Three weeks ago, I shared a Civil War story from my father’s side of the family. This week, I am sharing one from my mother’s side. This is a tale from the Fraser clan of Hall County, Georgia. While they were not in Sherman’s direct path on his March to the Sea, they did have their own account of events from that period. The piece of short fiction below is a retelling of the family tale.
Darned rooster. Crows earlier every morning. Sam sighed and ran a hand over his face. Blooming gunfire must have the confounded bird all discombobulated. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he reached for his pants. Sam pulled a gallus over each shoulder and glanced at the bed where sweet Sarah Jane lay feigning sleep.
“Mother, might as well get up and start the day. Ole Rooster Bob says trouble’s not far off.”
Sarah Jane rolled over and sat up. “You and that rooster are going to be the death of me. You put more store in his prognostications than you do your own common sense.”
A sheepish grin lifted the corners of Sam’s mouth. “Now, Mother, you know he rarely misses a trick.”
“Tricks or no, I’ll have him in my pot one of these days. If he wasn’t so tough and stringy, he’d a been stewed with dumplings a long time ago.”
“They law, we’d be in a pretty fix then, now wouldn’t we? Who’d get the hens to lay? Best leave Ole Bob pecking and scratching in his yard.”
Sarah Jane threw back the quilts. “I suppose you’re right. The hens lay precious few eggs these days, but without the rooster they would probably give up altogether. Can’t imagine what they see in the old buzzard, but then I guess you have to be a hen to understand. Did you get that cornmeal from the barrel in the woods like I asked?”
“I did. It’s probably best that we not visit the site too often, though. There’s talk that Atlanta is burned to the ground and the Yankees are covering the state.”
“Will that end the war, then? I want our boys home. Last letter we got said James was bad sick with the dysentery.”
“It’s anybody’s guess as to the war. The boys will come home when they can.” Sam paused so his voice would not betray his fear. “It’s good we’re so far from the rail lines. Maybe us and the rest of Hall County will be left in peace.”
“Not if them Yankees find out you’ve been a supply master.”
“Those days are over and I don’t expect they’ll be interested in one old man who used to send supplies where he was ordered.”
“Old man or not, retribution is coming. Everybody says so.”
“Stop your grumbling and go fix my breakfast while I get the milking done. At least Bossy is ignoring the troubles.”
“You want eggs to go with the cornmeal mush?”
“That’d be mighty fine. Are there enough?”
“Plenty for an old dog who don’t eat too much.”
Sam laughed and shuffled toward the front room. Grabbing a candle lantern from the table beside the fireplace, he opened the glass door and bent toward the still smoldering ashes. Within a moment, a thin stick of fatwood caught flame and he lit the last of their candles. Growling rumbled in his midsection. I Suwannee, pretty soon ain’t nobody gonna have nothing left to keep body and soul together.
Rifle over his arm, Sam stood on the porch and peered at the eastern sky. Still dark as a tomb, but Bossy’s already bellering. The world’s turned upside down for sure.
Sam held the lantern before him as he picked his way across the rain soaked yard, red clay sucking at his boots and covering them with clods to just below the ankles. The barn’s hulking form loomed up out of the shadows. Sam’s pulse quickened as he stopped in his tracks. He held his lantern aloft and stared at the double doors. The crossbar lay on the ground and one door stood slightly ajar. I might be getting long in the tooth, but I’ve never forgotten to close up at night. Bears, foxes, and such in these mountains would take advantage of such carelessness.
The door’s rusty hinges creaked as Sam widened the opening. Small puffs of hay and dust swirled up from the dirt floor when he stepped inside. In the darkness, someone sneezed.
“Who’s there. Show yourself.” Sam hung the lantern on the corncrib post and raised his rifle. He eased over to the stall where the sneeze had sounded and jerked the gate open.
Six pairs of eyes stared back at him, the blue of heir uniforms barely discernable in the candle’s gentle glow. Sam’s heart jumped into his throat. He pulled back on the rifle’s hammer, but as his eyes adjusted, other things about the soldier’s became decipherable. One had his arm in a sling. Two had dirty bandages around their heads. A forth had splints on one leg. Crutches lay beside him. Fear darkened their eyes. And they looked young, about the ages of his own boys. Sam let the rifle’s hammer ease back down. He ran his gaze over the sextet a second time and reached a decision.
A smile split his face. “Good morning. Would you boys like some breakfast?”
The soldiers looked at one another with big eyes, then one of the uninjured replied, “That would be very welcome, sir.” Sam could just make out three stripes on a sergeant’s insignia on his sleeve.
“Thought it might.” Sam took a half turn step, then stopped. His eyes narrowed. “Just how did you boys happen to wind up in my barn? Hasn’t been any fighting around here.”
The sergeant stood to his full height. He nodded toward the other uninjured man. “Me and the corporal here are part of General Sherman’s advance party. These boys got wounded near Atlanta and got left behind. Me and the corporal picked them up. We’re trying to reconnect with our units.”
“You’re a might off track, then.” Sam took the lantern off the post. Casting a final glance over the group, he continued, “It would be best if y’all stayed here. Wouldn’t do for anybody passing by to see Union men going into the house.”
The youngest looking soldier, the one with the leg injury, peered up at Sam. “You really mean to feed us and not turn us over to the Rebs?”
“Son, I’m a man of my word. You rest easy. Me and my wife will be back directly with something to fill your bellies.”
Sarah Jane’s reaction to having Yankees in the barn curled Sam’s hair for him. When she stopped long enough to catch wind, he grabbed her hand and put his hand under her chin.
“Mother, what would you want if it was our boys in some northerner’s barn?”
The angry flush drained from her cheeks and she tilted her head to one side. “Four of them are hurt, you say?”
Sam nodded. “And they’re really just boys, to boot. They’d be grateful for a mother’s touch. They’re a long way from home and lost.”
Carrying loaded baskets, Sam and Sarah Jane trudged out to the barn. While the soldiers ate, Sarah Jane cleaned wounds and replaced dirty bandages with strips of clean cloth torn from sheets too worn out put on the beds any longer.
The boy with the injured leg bit down on his lower lip when she cleaned away the corruption, but he didn’t cry out, even when she had to exert extra pressure to get the last out. When the clean bandages were tied in place, the boy looked up into Sarah Jane’s eyes.
“Thank you, ma’am.” A wistful expression filled his eyes. “If I may say so, you remind me an awful lot of my mother. She’s sweet and gentle like you.” Sam’s heart wrenched as Sarah Jane turned away, her eyes bright with tears. The boy looked confused. “I’m sorry if I offended you. It was not my intention.”
“Oh, no. It was a lovely compliment. It’s just that you remind me so much of our younger boy and it’s been so long since he was home. That’s all.” She squeezed the boy’s hand and stood up. “Samuel, I’m going back to the house now. You see these young men on their way safely, you hear?”
When Sarah Jane was out of sight, Sam turned to the sergeant. “You can stay long enough to let your breakfast settle, then you best be on your way. The Home Guards will be on the prowl looking for such as you.”
The sergeant nodded. “I’m sure you’re right.” He paused and kicked at a dirt clod before continuing, “We’d like to pay you for your hospitality.”
Sam laughed and slapped his thigh. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Yankee money raises suspicions in these parts. Besides, we southerners never offer hospitality for pay. It’s unthinkable.”
“All the same, we want you to have something for your kindness.” The sergeant cast his gaze around the barn. “I notice the cow seems to be the only animal on the place.”
“She is. The last of the mules and horses were taken for the army several months back.”
“You planning on planting this spring?”
Sam nodded. “I was. I got seed saved back, but they’re just gonna go to waste now, I guess.”
“We’ve got mules penned in the lot behind the barn here. What if we were to leave one down the road? If anyone asked, you found it wandering free. It would be the truth, not just all of it.”
Sam thought for a moment, then responded, “That would be a kindness. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do without a mule to pull the plow.”
Later that morning, Sam went for a stroll down the lane leading from the house to the main road. Half way down the track in a stand of pines tied to a tree stood a big black mule with USA branded onto its left hip. Sam smiled as he untied the rope led the animal to his barn. There would be a garden this year after all.