A fascinating family saga set in the 1860s prairie of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Pioneer and Civil War veteran Henry Morgan sets out on a dramatic journey that takes him through mazes, river currents, down dangerous trails, and up against dead ends. From an unlikely beginning, Morgan's hasty marriage to the young and illiterate Agnes Guyette has unforeseen consquences. As they attempt to claim a government land grant two hundred miles away in Green Prairie, MN, they must fight local Indians, hostile wilderness, and desperados determined to steal their land. Filled with nonstop action and unexpected plot twists and turns, this novel is a roller coaster ride of action, intrigue and high adventure.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporate|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The Long Journey Home
A Novel of the Post-Civil War Plains
By Laurel Means
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Laurel Means
All rights reserved.
"Almost — almost —" Henry Morton gasped out the word.
"Almost — what does that mean?"
"Some irony, eh? Almost! Steps away, and I can't get it out, can't even almost say it."
"Where are we?"
"Almost there, I know it. Have to be. Four years is a long time. But — see that pile of rocks? Stunted pine?"
"If you say so." Wilson's voice, flat and mechanical. Collapsing on a log at the side of the road, "My leg, my leg, don't much care 'bout where, even if we are — almost. Damn well, almost!"
"Only half mile now. Winona Bluffs more'n an hour back."
"Weren't keepin' track."
"Didn't we just pass the old Wacouta cemetery? Those lights over there — most likely the Lindstrom place?"
"If'n you say so, Pa."
"Come on, get up, pull yourself together. We're nearly there, I said. Nearly there!"
"Don't care no more. I just —" Wilson broke off with a moan, overwhelmed with the pain of memory and the physical throbbing of his foot.
"You can't give up now, after what we've been through."
"Just want to forget."
"Know that's hard, but the battle's over. Reckon we lost a few, don't like to think 'bout those, especially Fitzhugh's Woods — that Fed prison, neither." Waves of nausea, even as he tried to suppress the indelible imprint upon his brain of stench, maggot-infested food, the screams of dying men, bloody piles of amputated limbs. "Least ways you've still got your foot. Sure argued with that army surgeon 'bout that, didn't I?"
"Would've been better cut off." Wilson moaned between clenched teeth.
"Still alive, aren't you, son? Listen, you'll think different on it, once we get home." By way of encouragement, he added, "Say, wonder what the old place'll look like, eh? Hope they kept it up. Your ma'll sure be glad to see you, even in that old uniform — or what's left of it, some'at the worse for — for war." He smiled wryly at his pun.
"She mayn't recognize me, neither. Four years — seems more'n a hundred. Grown up a bit, I reckon."
"All right, enough talk. Sooner we move on, sooner we'll get there. Here, lean on me." Wilson struggled to stand, succeeding only when Henry supported him under both arms. "Might help to use this rifle like a crutch. Maybe a good thing the army didn't want it back — damned thing defective and near useless. Guess they hadn't thought 'bout that use for it."
He positioned the butt under Wilson's armpit. "That's right, keep the butt there, lean on it. It'll take some weight off that foot. Maybe later we can ask 'bout a doctor in Winona Bluffs." Wilson tried a few steps. "Come on, do the best you can, got to get a move on. Sun's already down, can't hardly make out the road as it is."
Wilson winced as he stumbled over rocks on the road and hobbled after his father. "Ow — oh wait!" he cried. "Wait — wait for me, Pa! Can't keep up, you keep goin' faster!"
Although aware of Wilson's pain, Henry couldn't slow down, not now, not this close. "Only a quarter mile at most now — no, less'n that. Look — that big tree up there overhanging the road — oak at the turn off!" He plunged ahead, then stopped to wait for Wilson. They would share this glorious homecoming together, just as they had shared the horrors of war.
But Wilson, limping up closely behind, stumbled. The rifle butt slid out from under his arm. "Ow — my foot!" he cried. "Just let me die here, Pa, close to home. Come far enough."
"No, you have not come far enough, not yet. I'll carry you on my back if I have to."
Wilson moaned as he struggled to his feet. "Can't let you do that Pa. I'll manage somehow." He retrieved the rifle lying on the road and resolutely pushed the butt under his arm. "Why'd you stop so sudden like? Thought you'd be racin' halfway down to the house by now."
"Dunno. Thought I'd wait for you, then something didn't seem right. Look down there toward the end of the lane — what do you see?"
"Well, I think I see the old house all right, leastways somethin' gray. Too dark now to see much."
"That's just it. It's all dark."
"Maybe they've gone to bed."
"Too early, sun only just set. Can't even be nine yet."
"Gone to town?"
"Too late for that. They'd be back by now, before dark anyway. I'm thinking there ought to be a light showing somewhere — one upstairs, maybe a light in the barn, somebody checking on the stock. Something's amiss." Henry's heart sank. To come so far and find the place empty, what a cruel disappointment. It wasn't what he'd expected.
"Seems awful quiet, Pa."
"Sure doesn't look like anybody's around. Come on then," he sighed, "only thing to do is just go in and wait. They're sure to be back soon." As they approached the house, Henry added, "Something we need to consider, though. Your ma. Think what a shock it'll be to arrive all sudden like this, her heart the way it is. Have to take it gently, maybe, in stages. Won't have to worry about William or your little sister, Helen, though. They'll be mighty glad to see us. Helen'll have grown into a young lady by now, I 'spect."
"Not likely. Always was too independent, to my mind."
Standing now directly before the front porch, Henry looked up at the house. "All the windows dark. For certain they've gone out somewhere, most likely visiting a neighbor, back soon. Well, we can wait some more — waited enough already."
Suddenly Wilson shouted, "Pa, look! Some light out back, just make out a reflection against the chicken coop."
"You're right, somebody's home, at least." They continued around the side of the house and headed for the back door. "Of course, lamp's lit in the kitchen, just couldn't see the light from the road. They must all be in there, finishing a late supper."
Coming through the mudroom into the kitchen, Henry found his elder son, William, sitting alone at the kitchen table, his blond head bent over what looked like an account book. The remains of a half-eaten meal and days of dirty dishes littered the table. "My boy —" Henry blurted out and stopped. He thought he was prepared for this homecoming, he'd rehearsed it many times. His emotion now annihilated all preparation.
"Who's there?" William cried, jumping up so suddenly that the table tipped half the dishes onto the floor. His chair screeched backwards, and his head hit the base of the hanging oil lamp, which swung dangerously back and forth, sending moving shadows across the ceiling and around the room. "Who's there? Can't see — blasted lamp! Get back or I'll ..."
"It's your pa, son. And your brother. We're —" Words once again failing, Henry threw his arms around William. "My boy, my boy," he said, and held him close for a long moment. Then embarrassed by this sign of weakness, he drew back, rubbed his hand over his chin, and asked, "Your ma asleep already? Go fetch her — best break the news gently, though. She'll be so —"
"Just — gone. Sis, too."
"What do you mean, gone? They both in town, then?"
"Didn't you get our letters, Pa? We wrote — or mostly Helen, anyway."
"No letters. Well, one a couple of years ago, just before we were sent south. Couldn't hardly expect letters, moving from one camp to another, then after Arkansas and then Libby Prison in Richmond. Not much chance to write, either, for that matter."
"True, never heard from you. Once in a while the Bluffs newspaper said where the Minnesota Third was, that's all we knew. Ma got anxious, lived in a state of dread every Friday when the paper came out."
"Your ma, then, is where?"
"Like I said, gone."
"What d'you mean gone? She's either here or somewhere else." Henry was growing impatient. "Quit beating around the bush, I'm not in the mood for such crap."
William picked up the fallen chair and sat down heavily. "So you didn't know that Ma —" He paused, realizing that he would, sooner or later, be forced to break the news. He took a deep breath, and went on. "Well, Ma passed away, over a year ago — in the spring."
"Her heart?" Henry had half expected it.
"No, Pa. Consumption, not her heart. Sick for nearly three months through the winter, took what we had to pay for a doctor. No hope, he said, so when the end came, we buried her down in that glade near the creek, place she liked because of the wild violets in the spring. And they were there." He swallowed hard.
Henry was stunned. Although Sarah's fragile state meant living constantly with the thought of an early death, its reality was hard to accept. How was it that he and Wilson had survived, escaped death a hundred times, and Sarah had not? "She died? Died in the spring? Consumption, your mother dead? Over a year ago?" he repeated in disbelief, echoing William's words as if to confirm them. He had to steady himself against the edge of the table.
"No, it's true, Pa. After that — well, didn't think we could hold on much longer after that. War seemed to go on and on, no word from you — you could have been dead, too, and Wilson as well, for all we knew. What could we do? It was hard working the fields, even if we'd had good weather. Drought, then hailstorms, seemed like one damned thing after another. Nobody to help look after the stock, neither."
"Tried her best, but she's only a girl — bit frail, too, like her Ma. We did our best, Pa, honest we did. But a couple of months ago, in May I think it was, she took off and left."
"Left? What d'ya mean left?"
"Well, just — left. Note said her'n Lindstrom boy were gonna get hitched. He'd been hanging round the place awhile back." He shook his head. "You'd of thought he'd offer to help some, but no, he was only after Helen."
"Helen — and the Lindstrom boy? My Helen? Why, they're only children!"
"You're thinking back four years ago, Pa."
This was too much. "Where? Do you know where —"
"Note said something 'bout the city — St. Paul, maybe, looking for work." Then, after a pause, "Can't say as I blame 'em. Things here — so unfair — hard — tried so hard —" With that, William, his mouth contorting with suppressed sobs, blurted out, "Who's to blame? So hard —" He put his head down on the kitchen table and cried like a child, wrenching, dry sobs of despair, coming from deep within.
His brother Wilson had sunk into a chair, exhausted, pale and shaken by William's news. "What," he began, grasping for words, "what can — why didn't you about Ma —" and broke off.
Henry, too, was shaken. Almost home, now here — what bitter irony. His original relief at having survived the war, made it back, if not entirely of sound mind, at least of sound body, evaporated along with the anticipation of uniting the family, reaping the fall harvest, planting the spring seeds, and enjoying peaceful years ahead. As for Wilson? Glancing at his younger son, Henry's heart filled with pity. This son, so eager to sign up with him when the Minnesota regiments were forming, had been through so much. Had expected so much, coming home.
But his feelings of compassion gave way to guilt. Moved to an unconscious gesture of remorse, he gently placed his hand on William's bowed head. "My boy," he said hesitantly, "I am sorry, so sorry, my son, to have left you with all of this, you were only eighteen, I should have known." In his guilt, too, he thought of how vulnerable his young daughter was — left alone at twelve, was it? Sixteen now? That Lindstrom boy — taking advantage. Marriage — pah! A likely story! He rubbed his hand over his eyes, as if to dispel the inevitable scene. Maybe she'd already be deserted, wandering the streets — easy prey — his girl Helen —
The light of the next day revealed the tragic spiral of events at Beaver Creek. Walking with William around the badly weathered backboard house, Henry saw a broken parlor window and the front porch rotting away. "When did those shingles come off the roof?" he asked.
"Tail end of a tornado," said William. "Took some of the barn roof as well. Tried to put a tarp over it, but it blew off a little later."
"And look at those big holes in the south pasture fence," Henry pointed out as they walked down a little farther. "Surprised you didn't lose some of the cows."
William looked uncomfortable. "Well, we did lose old Daisy. Found her down at the bottom of the bluff a little later."
"And what happened to that big old maple tree beside the porch?" "Sorry, Pa, had to chop it down for firewood. We had some pretty cold winters."
"There's plenty of old deadwood around, why that tree? Good shade in the summer."
William bristled in self-defense. "How'd you expect me to have the time to go out collecting it? Hauling it back here? Same for mucking out the barn."
Henry said nothing more, there'd been enough of a litany and he was already aware of the state of the barn and the stock. Only two cows and the wagon team, Major and Jack, left. They looked emaciated. There was little hay up in the loft, nor had this summer's hay been mown — it still lay in the fields, choked with weeds. "What about last fall's harvest? Get much for that?"
"No, Pa," William answered hesitantly. "You see, it was like this. Me and Helen, we got too busy caring for Ma. What little we did manage to sow in the spring — only that half-acre along the south pasture — just dried up, no rain."
What was Henry to do? What could he do? All that night, he lay awake, tossing and turning. Should he and the boys try to salvage what little they could? Borrow enough hay from neighbors to feed the stock during the coming winter? If so, was the stock worth saving? And Wilson's injured foot — how long to heal? Could a doctor in town help? And how to pay him? Should he go looking for Helen, bring her back? Like looking for a needle in a haystack. He sighed and pounded the pillow in frustration. Of course, he'd received some mustering-out pay, he and Wilson. But would it be enough to see them through to next year's harvest? Could he get a bank loan, mortgage off some of the land?
Over the next few days, such questions plagued him over and over again. His mind spun from first one solution to another. He was torn between the longing to settle down and the commonsense that it would be hopeless to try.
"Well, boys," Henry was forced to conclude after still another troubled night, "we can't stay on here." They had just come back from taking the cows out to the one good pasture.
"Not stay on, Pa?" William looked shattered.
"No, son, don't think it'll be worth it."
"But why, Pa?" Wilson asked. "Sure put a lot of work into this place 'fore the war."
"Too far gone. Not only that, but never was a promising place to begin with. You know all too well, up here on these limestone bluffs all the best soil washes down into the Mississippi. And then, sooner or later — what's left?" It was a hard decision, a bitter conclusion.
"We can still keep tryin', can't we Pa?" Wilson sounded hopeful.
"No, my boy, don't think so. Know how eager you were to get home. But you're young, expecting more. It's too hard for me to start all over again. Behind me I've got those two farms in Pennsylvania and the one in Iowa before Beaver Creek." He did not mention the real reason, the most troubling reason. The perpetual self-punishment of the weight of years, of life's events.
"Sure you — we — can start again, though, can't we, Pa?" Wilson seemed unwilling to give up. "I can do it, we'll all work together. Why, I'll go into town, get some work. Maybe find out something about Helen. We can salvage some of the hay, there's a couple of cabbages, some potatoes in the garden, and —"
"No, son, don't think so." It was hard to admit, but Henry now understood how much war had aged him and drained him of energy and will. Looking in a mirror as he had the first morning home, he hardly recognized that haggard face reflected back, hair and beard streaked with gray, a twisted tenseness around his mouth, a hollowness around his eyes. He'd always been considered handsome, a fine, strong figure of a man Sarah used to call him, often jealous of his attractions for other women. Yes, by God, he'd given her cause. There'd been a few times, all right. His sons?
"Look," he continued, "there's only you and William. And with your leg — how could you manage, at least until it heals properly — if it ever does?" Instantly he regretted saying this, for Wilson turned away and limped back into the house, his shoulders hunched in an attitude of defeat.
Excerpted from The Long Journey Home by Laurel Means. Copyright © 2008 Laurel Means. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved the time period, right after the civil war and loved reading what was clearly a well researched book because the pictures of how people really lived were well drawn out. The world was NOT Little House on the Prairie. I really didn't like the main character and actually that is what made me like the story even more. There is a great book club guide that goes with it which you might want to download even if you're reading it on your own.
Two journeys home -- home in the sense of self-awarness and closure. This novel, in its graphically realistic setting, takes us into the hearts of its characters as their paths cross and re-cross the prairies from Minnesota to the Badlands of North Dakota. A bi-cultural story, in which an innocent and simple French Canadian girl is seduced by a war-worn, disillusioned much older homesteader, must find her way into unknown territory -- and back again. An unusual story, carefully structured, exceptionally well written, its deep sub-text (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) and artful symbolism place it among the classics. Pioneer