"There's not even a breath of air." Abigail turned from the window. "Might rain tomorrow, if the clouds come up."
Susannah sighed. "When did you ever care about the weather, Sister?" She fluttered her fan in the sweltering parlor.
Abigail glared at her. "I've cared ever since I've had to go outside like a field hand and feed that wretched mule in the barn. With the war raging, I'm the one that has to do all the work around here."
"Think about how hard all those slaves had it, working day and night with nothing but a sip of water and a kiss from McCormick's whip!" Susannah rearranged her skirt, sat primly at the edge of the sofa. "Why, you'd think it was you who toiled around here all your life. You did nothing but swan about in pretty frocks, waiting for a husband, but none ever showed."
Furious, Abigail stalked out the door. The farm was quiet under the smoldering sun. Slaves had melted away at the start of the war. The women lived alone. Susannah's husband died in battle two years ago. The sisters hunkered down, reluctant to tell neighbors they needed help. Everyone was suffering since the war started. They'd find a way, somehow.
In a thicket behind the barn, a man hid, blood oozing from a leg wound. When the Rebels shot Caleb, he'd staggered off the field of battle and deserted the Union Army. An old rutted path, overgrown with weeds, led him to this dilapidated farm.. The fields were silent, the stalls empty, except for a mule and chickens. Behind the building was a water pump. Caleb drank his fill, then settled in behind the shrubs. He had pried the bullet out yesterday. Now he needed to rest, get something to eat.
It wasn't long before a woman stormed off the porch, walked briskly towards the barn. She was middle aged, with a spinster's face. To call it stern would be a kindness. Abigail muttered under her breath, angry blasts of words cutting through the afternoon heat.
She didn't hear Caleb come up from behind. In one swift motion, he seized her, shoved his palm against her mouth. "Scream and you're dead. Understand?" Abigail understood. Her knees weakened, collapsed, and she floated to the ground. "I'm here for food and water. Then I'll be on my way." he said.
Abigail found her voice. "Dirty Yankee! That's what you are! Why, I oughta call for my daddy! He'll run you off!"
Caleb snorted, spit into the dirt. "Lady, there ain't been no man here for a long time, judgin' from the way this place looks. Who else lives here?"
He aimed his pistol. "Speak!"
" I don't have to say a thing to a Yankee soldier. Besides, you said you'd be on your way!"
"Look here, I'll tell you when I'll be on my way! I need food. A basin to wash in. Fetch 'em and I'll spare your life and not burn the house down." He had small, mean eyes that glittered out from under a thatch of red hair. There was no doubt he meant business. Abigail softened her approach.
"Sir, I'll wager you were raised a gentleman. Now, I'll fetch you that food and basin, even make a bedroll for you up in the loft." She twirled a strand of hair around her finger, peered up at him with a smile. Caleb lowered the pistol. Abigail stood, brushed at her skirt.
"As you can see, my sister and I need help around here. How about you do chores for us and we let you stay a while? A little work will make you stronger. You'll heal just fine with my good cooking. If not, you'll have to fend for yourself."
Caleb looked at her hard. He could kill the women, take what he needed. But what if a neighbor came by to check on them? If captured, they'd hang him for sure. There was still a chance he could slip home to Pennsylvania, hide away until the war ended.
He nodded, rubbed his chin. "What is it you want me to do?"
"Feed that blasted mule, clean out his stall, make sure the chickens are fed, plant seeds, hoe weeds. A little carpentry. Oh, and dig a big hole out yonder by the garden for manure that's piling up."
Caleb worked hard each day, and Abigail brought him food. Sometimes they talked while he ate. The glow from the lamp softened the harsh edges from Abigail's face. She appeared interested as Caleb talked of his home, the war. She found more chores for him to do each morning. Caleb got his strength back.
After three weeks, Caleb was feeling better. It was time to leave. He'd honored the bargain, and so had Abigail. The farm was in good repair, his wound had healed. With luck, he might be home before the first snowfall.
That night, Abigail came to the barn with his supper, stood behind him as he ate, fussing with her apron while he talked.
"Reckon I'll be leaving at first light. Gotta get home", he said, dabbing his bread into a bowl of stew. Abigail didn't answer. "Ya hear me?"
Something pressed into the back of Caleb's head. He stiffened, dropped the bowl, half rose off the stool.
A pistol shot pierced the sweltering night. The mule brayed. Then silence.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Well, Sister", Susannah said, pouring tea into a china cup. "Looks like you're back to feeding that wretched mule again." They sat on the porch, watching the rain drip through broken gutters.
Abigail shrugged, placed two sugar cubes on her saucer, reached for a cookie. "Yes, I guess that's true. But another one will come along soon. They always do."
The sisters smiled, glanced towards the barn and the mounded dirt over the freshly dug hole by the garden, right alongside four others.