Wild Pony Publishing
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Prologue

 

 

If it had not been for the two men dressed in ragged butternut clothing digging him out of the crater, the youthful artillery Captain would have been nothing more than just another entry on the South’s tally board of death. Now, four years later, the man vaguely remembered bits and pieces of that horrid day down in the draw below Malvern Hill, and he often wonders, “Wasn’t one of those stretcher-bearers named Gus?”

 

Buck really did not want to do that which the new owner of Swift Creek Plantation, the largest of all such holdings in the “Tar Heel” state, officially known as “North Carolina,” kept hounding him about.  But, even though his employer was much younger than he, common decency and the deep respect he held for that young man’s father required that he do as asked.

He could not count the times he’d told his recent new employer to “Just forget about it . . . let it go . . . be done with it . . . nothing good will ever come of it.” Nor could he count the times he’d told that young man what he was asking him to do was like looking for the proverbial “needle” in the proverbial “haystack.”

But all that aside, Buck  knew he would do what was  continually being begged of him . . . not so much for the sake of  his old friend’s son, but out of  the deep respect he held for that  young man’s father  . . . and  that long ago promise he’d made to his  old friend,  Samuel Elywn Biggs. Buck owed the founder of North Carolina’s largest Plantation, Swift Creek, that much . . . and then some.

 

Halfway down the rear stairwell of the plantation’s  “big house,”  Buck cornered the seemingly always ornery as hell,  Doc Yardley,  and once he was sure the two of them were out  of ear shot of  Samuel’s bedroom, he  asked, “How much time does he have, Doc? The truth this time.”

“Damn it,  Buck.  You of all people ought’a know better’n ask me a damn fool question like that,” snarled Weldon’s elderly, and only man of medicine. “There jus’ plain ain’t no way of knowing such things. And here, halfway down these here stairs where everybody and their brother can hear us, sure as hell ain’t no fit place for you to be asking me such a crazy-ass thing like that no how. You could’a at least waited till we was out yonder on the veranda,” he added, guiding Buck by his elbow toward and then through the front door.

 

Buck sat on one of the two recently painted white wrought iron summer benches, Doc Yardley claimed the other. For a few moments not much was said by either man—each thinking their own thoughts—each suffering their own pain. A late summer breeze ruffling the thinning tangle of snow-white hair crowning Buck’s head, required the man caught up in the high-end of middle age to comb it back into place with fingers spread wide.  The same breeze dried the sweat dampened bald scalp of one of the oldest, if not the oldest doctor still practicing medicine in all of North Carolina. Although Doc Yardley might have been crowding the high-end of his seventh decade, his vigor and love of his fellow man had never diminished over the years, so he still plied his trade.

“Doc,” as he preferred to be called by those he thought of as close friends, sat quietly and studied Buck’s facial tics.   He’d been a student of folks and their maladies for over six decades and understood how sometimes even the slightest changes on their faces spoke volumes of their general health.  The road map of deep worry lines he saw on Buck’s face told him if he didn’t intervene soon, his old friend  might fall into that deep hole of anxiety most folks these parts commonly referred to as “Nervous Vexations.”

Familiar with the calming effect of nicotine, of which the labels on each hand-rolled Cuban Cigar claimed an excess of, he reasoned smoking one or two might just be the answer to not only calm Buck’s shattered nerves, but his own, as well—but he was fresh out of his weekly ration of his favored cigars—smoked his last Carolina Gold before arriving to see to Samuel Elwyn Biggs’ most recent health issue.

In an attempt to help his old friend relax, he’d do what he could to soothe Buck’s shattered nerves. Using the only logical ploy short of sounding if he was begging for a cigar, he said “You look a mite bit off your feed.  Can’t say as I much blame you. It’s a hard day when one must watch a dear friend pass so slowly through the Good Lord’s Pearly Gates. Here, do a little of this,’ he said.  “Might take the edge off a bit,” he added, digging deep into a vest pocket for a can of snuff that he knew had only a dust of powder still in it.

“No thanks, Doc, can’t say as I really like snuff all that much, but I do believe I’ll smoke me one of these,” Buck answered, removing a “Carolina Gold” from his own fully loaded vest pocket. “Tobacco’s tobacco the way I see it. Besides, I do prefer the smell and taste of a lit cigar over dip’n snuff. Always have.”

“If truth be known, so do I, but I’m fresh out’ta the ones I brought with me.  Smoked my last one on the way here.” Even with the hint out in the open, Buck didn’t respond as Doc had hoped he would, so finally, he was left to ask, “Say. You wouldn’t happen to have another one of them there Golds on you, would you? If you do, I wouldn’t mind if you was to offer me one.”

“Yeah, I got me a few left, you old goat. I reckon I ought’a just give you one ‘fore you pull a gun on me and take it.”

“Well, then.  Just give me the damn thing and quit dangling it like it’s a carrot and I’m a rabbit,” snapped Doc Yardley, extending his hand, while, with his free hand, he scratched a match across the concrete slab beneath the two of them. 

Cuba’s tobacco had held each of the men prisoners to the vile habit of smoking ever since the deathly ill man lying in his death-bed upstairs had introduced them to the hard to come by and rather expensive cigars nearly three decades earlier.

Doc inhaled deeply—his addiction required that—before he let out the smoke and thanked the man sitting across from him.

Now that the two were alone and out of ear-shot of the others sharing a death watch vigil in the master’s bedroom at the top of the stairs, with the sweet smelling smoke curling from the corners of his mouth,  Buck asked the same question he’d asked Doc Yardley in the curve of the stairwell. “So, Doc? What about Sam? And tell me the truth this time.  And look here, you old buzzard, don’t you go putting no sugar on it, neither.  The truth. You hear me?”

“Oh yes, yes” his voice fading, . . . “our dear, dear, friend Samuel,” answered Doc Yardley, his face etched with sorrow—his shoulders sagging from the heavy weight of knowing the obvious and only answer he had to offer.

“Dammit, Doc,” Buck snapped. “You know good as me, you could’a at least said something up there. Miss Rose weren’t nowhere near close by,” pointing toward the second story window, “but no . . . oh hell no, not you. ‘Let’s go down to the veranda’ you said. And here we are. So out with it and don’t be telling me them lies you been telling everybody else. How is he really doing, Doc?”

“Well . . . if you’re gonna put it that way, truth be known and truth be told, not good.  But let’s smoke a bit first. Maybe then we can figure things out. While we’re at it, the two of you got any more of these?” Doc Yardley asked, holding his smoking cigar up to face level.

“I reckon there’s some left. What are you doing with all them cigars Sam sets aside for you each and every month, ennie-how? You smoke’n ‘em or eat’n ‘em?  Or both?  Lord how mercy, I can’t hardly stand a man what begs for a smoke, and I ain’t  never seen the likes of you. I reckon we have enough to last ‘til the next load gets here,” he added, patting his vest pocket to be sure the last he had left to his name were still there.  “There’s ‘spose to be another load on the way now that those damn Yankees done opened the blockade what they set up ‘tween Cuba and Florida—or at least we been told they was gonna open it up. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. Hell. Who knows what them sorry ass sonsabitch’s are liable to do from one day to the next.  But don’t go fret’n yourself up in a frenzy, you’ll keep getting the same number cigars as always,” Buck added, pulling a smoldering cigar from his own lips.

The promise of cigars always tended to cheer the good Doctor up. “Three bales of cotton for two crates of Cuban cigars and every three months the same?  Right?  Sure beats the hell out of anything I ever heard,” he added as he sucked hard and inhaled deeply.

“That’s for sure.  It is one hell of a deal . . . for them and us.  And just so you know, Sam told me no mor’n a week gone now, him and that Cuban fell’r agreed no matter what the future comes to, they’d keep trading same as always. That’s what you really wanted to hear, ain’t it?”

“If you’re gonna put it like that, they are one of the few pleasures an old man like me can abide.”

“So tell me, what about Sam? And don’t you go lying to me with none of that bull-shit you been feeding Miss Rose. You got that poor woman thinking her husband’s gonna make it to ah hun’ert  years old . . . and then some. Tell me the truth for once.”

Doc Yardley glanced away, seemingly studying the far tree line, “Well, Buck,” he finally answered, as he scratched at the few strands of snow white hair that still held tenuously to his age spotted scalp . . . “it’s like this. He’s fading—fading fast. Two days. Three at most would be my guess.”

“Can I see him?” asked Buck, as he struggled to control his emotions already stretched to the point of breaking. “Willie . . .  you know Willie, their house boy, don’t you? Well anyway, he said Sam’s been asking for me.”

“Of  course you can, but not just yet . . . give Miss Rose a bit longer with her husband,  while me and you  finish these,” Doc answered, holding the cigar slightly above his eyes . . .  examining it as if studying the nature of tobacco. “Me and you both’ll go up and spend a few minutes with him. Now, I said ‘a few,’ mind you.  That’s all. You wake him up, I sure as Hell will send your sorry ass down to Andersonville so they can hold you under lock and key ‘til the day you die. You hear me?”

“Doc, you dumb-ass, that prisons been tore down nigh on a whole year gone now,” Buck answered, finding a much needed courage in the manly art of swearing.

“There or somewhere else. Don’t much matter not one lick to me where that place might be. Or maybe, if you wake him up, I’ll build a new one just for you.  And listen here, you make damn sure you clear look’n in on him with Miss Rose first. Being his wife gives her first say about ever’ thing.   And don’t you go tell’n her I said two, three days neither . . . you hear me?”

“I ain’t no fool, Doc.”

“I ain’t  saying you is, but I swear Buck, sometimes your thinker,” he said, tapping a finger against his own forehead, “don’t burn nigh on  as bright as an oil lamp turned down low.”

 

A feeble hand, once strong enough to crush rocks, reached for Buck’s. As the two dear friends held hands, the bed-ridden man, his voice weak and raspy, said, “Had one hell of a go of it, didn’t we, Buck?”

“That we did. Sam. That we did. But we ain’t thru riding this son of a bitch yet. Not by a long shot. No Sir, we ain’t. Besides,   Doc said you’re doing some better.”

“Hell, Buck. That old fart’s a liar. You know it, and I know it.  Always has been one.”

Buck knew Doc Yardley wasn’t lying.  Anybody blind as a bat flying through the flames of hell could see that.

The deathly ill man on the bed knew it, too. “You’ll stay on, won’t you, Buck?”

“‘Course I will. I done tole you I would and I will stay as long as you need me.”

“No, not for me. Buck.  For my family. Stay for them.”

“I will,” Buck promised,   as he turned his head away to hide the seedling of a tear puddling in the corner of his eyes.

Sam grimaced as each hard sucked breath pressed his rib cage against a badly damaged heart. “Come closer,” he said.

The chair screeched as Buck pulled it across the cypress planked floor.

“See to Rose. She’ll be so lost. And my children . . . be a father to them.  Especially Tad . . . take care of him, Buck.  Make a man out of him.”

“I will.  I will,” Buck answered, as the tear he’d fought hard to hold back fell onto their clasped hands.  Secretly fearing Sam might see it as a weakness, he was glad his old friend had not seen the tear . . . and if he had, that he’d said nothing of it.

But Sam had felt the patter and the wet of the tear—and knew it was Buck’s way of affirming his promise.  Indeed, theirs had been a long hard ride and neither had ever failed the other. With goodbyes said, and wishes acknowledged, the fingers of Sam’s “rock crushing” hand tightened into a vise-tight grip, and ever-so-slowly eased, as he slipped into a fitful sleep.

A tear for a promise. One Hell of a trade.

Two days later, almost to the hour—his family crowding the bed—Samuel Elwyn Biggs—the man thought by all who knew him too strong to ever die, passed into the ages. Doc Yardley stepped to the head of the bed and with a gentle, but trembling hand closed his old friend’s eyelids.


  
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