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 snapped up 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 dragged her straw hat by the strings so it shaded her eyes.
A man’s limbs 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, muttering.
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. 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 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.