Part #7 of 13 episodes of how my heroes from Trouble in Texas met
and how they became so loyal to each other.
and how they became so loyal to each other.
Book #3 Stuck Together --Vince's story--releases in June 3.
Closer Than Brothers
|Stuck Together is Jonas' story, too|
Click to Buy
Jonas felt the guilt ripping at him as he lay down on his blankets with a roof over his head.
He slept on a filthy, lice riddled, moth eaten blanket in a room with twenty other men that was large enough for two and prayed God would forgive him for having this when so many had nothing.
Yesterday he’d eaten a handful of dry corn meal that writhed with maggots, and he’d gotten half a potato, rotten at the center. He’d gobbled up every bit, the bugs, the foul blackened potato, even the bugs were food. His hunger was so deep, so profound he was like an animal, fighting for scraps. Then, after the food was gone, still viciously hungry, skeleton-thin, he felt wrenching guilt. He should have shared. Others were worse off.
He should sleep under the stars in solidarity with his fellow Andersonville prisoners. But he was too weak, physically and spiritually. He couldn’t resist the roof nor the potato.
How many men had died today while he ate?
God forgive me. I need the courage to give my life away. Give me a sacrificial heart for the other prisoners.
The sun was just lighting the sky in the stifling, crowded room. It was so humid Jonas could barely breathe. The misery of hunger, the mosquitoes that plagued them, the reek of diseased, filthy bodies, the constant mournful song of thousands of suffering men—Jonas wondered at heaven and hell.
God is hell truly worse than this? How could it be worse?
It made Jonas shudder to the marrow in his bones to try and fathom something worse. He clung tight to his faith and tried to reach the lost. He spent time every day in Dare’s hospital praying for the men who would face the Pearly Gates within days.
Save them. God, save them. Father in Heaven help me to lead them to You. Give me the words. Give me the strength to sacrifice my very life.
He thought of that potato. If he’d given it away would a man have seen the parson and his sacrificial generosity and turned toward the Lord? Could a shared potato be the price of a man’s soul?
The men who weren’t interested in his preaching would always sit and let him read to them. His little sister’s letters. Her letters had opened many a man to listening. First the letter, then Jonas’s words of faith.
Jonas thrust his blanket away. As the heat rose with the morning sun, the blanket was unbearable anyway.
He looked across the room and saw Vince, lying with his back to the wall. Surveying the room. Jonas met his eyes. Vince nodded as if acknowledging that another day had begun in purgatory, then rose and went to the door, leaning his back against it. Always on guard.
Vince. Jonas had to smile. Vince was who had brought him that potato yesterday. And Jonas remembered now that he had considered giving it away, even started to do it. Somehow Vince had blocked the effort and given Jonas no choice but to eat it himself. Jonas wasn't even sure quite how Vince managed it. He certainly didn't shove it down Jonas's throat.
But Vince tended to get his way. The man was determined to get them all through this place alive and it was hard to defy him.
As Vince leaned, footsteps sounded and Dare came in carrying envelopes. Letters. Andersonville wouldn’t feed them but they’d deliver the mail. They’d let prisoners send mail out too, but Jonas had no paper, no pen, no money for a stamp.
Dare, moving in his usual restless way, came straight for Jonas, five letters in hand.
Jonas reached for them eagerly. He always got mail. Tina never failed him, despite how Jonas had failed her.
More men stirred, the ones who didn’t might be more unconscious than asleep.
Luke sat up, rubbing his eyes, so young, so painfully thin Jonas was scared for him. They
were all skin and
bones, but Luke had been in the hospital the longest and he’d been sick a couple of
times. Each time he was weaker, his recovery slower. With contaminated water
and little food, how was a man to heal?
Now, Luke smiled at the letters in Jonas’s hand. “Read ’em out loud, every word.”
Of course Jonas was planning, too. But he was glad to hear Luke ask. The Kid was quieter every day.
Jonas opened the envelope, savoring the touch of paper, the civilized stamp and neatly penned address. The letters even smelled good. Not perfumed, but they hadn’t soaked up the stink of Andersonville yet. They hadn’t been in here long enough.
He’d let every man in here touch each letter and read them himself before he got it back. But for now, no one wanted to wait to hear Tina’s latest news.
He even read the envelope aloud:
To Jonas Cahill
We got the saloon closed and to my disgust, four days after it closed, some other wretched man opened one a few blocks away. What is this obsession with demon rum?”
“I would kill for a drink of rum.” A man in here for reasons other than being a Regulator, spoke quietly.
Everyone laughed. It wasn’t the drink, it was the thought of such a civilized thing as a saloon, a bar to lean against, or tables with chairs. Drinks available to order. It was hard to remember such things existed.
For a few fleeting moments while Jonas read Tina’s letters they could let themselves be transported to a place where woman wrote letters on fine white paper and men came and went to suit themselves.
And to my horror, I have learned that they intend to have their saloon open even on Sunday. Not even the Lord ’s Day will be set aside by these vile men. Well, if they think I will be defeated they do not know who they are dealing with.
“I’ll bet they are counting on having her out front to tell the folks in town they’re open for business.” Vince said dryly.
The group laughed. They might tease, but not a man here didn’t love Jonas’s little sister. She brought light and happiness with her preaching little letters about a world that still existed beyond these walls.
I still have my picket sign and I will simply move my mission field to this new den of iniquity. You will be glad to know I have found a saying I believe will spark quite a bit of interest in the men unwise enough to consider hard drink. Aunt Iphigenia said to me the other day, 'A man who drinks puts a thief in his mouth to steal his brain'. I thought that was quite a piquant turn of phrase and intend to use it, in perhaps a somewhat shortened form for my sign. It’s all quite complicated to get a good message across briefly enough to fit on a sign. Lettering them is surprisingly time consuming and with school and caring for Aunt Iphigenia’s home, besides the time committed to walking the actual picket line, I barely have enough hours in the day.
"Your Aunt Iphigenia works her like a slave,” Dare said. “We oughta tell Abe Lincoln to write up an Emancipation Proclamation for your little sister.”
I know you will think me frivolous, Jonas, but if I am to write every day as I am determined to do while you are in prison, I must tell you the smallest, even foolish details, so I will describe the dress I wore to church this morning.
Every man in the room, even Luke, sat up, leaned forward. This was their favorite part. Jonas remembered his sister well. Chubby. White blonde hair and not much of it. Persnickety and prone to fist fights. And now she spent her time picketing. It didn't amount to a particularly attractive package.
He didn’t tell the men here that. He suspected they were all picturing some beautiful girl. Or maybe they thought of their own sweetheart back home. No sense ruining their pleasant daydream.
Jonas went on reading. Tina spoke of fabric and ribbon. She detailed every bit of food she ate which was both wonderful and a kind of torture. She went on at length about her chores, which only revealed what a crotchety task master Aunt Iphigenia was. Jonas probably should have felt sorry for Tina. But the life he was living was so miserable he couldn’t think she had it so bad.
She spoke of picketing a saloon. Circulating a petition. Denouncing liquor at a city council meeting. The little one was growing up to be a snippy, trouble-making reformer and Jonas smiled to imagine the chubby little girl, hair as light and white as a puffball atop a gone-to-seed dandelion.
She’s always been a talker, and she’d always spoken her mind. It had gotten her into trouble time and again.
Jonas had been mostly gone, but he’d been there once to teach a few bullies a lesson about picking on a little girl, no matter how ill-thought-out some of her statements were. And when he’d saved her from a thrashing, Tina had looked at him with pure hero worship in her eyes.
He’d done more damage than Tina had known. Jonas had already been a dangerous man by that time.
Aunt Iphigenia had told him to get out, go back to his gang of outlaws and leave decent women alone. It had come to light that he was a wanted man and he'd had to hightail it. But he’d heard that folks left Tina alone after that, because she had a dangerous big brother. That gave him satisfaction back then. Now it shamed him, especially because it meant he’d probably never see his little sister again.
He didn’t dare show his face in Grable, Ohio. It’d been long enough he might not be arrested, but he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t risk it.
Jonas had wanted to save his little sister from that awful woman. But what Jonas had to offer was worse. He had no home. He was an outlaw. He rode with hard men. He boiled with rage that he knew had started with his cruel stepfather—Tina’s father. That rage had awakened long before his stepfather killed Jonas’s mother, then hung for it. That anger drove him to recklessness and crime. It felt powerful when he’d been powerless to protect his sweet ma.
He’d ridden away years ago and never gone back, but still his little sister wrote every day. The letters didn’t get delivered every day, but when the mail did come, there was always a stack of them from Tina. And everyone wanted to hear them, then read them for himself. Jonas was a mighty popular man.
Jonas had managed a few letters, right at first before he’d been stripped of his last possession by the Raiders. He’d gotten word to her that he was in Andersonville so her letters could find him, thank God.
She knew he’d found God on a battlefield early in the war.
Tina needed a home, but Jonas couldn’t fetch her. And of late he’d felt God leading him to a mission field on the American frontier.
All he had to do was survive hell on earth.
As he read on, the men laughed and rolled their eyes at her antics and her enthusiasm. Sometimes they sighed with longing for their own loved ones or jealousy for Jonas’s letters. Whatever their reactions, his little sister shined a light in this darkness for every man lucky enough to hear her letters. She was serving a mission field of her own with each word she wrote.
Jonas had no way to let her know, but he prayed that somehow she realized it.
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