Chapter Thirteen

The weeks passed quickly, and winter approached steadily. Lou spent her days working busily in the kitchen or nursing the returning soldiers. Virginia was left to her own devices for much of the day, and she spent her time playing in Julia's yard, much to amusement of the weary men who sat in the shade, eating and resting. To them, the girl was the first real sign of life they had seen after so many years of death. They enjoyed her childish chatter and would offer to watch her during the day so Lou could go about her duties. Some of the men had no homes or family to return to, so they stayed encamped at Julia Papen's for weeks on end. Ginnie was their sole amusement in a world gone to hell.

One day, a lone soldier arrived at the homestead and gratefully received a parcel of food from Julia. He was obviously half-starved, but he refrained from eating until he had thanked her properly in a polite Southern voice. Sitting under a tree by himself, he devoured the food quickly using both hands. Virginia had been chasing their scrawny chickens around the yard but when she saw the starving man she stopped her play and watched him curiously. After a moment, the man felt her presence and looked up at the small girl, ashamed.

"Pardon me, miss," he said, a faint smile under his beard. "I forgot my manners."

"You must be real hungry, mister," Ginnie replied. She sat down beside him as if they were on a picnic, without a care in the world.

"Yes, I am."

The soldier seemed to have lost his appetite though, and only picked at his food. He felt awkward next to the pretty child, who was dressed in a blue pinafore that matched her eyes. His own clothes were ragged and filthy, his boots held together by string. He was unwashed, unshaven and unkempt, and yet the girl showed no fear and did not comment on his appearance. She simply looked at him with her clear blue eyes, her round face framed by long dark hair.

"D'you live here?" he asked.

"Yessir, with my mother. We came up from South Carolina."

"A true Southern lady." The man smiled at her, as if remembering happier times. "What's your name?"

"Virginia, like the state."

"That's a fine name," the soldier said, his words meaningful. "Virginia's my home."

"My daddy's too. He's a soldier like you."

"Does he live here with you too?"

"No, we don't know where he is," said Ginnie. "My momma says he'll come back though. Are you going home, mister?"

"Yes," the man said sadly. "I've been away a long time."

Julia came out onto the porch then and scanned the yard for Ginnie. She spied her talking to one of the soldiers as usual.

"Miss Virginia, it's time for supper. You come inside now," Julia ordered. She did not entirely approve of the way the girl spent her days with the returning soldiers who were weak and sickly. Yet she could deny the affect Virginia had on their morale. She obviously brightened their miserable lives, and Lou never stopped her spending time with them.

"I'm comin'!" Ginnie yelled across the yard.

Julia frowned disapprovingly at her annunciation and walked back into the house.

Virginia turned back to the soldier. "I guess I better go."

"That your momma?" he asked.

"No, that's Julia. We're just living here with her 'til Daddy comes home."

"Well, I hope he comes home soon to you." The man stood up stiffly, wrapping up the rest of the food and dropping it into a sagging, weathered knapsack. "I'd better be on my way. I've got a fair piece to travel before I get to where I'm going."

"Good luck, mister," said Ginnie with a smile. "Safe trip."

The soldier tipped his hat to her and started down the road. He moved slowly and gingerly with a pronounced limp in one leg. Ginnie watched as he walked away, waving goodbye.

Lou opened the door of the house and saw her standing in the middle of the road, chickens pecking around her feet. She was waiting as one of the battered soldiers left the yard, seeing them off as she always did.

"Ginnie, I thought Julia asked you to come in for supper," Lou called out in an admonishing tone. "I've been lookin' for you."

"Coming, Momma," Ginnie cried back.

She glanced back to the soldier once more and was surprised to see he had stopped dead in his tracks. It was if he'd suddenly lost the use of his legs. Virginia thought he might need a doctor, or at least some nursing by Julia or her mother. Ginnie was about to suggest it when Lou walked down into the yard towards her daughter, her eyes focused on the man. The soldier turned slowly and looked back at her, puzzlement on his face.

Lou wondered if he was one of the many soldiers she had nursed during the war. He was certainly dressed like one of the poor Confederate boys, his tattered uniform was barely recognizable from the smart gray outfits many had started out with. He continued to stare at her above his shaggy brown beard, his eyes shadowed by the broad brim of a battered cavalry hat.

She suddenly felt strange under his gaze, and sensed an odd nagging impulse in her mind. He was definitely familiar to her somehow, but she had seen so many ragged soldiers in her time. Lou was concentrating so hard that she didn't hear Julia walk up beside her, nor did she turn when the older woman asked her what they were staring at. There was something about him that Lou could not place. As she watched the man took off his hat and held it carefully in his hands before him, but he did not approach them.

Julia was about to repeat her query, puzzled by the trance-like expression on Lou's face. But before she opened her mouth a small sound escaped Lou's lips and she started walking towards the soldier, slowly at first until she broke into a run. Julia and Virginia watched in surprise as she flew down the road towards him, only to pull up short in front of him. He and Lou continued to stare at each other without speaking, her chest rising and falling with each deep breath.

Lou needed to see his eyes up close, to look into those clear blue eyes to make sure. The man's face was dirty and almost covered by his beard and hair, but it didn't matter. She just needed to see his eyes. They were full of tears as he stared dumbfounded at her, as if she was just an illusion. To make sure he wasn't dreaming her, he reached out a tentative, muddied hand and touched her cheek. She was real.

"Lou?" he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.

With a cry she leapt forward a flung her arms around his neck, holding on for dear life. Kid's knees buckled under her weight but he did not fall. He tightened his own arms around her and lowered his head, disbelieving, onto her shoulder. His face crumpled in a rush of relief and deep-seated pain. He drew strength from her embrace, his weary body at the point of collapse. His long journey was over.

"You came home," she murmured emotionally, hot tears rushing down her face. "You finally came home."

She pulled away from him and cradled his weeping face in her hands. "They all said you were dead, but I didn't believe them. I knew you'd come!"

"I promised you I would," Kid said simply. Lou kissed him long and hard then hugged him again, laughing through her tears.

Julia and Virginia were watching, transfixed, from a distance. Ginnie could not believe her mother's behavior, and looked shocked at Julia who had knelt down beside her.

"Virginia, I'd say your father has finally found you," Julia said in reply to her unspoken question.

"Daddy?" asked Ginnie slowly, as she turned back to the embracing couple. She didn't quite know what to make of the situation. She had always dreamed of meeting him one day, but now that he was here she didn't know what to do.

"Why don't you go and say hello? I'm sure he'd like to meet you," Julia urged. Her own eyes were moist with happiness for Louise who had finally been reunited with her beloved Kid. She gave Ginnie a slight push and sent her on her way.

The girl ran towards her parents and had to tug at Lou's dress before her mother even noticed she was there. Reluctantly she let go of Kid and put her arm around her daughter. Lou smiled shyly as she looked at him now, unable to find the right words to introduce his daughter to him after so many years — the daughter he never knew existed until now. Kid sank to one knee before Ginnie, trying to comprehend what was happening.

"You're my Daddy," the girl stated calmly. Kid did not know what to say. He looked helplessly at her, but Ginnie merely grinned and jumped into his arms. Fresh tears escaped Kid's eyes as he hugged his daughter for the first time. He picked her up carefully and Lou embraced them both. They were finally together as a family.

Julia continued to watch the happy scene before her, as did the other soldiers in the yard. She did not stay long though, and walked towards the house alone. She would not intrude on their moment of happiness, a promise fulfilled.