Dear Ma and Pa,
I do hope that you and all the rest of the family are well. How are all my sisters and little Hannibal?
Things are pretty good here now that spring has come. That was a hard winter, with the ground all churned up the way it was. The freezing mud got everywhere, but that’s over now and the sweet, green grass is covering the residue of battle.
We have been marching hard and we are now camped in a field outside of a little town. The folks are supposed to be real, hard dyed-in-the wood confederates but the ones I’ve met seem like normal folks just like us. They were a bit standoffish at first, but once they realised we weren’t rogues and villains they started speaking to us like we were human beings. They’re still a bit cagey about their womenfolk and livestock being around us but they’ve gradually gotten used to us. They were glad to see the sutlers arrive because it showed them that we buy and don’t plunder. A few of the new boys have been a bit uppity but they were soon put in their places by Captain Brooke. He’s a real fine man who won’t tolerate Sunday soldiers or hospital rats. Everyone pulls their weight and treats the locals with respect or they answer to him. He’s real good at making fresh fish feel like they can deal with seeing the elephant. It’s amazing how a good leader can turn things around for a unit. The locals know he won’t tolerate bad behaviour from his men, so give us an easier ride than some of the other units around here who aren’t so well run.
It’s good to work for a man who really cares about his men. I’ve read the newspapers and politicians saying we are fighting for our beliefs and our causes, but I wonder how many of them have actually met any of us fighting men. I joined because my family and my town support our side, but I fight for my friends, comrades and unit. We keep one another alive and that’s what’ll help me come home to you after the battle. I know we all thought the war would be after one battle, but tomorrow’s should be the one that really ends this thing once and for all.
I’ll be home soon, Ma. The day after tomorrow I’ll be on my way to you. In fact, I’ll be on my way to you before you even get this letter.
We will all meet again soon. I dream of riding a wild horse without bullets whistling about my ears and I can’t wait to give Hannibal a race. I bet he’s growing like a weed! Boys sure stretch at his age.
Anyway, I must go. I will see you all soon in a much better place than this. My love to all and especially to my pretty Elizabeth.
Your loving son,
Valparaiso Home for Waywards
The pinch-faced, hook-nosed man stared at the letter through hooded eyes before sitting back and tapping his fingers with it. “What fool gave this to the boy?”
The uniformed guard shuffled his heavy boots around on the colourful rug. “The matron at the orphanage, sir. She’s always been too soft for her own good. She thought he should have his brother’s last letter home,” he shook his head ruefully. “He had nothing left. The whole place was burnt to the ground. She thought it would be a keepsake. It only survived because it arrived after the...” The man’s voice drifted off, “the incident.”
The Chief Warden tossed the paper aside. “Stupid, female, sentimental poppycock!” He stood, the legs of his chair scraping against the floorboards. “Look at the trouble she caused. The boy went mad. All he had left was the hope that his brother would eventually come back from the war and build a home for him and his cousin.” He started to pace. “Why couldn’t she have just let him have that?”
“Dunno, sir,” the guard shrugged. “It would appear to have been the best course of action in light of what happened.”
“Best course of action? The boy not only went on the rampage; he took his cousin with him!”
“Yeah, he was angry at the whole world. It seems the two boys had a fiction built up in their heads that Alexander would take them out of the orphanage and give them a new life. Nobody actually took the time to tell Hannibal that his brother had died in the battle. The timing was bad, with what happened to their families and all; it seemed too much to tell them. The boys seemed to think he’d gone off somewhere to build a new life and would come back to get them eventually. You know how fanciful children get. It gave them hope. The thought of him was always there as unfinished business; as a person who could change their lives.”
“Yeah? Well, in a strange kinda way he did. The boy didn’t know his brother had been killed in that battle; hell, he was dead before the rest of the family were hit by the raiders; but look at what happened when he was told. I don’t believe in telling children anything unless I have to. Hannibal was a difficult child at the best of times, but robbing him of his last hope pushed him over the edge. The brother’s death pushed him out of life in the orphanage and straight into the Valparaiso Home for Waywards.” The Chief Warden flexed his calves and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “How many windows did they break?”
“Seven – well, ten if you count the big church window as four separate panes of glass.” The guard’s lips firmed into a line. “We’re not sure the younger boy did anything. He might have been trying to stop Hannibal.”
“You know the old saying, ‘you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows,’” the Chief Warden clasped his hands behind his back. “He should have kept out of it.” He nodded curtly as if to punctuate his point. “I’m not going to accept that he followed that rapscallion all the way through town and did absolutely nothing wrong. He should have stopped it or told a responsible adult what was happening.”
“Jed is two years younger than Hannibal. He’s too small to stop a larger boy and he says he was trying to talk sense into him.”
The Chief Warden waved a dismissive hand. “Rubbish, I know what boys are like when they get together. They turn into savages. They’ve had it too soft, that’s the problem. They won’t find it so easy here.”
“So, has Mr. Morrison decided what workshops they’ll be allocated to?”
“Yes, the younger boy will be taught woodworking and metalworking; but he says Hannibal is bright. He wants to teach him accounting.”
“A good steady job.” The older man nodded approvingly. “We just need to rein in his wild side. I think sitting in silence, fixed on columns of numbers will be just the thing to calm him down. I’d like to see him as a clerk as a grown man.”
“And the letter, sir? What should we do with it? It is all the boy has left of his family.”
The older man strode over to the desk and snatched up the paper. “The letter? It goes in the trash. There’s no way he gets it back – not after all the trouble it caused.”
“But it’s his property, sir. Maybe we should give it back to him when he’s older...”
“Are you questioning my authority?”
The guard’s brow furrowed. “No, sir. It was just a suggestion.”
“Well, let it be your last one,” the Chief Warden gestured dismissively towards the door. “Oh, and Watson? I know how some of these children can get to you, but don’t let them get inside your head. They’re bad’uns; pure and simple. I’m not being hard by throwing the letter away. It troubled a boy who was already angry at the world. I’m protecting him by not giving him the chance to dwell on this. Once you’ve been here a bit longer you’ll understand.”
Hannibal Heyes turned onto his side and closed his eyes. It was too dark to see anyway. Why had he thought of that damned letter again? He hadn’t thought about it for years. Maybe it was that woman at the train robbery, the one who handed out the flyer about amnesty? She looked a bit like the lady who had sat him down and told him Alexander was dead. She had then sat with him gently mopping his tears through a barrage of spiked elbows and shrugging shoulders. The lady had been so kind and patient, but he’d been too angry to appreciate it.
She had been right. He did need to know the truth and he had to find a way to deal with the loss of his last shred of hope. If something wasn’t there for him, he needed to know that and plan his life accordingly. He was suddenly adrift and needed to know he mattered to someone; anyone - and the universe had delivered in the form a pleading, worried cousin who then found himself condemned to a home for waywards as an accessory to his delirium.
He had searched through the trash at Valparaiso until he had found it and carefully hidden it away. As the years went on he had read more and more into it; from understanding the impact a good leader can have on people, to the need for looking after your own. He had read and reread the letter for years; every word burning into his brain until it stayed there as though branded until it eventually fell to pieces in his hands. They were his brother’s last words to him; words of hope, love and the need for normality; echoing his own hopes and dreams. The flyer popped into his mind again. Maybe that little, old lady had a point? Perhaps he did need think harder about trying for amnesty...
*I found a link online full of Civil War slang which I used in writing the letter. If there are terms in the letter you do not understand (like seeing the elephant) you will find them in the Historical Research thread in the Writer's Aid area under 'Civil War Slang.'