Authors: Anne Ylvisaker
A wild howl tore through the night.
Ike snapped awake.
“Leon! Jim!” He thrashed his arms to roust his brothers, but the wide bed was empty.
He scrambled to the window. The howling went on, rising and falling like a wounded beast.
Ike tucked his nightshirt into a pair of pants, grabbed his slingshot, and slipped down the stairs and out the back door.
All of Button Row was stirring. Father’s snores sputtered, then stopped. LouLou and Jane called for Mother. A pan clattered next door, and next door to that, babies cried while Aunt Betsy shushed.
Barfoot whinnied in the lean-to. Ike ran to him and stroked his cheek. Across the alley, the Hinman dogs yowled along with the steamer whistle, and Mrs. Hinman hollered for Milton and Morris to just stay put.
Boats didn’t arrive this late. They didn’t wail this long. In the faint light of the half-moon, Ike climbed on Barfoot’s back, urging him to gallop to the street, but Barfoot had only one gait.
Neighbors called out to neighbors. The new family from Kentucky staggered onto their porch in nightclothes. Farther on, Mr. Box threw open his bedroom window and waved his rifle.
“Have we been invaded, then?” he hollered.
“Don’t know!” Ike shouted.
At Seventh, a light flickered in the sanctuary window of Chatham Square Church.
“Wait here,” Ike directed. He left Barfoot by the sycamore, dashed up the steps, and burst in.
The gust from the opening door extinguished the lone candle, but not before Ike saw Reverend Woolley and a colored man turn toward him in surprise.
“Isaac Button, what in tarnation?” thundered the Reverend. He relit the candle.
Mr. Jenkins? At this church?
“I thought Albirdie might be —”
“My girl is in bed and so should you be. Get on, now.”
“Yes, sir.” Ike turned and stumbled out the door, down the steps, and smack into Albirdie Woolley.
“Come on,” she whispered, grabbing his hand and tugging him toward the street. “It’s something terrible or exciting or both.”
Ike pulled away. “Where’s Barfoot?”
“He’s probably on his way home. We’ll get there faster without him.”
The steamer let loose one last long whistle. The silence it left was more urgent than its cry. Albirdie and Ike cut diagonally through yards and empty lots to the boardinghouse on Water Street, then picked their way down the slope to the shore, where a crowd was gathering.
The butter-and-egg man lumbered alongside his son, Junior. A motley band of drunks staggered forward, singing “Pop! Goes the Weasel.” Ike and Albirdie darted around them. There stood Leon and Jim, hemmed in by Mr. Day, the grocer, and Mr. Day’s slow-moving brothers.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Ike demanded, but before Leon and Jim could answer, Albirdie ducked between the men, and Ike and his brothers followed.
“Look!” she cried.
!” said Jim.
The boat hovered like the ghost of an enormous wedding cake just offshore. Acrid smoke filled the air. A man on board was hollering as deckhands built a gangway.
“What’s news?” people kept shouting, so that no one could hear him.
“Quiet!” commanded the butter-and-egg man. The mob simmered, waiting.
The man hollered again. This time his message was passed person to person, and a cheer went up.
“The rebels are in Hannibal!” Leon shouted.
“Iowa’s called up at last!” cried Jim.
“Iowa!” Ike cheered with the rest. “Iowa! Iowa! Iowa!” he yelled until he was hoarse.
Jim hooted and wrestled Leon to the ground. They sprang up and grabbed Ike and Albirdie and spun them around.
“So long, Keokuk!” Leon called, sweeping his arm toward town.
They followed as the throng marched up Main, dispersing to spread the news.
“Good riddance, OK Bakery!” Jim hollered.
“Been nice to know you, Hess Clothing!” Ike shouted. “Don’t forget me, Gate City Carriage!”
Leon shoved Ike playfully. “What’re you good-bying for?” he said. “You’re eleven. You’re not going anywhere.”
Ike stopped. The butter-and-egg man bumped into him, knocking him to the ground.
“Apologies!” he boomed, pulling Ike to his feet and brushing him off. “Where’s my boy? Junior! Wait for your old pa, now. Junior!”
Ike turned and ran to the shore. The steamer’s whistle echoed in his head. The last whiff of smoke hovered in the still air. He listened to the deckhands call back and forth as they tramped along the gangway.
Leon was right.
All these months of waiting for Lincoln’s call to the War Between the States, of watching men learn to be soldiers, parading up and down Main with rakes over their shoulders to stand in for rifles, of laughing at the surprise of soldiers from smaller towns who marveled at the splendor of Keokuk’s four-story buildings and the twenty-five-foot flag at Day Bros. Grocery. All these months, the excitement of war had enveloped Keokuk, like a grand game everyone was in on.
And now his brothers would leave and take that excitement with them. His father and uncles and boy cousins, too.
Ike loaded his slingshot, pulled back, and sent the stone soaring into the lightening sky.
Albirdie came and stood by his side.
“That was a waste of a good rock,” she said.
“I should be going with them.”
Albirdie plucked out a small stone from the river and handed it to Ike. “But you’re not,” she said. “And neither am I.”
“Eleven is not too young for war,” Ike said to Barfoot, who swished his tail agreeably, then lumbered to the yard table and stuck his nose in an unattended pie. The family was milling about behind their attached houses, packing knapsacks and beginning their good-byes.
“Perfect aim. Watch!” said Ike. He held up his slingshot and pivoted slowly, scoping a worthy target: Father and uncles under the oak, inspecting packs; Leon and Jim roughhousing with boy cousins, little girls playing tag around them; lean-to stable; a rickety two-wheeled wagon. No.
“Perfect aim!” He continued revolving: strawberry bushes; green beans climbing tripod stakes; flowering sweet peas; rain barrel, full; woodpile, dwindling.
“Perfect aim!” Three gray houses, paint peeling. One wide connecting porch, sagging. Aunties with armloads of folded shirts and pants banging in and out of two screen doors, while Mother leaned against a third, hankie to her eyes.
And past that third door, the oak again. The men. And above their heads, a nest; a papery wasp nest dangling from the lowest branch. Inside, a buzzing army awaiting orders.
Ike set his feet wide and drew back the stone.
“Fire!” he cried, and everyone ducked.
He released the missile.
It sailed over the yard table, over Barfoot’s head, past brothers and sisters and cousins. Then it grazed Uncle Hugh’s head, smacked into the tree trunk, and dropped into an open knapsack. A lone wasp buzzed over the gathering before flying in an open window.
“Enough nonsense, Isaac!” Father boomed. “Olive, we need another shirt over here for Jim.”
Ike stuck his slingshot in his waistband and pulled Barfoot from the pie. “A breeze took it,” he muttered. “And perfect aim is not nonsense.” The swaybacked pony nickered and smeared his strawberry snout across Cousin Susannah’s back.
“Barfoot,” she said, wiping his nose with her apron, then feeding him a lump of sugar. “You old fool.”