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Beyond the War

By Howard Melvin Fast

MERCER stood there, hands in his pockets, watching Lady. Cullen, the old black man, had just said, "We ain' afear' — if you want us tu stay. Reckon is our duty tu stay."
"No, You go," Lady told Cullen, and Mercer decided that she was thinking as he was — that an old black man and his wife were not much good; anyway, they were afraid, which Mercer could realize, but not understand. Mercer was never afraid; he knew it frightened Lady sometimes, when Lady would just look at him queerly. "You take Daisy," Lady went on, "and harness up the mule." She was tapping away at her knee with a forefinger, smiling absently, as if her thoughts were upon other things, and she was very beautiful and sure of herself. "Tell Daisy to wear her best dress, and maybe you can make a holiday out of it. That would be nice, Cullen, wouldn't it? I'll give you about ten thousand dollars in paper money, and that should last a little time, if you're careful."
Cullen was crying; Mercer watched him curiously, and with a good deal of contempt.
"You're a little beast, Mercer," Lady said. Then she squeezed Cullen's hand, made him understand that it wasn't the same way now as when all the other blacks went.

THEN Mercer went outside to watch Cullen harness the mule. It was a hot day, hot and bright and glorious; Mercer sat in the shade on a box and kicked his toes in the warm sand. Then, when Cullen climbed down out of the wagon and sent the old woman driving off alone, Mercer raised his brows.
"Gonna stay," Cullen muttered.
"Uh-huh, the cooking." Mercer nodded calmly. I was wondering who would do the cooking.
"Dis ol' man ain' much good ——"
"You cook good," Mercer said. He went inside.
Mercer staggered a little, because now only Cullen was left — besides himself: that made him feel important; lonely too, only more important than lonely. It made him think that he had grown with Lady since the master of the house had left — the master being a strange, aloof man, who appeared to think no more of Mercer than of the great sheep dogs that wandered about the place.
He looked at himself in the mirror that hung in the hallway, a great full-length mirror that showed all of his small form. He was not very high, but high enough and eleven year old; and sometimes he considered that if he were just a little higher, eighteen years old, maybe — that was a great age, to him — both the master and Lady would have appreciated him more. Mercer knew that these were times that needed a man, but Mercer thought more of himself than of most men.
Then Mercer poked his head into the drawing room. The blinds were drawn, and in the sun-rayed shade, where he had left her, Lady was still sitting. His mother saw him, and smiled, and Mercer decided he would go in. Lady was the name the master called her by, and Mercer had come to think of her by that name, because it fitted her so well; she was tall and dark, with a thin, searching face.
"Come in, son," she said.
"Cullen didn't go," Mercer told her, "so he can cook, and you won't have to. That's nice, I think. But he's scared stiff. That's the way darkies are, always scared stiff."
Cullen's an old man," Lady told her son; "he's a very old man. You can't expect him not to be afraid."
Mercer considered this. "Wish I was," he muttered.
"Yup — if I was, there'd be no damned Yankee dare to set his foot near here."
"Mercer — you mustn't swear."
"Got to — to show a damned Yankee."
"All right. I won't." Mercer sat down at her feet and glowered. Her hand rumpled his burning orange hair, and occasionally a finger would snub the end of his short nose. Mercer jerked his head back, but he loved it, and then he pressed closer to Lady. Cullen came in then, with a tray, on it a warm glass of milk and some toast.
"No milk," Lady said. "Really, Cullen, I can't drink any more."
"Well, ma'am ——" Cullen was struggling: with a very delicate subject, but the old man had a skilled tongue. "Fo' de reason, ma'am," he said, "yu got to drink it. Dere's more den you yersel' dat you got tu be thinkin' uf. Dere's ——"
"Very well, Cullen," Lady nodded.

HE WENT out, and Mercer began to speak, pressing his head to her knee. "I woke up last night and heard like thunder — maybe it was a battle. Cullen says there's like to be a big battle hereabouts, and that we ought to get out of here. Cullen says there ain't no place in Virginia that's safe any more, but he says you just wait because the general said he'd come. Even if the general's my father, I don't like it, because if I was married to you, I wouldn't go off and leave you with a lot of servants."
Mercer glanced up at her face, and saw that she was smiling, the way she always smiled when he said something that amused her, but that didn't have a great deal of sense in it. She laid the half-empty glass aside, and shook her head.
"Cullen's an old man — old men talk."
Mercer said. "If I was old enough, I might go to war and I might not. I like you, so I might not want to leave you alone, as much as I hate the damned Yanks."
"You're a dear," Lady nodded, "and I'm glad you're here, because I love you and need you."
For a while they sat in silence, Mercer rubbing his head against her knee, like a great dog, and feeling more and more content, the way he always felt with Lady. All alone, and far away from most places, he always turned to Lady, and Lady had known how to play — until now. Still, he and Lady were great friends. When the master went, to be a general and fight and forget Lady, they came even closer.
Outside the house, evening was coming and the high Colonial room grew darker. Great shadows looped in upon Mercer. He loved the room when it was full of shadows.
Lady said at last, "You know, don't you, Mercer, that I'm different?"
Mercer knew, but he thought he shouldn't admit it; he knew that it was at the bottom of Lady's worry — more than the general, even. "How?" he whispered. He knew they were on the verge of some great revelation.
Lady appeared to have trouble explaining, great trouble. She said, "Something, son — I didn't want to have to tell you. But you're a man. Do you know that you have to be? Something inside of me and something that's going to happen — it makes me want to have a man near me, and sometimes I cry for the general; and you're his son, you know. Maybe I shouldn't have remained here at the house so long, but he knows, and because he knows, he'll come to me, and I'm waiting for him. Perhaps I waited too long. I wish I could tell you."
"I think I know," Mercer nodded. "You get sick a lot ——"
"I suppose I am sick — in a way."
Suddenly Mercer stood up; and then, as much as he loved Lady, he wanted to be away from her, out of the dark room and in the sun. But she caught him and held him in her arms.
"Pray he comes back, Mercer," she whispered.

WHEN she let go of him, Mercer went out and stood on the broad veranda, leaning against one of the white pillars and looking down the valley, following the line of the dusty road. The tall, thin poplars lined it like sentinels, and all over the valley hung the blue, warm haze of summer.
The sun was setting. A time ago — a long time ago, it seemed to Mercer — the black men would be coming up that road, all dusty and tired from the work in the fields and singing as they walked. He missed that. He missed all the life that had once made the white house a thing of continual interest.
He sat on the highest step, and cocked his ear. But no thunder, no sound but the whining of insects, and he wondered whether it was really guns that he had heard in the night. If the war came to them, what would he do?
Cullen came up, holding a fowl he had slaughtered.
"Roast chicken?" Mercer asked.
The old man nodded, and Mercer licked his lips. Then the old man sat down on a box, a little way off, and began to pluck the chicken. Mercer watched him.
"A sight of fine chicken," the old man said.
"I like chicken."
"General likes it too. Looks like maybe he'll come back soon — Ah hope so. De Lady ——"
Mercer thought he heard a cry, but he wasn't sure, and he just sat there staring at Cullen. The old colored man had paused, his hand in the air. Mercer watched the hand, fascinated, trembling just a little, feeling a prickle of goose flesh creep over his skin. Would the hand ever come down? He stared at Cullen, beyond Cullen, at the end of the valley, where the red edge of the sun had just disappeared.
Then Lady screamed, and the sound ate into Mercer like the edge of a knife.
"Ah," Cullen moaned. The chicken had dropped to the ground.
"What is it?" Mercer whispered.
"Wait heah!" The old man had run into the house.
Mercer stood by the door, trembling, still sensing the terrible agony in his mother's cry. He didn't want to go into the house. Vaguely he sensed all the reasons why he should not go into the house. The general had trained fear out of him, but now he knew that he was afraid, woefully afraid. Inside the house, something was happening to his mother, something beyond him. And because he knew that it was beyond him, he was afraid. He went back to the step and sat down. He heard his mother scream again, and he put his fingers in his ears. He stared into the night that was dropping all over the valley.
Cullen's step roused him, and he turned and stared at Cullen, his mouth wide. The old man sat down next to him.
"I put her tu bed," Cullen said. "We ought tu hab a doctor, but de doctor's gone — gone tu Richmond dis week past. Ah cain' move huh. She say de general come — but how I know dat?" He asked it of Mercer, and Mercer just looked at him.
"Where's the general?" Mercer managed to say at last.

THE old man shrugged, threw a hand down the valley. "Out dere, like as not."
Then for a few minutes the old man sat by the boy. When Cullen went back into the house, Mercer walked to the stables.
In a way, he knew what he would do; but the whole thing was vague — only he knew he had to do something. His worship of Lady ranked before other things and Lady was in pain.
The stable was dark, ominous, and for a moment he thought of going back to the house for a light. But he knew that he had to hurry. He felt his way to the stalls, speaking to the horses. At first they were nervous, but they knew who he was, and after he had spoken to them for a while, they quieted down. He chose the gray gelding, because it was small and gentle.
First he tried to manage a saddle, but they were all too heavy, and he could barely lift the lightest over his head. That was no good, definitely. For a little while he stood thinking, his legs spread, one hand in his curling red hair. Then he untied the gelding and led him out of the barn. With the aid of a box, he mounted, buried his hands in the horse's mane, and gave him his heels.
"Come, Bonny," he whispered.
Down into the valley he took the center of the road, clinging to the mane and hoping he would not be thrown off. He knew how to ride, but he hadn't the length of leg for bareback. Yet he managed to cling to the back of the gray.

THEY cantered across the little covered wooden bridge, through the open fields, and then through the forest. He rode for a long time before he realized that he would not find the general — that he hadn't a chance in the world of finding him. Then he tugged the gray to a halt and cried; he was glad it was dark.
They started off again, then, slowly; a moon was beginning to light the road. Mercer saw the man step into his path, clearly, and he wondered whether he should try to knock him over with the gray. Then he saw the other men, standing in a little clearing by the side of the road, holding the reins of their horses. The one who stopped him had a rifle, and he was shouting at him hoarsely. Mercer drew up the gelding, and the man came forward. The other men crowded around.
The man took a good look at him and then began to laugh. Someone said, "You was sure seeing ghosts, Murphy — it ain't no army. It's just one little reb,"
Another man slapped his thigh. "Now don't that get you — here's Murphy shouting down an army. Where you from, kid?"
"No saddle — an' night-riding. Maybe the kid don't sit like a natural."
They crowded around him, until Mercer could not have moved his horse, even if he had wanted to. From their dark blue uniforms and crushed caps, Mercer could see what they were. He didn't want truck with Yankees; he sat silently and with dignity, looking off over their heads, his teeth clenched. When the gelding began to shy from the crowd, one of the men grasped its mane.
Mercer struck the hand with his clenched fist. "Leave off my horse, you damned Yank!" he cried.
The men burst into a roar of laughter, and one said, "The hair's speaking. What's your name, Red?"
Mercer sat in frowning silence.
"All right, my young rebel. But your high and mighty will have to come off that horse."
"I'll come off my horse when it pleases me," Mercer said evenly. "I'll thank you to get out of my way."
"Wait a moment, wait a moment," a tall man said. He wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat, and instinctively Mercer sensed that he was in command. Shouldering his way through the crowd, he came up to the horse, and placed one gloved hand on Mercer's knee. He looked into Mercer's face and smiled. Man to man, Mercer thought. "My name's Captain Alex," he said. "What's yours, son?"
"Mercer Kenby."
"Riding far?"
Mercer liked him; in spite of himself, Mercer liked him. And he had a proper respect for the gray gelding. He was stroking its nose gently now with the other hand.
"Riding to the general," Mercer " My mother needs him — he said he would come."
The captain raised his brows.
"I live back on the road." Mercer jerked a finger.
"General Kenby," the captain whispered, almost to himself.
A grizzled old trooper pushed back his cap and shook his head. "Luck, captain — a chance in a million."
Then Mercer realized it, and he could have bitten off his tongue. He jammed his heels into the gray, and for a moment it surged forward, but the men were too tightly packed. They held it, and the captain lifted Mercer off the gray's back.

NOW he knew what he had done, he was so sick with dread and horror that he didn't even struggle. The men mounted. The captain handed him over to the grizzled trooper, who lifted him to a place in front of his saddle. They rode back up the valley.
Mercer couldn't cry; his mouth was open, dry and hot, and he was sick and cold and tired. They rode on until he saw the house, standing white and big in the moonlight. If the general was there — How could he have been such a fool? It would be the end of everything. Lady would hate him — and his father would hate him too. The gray had trailed with them. It trotted close to the horse of the trooper who held Mercer, nuzzling at him. And once Mercer put out a hand and touched him.
They spread as they approached the house. In a crisp voice, the captain was giving his men orders to deploy; and when they were still some distance from the house he dismounted and went forward on foot, ahead of the others, and leading his horse.

THEN they closed in. Now Mercer began to struggle, but he was handed over to another trooper who held him with iron hands. The captain led them up the veranda, wary, suspicious of the stillness that hung over the place. When Cullen burst out of the front door, they started back.
"It's just a pore old nigger."
Cullen was in a raging fury. "Who you callin' an ol' nigger?" he yelled, and then he swung on the trooper who held Mercer. "Take yo' hands offa dat chil' — take 'em off."
"Easy, gran'pa."
"Leggo dat chile — you no 'count white trash."
"It's all my fault, Cullen," Mercer sobbed. "I told them ——"
Two more of the troopers were holding the old man now, but he struggled desperately, kicking his legs and twisting his head from side to side. Then, inside the house, Lady screamed, a thin, agonizing scream that held them all as if they were suddenly paralyzed. There was a moment of utter silence, and then Cullen relaxed, his gray head banging forward. Mercer was crying now, easily, bitterly.
"What's that?" the captain asked, almost in a whisper.
Cullen looked at him; in the old man there was no more fight, only dulled despair.
"What's that?" the captain repeated.
"De Lady," Cullen said. He looked at the captain, and then glanced at Mercer. "She at her time," Cullen went on. "Dere ain' no doctor heah 'bout."
"Leave him alone," the captain snapped to the troopers who were holding the old man. "Four men will be all I'll need, sergeant. Take the rest, and report. Billings, put the horses up — the boy'll show you where. Come along, the rest of you."

HE STRODE into the house behind Cullen, three men following. Cullen led him on, clinging to the last straw, and Mercer followed, afraid, trembling with all the fear the house held for him now, but unable to resist the temptation to go to Lady. They went up to her room, all of them together. But the troopers stopped outside. Cullen went in, with the captain, and Mercer followed.
A lamp burned in the room and gave out a faint yellow light. The curtains of the bed were looped back, and Mercer saw Lady there — only she was different, dead white, and because her eyes were closed Mercer thought that it was over, and then he wanted to run, to scream. But then Lady opened her eyes and looked straight at him.
Cullen was whispering to the captain. Perhaps there was something about the tall man, whose hard face was working uneasily now, or perhaps it was only because Cullen couldn't go on alone any more.
Mercer went up to the bed, and Lady stretched out a hand, tangled it in his red, curling hair.
"Hello," she said. "I'm glad you're here, Mercer. I told you I would need a man."

"YES, yes," Mercer whispered. He wanted to tell her what he had done; desperately, he wanted to tell her — but he couldn't. He wanted to kneel down by the bed and lay his head close to her, but he couldn't do that either.
She tried to smile at him. "We're both of us in trouble, aren't we?" she whispered.
Mercer nodded. Her hand dropped to his breast, and he clung to it. Then he saw that she had closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was staring at the captain.
"You did come," she said.
There was a puzzled expression on the captain's face. His hand reached out and took hold of Mercer's, and Mercer, with a sudden wave of faith, moved close to him.
I thought you wouldn't," Lady went on," and I tried to hold off. But how can you, with these things? How I wanted you to come tonight!"
Instinctively, Mercer knew. The captain stood in the shadow; and at the best, the lamp gave little light. She saw the uniform and the boots.
"She thinks ——" Mercer began.
"I know," the captain said.
Lady had closed her eyes, and she was smiling to herself.
The captain was speaking to Cullen in a whisper. "A lot of warm water. Boiling, if you can, and clean towels. A clean sheet or two. Take two kitchen knives and boil them in water. Do you understand me? Make sure that they boil. Then don't touch them. Take them out with a fork or something and wrap them up in a towel. Do you have liquid soap? Bring it." The captain was drawing off his gloves.
Cullen went out. Then Lady began to moan, softly, moving her shoulders from side to side.
Mercer clung to the captain. He was sobbing and trying to stifle his sobs. The man drew him outside, and for a moment they stood in the hall. Silently, the three troopers watched them, standing with their carbines like wooden soldiers.
Captain Alex came down, bending to the boy's level, and gripping Mercer's shoulders. And then he kept looking at Mercer, as if he wanted to say something, but did not know how, exactly.
"War is a rotten business," the captain muttered at last, "and I'm a damned Yankee, and you're a hell of a little reb. But I think we understand each other — and you're going to trust me."
Mercer nodded; he couldn't speak.
"I'm going to try to do something for your mother. I never did it before, and I'm a soldier, not a doctor. But I'm going to try — and you're going to shake my hand." He held out his hand. Mercer hesitated; then he took it, clung to it.
Mercer went downstairs. Each step he took echoed through the house. He felt his way through the house, out onto the veranda. There he sat down on the top step in his favorite place, his back against the white pillar. The tall, quiet house bent over him, but it was no longer his house. The enemy had taken it — and they had taken his mother; after that, his father. He tried not to think of his father, and not to think of his mother. He tried to think of the way it would be tomorrow, when the sun came up.
He longed for tomorrow. He felt that with tomorrow, it would all be a bad dream — no more than that. He tried to imagine Lady coming into his room, smiling, pulling the covers away from him, the old Lady who used to be slim and tall and perfect. And then he fell asleep.
The tread of a horse's hoofs woke him, and he sat up, stiff, cold, tired, his back aching from the boards of the veranda. Blinking, he rubbed his clenched fists into his eyes, and then rose to his feet. And then, like a ghost out of a dream, he saw his father standing in front of him, and behind his father, a weary, lathered horse.

MERCER shook his head. It was still night, but had he been sleeping, dreaming?
Bit by bit it came back, all of it, even as his father was striding toward him to lift him in his arms. And then he would have to tell him, and have the general know what a fool he was and how little of a man, and how little to be trusted.
He was afraid to glance up even. He watched the boots mounting the veranda, the curved sword lurching out with each step,. and then he was in his father's arms and sobbing out the story. But it was good, terribly good — good to have his father's coarse beard rubbing against his face.
"I wasn't afraid," he sobbed, "but I had to find you."
He felt his father's body stiffen, and thought he knew what was coming.
"I had to find you," he repeated.
"Yes," his father whispered, "you had to find me." He put Mercer down, and at first Mercer was afraid to glance up into his eyes. He knew how they would be cold and blue and unmoving, and the face would be rigid in hard lines. So he waited; when he looked up, he saw his father standing there, a pistol in his hand, and when he followed his father's eyes, he saw Captain Alex by the door.
The captain must have just come out; he hadn't spoken; he just stood there, holding something in his arms, a bundle of blankets. Mercer wondered whether his father would kill him.
"Who are you?" the general demanded. His voice was even, rasping.
"Captain James Alex — Fourth Connecticut. I ——"
"My son told me. It will be my duty and my pleasure to kill you. I thought this was a war of men, but children ——"

"PUT that pistol away before it does go off and wake my men. You're frightening your boy. He's a fine boy. I think he's a lot too fine for you." "What do you mean?" Mercer's father whispered. "I mean you can go if you wish — you can go now. I don't want you this way through the kid. I saw you ride up, and I could have called my men. I didn't." Mercer saw his father stumble forward, take two steps and then stop. Then he held out his hand, and then Mercer loved him — the way he had never loved him before.
"What's that?" Mercer heard his father say.
"Your daughter. She was born tonight. I thought you would like to look at her."
Then the two men were close together, and Mercer, too, clinging to his father's leg, and feeling the terrible ecstasy of his father's rough hand in his curling orange hair. And then it seemed to Mercer, vaguely, that the four of them, four splendid bits of life, were beyond war, beyond all such things men make.
After they were all gone, leaving only Cullen and Lady and the baby, Mercer crept out onto the veranda. It was strange, not having anyone to tell him to sleep, being able to follow the impulse that drew him into the night. He sat down on the top step of the veranda, his back against a white pillar, his chin in his hands. And presently he slept.
As the sun rose, it showed rank upon rank of blue-clad men marching past the house. They made a good deal of noise, but Mercer slept through it. And sometimes one of the marching men would look at the thatch of curling orange hair and grin, and yell, "Hey, Red!" But Mercer continued to sleep, as if an army of marching men were really a very small thing.