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   Chapter 41 THE TOLLGATE

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 18534

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


On Thunder Run Mountain faint reds and yellows were beginning to show in the maple leaves, while the gum trees dwelling in the hollows had a deeper tinge of crimson. But the mass of the forest was yet green. The September sun was like balm, amber days, at once alert and dream-like. The September nights were chilly. But the war, that pinched and starved and took away on all hands, left the forest and the wood for fires. On Thunder Run the women cut the wood, and the children gathered dead boughs and pine cones.

The road over the mountain was in a bad condition. It had not been worked for a year. That mattered the less perhaps, that it was now so little travelled. All day and every day Tom Cole sat in the sunshine on the toll gate porch, the box for the toll beside him, and listened for wheels or horses' hoofs. It was an event now when he could hobble out to the gate, take the toll and pass the time of day. He grew querulous over the state of the road. "There'd surely be more travel if 't warn't so bad! Oh, yes, I know there aren't many left hereabouts to travel, and what there are, haven't got the means. But there surely would be more going over the mountain if the road wan't so bad!" He had a touch of fever, and he babbled about the road all night, and how hard it was not to see or talk to anybody! He said that he wished that he had died when he fell out of Nofsinger's hayloft. The first day that he was well enough to be left, Sairy went round to the Thunder Run women, beginning with Christianna Maydew's mother. Several days afterward, Tom hobbling out on the porch was most happily welcomed by the noise of wheels. "Thar now!" said Sairy, "ain't it a real picnic feeling to get back to business?" Tom went out to the gate with the tobacco box. A road wagon, and a sulky and a man on horseback! The old man's eyes glistened. "Mornin', gentlemen!" "Mornin', Mr. Cole! County's mended your road fine! Big hole down there filled up and the bridge that was just a mantrap new floored! The news? Well, Stonewall Jackson's after them!"

But despite the filled-up holes travel was slight, slight! To-day from dawn until eleven, no one had passed. Tom sat in the sun on the porch, and the big yellow cat slept beside him, and the china asters bloomed in the tiny yard. Sairy was drying apples. She had them spread on boards in the sun. Now and then she came from the kitchen to look at them, and with a peach bough to drive the bees away. The close of summer found, as ever, Thunder Run shrunken to something like old age; but even so his murmur was always there like a wind in the trees. This morning there was a fleet of clouds in the September sky. Their shadows drove across the great landscape, the ridges and levels of the earth, out upon which Thunder Run Mountain looked so steadily.

A woman, a neighbour living a mile beyond the schoolhouse, came by. Sairy went over to the little picket fence and the two talked. "How is she?"-"She's dead."-"Sho! You don't say so! Poor thing, poor thing! I reckon I thought of her mor'n I slept last night.-'N the child?"

"Born dead."

Sairy struck her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Sho! War killin' 'em even thar!"

The mountain woman spoke on in the slow mountain voice. "She had awful dreams. Somebody was fool enough to tell her 'bout how dreadful thirsty wounded folk get, lyin' thar all round the clock an' no one comin'! An' some other fool read her out of an old newspaper 'bout Malvern Hill down thar at Richmond. Mrs. Cole, she thought she was a soldier. An' when she begun to suffer she thought she was wounded. She thought she was all mangled and torn by a cannon ball. Yes'm, it was pitiful. An' she said thar was a high hill. It was five miles high, she said. An' she said thar was water at the top, which was foolish, but she couldn't help that, an' God knows women go through enough to make them foolish! An' she said thar was jest one path, an' thar was two children playing on it, an' she couldn't make them understand. She begged us all night to tell the children thar was a wounded soldier wantin' to get by. An' at dawn she said the water was cold an' died."

The woman went on up Thunder Run Mountain. Sairy turned again the drying apples, then brought her patching out upon the porch and sat down in a low split-bottomed chair opposite Tom. The yellow cat at her feet yawned, stretched, and went back to sleep. The china asters bloomed; the sun drew out the odours of thyme and rue and tansy. Tom read a last week's newspaper. General Lee crosses the Potomac.

Christianna came down the road and unlatched the gate. "Come in, come in, Christianna!" said Tom. "Come in and take a cheer! Letter came yesterday-"

Christianna sat down on the edge of the porch, her back against the pillar. She took off her sunbonnet. "Violetta learned to do a heap of things while I was down t' Richmond. I took a heap of them back, too, but somehow I've got more time than I used to have. Somehow I jest wander round-"

Tom took a tin box from beside the tobacco box. "'T would be awful if the letter didn't come once't every ten days or two weeks! Reckon I'd go plumb crazy, an' so would Sairy-"

Sairy turned the garment she was patching. "Sho! I wouldn't go crazy. What's the use when it's happening all the time? I ain't denying that most of the light would go out of things. Stop imaginin' an' read Christianna what he says about furin' parts."

"After Gaines's Mill it was twelve days," said Tom, "an' the twelfth day we didn't say a word, only Sairy read the Bible. An' now he's well and rejoined at Leesburg."

He cleared his throat. "Dear Aunt Sairy and Tom:-It's fine to get back to the Army! It's an Army that you can love. I do love it. But I love Thunder Run and the School House and Tom and Sairy Cole, too, and sometimes I miss them dreadfully! I rejoined at Leesburg. The 65th-I can't speak of the 65th-you know why. It breaks my heart. But it's reorganized. The boys were glad to see me, and I was glad to see them. Tell Christianna that Billy's all right. He's sergeant now, and he does fine. And Dave's all right, too, and the rest of the Thunder Run men. The War's done a heap for Mathew Coffin. It's made a real man of him. Tom, I wish you could have seen us fording the Potomac. It was like a picture book. All a pretty silver morning, with grey plovers wheeling overhead, and the Maryland shore green and sweet, and the water cool to your waist, and the men laughing and calling and singing 'Maryland, my Maryland!' Fitzhugh Lee was ahead with the cavalry. It was pretty to see the horses go over, and the blessed guns that we know and love, every iron man of them, and all the white covered wagons. Our division crossed last, Old Jack at the head. When we came up from the river into Maryland we turned toward Frederick. The country's much like our own and the people pleasant enough. You know we've got the Maryland Line, and a number besides. They're fine men, a little dashing, but mighty steady, too. They've expressed themselves straight along as positively certain that all Maryland would rise and join us. There's a line of the song, you know:-

"Huzzah! huzzah!

She breathes, she burns, she'll come, she'll come,

Maryland! my Maryland!"

"She hasn't come yet. The people evidently don't dislike us, and as a matter of course we aren't giving them any reason to. But their farms are all nice and green and well tilled, and we haven't seen a burned house or mill, and the children are going to school, and the stock is all sleek and well fed-and if they haven't seen they've heard of the desolation on our side of the river. They've got a pretty good idea of what War is and they're where more people would be if they had that idea beforehand. They are willing to keep out of it.-So they're respectful, and friendly, and they crowd around to try to get a glimpse of General Lee and General Jackson, but they don't volunteer-not in shoals as the Marylanders said they would! The Maryland Line looks disdain at them. Mathew Coffin is dreadfully fretted about the way we're dressed. He says that's the reason Maryland won't come. But the mess laughs at him. It says that if Virginia doesn't mind, Maryland needn't. I wish you could see us, Aunt Sairy. When I think of how I went away from you and Tom with that trunk full of lovely clean things!-Now we are gaunt and ragged and shoeless and dirty-" Tom stopped to wipe his spectacles.

Sairy threaded a needle. "All that's less lasting than some other things, they air. I reckon they'll leave a brighter streak than a deal of folk who aren't gaunt an' ragged an' shoeless an' dirty."

"I don't ever see them so," said Christianna, in her soft drawling voice. "I see them just like a piece we had in a book of reading pieces at school. It was a hard piece but, I learned it.

"All furnished, all in arms,

All plumed like estridges that with the wind

Bated-like eagles having lightly bathed,

Glittering in golden coats like images."

"No. I reckon if Virginia don't mind, Maryland needn't."

Tom began again. "We've got a lovely camp here, and it's good to lie and rest on the green grass. The Army has had hard fighting and hard marching. Second Manassas wa

s a big battle. It's in the air that we'll have another soon. Don't you worry about me. I'll come out all right. And if I don't, never forget that you did everything in the world for me and that I loved you and thought of you at the very last. Is living getting hard on Thunder Run? I fear so sometimes, for it's getting hard everywhere, and you can't see the end-I wish I had some pay to send you, but we aren't getting any now. This war's going to be fought without food or pay. Tell me, Aunt Sairy, just right honestly how you are getting on. It's getting toward winter. When I say my prayers I pray now that it won't be a hard winter. A lot of us are praying that. It's right pitiful, the men with wives and children at home, and the country growing to look like a desert.-But that's gloomy talk, and if there's one thing more than another we've got to avoid it's being gloomy!-Tell me everything when you write. Write to Winchester-that's our base of supplies and rendezvous now. Tell me about everybody on Thunder Run, but most of all tell me about yourselves. Give my very best regards to Christianna. She surely was good to me in Richmond. I don't know what I would have done without her. At first, before I-"

Sairy put out her hand. "Give it to me, Tom. I'll read the rest. You're tired."

"No, I'm not," said Tom.-"At first, before I came up with the Army, I missed her dreadfully."

Sairy rose, stepped from the porch, and turned the drying apples. Coming back, she touched the girl on the shoulder-very gently. "They're all fools, Christianna. Once I met a woman who did not know her thimble finger. I thought that beat all! But it's hard to match the men."

"You've put me out!" said Tom. "Where was I? Oh-At first, before I came up with the Army, I missed her dreadfully. Billy reminds me of her at times.-It's near roll call, and I must stop. God bless you both. Allan."

Tom folded the letter with trembling hands, laid it carefully atop of the others in the tin box, and took off and wiped his glasses. "Yes, if a letter didn't come every two weeks I'd go plumb crazy! I've got to hear him say 'dear Tom' that often, anyhow-"

Christianna rose, pulling her sunbonnet over her eyes. "Thank you, Mrs. Cole an' Mr. Cole. I thought I'd like to hear. Now I'll be going back up the mountain. Violetta an' Rosalinda are pulling fodder and mother is ploughing for wheat. I do the spinning mostly. You've got lovely china asters, Mrs. Cole. They have a flower they called magnolia down 't Richmond-like a great sweet white cup, an' they had pink crape myrtles. I liked it in Richmond, for all the death an' mourning. Thunder Run's so far away. Good mahnin', Mrs. Cole. Good mahnin', Mr. Cole."

The slight homespun figure disappeared around the bend of the road. Sairy sewed in silence. Tom went back to the newspaper. The yellow cat slept on, the bees buzzed and droned, the sweet mountain air brushed through the trees, a robin sang. Half an hour passed. Tom raised his head. "I hear some one coming!" He reached for the tobacco box.

It proved to be an old well-loved country doctor, on a white horse, with his saddle bags before him. Sairy hurried out, too, to the gate. "Doctor, I want to ask you something about Tom-" "Psha, I'm all right," said Tom. "Won't you get down and set a little, doctor?"

The doctor would and did, and after he had prescribed for the tollgate keeper a two hours' nap every day and not to get too excited over war news, Tom read him Allan's letter, and they got into a hot discussion of the next battle. Sairy turned the drying apples, brushed away the bees, and brought fresh water from the well, then sat down again with her mending. "Doctor, how's the girl at Three Oaks?"

The doctor came back from Maryland to his own county and to the fold which he tended without sleep, without rest, and with little pay save in loving hearts. "Miriam Cleave? She's better, Mrs. Cole, she's better!"

"I'm mighty glad to hear it," said Sairy. "'T ain't a decline, then?"

"No, no! Just shock on shock coming to a delicate child. Her mother will bring her through. And there's a great woman."

"That's so, that's so!" assented Tom cordially. "A great woman."

Sairy nodded, drawing her thread across a bit of beeswax. "For once you are both right. He isn't there now, doctor?"

"No. He wasn't there but a week or two."

"You don't-"

"No, Tom. I don't know where he has gone. They have some land in the far south, down somewhere on the Gulf. He may have gone there."

"I reckon," said Tom, "he couldn't stand it in Virginia. All the earth beginnin' to tremble under marchin' feet and everybody askin', 'Where's the army to-day?' I reckon he couldn't stand it. I couldn't. Allan don't believe he did it, an' I don't believe it either."

"Nor I," said Sairy.

"He came up here," said Tom, "just as quiet an' grave an' simple as you or me. An' he sat there in his lawyer's clothes, with his back to that thar pillar, an' he told Sairy an' me all about Allan. He told us how good he was an' how all the men loved him an' how valuable he was to the service. An' he said that the wound he got at Gaines's Mill wasn't so bad after all as it might have been, and that Allan would soon be rejoining. An' he said that being a scout wasn't as glorious, maybe, but it was just as necessary as being a general. An' that he had always loved Allan an' always would. An' he told us about something Allan did at McDowell and then again at Kernstown-an' Sairy cried an' so did I-"

Sairy folded her work. "I wasn't crying so much for Allan-"

"An' then he asked for a drink of water 'n we talked a little about the crops, 'n he went down the mountain. An' Sairy an' I don't believe he did it."

The doctor drew his hand downward over mouth and white beard. "Well, Mrs. Cole, I don't either. The decisions of courts and judges don't always decide. There's always a chance of an important witness called Truth having been absent. I didn't see Richard Cleave but once while he was at Three Oaks. He looked and acted then just like Richard Cleave,-only older and graver. It was beautiful to see him and his mother together." The doctor rose. "But I reckon it's as Tom says and he couldn't stand it, and has gone where he doesn't hear 'the army-the army-the army'-all day long. Mrs. Cleave hasn't said anything, and I wouldn't ask. The last time I saw her-and I think he had just gone-she looked like a woman a great artist might have met in a dream."

The doctor gazed out over the autumn sea of mountains and up at the pure serene of the heavens, and then at his old, patient white horse with the saddle bags across the saddle. "Mrs. Cole, all you've got to do is to keep Tom from getting excited. I'll be back this way the first of the week and I'll stop again-"

Tom cleared his throat. "I don't know when Sairy an' me can pay you, doctor. I never realized till it came how war stops business. I'd about as well be keeping toll gate in the desert of Sahary."

"I'm not doing it for pay," said the doctor. "It's just the place to stop and rest and talk, and as for giving you a bit of opinion and advice, Lord! I'm not so poor that I can't do that. If you want to give me something in return I certainly could use three pounds of dried apples."

The doctor rode on down the mountain. Tom and Sairy had a frugal dinner. Then the former lay down to take the prescribed nap, and the latter set her washtub on a box in the yard beneath the peach trees. Tom didn't sleep long; he said every time he was about to drop off he thought he heard wheels. He came back to his split-bottomed chair on the porch, the tobacco box for the toll, the tin box with Allan's letters, and the view across the china asters of the road. The afternoon was past its height, but bright yet, with the undersong of the wind and of Thunder Run. The yellow cat had had his dinner, too, and after sauntering around the yard, and observing the robin on the locust tree again curled himself on the porch and slept.

Sairy straightened herself from the washtub. "Somebody's comin' up the road. It's a man!" She came toward the porch, wiping her hands, white and crinkled, upon her apron. "He's a soldier, Tom! Maybe one of the boys air come back-"

Tom rose too, quickly. He staggered and had to catch at the sapling that made the pillar. "Maybe it's-"

"No, no! no, no! Don't you think that, an' have a set-back when you find it ain't! It ain't tall enough for Allan, an' it ain't him anyhow. It couldn't be."

"No, I reckon it couldn't," said Tom. "But anyhow it's one of the boys." He was half way to the gate, Sairy after him, and they were the first to welcome Steve Dagg back to Thunder Run.

Tom Cole forgot that he had no opinion of Steve anyway. Sairy pursed her lips, but a soldier was a soldier. Steve came and sat down on the edge of the porch, beside the china asters, "Gawd! don't Thunder Run sound natural! Yass'm, I walked from Buford's, an' 't was awful hard to do, cause my foot is all sore an' gangrened. I've got a furlough till it gets well. It's awful sore. Gawd! ef Thunder Run had seen what I've seen, an' heard what I've heard, an' done what I've done, an' been through what I've been through-"

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