A large hand wiped the tears from Tom’s small red eyes. “Don’t worry, son,” he smiled, “I swear we’ll come back.” Tom hoped so, with all of his eight-year-old heart. But it still hurt so much to watch his father and brother go off to war. Even though President Lincoln needed soldiers, Tom still puzzled over why it had to be his family.
“Why not John or Mary’s? Why did my father and sixteen-year-old brother Stephen have to go to war?” he asked himself. This terrible war. Why, thought Tom, why?
For three long years Tom believed his father and brother were coming back. He still did but he felt his poor mom was losing hope. He heard it in the way she spoke and the way she acted. But life went on. Tom’s mind grew faster than his body. At age nine he was only three-and-a-half feet tall. Now at the young age of eleven he had barely grown a foot from the last measurement. He was pushed and bullied by schoolmates and teachers alike, most likely because of his size but also maybe because he was so smart. So instead of playing outside like everyone else, he dedicated his life to reading and learning just like his biggest heros, his dad and brother. He thought about them more than ever as the years went on.
The old pages crinkled as the wind blew the yellow dog-eared book. Tom sighed. Even with his few savings, made from selling wild blackberries, his mother wouldn’t let him buy a new book. I’m sorry Tom, but money’s too tight. Save it for something useful, yak yak, blah blah, Tom thought scornfully. To him, reading was very important. Though he knew he had to help support his mother, sometimes be wanted to be like his other hero: Lewis Carroll. Almost no one around there ever heard of him. It made Tom crazy to think that Carroll was unknown. It was an outrage. Don’t they know who’s creating modern literature? he angrily thought. All that mattered to everyone else was strength and appearance. But now he barely had time to read. He had to do chores like go into town on errands, feed the animals and so much more. His days were full. As much as he wanted, his reading time was becoming shorter and shorter. How come no one believed in being smart?
Tom shut his book. He took a deep shaky breath. Inhale, he thought, careful now, exhale. He was bored and grouchy as he thought about his life. His mom had stopped his schooling, which was the only thing that made him happy (apart from learning in books and thinking about the old times with his dad and brother). She made him chop wood or hunt or feed the animals or harvest the crops. Tom knew she missed his dad and brother as much as he did but she tried not to show it. She was a strong brave woman, like a mom should be, but was very stern. And when she got angry, you did not want to be there . . .
Every week Tom would go into town with her. They would go to the general store and, every week, Tom would ask Mr. Cameron, the owner, if any letters had come. None ever did! Where can his father and brother be? he thought. Tom puzzled over this question as he had a hundred times before. He knew that joining the army was the right thing to do but a war was very scary. Now the idea of them dead was circling in his mind, getting closer and closer to his believing it. “Get out,” he silently screamed at the horrible thought, “out! out!” He clenched his teeth and balled his hand. “OUT!!” he screamed out. His shout even surprised himself.
In an instant his mom raced through the door. “What happened, Tom?” she yelled, her small face slowly turning white. “Are you hurt?”
Tom silently looked up at his mom, her small figure layered with patched and ragged clothes. Tom wiped his black hair from his eyes. “Nothing,” he muttered in sadness, “nothing.”
Her face relaxed. She understood how he felt. She took a seat at the fire while Tom looked out the window, slowly watching the snowfall. “No letters came?” she nervously asked.
“None at all,” he sighed. “None at all.”
She adjusted her dirty bonnet. “It’s time to go home,” she said.
Life on the farm without Father and Stephen was hard and stressful. Aside from the extra work he now had to do, he missed their friendship. While his mother was kind and loved him very much, there was something special that connected his father and brother to him. Maybe because they were all men. Plus there was no one around to help, or teach him many of the chores. Tom was now forced to do, like how to shoot or how to cut down trees. No man could ever support a family or just a mother without learning these skills. It was impossible! Although Tom was not that big or strong he believed that with enough practice, skill and knowledge would come. Every day, with his spare time, he practiced everything he needed to know. It might take time but he was convinced he could be like his father and brother. But even when they had been there, the family barely got along with so little money. Between the bad crop seasons and the poor game, they were forced to stop buying many of the things they wanted. Tom thought this was unfair. All his other friends were as poor as him, but at least they had their whole family. Worst of all, after his dad left, his mom asked Tom to quit schooling so he could work. Tom missed it terribly.
As a young child, he was already eager to go to school and learn. His parents thought that this phase would end after he started but they sure were wrong! He whizzed and aced every test and grade. His report card showed how smart he was. His mom believed he could become a famous politician or somebody rich. But Tom didn’t want money. He wanted wisdom and, of course, all the books in the world. What he wanted even more was his whole family back together. In history class he read stories about Indians and redcoats, and while he always hoped he would never have to use a gun, he now understood how bad war really was. Both his and his mother’s hope faded as their situation got worse.
Two weeks later at midnight, BANNNNNNG!! Tom and his mother jumped out of bed as the sound of the gunshot echoed through the sky KAPOW BAM! Three more shots into the cold brisk night air. Faster than you could scream, they were hiding in the cellar, not making a noise. Scarcely breathing, hoping, praying, crouching into a ball, crying . . . It was a Confederate surprise attack!
As his mom silently prayed, Tom quietly loaded his rifle. I’m the man of the house, he thought. I must protect it. As they listened they heard footsteps outside.
“Check all the houses! Steal any valuables. Kill anyone you see!” yelled the commander of the troop, in a thick heavy voice, like bricks grinding together. “Disperse!”
Tom and his mother squeezed their eyes and tightened their hands, ready for anything! After ten minutes of silence, Tom sighed in relief and exhaustion. He was about to get up when he heard a sound. It was the door opening slowly and a man saying, “Search the house.” It was low and quiet but Tom heard it and he knew that voice. It was the commander.
Tom cocked his musket slowly and quietly “Please make sure I don’t have to use this,” he prayed to any god who would listen, “please please.”
“Check the cellar,” the commander yelled. “Kill the traitors!” No! Tom thought as tears streaked down his face,
No! He slowly aimed his gun at the door where the soldier would show up. It shined and glinted in the little light from the small window. He looked at his mother. She was just as scared as he was. Her eyes were big and white. Down tramped the graycoat. Would he spot them behind the logs? Hopefully not.
Tom lightly pulled the trigger halfway. It creaked and whined as if telling him to pull it. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to kill this man. He dropped his gun in sadness. It clanked loudly on the floor. Whoops, thought Tom, big mistake. His mom gave him a pitying look. The rebel stopped abruptly as the sound echoed in the small dank room. He slowly and softly stalked across the room. He had spotted the log pile!
As the soldier was about to kick over the pile of logs with his highly polished boots, he stopped. Outside there was yelling. “Retreat!” yelled a scared voice. The soldier took off abruptly, forgetting all about the pile of logs. As they heard the door slam with a crash they sighed in relief. They embraced and rushed outside to see the commotion. Right in front of their house was Grant’s army, its flag billowing in the breeze. But the biggest surprise of all was standing in front of them. It was Pa and Stephen, their faces shining with happiness. It was almost too much to believe! They were home at last!!! It was 1865, the Union had won!
* * *
Tom went back to school and then on to university where he taught history for many years. He visited his parents and his brother whenever he could and, while his life had changed in many ways, he never forgot what it was to be alone and scared or what it was to have a loved one come home.