A Christmas toast
By Stephen Harris
The whiskered, old farmer rocked sleepily before the fireplace, waiting and watching for red coals from the simmering logs before him to drop.
Solomon Young liked to wait until the fire was pretty much good ‘n’ burned out before he would slip to his straw-stuffed bed in back. Sometimes the girls up in the loft would surreptitiously peek from under their bed covers of burlap or peer from the foot of their beds over the ledge and down to their father and the cabin’s fire in the hearth.
But not on this still, chilly night during which frost would form outside before morning. All hands were asleep except for the man in the warm, wool pants with a spare patch of cotton cloth covering a small hole in the right knee.
He had doffed his brown, brogan shoes to allow his outstretched feet to warm by the fire. His pair of well-worn, woolen socks was the only pair of socks the family still had.
Times were tough as a pall had long settled over the Yadkin Valley. But on this silent night the troubles of the day melted before a dying fire that fought off the worst of the cold.
Suddenly a tiny rap jarred a dozing Solomon awake. Raps on the door in the dark of night could send chills down the spine, and not due to the winter’s cold. But this soft rap did not sound menacing, did not sound like the knock of the Home Guard or the Rebels or, God forbid, the Yankees.
At the opened door the cold shot through Solomon’s fraying socks as his ‘brows arched to find little Tennis from across Grassy Creek. With only a rough scarf to protect the 8-year-old from the chill and no coat, Tennis – short for Tennessee - spoke in a hushed tone though no one else was around.
“Pa said to come quick. And bring Jane,” said the wide-eyed Tennis.
Jane, up in the loft, had thrown on a wrap already. Somebody’s sick. Somebody’s hurt, the father and daughter thought, concurrently.
But Tennis, with the Youngs trailing along a dark, wooded path on a moonless night, did not stop at her home, the next cabin over on Wilkes County land. Instead she hurried past the cabin for the shed, where the plow horse was. They expect me to doctor a horse? Jane wondered.
Inside in the darkness a rustling shadow in a corner grew and straightened up. Jane’s eyes grew wide and the old man’s jaw dropped.
“Verd!” the young woman screeched, an explosion of noise in the quiet dark of a night clouded by even darker circumstances.
She rushed into his arms. They embraced and kissed.
It had been nearly two years since the sweethearts had touched.
On a dark night like this, about this time of year, Virgil Harris had slipped out of this very barn to walk all night surreptitiously to find someone who could help him. He knew he could not wait until his 18th birthday to make his move.
The old militia captain up in Traphill, John Bryan, was getting up another posse, Verd had heard in hushed whispers. It could be Bryan’s last because of the Home Guard.
The Confederates’ hated conscription had been draining the countryside of its young men and those coming of age, like Verd, the nickname Virgil Harris’ friends called him.
The maturing Verd could feel the eyes on him during his 17th year. He knew he was a target. They’d come looking for him as summer and his 18th birthday approached. Unless he moved first.
Word was that Bryan, a Union man, still had connections. They called him the Old Red Fox for his ability to slip in from Kentucky and circulate around the foot of the mountain rounding up recruits for the Yankees while eluding the Home Guard and the rest of the Confederate fanatics.
Bryan could lead a young man away, Verd had heard, through the Cumberland Gap. Bryan could take a young man to the Army in Kentucky. The federal Army.
Verd still would have to fight, though reluctantly, in this nasty Civil War. Neutrality was not an option in the heat of the conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother.
Forced to choose, Verd chose not to be a rebel, not to be a toy of the rich man. He would wear the blue.
“They let me come home! They let me come home!” whispered Verd to his beloved as she squealed gently: “Oh, good. Good. Welcome home.”
Verd broke the embrace. “I have to go back right after Christmas,” he said soberly as he stared into her blinking eyes.
Jane’s heart sank.
Verd glanced up to Solomon who had stood motionless while stunned in the dark. Verd took in the scent of his daddy’s horse that partially shielded him from view from the door. You can never have too much cover these days, in these parts.
Verd had told his family to stay put in the cabin. Act like nothing’s happening, he had instructed.
“Let’s do it now,” Verd blurted out. “Do what?” asked Jane, puzzled.
“Let’s get married.”
Someone told me one time that Virgil and Jane made a cute young couple. He would carry her on his shoulders. The story that Virgil told his grandchildren – the story that stuck foremost in their memories - was that when he came home from the Civil War all he had to eat was cabbage broth. His favorite catch phrase was, “I’m a grand liar if …”
Jane face froze, but for not as long as Verd had perceived. “B-b-but … now?” she stuttered.
Verd grabbed her shoulders to emphasize his hurried instructions: “Get your daddy to get the preacher tomorrow and make the arrangements. Don’t breathe a word to anybody, and make the preacher promise, too. After the moon sets tomorrow night, meet me in your barn. Don’t go out till it’s good ‘n’set. Just the four of us. We can’t draw attention.”
“But Verd, you said you had to go back,” said Jane, still dizzy with surprise and confusion, squeezing out any time for joy. “You said we’d get married when the war’s over.”
“Who knows when this war will be over?” said Verd with disgust. “They can’t catch Bobby Lee. It’s been a year and a half since they chased him out of Pennsylvania, and he’s running them in circles up in Virginia. The war just keeps dragging on and on. I don’t what it’s going to take to end it.
“So let’s do it now. While I’m gone Pa can get the cabin started. Shade’s old enough to help him. I’d be a grand liar if I said I wasn’t scared of what might happen. If something happens to me, I want to die knowing I’m your husband.”
“Verd, don’t say that,” said Jane as she caught her breath and touched his unshaven cheek.
The next night about sundown Preacher Hampton came riding slowly up to the Young place as prearranged. Solomon and Jane slipped from the shadow on the porch as they had been waiting wordless and listening for the preacher’s horse – Jane would not wait inside.
Without a word the trio stealthily marched around the curve along the edge of the garden to the shed where Solomon kept his wagon.
When he heard the trio approach, Verd stepped from behind the wagon.
Jane ran to him silently and embraced.
The young couple held hands and didn’t really hear the preacher’s hushed words, jarring themselves to consciousness to say “I do” when he paused.
Quickly the nuptials were spoken, and the preacher spoke up a bit, relieved. “Well, Solomon,” the preacher concluded, “you ready to go coon hunting?”
That broke Verd’s spell. “Coon hunting? You, preacher?” he asked. “Since when did you ever go coon hunting?”
The preacher just grinned, wheeled around and Solomon fell in step.
“I’d better go,” Verd resumed in a hushed breath. “When the war’s ov …”
“Now you’re not going anywhere, Verd Harris,” said Jane, still holding his hands, though now with a vice grip. This young soldier was not running back off to war, not quite yet.
The young bride wrapped her arms around his right arm and started him off to the cabin.
“No, no, I can’t,” the new groom protested. “Janey, your family had better not see me here. You can tell them after I’m gone tomorrow but make them promise to not tell anybody. Not anybody.”
“Now, Verd Harris. Now that I’ve got you I’m not letting you go that easily” the bride replied as she relaxed a bit. “Lincoln and Bobby Lee and all the rest of ‘em will just have to wait.”
Verd continued protesting but could not bring himself to resist Jane’s determined lead till they almost got to the porch step. Solomon and the preacher stepped out of the cabin and strode into the yard and toward preacher’s tied horse. Only Solomon had shotgun in hand.
“Don’t wait up for us, Janey girl,” Solomon said in an unfamiliar, lilting tone as he threw his head back toward the couple.
Jane giggled. “Now you come on in the house, Verd Harris,” she teased.
“Janey, don’t …” Verd’s protests then tailed away.
He stood stunned at the doorway of the empty cabin, darkened except for a blazing fire in the hearth and a full load of wood nearby. The rest of Jane’s family were nowhere to be seen.
“Where is everybody?” Verd gasped.
“They ain’t here. And they ain’t goin’ to be here,” said Jane, almost dancing, pulling her groom inside. “Now, Verd Harris, if you want to skedaddle back over to your pa’s smelly old barn, you go right ahead. And say hello to Ma and Laura – they’re staying the night over there with your ma and pa.”
For the first time in days, perhaps months, a smile crept over the young soldier’s face. Jane skipped on ahead to the hearth.
“Verd Harris, I propose a toast!” the bride announced.
“What?! Y’all got some muscadine tucked away in here?” Verd asked.
Jane took up a couple of gourd dippers hanging on the wall beside the fireplace.
“No, we had to sell off all of that,” Jane answered. “But I have some of this.”
Verd walked slowly over to a kettle hanging on the crane in the hearth. Jane dipped into the black pot and came out with some lukewarm liquid. Verd tasted.
“Tastes like cabbage,” he said.
“Didn’t have much but we boiled it today. I didn’t empty the pot. For us,” said Jane, almost singing.
She grinned with delight as Verd took another sip, but then his countenance suddenly dropped like a rock.
“I didn’t want it to be like this,” explained Verd without being asked. “I wanted a proper wedding, not slinking around in the dead of night like some criminal. And I wanted to toast us with our wine, not something left over from your dinner.”
The sober rush back to the reality swept the playfulness from Jane’s face. She slowly and carefully hung up her empty gourd, took his half-full gourd in one hand and took Verd’s with the other and led him to the table. They sat on the rough-hewn bench.
“Now you listen to me, Verd Harris, and listen to me good,” Jane said. “I knows we’s hungry. I knows we’ve been whittled down to almost nothing. This ain’t what I dreamed of either when we were sparking down along the creek bank before this war.
“But we’ve got each other now. And we’ve got our dreams. And if we can get through this war we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us. And we have the hope that things will get better.”
To Verd’s ears Jane’s Scots-Irish brogue made “hope” sound like “hoped.”
“We’re going to have our cabin,” she continued, “and we’re going to be together, and we’re going to have our babies, and we’re going to keep up our hope. They can’t take that away from us.”
She paused. And drew a breath.
“We’re going to have many good Christmases together, Verd Harris. And they’ll be better, they’ll be sweeter, when we remember what all we didn’t have for this one.
“Yes, we’ve only got cabbage water tonight. But we’ve also got hope. Hope for a better day. And I’d rather have hope with next to nothing than to have all the world’s goods without hope - hope for a better day.”
Virgil and Jane Young Harris, my great-grandparents, married Dec. 24, 1864. The preacher was H.C. Hampton, according to their marriage certificate. Other details of their young lives are lost to history. The names and places mentioned here are real, but the rest of this short story is fiction. I offer this story from State Road as a Christmas gift to you and yours and as an example of what might have been. And what can be, still.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
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