Excerpt from The Last April

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The Last April by Belinda Kroll is available in eBook and print. Audio book coming Summer 2021!

One

Saturday, 15 April 1865 / Columbus, 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.

“Escaped.”

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.

Gretchen frowned.

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.

Two

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.

Three

Saturday, 15 April 1865 / Grove City, Ohio

“Slow down,” Gretchen heard her mother say to Tante Klegg. They were on the porch just outside the kitchen, which adjoined Werner’s bedroom. “You know I cannot understand when you snarl.”

Instead, Tante Klegg shouted, not bothering to translate from German. She pounded the wall with her fist.

Gretchen understood enough to know she should stop eavesdropping, unless she wanted more trouble.

Gretchen’s mother sighed.  “Why do you do this?” she asked. “We are in America. We are Americans. We should speak English.”

Silence outside.

Gretchen imagined her mother, market basket in hand, and Tante Klegg, towering over her. She stoked the cooling stove fire so if they entered, she would look busy.

The silence continued, unnerving her. Usually, Tante Klegg would retort when her mother demanded she speak English. For Tante Klegg to remain silent could only mean she was too angry to say a word. Gretchen poked at the fire a little harder, hoping the next words out of Tante Klegg’s mouth were not that they had found a prisoner and put him on Werner’s bed.

Gretchen’s mother had a terror of Confederates. She hoped when her mother saw Karl, she would change her mind. After all, Karl could hardly carry a tin cup. His eyes had the dazed brightness of a child woken from a nightmare and his forehead sweat with a light fever. His halting words and labored breathing emphasized his weakness.

Karl was too ill to harm anyone.

“Stop hiding,” Tante Klegg said, raising her voice as if Gretchen could not hear her. “Come tell your mama what you have done.”

Gretchen whispered a prayer for courage.

She heard Tante Klegg snort. “Praying will not help you!”

“Edelgard,” her mother chided. She also raised her voice, since Gretchen had yet to walk outside. “Gretchen, come. Your Tante Klegg tells me you have done a terrible thing.”

Gretchen smoothed her skirts so the revolver would be difficult to detect. No need to worry her mother before explaining things.

“Not a terrible thing, Mama,” Gretchen said, walking outside.

“Annoying, then?” Her mother’s hands rested on her stomach, and when she smiled, her nose crinkled. She never let her smiles for Gretchen reach her hazel eyes.

“I think for Tante Klegg, yes,” Gretchen admitted. She dropped her gaze to her hem and clasped her hands behind her back.

Her aunt huffed, but she did not argue.

“Then you must tell me what you did. You have made it my problem to solve again, I think,” her mother said. “And then I must tell you my news.”

Gretchen paused at the sound of her mother’s choked voice and looked up.

Her mother’s eyes seemed bloodshot in the harsh afternoon shadows. She clasped her hands together and pulled them apart, suddenly seeming frantic enough to burst. She looked from Tante Klegg to Gretchen and back.

It had to be news about Papa. Or Werner. Gretchen pushed Tante Klegg aside and grabbed her mother. “What is it? Are they hurt?”

Tears welled in her mother’s eyes and her mouth moved, but she made no sound.

“Stop sniveling, Adelaide,” Tante Klegg said.

Gretchen’s mother shook her head. “No, no, my news is not about them. I do not know if they are safe or dead! My son, what will come of him?”

Gretchen gripped tighter, glaring into her mother’s face. “Papa and Werner will return; don’t you dare say they’ve died.”

Her mother stifled a sob behind pressed lips.

Gretchen softened her hold into a light hug. Her mother maintained her posture, refusing to lean into Gretchen’s arms. “What is it, then?”

“Our president. He is dead!”

Gretchen exchanged a puzzled look with Tante Klegg. The war was over. President Lincoln and the Union were the victors. The newspaper had just shared his speech about reconciliation with their rebellious southern brothers. The president could not be dead. Someone must have been teasing her in the market.

“Where did you hear this? There was no news of his illness,” Tante Klegg said.

Her mother’s skin was a mottled red, her tidy hair falling from its careful coif. “Not illness! Murder.” She did not give Gretchen or Tante Klegg time to understand. “Killed by an ungrateful, rascal Confederate sympathizer.”

Gretchen’s stomach churned. She wondered if she was about to taste her breakfast a second time.

“A Confederate killed the president?” Tante Klegg asked, glancing at the house.

Gretchen knew what she was thinking. They had just put a Confederate in Werner’s bedroom. And he was not dead.

“What more is there to know?” her mother said. “A young man leaped at the president, shot him, and ran away. For all the papers know, he could be in Ohio by now!”

Tante Klegg threw a nasty, satisfied smile at Gretchen. The expression dashed her hopes of explaining “Karl” to her hysterical mother.

“I think it is time to tell your mother your news,” Tante Klegg said to Gretchen. She took the trouble to sit on the porch steps.

“Do you not hear me, Edelgard?” Her mother advanced on her aunt. “The president is dead. Someone murdered him! The war will never end now, and we will never see Werner or Gregory again!”

Tante Klegg waved her sister’s concerns away. “You worry about the wrong things, Adelaide. Ask your daughter what she has done, and you will see why it is important.”

Gretchen froze.

“Tell me, then,” her mother said, “if you think it is so important.” In the awkward silence that followed, she studied Gretchen. “Is that blood on your sleeve? Werner?”

Gretchen snatched her mother’s elbow to stop her. “No, no, Mama, not Werner, not anyone we know. He is not… from… this area.”

Her mother stared at her, her expression darkening.

Gretchen gulped. “I think the young man is a rebel, Mama. I think he came from Camp Chase.”

“A rebel!”

“He’s fresh from Camp Chase, Mama. There is no way this man could have shot the president. He’s weak. He’s just a boy.”

Her mother frowned, her brows scrunched together. “Boys know how to use guns, Gretchen, and this boy might have shot your Papa, or Werner.”

Gretchen winced.

“Show me.” Before Gretchen could stop her, her mother rushed into the kitchen. Her hoop skirts flew up, revealing dusty petticoats as she burst into Werner’s bedroom.

Gretchen chased her, Tante Klegg close behind. They stumbled over each other trying to get into Werner’s bedroom first.

“Get out of my son’s bed,” her mother shrieked, ripping the blanket from Karl.

Karl cowered, curling into a fetal position with big eyes as Gretchen’s mother clawed at his thin frame.

“Mama, stop,” Gretchen said, prying her mother from Karl. She looked at Tante Klegg for help, having never seen her mother so hysterical.

Tante Klegg watched from the doorway, arms crossed over her chest. “Adelaide, let go of the child.”

“This is not a child. This is a man. And he is a Confederate. What more do we need to know? Have you sent for the sheriff?”

“Of course not,” Gretchen said, panting. “He isn’t dangerous. Look at him. He’s shivering like a leaf.”

Karl’s teeth chattered and the old bed quaked with him. He watched Gretchen’s mother as if his life depended on her. Perhaps it did.

“He does look pitiful,” Gretchen’s mother said.

“He is pitiful,” Gretchen said, snatching the opportunity. “We had to carry him into the house. This can’t be the man who shot the president.”

Her mother did not take her gaze from the shaking Karl.

Karl glanced at Gretchen, beseeching and frightened.

“Think about it, Mama,” Gretchen continued. “Why would he stay in Ohio? Wouldn’t he go straight south?” She touched her mother’s arm. “Mama, what if this was Werner, trying to get home to us? Wouldn’t you want some girl to take care of him until he could make his way home?”

“Devilish child! Playing with my emotions like that!”

Tante Klegg entered the room to replace the blanket over Karl. “She is right, though, Adelaide. You would want Werner watched over.”

Gretchen, surprised by Tante Klegg’s endorsement, smiled at her. Tante Klegg’s expression was thoughtful.

“This is true,” Gretchen’s mother admitted.

Somewhere in the distance, church bells began tolling.

“They are marking the death of the president,” her mother whispered. “And we stand here with a man who might as well have done it himself.”

Gretchen played with the end of her braid, looking from her mother to Karl to her aunt. President Lincoln had said everyone had to do his or her part to reconcile after the war. But Karl was a Confederate on the day President Lincoln died. Killed by some Confederate actor, her mother babbled.

Gretchen’s eyes narrowed. She had never seen an actor, but she knew they were master liars. Their entire purpose was to lie to people, to make them believe what was not real. Karl could be pretending to not remember his name. He could be lying about having escaped Camp Chase. She had no idea how far she was from the nation’s capital, but while it sounded impossible, there were trains to cross the country in a hurry.

Gretchen watched Karl as he hid under the blanket. She hoped she was right in thinking there was no way he could be the killer.

Four

Saturday, 15 April 1865/ Grove City, Ohio

They were talking about him again. They were always talking about him. Always as if he were not there, the spiteful things. As if he could not hear their disgust and worry. He knew he was not the cleanest prisoner, but he had taken care to wash his face on occasion.

His head felt hot, so hot, and heavy, so heavy, and… red. He felt red. Could a person feel red? If they could, that was how he felt. Red, hot, heavy, wet. His eyes were wide, yet he could not see. That should worry him, but the blurred shapes soothed his aching head. He clutched his arms close and shivered. Seemed he was not quite over his fever spells. He dreaded the confusion that was certain to take over.

Female voices spoke, rather than the male voices he had grown accustomed to hearing. He was glad they had allowed women back into the prison. They were gentler with their poking and prodding to see if he was still alive. They tried to smile to bolster his hopes.

He looked up at a whitewashed ceiling. That was a nice touch. Made the small room seem bigger; all that white to bounce the sunlight around.

He could hear himself panting. He knew he did not have the breath to ask for medicine. He hoped maybe they could read his pained expression and relieve him without asking.

But no, the women had no time to look at him, other than to point at him and raise their voices. Arguing did not seem helpful for a hospital barracks. Not when they could go to the next man in the cot down the way. It was so quiet. Had all the other prisoners died? Maybe that was why they argued about him. He was the last one, and they were not sure what to do with him.

Oh, they were arguing whether he should stay? He could answer that question: no. He opened his mouth and felt his lip crack open. The sudden iron taste of blood startled him. He wondered when he last had water. He had been in the prison long enough for someone to give him water.

Water. The thought made him lick his lips and sigh the way other prisoners did when thinking about girls back home.

That was right; the young woman had given him a sip from a cup. He looked around for the cup, but with his unclear head, he had trouble finding it.

The voices rose an octave. He winced. If they did not want him in Camp Chase, that was fine by him. He did not want to stay anyway. Who would? Crowded, sweaty, muddy. All day, every day. Random gun shots in the night. Prisoners without an arm or leg or heart, shot because they were trying to light a fire in the frigid winter air.

But it was not winter anymore. He had walked in hot, humid weather. His lip bled from being so parched. It was April, springtime; time for Pa to try to pull him from school again.

He struggled to remember if Pa had planted the crops already, or if there had been a late frost. Or was it last year that had the late frost? No, that could not be right. Last year he had been on the battlefield. But not this year either, since this year was this year. He had not gone to school, because he had not been home, because he had been in a prison.

It had been so long since he had been home. And even when he was home he was not home, though he was not sure how that worked.

Home. That was where he wanted to be, but nobody wanted him there. That was why he had gone off to war. At least that was how he remembered it, sort of. Signed up to escape a lack of wanting and needing him. He had to belong somewhere, so perhaps he belonged on the battlefield.

“Mein Gott,” one of the women said. The older one. The angry one. “He has lost his mind.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and blinked. There was that harsh accent again. Almost made it sound as if he had regained his voice and just maybe had been talking all this time.

That was unfortunate if true. He had no idea what he was blabbering about. His mind was every which way, and then some, which seemed like a lot of ways to….

He licked his lip again and tasted that familiar cold tang of iron. Lips chapped and bleeding, but at least his blood was warm and flowing, not cool and sticky.

“Make him stop,” said the younger woman, the one who looked like the angry one, only not so angry.

But the younger woman had yelled and clawed at him. She had ripped his blanket away. Perhaps she was the angry one. No, that did not seem fair. The older woman looked angry always. The younger woman looked angry because of a sad situation. Now that was a clever thought, insightful on his part, he felt: angry because of sadness.

“Mama, he’s fevered,” said the youngest of all, the one who kept a hand in her pocket like a man keeping a hand on his holster.

Oh yes, she must have a gun. She must be ready to shoot. Why would she not just shoot? It would end the argument, and maybe he would be in a home better than any he could find on earth.

“He doesn’t know what he’s saying. You don’t know what you’re saying,” the youngest said to him.

She said her name was Gretchen. That was right, Gretchen. He would hold onto that. Gretchen. And she had given him a name. Karl. Yes, Karl, a good German name, because she said he had to have a German ­­­mother.

That sounded comforting. Karl thought he liked the idea of a German mother. He could have a good German mother who would make sausages. He would eat the sausages in the casing. A horse was dead beneath him on the battlefield. He saw sausage links rolling from its stomach. Not appetizing when the sausages steamed like that, still connected to a dying body.

“Don’t shoot me,” he screamed.

“I’m not going to shoot you,” Gretchen said, but even she did not sound convinced.

“Who gave you a gun?” Her mother backed away.

“Papa did,” Gretchen said, “because he knew you wouldn’t use it.”

“Give it to me, I will use it,” the oldest of all retorted. Tante Klegg; that was her name. A harsh name for a harsh woman. Karl decided he did not like Tante Klegg.

“And that’s the other reason why Papa gave me the gun,” Gretchen shot back, “because he knew you would use it.”

Gretchen’s logic did not make sense, but Karl liked it anyway. Her logic made the angry one, Tante Klegg, quiet.

“Let me see it,” said Gretchen’s mother. He did not know her name.

“I’m not going to reveal my weapon before I’m good and ready to use it, Mama,” Gretchen said.

Karl felt a goofy grin spreading across his face.

“What if we die because he shot the president?” Tante Klegg said.

“He’s feverish and weak. I wouldn’t worry,” Gretchen said.

“Hey now,” Karl said. That time, he knew he spoke, and he knew what he said while speaking. Perhaps the fever confusion was passing. “I can shoot an apple off a galloping horse!”

“Oh?” Gretchen asked, her frustration forgotten, her eyes alight with curiosity and maybe even a challenge.

“Gretchen, this is a stranger in your brother’s bed. Not a new shooting partner,” Tante Klegg said. “You forget yourself and your time. We are at war with this boy.”

“No, we’re not,” Gretchen said, whipping out her revolver, finally.

Karl scooted back in the bed. His entire body cringed. His face flushed with shame. A real soldier, a real man, would not have cringed, or cowered, or wished all this would just stop.

Gretchen’s mother screamed and threw her hands to her mouth. She stared at Gretchen as if  she were a stranger.

Tante Klegg crossed her arms. The only hint to Karl of her alarm was that one of her eyebrows rose.

Karl took another look at the revolver in Gretchen’s hand. She pointed it at the puncheon floor. It still had the safety set and the hammer unlocked. He looked at Tante Klegg, who watched him with a calculating expression. He had the eerie feeling she knew what he did, that Gretchen was just being dramatic.

“We aren’t at war anymore,” Gretchen said.

Karl heard the undercurrent charging Gretchen’s voice. She attempted to sound calm and in control, even though she knew she was neither.

“Mr. Lincoln said, ‘old as well as new, north as well as south.’ He said that. He said it in Columbus, before the war, before he was even president.” Gretchen paused. “He said it, and he meant it, and Papa and Werner surely wouldn’t have gone to war if they didn’t believe it. We’re all in this together. Otherwise, we all have to be at war.”

Gretchen talked in circles, which was about how the room was spinning.

“Yes,” Tante Klegg said. “Look where that landed him. His pretty words landed him where it lands everyone.”

Tante Klegg watched Karl with that calculating expression. Her dark eyes were unnerving. It took forever for her to blink.

Karl wondered whether Germans believed in witches. He wondered whether he believed in witches. Perhaps Tante Klegg was a witch. He wondered if that belief had any effect on whether Tante Klegg could harm him with her powers.

Tante Klegg’s expression hid behind guns in a frigid field trying to decide who would shoot first. He never did. He never shot first. It made no sense that he was alive, knowing he never shot first. It made no sense that he was in a strange bed, pestered by strange women who shouted about dead presidents.

Karl shook his head. “Which one?” His voice warbled, but otherwise was clear.

The women stared at him as if he had lost his mind. Well, he might have. No, he had. He could not remember his own name now, could he?

“Which one what?” Gretchen said.

Karl gulped, not believing Gretchen did not know what he was asking. A girl who talked in circles could think in circles, which was all Karl could do at the moment. And here he had thought they were so alike. Neither was keen on the war continuing, that much he knew.

“Which president?” Karl asked. He wiped sweat from his brow before it stung his eyes. “Which president died?”

Gretchen’s mother drew up to her full, if short, height. Her blue eyes sparked, and the corner of her mouth twitched. “The president has died. There is only one.”

Karl hugged the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Davis or Lincoln, Lincoln or Davis? He was always hearing those names in the prison. Debates and chants and all sorts of nonsense, always rallying, though to what, he never knew. To death, perhaps, since that was how it ended for most in a war. What glory was death? Death was an escape from trudging through mud and gnawing on moldy, maggoty hardtack.

Karl rubbed his forehead again. He did not understand why he could remember details like that, but not his name, his home, or his family. So he held onto the names he could remember. President Lincoln and President Davis. President Lincoln. President Davis. Lincoln. Davis. Union. Confederate. Dead. Alive.

It took Karl a moment to realize everyone was staring at him, horrified. He had not been chanting in his head.

“There is no such thing as a President Davis,” Tante Klegg said, her voice piercing him.

Karl frowned.

“Why are we watching over this fool?” Gretchen’s mother demanded, waving her hand at him. “He does not even know which president is worth mourning!”

“I would guess he didn’t know the war ended this week. Or in our favor,” Gretchen said.

Well, she was right about that. Karl had not known the war was over. He certainly had not known the Confederacy had lost. Other soldiers, the ones in the prison and on the trains, were no doubt disheartened by such news. He felt a weight lift his shoulders. He almost did not recognize what he felt was relief.

“So President Davis died?” Karl asked, tentative.

Tante Klegg threw her hands up to the ceiling and rolled her eyes.

“President Lincoln died,” Gretchen’s mother said, “at the hand of one of your kind.”

Karl did not care for Mr. Lincoln, but he did not think that made him against Mr. Lincoln, either. Even at Camp Chase, Karl had avoided the debates about how the war would end. Prisoners were unsure the Confederacy could win despite the encouragement from home.

Karl could only remember thinking it was a shame he was missing it. Not the shooting and killing. There was something just beyond his reach. He knew he was missing something. He had an assignment to do.

“He does not show remorse or any mourning!” Gretchen’s mother said.

“That’s not a sign of guilt, Mama,” Gretchen was quick to say.

“Perhaps,” Tante Klegg said, “but we have nothing to say he is not guilty. Except your belief that he is too ill to have done it.”

Gretchen tucked her revolver in her pocket. Postures relaxed. “We’re wasting our time talking about this,” she said.

“I am sorry to hear Mr. Lincoln passed on,” Karl said. He sounded as polite as a pastor. He might as well have said he was sorry to hear the neighbor’s dog had dug up the flowers. “But I don’t understand. Killed by one of my kind?” He rubbed his head, pausing when his fingers hit a thick bandage. “A prisoner?”

“A Confederate!” Gretchen’s mother said, leaping forward with her hands out ready to strangle him. Tante Klegg grabbed one of her arms, throwing her off balance. They tripped and fell to the ground in a pile of shrieks and skirts.

Karl stared at them, seeing more ankles than he ever had in his entire life. He felt his face bloom with embarrassment and he averted his gaze to the ceiling. “If you think I… if you believe I’m… well, what am I doing in your house?”

Gretchen’s mother and aunt paused untangling their skirts to glare at her.

“You’re not helping,” Gretchen said to Karl through gritted teeth. She cleared her throat. “If you’re guilty, then we’ve captured the murderer. We’re heroes. We stopped the war from continuing because we’ll have stopped the last spirit of hope for the rebels.”

Karl’s stomach dropped. He was glad his stomach was empty; otherwise, he would have emptied it all over his pillow. Karl did not remember much before Camp Chase. He did know he had not wanted the war to continue. He had been almost glad they sent him to prison because it meant fewer bullets whizzing past his head. “How would killing Mr. Lincoln continue the war?”

Gretchen’s mother took her arm to pull herself to standing. She slapped the dust from her skirts. “I do not care if he murdered the president. I want him out of my house.” She left in the same whirl of skirts that brought her there in the first place.

Tante Klegg continued to watch Karl from where she sat on the floor. “He does not act like a soldier.”

Karl wondered how she could know that, and why a part of him agreed.

“So you will let me keep him?” Gretchen asked. She held out her hand to help her aunt.

“This is Gregory Miller’s house, not mine.” Tante Klegg grunted as Gretchen hefted her from the floor.

Karl figured that was Gretchen’s father.

“And as he handed you the revolver, it seems you are responsible.” Tante Klegg moved to the doorway, her expression thoughtful as a clock chimed. “I am interested to know how you intend to explain him to Alina.”

Had he the energy, Karl would have laughed at Gretchen’s stricken expression. Something about this “Alina” deflated Gretchen.

These women were too secretive, too complicated. And they thought he had shot a president!