The Last April, an excerpt
Enjoy these first chapters of The Last April
Saturday, 15 April 1865
Grove City, Ohio
Everyone else would remember that Saturday as the day President Lincoln died. Gretchen Miller would remember it as the day the ragged man collapsed at her feet.
Gretchen was tugging at weeds and swatting at gnats when a thud made her whip around. The war was over, but Confederate supporters were everywhere. They lingered after General Lee’s surrender, and President Lincoln’s reconciliation speech, and in pro-Union Columbus.
Gretchen swung from her hunched position to lean back on her barefoot heels. Her skirts puffed out with the movement. She slapped them down, annoyed.
Sharp sunlight made it difficult to see. Gretchen thought she saw a collapsed man just yards from her hem. She adjusted her straw hat so it shaded her eyes.
The man was sprawled across the oak tree roots. Gretchen could not tell his age or condition from where she crouched. His back was to her, his dark head resting on his outstretched arm. He was not moving.
“May the angels have charge of me,” Gretchen whispered. She patted the revolver in her skirt pocket.
His leg twitched.
Gretchen’s heart leaped. That dark, matted hair gave her a turn. Maybe it was her brother Werner, returned from war at last. A hundred men from the Grove City area had answered President Lincoln’s call for soldiers. Everyone was afraid of the number that would return.
Gretchen grabbed her skirts as she scrambled to standing. She flailed her arms at the log farmhouse she called home. She could not shout, in case the man had faked his injury and was waiting for an excuse to attack.
Her aunt, Tante Klegg, stuck her head out the kitchen door. “What is it?” Tante Klegg’s heavy German accent was strident in the quiet morning. It matched the severity of her hair braided and twisted tight against her head.
Gretchen put her finger to her lips. She cupped her hands around her mouth so her whisper would carry. “There is a man.” She waved at her aunt to come outside.
Tante Klegg tiptoed across the rocks Gretchen had overturned gardening. She held her skirt layers high above her ankles.
The man remained quiet, only his twitching foot letting them know he lived. Gretchen did not know if that meant he was dangerous or that he was too injured to move.
Gretchen brushed a strand of reddish hair from her mouth as the breeze picked up. Though it was April, the humidity was heavy and stifling. The wind still carried the scent of cooling bonfires from yesterday’s elaborate celebrations.
Last night, Gretchen had danced until her feet ached and sung until her voice was hoarse. She had been ready to do anything to help her country heal. She held onto the president’s words of reconciliation that she read in the newspaper. She hoped everyone could see the Confederates as prodigal brothers and sisters. She hoped the Confederates would be humble and welcomed home.
With a stranger at her feet, Gretchen realized such things were easier said than done. She gripped the revolver hidden in her pocket and held out her other hand to stop her aunt from advancing. Holding her breath, she crept closer.
The man perhaps could have been her brother, once upon a time. His body was gaunt, worn thin by trials Gretchen suspected she would never understand. His left hand did not bear Werner’s distinctive strawberry-shaped birthmark.
This was not her brother.
“So young,” Gretchen said. Like Werner, the man could not have been more than two years older than she was.
Gretchen noted the hollows in his cheeks, which gave him a stark, haunted air even as he slept. His breath was shallow, but labored. His skeletal shoulder jerked under her light touch. He heaved a shuddering breath and turned dazed eyes on her.
The revolver in Gretchen’s skirt pocket had the hammer pulled and the bullet loaded. She could yank the trigger and shoot a bullet through her skirts and into his chest, but the recoil would hurt. She would have to decide fast.
“Have I done it?” he said. His voice cracked and had a distinct drawl.
“Have you done what?” Gretchen said.
The hairs on the back of Gretchen’s neck stood on end. “Escaped? From where?”
“Camp Chase.” He watched her a moment before his eyes rolled back.
A chill ran down Gretchen’s back. Camp Chase was the training barracks four miles due west of Columbus. The government converted a part of it into a Confederate prison not too long after the war started.
Gretchen shook him. His eyes opened to slits.
“Water. Been walking two days.” He lost consciousness.
He hardly looked well enough to have made the five-mile walk to her farm from Camp Chase. Her brother Werner had done it often in a day, but he had been healthy and energetic.
Tante Klegg approached. “He is not dead?” She sounded annoyed by the inconvenience.
Gretchen shook her head. She wondered how a dead man would have been any more convenient than a fainted one.
“What is it you plan to do?”
“What I plan to do?” Gretchen echoed. Somehow, because she had found the stranger, he was her responsibility. Gretchen might have felt peeved had the idea of solving a mystery not taken hold. “He looks like Werner, doesn’t he?” she asked, her head cocked to the side.
Tante Klegg lifted her hands, signaling she did not care. “And?”
“And… I… think we need to move him in the shade. He is bleeding, and thirsty, and likely starved.” Gretchen did not bother mentioning he had escaped from prison.
Tante Klegg grunted. “We will bring him inside.” She rolled him over so they could grab his arms and legs.
Gretchen wondered if her brother was as starved as this man. She imagined Werner trying to get home and failing. She imagined Werner falling at the feet of a girl who wanted to do her part to bring the country back together.
Her father and brother had disappeared fighting for the Union’s sovereignty. Gretchen would do her part, though she was just a farm girl from little Grove City, Ohio.
Gretchen hoped her father and brother had someone like her to help them. She hoped they were in a safe house, with someone who cared about bringing together North and South, Union and Confederate, abolitionist and slaveholder.
In the meantime, Gretchen needed to get this man out of sight.
Saturday, 15 April 1865
Grove City, Ohio
He woke in the luxury of a straw tick bed. His bones ached in ways he had never dreamed possible. The beds at Camp Chase were little more than wooden slats. The hospital lacked the funds and inclination to make their prisoners comfortable.
Rather than hearing shuffling prisoners aiding bedridden peers, he heard… a bird, chirping, and the pleasant hum of insects he associated with a hot, humid day. Maybe everyone was asleep and that was why he could not hear the Camp Chase hustle.
But then there was the fact that the room did not smell right. It should have smelled like unwashed bodies or the stench of those dying and dead of cholera. Instead, there was a powdery sort of floral scent that reminded him of…
Well, something. He just could not think of what it was.
“Gretchen, he wakes,” he heard a woman say.
He opened his eyes to see wide skirts sweeping from the room. That confirmed it. He was not at Camp Chase. The only woman allowed in the prison had died a year ago, of the smallpox she had helped her doctor-husband fight. He, too, was long dead.
The fact that he had left Camp Chase should have been a relief. But the woman’s harsh accent filled him with dread. He had never heard anyone speak like that before, not even in the prison. Was he with friends, or in a smaller, more lavish prison?
“He’s awake?” he heard a younger voice from outside the door. Whereas the older woman sounded annoyed, this Gretchen sounded excited. “Has he said anything? Can we keep him?”
“Lord above, Gretchen,” the older voice said. “You do not ask to keep a man the way children ask to keep a dog.”
“Tante Klegg,” Gretchen said, her laughter bubbling. “You know I don’t mean it like that. It wouldn’t be right to send him away, not when he needs our help.”
“It is why he needs our help that I think he should go away,” Tante Klegg said.
Footsteps padded toward the room.
He figured Gretchen must be barefoot. Too pained to move, he scanned the sparse room. Compared to Camp Chase, he felt spoiled.
The walls were rough log panels, whitewashed. Beside his bed was a rickety nightstand topped by a tin pitcher and cup. A chair was at the foot of his bed. Someone had put the remnants of his shoes below the chair and draped his tattered jacket on the seat. His haversack was nowhere in sight. The room had a single window, covered by a large piece of burlap. Above him was a posy of field flowers, hanging from a nail on the wall.
Nothing to tell me where I am, he thought, frustrated.
A fresh face peeked in the doorway. Gretchen’s, he assumed. Two auburn braids swung past her shoulders. Her calico skirts were not as wide as Tante Klegg’s. Gretchen smiled at him as if they were old friends and kept many secrets together.
He shrunk away. He had no friends but the man who sent him from the prison hospital.
“Don’t worry,” Gretchen said, stepping into the room. Her swaying full skirts revealed bare feet with dirt-speckled toes. She glanced behind her and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I didn’t tell my aunt where you’re from.”
His eyes widened, wondering what she could know about where he was from. He rubbed his forehead. His fingers stopped when they touched a frayed fabric edge he did not remember. He glanced down at his pillow to find it bloodied.
Perhaps the people who had moved him to the straw tick bed had also bandaged his forehead. He hoped that he had not, in his muddled mind, told her he was a prisoner. So much for mercy… no doubt there was a local authority on the way now to take him back to camp.
Gretchen bit her lip, suppressing a grin. “This is exciting,” she admitted, still whispering. She leaned close so he could hear. “I’ve never met a prisoner before.”
All right, so he had told her he was a prisoner. He hoped he had passed out before saying much else.
“I’m not—” His voice cracked and he felt his cheeks burn. He cleared his throat while Gretchen poured water from the pitcher.
He noticed how Gretchen kept a hand in her skirts. It mimicked the way prison guards rested their hands on their hip holsters. War had changed the world if this slight young woman carried a weapon in her home, miles from any battle.
Gretchen handed him the tin cup, her brows raised. “You’re not admitting you’re a prisoner?” She crossed her arms and studied him.
He stared at the cup in his hand.
“It’s not poisoned,” she said.
“Don’t see why I’d admit anything, ma’am, in my situation,” he said before sipping.
Gretchen glanced at the door in case Tante Klegg appeared. “Well, you’re determined to not make this easy,” she said, frowning. “You told me you escaped from Camp Chase, so that’s against you. And you don’t look like any Union soldier I’ve seen walking to Columbus for mustering out. You might as well admit it. You’re in no condition to go anywhere.”
He glared at Gretchen over the cup’s rim. If he were less exhausted, he would tell her a thing or two to wipe that smirk off her face. Who did she think she was?
Then he noticed her sleeve had blood on it. He figured it had to be his. Gretchen must have cradled his head, perhaps while bandaging it. He was in no position to show a temper; she was right about that.
“Why did you come to my farm? Why not leave on the trains with the other prisoners? It’s in the newspapers. They’re releasing people by the hundreds.” Gretchen sat in the chair at the foot of his bed, resting her hands in her lap.
He remembered seeing her, too far away to make it worth the effort to call out. And then, she hovered over him, asking where he came from. And him admitting, like the fool he was, that he had escaped from Camp Chase.
“You don’t like to talk much, do you?” Gretchen asked. She slipped her hand back into her skirts. “I told you I didn’t tell my aunt where you came from, and I won’t tell Mama, either. It would only get both of us in trouble.”
He took another swig of water. “Why bother, then?”
Gretchen’s head tilted. “For the adventure?”
“Adventure has a way of being nothing like you expect,” he said.
Gretchen leaned back, having the nerve to pout. “Well, I did save you. And my Tante Klegg is too smart to say anything to anyone else until we know who you are.” She waited for him to speak. “Well, come on then, who are you?”
He touched the bandage on his head. Maybe Gretchen was worth trusting.
“I’m…” He blinked at her, waiting for the words to come. He rubbed his eyes hard. His right ear began to hurt. A roaring noise crowded his brain. He was more tired than he thought.
Of course he knew his own name.
Gretchen’s eyes narrowed. “You won’t tell me?”
His mouth began to water, and he swallowed with a grimace. “I don’t know it.”
Her fists perched on her hips. “You must think I don’t know beans.”
He scratched the crown of his head, shifting the bandage. He patted it back in place. “Doc said I was in real trouble for a while. Maybe lost some of my mind from the fever.”
“Which battle gave you the fever?” Gretchen asked. “Maybe we could find a newspaper and your name.”
He shrugged, not sure it mattered. Those lists of living and dead and missing never got it right. He knew two men who had read of their deaths while in the prison! Fact was, they had sent him straight to the hospital barracks, and no one ever asked his name. Whoever called his name expecting an answer would have counted him among the dead by now.
“Well, I have to call you something. My aunt will insist you have a name. She’s proper about things like that,” Gretchen mused. She glanced at the door again, expecting Tante Klegg to appear any moment. “And my aunt will like you better if you’re German.”
“Are you German?” he asked, unsure how else to respond.
“Mama and Tante Klegg are, so, yes.” Gretchen snapped her fingers. “We’ll call you Karl. Karl is a steady German name.” She stood, turning her back to him. “We’ll say your mother is German, and your father is American, like me. Mama will have to take pity on you. You’ll remind her of my brother.”
“Tell falsehoods to your mother often, then?”
Gretchen paused, her hand on the doorknob. “When it suits me, why not? My aunt says I’m blessed with knowing souls. That has to count for something.”
“How can you know the soul of a man who doesn’t know his own name?” he scoffed.
“Gretchen!” Tante Klegg called. “Your mama wants to speak with you. Now.”
Gretchen shook her head at Karl. “It’s always now, now, now with Tante Klegg. You’ll learn. Don’t keep her waiting.”
Karl blinked at the hem of Gretchen’s sweeping skirts as she scampered away. Should’ve stayed at the prison.