John never made it back to the grove. His friends rode south and searched the site of the skirmish. They didn’t find his body, only a single patch of upturned, disturbed earth roughly the size of a woman with an erect cross made piecemeal of broken twigs. Zebulon Malden Joy, John’s oldest friend and lieutenant, recognized the necklace hung from the cross. It was Fidelia’s.
They found John three days later back in Lovejoy’s Station, aimlessly wandering the barren, dirt lanes. It was a miracle he was still alive, what with all the Union bummers traipsing around. But it was obvious why he had gone unassailed. He no longer looked a man, but the dry, hollow husk of one. His Confederate colors were muddied beyond recognition. Even Zeb barely knew him by his metamorphosed features, stricken by grief into a Grimm visage. His friends knew the look all too well.
John resembled a wildman, his hair akimbo, his skin and uniform split and torn by brambles, the cuticles of his nails stained black with topsoil. Whenever they got in his path, he’d turn, and if they approached, he’d bare his teeth and growl like Hell’s hound. Zeb knocked him unconscious with the butt of his rifle musket. John’s father protested, but it was for his own good.
They spirited his body away to one of their hides. His wounds were superficial. John Sr. found a frozen creek nearby and punctured the ice to get at the water. He stripped his only son and used the water to clean him, then dressed him in a spare uniform. The chill caused John to tremble, or so they thought. The fire helped little to abate it. He slept for another whole day, but only restlessly.
He could hear the rumble of a distant echo. They were voices. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but as they grew louder they sounded familiar. His father was there, his best friend Zeb and his son too. There was the warmth of a fire and the scent of a cooking meal. For the first time since the war began, he felt safe and content. But where was Fidelia’s voice. Her perfume was absent. Suddenly he no longer felt safe and the voices were no longer familiar. He had to go from these strangers. He had to find Fidelia. So he opened his eyes.
“He’s awake,” young Jonathan chimed.
The day gleamed bright with gentle snowfall. John blinked as his eyes adjusted. His consciousness drifted back like molasses in January. As the realization of who he was and what had happened struck him, his face crinkled and he began to sob. He laid there sobbing the rest of the day.
The next morning, his eyes were bloodshot and swollen, but his bereavement was purged. He sat up and his throbbing head nearly sent him back down. Jonathan sat across from him smiling, and Zeb carried him a bowl of stewed pork and beans and half a hardtack.
John pinched the bridge of his nose. “For once I’m looking forward to some tooth dullers,” he replied. Zeb sat next to him, handing over the meal. John spooned heaps of stew into his mouth with the hardtack, taking nibbles as he went. For a moment there was only the sound of the forest and his mouth breathing while he ate.
“I have something for you,” Zeb began. He held his fist out to John.
John set his meal aside and wiped the corners of his mouth, jolly for the first time in a week. He opened his palm below Zeb’s fist and a necklace appeared in it. John closed his eyes and lowered his head, bringing the necklace to his heart. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Don’t worry, John. You’re not the only one who loved Ellie. She was like a sister to me. Word is one of the house niggers leaving town the same day got a good look at the blue bellied sons-of-bitches that did this. Bummers are easy to find. We’ll find them. And we’ll kill them. I’ll kill every last one if need be.”
John opened his eyes and looked hard at the limp necklace in his palm. He clenched his fist around it.