Once it had been Anna's favorite time of day, this hour just after supper when the sun was settling in behind the stand of pine trees in the western fields, the length of the front porch cast in cool shadow. She would come outside after helping Mama wipe the dishes, pour pitchers of water over the huge ferns swinging gently from the rafters, and settle into the rocking chair, book in hand, ready to read until dusk overtook her page.
Yet ever since Clayton had been gone, Anna's restful evenings on the porch had been spoiled. She felt anxious sitting there, the long dirt road leading from town staring her in the face, the road that might bring an ominous stranger bearing the worst of all possible news.
Eleven months, fourteen days since Clayton left with Harrisburg's First Militia and sailed across the Atlantic to France. Anna smiled sadly, thinking of the dreams she had once harbored about France, her imagination filled with ideas of love and romance. And now, it could be the place where her beloved Clayton lost his life, fighting in this horrible World War that made no sense to her or anyone else in their small town.
Anna glanced nervously at the dusty road, squinting for a moment against the sun's glare. Her imagination was now preoccupied with tales she'd heard of smartly clad soldiers in dress uniform, black armbands adorning their sleeves, soldiers that always came in pairs, politely knocking on your door, hat in hand, to deliver news that would shatter your life forever.
Turning quickly away, Anna grabbed up the heavy glass pitcher that served as a makeshift watering can and hurried down the steps toward the back yard pump."There's no use in thinking about such awful things," she firmly lectured herself. "I just have to believe with all my heart and soul that Clayton will come home safely."
And so it was that Anna remained busy refilling her pitcher, pouring fresh water into each ferns dusty bed, while the sun eased itself lower into the evening sky ~ so busy that she almost didn't see the lonely figure trudging toward her, dressed in the unmistakable khaki colored puttee's that looked so odd on boys barely out of knickers and more accustomed to overalls.
Catching sight of this stranger, Anna literally felt her heart sink, powerless to stop the pitcher as it slipped from her hand, shattering in a million shards of glass on the wooden floorboards. The seconds passed like hours, her gaze fixed on this solitary man coming ever nearer, until the first glimmer of recognition began to dawn.
This lonely figure, thin and long legged, one arm swinging familiarly at his side, the other - wait, the other caught up in a sling!-but there, definitely there, and yes, the shock of blond hair catching the last flicker of sunlight. This was no stranger, she realized. Impossible as it seemed, it was Clayton.
He stopped abruptly when he caught sight of her slender body come flying off the porch, and he continued to stand stock still while she raced over the yard and down the road to meet him, heedless of any rules of grace or propriety, her dark hair unloosened from its pins and streaming in the breeze behind her.
"My God in heaven!" Anna cried, throwing her arms around him, almost pulling back in surprise at the frailty of his body, aware that she could feel every rib as she pressed her own sturdy torso against him, and then pulling him even tighter into her chest, willing him to take strength and sustenance from her.
Clayton's one good arm enfolded her and he buried his face in the fragrant smell of her clean, sun warmed hair. Anna felt a deep shudder pass through him, and she pulled back, raising her eyes to meet his.
And then her heart sank once again.
Staring off into the horizon beyond her were not the bright blue eyes of the boy she had loved and sent sailing off to war, determined to lead the victory charge for freedom. These eyes were empty and dim, filled with nothing at all like hope or pride.
They were the eyes of a stranger after all.
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