A scatter of bones surprised Stephen as he reached the crest of the small hill. He was supposed to be out hunting with his brothers but so far all they’d scared up was one magpie and a lot of mud. Ma had sent them out. Once too often she’d found the stash of food Stephen kept under his bed and she’d said – not unkindly – that maybe they could stand to have another side of venison in the smoke house. As though it was fear of scarcity that made him hide away biscuits and cheese and root vegetables.
He wanted to get closer to the bones but they were scattered out a few feet down the steeper side of the hill and he thought if he went down there he might not make it back up. They hadn’t walked far from the farm, less than half a mile, but it was far enough to leave him breathless.
Halfway from the farm to this spot, his hunting rifle had gotten too heavy to carry and he had to give it to Andy. If he hadn’t been so out of breath he might’ve laughed to see Marshall splitting his worry between him pushing himself too hard and a nine year old being put in charge of a rifle for the first time in his life.
Even now, Marshall’s voice followed him up the hill, scolding him. “Stephen you sit and rest while me and Andy follow up these tracks. I can’t take you back to Ma more wore out than I brought you.”
Stephen ignored Marshall’s charge and moved a little to one side to get a better look at the remains. He’d seen enough skeletons abandoned on battlefields or rising their way up out of shallow hasty graves to know they were human. He could tell more than a few were missing, dragged off by scavengers probably, or pulled down the hill by melting snow. The rest lay stretched out before him, one skeletal hand reaching out as though expecting someone.
Behind him, Stephen could hear his brothers catching up. Though they’d been born less than a minute apart some twenty-three years before – Ma would laugh, saying Stephen was always in such a hurry that he’d no doubt pushed Marshall into the world – there was little more than a passing resemblance between them. Like most of their brothers, Marshall was tall and lean and had the fair coloring of their parents. Stephen took after their grandfather, Wilson McPherson, with black hair and dark blue eyes, shorter than Marshall, but with a stronger build.
Not in a hurry now, Stephen knew. Not so strong either. His thin wrists and loose clothing were testimony to that. Almost two years in the army and a year in a Confederate prison and there hadn’t been much for Pa to collect home last winter. Still wasn’t much there, and despite the layers of clothing Ma had layered him with before sending him out of the house, the meager spring wind at the top of this hill cut through the wool and cotton. He felt as bare as the bones that lay in front of him.
“Well, I believe there is no game anywhere abouts.” Marshall said as he came even with his brother. He carried his rifle easily in the crook of his arm. Andy stood at his elbow, with the rifle over his shoulder as though he was in the army. “We’ll head home, it’s too cold for you to be out here.”
Stephen pointed toward his find and tried to remember the words he needed. Words coursed well enough inside of his head when all he was doing was thinking; getting them out into the air often took some struggle.
“Bones.” Was finally all he said. Marshall followed his motion. He stared a moment then pulled the rifle away from their youngest brother.
“Andy - get Pa.”
As the boy ran for home, Marshall set both rifles on the ground and took a few steps closer to the bones. He crouched down but didn’t touch them.
“Skirmish?” Stephen asked. Bones and bodies and decay must mean a battle had been waged.
“No, I wonder if you didn’t find Aloysius.” Marshall took a long twig off a leafless bush to poke at the small scraps of cloth still clinging to the bones. “This looks like the jacket he wore.”
“Aloysius?” Stephen tried to remember. “I know him?”
“No, his family moved here last summer. Aloysius went missing in the autumn – chasing down the family cow.” Marshall shook his head, and stood to walk back to Stephen. “Poor boy. The cow came back, he didn’t.” He tugged on the collar of his jacket. “We’ll tell his family so they can come get him.”
“I’ll take him.” Stephen said. Marshall shook his head again.
“Better we leave him be. You sit and catch your breath. Soon as Pa has a look we’ll head back and let them know.”
Stephen scowled at Marshall and tried to tell him to stop his bossing but his breath was still coming hard so he let Marshall guide him to sitting down on a dry spot of earth.
“Here, have something to eat.”
When Stephen was sitting, Marshall pulled a cloth bundle from his coat pocket and handed him a slice of apple cake out of it. Stephen took a small bite of it as he stared down at the bones. Marshall didn’t seem to want to touch them but bones were nothing. If you spent any time at all in war and in prison you got used to rifling a dead man’s pockets for whatever you could find - bullets, coffee, money, food.
The army had left too many boys on the field and Stephen knew too many families got word and nothing else. Staring down at the bones, he couldn’t help thinking he’d left too many behind too often. While opposing generals argued for days over the particulars of flags of truce, Stephen had been forced to leave wounded friends to suffer and die and rot in cornfields turned to battlefields, and warehouses turned to prisons. He wouldn’t leave this boy.
“I’ll take him.” He said again.
Marshall sighed and took off his coat. “I’ll get them.” He laid his coat out alongside the bones and crouched down again to pick them up with reluctant fingers.
When Marshall’s attention was turned away, Stephen pushed the rest of his cake through a hole in the lining of his jacket. He nudged it around until it sat next to the biscuit he’d pushed in a few days ago. Running his fingers over the hidden food made him feel better. Marshall was always giving him something to eat but it was wiser to stay provisioned.
Footsteps coming up behind made him turn. Pa was running toward them, with little Andy racing to keep up. “Are you boys all right?” Pa asked. “Stephen?” He laid a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. He’d come in a hurry - his coat wasn’t buttoned, neither was his jacket underneath. “Marshall, what’s happened?”
“Bones, Stephen found them.” Marshall stood out of the way so Pa could have a look. “I think maybe they’re Aloysius.” Pa crouched beside the bones, turning the ribs and picking up the skull from where it was half tucked under that leafless bush.
“Doesn’t look like he was injured.” Pa said, after some consideration. “No broken bones, no bullet holes. Is this all you found?”
“All we found up here. There might be more down the hill.”
Pa considered the bones again. “I suppose it was the snow that took him.” He stood up, pulling off his hat as he did so. He bent his head, so did Marshall and Andy. Praying, Stephen thought, and he added his own prayer that wherever Aloysius was, he was safe and warm.
After a moment, Pa put his hat back on and nodded to Marshall. “You get ‘em wrapped up. His family will appreciate that.”
“I will. I’ll have Andy scout down the hill for any more we might not see.”
Pa came back up the hill and crouched next to Stephen. “Looks like a slow day’s hunting.” he said. Stephen nodded. “You warm enough? You want to head back now, or wait for Marshall?”
Stephen looked over. Marshall was nearly done; he was just waiting for Andy to come back with any stray fragments.
“Wait. Take Aloysius home.”
“All right. It won’t be long.”
As Marshall came back up the hill with the bundle that was no bigger than their baby sister Annie, Stephen tried to push himself to his feet but he wasn’t strong enough and Pa put a hand under his arm to help him. He held his arms out for the bundle of bones, but Marshall kept it.
“I’ll carry it Stephen. You’re not strong enough.”
Stephen dropped his arms. Marshall was always telling him what to do. Put on your coat, sit down, eat something, don’t come down the hill, you’re not strong enough.
It didn’t matter that what Marshall said was true - it mattered to Stephen that he had discovered the bones. He felt a responsibility to the boy they used to be, and the family he wanted to bring them back to.
The words flowed easily in his brain, but not out of his mouth. Nothing but bones coming home.
“Am strong enough.” He said. He didn’t expect, he didn’t think, that Marshall would change his mind, but he did.
"You found them, I suppose it’s only right.” He set the light bundle into Stephen’s arms. “You tell me if you get tired.” He picked up their rifles and the four of them turned to home.