothed down her hair, saying fondly, “I'll miss you when I go, Morena.”
It always saddened him when he looked at this child. She was as old as she would ever be, mentally. Physically, she looked like any other nine-year-old girl, but she had never learned to speak and could perform only the simplest chores, such as feeding and dressing herself. She was happy, it seemed, and for a while Jeff sat on the floor talking to her and allowing the baby to pull his hair with her chubby fingers.
“I don't know what we would've done if you folks hadn't taken Esther, Mr. Carter,” Jeff said abruptly.
“Why, it was little enough to do, Jeff.”
“Take a tiny babyâfor only the Lord knows how long? And with your daughter Morena to care for already?” Jeff shook his head stubbornly. “No, sir, it was a real big thing!”
“If things had been the other way around, your family would have done the same for us,” Dan Carter insisted, sitting back down.
“No way we can ever know that.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Why, you can't go back and do things over!”
“No, Jeff, that's right.” Dan ran his hand over his head, thinking for a moment. “But you can know how people are. I've known your folks for a long
time. I'm telling you, you and your family would have done the same. Your motherâthere never was a better woman!”
“I â¦ I miss her every day.”
“Only right you should, boy. And what would she have done if we couldn't have cared for Morena somehow?”
Jeff cocked his head to one side, then smiled. “She took in
, Ma didâeven sick birds and animals. Why, she took in a pesky baby fox once and nursed it back to health.” He grinned at the memory. “The fool thing bit me! But she loved it.”
“Yes, she was a loving woman. And what would she have done with a baby like Morenaâor your Esther?”
“Loved her to death, I reckon.”
“Well, there you are, Jeff.” Dan smiled. “You don't have to keep on thanking us for taking care of your sister.”
“It's a lot to take on, though.”
“Not to Mrs. Carter, Sarah, and Leah! They dote on that little sister of yoursâand so does Morena.”
Jeff looked over to where Morena was looking down at the baby, cooing and stroking the fine blonde hair. He asked suddenly, “Mr. Carter, will Morena ever be any more growed up?”