IN the rear of Mrs. Gaston's place, there stood in the midst of an orchard a log house of two rooms, with hallway between them. There was a mud-thatched wooden chimney at each end, and from the back of the hallway a kitchen extension of the same material with another mud chimney. The house stood in the middle of a ten acre lot, and a woman was busy in the garden with a little girl, planting seed.
"Hurry up Annie, less finish this in time to fix up a fine dinner er greens and turnips an 'taters an a chicken. Yer Pappy 'll get home to-day sure. Colonel Gaston's Nelse come last night. Yer Pappy was in the Colonel's regiment an' Nelse said he passed him on the road comin' with two one-legged soldiers. He ain't got but one leg, he says. But, Lord, if there's a piece of him left we'll praise God an' be thankful for what we've got."
"Maw, how did he look? I mos' forgot—'s been so long sence I seed him?" asked the child.
"Look! Honey! He was the handsomest man in Campbell county! He had
a tall fine figure, brown curly beard, and the sweetest mouth that was always
smilin' at me, an' his eyes twinklin' over somethin' funny he'd seed or thought
about. When he was young ev'ry gal around here was crazy about him. I got
him all right, an' he got me too. Oh me! I can't help but cry, to think
he's been gone so long. But he's comin' to-day! I jes feel it in my bones."
"Look a yonder, Maw, what a skeer-crow ridin' er ole hoss!" cried the girl, looking suddenly toward the road.
"Glory to God! It's Tom!" she shouted, snatching her old faded sun-bonnet off her head and fairly flying across the field to the gate, her cheeks aflame, her blond hair tumbling over her shoulders, her eyes wet with tears.
Tom was entering the gate of his modest home in as fine style as possible, seated proudly on a stack of bones that had once been a horse, an old piece of wool on his head that once had been a hat, and a wooden peg fitted into a stump where once was a leg. His face was pale and stained with the red dust of the hill roads, and his beard, now iron grey, and his ragged buttonless uniform were covered with dirt. He was truly a sight to scare crows, if not of interest to buzzards. But to the woman whose swift feet were hurrying to his side, and whose lips were muttering half articulate cries of love, he was the knightliest figure that ever rode in the lists before the assembled beauty of the world.
"Oh! Tom, Tom, Tom, my ole man! You've come at last!" she sobbed as she threw her arms around his neck, drew him from the horse and fairly smothered him with kisses.
"Look out, ole woman, you'll break my new leg!" cried Tom when he could get breath.
"I don't care,—I'll get you another one," she laughed through her tears.
"Look out there again you're smashing my game shoulder. Got er Minie ball in that one."
"Well your mouth's all right I see," cried the delighted woman, as she kissed and kissed him.
"Say, Annie, don't be so greedy, give me a chance at my young one." Tom's eyes were devouring the excited girl who had drawn nearer.
"Come and kiss your Pappy and tell him how glad
you are to see him!" said Tom, gathering her in his arms and attempting to carry her to the house.
He stumbled and fell. In a moment the strong arms of his wife were about him and she was helping him into the house.
She laid him tenderly on the bed, petted him and cried over him. "My poor old man, he's all shot and cut to pieces. You're so weak, Tom—I can't believe it. You were so strong. But we'll take care of you. Don't you worry. You just sleep a week and then rest all summer and watch us work the garden for you!"
He lay still for a few moments with a smile playing around his lips.
"Lord, ole woman, you don't know how nice it is to be petted like that, to hear a woman's voice, feel her breath on your face and the touch of her hand, warm and soft, after four years sleeping on dirt and living with men and mules, and fightin' and runnin' and diggin' trenches like rats and moles, killin' men, buryin' the dead like carrion, holdin' men while doctors sawed their legs off, till your turn came to be held and sawed! You can't believe it, but this is the first feather bed I've touched in four years.
"Well, well!—Bless God it's over now," she cried. "S'long as I've got two strong arms to slave for you—as long as there's a piece of you left big enough to hold on to—I'll work for you," and again she bent low over his pale face, and crooned over him as she had so often done over his baby in those four lonely years of war and poverty.
Suddenly Tom pushed her aside and sprang up in bed.
"Geemimy, Annie, I forgot my pardners—there's two more peg-legs out at the gate by this time waiting for us to get through huggin' and carryin' on before they come in. Run, fetch 'em in quick!"
Tom struggled to his feet and met them at the door.
"Come right into my palace, boys, I've seen some fine places in my time, but this is the handsomest one I ever set eyes on. Now, Annie, put the big pot in the little one and don't stand back for expenses. Let's have a dinner these fellers 'll never forget."
It was a feast they never forgot. Tom's wife had raised a brood of early chickens, and managed to keep them from being stolen. She killed four of them and cooked them as only a Southern woman knows how. She had sweet potatoes carefully saved in the mound against the kitchen chimney. There were turnips and greens and radishes, young onions and lettuce and hot corn dodgers fit for a king; and in the centre of the table she deftly fixed a pot of wild flowers little Annie had gathered. She did not tell them that it was the last peck of potatoes and the last pound of meal. This belonged to the morrow. To-day they would live.
They laughed and joked over this splendid banquet, and told stories of days and nights of hunger and exhaustion, when they had filled their empty stomachs with dreams of home.
"Miss Camp, you've got the best husband in seven states, did you know that?" asked one of the soldiers, a mere boy.
"Of course she'll agree to that, sonny," laughed Tom.
"Well it's so. If it hadn't been for him, M'am, we'd a been peggin' along somewhere way up in Virginny 'stead o' bein' so close to home. You see he let us ride his hoss a mile and then he'd ride a mile. We took it turn about, and here we are."
"Tom, how in this world did you get that horse?" asked his wife.
"Honey, I got him on my good looks," said he with a wink. "You see I was
a settin' out there in the sun the
day o' the surrender. I was sorter cryin' and wonderin' how I'd get home with that stump of wood instead of a foot, when along come a chunky heavy set Yankee General, looking as glum as though his folks had surrendered instead of Marse Robert. He saw me, stopped, looked at me a minute right hard and says, "Where do you live?"
"Way down in ole No'th Caliny," I says, "at Hambright, not far from King's Mountain."
"How are you going to get home?" says he.
"God knows, I don't, General. I got a wife and baby down there I ain't seed fer nigh four years, and I want to see 'em so bad I can taste 'em. I was lookin' the other way when I said that, fer I was purty well played out, and feelin' weak and watery about the eyes, an' I didn't want no Yankee General to see water in my eyes."
"He called a feller to him and sorter snapped out to him, "Go bring the best horse you can spare for this man and give it to him."
"Then he turns to me and seed I was all choked up and couldn't say nothin' and says:
"I'm General Grant. Give my love to your folks when you get home. I've known what it was to be a poor white man down South myself once for awhile."
"God bless you, General. I thanks you from the bottom of my heart," I says as quick as I could find my tongue, "if it had to be surrender I'm glad it was to such a man as you.
"He never said another word, but just walked slow along smoking a big cigar. So ole woman, you know the reason I named that hoss, 'General Grant.' It may be I have seen finer hosses than that one, but I couldn't recollect anything about 'em on the road home."
Dinner over, Tom's comrades rose and looked wistfully down the dusty road leading southward.
"Well, Tom, ole man, we gotter be er movin'," said the
older of the two soldiers. "We're powerful obleeged to you fur helpin' us along this fur."
"All right, boys, you'll find yer train standin' on the side o' the track eatin' grass. Jes climb up, pull the lever and let her go."
The men's faces brightened, their lips twitched. They looked at Tom, and then at the old horse. They looked down the long dusty road stretching over hill and valley, hundreds of miles south, and then at Tom's wife and child, whispered to one another a moment, and the elder said:
"No, pardner, you've been awful good to us, but we'll get along somehow—we can't take yer hoss. It's all yer got now ter make a livin' on yer place."
"All I got?" shouted Tom, "man alive, ain't you seed my ole woman, as fat and jolly and han'some as when I married her 'leven years ago? Didn't you hear her cryin' an' shoutin' like she's crazy when I got home? Didn't you see my little gal with eyes jes like her daddy's? Don't you see my cabin standin' as purty as a ripe peach in the middle of the orchard when hundreds of fine houses are lyin' in ashes? Ain't I got ten acres of land? Ain't I got God Almighty above me and all around me, the same God that watched over me on the battlefields? All I got? That old stack o' bones that looks like er hoss? Well I reckon not!"
"Pardner, it ain't right," grumbled the soldier, with more of cheerful thanks than protest in his voice.
"Oh! Get off you fools," said Tom good-naturedly, "ain't it my hoss? Can't I do what I please with him?"
So with hearty hand-shakes they parted, the two astride the old horse's
back. One had lost his right leg, the other, his left, and this gave them
a good leg on each side to hold the cargo straight.
"Take keer yerself, Tom!" they both cried in the same breath as they moved away.
"Take keer yerselves, boys. I'm all right!" answered Tom, as he stumped his way back to the home. "It's all right, it's all right," he muttered to himself. "He'd a come in handy, but I'd a never slept thinkin' o' them peggin' along them rough roads."
Before reaching the house he sat down on a wooden bench beneath a tree to rest. It was the first week in May and the leaves were not yet grown. The sun was pouring his hot rays down into the moist earth, and the heat began to feel like summer. As he drank in the beauty and glory of the spring his soul was melted with joy. The fruit trees were laden with the promise of the treasures of the summer and autumn, a cat-bird was singing softly to his mate in the tree over his head, and a mockingbird seated in the topmost branch of an elm near his cabin home was leading the oratorio of feathered songsters. The wild plum and blackberry briars were in full bloom in the fence corners, and the sweet odour filled the air. He heard his wife singing in the house.
"It's a fine old world after all!" he exclaimed leaning back and half closing his eyes, while a sense of ineffable peace filled his soul. "Peace at last! Thank God! May I never see a gun or a sword, or hear a drum or a fife's scream on this earth again!"
A hound came close wagging his tail and whining for a word of love and recognition.
"Well, Bob, old boy, you're the only one left. You'll have to chase cotton-tails by yourself now."
Bob's eyes watered and he licked his master's hand apparently understanding every word he said.
Breaking from his master's hands the dog ran toward the gate barking,
and Tom rose in haste as he recognised
the sturdy tread of the Preacher, Rev. John Durham, walking rapidly toward the house.
Grasping him heartily by the hand the Preacher said,
"Tom, you don't know how it warms my soul to look into your face again. When you left, I felt like a man who had lost one hand. I've found it to-day. You're the same stalwart Christian full of joy and love. Some men's religion didn't stand the wear and tear of war. You've come out with your soul like gold tried in the fire. Colonel Gaston wrote me you were the finest soldier in the regiment, and that you were the only Chaplain he had seen that he could consult for his own soul's cheer. That's the kind of a deacon to send to the front! I'm proud of you, and you're still at your old tricks. I met two one-legged soldiers down the road riding your horse away as though you had a stable full at your command. You needn't apologise or explain, they told me all about it."
"Preacher, it's good to have the Lord's messenger speak words like them. I can't tell you how glad I am to be home again and shake your hand. I tell you it was a comfort to me when I lay awake at night an them battlefields, a wonderin' what had become of my ole woman and the baby, to recollect that you were here, and how often I'd heard you tell us how the Lord tempered the wind to the shorn lamb. Annie's been telling me who watched out for her them dark days when there was nothin' to eat. I reckon you and your wife knows the way to this house about as well as you do to the church."
Tom had pulled the Preacher down on the seat beside him while he said this.
"The dark days have only begun, Tom. I've come to see you to have you
cheer me up. Somehow you always seemed to me to be closer to God than any
man in the church. You will need all your faith now. It seems
to me that every second woman I know is a widow. Hundreds of families have no seed even to plant, no horse to work crops, no men who will work if they had horses. What are we to do? I see hungry children in every house."
"Preacher, the Lord is looking down here to-day and sees all this as plain as you and me. As long as He is in the sky everything will come all right on the earth."
"How's your pantry?" asked the Preacher.
"Don't know. 'Man shall not live by bread alone,' you know. When I hear these birds in the trees an' see this old dog waggin' his tail at me, and smell the breath of them flowers, and it all comes over me that I'm done killin' men, and I'm at home, with a bed to sleep on, a roof over my head, a woman to pet me and tell me I'm great and handsome, I don't feel like I'll ever need anything more to eat! I believe I could live a whole month here without eatin' a bite."
"Good. You come to the prayer meeting to-night and say a few things like that, and the folks will believe they have been eating three square meals every day."
"I'll be there. I ain't asked Annie what she's got, but I know she's got greens and turnips, onions and collards, and strawberries in the garden. Irish taters 'll be big enough to eat in three weeks, and sweets comin' right on. We've got a few chickens. The blackberries and plums and peaches and apples are all on the road. Ah! Preacher, it's my soul that's been starved away from my wife and child!"
"You don't know how much I need help sometimes Tom. I am always giving, giving myself in sympathy and help to others, I'm famished now and then. I feel faint and worn out. You seem to fill me again with life."
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Preacher. I get down-hearted
sometimes, when I recollect I'm nothin' but a poor white man. I'll remember your words. I'm goin' to do my part in the church work. You know where to find me."
"Well, that's partly what brought me here this morning. I want you to help me look after Mrs. Gaston and her little boy. She is prostrated over the death of the Colonel and is hanging between life and death. She is in a delirious condition all the time and must be watched day and night. I want you to watch the first half of the night with Nelse, and Eve and Mary will watch the last half."
"Of course, I'll do anything in the world I can for my Colonel's widder. He was the bravest man that ever led a regiment, and he was a father to us boys. I'll be there. But I won't set up with that nigger. He can go to bed."
"Tom, it's a funny thing to me that as good a Christian as you are should hate a nigger so. He's a human being. It's not right."
"He may be human, Preacher, I don't know. To tell you the truth, I have
my doubts. Anyhow, I can't help it. God knows I hate the sight of 'em like
I do a rattlesnake. That nigger Nelse, they say is a good one. He was faithful
to the Colonel, I know, but I couldn't bear him no more than any of the rest
of 'em. I always hated a nigger since I was knee high. My daddy and my mammy
hated 'em before me. Somehow, we always felt like they was crowdin' us to
death on them big plantations, and the little ones too. And then I had to
leave my wife and baby and fight four years, all on account of their stinkin'
hides, that never done nothin' for me except make it harder to live. Every
time I'd go into battle and hear them Minie balls begin to sing over us,
it seemed to me I could see their black ape faces grinnin'
and makin' fun of poor whites. At night when they'd detail me to help the ambulance corps carry off the dead and the wounded, there was a strange smell on the field ' that came from the blood and night damp and burnt powder. It always smelled like a nigger to me! It made me sick. Yes, Preacher, God forgive me, I hate 'em! I can't help it any more than I can the color of my skin or my hair."
"I'll fix it with Nelse, then. You take the first part of the night 'till twelve clock. I'll go down with you from the church to-night," said the Preacher, as he shook Tom's hand and took his leave.