An Unexpected Blessing
The sound of birds chirping awakened me, and I lay still for a moment, wondering where I was. We had slept outside so many days, it was difficult to tell. Then I heard another sound, the snort of an animal. I rolled over and took my rifle before I left the shelter, crouching down in case it was an animal. We had bears in these parts, and I wanted to be prepared if this were a big one.
As I came out of the shelter, the sun was in my eyes, and so I could not tell who—or what—was there at first. Then I shaded my eyes and saw that what I heard came not from a bear but from a horse. And the horse was hitched to a wagon with all kinds of supplies to re-build our cabin, and I saw to my amazement, Virgil Dailey the blacksmith sitting on the seat as the wagon pulled up to where I was. Five men walked behind the wagon.
“Hallooo!” Virgil called.
“Why, hello, Virgil. I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Well,” he said, climbing down from the wagon, “word got around about your cabin, and a bunch of us got together and decided to come help you re-build it.”
I couldn’t think of what to say for a moment, but then I finally found my tongue and said, “Why, thank you, Virgil. That’s very neighborly of you.”
He shrugged. “You might have to do the same for me one day. You never can tell.”
“No, I can’t.”
Laurel came out of the shelter, shading her eyes from the sun as well. “Laurel, this is—”I started to say.
“I know,” she said. “Mr. Dailey the blacksmith. Thank you so much, Mr. Dailey.”
“Please, m’am, call me Virgil.”
“Well, Virgil, have all of you had breakfast yet?”
He climbed down from his wagon and stood there, twisting his hat in his hands. “About half of us have.”
“Well, then, why don’t I fix some for everyone. I’d have to do it anyhow, and it’s only a few more. I have Hiram to help me. He’s a good cook.”
“I don’t know any Hiram.” The blacksmith looked puzzled.
“He’s a young man we came across in our travels, and he decided to come with us.” Hiram came out at that moment.
“Look, Hiram, all these people have come out to help with the cabin. We’re going to fix them breakfast. Can you help me?”
Hiram, still sleepy, mumbled, “Yes’m.”
“All right. You wake the others up and all of you wash yourselves good. I left the soap and a washcloth out and you can get some water from the cistern. And wash good behind your ears, all of you!”
I had to smile at Laurel treating all the boys as if they were her own. I supposed she learned how to do that by having to deal with a number of boys when she was a teacher. She knew how they were.
And so, while the men unloaded the wagon, along with help from Andrew, Clinton and me, Laurel and Hiram fixed the meal. With the wagon unloaded, we fell on the breakfast, and ate as if we had never eaten before. Everyone agreed that it was an excellent breakfast. “That was mighty good, m’am,” Virgil said. We surely do thank you for it.”
“Well, I thank you for coming to help us. It will be so much easier to have a cabin. We have so many things we need a place for, that will give us the space for them. I can’t thank you enough.”
And so, we started on the cabin. Virgil had erected cabins before, and he started by dividing us into groups—one of bring materials from the wagon, another to lay out the walls while still others notched the logs. The last crew lifted the logs into place at Virgil’s direction. I was on this final crew, which was composed of the younger ones among us. Even at that, we struggled to lift the heavy logs.
“Be careful with those, “ Virgil called. “They’re heavy, and if one of the drops on your foot, you’ll surely know it.”
One of Virgil’s friends looked at him as he and another man finished putting a log into place. “Don’t you think we know that, Virgil? We’re the ones who know how heavy they are.”
“I know you know it, Francis. I was just making sure you knew what would happen if you dropped one of those on your foot.”
We continued working, and when the supply crew had unloaded all the logs and put them for the notching crew to do their work, the first crew joined the others on the walls. By that time, we were halfway up the windows, and so it took two men to carry the log to its place where they passed it to two other men who were standing on the wagon that Virgil had brought over. From that, they moved each log into position.
About then, Laurel came out to see what progress we were making. “You’ve done a lot already,” she said. “Lunch is almost ready. Do you wanted to stop for a break and eat it?”
At this she was greeted by a chorus of approval and cheers. These fellows must like to eat, I thought. I could have kept going, but thought I should stop and make the acquaintance of those workers I didn’t know, and there were several of them.
We went to where Laurel had spread out our lunch on some trestles and logs. “Who put together the trestles?” I asked her. I hadn’t noticed them as they were being built.
“It was Hiram and Andrew. I think they learned how by putting the shelters together.”
“They are amazing young men and learn so quickly,” I said.
She smiled and said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Laurel and I waited while the others went through and got their food. Then we loaded our plates and went to sit with two of the workers I did not know. They put their plates on the ground and stood up as we came closer to them.
“Mr. Dillard, my name is John Sears, and this is my friend George Watkins. Thank you for the food. It’s really delicious.”
“You’re welcome, but my wife Laurel here is responsible for the meal. You should thank her. And call me Caleb. My friends do.”
“All right, Caleb,” said Sears. He turned to Laurel.
“Thank you for fixing all this food. As I said, it tastes so good.”
“It’s nice to meet you both,” Laurel said. “And I’m glad you’re enjoying your meal, but I had help from the three boys. May we join you?”
“We’d be honored,” Sears said. “Please sit down.”
We sat and started eating. The food was good. “What do you do for a living, Mr. Sears?” I asked.
“First of all, call me John, Caleb. I’m a mason. I’ve worked in towns all around here. It’s a good way to make a living.”
“I see. I’ve always admired anyone who can do what you are capable of. And what about you, George? What kind of work do you do?”
He finished chewing a bite and said, “I help out in the blacksmith shop. That’s how I found out about this—Virgil told me.”
“Thank you. I didn’t know what. Seems like Virgil knows a lot of people.”
“Yessir, he does. He can’t help it with his shop on the main street and a parade of people constantly going by. I don’t see how he gets any work done, but he does.
We sat and talked as we ate our lunch, and as we were about to finish, Virgil stood up. “This certainly has been a wonderful meal, and I think we should thank Mrs. Dillard for it.” Those gathered around broke into applause, and I saw Laurel blush.
“It is we who should thank you for all you’ve done,” she said. “We couldn’t have done it so quickly without you. Thank you. We will forever be in your debt.”
“You are so welcome,” Virgil replied. “And don’t worry— we’ll be sure to have something we need help on soon!”
This pronouncement was greeted by general laughter, and when it subsided, Virgil said, “I know you’re almost finished eating, so when you are finished, go ahead and take a half-hour break. Take a nap or play cards, I don’t care. Just be ready to get back at it in 30 minutes. I’ll tell you when the time is up.”
This was also greeted by cheers, and the workers dispersed all over the site. Some lay down for a nap while others talked, or, as Virgil suggested, played cards.
“What do you want to do?” I asked Laurel.
“I have all this to clean up,” she responded.
“Oh, come on and take a break. It will all still be there waiting for you.”
“I know. That’s why I want to do it now, but I’ll be glad to spend some time with you.”
“That’s what I want. Now, what do you want to do?”
“Let’s just talk.”
“All right, what do you want to talk about?”
“Well, after the letter you received from Eleanor, I’m worried about what she might do, or what people she might send to do us harm.”
“I know that’s worrisome, but I’ll be here to protect you. And the boys will help me, just as they did in Tennessee.”
“That’s right. They did well with that situation, as did you. Thank you, Caleb. I feel better now.”
“Good. Is that enough talk for you?”
“Why do you ask? Do you want to take a nap?”
“Frankly, yes. I’m tired from all the work.”
And so we both lay on the grass, side by side, and drifted off to sleep. It seemed like no time at all that we heard Virgil calling, “Up! Up! Time to get up!” and we opened our eyes to the men around us sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of our eyes.
“My,” Laurel said, “It looks like most everyone took a nap.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “We’ve been doing some hard, tiring work. Time to go at it again.”
With the amount we had done in the morning, we didn’t have that much left to do. We finished about 2:00, with the last log being laid at the apex of the roof. When it was lowered into play, everyone cheered and clapped.
“I’d say we’re done,” Virgil said to me.
“Yes, we are, and it looks great! Thank you for all that all of you did.”
“You know what I’ll say to that—”
I nodded my head. “Yes, yes, I’ll have a chance to help all of you at some point.”
“That’s it exactly. Now let us get our tools and we’ll be on our way.”
“I’m forever indebted to you and to everyone else.”
Virgil waved his hand, and went about doing his share of loading the tools. Then he climbed in the driver’s seat and waited for the rest to climb up into the bed. They waved and shouted their good-byes.
The four of us, not including little Caleb, who was asleep in the new cabin, stood and waved back. “Thank you,” I called. “God bless all of you.”
We watched them until they went out of sight, and then turned to each other.
“So what do we do now?” Andrew asked.
“I don’t know about you,” I said, “but I could use another nap.”
“I’m not sleepy,” Andrew said.
“I’m not either,” Hiram added.
“Why don’t’ you start moving our things into the cabin. I can sleep outside.”
“I’ll tell the boys where to put the stuff.” Laurel looked at them and they nodded.
“All right. You do that, and I’ll help you when I wake up.”
I found a soft spot to lie on and soon I fell asleep. It was a welcome rest.
I woke up, and, judging the time from the sun’s position, was surprised at how long I had slept. I looked over to the place where we had piled our belongings and was pleased to see that they all had been moved. I went into the cabin to find Laurel directing the boys as to where everything went.
“I see you’re awake,” she said. “Did you have a good nap?”
“I surely did, but I slept much longer than I intended. I see you have everything moved in.”
Laurel smiled. “Yes, the boys worked hard. Even little Caleb helped.” She tousled his hair. “He’s a good boy.”
“Let’s sit down and talk about what happens next,” I said. We went over and sat on some boxes the supplies came in.
“We’ll need some proper furniture,” Laurel said. “How much can we afford?”
“We won’t have to buy all of it. In fact, I can make most of it,” I replied.
“I didn’t know you could do that. You’re amazing.”
I shrugged. “You do what you have to do. Say, getting away from the task at hand, I just realized I haven’t read Alphonso’s letter. Do you mind if I read it to you? Then you can see what he has to say.”
“Of course I don’t mind. I do want to know what’s in the letter.”
I tore it open and started reading. It was good to see his wonderful penmanship. I could never write like that, even with centuries of practice.
June 15, 1863
My dear Caleb,
I have not heard from you in so long, and I pray earnestly that nothing untoward has happened to you. I will send this letter to your home address and pray that it will find you there and well, along with your family..
I am in good health and have very little to complain about. I am at present encamped with Lee’s army near Culpeper, the place where your adventure began, following our campaign at Chancellorsville, which went well for us, save the loss of General Jackson, who was shot by his own men and died shortly thereafter. The word is that Lee said, ‘I have lost my good right arm,” and indeed Jackson was that. We shall miss him sorely.
The rumor is that we will invade the North, going up the Valley to meet the enemy wherever God and Providence may see fit. We believe Lee’s plan is to defeat the Northern troops and then drive on to Baltimore and then down to Washington, where he aspires to negotiate a treaty bringing an end to the war and recognizing our claim to sovereignty and independence. I am for anything that would end this war in any way. I wrote that I have little to complain of, but among those things, this war and its brutality and bloodshed are chief among my complaints. I have lost too many friends and seen too many grievously wounded and crippled to wish this conflict would continue one second longer. I feel as if I cannot bear much more. We began with high hopes and aspirations, and those have been trampled in the mud and blood and broken bodies. It is hard to remember what we are fighting for, and I wish for the calm and companionship of home, although I am not sure it will be standing when this conflict is over. I pray to God that it will and I pray that the war will be over with soon.
I also pray that I may see you after not too much time has elapsed, and then we can be together as we were at the beginning of the war. I still think of those days quite fondly.
May God bless and keep you, my friend. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
Your friend and comrade who is longing to see you,
When I had finished, I gave the letter to Laurel so she could read it in case she had missed anything in the hearing. She sat down and perused it quickly (since she was a teacher, she read much faster than I), put it down by her side, and looked up at me, stricken. “Poor dear Alphonso. I can tell he has suffered as much as one who has not been injured or killed can, and yet he asks after you and all of us. I can tell from this letter what I learned from those you sent me that he is a fine man, and one I wish to meet one day. I wish there were something more we could do for him besides write him a letter.”
“If you will help me with the spelling of some of the words, I will write him back quickly. I know that he is anxious to hear from me.”
She got up and came over and slipped into my arms. “Of course, my love. You know I would do anything for you.”
I went outside to show the boys what I wanted done with the garden the next day, which would finish their projects for the moment now that the cabin was built. They would have to move some large branches and rake and cut out the weeds, as I had told them, but I wanted to be sure they understood what I wanted. I came back inside where I found Laurel putting little Caleb to sleep. She motioned to me to be quiet, and, in a few minutes, took the sleeping lad and put him on a pallet in the corner. We all would be sleeping on pallets until I could build the beds, but it was better than lying on rocky soil. She made certain he was sleeping and then quietly came over to me. “I’m ready to help you with the letter,” she whispered, and I nodded my head.
It took a while because we had so much happen to us since the last time I saw Alphonso, but she helped me with it all and I said, “I’ll take it to the post office tomorrow. I want Alphonso to know of our condition post haste.”
She regarded me with a smile. “You are such a good man, but I knew that before I married you. I’m so glad I did. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“And I am glad I married you,” I returned. “I do not want to think what my life would be like without you, either.”