Read Different Sin Online

Authors: Rochelle Hollander Schwab

Different Sin (22 page)

Alexandria was occupied by colored troops; the citizens left in town hurried by them with angry, averted eyes. David took little notice, covering the few blocks home at a near run. Mike was coming down the stairs as he yanked open the front door.

“Is Dad— He’s not—” David gasped.

“No, he’s much better, thank the Lord. Probably just a case of heartburn. Sorry I alarmed you for nothing. It’s just, at his age—” Mike turned up his hands. “He’s still awake. Go on up and see him.”

“David?” His father stood on the second floor landing tying the cord on his dressing gown. “I thought I heard your voice. It’s good to see you, son.” He put his hand on the bannister, took a step forward.

“Wait, Dad, I’ll come up.” David ran upstairs, Mike behind him. He reached his father and embraced him.

“I’m sorry to have brought you all the way home for a false alarm.”

“Well I’m glad it was! How are you feeling?”

“A lot better than yesterday.” Dr. Carter gave a rueful smile. “Michael tells me this is most likely due to indulging myself too freely on Phoebe’s onion pie.”

David smiled his relief. His father doted on the housekeeper’s savory pie. “I’m glad it’s nothing worse than that.”

“Just a molehill blown up into a mountain. I have a sound constitution.”

“You still need your rest, sir,” Mike said. He put an arm around his father’s shoulders. “It’s late, Pa. C’mon to bed. You’ll have plenty of time to visit with David. You can stay on a few days, can’t you?” he asked David.

“What? Oh, yeah, sure. I’ll stay a while, Dad. Mike’s right.” Funny, David mused. I never heard Mike call him Pa before. At least he’s never brought himself to call him anything but sir or Dr. Carter that I can remember. Well, Dad looks pleased enough about it.

He followed Mike and his father down the short hallway toward his father’s bedroom. The bedroom door across the hall was suddenly pulled open. The Union captain David had met when he visited in January stepped into the hall. A second, unfamiliar Federal officer followed him. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said. “We don’t mean to intrude.”

“Not at all.” Dr. Carter beamed. “David, you’ve met Captain Schaefer. This is Lieutenant Todd. This is my older boy, Lieutenant. He rushed home to be with me when he heard I was under the weather.”

“Sir.” The lieutenant nodded shortly. “Delighted to see you back on your feet, Doctor. If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, we’re on our way out.”

The two officers hurried off. A fragment of whispered conversation rose up from the stairwell, “... must be in his dotage. Introducing his son in the same breath with his nigger bastard.”

David stared down at the floor, sensed Mike stiffen beside him. If his father heard, he gave no sign. A moment passed; they moved silently to the bedroom.

“Have you had supper?” Mike asked David when they’d seen their father comfortably settled for the night. He hadn’t. David foraged through the kitchen, found the fixings of a sandwich while Mike heated coffee and poured it into two thick mugs. They settled themselves at the old pine trestle table.

“Have you any word when Meade’ll start advancing on Lee?” Mike asked.

“I’m afraid not,” David said. “Though it’s bound to be pretty soon. The officers’ wives are starting to leave for home. And there’s a lot of restlessness among the soldiers. The men are pleased Grant’s made his headquarters in the field, but nobody knows quite what to make of him.”

“Let’s pray he can win the war for us.”

“I was talking with Alf Waud from
Harper’s
the other day. He’s pretty knowledgeable, says Grant’s a man who means business. At any rate, there’s been a lot more drilling going on since he’s taken charge.”

“At least if there
was
an exchange of prisoners. The Charleston jail’s right in the path of fire from our own batteries.” Mike twisted his fingers together. “Well, it won’t do Peter any good to dwell on it.” A moment went by. Mike brightened. “Did you get the news yet in camp? The Senate passed the Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, thank the Lord! Thirty-eight to six.”

“Yeah, I saw it. It still needs to get through the House and the state legislatures though.”

“They’ll pass it. I’m sure they will.” Mike drank a swallow of coffee. “I wish Mama could’ve lived to see the end of slavery. She used to tell me it was too late for her to hope for freedom in this life, but she prayed I’d be set free one day. I’ve always regretted she never knew I made it to the North.”

David pictured Hetty moving around the room, stirring a pot of stew, stamping out biscuits with quick motions of her dark hands, scolding Mike and him for tracking in mud, then handing them each a biscuit hot from the oven. Sending Mike off to the corner pump for water, while he’d reluctantly started his lessons. He’d never have guessed she gave a thought to freedom. “You’d likely never have run off and left her if she’d been alive.”

“No, maybe not,” Mike said slowly. “I reckon you’re right.”

David looked around. Except for the cast iron sink, installed after the construction of the town water system, the kitchen looked as he remembered it from childhood. Pine boards worn with scrubbing, crockery and pewter tableware on the open shelves, wood canisters of flour and sugar. He smiled. “You know, sitting here like this makes me feel like a boy again.”

“It’s taken some getting used to, coming back to this house. I used to sleep in that storeroom.” Mike waved at the small lean-to off the kitchen.

“But before that, when we were kids, you slept in my room. You’d lay your mattress out on the floor and we’d lie in the dark and talk. How did you come to move into that room anyway? It’s hardly more than a shed.”

“Lord, I don’t know.” Mike wrinkled his forehead in thought. “Probably so I could sneak in books without you telling on me. And you used to be so all-fired bossy.” Mike smiled. “I remember now. You woke me up three times one night to hand you the chamberpot. Said I was supposed to do it because I was your slave. So I picked up my bedding and marched on down here.”

“I did? God, I’d forgotten that. Well, I don’t know how you put up with me.”

Mike laughed. “I don’t recollect that I did very often.”

“No, I suppose not. I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a brother though.”

“You weren’t so bad. All children are ugly to one another at times. If you had any, you’d know that. Anyhow, we were hardly brought up as brothers.”

“Well, how could we have been? Hell, we didn’t even know it.”

“Oh c’mon, David. It was all over town. Boys were throwing it up to me far back as I can remember.”

“I don’t remember anyone—”

“I reckon I didn’t want to admit it either. But Mama told me the truth herself, before she passed on. Well, no sense dwelling on it now. We oughta get some sleep. I’ve got to get back to the hospital first thing tomorrow. I’m glad you were able to come up and stay with— Pa for a bit. Lord. I’m just about too tired to move.” Mike yawned, rested his head on his arms. He wore his shirt without its removable collar, the top button unfastened. A scar stretched across the back of his neck as he bent forward.

David stared at it; a memory nudged him. Christ, of course. The whipping the town magistrate had ordered after Mike and his friends had been caught breaking curfew, breaking the ban on blacks gathering in groups, worse yet, being caught with that damn geography book. Right after Nat Turner’s uprising it had been. The whole state had been on edge, fearful of new slave revolts.

Dad wouldn’t plead for Mike. Said he’d known better, would have to take his punishment. Though you could see how much it hurt him to see Mike cut like that. Mike wouldn’t speak to Dad after. He sat at the table while Dad tended his wounds, as rigid as a trapped animal, his fists clenched in fury. At Dad, most of all.

Hell, you couldn’t blame him. It must’ve hurt like hell. Mike didn’t talk about it, but he screamed in his sleep for weeks afterward. He remembered Mike’s shrieks catapulting him from sleep—high, piercing, pain-filled. You’d think Dad would hear— David ran downstairs, squatted beside Mike’s pallet, shook him. “Mike, hey Mike, wake up!” The shrieks stopped. Mike moaned. “Wake up, Mike,” David said once more. “You dreaming about being whipped again?”

“David?”

“You were screaming in your sleep again.”

“Oh Lord, they had me tied to that post and kept cuttin’ and cuttin’— Felt like it would cut right through me!” Mike sat up, clasped his knees with his hands. “Lord! Thanks for waking me.”

“Yeah, sure.” David sat next to him on the pallet. He put a hand on his shoulder, feeling ridges of scar tissue on the bare skin. He shuddered. “They never should’ve done that to you. Just for reading a book!”

“Can’t let us learn nothin’. We might get to thinkin’ we human bein’s like them.” Mike’s voice quickened with the anger that had possessed him since the whipping. “Jesus, I hate bein’ a slave!”

Christ. What could he say to him? They sat in silence a few minutes. “Maybe Dad’ll give you your freedom when you’re older,” David said finally.

“He’ll never give me nothin’. Wasn’t nothin’ to him to see me whipped. I hate him! He’s my own father and he don’t care no more ‘bout it than if I was some mule he own!”

David started. “Dad is? Your father?!” It couldn’t be!

“Mama told me ‘fore she died. And he admitted it himself. But it don’t mean nothin’ to him.” Mike’s voice held nothing but quiet, bitter certainty.

Hell, if his precious mama had told him. And Dad had owned up to it, he said. Dad and Hetty— Christ. How could Dad bring himself to it? It didn’t seem possible.

But look at Mike. As dark as Hetty had been, it stood to reason he’d been fathered by a white man. He’d known that. Bits of ignored gossip, overheard snickers began to surface in his mind. That explained Uncle James as well: how he couldn’t stand Mike, why he’d overheard him yelling at Dad once, “It killed my sister when Hetty had him.”

He supposed Mike was waiting for him to say something. “Yeah, I should’ve realized. I should’ve realized before this,” David said at last. “You’re right about Dad. He ought to treat you differently.”

“Well.” Mike sat up, running his fingers through his graying sideburns. “I’m pretty sure there’s a cot in there somewhere. We can carry it up and—”

David tried to bring his thoughts back to the present. “You used to be so angry at him and now—”

“What?”

“At Dad. I mean—”

“Good Lord, David, that was years ago.”

“I know. I was just thinking back. I wouldn’t have imagined you’d ever come to terms with him.”

“Why wouldn’t I? The man’s my father, same as he is yours.”

“Well, I know that. I just meant—”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at,” Mike said. “But I suppose even before I ran off, when there was so much hard feeling between us, I always hoped one day he’d—” He shrugged. “Be a father to me I guess. Acknowledge me as his son. I’m not saying matters have always been easy between us since he found me, but he’s tried so damned hard. I’m surprised you can’t see how much he’s changed.”

“Well, sure. Sure I can see.” Hell, why shouldn’t he have? David thought. I’ve always been pretty much of a disappointment to Dad. No wonder he couldn’t get over how much Mike had made of himself. How he’d put himself through medical school, become respected as a doctor. You can’t help but admire Mike for managing it. No wonder Dad was willing to admit Mike was his son, accept his kids as his grandchildren.

“Hell, you’ve both changed,” he said.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“And that’s how come your nephew was in a colored regiment.” Al’s face, brushed by shadows from the trees bordering the porch where they sat, was alive with interest.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so,” David said. He stretched out his legs, still cramped from the train ride back, wondering why he’d blurted out so much about Dad and Mike, when all Al had asked him was how his father was doing.

At least Al didn’t seem shocked or disgusted. David watched as Al peered into the tin mirror he’d propped on the porch rail and positioned the sewing shears with which he was cutting his hair. Al pulled on a curl and scissored it, grinned at David. “Sounds like your family’s a sight more interesting than mine.”

David smiled. “I don’t know about that. A big family like you all had. It must’ve been fun for a kid.”

“I reckon it was. It wasn’t easy being the baby though. Seemed like I spent half my life trying to catch up with my big brothers, and just when I’d learn—oh, I don’t know—how to shinny up a tree or saddle a horse, they’d’ve moved on to something new. And there I’d be tagging behind them all over again.”

David laughed. “How many brothers do you have again?”

“Six. And Julie. She was the only other— She’s my big sister. She and Ma were always trying to keep me from running wild like a savage Indian. That’s how Ma always put it. I’m glad enough of it now though. At least she kept me at my schoolbooks so’s I learned to write tolerable enough for the newspapers.

“Pa always had a hankering to move further West, though he did pretty well where we was, selling saddlery and gear. Independence is pretty much of a jumping-off point for wagon trains. The Santa Fe and Oregon trails start out there. Nearly every night Pa told us stories he’d heard ‘bout gold out in California or land in Oregon. But Ma wouldn’t budge. Most of my brothers headed West soon as they could though, all but Jimmy—he enlisted two years ago.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t head West yourself,” David said. He picked up one of the brown curls from the porch floor, twisted it idly around his finger. It sprang back as he loosed it. Al must have taken advantage of the warm weather to wash his hair while he’d been gone, David thought, watching the sun glint off his curls. He opened his hand and let the strand slide softly to the floor.

“It never appealed to me that much. Anyhow, after Pa died I was the only one to home besides Julie, so it wouldn’t have been right to leave Ma. Everyone but me was pretty well grown by then. There’s five years between Jimmy and me. We had two more brothers between us, but they died in the bad cholera epidemic back in ‘49.

“Reckon I’d still be home if Ma hadn’t passed on. I stayed on with Julie and her husband a few months. Pa left his saddlery to them. I gave them a bit of a hand, wrote some for the paper. But it didn’t satisfy me staying in Independence when the big story’s here. I reckon this campaign’s gonna make the difference in whether we beat the Rebs or not.”

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