They didn’t stay. Theo built a fire in the stove, left them with a week’s worth of firewood, and roused his drunken friend. With Liam’s arm slung across his shoulders, he gave Rees a nod and they took their leave, out into the dusky indigo of evening. “Bolt the door,” he told her as they started up the road. She did. And latched the windows. And she lit a precious candle so that she could see to pan-fry their last four strips of bacon.
They ate at the table, by candlelight, soaking up grease from the iron skillet with stale, hard heels of bread. They had only cheese left, not enough for even one proper meal the next day. And in the wavering shadows, Rees could hear all their stomachs growling for more.
Annabel was the one who finally brought up their visitors. “I think you should have let them stay.”
Surprised, Rees lifted her brows. “I didn’t shoo them out. They chose to leave.”
“But you could have invited them to stay. They could chop wood, and probably hunt. I bet the tall one–”
“Theo,” Rees interjected.
“ – I bet he steals. He could steal us some food from town. Some new clothes. Our dresses are too thin for winter and–”
“We can’t ask someone to steal for us,” Lily protested. Her smooth white forehead was still puckered with creases, her eyes still liquid and troubled. She was a delicate girl, and wasn’t taking any of this well.
“We have to eat, Lily!” Annabel protested. Her look suggested her sister should know that. “The Union don’t see nothing wrong with killing the lot of us, so what’s a little stealing?”
“Don’t see anything wrong,” Rees corrected automatically, then shook her head. “And it isn’t the Union, it’s…” She wasn’t sure she understood this war, the reasons it had ruined their lives, well enough to explain. “We shouldn’t steal,” she said tiredly. She stood, reaching for the skillet. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. We’ll probably never see them again.”
Dawn woke her. And something else, some sound she couldn’t identify. They’d slept three across in the sagging rope bed with its straw-filled mattress, huddled under a single quilt because she’d used their sheets as bandages last night. Rees pushed up on her arms, blinking away the grit in her eyes, and glanced toward her sisters. Both slept soundly, Annabel tucked against Lily’s side. In the watery gray light, the three room house was an abysmal thing.
It had been a one room cabin when she was a baby. But her father had sought to better it. He’d cut and hauled timbers himself, crafting walls to create a bedroom and a separate kitchen so her mother could have a “parlor” as they’d both called it, like the regal London ladies he claimed to have met once upon a time. It was tiny, and irregular shaped, but the inside of the house had in fact contained its parlor. And a kitchen. And this cramped bedroom with its cobwebs in the corner. If her father could see what his house had become, Rees knew he would have been appalled.
Lord knew what Mama would think. She’d let it get this way.
And now it was her problem to prepare it for winter.
The sound was still plucking at her ears, so she slid out of bed and stepped into her shoes, banding her arms tight around her middle, pressing her nightgown to her chill-bump covered skin. It was a chirping, clicking, chattering sort of noise. And it was coming from the front door. When she wiped at a window pane with her sleeve and peered out onto the porch, she gasped. Surely not…surely she was imagining things…
But when she opened the door, there was no mistaking what waited for her. Chickens. Three wood crates of fussing, clucking chickens. They were gold and brown, patterned like partridges, with knobby red combs. One of them crowed: there was a rooster too. A whole little batch of chickens.
She noticed something else propped against the wall: a sack of flour. And a paper-wrapped package tied with twine: bacon. There was an old cigar box filled with yeast, salt, black pepper, and a little bit of sugar.
“Rees,” Lily called.
It wasn’t until she lifted her head that she realized there were silent tears tracking down her cheeks. “Come…” Her voice broke. “Lily, come look.”
“What is it?” Lily tucked a sheet of golden hair behind her ear and came barefoot to the door, night gown pooling around her feet.
She remembered what Theo had said in the yard, about owing them. She laughed and it was a thrilled, curious, tear-choked sound. “It’s a thank you,” she said breathlessly. “It’s…” And then she whispered, “Thank you,” and wished for the chance to tell them herself.
Through a screen of leaves, on the other side of the road, Theo watched the girls come out onto the porch in their nightgowns and exclaim over the chickens and flour. Rees, he could tell, even from a distance, was crying. He smiled.
The bastard slave owners cried over what the war had done to their fields, as if any man had a right to own another man; the fat elite wrung their hands over politics. The North fought to preserve the Union…and rendered it to ashes in the process. Lincoln’s cause was just …but the country was in bits. And all the big men with their big ideas had such convictions…
But none of them were witness to the joy on the faces of three hungry girls finding crates of chicken, and a little yeast for bread, on their front porch. Barefoot and beautiful and too-thin. None of those big men would understand the savagery of being poor in the South. None of them would help. That was his job, and Liam’s, and the rest of them.
Silently, he slipped back through the trees with his rifle. Maybe he’d find a pheasant to shoot for their supper. Maybe, if he put food in their bellies, they’d understand what he had to do, when it came to that.