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Always Look Back
Steam billowed from the cast iron engine bearing the Union Pacific logo, enshrouding Houston Station in a haze of smoke that stung my eyes. A man wearing a sharp suit donned a straw hat as he picked up his carpet bag and stuffed a newspaper bearing the year 1862 in the upper corner under his arm. He walked with the gait of one who thought they were more important than everyone else. The smell of coal mixed with the humidity of the Texas air as the cries of family members begging their loved ones not to go to war burned in my ears. It wouldn’t be much longer before I would hear the same echoing from my own family; this was one goodbye I wished I didn’t have to make. With my haversack over one shoulder and my bag held loosely in my hand, I stood in full uniform, kepi and all, waiting.
The train would pull out at exactly eight AM sharp which was in twelve minutes according to the clock near the ticket booth. What was taking them so long? Worry and anxiety mixed within me as I stood there staring absentmindedly around the platform. A father was saying a tearful goodbye to three of his young sons and his wife a good ways away from where I was standing. My heart seemed to ache as I caught sight of their mournful faces. I scanned the display ever closer to my position along the platform witnessing a similar scene with ever few feet. One, however, caught my attention in a way the others didn’t. Not far from where I stood was an older gentleman, at least sixty, with salt and pepper for hair and the eyes of a kind soul. Embraced in his arms was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I couldn’t say why she struck me as so; she was a girl just the same as all the others I’d known in my nineteen years. Golden hair piled atop her head matching the yellow hued dress she wore. Her deep blue eyes were filled with tears as she tenderly hugged the man and begged him not to go. Maybe it was the sincerity of emotion or quite possibly the loving kindness in her eyes; whatever the cause, I was enraptured by it in a way I’d never been before.
“Hale,” a shout sounded down the platform in a soprano tone barely audible above the noise accompanying the touching scene around me. At first I was thoroughly convinced that it had been my imagination conjuring up a fabrication in the buzzing of my ears. Once more the shout befell my auditory senses, this time much louder and more urgent, “Hale!” My head snapped fluidly in the direction of my names utterance only to be practically bowled over by my twelve year old sister as she threw her arms around me. “Please don’t go,” she begged; her cry was muffled in my light frock coat as she buried her face in it, “Please!”
“Sarah,” I sighed, setting my bag down to hug her in return, “I have to do this.”
“No you don’t!” She cried staring up at me with big brown eyes, “You’re just running away!”
It was at that moment that my mother came bustling up the platform, holding her skirts in one hand and a parasol in the other. “Sarah Jane Young,” She exclaimed in a whisper as only my mother was capable, “don’t you dare run of like that again, do you hear me? It’s not very lady like nor is it safe!”
“Yes ma’am,” my sister responded appearing slightly ashamed as she took a step back and began fiddling with one of her two dark braids.
There was no denying the sophisticated beauty my mother was in her prime; a strong chin, high cheek bones, brown hair piled back on her head in a perfect fashion. I’d never once seen her slouch. She was a proud woman but in the same instance she was a kind and gentle woman who would love you as soon as she’d look at you. Even the smile she gave in the wake of her prior rant touched the depths of my heart in a way no one else’s ever would, or so I thought at the time. As she pulled me into a tender hug I muttered, “I’m glad you finally made it.”
“I’m not about to miss sayin’ goodbye to my only son,” she replied softly before pulling away to look into my eyes with her sky blue orbs that contained a thousand different looks. “I just wish you hadn’t gone this far to prove a point to your father.”
“That’s not the only reason,” I defended quickly, almost curtly but then remembered my place and changed the subject. “Where is he?”
“You know your father,” she gave an exasperated sigh, “working; he never stops.”
I could tell immediately that coming to see me off had become an argument between the two of them as did most things. “The curse of being the sheriff, I suppose,” my words were laced with a bitter edge after a lifetime of waiting for him to be around.
“Don’t judge your father too harshly,” my mother gave a false smile, “he’s just been…busy.”
Sarah gave an absent sigh and rolled her eyes trying to hold back the tears that now threatened to spill over. Her lips were pursed in a tight line as if to keep them from trembling; her fingers twisted mindlessly through the curls at the base of her braids. “What’s with that face,” I chuckled, trying to lighten the somber mood as I kneeled to her level. She folded her arms indignantly and tossed her head away, looking everywhere but at me. “Hey,” I smiled as only a brother can; I placed a hand gently under her chin and turned her face towards mine, though she still averted her gaze. “I’ll be home before you know it,” my tone was smooth with natural charisma that I’d used on countless occasions to get my way.
“No you won’t!” she responded, her southern accent thicker in the heat of the moment, “You’re only sayin’ that to make me feel better!”
“Am I?” I raised an eyebrow as if challenging her to question me. “I’m sure I’ll be home in no time, darlin’,” I continued on a more serious note.“The war will be over just in time for Christmas.”
Sarah’s eyes seemed to light up at the prospect as they snapped brightly to mine, “Really?”
“As sure as I’m breathin’,” I smiled. “We’re takin’ hold of Galveston to stop trade with the Yankees. It won’t be long before they’re starved into surrender!”
“Do you mean it?” She half begged bouncing slightly from where she stood.
“You have my word.”
“You’re not just pullin’ my leg?”
“Would I do that to you?”
She gave me a look that meant business.
“Not even in the slightest,” I amended with an imperceptible shake of my head.
With new found hope, Sarah threw her arms around my neck and whispered, “Please hurry home to me.”
For a few moments nothing else was said. Other heartfelt goodbyes echoed through the air around us as a hiss issued from the engine that waited to carry me to Galveston where I would be stationed until further notice. Time seemed to be moving much faster now that I wanted it to slow down. As the train issued more steam following the sound, my eyes caught sight of the clock near the ticket booth once more and a sudden idea occurred to me. “I have something for you,” I voiced decidedly. Sarah pulled back to study my face but kept a hand on each shoulder as if afraid to let go, “What is it?” Slowly, I reached into my left breast pocket and extracted the pocket watch my mother had given me on my sixteenth birthday. “I want you to take care of this for me,” I requested, holding the silver clock out to her by the chain.
“I can’t take that,” she breathed giving a slight shake of her head, “it’s yours.”
“That’s precisely why I want you to have it; so you’ll have a piece of me to hold onto while I’m away.”
With a bit of hesitation, Sarah reached for the watch. After a moment’s deliberation, she closed her dainty little hand around it and I dropped the chain, handing it completely over. “It’s beautiful,” she muttered in a tiny voice as she admired the way the light glimmered from the shiny surface.
“Take good care of it for me,” my voice wavered only just as I glanced at the clock near the ticket booth once more; three minutes to departure.
“All aboard,” the conductor shouted throughout the station. Sarah panicked and threw her arms tightly around me once again. The noise around us picked up in volume as soldiers rushed to say their final goodbyes and board the waiting train. “I love you,” I whispered, returning Sarah’s embrace.
“I love you too,” she sobbed, clutching my watch in a vice, unable to hold back the tears.
After a moment, we pulled apart and I once more stood to my full six foot two, towering a decent foot taller than my mother. Respectfully and lovingly, I kissed her cheek. “You take care of yourself, now, you hear,” she demanded, trying with little success to keep the tears from falling down her pleasant face.
“I will,” I promised as I lifted my bag from the ground beside me, “I’ll write you as soon as I reach Galveston.”
She gave a solemn nod and placed a hand on my cheek for the space of two clock ticks before composing herself, “You best run along, dear. You have a duty to uphold.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied as I’d been raised and turned on my heel. My feet suddenly felt like lead cannon balls as I walked towards the train now setting off more steam than before as the engineer readied the firebox for departure. The journey to the nearest car seemed to take an eternity. I’d imagined this moment many times since receiving the letter with my orders but never had I imagined it would be this hard to walk away from the life I knew and exchange it for the life uncertainties I was heading into. With my foot on the bottommost step of car number two, I did the one thing a person should never do in a situation like this: I looked back. My gaze couldn’t help but be drawn as though by magnetic force to the two women who encompassed my entire world. Mother had a hand perched delicately on Sarah’s shoulder, her parasol at her side as Sarah clung desperately to my glistening pocket watch, tears sliding like drops of rain down her rosy cheeks.
With a heavy sigh, I pursed my lips and gave them one last nod of acknowledgement before the train whistle echoed in the surrounding air signaling the final boarding call. One leaded step at a time, I finally boarded the train praying silently to God that I hadn’t just seen my family for the last time. Other soldiers filed aboard the car behind me talking excitedly about the coming war. The same words were whispered everywhere along the train as I searched for an empty compartment: home for Christmas, we’ll surely be home for Christmas. Would we really be home before the first snow fall? How many of us that had boarded this train would even survive the horrors of war until then? With a stoic expression I walked on until I caught sight of the older gentleman I’d seen on the platform sitting in a compartment on his own, whittling.
Making a snap decision, I slid open the door and poked my head inside. “Excuse me, sir,” I voiced causing his eyes to look up from the chunk of wood in his hand. “Would you mind terribly if I joined you?”
“Not at all, son,” he spoke in a baritone voice indicating the empty seat across from him, “make yourself at home.”
“Thank you kindly,” I smiled, stowing my bags in the rack as the door slid shut behind me. I took a seat near the window just as the whistle blew and the train lurched forward. To my disappointment, our side of the train didn’t look out over the platform. I supposed it was for the best. Someone had once told me to never look back or I might just find difficulty in trying to move forward. I knew that seeing my family get smaller and smaller as the train pulled away would only make my heart ache worse than it already did. As Houston began moving past the window, the gentleman laid a polite inquest upon the air between us, “What’s your name, son?”
“Hale, sir,” I responded politely, tearing my eyes away from the blurring scenery to meet his gaze.
“Hale,” he smiled, “got a surname to go with your given one?”
“Young, sir,” I smiled in return, feeling a tad less nervous than before.
“Hale Young,” he repeated slashing his knife across the wood twice more, “now that’s a name destined for greatness. Silas McBride, at your service.”
He set the wood chunk in his lap and extended a hand courteously. With respect, I accepted it and responded, “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“You’ve got a good, firm handshake,” he nodded in approval as he leaned back in his seat. “I like that; shows confidence. Whereabouts are you stationed?”
“Galveston until further orders are given,” I replied mindlessly as my orbs shifted back out the window.
“Well ain’t that a lick of fate,” he nodded once, “I happen to be in the same situation. Rumor has it they’ll be shipping some of us off to Sabine come August or September, if the blockade of Galveston goes well, that is.”
“It would certainly be wise,” I mumbled as we traded Houston for the wilderness beyond, “If the Yanks ever develop half a mind they’ll certainly try to take out our main routes for supply.”
“You’re pretty smart for such a young feller,” Silas mused as he returned to whittling.
I smiled half heartedly in response though I didn’t voice what was on my mind. Instead I stared at the glass that made up the window. If I adjusted my vision just slightly I could see my reflection. My dark brown curls stuck messily out from beneath the gray kepi perched atop them. As I stared into my brown hues I noted a tiny vicissitude in them. Years of mischief and defending those weaker than I were replaced with a boyish fear at the future I was facing. Not wanting to appear worried about the coming weeks, I shifted my attention elsewhere. “What’s it going to be,” I inquired of the shape he was carving.
“A rose for my dearest Eloise,” he explained, though after my silence he decided to expound farther, “my granddaughter. She’s near your age with fair hair and pretty blue eyes.”
“The girl from the platform,” I stated without thought.
Silas chortled, a pleasing sound to the ears, “You noticed her, did you?”
I tried without success to hide the chagrin that presented itself on my cheeks.
“She’s a pretty little flower,” he mused with a hint of a smile.
“Yes sir,” I agreed, turning my gaze back to the window before I embarrassed myself further. The gentleman gave another slight chuckle as the train clattered on. Silence filled the compartment for a good while after that setting my mind to wandering. As it did I slowly began to realize that I was trading in the old Hale for a new model. The childish boy I once was with a carefree impudence and a knack for trouble was steadily becoming a man in the shadow of a civil war that would forever be remembered on the pages of history. Never look back, someone had once said, but how can we not look back? When we forget our past completely it seriously alters our future, for in our past lies the mistakes that teach us how not to do things down the line. I don’t know why I thought it or how the idea even came about but something inside me knew that, as time went on, the events that were soon to unfold would be forgotten to some and in their selective memories they would make the same mistakes that we were about to make and nothing would change. A hundred years from now the world would still be the same mess it was today simply because someone chose to never look back. Life is a fragile and unpredictable thing. It’s not something to be gambled with or sold at a price; it cannot be without bumps in the road. All we can do is make it easier by learning from our past blunders in hope that we won’t repeat them. Always look back; even at the risk of reliving life’s worst moments. If I hadn’t looked back, I never would have caught the proud look on my mother’s face; it was the last time I would ever see her alive in this existence. Life is too short to stumble along blindly. Do yourself a favor, always look back.