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The Soldier Boy's Discovery
Bonnets and Bugles Series 4
By Gilbert L. Morris
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1996 Gilbert L. Morris
All rights reserved.
A Slight Case of Jealousy
Jeff left the thick woods and paused to look down on the house lying in the Kentucky valley below. Warm memories of days gone by flashed through his mind.
"I sure do hate to leave this and go back to the war!" he muttered. Then he shrugged his shoulders, hefted his flour sack full of slain rabbits, and made his way along the winding path, down the side of the mountain into the valley still misty in the early dawn.
The War Between the States had forced him and his family to leave Kentucky, which refused to leave the Union, and relocate in Confederate Virginia. This had been his first trip back since before the war began more than a year ago. It seemed sometimes that the fighting would go on forever. Often nightmares of Bull Run and other battles he had endured came back with sharp intensity, and Jeff would wake up in a cold sweat, thrashing around.
War hadn't seemed so terrible when, at fifteen, he had persuaded his father, now Captain Nelson Majors, to allow him to join the Confederate army as a drummer boy. Now, as he thought of how the war might last for years, he grew despondent.
His time with his friends the Carters was at an end. The bright August sunshine had brought a rich tan to his face, and he had enjoyed every day of his visit. Leah Carter and Ezra, the young, wounded ex-prisoner, were home safe; he could assure his father that little Esther was doing well with her foster family; and his father's troops needed the supplies he had collected. He couldn't stay any longer.
As he reached the foot of the mountain and made his way across a small creek that bent like an elbow, he cast a quick glance at the water, wondering if he had time to go fishing. He brightened. I'll get Leah. We can have one more fishing trip before I have to leave.
That thought cheered him, and he lifted his head and walked quickly to the Carters' small farmhouse. Going around to the back, he dropped his sack of game on the ground and pulled out his sharp knife to begin skinning the rabbits.
"Well, looks like you got enough to feed all of us."
Jeff looked up to see Mrs. Carter emerge from the house. She was strongly built, with pretty green eyes and blonde hair that was caught at the back of her head in a neat bun. She had been a second mother to Jeff Majors, and her daughter Leah had been his best friend since both learned to walk.
"Got five rabbits," he said proudly, holding up one of them. "Fat and thumping too. Nothing like a good mess of fried rabbit and poke salad, I always say."
Mary Carter looked amused. "I hope you'll let the rest of us have a bite or two, Jeff. You brought an appetite like a panther back from the war."
He knew she was as fond of him as if he were one of her own children.
"I'll go get breakfast started. I'm fixing you one of your special treats for supper tonight—apple pie!"
Jeff's teeth flashed in a broad smile. "Apple pie! Make one just for me, will you? I haven't had good apple pie since I first left Kentucky."
Jeff turned back to the job of skinning rabbits. Leah's mother watched him for a few minutes as she cooled off from the hot kitchen.
He was tall for his age—fifteen—with the blackest hair possible, as dark as a crow's. He had large hands and feet that he still hadn't grown into, and a pair of eyes so black that one had to look close to see the pupils. He had been stringy when he left Kentucky with his family a year ago, but now had begun to fill out.
When Jeff had the rabbits skinned, he brought them to the back porch, laid them in a row on the table, and then washed his hands thoroughly in the basin. After he threw the dirty water into the flower patch below the railing, he reached for the towel hanging from a nail by the back door. He stepped inside and smiled at Sarah Carter, working with her mother at the kitchen sink.
"Well, I've done my part," he announced. "Now, Sarah, we'll see if you can cook them." A sly look came over his face, and he grinned, "Tom told me to be sure and sample your cooking. Said he wouldn't marry a woman that couldn't cook."
Sarah, at eighteen, was one of the prettiest girls in the Pineville area. She had dark brown hair and very dark blue eyes, which she focused on Jeff now. "My cooking's good enough for him. I never saw him turn anything down of mine."
Her face flushed slightly.
Jeff knew she didn't like to be teased about his older brother. They had been very much in love before the war but now were separated for who knew how long; nothing was certain anymore. Tensions weren't helped by the fact that Tom was a sergeant in the Confederate army while Sarah's brother, Royal, was a Union soldier.
At once Jeff realized he was on dangerous ground. He said quickly, "Better get a letter written if you want me to take it to Tom. I guess I'll be leaving pretty early in the morning."
He walked into the living room where he found Mr. Carter playing with Esther, Jeff's baby sister.
Dan Carter looked up, and a grin split his craggy face. "This baby's a lot smarter than you ever were, Jeff. Why, when you were your sister's age, I don't think you had any sense at all!"
Jeff picked the child up. The baby stared at him with wide blue eyes, and he tossed her in the air, making her scream with joy. "I guess she is pretty smart, Mr. Carter," he said. "Maybe girls are just smarter than boys." He winked at Leah's father as he tossed Esther once more.
Dan Carter returned his wink and then, gathering his long, thin legs beneath him, rose slowly from the rocking chair, moving carefully as people do who have known much sickness. His once lustrous brown hair, Jeff saw, had faded to a dull, gray-streaked, muddy brown, although his light blue eyes still shone with determined pride. His mouth was firm under a scraggly mustache. He'd been wounded terribly in the Mexican War and would never regain his former strength and vitality.
"Not feeling too well today, Mr. Carter?"
"Oh, I don't complain, Jeff," he protested. "As long as a man's able to get up and walk and get some good vittles—and be with his family—he shouldn't complain."
"Guess that's right." Jeff carried Esther on his shoulders across the room to where an older Carter child, Morena, sat on the floor making shadow figures against the floorboards in the bright morning sunlight that streamed through the open door.
Morena's hair was fully as blonde and her eyes were as blue as baby Esther's. She smiled up at Jeff but didn't move.
Jeff reached out and smoothed down her hair, saying fondly, "I'll miss you when I go, Morena."
It always saddened him when he looked at this child. She was as old as she would ever be, mentally. Physically, she looked like any other nine-year-old girl, but she had never learned to speak and could perform only the simplest chores, such as feeding and dressing herself. She was happy, it seemed, and for a while Jeff sat on the floor talking to her and allowing the baby to pull his hair with her chubby fingers.
"I don't know what we would've done if you folks hadn't taken Esther, Mr. Carter," Jeff said abruptly.
"Why, it was little enough to do, Jeff."
"Take a tiny baby—for only the Lord knows how long? And with your daughter Morena to care for already?" Jeff shook his head stubbornly. "No, sir, it was a real big thing!"
"If things had been the other way around, your family would have done the same for us," Dan Carter insisted, sitting back down.
"No way we can ever know that."
"Yes, there is."
"Why, you can't go back and do things over!"
"No, Jeff, that's right." Dan ran his hand over his head, thinking for a moment. "But you can know how people are. I've known your folks for a long time. I'm telling you, you and your family would have done the same. Your mother—there never was a better woman!"
"I ... I miss her every day."
"Only right you should, boy. And what would she have done if we couldn't have cared for Morena somehow?"
Jeff cocked his head to one side, then smiled. "She took in everything, Ma did—even sick birds and animals. Why, she took in a pesky baby fox once and nursed it back to health." He grinned at the memory. "The fool thing bit me! But she loved it."
"Yes, she was a loving woman. And what would she have done with a baby like Morena—or your Esther?"
"Loved her to death, I reckon."
"Well, there you are, Jeff." Dan smiled. "You don't have to keep on thanking us for taking care of your sister."
"It's a lot to take on, though."
"Not to Mrs. Carter, Sarah, and Leah! They dote on that little sister of yours—and so does Morena."
Jeff looked over to where Morena was looking down at the baby, cooing and stroking the fine blonde hair. He asked suddenly, "Mr. Carter, will Morena ever be any more growed up?"
"Only the good Lord knows that, Jeff."
"I wish she would get better. She's so pretty!"
Dan Carter's face showed a trace of sadness, but he said firmly, "We can't know God's ways, Jeff. But we can know that God is good and that somehow in the end Morena will be as bright and active as any other child."
"Yes, that's right. I kind of like to think of that time, don't you, Jeff?"
"You mean ... heaven? When we get there?"
"Yes." Dan smiled and added, "No wars, no droughts, no need for doctors—no politicians, either. Not like this place."
Jeff's face clouded as he thought through Mr. Carter's comments. Finally he replied, "I guess I'm not a good enough Christian."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, I guess I'm not ready to go to heaven—not today, I mean."
Mr. Carter laughed, and his eyes twinkled. "Enjoy the day, for the Lord has given it to us. 'This is the day that the Lord hath made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.' We can't know when we'll go, so we live for the Lord here until we go there."
Jeff didn't reply, his face darkening as thoughts of heaven led to thoughts of death—and how the war had brought death close to so many over the last year. He finally said, "Well, Ezra's out of the war, anyway. He won't have to fight anymore. Nobody wants a convalescing ex-prisoner of war on his front lines."
"Yes, and I'm glad of it. I wish you were out too."
"Me too, and Pa and Tom—and Royal, of course."
"You know, Jeff, I think God put Ezra in that prison camp."
"What for?" Jeff asked with surprise.
"Well, look at it," Dan said slowly. "I can't go off with Leah and leave this farm all the time with Mrs. Carter and Sarah and the children all alone, can I?"
"No, sir, I don't think you can."
"Well, it's hard to find good help for a small farm. I tried pretty hard, and all I could come up with was hiring Ray Studdard from across the way. I couldn't see doing anything else, as expensive as that would be. But here Ezra escapes from that Confederate prison camp, and he hides out in a farmhouse. How many farmhouses are there in that part of the country, Jeff?"
"Must be a thousand, Mr. Carter."
"Yep, I'd say so. Ezra could have gone to any one of them. But he didn't. He went to the only one where he'd have a chance to meet Leah. Now, that just couldn't have been an accident!"
Jeff stared. "You think God does stuff like that? I mean ... that He works things out for us?"
"He knows of the sparrow's fall, Jeff, and we're worth more than sparrows."
Jeff shifted restlessly, then shook his head. "Too much for me to figure out," he said finally. "Do you reckon Ezra will stay on for a long time?"
"The boy's got no place else to go." Mr. Carter shrugged. "Why are you asking, Jeff?"
"Oh, no reason. Just wondering."
Jeff's thoughts moved from Ezra—and Ezra's budding friendship with Leah—to what a fine man Dan Carter was.
Even though he was too old for the army, and too sickly, he'd determined to do his best for the soldiers in the Union army. He'd persuaded his family that he should serve God by becoming a sutler, stocking his old wagon with supplies—including Bibles and tracts—and following the Yankee army throughout the first year of the war. He'd taken Leah with him because, even though she was just a young girl, she was strong, healthy, and smart.
Especially when he had his bad spells, she took much of the work off his shoulders.
Jeff looked about as he started to get up from the floor by Morena and Esther. "Where's Leah?"
"Oh, she's gone with Ezra. I think they went hunting birds' eggs, Jeff." He stopped abruptly, looking at Jeff's face.
The boy scooped up Esther. He swung her under his arm as he strode across the room and dumped her into Dan's arms. He muttered, "Should of known she'd rather hunt eggs than fish with me." He left the room without another word.
Almost as soon as Jeff had passed through the door, Mrs. Carter entered, her hands white with flour. Looking around, she asked with surprise, "Where's Jeff off to?"
"He just lit out after Leah and Ezra," Dan said. He gave his wife a look and shook his head. "I think he's a little bit upset."
"Upset about what?"
"Oh, I told him Ezra and Leah had gone egg hunting, and he clammed up and left with hardly a word."
She went over and looked out the window. She saw Jeff stalking off, his back straight and his steps almost military. Shaking her head, she turned back and said quietly, "Jeff hasn't taken much to Ezra. You'd think they would've become friends after Jeff helped Leah hide him the way he did."
Ezra Payne had served in the Union army and was taken captive at the Battle of Bull Run. He had escaped from prison, and Leah and Jeff helped him get away to Kentucky.
"Well, you know how strong Jeff is about Confederate rights, Mary. Might be he can't get over Ezra being a Union soldier." Mr. Carter paused. "It's not like our Royal—or even my sutler work. Jeff's been like part of our family his whole life, but he don't have any history with Ezra."
"You're at least right on that account, Dan," she agreed. "Remember Leah told us about the set-to she and Jeff had when she first asked him to help her with Ezra."
"I don't know what's going to come of this." He shook his head. "Jeff's a good boy, but he's got hard feelings against the North."
"That's not the main cause of it, though," his wife murmured. She dusted the flour off her hands as she crossed the room, and then she lifted Esther out of Dan's lap. She pinched the baby's fat, rosy cheek, then turned to give her husband a direct look. "He's jealous of Ezra. I guess you see that, Dan. They've been awfully close, Leah and Jeff, all their lives."
"Why, they're only children!"
"I guess you don't have to be fifty years old to get possessive of somebody. Leah would be just as possessive of Jeff. I'm sorry for it, though Ezra is a fine young man. He hasn't had much of a chance in this world."
"No, he hasn't." Mr. Carter shook his head as he remembered what Ezra had told them. "Nobody should have to spend his childhood an orphan, working like a slave on some stranger's farm."
"I'm grateful we can give him some of the love he's never had." Mrs. Carter's voice came with conviction.
"But Mary, neither one of us wants Jeff hurt over Leah," he protested. "Maybe we ought not to ask Ezra to stay."
"Oh, we've got to! We promised. We can't abandon him. Besides, you said yourself God brought him to give us the help we need now that Royal's off to the war. Ezra's such a good worker." She put the baby down and sighed heavily. "Well, I have every confidence our prayers and Jeff's basic good sense will make the difference. Jeff's a good boy—he'll just have to get over this."
"Look! What's this one, Leah?"
Leah Carter looked up into the thick foliage of the oak tree. She squinted at the egg Ezra was holding and said, "I can't tell. Bring it on down."
"Do you want all of them?"
"No, just one. Leave the rest to hatch."
Ezra Payne came down the tree, swinging from branch to branch, using only one hand.
When he jumped to the ground, Leah laughed at him. "You're just like a monkey, Ezra! I've never seen anyone who could climb a tree like you."
Ezra smiled at the girl. He was not tall, but when he regained the weight he'd lost, he would present a formidable set of muscles to any opponent. His curly brown hair and sparkling teeth were in sharp contrast to his pale prison complexion. "Always liked to climb trees!" he said. "When I was with the army, they'd send me to the top of the tallest tree so's I could scout out the enemy. Why, one time General McClellan himself was down at the foot with his officers." He grinned more broadly, "There I was, telling the general of the whole Union army how it was!"
Leah laughed again as she took the egg. "That's just another story you're making up. Let me see that egg." She ignored his protests of innocence, studied the egg, and announced, "That's a catbird egg. We've got plenty of those."
"Have I got to take it back up to the nest?"
"Of course. You're not going to eat it raw!"
"I've seen the day I would, like when you found me stealing your groceries back in Virginia."
"That's different." Leah shrugged. She smiled at him suddenly, adding, "You weren't a very good burglar, Ezra. You made more noise than a wild pig."
"Didn't have much experience."
"I hope you never get any more."
Ezra climbed the tree and replaced the egg. When he was back on the ground, he affectionately slapped Leah on the shoulder and declared, "You must know every bird's egg there is, Leah."
"I ought to—been hunting them most of my life. Come on, let's go down by the river. Maybe we'll find a kingfisher nest. They're sure hard to find."
Excerpted from The Soldier Boy's Discovery by Gilbert L. Morris. Copyright © 1996 Gilbert L. Morris. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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