|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Charles F. Price has enjoyed careers as a journalist, urban planner, management consultant, and Washington lobbyist.
Read an Excerpt
A Novel of the Civil War
By Charles F. Price
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1996 Charles F. Price
All rights reserved.
Near the end of August, Bridgeman the bushwhacker and fifty of his Yellow Jackets left Davenport Gap and turned up the valley of the Pigeon River along the old Indian war trail towards the blue wall of the mountains.
Although Bridgeman pretended to be a colonel in the regular service and claimed he carried orders given him by General Burnside up on the Cumberland, in fact he held no rank at all and the Yellow Jackets were nothing but a crowd of renegades. They said they were part of George Kirk's band of partisans, but since Kirk's people were themselves infamous robbers, this hardly improved their standing.
Bridgeman boasted that he meant to chastise the secesh in all the country back of the Nantahalas. The Government of the United States had yet to lay its hand on the damned rebels in Macon and Clay and Cherokee, he said, as if there was a way any man could tell the unionists from the disloyal in those tormented highlands where the fathers were divided against the sons, neighbors lay in ambuscade for one another, and deserters from both armies lurked at the head of every cove. The truth of the matter was that Bridgeman had been raised an orphan on Downings Creek at the foot of the Tusquittees and had had a thin time of it, and there were scores he wanted to settle in that region.
Ahead of them, as they followed the winding valley of the Pigeon, stood line on line of high tops with the fog lifting off them, and there was a veil of mist over the river that they climbed above and looked down on, that resembled a boll of cotton drawn out thin. The air smelled of pine and as they rode higher it cooled and blew the odor of the river into their faces. They camped the first night by the rapids in a grove of yellow birch with sheer cliffs towering over them that seeped water so fresh and cold it made the jaws ache to drink of it.
On the second day they rode single-file along a narrow track over the gorge, in and out of sun-glare and twilight as they ascended through the layers of cloud that were clinging to the crowns of the red spruce and walnut and oak. Swathes of warm rain would drench them, then presently the sun would come to burn the damp off them in coiling wisps of steam. Towards evening a thunderstorm moved out of the Smokies and they took shelter under granite overhangs where deer laurel grew in thickets and woodbine hung down in tendrils, and they held the heads of the horses while rainspouts roared off the rock faces around them and lightning crackled in the valley at their feet. The third day they moved up Cataloochee and into the open country around Richland Creek.
Ever since the old days when Bishop Asbury used to preach at Jacob Shook's, there had been a Methodist campground at that place, and it happened that a parson named Talley was holding a meeting there by the river behind Shook's old house, when Bridgeman and the Yellow Jackets came up the road from Iron Duff. Talley ventured out to meet them, clasping his testament to his breast. Behind him the timid faces of his flock bloomed like morning-glories around the jambs and windowsills of the camp buildings.
Prodding the Reverend with the snout of his Maynard carbine, Bridgeman arraigned him for a god-damned intractable rebel. "In fact," cried Bridgeman, "I'll warrant this whole assembly is nothing but a combination of dirty secesh, come together to plot injury to them as holds the Union dear."
Now it happened that Talley was a rebel indeed, having served till the previous March as chaplain to the 39th North Carolina State Troops, and had returned home only because of taking a fever and developing a weakness of the lungs that made him cough blood in wet weather. But he protested to Bridgeman that he personally took no part in the disagreement between the states. Let Bridgeman observe for himself, he pleaded, how the folk gathered here were nothing but innocent wives, grandmothers, widows, orphans, and exempted men, worshippers celebrating the boundless love of the Lord Jesus and anxious only to hear His Gospel powerfully exhorted.
One of the Yellow Jackets they called Liver and Lights dismounted and put a brass-frame revolver to Talley's ear and made him kneel and address a prayer to the horse that Bridgeman was riding. They collected the people and robbed them of what little hard money and valuables they had on them, insulting the womenfolk with vulgar talk. They told the nigras they might now count themselves free persons of color, thanks to Massa Lincoln's proclamation of last January, and when the bucks and old uncles lingered around with an air of uncertainty, they chased them off firing revolvers at their heels. Some of them took the best-looking wenches behind the tub mill and ravished them. They gathered all the mules and horses and set the camp buildings afire.
"I'm obliged to kill one of you rebels before I go," Bridgeman announced as the fires began to crackle. He instructed Talley to consult with his congregation and nominate the man. After considerable travail, they presented Bridgeman a half-wit named Wren. Wren lived in a shack up on Buckeye Cove and faithfully attended all the camp meetings and always sat on the last bench picking his nose and eating the boogers. He had a little white rat terrier that went everywhere with him. Liver and Lights sat Wren down by the millrace and shot him in the back of the head. After that, the rat terrier attached itself to Liver and Lights; it was trotting along behind him that afternoon when the Yellow Jackets took the turnpike west between the wooded hills towards the Great Balsams.
Bridgeman could have gone on through Soco Gap and around by the Qualla Boundary, but there were always companies of the Thomas Legion quartered on the reservation. It was only a year ago that a party of Thomas's Cherokees had killed and scalped some of General Morgan's Indiana boys up by Baptist Gap, and since then nobody who wore the blue wanted to tangle with those Qualla redskins. Bridgeman turned southwest. The column skirted Waynesville and rode up the long, high valley between soaring crests clad in Fraser fir towards the notch, and on the fourth day they passed over the divide and started down the twisting switchbacks with the crags of the Cowee range rising in front of them. That morning, some of the Home Guard from Haywood County — roused by the Reverend Talley at Shook's — crept up to the edge of the turnpike and fired on them from a stand of hemlocks, killing a man called Fly-Speck. A volley from the Yellow Jackets drove them off, and Bridgeman turned south, leaving Fly-Speck where he lay.
On the fifth day they were climbing under Rocky Face Knob in the Cowees through a great deadfall of pines. All the way from Shook's, Bridgeman had been sending squads of riders up the glens and hollows on either side of the turnpike to clean out the farmsteads, so by the time they approached Franklin they had a considerable drove of cattle, sheep, horses, and mules to go with the stock they'd taken at the campground. Some of them carried hams and live hens dangling from their saddles, one had a shoat across his pommel, another wore a poke bonnet he'd stolen, with the ties fluttering around his head.
The folk here had seen little enough of war. Till now the worst of the trouble had been confined west of the Nantahalas. Consequently the Yellow Jackets seemed a terrible visitation. Tidings of their march were spreading through the whole section and all the farms and settlements in their path were deserted, the livestock driven off, the valuables carried away, nothing remaining but the poor chestnut-log cabins and the hay shocked in the fields and the corn standing in ragged rows and the apples ripening in the orchards. They burned each place as they came to it. Near Savannah Baptist Church, one of their scouts reported that the Macon Home Guard had been called out and was camping in the square at Franklin. By now all the enlisted men had been conscripted into the regular service, so there was nobody left in the Guard but exempts and the civil officers — the sheriff, register of deeds, justices of the peace, and such. Even so, Bridgeman elected to bypass the place. They left the turnpike and forded the Cullasaja and the Little Tennessee and started into the Nantahalas.
On the morning of the sixth day they climbed up through forests of oak, pine, tulip-poplar, and basswood. Tangles of rhododendron entwined with dog hobble encroached on one side of the narrow road and on the other they could look down a sheer rocky drop into a space where buzzards wheeled lazily on the updrafts. Always the far sound of rapids was in their ears, and now and then, when the trail bent around a shoulder of the mountain, they could see a curl of white water far below, or a thread of falls. Blue jays screeched at them from the woods. Sometimes they heard the shrilling of a hawk.
They passed between Standing Indian and Rattlesnake Knob, crossed Winding Stair Gap, and on the seventh day made their way at last over Chunky Gal Mountain. They stopped awhile at the head of the last descent to gaze west into the valley of the Hiwassee, the place where Bridgeman had been reared and where he aimed to square up his accounts. They were on a little sloping shelf grown over with sugar maple and late-flowering larkspur and partridgeberry. They could see down nearly as far as the Valley River range and Hanging Dog before the pearly haze over the Snowbirds and the Unicois obscured the view. On their right hand, the round tops of the Tusquittees crowded in from the north, wearing wreaths of pale cloud. To the south, past the dwindling line of Chunky Gal, they glimpsed the sharp peak of Brasstown Bald down in Georgia.
It was here that Liver and Lights discovered that Wren's little rat terrier that had taken up with him at Shook's was lost. He searched everywhere for it, whistling and calling among the laurel thickets and azalea bushes, but all in vain. So intent was he on finding the dog, that Bridgeman was forced to brandish his pistol and command him to mount up when the time came to resume the march. He was inconsolable.
For most of his life Madison Curtis had been a fortunate man. Of course, as he had often reminded Andy, his oldest son, a man's luck was nothing less than the fruit of his own industry and gumption. Anybody who sat back and waited for good things to drop into his lap from the heavens, as Andy was inclined to do, was unworthy of the blessings of prosperity and nine times out of ten was bound to be disappointed in life. By contrast, hard work inevitably earned good fortune.
Madison had been fond of recounting for Andy's benefit the story of how he'd commenced in life with nothing but a single horse and saddle and a patch of stony ground on South Hominy Creek down in Buncombe County, the whole of it worth no more than three hundred dollars. It had pleased him to tell how he'd come west after the Cherokee Removal and taken up a hundred and fifty acres of Indian land on the Hiwassee. Lovingly he would describe how he'd parlayed that first holding into a plantation of well over five hundred acres, a great wedge of rich bottomland and hillside pasturage stretching from Downings Creek on the east, along the river nearly to the place where Tusquittee Creek came down out of the mountains. On that generous tract he'd herded cows and sheep and enjoyed plentiful yields of rye, corn, potatoes, and flax. But sons are impatient with the stories their fathers tell about their own virtue and accomplishment; Andy had soon grown weary of Madison's edifying tales. Then, with the coming of the war and all of its attendant woes, Madison no longer had any reason to relate them and Andy, who'd joined the army in November of '61 with his younger brother Jack, had learned there were larger annoyances than a father's tiresome homilies. The fact was, Madison Curtis's luck had gone bad, and it looked like no amount of work and gumption was going to change it good again.
On this mild September morning, as he stood on the upper level of the gallery of his house, looking down the swale towards the line of beech trees that marked the course of the river, not a head of stock could be seen grazing in his pastures and not a furrow of ground was under cultivation anywhere under his eye.
The cattle had been the first to go. The Quillens, the family of tories who lived over on Sweetwater, had raided the place the same week Andy and Jack enlisted at Hayesville, and had run off eighty head. Madison and his youngest boy Howell had rounded up the last twenty beeves and driven them up to the high meadows on Double Knob, but one by one they'd been stolen away from there over the two years since, by the deserters from both armies who were hiding in the mountains. The last of the herd had vanished just days ago. All that remained to him were his saddle mare, a plow-horse, and a span of mules, which he kept stabled in a sort of lean-to he'd built onto the back of the manse. Each night somebody — Madison himself or his oldest daughter Betty or Andy, poorly as he was, or Andy's wife Salina — would sit up in the back bedroom with a lamp burning and the old Tennessee rifle propped in a corner, in case the thieves grew bold enough to try and spirit away the beasts from under the very eaves of the house.
The Quillens had got most of the sheep too, and the ones they hadn't stolen, the Pucketts from up Fires Creek had rustled, the two times they'd come down to pillage along the river. Night-riders had burned his corn crop last year just when it was ready for harvest, and his grain when it was heading too, and shot most of the hogs. This spring, he hadn't even bothered planting. How could he? Every few days some party of tories or bushwhackers would come plundering through. His servants had run off after that first raid of the Quillens', and with Howell serving in Folk's Battalion of North Carolina Cavalry now, somewhere yonside of the Smokies, all three of the boys were gone the better part of the time, and there was no decent help to be hired anywhere. The most he'd done was plant a provision garden close by the house, to keep the family fed, him and his wife Sarah, Betty and her two boys, the girls and Salina and Jack's wife Mary and their two children, fifteen mouths altogether — sixteen, now that Andy was back. For meat, he kept a sow and a boar in a pen hidden away up on Peckerwood Branch behind Downings Creek, and there was bacon and salt beef and pork in the attic and plenty of deer in the woods round about. At least, he reflected, they weren't starving. Not yet, anyhow.
He counseled himself that he must be content; God had smiled on him for many years. Now it was the divine will to test the faith that had been so easy to sustain when times were good. He prayed that he would prove worthy, that he would find the strength to bear adversity. He glanced over the ragged hayfields and across the river towards Cherry Mountain and beyond that to the high crowns of the ranges yonder in Georgia, as lovely a sweep of country as might be found anywhere in creation. Unless they killed him, they could not spoil the beauty of the high valley he had chosen for his home. The day he first saw it, twenty-four years ago, standing on the shoulder of Chunky Gal with all of it stretched out before him glowing with an amethyst light, it was as if his soul had arisen and soared out of his body to touch the face of Jehovah. Ever since, he had believed it was a sacred place, that God dwelled here.
He believed that still, though it was a good deal harder now. He walked to the corner of the gallery and sadly regarded the heap of charred timbers that had once been the most commodious barn in all of Clay County. A pair of Confederate deserters had done that, when Madison and Andy refused them bed and board at gunpoint only three days ago; poor Andy had got home just the evening before, on sick furlough from the Army of Tennessee, so weak from the bloody flux he could hardly stand. It pained Madison to think how pale the boy had looked, leaning against the gallery railing, drenched with sweat, frail and trembling as a sapling leaf, facing down those outliers.
It pained him too, remembering how hard he and the boys and his carpenter Black Gamaliel had toiled raising up that barn, fashioning the doors in the shape of Gothic arches, building that row of louvered cupolas along the peak of the roof to ventilate the haymow. It had been a better barn than most of the dwellings this side of Newfound Gap, that was sure. Today it was nothing but a mound of ashes, all those months of care and labor reduced to a smoking ruin in minutes by the spite of a brace of godless brigands.
Excerpted from Hiwassee by Charles F. Price. Copyright © 1996 Charles F. Price. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsBook One: The Raid,
Book Two: The Battle,
Book Three: The Return,