The road home had been long, and his feet and legs ached. It was fatigue which had forced him to surrender briefly and found him seated on the lumpy but soft green moss which clung to the exposed roots of an old Burr oak. He flexed his toes in his worn, graying brogans--wanting nothing more than to kick off his shoes and socks but knowing from experience that doing so would just make it all the harder to put them back on again. His companion, frowning and looking at him between eager glances over his shoulder towards the road ahead, sighed. Looking up, Private Jack Witt waved at his impatient friend Abel Burke dismissively.
“Go on then if you can’t wait on me. I’ll catch you up down the way.”
Burke shook his head and relented, collapsing in a series of groans beside him. “Naw, I never left you or you me in all we been through--I’m not about to set to such things now.”
Witt smiled; he knew Burke would not leave him. “I can’t figure how we made all those accumulated miles at march, and now I find my legs and feet complaining.”
Burke chuckled. “You were younger then.”
“Well you’re sittin’ right here with me!” shot back Witt.
“I was younger too,” responded Burke with a smile. His friend nodded and gave him a playful shove.
“True; you’ve not aged well either!” Both men laughed; Burke laying back to rest his head on his folded arms, Will massaging his leg with a grimace. They sat for awhile there beside the road, under the spreading oak and a blue sky which seemed fully unaware of the doings and events of humanity below. Witt looked at his friend, and wondered if their families would recognize them for the idealistic young men who had gone to fight. Burke sat up, reached under him and cursed as he tossed away an acorn.
“How do you think it is going to be when we get home?” asked Burke suddenly, turning his sunken brown eyes on him. Witt considered him in return briefly.
“I don’t know I guess, to be honest. This is the longest I ever was away; further-est I ever traveled,” said Witt, looking along the road into the distance. Burke nodded but said nothing in return. “I’m eager to be home though, that I do know--”
“Be out of this uniform and never eat no desiccated greens again!” interrupted Burke at last with a smile.
Witt brushed some invisible blemish from his sleeve, smiling. “I will keep this old sack coat though--even with the patches, it’s been one of the sturdiest garments I’ve owned.”
“Yes, sturdy despite the patches!”
Witt smiled, and shoved Burke gently. Overhead a flock of geese passed overhead, honking loudly as they moved through the blue sky. The sound drew both men’s eyes, both of them quiet for a moment. “There was a time” commented Witt quietly, “when I would have been eager to sight on that flight of geese. I don’t know that I ever want to shoot at so much as a target ever again.” Burke considered the geese, and nodded.
“I could. Roast geese sounds pretty fair right this moment. Speaking of which, let’s get on already! I’m hungry and that roadhouse we heard of last farm back is waiting on us.” Burke stood and helped his friend to his feet with a funny clank of items in the sack he carried with him. They carried little, at least by comparison to what they had come to be accustomed to in the army. Canteens and old tattered haversacks hung comfortably after miles of experience, and each slung a simple sackcloth bag drawn at the top by strings. They resumed their ambling march along the road, whilst the geese vanished into the blue horizon.
It took them the majority of an afternoon to arrive, but the roadhouse had rejuvenated as promised. The couple that ran the place had welcomed them with open arms, being unabashedly warm on account of their being soldiers returned from the war. The couple were both graying, their faces showing the wear of life in the years which had passed. Seated in the ordinary but comfortable dining room, stuffing themselves with ‘home cooking’ which was eagerly offered by the mothering presence of the owner’s wife, Witt and Burke felt more content than they had in some time. Witt found strange joy in the presence of a table cloth, as well as the differing sound of the china plate when he pushed his food about with the wonderfully ordinary fork and spoon. The smell of the napkin pressed to their faces, food brought hot to a table as they simply sat and awaited its serving.
“We were all so excited when Father saw you along the road!” chirped the owner’s wife as she flitted about her guests, occasionally refilling portions before the first bites had even been taken.
“Mother, let these boys eat now--they’re tired--settle yerself,” interjected her husband at last with a kind, but solid tone. The woman sat with an exclamation of --“Oh, Father!”--but smiled warmly at her guests. Witt dug his spoon into another heaping of potatoes with turnips and ham, nodding to the couple.
“We’re very appreciative of the welcome and the food. It’s the best we’ve had in a long while!” The old man bowed his head, a smile peeking through his scruffy grey beard. His wife was beaming and looked to her more sedate spouse.
“Isn’t it wonderful Father!” she said rising up from her seat, kissing her husband on the cheek before continuing on towards the kitchen. “It won’t be long before John will be home again! I must see to the pies!”
When she had gone, her husband slumped ever so slightly in his chair, his gaze on the dancing flame of a candlestick. Burke looked at the bearded man, his appearance suddenly taking on an age or weight of care not noted before. “Are you alright sir?” said Burke, looking sat Witt and back to the old man. Opposite them, the man smiled but sadly, and nodded.
“Yes boys, I’m alright. You mustn’t bother for the misses, I’m afraid she is a little forgetful these days. Our son--John--was a soldier too, but he was killed two years ago. I almost had her convinced, but with so many of your boys along the road now, she has her hopes up.”
“Maybe--we’d better be off departing then--”started Witt before the old man stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. His face was sad, but his eyes shone with warmth which touched the young soldier deeply.
“No, no boys--I didn’t mean to make you feel unwelcome, just explaining Mother. Speaking of which, I had best check on her. Can you boys settle yourselves?” He started towards the doorway to the kitchen as a soft weeping began to be discernable beyond. “Just up the stairs boys, on the right to your room.” The old man vanished through the doorway, and the crying became louder until they heard clearly the old woman saying between sobs--“Where’s my John? Why couldn’t it have been my boy!?” After a moment of sitting uncomfortably silent, the pair climbed the stairs to their room--but even then they could hear the owner’s wife crying and saying the name of her fallen son.
They left early, leaving a note of thanks on the dining room table along with more than what had been agreed upon for the nights lodging and fare. The sun was low on the horizon, rising in a glorious rippled yellow-red-orange and casting shadows which were like defiant puddles of the past night. They did not talk about the grief of the old woman--even though Witt was filled with a desire to do so--as Burke seemed so determined to be of a sunny disposition that what had passed remained unspoken. Indeed, Witt began to take notice that his friend seemed in better spirits on the road and in the open then when they availed themselves of accommodations. Maybe it was simply being used to the outdoor life--having lived that way for nearly 3 years in the Army--but as far as for himself, Witt couldn’t wait to come across the next comfortable little inn, roadhouse or welcoming farmer. The winding road lay like a brown-grey smudge through the late June landscape of Southern Minnesota, and both men reveled in the forgotten textures and scents which overwhelmed their senses. They talked about their time away, and the adventures they had had. They spoke of the best camp they could recall and the worst: the last days in Mobile, Alabama in garrison.
“I’ll never forget what it was like to hear of the President’s murder,” said Witt solemnly, “and then with a short time afterwards to be told we were being mustered out of the Army! It was hard to know how to feel.”
Burke nodded. “I am still not always certain of that, to be honest.” Witt laughed, hardly hearing what his friend had said. “Why you made me get off that lovely fast train north at Albert Lea, I’ll never fathom! Lord knows we’ve plenty enough miles under our belts on roads like this one to last our lives!”
Burke smiled and shoved his friend gently. “Nothing but complaining! Just like at Vicksburg, and the march to De Russey--moan, moan! Like I was dragging along some winsome girl or paper collar dandy!” They laughed together, and wandered along, coming at last to a road post which bore for the first time a reference to home. Witt rushed forward to the rickety sign and touched it with the reverence of a religious pilgrim; turning back to his friend with shining eyes. “Next town from home! Do you realize how close now?! Ho, merciful Providence, I really didn’t know just how bad I have longed for home until now!”
Burke nodded, and smiled looking ahead. “I’m tired, looks like a farm up ahead--should we stop in and see what hospitality we find?” He started on, leaving Witt still gazing upon the sign as he had been. For a moment, Witt felt a strange anger with his friend. Burke had hardly noticed the sign and what it meant about their journey home--had only looked on to something else, back to the road. Wasn’t he excited and eager to be home? Did he not have a wife, parents, and children to return to? But then the confusion and anger subsided when he realized it was late, they likely had only four hours of light left and the farm did look inviting. Besides, there had been a time when all Burke could do was pine for home. Hadn’t he driven everyone mad over just that, the winter before? Burke stopped and looked back at him, waiting a moment before continuing forward. Witt followed after, but for the first time he found himself truly wondering in Burke wanted to go home.
The farmer and his wife were happy to share what food they had--simple though it was--but leery of allowing a pair of rough strangers into the house. From the doorway, wife peering out from behind her husband, the farmer offered the barn. It was rustic, but the barn would suffice well enough and once they settled into the hay both men were very happy. With their gum blankets spread beneath them, the pair lay back into the springy mound and stared into the rafters above. A small glazed window at the eaves shown the evening light through a swirling cloud of dust, further disturbed when a tiny bird flashed through the space. Burke sighed loudly. “This is the life, huh?” “I guess,” responded Witt as memories of his own barn swirled in his thoughts--closer now then it had been in three years. He mumbled something further, but a need to be home drowned out his thoughts. He sat up, hardly able to stand sitting still any longer.
“I cannot wait to be of the road tomorrow,” Witt said with his head in his hands, “This place reminds me too much of home.” Burke grunted, and shook his head. “It’s a barn Witt--they tend to look similar!”
Witt shot his friend a scathing glace. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m tired of hearing you whine about home, is all! I’ve had my fill of it, and you’ve made me sick to hear it!” responded Burke rolling away to face the opposite wall. For awhile Witt just stared at the back of his friends head, dumbfounded by the outburst of anger his friend had displayed and doing his best to control the rage he felt himself. Finally, his stomach in knots, Witt lay back with a grunt of dismissal and closed his eyes. Inwardly he wished his loved ones a good night as he had thousands of times since leaving home--and promised that they would reunite soon.
The sun sank below the gentle hills, and amber rays cast the world in colors of freshly brewed tea and old faded parchment. In the sky, the first stars pushed their way into view long before it was fully dark. Friends sat longer into the evening on their porches and around the table, feeling that after years of pestilence and suffering--surely the time for abundance and joy must be upon them. From the eaves of the barn, tiny bats took to the sky in their nightly hunt for a meal, never sparing a moments thought for the two men that slept quietly below them.
Witt awoke with a start, shortly after the moon had risen large and bright over the hills--Burke was shaking him hard by the arms and hissing in an angry whisper. “Witt, you worthless fool! Where are they!? I heard them, they’re coming!” His friend appeared more like some grey ghost than the man he had known as Burke; Witt simply shook his head in response.
“What? Where is what? Whose coming?! Let go of me!” Burke let go, but where he’d grabbed Witt’s arms continued to sting. “The muskets you damned idiot!” spat Burke, his teeth flashing in the darkness. Witt sat up, and came to his feet, still rubbing his arms and gaining a little distance from his friend who sat where he was looking around. After a moment, Witt frowned.
“We turned them in, Abel, if you recall. We don’t have them anymore.” He said, watching as Burke ceased his search, and seemed to grow smaller somehow as he looked at him. “The war is over Abel.” His words hung in the semi-darkness, and all was still but for their breathing. After a moment or two, the shadow that was Burke lay back down without a further word. Witt simply stood as he was a moment, before returning to his spot in the hay. He was fully awake, and lay on his side watching the form of his friend with a mixture of worry and alarm. Burke had always been like a brother to him, but this man seemed a stranger--as though the Abel Burke he had known had been covertly replaced by someone else.
“I wish--”said Burke softly in the dim, “--I wish I had my musket. I shouldn’t have turned it in.”
“They didn’t give us a choice, as I recall.” said Witt quietly.
A moment of silence passed before Burke spoke again, in a whispering tone. “I don’t feel--” There was a long hesitation before at last he continued, “--that is, I don’t feel quiet right--you understand, safe, without my musket.” Witt could understand to some extent, yet was privately was pleased to no longer carry a weapon. As a soldier he had kept and used his musket, be he had never loved it as some men did. “The war ended Abel; I think we’re safe enough.”
“Just so used to it being there--” He answered swiftly, before continuing more quietly. “--I dreamed we were back in it, Jack.”
“Considering all we have done and been through, I think that is likely to happen.”
“I woke, and I suppose the dream left me feeling it all over again. Sorry for waking you that way--I just woke thinking we were in it, and couldn’t find my musket.” Witt looked at the form of this man he had lived, risked death, and seen it plenty with for 3 years and hardly knew where to begin to comfort him.
“I understand.” It was all he could think of, and though he did know what it was to wake from a dream you knew was more memory than nightmare, he felt lost to help his friend. “Go back to sleep now, it’s late.” There was no answer to his words, but soon Burke’s breathing slowed and calmed as he returned to sleep. For Witt, it would prove harder to settle--and he lay listening to the mice in the rafters for a long while until at last he too fell asleep.
A loud rapping sound from somewhere in the farmyard woke him, and when Jack Witt turned to call his friend and offer a good morning he discovered he was alone. At first he though that Burke had simply risen to answer the call of nature and wandered out, until he realized that his gum and bag were gone as well. Witt stumbled through a side door and was greeted by the farmer and his wife who were working to repair their kitchen garden fence. “Good morning! We thought you might sleep away the day--nothing like your friend who was up with the cockerel!” said the farmer, setting aside his wooden mallet. The sun had risen well into the sky--the night’s disturbances had left him to sleep late. Witt found his voice at last and looked about. “My companion--do you know where he is?” The farmer leaned on the fence, and crooked his thumb towards the road.
“Left earlier--said he was eager to get on.”
“Didn’t he say anything?” said Witt with a frown, “leave me a message or some word?” In answer the farmer simply shook his head, looked him over once and resumed his work. Witt felt lost, unsure of what to next or how to proceed. The events of the previous night had convinced him that Burke was not acting as himself, but he hadn’t expected him to simply vanish. He went back and gathered his things from the barn, and decided he must try to catch Burke. Witt rushed out, thanking the farmer for their hospitality and bounding along towards the road. He made good time on the road that led both home and to his missing friend, walking with feet accustomed to hard marches now--aware of competing desires growing within him with every step. When at last he came to a fork in the road he stopped, breathing hard and taking a long pull from his battered old canteen. He eyed a worn signpost which designated the road home to his right, and the road which led away to his left. Somewhere from the farm just visible among the plowed hills away to the right, came the sound of music and joyous celebration. It drifted on the breeze a moment and was gone; leaving yearning for family--home--and that ache for the life he had left behind. Songbirds chirped from the branches, and flitted encouragingly into the tall grasses at the edge of farm land. Witt tore himself from the vision of home, and looked left. In the distance, walking with a comfortable gait away from him, was Burke. Witt called out to him once, twice--but Burke did not slow or look back. From somewhere beyond the road Burke traveled, a locomotive steam whistle wailed--a wild and lonely sound which seemed to sing of opportunities and adventure all at the same time. Burke turned his head towards the whistle, and Witt took a chance that this time he might be heard if he called out. But Burke seemed beyond hearing him, and Witt found he had no desire to follow after anymore. He knew that Abel had been a brave man, a good friend and a valiant soldier--but sometimes none of that mattered. He had been taken with what veterans called “The Soldiers Heart”; wounds which changed lives but could not easily be seen or treated. Abel Burke had come to the crossroads in his journey, and he had chosen that road which his heart had bidden. Jack Witt understood, yet his heart called him home. He bid a silent farewell to his friend and turned to his road, following the call which he felt so strongly. He promised himself that he would tell of his friend; a man that had stuck by him through every hellish test--and whose heart refused to forget being a soldier.