A House Divided
*This story was inspired by the conflict between Rick and A.J. that was occasionally alluded to in the Simon and Simon series, regarding Rick’s service in Vietnam. I thought it would be interesting to take the Simon brothers back in time and see where my writer’s imagination would lead me if I wrote a story centered around the Civil War.
Andrew Jackson Simon sat on the hard ground, leaning back against a tree, writing fast and furiously on a tablet of paper. He paused for a moment, looking out at the encampment before him, squinting as the late afternoon sun assaulted his eyes.
The sound of men’s voices raised in boisterous talk and laughter drifted over to A.J., carried easily by the gentle, fall breeze that stirred the yellow and gold leaves above his head. A young man of perhaps seventeen years old was playing a lively tune on a harmonica, while nearby him a cut throat game of poker ensued. One of the poker players, a large, dirty, grizzly bear of a man named Zechariah Stevens, tried to get the young harmonica player to join in the game. The other men laughed as the freckle faced musician simply shook his head and went on with his song.
"Hey, Stevens, the kid ain't dumb. He knows he ain’t no match for us old dogs. We've been fightin' this war and playin' cards since before he was born," a ponytailed man in bad need of a shave quipped, causing the other card players to burst out in a renewed round of laughter.
A.J. smiled with amusement at the teasing of the young boy before turning back to his work.
"Writing, writing, writing. This is all I ever see you doing. You must have plenty of news to tell the President."
"Some," was all A.J. said before looking up as his friend, Lieutenant Gerald Reiner, made himself comfortable on the ground, sharing the wide oak tree trunk A.J. was leaned back against.
Jerry craned his head to look over the blond man's elbow. "What are you telling him?"
"What an ass you are, and that I recommend you be demoted to camp cook," A.J. teased without cracking a smile.
"There's days when that doesn't sound like such a bad job," Jerry agreed. "But what are you really writing?"
"The usual. The President wants a full report of the latest battle, as always," A.J. said, his mood suddenly taking a down swing. He thought briefly back over the past four years, the things he had done and seen, the battles he had been a part of. Nothing ever changed much, not really. Men on both sides were still gravely wounded, many more than that killed. Nothing A.J. did or reported seemed to change that fact in the slightest.
Having been a friend for many years now made it easy for Jerry to detect the black aura that seemed to suddenly surround the blond. Trying to coax his friend into better humor, Jerry teased, "Four years as a special envoy to President Lincoln has almost caused you to lose that southern accent of yours, Andrew Jackson."
The Lieutenant instantly regretted that remark, fearing he had said the wrong thing when A.J. didn't readily have a sharp retort. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence passed before A.J. informed his friend, "I will always be a Southerner, no matter where I live or what I do. My heart bleeds for the South and what she is going through. I just...I couldn't stand by her on this issue."
Jerry slowly nodded, knowing this was a sensitive subject for his friend. He hadn't meant to make things worse with his teasing. He took note of a folded piece of paper in the breast pocket of A.J.'s uniform and decided it was a good time to change the subject.
"Is that from your mother or your sweetheart?"
A.J. gave a mirthless chuckle. "I realize now, my old friend, that it's been a while since I've been with your unit. Janet wrote me a Dear John letter over a year ago. She returned the engagement ring saying she couldn't marry a traitor."
Jerry, who knew the situation well, cocked his head asking, "Her words, or her father's?"
"Oh, her father's I'm sure. But by the time this war is over it won't make a lick of difference. I'm a Southern boy who chose to side with the North. Even if Janet does yet have feelings for me, she'll never be allowed to act upon them. I'm not exactly popular down home, you know."
"Your mother still writes you," Jerry pointed out, having guessed correctly who the letter in A.J.'s pocket was from.
"And she always will. No one can ever turn Cecilia Simon against me. She's tried very hard to understand my reasons. Who her sons are fighting for isn't the point. That they're fighting at all is what matters. Mama just wants us home."
"When was the last time you saw her?"
"Ten months ago. I was covering the battles surrounding Richmond and was able to get down to see her for a day."
"Is everything okay?"
"Yes. So far we've been lucky. The plantation isn't near where any of the fighting has occurred. I fear it will only be a matter of time though. It seems like the Union army wants to raid every Southerner's home it can."
"A.J...we're not all like that."
A.J. smiled, looking into the eyes of his college friend. "No...no you're not. I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by
"I know you didn't. You're just worried about your mother."
A.J. nodded. "Yes...yes, I am. I've been away a long time, Jerry. Four years. It seems like a life time ago now, like I'm not even the same person I was then."
"I think it seems that way for all of us, A.J., believe me," Jerry sympathized, then asked, "And Rick? How's he doing?"
A.J. shrugged, looking away. "I don't hear from him, of course. According to Mother, he sees her as often as he can, which makes me happy."
"He hasn't written you at all then? Hasn’t answered any of your letters?"
"No, but let's be realistic, Jerry. I'm a traitor to the South. If you were a soldier in the Confederate army would you write to your brother the Turn Coat?"
"I don't know. Maybe not," Jerry answered honestly. "But you two are awfully close."
"Were awfully close. This war has divided us in a way I would have never thought possible. It's funny when you think about it, that something as senseless as a war could tear my brother and me apart. It's happened though, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it," A.J. ended bitterly.
"How is he doing? Rick, I mean. Does your mother ever say?"
A.J. smiled. "Oh certainly. She's a sly one, our mother, that's for sure. In a very nonchalant way she always manages to write me that latest news of Rick, just as I'm sure she writes him the latest news of me."
To prove this to his friend, A.J. pulled the letter from his pocket, unfolded it, and read a paragraph out loud.
"Rick is doing well, although the last time I saw him, two months ago, I thought he was much too thin. This war has been hard on your brother, Andrew, just as I know it's been hard on you. He was recently promoted to the rank of Major, but other than that doesn't say too much in his letters about the battles he has fought or the like, just relates funny stories and all the devilment he is up to. You know Rick. He doesn't talk about the bad times. He asked about you the last time he visited. I know he cares about you very much and worries about your well being, just as you worry about his. It will do your mother's heart good to see you two mend fences once this terrible war has come to an end."
A.J. let the open letter fall to his lap as he finished reading. "So, as you an tell, my mother still wishes for the impossible."
Jerry shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe it's not so impossible. I have a feeling that once this war is over a lot of people will see things more clearly. When the final body count is made, and the maimed and battle scarred young men go marching home, be it to the North or to the South, a lot of folks are going to be rethinking their position on things. And not just in the South either. We're all going to be wondering if any of it was really worth it."
"I already know first hand that none of it has been worth it," A.J. replied in his soft, southern drawl. "The destruction has been immense, both in term of lives lost and land ruined." After a pause he added softly, "Not to mention the destruction of the most important relationship in my life."
"You and your big brother."
"Yes, Jerry, me and my big brother," A.J. sorrowfully agreed.
The sadness on the twenty-six-year-old A.J.'s face was easily discernible. Jerry reached out and patted his old friend on the knee. "Just remember, A.J., time heals. It can heal you and Rick, too, if you both let it."
A.J. shook his head in uncertainty and doubt, "We'll see," was all he replied to his friend and confidant.
A loud, "Lieutenant Reiner! Lieutenant Reiner!" Hailed Jerry from somewhere in the camp. Jerry gave A.J.'s knee a final pat as he rose to go see who was in such desperate need of him. "I'll see you later, A.J.," the man said while walking away.
A.J. sat his pad of paper and pencil down on the ground beside him, then refolded his mother's letter and returned it to his jacket pocket. He tilted his back against the tree, looking up and taking in the brilliant colors of autumn. He thought back to another beautiful autumn day four years, and a lifetime earlier.
A.J. was twenty-two years old that fall, and had graduated from Harvard University in May of that year with a degree in law. He had chosen to stay up north upon graduation, working in a law office in Maryland. Tensions began to mount throughout that summer between the North and the South, causing A.J. to decide to return home to Virginia in early September.
The blond man hoped that in returning to his boyhood home, he might be able to clear his jumbled head of the many conflicting thoughts that seemed to constantly be running through it of late.
A.J.'s mother, Cecilia, was forty six years old that fall of 1860, and had been a widow for twelve years. She was a strong, independent lady who backed down to no one, not even her husband when he had been living. For just that reason she had been managing the family business quite successfully since Jack Simon's death, although she told her youngest quite often that she was more than ready to turn the running of the large plantation over to him whenever he said the word. A.J. had known for a long time that this was his mother's and older brother's wish, that sometime after college the younger Simon would take over the family business from Cecilia. A.J., however, wasn't quite so sure those were his plans. He hadn't revealed these thoughts to his family yet, but had no major misgivings in this area. His mother showed him her most recent financial statement on his first nights home that fall. The papers proved to A.J. what he had always suspected; that his mother was a shrewd and intelligent businesswoman. He knew, then, that if he chose to direct his life down other paths he could do so freely and without feelings of guilt.
The young A.J. had stepped off the train in Richmond that fall day in 1860, luxuriating for a moment in the smells and sounds of the South...of home. He looked up and down the dirt street, straining to spot his mother in her carriage, or at least one of the familiar black faces from his family’s legion of slaves. All around him debarking passengers were being joyously greeted by family members and slaves alike, but A.J. quickly came to discover that he had no one awaiting his arrival. With slightly hurt feelings, the blond man picked up his suitcase and began threading his way through the crowd of people. The puzzled expression became a permanent fixture on the young man's face. He knew his mother was expecting him, and according to her most recent letter, eagerly looking forward to his arrival. Why she wasn't here to greet him, A.J. had no idea.
A.J. crossed the street, looking this way and that, hoping to spot a neighbor going in his direction that he could hitch a ride with. He paid no attention to the heavy boot steps that clomped rapidly up behind him on the wooden sidewalk. Two large hands suddenly descended on A.J.'s shoulders, causing him to give a yelp of startled surprise.
A smile quickly spread across A.J.'s face when a deep voice greeted in his right ear, "Welcome home, stranger. I almost didn't recognize my own baby brother. Ya' surely look like a grown up Harvard man, A.J."
That grown up Harvard graduate turned and launched himself into the arms of his older brother. "Rick!" He exclaimed joyously, not expecting this surprise.
Rick pulled his brother close in return, the bear hug they shared being long and full of feeling.
When they finally broke apart Rick held his sibling at arms length. "Ya've changed, A.J. Ya' went and grew up on me. I guess I ain't gonna have no cause to peel the bullies off a' ya' now. I gotta feelin' ya' can take care of yourself just fine."
A.J. smiled. "I do okay. And speaking of changing, so have you, big brother. What's with the moustache?"
Rick sheepishly pulled off his hat to reveal his recently receding hairline. "It kinda makes up for what I'm losin' on top."
A.J. laughed at his brother's soulful expression and balding head.
"Hey, knock it off, squirt," Rick ordered, reaching out to grab his brother in a headlock.
A few minutes of playful scuffling ensued, a laughing A.J. disengaging himself from his brother's hold when he'd had enough. He looked Rick up and down, then gave a smart, crisp salute. "You look quite important, Captain."
Rick looked down at his freshly pressed blue uniform of the Army of the United States of America, with its shiny brass buttons and the newly added insignia indicating his recent promotion. "The ladies like it," Rick smiled slyly.
A.J. rolled his eyes. "It figures. Only my brother would chose a career in the Army because the ladies like it."
"Actually, I chose a career in the Army 'cause Daddy sent me off to military school when I was fourteen," Rick reminded. "The admiration of the ladies is just a side benefit, little brother."
"One I'm sure Daddy didn't count on since he sent you to military school in the first place to get you away from Rebekah Sue Miles."
"Yes, and to give me the, "‘Discipline you are so badly in need of Richard,’" Rick finished, mimicking their father and quoting him exactly.
A.J. laughed again, recalling some of Rick's wilder schemes, and how even their strict father couldn't seem to keep a tight rein on his eldest. Military school had been Jack Simon's way of instilling discipline and maturity into his impetuous young Richard.
A.J. could still recall clearly the day Rick left home for the military academy in Georgia. He had been nine years old and had clung to his older brother, crying as the carriage was being loaded with Rick's suitcases.
Rick had shown far more bravado than he was feeling that day, hugging A.J. tightly and telling him, "Hey, kid, don't cry now. I'll be home for Christmas. That's not very far away. Only four months."
"Will you write?" A.J. had sniffled.
"Every chance I get," young Rick promised.
It seemed like those years flew by, and before A.J. realized what was happening, it was him who was going far away from home. He was seen off to college from this very same train station four years earlier by his mother and brother.
In the intervening years, Rick's military career had sent him to the far wilderness corners of America, as well as into Mexico, while A.J. was busy with his studies. The brothers had last seen each other in December of 1858, when they were both home for Christmas. Amazingly enough, no matter how long they were apart, or how many miles separated them, Rick and A.J. remained as close as they had been as boys.
Rick now flung an arm around his brother's shoulders, picking up A.J.'s suitcase as he did so. Leading A.J. toward the polished black carriage parked around the corner Rick drawled, "Boy, kiddo, ya' sure are the spittin' image of Daddy, ya' know that?"
"Mama mentioned it last year at Christmas," was all A.J. said. "Speaking of Christmas, I sure missed you, Rick. Christmas just isn't the same without you home."
"I missed you too, kid. And Mama. Believe me, I was sure wishin' I could be home, but I couldn't get leave. By the smells that were comin' from the kitchen when I left home a while ago, I'd say Mama's got a belated Christmas dinner planned for us tonight."
"Sounds great! I sure do look forward to some of Naomi's good old Southern cooking."
"Maybe a fine ole' Virginia ham and sweet potatoes will help ya' lose some of that shameful Northern accent ya've gone and acquired, A.J.," Rick teased.
"Northern accent! I don't have a Northern accent!"
Rick's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Yep, A.J., I do believe you're gettin' to be a full fledged Yankee."
"Yankee! I'll Yankee you!" A.J. threatened, taking his turn at wrestling his brother into a headlock. The two brothers laughed and playfully brawled like bear cubs all the way to their carriage. Laughter and lively conversation continued during the hour it took Rick to drive them to the large, luxurious plantation they had both been born on.
Cecilia Simon rejoiced at having both of her children home that fall. She easily envisioned the day when A.J. would open his own law practice nearby, and Rick would return from the military for good. They would both live on the plantation in its big, roomy mansion with their future wives and children, working together to run the family business as their father had before them, and their grandfather before him, and their great grandfather before him.
Cecilia would often think to herself that fall, A.J. is so intelligent and personable. He will make a fine lawyer and businessman, a wonderful financial planner for all our investments and business dealings. And Rick is a natural leader, so funny and well-liked, that he will run this plantation without any problems, I'm sure, overseeing the slaves and hired men with ease.
Cecilia would often daydream about the future at those times, hearing in her mind the pitter-patter of little feet and seeing clearly the large number of brunette and blond grandchildren she would love and spoil to death. As for the brothers themselves, Rick was on an extended leave from his unit due to an arrow wound in his shoulder. One of the Army's first major encounters with a western tribe of Indians had quickly turned sour, causing the deaths of many of Rick's friends, and causing Rick to almost lose his arm to infection.
A.J. was mulling over his future, trying to decide if he wanted to pursue a career in law here in his home territory, or choose from several other intriguing options that had been presented to him over the course of that summer. Options that, for the time being, he chose to keep from his family.
Years later, A.J. would look back and deem that fall to be one of the best times of his life. Many fond memories stayed with him long after it was over. His mother, ever the regal hostess, threw party after party in honor of her sons' homecoming, A.J.'s recent graduation, and Rick's rise in rank. There was also a belated engagement party for A.J. and Janet Fowler. Although he had given Janet a diamond ring at Christmas time, A.J. had asked his mother to hold off on any celebrations until Rick could attend as well.
That particular party was a huge success. The newly engaged couple smiled brightly and had eyes only for each other. Rick, looking splendidly handsome in his dress uniform, was a hit with all the unattached young women. Cecilia watched from a far as her tall, handsome oldest worked the room, his charm gushing forth as he filled up the dance cards of a multitude of beautiful, Southern belles. Watching Rick eagerly pursue a variety of young ladies caused Cecilia to realize that it might be quite some time yet before her wild oldest would be ready to settle down and commit himself to a wife.
unlike my A.J., Cecilia thought with a smile, watching her youngest and his
fiancé glide across the dance floor in harmony. The wedding date had not yet been set, but by looking at the
happy couple Cecilia knew it would only be a matter of time now. Her smile turned wistful as she remembered a
recent conversation with her future daughter-in-law.
"God willing, Mrs. Simon, I hope A.J. and I are blessed with children soon after we are married. I can picture in my mind a little boy who looks just like him with the same thick blond hair and big blue eyes. We'll name him John Andrew, after A.J.'s daddy, of course. And call him Jack, if that's all right with you."
Cecilia had laughed a little that day at Janet's enthusiasm, reminding the girl that she and A.J. hadn't even set a date yet. She added with a wink though, "I picture a little boy just like that for my first grandchild, too, Janet. And when the time comes, I would love it if you and A.J. chose to call him Jack."
For most of that fall the Simon brothers' evenings were taken up with parties and other informal social gatherings of young people. A.J. often spent time alone with Janet as well, while Rick courted whichever young woman struck his fancy at the moment. During the day the brothers were inseparable, working together to run the plantation, happy to allow their mother an extended vacation from the business. Cecilia took the entire month of October off, traveling north to visit relatives in Pennsylvania and New York. When the day's work was done Rick and A.J. would hunt or fish together, or simply explore old boyhood haunts in the surrounding fields, woods, and town. The Simon brothers were thrilled to spend time together again. So many years had passed with only brief visits and letters being exchanged between the two to satisfy their brotherly bond. It was a pleasure to now be able to reinforce that bond in person.
For a brief period of time that fall A.J. could almost see a future for himself filled with contentment and satisfaction. Like his mother's vision, he could picture himself and Rick working together well into old age, running the family plantation. Janet would be at his side, as would be the five or six children A.J. was sure she'd bear him. And at Rick's side would be...well, Katherine, or Sarah, or Hannah, or Elizabeth...one of these girlfriends eventually, of that A.J. was sure.
However, in the far recesses of A.J.'s mind, his sunny vision turned dark with impending storm clouds. Too many conflicts were rapidly heating up in the young country at present. Somehow, A.J. had the feeling he would never fully live in the happy picture his brain was painting for him.
That fall was filled with talk of discontentment between the North and the South, of borders drawn, of secession from the Union, of money and valuable resources the South would lose if forced to do things Abe Lincoln's way, and finally then, there was talk of war.
By the end of October this was the topic at every party Rick and A.J. attended. It soon became all that was talked about in the general store, the barbershop, the livery stable, and at every other business in town as well. Rick was quite vocal in his opinions, expressing his loyalty to the South, sharing with others that there was talk of soon starting a Confederate army to fight for Southern independence if necessary. "An army I'll proudly be a part of," Rick would often say to their neighbors and friends.
A.J. kept his thoughts to himself whenever talk turned to secession and war, not even revealing to his brother all that was on his mind.
It was one afternoon in December of that year when the Simon brothers could be found walking together amongst fields of slaves, checking on the progress of the crops that were being harvested late due to rainy weather.
"I hope things can be salvaged," Rick commented as the harvest hurriedly occurred around them. "The weather has been strange this year, so rainy and cold in October, and now sunny and warm in December. It feels more like May."
"Yes, it does," A.J. agreed, taking note that he and Rick were both wearing short sleeve shirts. "I think things will be okay. If this weather holds they'll have everything out by next week. I found a good market for the corn, even this late in the year."
"Good. It's been so many years since the Simons have lost money here, I don't want you and I gettin' the blame for a bad crop," Rick teased as he and A.J. turned toward the house.
"We won't lose money. I've already seen to that," A.J. assured.
Rick smiled with pride. "I knew I could count on you, little brother. You're quite the astute business man."
"I had nothing to do with it, Rick. You were the one that made the decision to hold off on the harvest when the weather got bad. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. You've done a fine job here this fall."
Rick shot his brother a look of puzzlement. "What do ya' mean, I've done a fine job? You've been as much a part of running this place since September as I have."
A.J. shrugged, making no comment, not sure he wanted to be a part of any of it any longer.
"What's wrong, A.J.? Ya' been awful quiet these past couple weeks. Is Janet still holdin' out 'till the weddin' night?"
"Rick!" A.J. scolded with just that one word. "Janet is a true lady. Unlike some of the women you set your eyes upon, I might add."
"Oh now, don't ya' go gettin' all high and mighty on me," Rick scoffed. "I met that friend of yours from college, Jerry Reiner, a few summers back when you brought him here, remember? He told me a story or two about you, little brother, that I know Miss Janet would not wanna hear. Especially regarding some promiscuous female by the name of Ruby Lee."
A.J. tried to act nonchalant, as if the information Rick had didn't bother him in the slightest. "Janet and I weren't engaged then."
"No, but you had been school yard sweethearts, and everyone knew you two would go and get yourselves hitched some day. If I remember correctly, you gave Miss Janet a pretty little locket when you left for college, promising her she was the only one for you. I don't think our refined, genteel, Janet Fowler is gonna wanna find out her fiancé has already been bedded by another."
A.J.'s face turned a dark shade of red while Rick laughed.
Only Rick and Jerry would consider something I think of as private, to be a savored piece of information freely used for teasing or blackmail.
Rick must have been able to read his brother's mind as he took pity on the embarrassed blond. "Aw, hell, Andy, I'm only teasin' ya.’ I'd never tell anybody, you know that. And it's nothin' to get all red in the face about. Men have needs women folk just don't understand."
"You'd know," was all A.J. said in reply.
Rick laughed again, affectionately draping an arm around his brother's shoulders. He surveyed the land around them, taking note of the slaves hard at work. A thicket of woods formed the plantation's boundary on the north, a clear flowing stream on the south. To the east was a long, wide tree lined lane leading up to the large white house, and to the west, for as far as the eye could see, was lush, fertile, Simon soil.
"Look at all this beauty, little brother. First it was Great Granddaddy's, then Granddaddy's, then Daddy's, and now ours. If we guard her and protect her from those who want to steal her from us, she'll pay us back tenfold. We'll be partners here, A.J., until we're two old men sittin' up there on that front porch in our rockin' chairs watchin' our grandchildren work together to keep her in our family. She'll always be ours. The Simons, for generations to come, will fight for what's rightfully theirs. Them damn Yankees are gonna be in for a big surprise when they come a' callin' here."
A.J., as well, took in his surroundings, but he did not see them in quite the same way his brother did. Several of the Negro men at work in the Simons' fields were bent and old, far too old to be doing this type of hard labor. Several more bore the scars on their bare backs from the Overseer's whip. Women were picking corn with nursing babies strapped to their chests. Even small children, some as young as three and four years old, were busy working, hauling water barefooted from the well for the other workers, or loading the wagons with freshly shocked ears of corn.
Lording over all this activity was the Simons' Overseer, Charles Rantem, a man A.J. had despised since childhood because of his cruel ways. The man had always possessed such a smooth, polite manner with Jack Simon, and now with Cecilia and Rick, fooling them into believing he was somebody he wasn't. But A.J. knew the truth. He had even as a young boy. The sensitive A.J. had always seen Rantem for who he really was - a hard, mean man who enjoyed inflicting pain on others, whether it be with his ever ready whip, or his sharp tongue. Nasty, cutting barbs readily spewed forth to humiliate those who were unlucky enough to cross his path.
Rick had no idea his brother was seeing things differently than himself, so was taken aback by A.J.'s hesitant comment.
"Rick...I'm not sure as to how I feel about all this. About a war between the North and the South. I'm not sure I want to fight for--"
"And I don't want you to," Rick interrupted firmly, displaying his well known 'big brother' streak of protectiveness. "I'm the military man, A.J. I'm the one who's spent the last thirteen years of his life trainin' for this type of thing. Your place is right here. I'll sleep better at night knowin' that you're here protectin' our mother and our land from them damn Yankees. If they get across southern lines, A.J., I know they'll destroy everything our people have worked so hard for. The Yanks just don't respect land...heritage, the way we here in the South do."
A.J. had no reply for his brother's words. He looked out at all that was before him, the land his great grandfather had worked so hard to clear, the mansion his grandfather had built, all the improvements his father, and now more recently his mother, had made. These things made what he had to say next that much harder to get out.
"Rick...you know how much I love this land, don't you? And Mama. You know how much I love her."
Puzzled, Rick answered, "Sure I do."
A.J. couldn't hold his brother's intense gaze. He looked instead at the slaves in the fields, as if what they represented made what he had to say easier. "And I hope you know...know how much I love you. You're my only brother, but you've been much more to me than just that over the years. You're my best friend, my confidant, and sometimes even my father."
A.J. raised his hand, indicating for his brother not to interrupt. "I'm proud to be a Virginian. I want you to know that. I'm proud to be a Southerner, too, but that doesn't mean I'm always proud of what the South does...of her ways."
Suspiciously, Rick asked, "What's that mean, A.J.?"
A.J. turned to look at Rick. "It means that while I don't want to fight for either side, I can't reconcile declaring my loyalties to the South."
Rick took a deep breath and mentally counted to ten. He knew if he lost his temper and started yelling things would quickly turn in the wrong direction.
Remember now, A.J.'s young, confused, and he's always been sensitive to the plight of others. If I stay calm I know I can reason with him, make him see where his rightful place is.
"A.J., now I know there's things about our ways that you don't cotton to. Things that have bothered you since you were just a little guy, but--"
"Rick, don't say it. Don't waste your breath."
"What do you mean?"
"I...I'm leaving at the end of the week. I'm going to Washington D.C. I've...I’ve got a job waiting for me there."
Rick's eyes narrowed. "A job? And what kind of a job would you a' been offered in Washington D.C.?"
"Working for President Lincoln. As a special envoy."
"As a spy is more like it," Rick spat out.
"Rick...no, it's not like that at all. I'll just be reporting to the President about battles, where they've occurred, how many casualties there were, how many men were injured--"
"For the Union Army I assume?" Rick asked sarcastically.
A.J. nodded. "Yes."
"A.J., I don't care if all you're tellin' Lincoln is how many latrine holes were dug! It's still spyin'!"
"No. No, it's not. It's--"
Rick grasped his brother by the upper arms and squeezed gently. In a placating tone he imparted, "A.J...A.J., don't ya' see what's goin' on here, little brother? What them underhanded Yankees are up to? They see before them an intelligent, Southern boy, a boy who's not so sure just what he thinks of all this war talk, and they take advantage of his youth...of his gentle nature. Sure as I'm standin' here they're only intention is to use ya', A.J."
A.J. struggled free of his brother's hold. "Rick, no. I know President Lincoln. I know he's not like that."
"You know President Lincoln?" Rick mocked. "He was only elected four days ago. He won't even be inaugurated until next March. How do you know the great savior of the North, college boy?"
A.J. refused to be angered by Rick's tone or biting words. "The owner of the law firm I work for was elected to the senate last year. I met the President through him. I did some work for his campaign."
"Your letters conveniently left out that little piece of news."
"Because I knew you wouldn't understand. Because I knew you'd react exactly as you are."
"You're damn right I'd have reacted like I am! As a matter of fact, I'da came up there an hauled your ass outta that Northern law firm!"
A.J. had some shouting of his own to do. "No you wouldn't have! You'd have had no right! I'm not a boy anymore, Rick! I'm a man! A man who can make his own decisions without his older brother's input!"
Rick opened his mouth, then shut it just as quickly. He took a calming breath and thought about what he wanted to say next. He was angry, but not so angry that he wanted things to get any worse between he and his brother than they already were.
When Rick spoke again it was to say in a quiet, even tone of voice, "A.J., just listen to me for a minute. Please. I know you're not a boy anymore. I didn't mean to use that word in an insulting way. Ya' haven't been a boy for a long time now, little brother. Why I remember as clear as if it was yesterday when I came home on leave for the first time in two years when you were fifteen. When I had left with my unit I had been so worried about you and Mama, about havin' to be so far away. Daddy'd only been gone three years, and you still weren't over his passin.’ But when I came home I couldn't believe my eyes. You had grown up. You weren't the lost little boy you had been when I'd left two years earlier. Mama told me what a help you'd been to her, how you'd practically run this place by yourself when she was so sick that time. That first night I was home I looked out the parlor window and watched you a' courtin' Janet on the veranda. I told Mama then, ‘A.J.'s all grown up, Mama. He's not your baby anymore, or my baby brother either.’"
"So what's your point?" A.J. asked at the end of Rick's narration.
"Well, I guess my point is that I know you're a grown up, intelligent, well educated man. I know you're well able to make your own decisions. But what I'm sayin' is you're still young, A.J. I've worked for the government for ten years now. I know how those bastards in Washington are, you don't. They are takin' advantage of you, A.J., no matter what they say or what you think. Please, stay here where you belong, in the South with me and Mama."
A.J. slowly shook his head. "Rick, I can't. I don't agree with what the South stands for, with what she's doing. I can't."
Rick waved his fists in the air. "Damn it! How stubborn can you be?" He turned away and began pacing the lawn of the big house. "I told Mama lettin' you go to that Northern college was a mistake! I told her you'd come home with funny ideas, spoutin' their jackass philosophies! I told her they'd brainwash ya' and that's exactly what they've done! They've turned ya' against us! They've--"
"Rick, please...calm down. Please listen to me," A.J. pleaded. "No one's turned me against you. You're my brother. I'm not against you. I never could be! I--"
"The way I see it you are," Rick claimed in a menacing tone. "A.J., it's been a long time since I've told you to do something and expected you to listen to me." Rick pointed a finger at A.J.'s chest, emphasizing every word with a sharp poke to the blond man's breastbone. "But I am tellin' you right now, that you will stay here, and you will protect our home and our mother. You do not have a choice in the matter! You are a Simon, and this is where you belong!"
A.J. savagely pushed Rick's hand aside. "I will be making my own decisions in that matter, Rick! You cannot tell me what to do, how to think, or how to feel! I have to do what I think is right!"
Rick's body went rigid. He stood tensed, hands clenched in fists, mouth set in a grim line. "A.J., if you leave here to go work for that Yankee President, I will not call you brother again. Myself, and everyone else in the South, will call you traitor!"
A.J.'s eyes couldn't help but betray the hurt Rick's words caused him. "Rick...please...I don't want things to be like this between us."
"Are you plannin' to go to work for them Northerners?"
A.J. hesitated a moment before confessing, "I've made a commitment to President Lincoln."
Rick ordered firmly, as if he was talking to one of his enlisted men, "Break it."
"No. I can't."
"You can't, or you won't?"
Rick looked away for minute, shaking his head in frustration. He turned back to his brother, getting so close to A.J.'s face they were practically nose to nose. "A.J., are you understandin' me here? I meant it when I told you that if you go through with this cock-a-mammy idea of yours, I will not call you brother again. Not ever."
A.J. practically begged, "Rick, please...that's not how I want to leave things between us."
"That's how they'll be if you do this, A.J.," Rick vowed. "If you join forces with them Yanks that's exactly how things will be."
A.J. squeezed his eyes tightly shut, unconsciously biting his lower lip in the process. For a long minute he stood like that, opposite Rick who had his hands planted firmly on his hips, his stance rigid and unyielding.
When the blond man finally opened his eyes again the blue orbs were full of anguish as he whispered, "I can't. Please try to under--"
Rick turned on his heel and walked stiffly away without another word.
"Rick! Rick! Rick...please, just listen to me! Please--"
"I will hear no more words from the traitor!" Rick called back without turning around.
"Rick...Rick!" A.J. shouted while watching his brother mount a saddled horse that was tied outside the barn. The older man dug the heels of his boots roughly into the animal's side, causing the horse to whinny and buck. Rick spurred the animal past A.J. as if he wasn't even there, leaving the blond man standing in a cloud of dust.
For a long time that day A.J. remained standing in that very spot, staring off in the direction his brother taken. He debated mounting his own horse and following Rick, but finally decided against it, fearing any further words exchanged between them would now only make things worse.
A single mocking bird singing a lonely song brought A.J. out of his reverie some time later. The young man walked up to the barn, saddled his horse, and rode off in the opposite direction of that which his brother had taken thirty minutes earlier.
It was well past ten o'clock that night before A.J. returned home. As he approached the house from the barn, he could clearly hear Rick's voice, at full volume, through the closed windows.
The blond man quietly entered the house through the back door, walking through the mudroom and coming to a stop in the kitchen.
No one was in sight, but a full meal was prepared and sitting covered on the sideboard, evidently left there by the Simons' elderly Negro cook, Naomi. A.J. could tell the food had so far gone untouched, meaning his mother and brother had lost their appetites during this long, trying day, too.
A.J. chose to stay concealed in the kitchen, listening to Rick's shouts coming from the formal dining room.
"Damn it! Damn it, Mama! I told ya' something like this would happen. I told ya' that when he was seventeen and decided he wanted to go north to school! Didn't I tell ya' to make him stay here? Didn't I tell ya' that there were plenty of good schools in the South for him to chose from? Didn't I tell you Daddy would have never allowed it? He'd roll over in his grave if he knew what was goin' on now!"
"Rick, hush," Cecilia Simon commanded sharply when she could finally get a word in between her son's hot tempered ranting.
"Goddamn it! A traitor! Daddy's youngest son is a Goddamn traitor!"
"Richard! That is enough! I will not have the name of the Lord taken in vain in this house! Calm yourself right now!"
Rick shoved his hands deep down in his pant's pockets, looking up at the ceiling and taking a deep breath. He was furious, but had not intended any disrespect toward his mother.
"I'm sorry, Mama. It won't happen again. I just don't understand why A.J. would make such a decision." Rick locked gazes with his mother and in a tone reminiscent of the boy he had once been, he pleaded, "Why, Mama? Why did he do it?"
The ever-practical Cecilia Simon replied, "I don't know, Rick. I won't know until I see A.J. and can talk to him. But I can tell you what I suspect is behind your brother's decision. I highly doubt it's any of the things you say it is, son."
Rick's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that?"
"A.J. has a mind of his own, Rick. Just as you do. Your father and I raised each of you to be independent thinkers, to decide what's best for you as individuals. Granted, A.J. is young, but I truly do not believe he is being influenced or used by anyone. I believe he's spent a great deal of time contemplating his decision. I doubt it came easy for him."
“Has he already talked to you about all this?"
"No. But I know A.J., therefore I believe the things I said are true."
Rick stared at his mother for a moment, the still beautiful petite lady seated in the hand carved chair at the head of the dining room table. "So you agree with him? With what he's gonna do?"
"Richard, whether or not I agree with your brother's decision is beside the point. A.J. has to decide what's best for him on this issue regardless of what you or I think."
Rick shook his head. "I just don't understand how you can say that. He's your son. A son born and raised in the South. Daddy's son--"
"Rick, come over here and sit down please," Cecilia beckoned. "I have something I want to tell you. Something that I hope will enable you to see why your brother has chosen this particular path to follow."
Rick did as his mother requested, seating himself at the table with the hand crocheted white lace cloth that offered protection to its rich cherry finish.
Cecilia looked into Rick's face as she spoke. "Ever since A.J. has been a small boy he's been sensitive to the plight of others. He cares very deeply about people, especially those less fortunate than himself, you and I are both well aware of that. When he was just four years old your Daddy caught A.J. running water to the slaves out in the fields just like the Nigra children do. Jack scolded him, telling A.J. that was not his place. Telling him that he was the son of a plantation owner and that he must always remember that. That he wasn't to ever work along side the slaves. A.J. looked up at Jack then and told him, ‘Daddy, they're thirsty and I'm a strong boy. I can help no matter who I am.’"
"That's a fine story, Mama. But he was four years old. Things are different now."
"Just listen to me, Rick. I'm not finished yet," Cecilia chastised. "Do you remember when Moses ran away?"
Rick nodded, recalling the big, black man who lived on their plantation yet and now had to be close to sixty years old.
"When they caught Moses and brought him back here, your father ordered Charles to whip him. Neither your daddy or I knew that A.J. was hiding behind the barn that night and witnessed the whole thing. He came running into the house, absolutely hysterical when it was all over. I followed him up to his room and held him as he cried and cried and cried. I was so scared. I really had no idea as to what was wrong. When he finally calmed down enough that he was able to talk to me he told me, ‘Mama, they whipped Moses. Daddy had Charles whip him and they made all the other slaves watch. Charles hurt him so bad. He almost killed him.’
"I held A.J. against me for the longest time that night, just rocking back and forth with him in my arms. I tried to explain to him that this had to be done, that your father had no choice. That he had to teach Moses a lesson, as well as show the other slaves the price runaways pay. A.J. just kept shaking his head no, while saying over and over, ‘It's not fair. They're people. Doesn't Daddy understand that they're people? Doesn't anybody understand that? They don't deserve to be hurt like that.’
"Your daddy tried to talk to him later, tried to explain, but A.J. would have no part of it. I remember when Jack came to bed that night he told me, ‘He'll understand someday. He's just a little boy of eight years old. A little boy who feels things too deeply. But someday, Cece, when Andrew's older, he'll come to understand.’ Funny thing is, Rick, I knew that night that A.J. never would understand. And I've spent many a night wondering since that time if that eight-year-old boy wasn't right. Maybe the Nigras don't deserve to be treated as they are. I just don't know."
"Mama, you know as well as I do that this war is about a lot more than just freedom for the slaves. I can go along with A.J. feelin' for the Nigras as he does, even if I don't see it that way. It's what makes him who he is. But I cannot accept my brother workin' for Lincoln. I will not accept it. If he chooses not to fight, but to stay and protect you and our home, I'll back him all the way. Or if he wants to fight for the Southern cause, even though I'd ruther he not fight at all, I'll still stand behind him. I've got some friends who are crackerjack soldiers that will surely head up platoons when this war starts. I can see to it that A.J. serves for one of them, or even for me if I do a little arm twistin.’ But I will tell you what I told him this afternoon. If A.J. chooses to fight with, or work for them Yankees, I will not call him brother again."
"Rick..." Cecilia pleaded.
Rick stood, his anger boiling to the surface once again. "I will not, Mama! There's nothing you can say that will make me change my mind either. I vow to you here and now, I will not call him brother again if he goes through with this."
Cecilia looked up at her oldest. "Don't make a promise you may someday want to break, son, and don't ever let your pride stand in the way of you someday making peace with your brother."
Rick was momentarily taken aback by his mother's calm words of wisdom. Before they could weigh too heavily on his mind, he turned on his heel and walked rapidly from the house, his anger propelling him out into the December darkness.
The sound of footsteps heading up the stairway that led from the kitchen to the bedrooms wasn't lost on Cecilia. She quickly rose from the table, gathered up her hoop skirt, and hurried up the home's main staircase that wound regally down from the bedrooms to the large open foyer.
The faint glow of an oil lamp shone beneath the closed bedroom door of Cecilia's youngest son. Her first few knocks went unanswered, causing the woman to call in a no nonsense tone of voice, "I know you're in there, Andrew. I need to talk to you, son. Please. No arguments, I promise. We'll just talk."
Cecilia was reluctantly granted permission to enter. An hour later she exited A.J.'s room with unshed tears making her eyes full and her vision blur. She rushed down the hall to her own room, shut the door, and collapsed on her bed, sobbing softly into her pillow. Cecilia's upset had very little to do with her recent discussions with either of her sons, but rather they were shed over the way this impending war seemed bound to tear her family apart.
Sometime later Cecilia rose from the bed, dried her tears, lit a lantern, and left her room. She made her way to the seven step staircase at the end of the hall that led up to the large attic. Entering the dusty room, she set the lantern down on the floor next to an old trunk. She opened the lid on that wooden trunk and began pulling out several pairs of warm woolen pants, shirts, and a heavy winter coat unlike one usually needed in Virginia even on the coldest of days.
"These old clothes of Jack's should come in handy for A.J.," the resilient woman said out loud. She gathered up other items of her late husband's that she found in the long forgotten trunk. Things that she thought might be of use to A.J. in his wanderings. "Now I know we had a pair of warm boots up here somewhere from that winter Jack spent up in New York on business. Where have they disappeared to?"
Despite A.J.'s protests that night, Cecilia helped him pack for his trip to Washington D.C. She might be upset, but she was still his mother as she told him, and she was most certainly not going to send him off without making sure he had everything he needed for a warm, safe journey.
Cecilia Simon tried her hardest that evening to convince her youngest son to stay at least until Rick returned home from wherever he had run off to to 'lick his wounds,' as she put it.
"A.J., please. Just wait for your brother. I think if you talk to him one more time you can make him see--"
A.J. stood in his bedroom amidst piles of clothes and other supplies, shaking his head, "No, Mama. He won't listen. I tried to talk to him. So did you. Neither one of us is going to get through to him right now. He's just too angry."
"And what about Janet? Is she angry, too?"
A.J.'s expression was one of total surprise.
"I don’t have to be a genius to know that's where you were earlier this evening, son."
A.J. smiled slightly in chagrin, before admitting, "She's...not happy with my decision, let's put it that way. She cried, then told me she'd wait for me until the war is over."
"Do you expect her to?" Came Cecilia's candid question.
It took A.J. a moment to answer. "No...no, Mama, I don't. She says that now...and I'm sure she means it...but no, this war will likely drag on for a long time...and...well there will be those who will call me traitor. I know that. I don't expect Janet to have to deal with that. I know it will be best if she forgets she ever knew me."
Cecilia moved to hug her son tightly against her breast. "I will never call you traitor, Andrew. Never. And if anyone dares to call you that in my presence I will surely box their ears."
A.J. chuckled softly as he pulled away from his mother and held her at arms length. "I believe that, Mama. And I guarantee the poor man who gets his ears boxed will long remember his encounter with Cecilia Simon."
Cecilia turned somber. She looked up into the weary face of her youngest son. "No matter how hard things become, A.J., don't ever doubt yourself or your beliefs. It takes a very brave man to stand up for what he believes is right, especially when his opinion is an unpopular one."
A.J. reached out, pulling his mother into a tight embrace. "Thank you, Mama. I will always remember your words. I have a feeling they'll help me through many hard days to come."
It was three-thirty that morning when A.J. rode away from his childhood home for what he knew could be that last time. Full saddlebags hung from each side of his horse, as did a satchel of clothes and a cloth bag of food packed by Cecilia. The last person A.J. saw that night was his mother, her tiny form shadowed as a silhouette against the kitchen door by the oil lamp she held in her hand. She raised her right hand, but because of the darkness A.J. couldn't tell if she was waving goodbye, gesturing for him to come back, or wiping at the tears that ran steadily down her cheeks. He chose to think she was bidding him farewell, so raised his own right hand in return. Whether she saw his movement or not, A.J. didn't know. Before long she was completely out of sight as A.J. headed down the long lane that led to the main road. A.J. hesitated for just a moment when he reached the crossroads, then turned north and road on through the blackness.
A.J. Simon was completely unaware that night, of another lone rider concealed nearby in a thicket of trees. Long after Rick Simon could no longer see his brother he remained as he was, staring down the road A.J. had taken.
Rick contemplated following his brother for a moment, then his anger and pride engulfed him like a tidal wave again, causing him to spur his horse in the direction he had chosen for himself...south.
"Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixieland. In Dixieland where I was born, early on one frosty morn', look away, look away, look away, Dixieland..."
Weary, flat male voices continued to sing without any animation whatsoever, songs in praise of the South. Any joy that singing had once brought them had long been beaten out of the Rebel soldiers by days upon days of hard fought battles that were ultimately lost. Food was running low, as was ammunition. The gray uniforms that had been donned with so much pride four years earlier were now ragged, dirty, and torn. Although new clothing had long ago been promised, none seemed to find its way to the enlisted men Many a pair of boots was being held together by a strip of rawhide or a sturdy vine. In the winter of 1865, morale among the Confederate forces was at an all time low.
It seemed to Rick Simon that the men surrounding him sang from desperation, sang because it made them forget the fact that they were tired, cold, and hungry.
I just don't know how things can get any worse, Rick thought with despair that he kept well hidden from those who looked to him for leadership. We've all fallen into a deep dark hole and I'm afraid there ain't a' one of us that will be climbin' out.
"How are things, Major?" A deep voice asked softly as a man stepped out of the darkness and came to sit beside Rick on a long, sturdy log.
Rick sat up a bit straighter, unconsciously tugging at the hem of his uniform coat. He looked at the man, offering a small smile and nod of assurance, "Fine, General. Things are fine."
The older man reached into a deep side pocket of his gray jacket, pulled out a pipe, and filled it with just a pinch of tobacco. Even generals were feeling the effects of this too long war. The man lit his pipe, inhaled, then blew out a ring of smoke. He chewed thoughtfully on the mouthpiece of the favored pipe, then asked, "You know what I've always admired about you, Richard?"
"Uh...no, General, I don't."
"Your frankness. The way you tell it like it is. Why I saw you look old Jeff Davis right in the eye and tell him the battle of Vicksburg was the most mucked up mess he'd ever gotten the South involved in, and then you told him General Pearson was a horse's ass."
Rick's moustache twitched as he fought to hide his smile. "And I'd tell him that again 'cause it was the truth...still is."
The blue eyes of the General twinkled with merriment. "Didn't even cross your mind that General Pearson is Davis's brother-in-law, did it?"
"No, sir. I didn't really give a damn."
The General laughed. "Yes, Major Simon, now that's what I like about you."
Rick's eyes twinkled now as well. "Glad I can accommodate you, General."
"But now you're letting me down, Rick," the General said in his soft, southern drawl.
"Yes, you are. I just asked you how things were, and you said fine. Well, Richard, a blind Billy goat could see things are far from fine. Now tell it to me like it really is. Without any bull. What are the men saying?"
"They're not sayin' much of anything, sir. You can see that for yourself," Rick gestured with a hand at the downtrodden men huddled close to small fires throughout the camp. Other than an occasional low murmur of voices, all was quiet, even the singing had long since come to an end.
"They're tired, there's not enough to eat, there hasn't been enough clothing to go around in almost a year, and they've seen too many of their comrades die...too many of their neighbors, cousins, and friends. See Keppler over there?" Rick pointed to a dirty, bloodstained soldier sitting off by himself, a steady stream of tears tracking crooked rivets down the man's dusty, ashen face.
"What's wrong with him?"
"His little brother died in battle yesterday. The kid was all of sixteen years old. Keppler held him in his arms until the end finally came. It wasn't a pleasant death. The boy had been gut shot and we didn't have anything to give him for the pain. Even after the kid was dead, Keppler wouldn't let go of him. He held him, rocking back and forth with him in his arms all night. I was finally able to get him to let go so we could bury the boy this morning."
The General shook his head in sorrow. "We've lost too many good boys in this war, Richard. Far too many."
"I know that, sir," Rick acknowledged softly.
"I'm sure you do, son. I'm sure you do," the General intoned while giving Rick's leg a fatherly pat.
The two men sat together quietly for a period of time, the General chewing on his pipe long after the tobacco had run out, and Rick lost deep in thought. He recalled vividly that morning kneeling down beside the devastated Keppler. "Come on, Bobby," Rick had urged softly. "You gotta let him go. Let us give him a proper burial."
Tears ran down the twenty one year old's face. He had looked up at his commanding officer. "I promised my ma, Major. I promised her I'd look out for him. I promised her that nothin' would happen to Sam. Now look. He's dead. Crazy fool, kid. I told him not to enlist. I told him this war wasn't no game. But he wouldn't listen. He had to go and join up just 'cause his big brother was a soldier. If I'd only made him listen to me none of this would have ever happened. What am I gonna tell my ma?"
The young man's words had struck a cord deep within Rick that morning, causing him to handle the situation with a quiet gentleness his men didn't often see.
"Now come on, Bobby. It's not your fault. Kid brothers have a way of growin' up, of doin' things their own way whether we like it or not. You can't dwell on that. You gotta remember the good times now. The times you two had together as brothers. The fun times. The family times. Those are the times you gotta hold close to your heart. Those are the only times that really mean anything."
It wasn't long thereafter that Keppler released his brother to Rick's care, allowing the boy to be buried alongside his fallen comrades from the previous day's battle.
A quiet voice broke into Rick's thoughts of that morning.
"The South can't win this war, Richard."
Rick studied that man whose face was awash with light from the nearby campfire. "I know that, General," Rick acknowledged sadly. "I've known that for quite some time now."
"I figured you did. You're a smart man, Rick. A brave man. Maybe even a little stupid."
Rick smiled. "How's that?"
"I've seen you do things in battle a complete fool with a brain no bigger than a pea would turn and run from."
"Maybe when a man no longer knows why he's fightin' he doesn't care if he's foolish," was all Rick said in return.
The General offered a piece of advice to the young man he thought of as a son. "Just remember, Rick, there will be life after this war. Don't do anything so foolish as to jeopardize that. True, things will be different, but you'll go home to Virginia, back to your family--"
"It won't be the same," came Rick's terse interruption.
"Yes. It's not the same family I left four years ago."
The older man laughed with age and experience. "And you expected it to be? Son, things change. People change. There's nothing any of us can do to prevent that. I've been a soldier most of my life, Rick. I learned a long time ago that you don't have to be gone from home more than a few weeks for things to change. Someone dies, someone's born, this one gets married, someone moves away, one of the little ones learns to walk...change is a natural part of life."
"But sometimes, General, someone changes in a way you'd never expect them to, ya' know what I mean?"
A meaningful pause followed before Rick managed to ask, "How...how did you know?"
The General shrugged. "People like to gossip. And even a General is guilty on occasion of eavesdropping."
"You've never said anything before."
"Why would I have reason to, Rick? It's your business, no one else's. Did you think I'd condemn you for it? Think less of you because of it?"
"Then those who do haven't walked in your shoes, have they?"
Thoughtfully, Rick said, "No...no, sir, I guess they haven't."
"Rick, it makes no difference to me what your brother does. That doesn't change my opinion of you, it never will. You're one of the finest young men I've ever worked with. You're a natural born leader, the men like you and respect you. A person can't buy that kind of devotion. And, as much as you like to try to hide it beneath that hard-as-nails exterior, Major, you're a sentimental old softy. I've seen you handing out socks and gloves to the men - socks and gloves that I know your mother has sent for your use."
Rick shrugged, "I've got enough stuff. I'm one of the lucky ones. Some of these farm boys don't have anything and our Confederate States ain't properly providin' for 'em as promised."
The General smiled. "Sentimental old softy."
Rick chuckled. "Just don't let that get out, okay?"
"I think it's too late, Major. You've already been caught," the General warned as he reached in his pocket for just a tad more tobacco, then changed the subject. "The thing I hate the most about this war is the way it's torn the families of this country apart. The way it's pitted cousin against cousin, father against son...and brother against brother, regardless of which side an individual chooses to fight for."
There was silence before the older man let forth a soft chuckle. "I can tell by the look on your face, Major Simon, that my stance surprises you a bit."
"To be perfectly honest, sir...yes, it does."
"I have a brother too, Richard," was all the man would say in return.
Rick looked long and hard into the fire. "Yes, but no one calls your brother traitor."
"And that's what they call yours," came the statement of fact.
"What about you, Rick? What do you call him?"
Rick watched as a log cracked and split in the heat of the fire. "I don't call him brother anymore if that's what you're asking."
While Rick tried to keep his tone hard and indifferent, the General could clearly hear the underlying sorrow it contained.
"I see," the man nodded. "You know, I've heard of an Andrew Simon...a Southern boy, a special envoy to Abe Lincoln. Would that be your brother?"
Rick gave a reluctant nod.
"They say President Lincoln thinks the world of your brother. That he treats him like a son. That's something to be proud of."
Rick scoffed, "What? That he's so well thought of by a damn Yankee President?"
"That he's well thought of in general by his superiors," the gray headed man replied.
Rick still stared into the fire, making it easier for him to acknowledge quietly, "I...I am proud of him."
The General merely nodded, then contributed, "They say if you're in battle against the Yanks and see a young, good looking blond man mounted on a sorrel horse watching from a distance, that you've seen A.J. Simon. Rumor has it he won't raise a weapon against the South because his brother's a Reb soldier. I hear tell the kid almost got himself killed because of that promise last year."
Rick swallowed hard. "Yeah...yeah, I heard that, too."
A moment of silence passed before the General said, "This war won't last forever, Rick. When it's over, you'll make your peace."
Rick looked at the man. "With my brother?"
"With yourself," came the meaningful answer.
For a long time Rick sat fingering the stained, worn tablet lying in his lap. "I keep a journal of sorts," he confessed when he chose to break the silence again.
The man at Rick's side merely nodded for he, too, kept a journal of sorts.
"I...I haven't written to my brother since he went north over four years ago now...at least not in the sense of mailing him letters...but I write to him in here. In my journal." Rick shrugged as he finished with, "I don't really know why I guess."
"Because he's your brother and you love him. Because maybe someday you'll chose to share your journal with him so he understands..understands what you've gone through, how this war has effected you, so he understands that your feelings for him haven't changed, no matter how much the two of you may think they have."
Rick nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah...I guess that's why."
Long after the General and Rick had parted company that night, Rick remained seated in front of the slowly dying fire. When there was just enough glow from the embers to still see by, Rick began to write in his tablet.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
January 23, 1865
Tonight I had a long talk with a man I respect very much. It's strange to discover that sometimes someone else knows you almost better than you know yourself. That's what happened to me tonight. The General made me see things about the conflict between you and me that I really hadn't realized until now. Or maybe I had, but I just didn't want to admit them to myself. The bottom line is, when this war ends we'll still be brothers. Denying that fact doesn't change the laws of nature. And I guess I'm gettin damn sick of denying it. Mama told me four years ago not to make any promises to myself that I might someday come to regret. Do you think it will ever be possible for us to be to each other what we once were? Or have we both changed too much?
Damn, I hope not.
Rick was hot, so hot he would have killed for just the smallest sip of cold water. It seemed like he'd been dreaming of water for days now, maybe even longer...when he wasn't dreaming of A.J. that is. He knew for a fact he'd been hotter, so hot that he'd felt like an inferno was raging somewhere deep inside him. That's when he had been certain he was going to die. That's when sometime between delirium and lucidness he had scrawled on the cover of his journal, Major Andrew J. Simon, Union Army Command Center, Washington D.C. This was the only thing left that was of importance to Rick, his journal somehow had to get to A.J. after his death.
Things were different now though. Quieter. He didn't seem to have the strength to open his eyes, so he listened very carefully. He could no longer hear the moans and cries of pain coming from the other Rebel P.O.W.'s in the Northern military prison. He could no longer smell the stench coming from unwashed bodies and caused by unsanitary conditions. Rick felt clean for the first time in three weeks, and the pain in his side didn't seem to be throbbing with near the intensity it had been just two days ago. He moved his fingers over the sheets he was lying on. They felt clean too. Clean and starched. The blanket covering him, and the pillowcase which his head rested upon, smelled as if they'd been recently washed and hung to dry out in a warm, spring breeze. Just like Mama used to do, Rick's foggy brain thought.
Rick focused in with a bit more clarity at what was happening around him. He suddenly realized a cool cloth was methodically being wiped over his bare chest and face.
At first Rick thought the quiet, feminine voice he heard was speaking to him.
"He's doing better today, Major Simon. His fever came down considerably during the night. The wound in his side is looking better, too, since Dr. Raymond worked on it yesterday."
Rick was confused. He was Major Simon, yet it seemed as though this mystery woman was talking about him to someone else. He wished he had the strength to open his eyes, then he'd be able to sort it all out, of that he was sure.
"Is there anything I can get for you, Major?"
A.J. Simon, decked out handsomely in the blue uniform of the Union Army, smiled with charm. "No, no nothing, nurse. You've been very kind. Thank you for all your help."
The young woman smiled back, her brown eyes sparkling. "It's my job to help, you know."
"I know, but not every Northern woman would see fit to be so kind to a Rebel soldier. I appreciate all you've done since I brought my brother here."
The woman glanced down at the pale Rick. "Your brother's my patient first and foremost, Major. Others may feel differently, but I've never been overly concerned with the opinions of others."
A.J. offered his hand, shaking the woman's petite one. "You're quite a lady, Kate."
The nurse made sure no one was listening before dropping formality as well and flirting, "And I hear you're quite a man, A.J. Perhaps our paths will cross again soon outside these hospital walls."
"I'll see to it," A.J. promised with a smile, watching as the woman moved on to other patients.
A.J. moved back within Rick's cubicle that was partitioned off by worn but clean sheets hanging from the ceiling. He picked up the cloth that he had been using to wipe his brother down with, dipped it in the basin of fresh water Kate had just brought, and began to once again mop at the sweat on Rick's forehead.
"I'll say this much for ya', ya' haven't lost any of that famous A.J. Simon charm since I last saw ya'," Rick mumbled weakly, eyes still closed.
A smile spread across A.J.'s face at this first sign of Rick's recovery. "War or no war, I still strive to please the ladies. It's a valuable skill I learned from my big brother."
Rick smiled weakly. "It's good to know somethin' I taught ya' has come in handy."
"Oh, several things have as a matter of fact," A.J. gently bantered. "Several of the more...underhanded things, shall we say?"
"Glad to hear it," Rick dryly rasped, his eyes finally opening.
For a long moment Rick simply stared up into his brother's face, taking in every feature and noting the changes the past four years had brought. His eyes then traveled around the clean cubicle. Through breaks in the sheets he was able to discern he was on a busy hospital ward.
"I'd venture to guess I'm not in the P.O.W. camp anymore."
"No, you're not," A.J. answered while pouring water from a pitcher into a tin drinking cup. He laid a hand behind his brother's head, gently lifting Rick just enough so that he could take a drink.
"Thanks, Major," Rick said when his throat no longer felt like sandpaper and he was carefully laid back against the pillow.
"You're welcome, Major," A.J. teased lightly in return.
Weakly, Rick asked, "So how'd I get here?"
"I broke you out."
"I broke you out. I always look over the list of Southern prisoners when I'm in Washington so—-“
"Looking for my name?"
"Yes," A.J. didn't hesitate to admit as he once again began wiping Rick's brow with the cool cloth. "Anyway, I saw your name on the list and rode over there to find you. I know what the conditions are like, so I knew if you were injured...well I knew you might need more help than what they have available."
"Your damn Yankee prison is a far cry from hospitable," Rick spoke with bitterness.
"It's no different in the south, Rick," A.J. argued. "I know. I have friends in the prison in Charlottesville. I've even snuck a few of them out of there. Everyone's short of supplies. North and South alike. Unfortunately, the sick and injured are the ones who suffer the most."
"Gettin' to be quite a little jailbreaker, aren't ya'?" Rick commented in reference to A.J.'s remark about breaking friends out of prison.
"I do what I have to," was all A.J. said in return.
"So I've heard," Rick replied evenly. He studied his brother once again. "You've changed, A.J., in ways I probably can't even describe."
"Four years and war will do that to a person," A.J. informed his brother. He wanted to go on to say, “You've changed too, Rick. This war has been hard on you. You're sick, skinny as a rail, pale, gaunt, and just had a bullet taken out of your side.”
But A.J. didn't say any of that. He settled instead on safe conversation, on teasing, "You've lost a bit more hair since the last time I saw you."
Rick slowly reached up, rubbing his scalp with his left hand. "A bit? As usual, A.J., you're the master of understatement." Rick's hand dropped back to the bed as he changed the subject. "Why'd you bring me here?"
"Because you needed better care than you would have gotten in the prison."
"There were others there as bad off as me, some even worse. Why didn't you save them?" Rick challenged.
After four long years of separation, A.J. was not about to rise to the bait. "I have saved some, Rick. I've done what I can over these past four years. But I am a Union officer. I can't change that fact."
"No...no I guess you can't, " Rick said as he looked away.
"Rick...you're my brother. You're name was on that list and when I saw it I knew I had to get you out of there. No, I couldn't save a thousand men, but I could save one. Major Richard Simon. I did for you exactly what you would have done for me had our positions been reversed."
"So that's why you did it?" Rick asked, turning his head on the pillow to look up at A.J.
"What?" A.J. asked, confused.
"Saved me. You saved me 'cause I woulda' done the same for you?"
"No, I saved you because you're my brother. And at one time you were...my best friend."
Rick didn't comment for a moment, he simply laid quietly as A.J. sponged him down and thought over his brother's words. And at one time you were my best friend, echoed over and over in Rick's head. When he spoke again, it was to say lightly, "You know, kid, I'm willing to bet you could get your blue Union ass in mighty big trouble for movin' a Reb prisoner."
A.J. chuckled. "Maybe. But I've got some connections pretty high up, so don't worry about it."
"I won't. I'll let you do the worryin' for a while. I'm too tired to give a damn right now," Rick said as his eyes closed.
"Go back to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up," A.J. told his brother as he rose to get fresh water. When he returned a few minutes later he was surprised to find Rick watching him.
"I thought you were going back to sleep," A.J. smiled as he reseated himself.
"You were limpin'," Rick stated.
"Old war wound," A.J. quipped.
"I heard a Reb ran a bayonet right through that leg last year. I heard you wouldn't even defend yourself. I heard you damn near bled to death, then almost died from the infection that set in."
A.J. shrugged nonchalantly. "It wasn't that bad. People tend to exaggerate some."
"Our mother doesn't exaggerate," Rick said pointedly.
Knowing he'd been caught, A.J. merely said, "Oh. She told you, huh?"
"Yes, she told me. I stopped at home when my platoon was passing through Virginia last spring. She'd received a letter from your friend Jerry only days before, telling her what had happened. Needless to say she was very upset. When Jerry wrote that first letter they didn't know whether you'd live or die." Rick smiled slightly. "I told her you'd pull through though. I told her you were too damn stubborn not to."
"I'm glad you were there when she got the news," A.J. said sincerely. His biggest regret about this war was that his mother had to go through it alone.
Not able to hide his concern, Rick asked, "Is that limp ya' got permanent?"
"It comes and goes," A.J. admitted. "When I'm tired, or if I've been walking a lot. And I'll always be able to tell when it's going to rain," he finished with a smile.
"So what is it this time? Rain, or tired?"
A.J. couldn't disguise the dark circles under his eyes. "Tired, I guess."
"You look it. You'd better get some rest before people mistake you for my older brother."
"With that hairline of yours? Not a chance, big brother," A.J. teased before resuming his ministrations of cooling his feverish brother. “Not a chance.”
"You'll pay for that remark when I get outta this bed," Rick threatened while luxuriating in the wet, cold cloth that ran over his hot face.
"And I'll gladly take whatever you dish out."
Rick fought against the overwhelming weariness that was threatening to engulf him. "Does Mama know, A.J.?"
"I wired her today."
"Good," Rick sighed with relief. "This war has been so hard on her. I don't want her worrying."
"She'll be all right. She's strong."
"That she is, A.J. That she is," Rick agreed. "I suppose now that this war is windin' down...now that it's only a matter of time before the South surrenders, I suppose your Mr. Lincoln is gettin' ready to hold a big celebration."
"He's not that kind of man, Rick. Abraham Lincoln is not celebrating the pain this war has caused so many, be they Yankees or Rebels. He's a good man. A kind and gentle man. I hold a lot of admiration for him."
"I can't say much good about him. I hope you don't expect me to. I have a lot of anger inside of me over all this, over this war, what it's done to our mother...to us. I lay a lot of the blame at Lincoln's feet."
Rick weakly held up a hand to silence his brother. "Don't say anymore, A.J. I don't want to hear it. I lost a lot of good friends because of Lincoln's war."
"I lost friends too, Rick," A.J. gently reminded. "For a long time I thought I'd lost my brother."
Rick studied the face that suddenly looked too young and vulnerable. "You know, A.J., a smart lady once told me never to make a promise I might someday want to break, and a smart man recently told me that once this war was over I'd have to make peace with myself...and with my brother."
Curiosity got the better of A.J. "Who told you that?"
"The lady was Mama, the man...General Robert E. Lee."
"I see," A.J. nodded, impressed by the latter.
Rick felt himself growing weaker and wearier with each passing moment.
You can't fall asleep yet, Rick. You gotta make A.J. understand while you're both still talkin' to each other, before the anger and hurt of the last four years takes over and separates you again.
Rick blindly groped for his brother's hand. When he felt A.J. grasp his palm firmly, he squeezed with all the strength he had left. "A.J., we got a lot of talkin' to do, I know that. I don't know if things can ever be the same between us, but I reckon we gotta start somewhere."
A.J. squeezed the frail hand encased in his. "I think we already have."
Rick smiled softly. "Yeah...I guess we have."
"Rick, you need to get some rest now," A.J. admonished his pale brother. "The next time you wake up they're going to give you a little something to eat.
"Sounds good," Rick muttered as his eyes closed on their own volition.
A.J. gently laid Rick's bare arm back under the covers, only to have his brother's eye lids suddenly pop open.
Frantically, Rick's eyes searched his small, curtained area. "Where is it? Where is it?" He asked, growing hysterical.
A.J. was confused by Rick's demeanor, and concerned that his brother was once again becoming delirious. "Where's what, Rick?"
Rick tried to push himself up in bed. "My jacket. Where's my jacket?" That last frantic plea ended in a cry of pain. "Ah!"
A.J. gently but firmly pushed his sibling back down to the cot. Holding onto Rick's shoulders he ordered, "Calm down, Rick. Calm down now. Everything's okay."
Rick looked up into his brother's eyes. "Where is it?"
What in the heck is so important about a dirty, threadbare, bloodstained jacket? A.J. wondered with puzzlement.
"Where is it, A.J.?" Rick asked again.
Seeing there'd be no peace until he answered the question, A.J. replied, "It's in a wardrobe in the hallway. Why?"
"Get it for me, please," Rick whispered.
A.J. gave the shoulder under his right hand a solicitous pat. "Rick, come on now. It can wait. When you wake up I'll--"
"No, it can't wait. Get it for me now, A.J.," Rick ordered in a familiar, bossy big brother tone that dated back to childhood.
"Oh for God's sake. You haven't changed a bit. Still barking orders at me as if I were five years old," A.J. grumbled, stomping off to retrieve the much wanted jacket.
Rick smiled weakly at the sound that was music to his ears. He had to pry his eyelids open upon A.J.'s return a few minutes later.
A.J. held the gray uniform coat up for his brother to see. "Here it is."
"Check the pocket for me, A.J. No, not that one, the right one down on the side there," Rick directed from his cot.
A.J. reached into the wide, deep pocket on the jacket's right side. "Is this what you're looking for?" He asked, pulling out a worn, hardcover booklet of bound paper, slightly larger than the common diary one associated with a young girl or woman.
Rick nodded, instructing, "Turn it over."
A.J. did as he was told, reading out loud, "Major Andrew J. Simon. Union Army Command Center, Washington D.C."
A puzzled A.J. looked down at his brother. "What is it?"
A.J. knew a lot of soldiers had kept journals throughout the war, especially many of the well educated officers, so the fact that Rick had kept one as well didn't really come as a big surprise to the younger man. What he was confused about was why his name was scrawled on the front cover. He retook his seat next to Rick's bed.
"Why is it addressed to me?"
"Because if anything happened to me I wanted it to get to you. There's things in there you have to read, A.J. Things that I hope will help ya' to understand why I said the things I said, why I felt as I did four years ago."
A.J. shook his shaggy blond head. "Rick, no. It's yours. It's...private."
"Open it," Rick commanded, ignoring the hesitancy in his brother's tone.
"Open it, A.J. Open it and read the first page to me," Rick ordered wearily.
A hesitant A.J. locked eyes with his brother, upon seeing Rick's nod of encouragement he reluctantly opened the tattered cover to the first yellowed page.
"Read it," Rick repeated to his sibling.
Again, A.J. looked at Rick for a moment, then, dropped his gaze back to the paper. Softly, so as not to disturb the other patients, he began.
"December 12, 1860.
“A.J., It's been three days since you left for Washington. I'm mad as hell at you, you know that, don't you? I try to understand why you've chosen the path you have, but I can't.
“Mama cried in her room for the entire day right after you left. At first I blamed you for that, but I suppose I must pin some of the blame on myself. Maybe we should have tried to talk again no matter how mad we were. Maybe I should have tried to listen harder. Would it have helped? I've always been a harsh critic, maybe too harsh. God knows I said some things I'm already sorry for. You're the baby brother I held in my five year old arms when you were only hours old, you're the four year old I read stories to when you were too sick to get out of bed, and you're the kid brother I walked to school with, and swam in the creek with, and camped out in our woods with on hot summer nights. How can we be so far apart now? I always thought we were different than most other brothers, closer somehow, you know what I mean?
“I hid in the trees and watched you ride away that night. I've wished a hundred times since then that I'd stopped you. I already have so many regrets and it's only been three days. That's not to say that I'm not still mad as hell at you. I'd sure like to knock some sense into that damn hard head of yours, but it's odd to find myself so angry, and yet so remorseful, at the same time. I keep thinking that if something happens to you before I get a chance to say I'm sorry I'll never forgive myself. I am sorry, A.J.
Your brother, Rick."
A.J. sat silently for a long time after he had finished reading that page. To the brother who had dropped off to sleep during that reading he questioned softly, "Why? Why didn't you ever mail this to me? Why wouldn't you answer my letters?"
"Pride," Rick whispered, his voice startling A.J. Rick opened his eyes, staring up into A.J.'s face. "Damn fool pride. The same pride that put Daddy in an early grave. The pride Mama says the Simon men have too much of at times."
A.J's eyes dropped back to the words on the paper. "I thought...you didn't care...I thought I'd made you so mad...disappointed you so much..."
The bowed blond head and slumped shoulders of his brother cut Rick to the bone. "A.J., I'm sorry. I hope you can believe me when I tell you that I've always cared, that you could never really disappoint me."
The tough Major Andrew J. Simon had to fight back the tears that suddenly sprang to his eyes. He merely nodded his head in acknowledgment of his older brother's words.
Rick reached over with left hand and tapped the journal in A.J.'s lap with his fingers. "Read it, A.J. All of it. It's yours now. I...I hope it helps. I hope somewhere in there you find the answers your lookin' for."
A.J. looked up. "I will, Rick. I will," he whispered to his now sleeping brother.
Long after the lamps and candles on the ward had been lit and the nurses' shift had changed, A.J. could still be found at his brother's bedside, silently reading page after page of the journal. Several times A.J. had to stop and wipe at the tears that ran down his face whenever Rick's fears, sorrows, or regrets came through clearly in his writings.
The sun was dawning on a new day when Rick awoke again. For the first time in days he didn't feel hot, and he noticed too, that the pain in his side had receded considerably overnight.
Rick smiled when he turned his head on the pillow, noting that this time it was A.J. who was dead to the world in exhausted slumber. The journal was grasped loosely yet in A.J.'s right hand, his head and chest and arms sprawled forward on Rick's cot.
Kate smiled fondly when she came upon this scene twenty minutes later. A.J. was still sleeping soundly while Rick lightly rested a hand on his brother's back. In a hushed tone the woman greeted brightly, "Good morning, Major Simon."
Rick returned her smile. "Good morning."
Kate moved to the opposite side of the cot from where A.J. was lying and went about changing Rick's bandages, trying her best not to disturb either brother. As she worked she nodded her head toward the blond man, "I see the Major finally gave in and had the good sense to get some sleep."
Rick looked down at the young face that was partially hidden from view, buried under strands of overly long blond hair. "Yeah, he needed it."
"He certainly did. He's been here with you around the clock for the past four days now and hasn't slept once. He wouldn't have eaten either if I hadn't put my foot down and threatened to kick him off the ward if he didn't get some hot food in him."
"I appreciate you lookin' out for him," Rick smiled his thanks at the dark headed beauty. He looked back down at his sibling, lightly running his hand up and down A.J.'s back. "He's my kid brother," Rick stated proudly.
Kate looked up from where she was working at Rick's rib cage. She smiled and nodded, "I know."
A small frown of puzzlement touched the corners of Rick's mouth. "How did you know?"
Kate laid a hand on Rick's forehead to gauge his temperature, then started a sponge bath. "A.J...Major Simon, is quite well known in the Union Army, sir. Some, who are close to him, know his story as well. It didn't take me long to put it all together when two Major Simons showed up on my ward, one dressed in the blue of the Union, the other in the gray of the Confederacy."
Kate soon finished her ministrations. "I'll be back with your breakfast tray soon, Major. We'll see what we can round up for you to eat this morning that won't upset your stomach."
"Anything sounds good right now, ma'am," Rick said with hunger.
Looking over Rick's too lean frame, the nurse agreed, "I imagine it does, sir."
Kate began gathering up the wash basin and cloths, watching out of the corner of her eye as Rick continued to lightly rub A.J.'s back.
"If I may be so bold, Major, I'd like to say that I'm glad things are working out between you and your brother. A.J.'s a fine man. He has always spoken highly of you to me."
Rick held the woman's gaze for a long moment, then teased with twinkling eyes, "I get the feelin' you and my little brother are more than casual acquaintances Miss Kate."
"We see each other now and then," was all the smiling Kate would admit to. "My father is General Thadius Randall. A.J. and he have worked together quite often during these past four years."
"I see," Rick nodded his understanding as to how this pretty young woman and his brother had met.
Before Kate left Rick's curtained cubicle she felt the need to confess softly, "I had a kid brother too, Major. He was a graduate of West Point, the class of '58. For reasons known only to him, Jacob chose to fight for the South. My father never forgave him for that decision and went so far as to forbid my mother and me contact with him of any sort. Jake was killed in the battle of Vicksburg. My father doesn't say anything about it, won't even mention Jake's name, but I know, deep inside, it's torn him to pieces. Whether he'll admit it or not, he loved Jake very much. Jacob was his only son. He died without my father ever making peace with him. Papa has to live with that for the rest of his life. I'm glad things will be different for you and A.J."
Rick looked from the unshed tears in Kate's eyes to his sleeping brother. As his hand continued its gentle massage over A.J.'s back Rick acknowledged softly, "I am too, Kate. I am too."
A.J. remained asleep throughout Rick's breakfast. When the two brothers were finally left alone again the tired Rick murmured softly, "You're gonna have a hell of a backache when you finally wake up, kid."
Rick's soft words somehow penetrated A.J.'s deep slumber. The blond's head moved restlessly on the cot, and his right hand wrapped itself more firmly around the journal. "I understand, Rick," he mumbled in his sleep. "I understand."
A.J.'s grip on the journal slackened once again as he seemed to fall back into a deep sleep. Rick acknowledged as he, too, drifted toward sleep, "I know you do, kid. I know you do."
April 9, 1865
Village Of Appomattox Court House, Virginia
Richard and Andrew Simon, dressed in the cleaned, pressed uniforms of their respective armies, stood out in the warm noonday sun with a crowd of on lookers. Surprising to some, no name calling was heard and no rowdiness occurred as both military personnel from the North and South, as well as civilians, stood in small groups here or there.
Rick wasn't particularly shocked by the quiet calmness of
the small crowd.
We're all just so tired. So damn tired, and we've all lost so damn much.
The Simon brothers were the only two military men representing the opposing sides that stood together, everyone else remained segregated, the Union soldiers off to one side, the Confederate off to another.
Other than the soft murmur of male voices, the quiet was only occasionally broken by the chirp of a bird, the bark of a dog somewhere in the distance, or the soft pawing and snorting of the horses that were tethered to the railing in front of the McLean house.
A long time passed before the front door to the white washed building opened. A white headed, distinguished looking man dressed in the gray uniform of the Confederate States stepped out onto the front stoop, followed closely by a man dressed in Union blue. Unlike the impeccable Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant hadn’t taken the time to put on a clean uniform, nor exchange his mud-splattered boots for a freshly polished pair.
General Lee turned and offered his hand to General Grant. The commanders of the two opposing armies then shook hands for all in attendance to see.
Not a cheer or a clap was heard. Everyone seemed to realize that this was not a cause for celebration, but rather a cause for sad reflection.
Robert E. Lee slowly walked down the stairs with his head held high as he moved toward his waiting horse.
Just as he was about to put his boot in the stirrup the General caught sight of a familiar face. He led his horse over to the two men standing beneath the oak tree.
"Richard, it's good to see you," the General greeted. "The last I heard you were gravely injured and in the prison camp at Harrisburg."
"I was," Rick acknowledged. "I'd be dead now if it wasn't for my brother."
General Lee didn't have to ask who the blond Union Major was at Rick's elbow. He offered his hand to a Northern soldier for the second time that day. "Major Simon, I'm happy I've finally gotten the opportunity to make your acquaintance. You're a formidable opponent."
"As are you, General," A.J. said while shaking the hand of the older gentleman.
"Where will you go now, General?" Rick asked of the man he openly admired.
"Where will I go, Rick? Home, son. Home. I haven't been there for a long time, you know."
"Yes, sir, I know. Neither have I."
The General laid a fatherly hand on Rick's shoulder. "Then I think that's a good place for both of us, Richard. Home is where we'll find our peace."
"Yes, sir," Rick acknowledged, holding the reins of the General's horse while the man mounted his steed.
General Lee urged his horse into a slow walk, pulling up on reins after they had only gone a few yards. He turned in the saddle, looking down at Rick.
"I'm glad you found what you were looking for, Rick," General Lee said with a meaningful glance in A.J.'s direction.
Rick looked at his brother, then back up at his former commanding officer. "I am too, sir."
"You'll be able to heal now, Richard," the man told him.
"Yes, sir," Rick nodded.
The General gave Rick and A.J. a crisp salute, one they both returned before the man spurred his horse in the direction of home.
The brothers stood together in silence until the General was out of sight. "He's a good man, A.J.," Rick said softly.
"I know," A.J. didn't hesitate to agree.
As the crowd around them began to disperse Rick draped an arm around A.J.'s shoulders, urging him toward their horses. "Let's go home, brother," he said.
"That sounds like a good idea to me, brother," A.J. smiled.
"I bet Mama's been cookin' for a whole week," Rick said with anticipation.
A.J. threw back his head in laughter.
"What? What's so funny?"
A.J. simply shook his head, his smile brighter than the afternoon sun. "Nothing's changed. You're still a bottomless pit."
"A bottomless pit, huh? I'll show you a bottomless pit," Rick teased, lightly booting his brother in the rear end, propelling A.J. toward his horse.
A.J. rubbed his behind. "Hey, what was that for?"
Rick's arm came to rest on A.J.'s shoulders once more. "That was to say, let's get a move on, Major. We've got a very important date with a lady who out ranks us. If we keep Mama waitin' one more day we'll both have sore behinds."
A.J. laughed again, picturing in his mind's eye their tiny mother hauling her two grown sons to the woodshed.
"Yeah, and I'd likely guess she could still do it, too," A.J. agreed.
Rick stopped dead in his tracks. "Why I do declare, A.J., is that a bit of good ole Southern boy English I hear creepin' up on you? Better be careful now, kid, you're accent's comin' back to ya.’"
A.J. stopped his progress toward the horses as well, not taking the teasing lightly as it had been intended. "I've always been a Southern boy, Rick," he stated firmly.
Rick studied his sibling for a moment, then pulled him into a hug. "I know you have been, A.J. I've always known you have been."
A.J. stood within his brother's embrace for a long moment, finally breaking it as he gave Rick a clap on the back. "We'd better get going so that stomach of yours gets fed on its regular schedule."
"Why are ya' always givin' me a hard time about my stomach? There's nothin' wrong with a man enjoyin' a good home cooked meal. Why I haven't had a taste of Mama's cookin' in I don't know how long."
Brotherly conversation continued throughout the trip home. Lots of teasing and bantering, mixed with some serious exchanges, helped to bring the Simon brothers one step closer to what they had once been to each other.
When the long journey was over and the two men dismounted their horses in front of their boyhood home the front door flew open and out burst a still petite, still stylish woman, arms held open wide in greeting.
Cecilia Simon ran to meet her sons, barely able to keep from tripping over her hoops in her excitement. Tears of joy ran down her face as her boys met her halfway. She fell into their outstretched arms, giving and receiving hugs and kisses.
Cecilia couldn't control the sobs that wracked her body as she held both of her sons tightly against her.
"Don't cry, Mama. Everything's okay now," Rick crooned into his mother's soft, fragrant hair.
"We're home, Mama," A.J. added in an attempt to soothe the still sobbing woman. “We’re home.”
Cecilia broke their embrace to reach up and lay a tender hand on the side of each son's face. "Yes, you're home," she said through her tears. "And that's all that matters. My boys are home."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~