( Originally Published Early 1900's )
YES, Mr. Cole," said Christianna, in her soft, drawling voice; "it's just like you say. Life's dead." Sairy, sitting in the toll-house door, threaded her needle. "You an' Tom, Christianna, air awful young yet! Life ain't dead. She's sick, I'll allow, but, my land! she's stood a power of sicknesses ! "
"It seems right dead to me," said Christianna.
She leaned her head against the pillar of the toll-house porch, ber sunbonnet fallen back from her fair hair. The wild-rose colour still clung, but her face had a wistfulness. The little ragged garden was gay with bloom, but it was apparent that there had been no gardening for a very long time. The yellow cat slept beneath the white phlox. Thunder Run Mountain hung in sunshine, and Thunder Run's voice made a steady murmur in the air. Tom, with his trembling old hands, folded a newspaper and put it beneath the empty toll-box. He knew every word of it; there was no use in going over it any more.
"They don't go into details enough," said Tom; "I want to know how the boys look, and what they're saying."
"New Market!" said Sairy. "All them children. I can't get New Market out of my head."
"I've been down to Three Oaks for a day," spoke Christianna. "Mrs. Cleave would n't talk about New Market, but it seemed like Miss Miriam could n't keep away from it. Lexington — and the cadets marchin' at dawn — marchin' with their white flag with Washington on it — marchin' so trim down the Valley Pike —"
"Fawns fighting for the herd," said Tom.
"An' General Breckinridge welcomin' them — an' some troops that wanted to make fun singin', `Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree-top' — an' Sunday mornin' comin', an' the battle —"
"And that was a hard field," said Tom, "to plough on a Sunday morning."
"Mrs. Cleave said that once before there was a Children's Crusade an' that no good came of it. She said that when the old began to kill the young Nature herself must be turning dizzy. An' Miss Miriam read every paper an' then lay there, lookin' with her big, burnin' eyes."
Sairy rose, went into the kitchen, and returned with a pan of apples which she began to pare. The sun was over the shoulder of Thunder Run Mountain and in its heat and light the flowers in the garden smelled strongly, the mountain-head lay in a shimmering haze, and a pool of gold touched Christianna's shoe. It was late in May, the Wilderness and Spottsylvania over — Cold Harbour not yet — in Georgia the armies lying about New Hope Church.
"Mother came up the mountain yesterday," said Christianna.
"I hope she's well ?"
"Yes, ma'am, she's real well. Mother's awful strong. It's one of the hospital's half-empty times, so she's come home for a week. She's cuttin' wood this mahnin'. It's mighty good to have her home — she's so cheerful."
"That's where she shows her strong mind."
"Yes, ma'am. She says that when summer comes you don't have smallpox, and when winter comes, typhoid eases off. Mrs. Cleave says the soldiers all like mother."
"Allan," remarked Sairy, — "Allan always said Mrs. Maydew was an extraordinary woman. Talkin' of Allan —"
A lean, red-brown hand came over the gate to the latch. The yellow cat rose, stretched himself, and left the path. The hand opened the gate and Steve Dagg, entering, limped the thirty feet between gate and porch.
" Mornin', folks!" he said, with an ingratiatory grin. "Mornin'."
Steve sat down upon the step, carefully handling, as he did so, the treasure of his foot. "It's awful hard to be lamed for life! But if you're lamed in a good cause, I reckon that's all you ought to ask! "
Sairy eyed him with disfavour. "Land sake, Steve, the war ain't goin' to last that long!"
"We were talking about New Market," said Tom. "Since Mon-day there ain't any news come from Richmond way."
"That's so," said Steve, "but I reckon we're fightin' hard somewhere 'bout the Chickahominy. Gawd knows we fought there in '62 like lions of the field! Did I ever tell you about Savage Station, 'n' a mountain o' dirt 'n' stuff the Yanks had prevaricated the railroad with — 'n' how we cleared it away — me 'n' an artilleryman of Kemper's 'n' some others — so that what we called the railroad gun could pass —"
"Yes, you've told it," said Tom, "but tell it again."
"'N' the railroad gun — that was a siege-piece on a flatcar, Miss Christianna — come a-hawkin' 'n' a-steamin' up 'n' I 'n' the others piled on. Gawd! it was sunset 'n' the woods like black coal ag'in' it ... 'n' we came on the railroad bridge 'n' the Yanks began to shell us." Steve shivered. "Them shells played on that gun like the rain on Old Gray Rock up there; 'n' jest like Old Gray Rock we looked at 'em 'n' said, `Play away!' — 'n' we rumbled 'n' roared off the bridge, 'n' got into position on top of an embankment, 'n' three batteries begun to shell us, 'n' we shelled back; 'n' those of us who were n't at the guns, we took off our hats 'n' waved 'n' hurrahed —"
"If there ain't any top to truth," said Sairy, sotto voce, "neither air there any bottom to lyin'."
"'N' I reckon we saved the day for General Magruder! The artilleryman was a cowardly kind of fellow, 'n' he left us pretty soon, but the rest of us — Gawd! we 'n' that railroad gun did the business! Naw," said Steve mournfully, "they may think they're fightin' hard down 'roun' Richmond, but it ain't like it used to be! We ain't never goin' to see fightin' ag'in like what we fought in '62. The best men in this here war air dead or disabled. — Of course, of course, Mrs. Cole, thar air exceptions!"
"A man from Lynchburg passed this way yesterday," said Sairy. "He was tellin' us that Crook and Averell air certainly goin' to join Hunter at Staunton an' that Lynchburg's right uneasy. He said there was a feelin' in the air that this end of the Valley was n't going to be spared much longer. He said that General Smith at Lexington told him that the storm was comin' this way, and in that case Thunder Run might hear some thunder that was n't of the Lord's manufacturing! Of course, if we do," said Sairy, "we'll have the benefit of your experience an' advice an' aid."
Christianna spoke in her drawling voice. "Mother says there's talk of maybe havin' to move the hospital. She says they all say
Hunter's one of the worst. He's one of the burnin' kind, an' he's got a lot of men who can't understand what you say to 'em — Germans."
"I think we ought to be organizing a Home Guard," said Tom. "There's your grandpap, Christianna, and the doctor and Charley Key and the boy at the sawmill —"
"An' Steve," said Sairy.
Steve squirmed upon the step. "I've seen a lot of Home Guards," he said gloomily, "'n' they don't do a danged bit of good! They're jest ridden over! Gawd! Thunder Run ain't got a reception of what war is! General Lee oughtter send a corps —"
"Maybe he will," said Tom hopefully. "Maybe he'll send the Second Corps!"
"The Second Corps!" Steve grew pale. "He can't send the Second Corps — it was all cut to pieces at Spottsylvania Court-House --Johnson's division was, anyhow! The Second Corps ain't — ain't the fightin' corps oncet it was. He'd better send the First or the Third. Ouch! Do you mind of I just loosen my shoe for a bit, Mrs. Cole ? My foot's awful bad this mornin'."
"You'd better telegraph him about the corps," said Sairy, "right away. Otherwise he might think 't was good enough for us — Valley men an' all, an' some of them even livin' on Thunder Run. I could ha' guessed without bein' told that your foot was bad this mornin'."
Steve blinked. "I don't want you to think, Mrs. Cole, that Steve Dagg would n't be glad to see the division 'n' the brigade 'n' the Sixty-fifth — what's left of them. I'd be glad enough to cry. It's funny how fond soldiers get of each other — marchin"n' sufferin' 'n' fightin' together 'n' helpin' each other out of Devil's Holes 'n' Bloody Angles 'n' Lanes 'n' such. No, 'm, 't is n't that. I'd be jest as glad to see the boys as I could be. I was jest a-thinkin' of the good of us all, 'n' them Marse Robert could spare 'n' them he could n't." He rose, holding by the sapling that made the porch pillar. "I reckon I'll be creepin' along. Old Mimy at the sawmill's makin' me a yarb liniment."
He went. Tom took for the twentieth time the newspaper from beneath the toll-box. Christianna sat absently regarding the great, sun-washed panorama commanded by Thunder Run Mountain. The yellow cat came back to the path.
Sairy sighed. "It was always a puzzle to me what the next world does with some of the critturs it gets!"
"It don 't seem noways anxious to get Steve," said Tom, and began to read again about Spottsylvania.
An hour later Christianna in her blue sunbonnet went up the mountain road toward the Maydew cabin. Rhododendron was in bloom; pine and hickory and walnut and birch made a massive shadow through whose rifts the sun cast bright sequins. Thunder Run, near at hand now, was uttering watery violences. The road, narrow and bad for wheels, was pleasant under the foot of a light walker, untrammelled, elastic, moving with delicate vigour. Christianna loosened her sunbonnet, and the summer wind breathed upon her forehead and ruffled her hair. She was dreaming of city streets and houses, of Richmond, and the going to and fro of the people there. Old Grey Rock rose before her to the right of the road. As she came abreast it, Steve Dagg rose from behind one of its ferny ledges.
He grinned at her violent start. "Laid an avalanche for you, did n't I? You ain't really frightened? Did you think it was a bear?"
"No! I thought it was a snake an' a cat-o-mount an' a — a monkey!" said Christianna, with spirit. "Friendly an' polite people don't do things like that!"
Steve's whine came into his voice. "Why don't you like me, Miss Christianna ? I don't see why —"
"If you don't see that, you won't never see anything!" said Christianna. "An' I'd like to walk home in peace an' quietness, Mr. Dagg!"
Steve kept beside her. "I got a good cabin — thar ain't any better on the mountain! I got" — his voice sank — "I got a little money, too, 'n' it ain't Confederate money that's worth jest about as much as so many jimson leaves! It 's gold. I've got it hid.' He glanced about him. "I did n't mean to tell that. You won't mention it, Miss Christianna ?"
"No," said Christianna; "it ain't worth mentionin'."
Steve touched her sleeve with persuasive fingers. "I never loved a lady like I love you. Gawd! we'd be jest as happy —"
Christianna walked faster. Ahead, in the light and shadow, a wild turkey crossed the road. Pine and hemlock showed dark and thick against the intense mid-day sky. Thunder Run, now much below the road, spoke with a lessened voice. Butterflies fluttered above wild honeysuckle in bloom, and high in the blue a hawk was sailing. Steve, keeping beside her, tried to put his arm around her waist. She broke from him and ran up the road. Long-legged and light of weight he ran after her, caught up with her, and began afresh to press his suit.
"Why don't you like me, Miss Christianna ? Lots of women in the Valley 'n' down about Richmond have! There was one up near Winchester that was so fond of me I could n't hardly git away. — There ain't no reason that I kin see — I'd be jest as good to you as any man on this mountain. Most of the men have died off it, any-way, 'n' I'm here ! Why don't you try to like me ? Ain't Daggs as good as Maydews ? 'N' as for Allan Gold, if you're thinkin' of him —"
Christianna turned. "From now right on I'm goin' to bear witness that there is n't a crittur on Thunder Run that uses its feet any better or faster than Steve Dagg can! You can walk an' you can run, an' when the army comes this-a-way I'm goin' to bear witness that you can march! I'm goin' to stand up just the same as in an experience meetin' an' bear witness! An' if the army takes you away with it —"
Steve gasped. "It can't! I got a doctor's certificate. — It ain't any way from Grey Rock, 'n' love made me run. It was jest a moment 'n' I'll pay for it to-morrow. I could n't march on that foot if Glory itself was there, hollerin' me on! — Who'd believe you, either ? A woman's word ain't countin' much. Besides," — he grinned, confidence returning, — "besides, you wouldn't tell the regiment I'd run after you 'n' — 'n' kissed you —" His arm darted around her again. Christianna smote him on the cheek, broke away, and fled up the mountain.
Around a turn of the road appeared, pacing stately, Mrs. May-dew. She was tall and strong, and she carried an axe in the hollow of her arm.
Christianna stopped short with a sound between a sob and a laugh. She looked back. "Are n't you comin' on to the cabin, Mr. Dagg ?"
"Nam," said Steve, "not to-day," and, turning, went, elaborately limping, down the mountain.
Some days later, being at the unworked sawmill at the foot of the mountain, he heard news. Crook and Averell had made a junction with Hunter at Staunton. Hunter had now an army of eighteen thousand men. Hunter was marching up the Valley, burning and destroying as he came. Hunter certainly meant to strike Lexington. Hunter —
"Reckon we'd better rest right quiet here, don't you ?" asked Steve. "Even if they came into the county, they would n't be likely to take a road this-a-way ? "
"I wouldn't put it beyond them," said the sawmill man darkly. "There's a lot of valuable property on this mountain."
Steve grew profoundly restless. Each day now for a long time there was news. Breckinridge was at Rockfish Gap barring with a handful of troops Hunter's direct road to Lynchburg. Hunter there-upon came on up the Valley with the intent to cross the Blue Ridge and pounce on Lynchburg from the west. He was a destroyer was Hunter and a well-hated one. The country was filled with sparks from his torches and with an indignant cry against his mode of war-fare. Breckinridge marched to Lynchburg, but he detached McCausland with orders to do the best he could to harry and retard the blue advancing host. Down upon the Chickahominy, Lee was about to send Early, but days of fighting and burning must elapse before Early could reach Lynchburg. On the twelfth of June Hunter came to Lexington.