Crunchy leaves skittered across the barren, hardscrabble prairie outside Anna’s window. A gusty and balmy reprieve from heavy winter snow had lately freed them from their soggy mire and loosed them on the Kansas landscape.
The last time Anna had seen those leaves, they blazed red and orange in the boughs of the oak trees that lined the Simpson property. It was the same week that James had stopped home, breaking briefly from his company on their way to the eastern battles.
Anna could still hear the wagons echoing through the hills to the north, and she imagined they rumbled across that dusty ground even now. Had they come to tell her James was gone? So many months without a single word had made her brain itch and her heart ache.
“Mama?” Thomas’s tiny voice sounded from behind her in the darkness. So it had been his footsteps — no death train, no returning hero.
The boy’s candle flickered in the dark, and Anna’s reflection flashed in the milky pane in front of her. The months had aged her — worry creased her face, winter dried and grayed her hair, sleeplessness puffed her eyes.
She was no longer the maiden James had taken as his bride a few years before. No, it was her mother’s face that stared back at her, the same one she had worn waiting for Anna’s father to return from the Texas front a generation before.
“It’s OK, Thomas,” Anna said, smiling to wipe the years away as she to her son.
He rubbed his eyes. “Is Daddy coming home?”
“Soon, baby, soon.” She pulled the boy close and flushed in the guilt of her lie.
In the distance, the earth rumbled, and Anna prayed it was not the echoing wagons.