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
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
Buck cornered the seemingly always ornery as hell,
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?”
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.
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
And don’t you go tell’n her I said two, three days neither . . .
you hear me?”
“I ain’t no fool,
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
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.
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,” 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.
had felt the patter
and the wet of the tear—and knew it was Buck’s way of affirming
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.