“Diamond Courage,” Part 23

 

Chapter 24

A Turn for the Better

November, 1862

The next morning, we found ourselves on the other side of the Appalachian chain, and I felt assured that if we followed the valley south, we could come upon a river in Tennessee that we could take to the Mississippi and so have an easier way further south. Or we could stay in the mountains and make those our hiding place.

Along about noon, snow began to fall. I was not surprised, as we sometimes had snow in October where our cabin was. I used the word “was,” which rings true since our home that my parents had built was no more. I felt its loss in my heart, but then reminded myself we were making a new and better life for ourselves.

We did not have any winter clothing with us, since it all burned up in the fire and Laurel had not the time to make more. “It’s all right,” she said. “You and I can cover up with the quilts and I can wrap Caleb in the tablecloth. Those will do until we can find something better.”

She was always optimistic. I doubted that we would be anywhere near a store for a month, but I gladly took the quilt she offered me. “This is fine,” I told her. “I don’t feel the cold at all.”

She smiled, and that also warmed me. We continued on our way.

***

Two days later, we had walked out of the snow and it became warmer so we could put away the quilts and tablecloth. Laurel was walking ahead of me, carrying Caleb when we heard something crashing around in the underbrush. It sounded to me like a large stag which must have been wounded since they are normally very quiet. I put Laurel and Caleb behind a tree for protection. “Don’t move from here unless I tell you to,” I said. “If this is a wounded deer, it can be very dangerous.” With that, I set off toward the noise, carrying my rifle. If I could kill it, we would have enough food to last us for weeks. Things were looking up for the success of our journey.

I stealthily made my way through the underbrush toward the sound. The crashing grew louder and louder, and then a young man about sixteen years old came staggering toward me. He did not appear to be injured, but seemed confused. I lowered my rifle and went toward him.

“Are you all right?” I asked. “Are you injured?”

“I’m lost. I don’t know where my family is. Will you help me?”

I came up to him and saw that, like us, his clothing was homemade.  “Here,” I told him. “Sit down. It looks like you’ve been wandering around for quite a while.”

He sat and lowered his head. “Yes. I don’t know how long, exactly. I walked away from our camp to relieve myself and when I came back, my parents were gone! Whatever happened to them, they made no noise, and they did not cry out, so I don’t know what went on.”

“What’s your name, fellow?” I almost called him “son,” as Alphonso does me, but the young was about as old as I was.

“It’s Andrew. Andrew Coggins. We come from near Front Royal.”

“We’re almost neighbors, then. We’re from around Winchester. My name is Caleb Dillard, my wife is Laurel, and our son is Caleb. He’s about eighteen months old now. I’m sorry to hear this has happened to you. I want you to come over and meet my family, and, since it’s lunch time, have something to eat with us. You must be hungry.”

“That I am. I haven’t had anything to eat since early this morning.”

As we walked back to Laurel and Caleb, I asked him, “What’s your family doing in this remote area?”

“My dad was in the army and he got tired of all the killing and suffering. We’re going to try to get out to the Indian territory and see if we can make a go of it.” He stopped. “Listen to me, talking like I knew where my parents were. Anyhow, those were our plans. If I don’t find them, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “You can stay with us until we find your parents or come upon another situation in which you can make a go of it. We won’t abandon you.”

He nodded, and looked relieved. “I want to ask you what you asked me: what are all of you doing out here?”

“Same thing you and your family are trying to do—trying to get away from the war.”

“It’s a terrible thing.”

“I’ve seen it up close. It’s beyond terrible. It’s inhumane and reprehensible and senseless.”

By that time, we had come near enough to where Laurel and Caleb were that I could call out to them. “Laurel! I’m almost back and I have a young man named Andrew with me! Don’t worry—he’s been separated from his parents, and he’s a fine young fellow.”

We stepped into the clearing, and Laurel immediately came over to us, a look of sympathy on her face. “So you can’t find your parents. How long ago was it that you last saw them?”

“It was right after breakfast. I went off to take care of some business and they were gone when I came back, so it’s been about four hours.”

Laurel gave me a look that indicated that she thought something horrible happened to the boy’s parents, and he would never see them again, but she said, “We’ll help you look for them.” I noticed that Laurel did not say what more people said in these circumstances, which is, “We’ll find them.” She was too honest for that, and Andrew didn’t notice. “What’s your name?”

I had forgotten to introduce him, but he said, “I’m Andrew Coggins, m’am, and I appreciate  you helping me out.”

“It’s our Christian duty. Are you hungry?”

“Yes, m’am. Very.”

“Well, we’ll be ready to eat in about half an hour. Do you like rabbit?”

“M’am at this point, I’d eat almost anything.”

Laurel laughed. “You’ll be easy to feed since we don’t know what Caleb will be able to shoot. You can watch Caleb while I get lunch ready. Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

“Yes, m’am, I have two sisters.” He winced. “I hate to think anything happened to them.”

“Well, then you know how to watch children younger than yourself. Caleb’s an easy child to entertain, and I have no doubt you’re very good at it.”

He smiled for the first time since I came across him. “I am a right good hand at it, m’am.”

“One thing—you don’t have to call me ‘m’am.’ My name’s Laurel.”

He nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Laurel.”

“And I you, Andrew. I’m just sorry it’s under these circumstances.”

With that, he went over to take care of Caleb and, since we didn’t have enough rabbit left to feed all of us, I said to Laurel, “I’ll go out and see if I can find something else we can have for lunch.”

“All right. Be careful.”

“I will.”

I went into the woods, and heard the sounds of squirrels in the trees. I had shot them since I was a boy, so I had gotten pretty good at it, and had two of them in short order. And these weren’t the scrawny squirrels such as we had around Winchester. No, they were big and plump, and it looked like they would make us two meals, even with Andrew eating with us. I took them and skinned them right there with my knife, something I learned how to do from my daddy. He taught me a lot about being in the woods, and I was using it now.

I took my kill back to our campsite where Laurel had built a fire and had a frying pan ready for whatever I brought back.  “You got two squirrels! And look how big they are! We can have a couple of meals off them!”

“That’s what I figured,” I said, putting the meat in the pan.

Laurel busied herself fixing our lunch while I talked to Andrew. I motioned him to sit down on a rock, while I sat on another one. “I don’t know anything about your family except for what you told me already, which wasn’t a lot. What does your daddy do?”

“He was a blacksmith. He joined Stuart’s outfit and things went well for a while, but the Yankees overran the stables and a couple of his friends were killed. He managed to get away, but that was it for him with the army. We set out to get away from the fighting and killing, as I told you.”

“I see. It must have been hard to leave everything you knew.”

“Well, in truth I was relieved to get away, just like the rest of my family.”

“I understand that. We’re alike, your family and mine.”

“If I still have a family.”

“We’ll look for them. Don’t worry.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Glad to do it. Look, lunch is ready.”

As we ate, I kept thinking of what we would do if we didn’t find Andrew’s family. Nothing came to me, but I knew that it would be difficult. Still, I was glad we could help him. He could prove useful.

 

 

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