Voices in the Walls 14

Chapter two, continued

Southern Pennsylvania is a area of rolling hills. The pioneers had cleared much of the forest for fields, but plenty of timber remained. It must have been lovely a month earlier when the hillsides were ablaze with fall colors, but now only a few stubborn brown leaves clung to the oaks, and all the rest of the woods were gray.

The Emmitsburg Road passed southward paralleling Cemetery Ridge and a mile to the south I could see a pair of hills Dreyfus called Round Top and Little Round Top. Once he had warmed up to me, the teamster gave me a running commentary on the local sights, gossip, and politics. By the time we pulled up, I had a beginner’s understanding of the region.

(One of the benefits of historical fiction, particularly of well known times, is the amount of research material available, along with instant recognition by your readers. The flip side of this benefit is the likelihood of getting caught out if you screw up.

Years ago I came across a library book full of photographs taken days after the Gettysburg battle. It was also full of detailed maps, with notations on the maps of where each picture had been taken. I didn’t need the pictures of bodies, but the maps gave me every road, hill, orchard and farmhouse, down to the names of who lived in some of the farmhouses. Rachel Pike’s farmhouse was one of them; its actual occupants were conveniently not named.)

We stacked Sarah’s trunks at the roadside (I was getting mighty tired of those trunks!) and I waved good-bye to Mr. Dreyfus. Sarah was through pouting, but she didn’t wave. I suppose she thought a lady should be above waving to servants, but I had liked the man.

We stood at a crossroad. Behind us, both corners were in grain fields, one plowed and fallow, the other still in ragged stubble. On the corner to our left was an orchard; peaches I thought, from the shape of the naked trunks. Aunt Rachel’s house sat back from the road on the last corner. It was a substantial two story house with a widow’s walk and a wide verandah, flanked by two magnificent oak trees. There was a cluster of outbuildings behind it.

The house had a look of age, and though it had been reasonably well kept up there was just a hint of decay about it. A cracked window pane here, a few boards leaning against the side of the house where some repair had been begun and never finished, and paint that should have been renewed a few years ago – the sum of these little things gave the house a forlorn and haunted look.

Father had written to Aunt Rachel with the details of why he was sending us to her, and had sent a brief telegram in case we arrived before the letter, but of course there had been no time for a reply. It was just possible that Aunt Rachel was not here. I took my carpetbag in one hand and took Sarah’s hand in my other, and we walked up to the house.

I knocked on the door and waited. Sarah had become very quiet. She had never met our aunt. Aunt Rachel and Father had never gotten along, and it had been ten years since I had seen her.

The door opened on my second knock. I had forgotten how tall she was. She was nearly as tall as Father with a raw-boned pioneer look about her. She looked as if she should have been loading her husband’s flintlock during an Indian attack in Kentucky a hundred years ago.

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