He wasn’t sure how long the woman had been watching him. But her stare was deep, and her hair ghostly white. That was all he could tell with his head lowered. He didn’t dare meet her gaze.
When he had dozed, there’d been only a couple of passengers outside the Elkton depot. Now there were over a dozen, hovering near. They’d want to talk to him, like the folks in the Baltimore station and at the diner before it.
He pushed off the bench, rising as best he could. The wood platform ran the length of the building. Men were smoking at the end nearer the town. But the other side was empty, and dark. It would do.
The first steps were the hardest. The cold didn’t help, though it was more than stiffness. More like his leg muscles had to relearn the motion, as though they’d forgotten their purpose. Maybe that was why he’d felt the compulsion from the time he’d awoken at the field hospital. He had to keep pushing lest he find himself trapped, or paralyzed. Or left for dead.
Movement came easier now. A man edged back, eyeing the scar along his scalp. The man’s son, no more than ten, looked too. His gaze fell to the collar insignia and division patch, coming to rest on the ribbon. The younger ones always studied the uniform, seeing it more than him, which was just as well. But the boy said nothing, nor did the father. Another step and he was free of them.
Without his cane.
He glanced toward the bench. The cane was there, resting against his duffel. He wasn’t going back now.
Continuing on, he scanned the predawn sky. The night was moonless, or at least he couldn’t find it. There were stars though. At the end of the platform he could see them better. A soft glow bathed the farm across the tracks. The smell of cow manure was strong. Beside the station sat a lumberyard. He could smell the felled trees too, a warm woody scent destined to fade fast.
The nearest trunks were thick, four or five feet in diameter. Probably from the Blue Ridge, unless they’d cleared the whole length by now. Maybe some were from the western ridges, brought in on the Chesapeake & Western line. Logs from Hadley might be among them.
The thought stuck. It had never crossed his mind, though eighteen months was long enough. The loggers were efficient. A crew could clear an entire slope in a few months, and there were scores operating across Augusta County. Hadley wouldn’t escape their reach forever.
Would Mom have mentioned it? The ridges were his element, not hers. She hated the mountains. Still, it would have been news. Surely she’d have made note.
He looked up when he heard the whistle. A freight train barreled along the far track, not slowing. The thunder rose to a feverish clamor. Just a train, that was all. No grenades or gunfire. No shells or gases. Yet his body made no distinction. He heard the ringing in his ear and felt the tightness in his chest.
He fled home, as he had each night on the front.
An orchard of hardwoods blanketed the land. By now prominent oak, chestnut and hickory would have cloaked the ridges in deep reds and muted yellows. Beneath their twisting canopy, he could wander for hours among hay-scented ferns, through sprinklings of mountain laurel, witch-hazel and dogwood. Stands of birch and spruce clung to high northern niches. Groves of hemlock shielded rocky streams below.
He remained there, safe along the wooded slopes, even after the train had passed. When he could breathe again, he opened his eyes. He wiped his neck, feeling the slender chain beneath his palm. His hand grew damp.
At his bedside in Toul, Claire had tried to explain the night sweats. “Your body is mending. You will be fine, mon ami,” she had whispered, as if her words could make it so.
But he wasn’t fine. He’d have to face them alone. And they’d want things from him. They’d want the old Joshua. It’s what they’d expect.
The chill sank clear to the bone. Shaking it off, he turned. Passengers had begun to shift. The eastern sky was lighter. It wouldn’t be long now. He should get his duffel and move nearer the tracks. Boarding would go easier that way.
He flexed his leg then made his way back up the platform. His gait was steadier now, but that was only half the battle. The rest was harder, much harder. So he dropped his shoulders, and he kept his head low.