Union Hall was brightly lit. Seeing it as she walked up Tavern Street and wondering if the girls of the town had begun decorating for Valentine’s Day, Kate thought her evening errand had actually started three years ago. It had been the fifteenth anniversary of the battle of Fort Donelson, and they’d all convinced John to attend the ball. Kate knew he hadn’t wanted to go, but Eugene Owen had made it very plain to him that he and George Tretheway and Robert Clarke were to be honored again for their battle wounds. Reluctant as John clearly was, he couldn’t say no. He and Harry had gone to the tavern with the other veterans before the ball started and, when Kate arrived at the hall, Church Street had been filled with buggies and with ladies dressed in their best gowns, supper baskets in tow. Harry and John were walking up the street with Robert Clarke. Along with Robert, John was dressed in his uniform and, thanks to their mother’s mending and the few pounds he’d gained, Kate thought it looked far better than when he’d returned from the war.
Inside that evening, it had been clear the town girls had outdone themselves. The hall was illuminated with white tapers in red, heart-shaped shades, and the walls were lined with various booths. There was a kissing booth and a booth to buy fancy valentines, both of them meant to raise money for disabled veterans. There was a booth displaying memorabilia of the Fort Donelson battle and of the men who had died there. Kate had been interested in all of it, and she was interested in what Harry had to say. While they danced, he told her about the conversation at the tavern. It had gotten hot about the election, he said. The electoral college was ready to vote, and most of the men thought Hayes would win over Tilden, that in the end there would be a compromise to appease the South by withdrawing Federal troops. Captain Boren, back from California and working as a commercial traveler was beside himself, insisting that if the troops left, the country could just as well forget the slaves had ever been emancipated.
“I told him I spent enough life and leg on the goddam South. I don’t care anymore,” Harry said, and Kate had shushed him, for the band had stopped and Colonel Owen had started his remarks. When it was John’s turn to be acknowledged, he spoke simply, thanking everyone for their kindness and saying a ball was a far better way to spend Valentine’s Day than the way he and George and Robert had spent it fifteen years ago. Then he’d offered a salute to the men whose hearts had stopped on that bloody field—those men and all their brothers who hadn’t come home.