By John Hassell Yeatts © 1983
Issue: August, 1983
They had saddled the horses, Old Maud and Pumpkin by the failing light of a second quarter moon and a smoky old kerosene lantern. Even in the early summer hours of July 2, 1920, the mountain air was cold, almost winter cold. Cold enough in fact that when added to ten-year-old Tucker’s excitement it made his teeth chatter so much that he finally gave up trying to talk to his Uncle Carmack and Carmack was thinking something like, “Thank the Lord for small favors.” He was a tall exceptionally broad shouldered man of fifty-two who had, all his life been notably stingy with words. But since his boy Asa had gone away…. Some say after their fist fight…. And joined the American Expeditionary Forces to France, Carmack had grown more and more silent.
His grandmaw had accused him once of being “mighty slow to marry, and becoming regarded by his kin and cousins as a hard drinking womanizer.” Carmack pondered the accusation for a few weeks then brought home a very pretty but sickly-looking girl named Rose from the Keno area. His grandmaw allowed to a neighbor, “That Keno Rose wouldn’t weigh 125 dripping wet.” The fact that Rose was only about 5’3” or 5’4” didn’t make any difference. Anyway, in about two years she presented him with a son whom they called Asa, and then began to dwindle into a spindly, ghost like woman who seldom made any effort to verbally communicate with her man. They signaled, gestured, pointed and somehow came to understand enough to carry on. “Having a man who don’t talk a’tall is better than having one who rages and curses all the time, I ‘spect,” she once told her maw. “I recon he just talks everything out with his bees,” her maw replied. “It is strange how he never seems to get stung,” Rose replied.
Carmack caught the pommel of the old McClellen saddle with his left hand and with one graceful movement swung onto Old Maud’s back. “Better mount up boy, and blow out that lantern before you do.” Tucker lead Pumpkin to a big upturned log with two steps hewn out for easier climbing, then hopped frog-like onto Pumpkins back. Both saddles had leather bags of oats and a feeding bag suspended by leather straps from the back. They rode now in total silence only disturbed by sounds of the horse’s hooves striking rocks and the squeaking saddles, down the lane into the main road leading to the Danville Turnpike which would take them to Stuart and the Danville & Western Railroad Station. Tucker had never been, “off the mountain,” never seen a train or a concrete street, and to make matters more exciting, didn’t have the slightest idea why he had been singled out to accompany his Uncle to town. When he and his Maw, Carmack’s sister, had come that afternoon to buy honey, he had heard his Uncle ask his Maw if Tucker could ride one of the horses with him to the railroad station the next day, leaving shortly after midnight. When Tucker heard his skin began crawling immediately with goose pimples and his tousled hair seemed to rise straight on end. He held his breath sorta praying as best he knew how for his maw to say yes. She did not hesitate to give her permission.
As they walked home along the narrow path through the forest, he tried to concentrate on not falling or spilling the honey, but he couldn’t remain silent. “Reckon whut its all about Maw? Why’s Uncle Carmack going to meet a train? His maw spoke, almost sharply, “Why you know boy he’s bound to be a looking for his boy Asa to be on that train. Hadn’t heard from that boy for nigh to 4 years since they had their falling out, and he thinks now the war is over, he may be coming home. Carmack said that he heard that lot of boys wuz a coming from Camp Lee into Stuart tomorrow just in time for the 4th of July.” “Can we go to the 4th of July at Meadows of Dan, Maw, can we?” “I don’t rightfully know Tucker. We’ll jes have to wait and see. We might go iffin your cousin Asa does come home.” “How come Uncle Carmack and Asa to have such a falling out anyway, Maw, just cause Cousin Asa was a fixing to join up?” “No boy, that wasn’t all of it. But Carmack was mighty sympathetic of them German folks and thought we didn’t have any business in that war. Said it was mighty strange that we whopped the British in 1776 and then had to fight their wars for them forevermore. I just don’t know, I thought about it. I cried about it and I prayed about it some, but I never got me no answer. Hit about broke your Aunt Rose’s heart it did, and I don’t think she’s ever going to get well again iffin that boy don’t come a marching back.”
As they clopped along the rocky clay road the boy kept thinking of the conversation with his maw that afternoon and couldn’t figure it out so he tried to concentrate upon the whippoorwills calling from the brush and he tried to count them. He could see the outline of his Uncle Carmack and Old Maud up ahead and he watched for sparks her iron shoes would make when they struck the flint rocks in the road. He felt sorta grown up since he understood how flint and iron could throw sparks. And he recalled how his grandpa once told him that flint locks, powder and stubborn independence had won the independence of the United States. And he thought he understood what the 4th of July was all about.
Some three hours had elapsed and the boy’s eyes were well enough adjusted to the darkness that he knew they were in strange territory. He heard the sound of falling water and he could tell that the horses had quickened their paces because of the smell of it. “Reckon the horses need a drink, Uncle Carmack?” the boy called in the darkness. “I reckon they do boy. How come you’re so smart anyway?” “Well, I’m glad,” the boy answered. “I’m a needing to go behind a tree.” “Needing to go behind a tree. How come you never thought of such a thing before we left the barn? Reckon you are a bound to git yourself copperhead bit before this trip is over,” Uncle Carmack answered. They reined their mounts at Falling Branch where they dismounted and the man took both reigns allowing the horses to drink long and appreciatively. Tucker went plunging off into the brush below the road bank. Soon he returned and the man held his hand for Tucker to step into for a boost into the saddle. “Do you think we orter feed the horses, Uncle Carmack?” “Now Tucker, I’ve been raising and caring for horses for fifty years and I surely know when to feed the critters. We’ll feed them at the depot. I’z trying to get you there in time enough to see the train come in.” “Yes sir and I’m sure setting a great store on that myself,” the boy answered, “Well it’s all downhill now so we can trot the horses. Twon’t hurt these old nags none.”
Pretty soon it became daylight and Tucker thought he’d never heard so many birds call in his whole life. The cat birds and the thrush seemed to be trying to drown out the whippoorwills. And almost in an instant the big old red ball of sun bobbed over the top of Bull Mountain and Tucker was swept with a wash of optimism that appeared to shout that Cousin Asa would surely be on that train when it pulled into the depot about ten that morning.
They trotted along in the cool morning and even the horses seemed anxious to get to the depot. They arrived at the Danville and Western station beside the Mayo River about nine that morning. They found a long hitching pole away from the bustle and bluster of the station and they filled the nose bags with two or more quarts of oats. Tucker was so excited over seeing a real town for the first time that his Uncle had to place the bag on Pumpkin as well as Old Maud. “Must be simply awful trying to eat your breakfast with a steel bit in your mouth, just awful,” the boy exclaimed. “Oh they get used to it. The critters don’t seem to mind and it don’t hurt them none,” his uncle replied.
They walked about a hundred yards to the station and up on the platform extending along the front. Tucker saw a boxcar and wanted to know iffin that was a train. “Just the small part of one, boy, just one little part.” Then he heard something else he had never heard before, the sound of a marching band. He first thought the bass drum must have been a cannon, then he heard the fifes and other instruments, and remembered an old Edison Cylinder record his grandpa had played for him once. As the band drew closer to the station, the boy began to stomp his feet in time with the music, sorta marching in place. His uncle noticed and said, “Tucker, you’re going to march right off this platform and break your fool neck,” but the boy didn’t mind because he could tell his uncle was becoming excited as well. About that time they heard a loud steam whistle blow down the tracks and Tucker would have run if his uncle hadn’t caught him by the arm. They saw the white steam escaping and Tucker froze in silence.
More people than the boy had ever imagined lived in a town began to gather. He could now see the band beside the station and it was playing so loudly he could hardly hear the locomotive which passed so close the boy could see right into the engineer’s eyes. The engineer waved to him, he thought, and he waved back in his amazement that one man could drive such a big old iron monster. They could see the soldiers, dozens and dozens of them leaning out of the car windows and waving and yelling. They began to swing down from the car steps and rushing to meet girls who hugged and kissed them. Carmack stood stone-faced, his bright blue eyes searching, searching but never showing any recognition. The Patrick doughboys fell into some semblance of military formation, the band struck up a march, the big drum boomed and they all marched up the street toward the courthouse. Asa simply wasn’t on the train.
Then Carmack reached out and placed his arm around the boys shoulder and sorta pulled him to his side. Tucker didn’t know how to respond. He stood stiff-like, watching the train moving backwards onto siding, and Carmack said, sad like, “It’s a fixing to turn around and go back to Danville.” The two stood for a minute or two in total silence and mutual disbelief. Carmack was looking up the street where the band and the soldiers had now disappeared.
Then Tucker thought he saw something way down the track. When he could tell it was a person, he thought it must be some kind of trainsman. But as the object grew larger, Tucker could tell it was a man wearing a khaki uniform and carrying a large round bag. The soldier was limping badly and moving ever so slowly up the track. “Uncle Carmack, ain’t that Cousin Asa a coming there?” The old man turned and exclaimed, “Well, I swear it does look like the scoundrel, and from the way he’s walking they must have shot him up pretty bad.”
Carmack and the boy moved quickly down the steps and down the track to meet him. They stood about three feet apart. No handshakes, no hugs, just a standing and gazing into each others eyes. “Them Limey soldiers go and shoot you up, son? Got you from behind did they?” “Nobody shot me from behind or in front, Pap. But I sure did sprain my ankle swinging down from the train a going too fast.” “I swear, I knew it. I knew I raised me a boy who wouldn’t go a strutting behind no rooting, tooting bunch of noise makers to hear some two-bit politician to tell the fellows how proud he was that they saved the world for democracy.” Tucker could tell, or he thought he could, that Uncle Carmack was just about to cry, when he took Asa by the arm and said, “Come on son. Let’s go home where your Maw’s awaiting.”