They returned to Eagle Valley the same way they had left.
Everything looks different now, Charley thought. The whole town seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the news they’d come to share. The sun hung low in the sky, lighting up the dusty streets with an ethereal glow.
Israel walked ahead of Charley and Paul. We’ve changed too, Charley thought. They seemed taller than they had before the war. Their shoulders were broader and their clean-shaven chins were darkly shadowed.
Out of habit, the men matched their pace and marched up the winding dirt path. “There ‘tis,” said Israel, when the town’s small Main Street came into view. “We’re nearly home.”
Their feet barely touched the brick sidewalks. “Independence!” Israel yelled, hoisting his lantern as if it were his sword. “Independence!”
The few townspeople in the streets paid no mind. Paul and Charley rallied and picked up the cry.
The three rebels continued up the street to the Presbyterian meetinghouse, calling out their victory, just as they’d always planned. Charley tried to catch the eye of people he knew as they passed. The shopkeeper kept his eyes trained just over their heads, pretending not to notice them at all. Goody Warren did not even turn.
So the war hadn’t changed everything, Charley thought. Goody Warren had made sure to speak her mind before they left. “If there’s change to be made, it ought to start with Williamsburg, not England.” She’d tapped the dirt road with her boot to emphasize her point. “All our money is going to their fancy plantations out East. War’s for lords and ladies, not for those like us. Mark my words, if out East they think rebellion is a good idea, it’ll only bring trouble here.”
Charley looked about the town with fresh eyes. There was a goodwife, carefully sweeping her front steps. A breeze stirred her billowing petticoats enough to reveal her feet, wrapped in rags instead of shoes. Farther up the street, a boy chased his hog to the butcher, switching its legs with a branch. The boy’s pants were nearly twice his size. A piece of string looped about the top held them on his too-thin waist.
The last cry of “Independence!” caught in Charley’s throat. They weren’t truly independent here, not yet. Not so long as they were still struggling for every half-penny they earned. The war might be over, but Eagle Valley’s freedom was still far away.
The three men parted at the meetinghouse. Israel walked on to the small manse he’d lived in with his father. It had been just the two of them for a long time. Israel’s mother had died in childbirth, and the Reverend had never remarried.
A cold wind blew when Israel opened the front door. The back door was open too, creating a wind tunnel in the narrow house. The Reverend Thomas lay back in his chair. The Bible was open in his hands, as if he’d been reading it when he fell asleep. Israel fetched a blanket and spread it over his father’s cold feet.
“Father.” Israel’s voice was gentle. “I’m home. I’ve come home to you.”
Reverend Thomas didn’t stir.
Paul could have traced his steps to the family farm with his eyes shut. For once, his boots didn’t sink into the muck by the barn. He smiled at the sound of the cows lowing and the chickens clucking in the distance. It had been so long since he’d been home.
As he neared the house, unhappier memories loomed large. There was the cellar door, where he’d hidden his mother during one of her husband’s violent rages. His stepfather was tolerable only when they were poor. He had no money to spend on ale and no time to find it. When he came into a spare coin, he would disappear to the alehouse and return a monster. Paul cringed when he heard a twig snap. It sounded too much like the crack of a whip.
The house was silent. That could be a sign of promise or danger. Paul hung back and peered through a glass-paned window. His mother and sisters sat by the fire, sewing and spinning. They looked much the same as he had left them. His brothers were men now, except the youngest, and he wasn’t far behind. The family seemed peaceful. Happy, even.
Paul cast a cautious glance about the house for signs of his stepfather. He counted three sets of man’s boots: one for each of his younger brothers. They were newer than any that had graced their doorstep before. None of them had been patched or re-soled.
There were no boots for his stepfather. Paul didn’t see his pipe on the mantle, either.
Behind him, Paul heard the heavy tread of footsteps. He jumped. It was none but Farmer George, who owned the adjoining farm. Likely he was here to borrow something.
If George was surprised to see Paul had returned, he made no sign. He took off his hat and strode in the front door as if he owned the place.
The reaction of the family inside was immediate. They greeted George in a chorus and moved a chair closer to the fire for him. George dropped a kiss on Paul’s mother’s forehead.
When the truth struck Paul, he felt lighter than air. So his stepfather had died, and his mother had married again. His family was safe.
Paul opened the front door and stepped through. “Good morrow,” he called. “What cheer?”
Paul’s mother turned. “Did you hear something?” she asked.
Charley did not have to look far to find his mother. She was pacing the brick sidewalk in front of their house. She looked older and thinner than ever. Charley quickened his steps.
At last, someone seemed to recognize him. “Charley!” his mother called. “Charley!”
“I’m home,” Charley said. His mother raised her lantern and peered down the darkening road.
“Charley!” she called again.
“How now, Mother?” Charley said, drawing closer. He stepped into the circle of light cast by her lantern. “I’m here.”
His mother’s face gave no flicker of recognition. Her eyes looked vacant.
Behind him, Goody Howe and Goody Warren walked over. Goody Howe hung back as Goody Warren took Charley’s mother by the hand.
“There now, missus,” Goody Warren said kindly. “I’m sure he’ll be along soon. Go on back inside and get warm.”
Charley’s mother obediently turned and tottered back to the house. The light from her lantern swung wildly as she stumbled. Charley was left in the shadows.
The two goodwives shared a meaningful look. “Still?” asked Goody Howe.
“Ever since the day her husband died,” said Goody Warren. She made a clipped tsk-tsk sound. “She’s all right, most days. Loneliness can change a person. Towards dusk she gets it in her head to go about and see if her son’s come home.”
Goody Howe frowned. “Charley?”
“It’s awful. He’s been dead near six months. Him and young Paul, and the Reverend’s son.”
“That’s the one. Dreadful thing, war. What did it change?” Goody Warren said. “The lords and ladies east of here might be free from England, but naught changed here.”
“That’s the truth,” Goody Howe said.
Charley never saw Israel or Paul again. They had moved on quickly, he supposed. What purpose did they have in Eagle Valley, now that they’d seen to their families? Israel would have crossed over with his father. Paul might have lingered a bit, but his mother didn’t need his protection any more.
Charley never could bring himself to leave Eagle Valley behind. Not when his mother passed and crossed to the other side. Nor when the dirt roads finally gave way to pavement and horses were replaced by automobiles. Not even when more of Eagle Valley’s bravest marched off to fight in wars half a world away.
Eagle Valley needed so much more than could be won in any battle. Hemmed in by the mountains on one side and miles of muddy terrain on the other, prosperity was a long time coming. Independence and isolation were more closely tied than Charley had ever dreamed.
Independence. That had always been Charley’s dream, and he stays in Eagle Valley to see it through.