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The Secret of Richmond Manor
Bonnets and Bugles Series 3
By Gilbert L. Morris
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1995 Gilbert L. Morris
All rights reserved.
Who'd Eat an Old Frog?
Leah Carter bent over the wood cookstove and opened the oven door. A delicious aroma wafted out. She inhaled it with enjoyment, then pulled out the large pan and placed it on the table. Looking around, she found the broom in the corner and quickly removed one of the straws. Coming back to the table, she leaned over the cake that bulged over the pan and plunged the straw into the top.
"Just right!" she said with satisfaction. She placed the cake aside and then stepped back to the stove, where a saucepan of chocolate was bubbling. She stood watching it for awhile, and when it looked right she picked up the pan and went to the cake. Carefully she added the icing and then, putting the saucepan down, examined her creation. "You look like a fine cake," she said.
"You talking to yourself, Leah?"
She jumped, startled, and turned to the man who had come in. "Uncle Silas," she scolded, "I wish you wouldn't sneak up on me like that!"
"I wasn't sneaking." Silas Carter grinned at her with an air of innocence. He was a small man with a full white beard and a pair of merry blue eyes. "I came clomping in like a herd of elephants." A sly smirk touched his lips, and he said, "I think you must be thinking about some young man."
"I was not!" Leah protested.
"Well, have it your own way." Uncle Silas walked over to the table and looked down at the cake. "How 'bout I have a piece of that?"
"No, that's for supper."
"Well, let me just taste the icing."
When her uncle reached out to draw his finger across the frosting, Leah squealed, "Don't you dare!" Turning, she picked up the saucepan. "Here, you can scrape the pan." She watched him greedily lick the spoon, then begin scraping at the thick icing on the inside. "You're just like a child," she exclaimed, shaking her head.
Silas did not stop eating the icing. "Well, I did without good cooking so long," he said between bites, "I don't miss many chances."
"I hope you've got something to do today," Leah said. "I can't cook with you underfoot all the time."
"I'll just sit right over here." Silas drew a cane-bottomed chair from under the table and moved it against the wall. Carefully he sat down and tilted it back, placing his heels on the rung. "Now this is what I like. Lots of good food and a fine-looking young woman to do the housework! I should have thought of this a long time ago."
"You're spoiled," Leah accused the old man.
Silas nodded cheerfully. "About time, I say." He gave the spoon another healthy swipe with his tongue. "If I had known I could've had a life like this, I would've gotten sick a long time ago."
Silas's two nieces, Leah and Sarah Carter, had come all the way to Virginia from Kentucky to care for him after he had gotten ill. They had, he insisted, saved his life from the awful woman he'd hired to take care of him. He had grown very fond of the girls and had been saddened when Sarah had to return home. She had had a slight misunderstanding with the Confederate authorities. In fact, she'd been falsely accused of being a spy and had been forced to leave Richmond.
Looking over at Leah, Silas said, "I'm sure glad you could stay and take care of me. I miss Sarah, though. She sure is a fine girl!"
Leah was busy rattling pans, getting ready to cook the evening meal. "I miss her too. And Pa and Ma—and Esther."
"Too bad Sarah had to go home. I was sad to see it happen—but not as sorry as Tom."
He gave the spoon one more lick, then gruffly said, "I guess he's all she writes about in her letters." He handed the pan to Leah and said, "What time are the Majors boys coming?"
She began cleaning the saucepan. "They said they'd be here late this afternoon."
"I was surprised that they could get off, what with this battle shaping up," Uncle Silas said.
The mention of the battle caused Leah to frown. "I guess it's only because Lt. Majors is still weak from being in that ole Yankee prison camp. I still don't like the way he looks. He ought to take a month off."
"I don't think he's going to get it, though, the way the Yankees are headed this way. We'll need every man we can get to hold off them blue-bellies." Silas tilted his chair forward and stood to his feet. "What all we having for supper? I'm hungry already."
"You get out of here, Uncle Silas," Leah scolded. "I can't get a thing done with you around, and you're not going to spoil your supper by getting into that cake!"
Silas shook his head sadly. "That was exactly my intention," he said. "But you're the boss in the kitchen, so I'll go out and hoe the beans a little bit."
Leah, looking out the window, smiled as her uncle picked up a hoe and headed for the garden. As he began hoeing slowly and methodically, she thought again how strange it was that she was here in Richmond. She'd grown up in Kentucky, but when the war came that state had split in two—half for the Union and half for the South. The Carter family had been for the Union—her own brother, Royal, was serving in the Union army. The thought of Royal made her sad for a moment. She was afraid he was in the Army of the Potomac that everyone said was headed for Richmond.
She thought of the job of getting the chicken ready for supper. She didn't like that part of cooking—killing the chicken. But it was something that had to be done.
She went out into the chicken yard where the white birds flocked to her, expecting to be fed. I wish there was some way to eat chickens without killing them, she thought. She loved animals, and it was hard to choose one, but she did. She quickly went through the ritual of killing the bird and picking the feathers off. When she came back into the house, she complained, "I should've waited and made Jeff do that."
As she cut the chicken into parts and put them in a bowl, she thought about Jeff Majors. He and Tom were the two sons of Lt. Nelson Majors, and Leah had known them all her life. They had been neighbors back in Kentucky. Lt. Majors was from Virginia though, and after Fort Sumter was fired on he'd taken his family South. Here he'd joined the Confederate army, as had his sons, Tom and Jeff.
As Leah thought of Jeff, her eyes brightened. "I wish he didn't have to go to that war. He's not really old enough—only fifteen." Jeff was a drummer boy in his father's company. She and Jeff had grown up together, were more like brother and sister, and he'd said he was glad she'd come to Richmond, for he had been lonesome for her.
Finally all the dinner preparations were completed. Just as she finished, Leah heard her uncle call out, "Here they come, Leah."
She whipped off her apron and ran out the door. She stopped on the porch as three men in a wagon waved and called to her.
Leah looked for Jeff, who sprang out of the wagon first. He was a tall boy with the blackest hair she'd ever seen. His eyes also were black. He was wearing a gray Confederate uniform with buttons down the front and looked very handsome, she thought. She wouldn't say so, however.
As he came up to her, she pouted. "I should have known you'd come in time for supper. You never miss a meal, do you?"
Jeff Majors grinned. "I'd be a fool if I did, with as good a cook as you are."
His dark eyes gleamed with humor, and he looked her over. She was wearing a light blue dress today with white trim around the neck and sleeves and had tied her long blonde hair with a single bow.
"Why, you look right pretty, Leah. It's always good when you have a pretty cook instead of an ugly one."
Leah flushed with pleasure, for Jeff didn't pay her many compliments. "You wouldn't care if an ape cooked your food, Jeff Majors!" She turned then to greet his father and brother and thought, I reckon Nelson Majors is one of the handsomest men in the world.
Lt. Majors was indeed fine looking, over six feet tall, dark-skinned, having the same black hair that Jeff had. He had hazel eyes, however, that were very unusual. He bowed formally to Leah and said, "Miss Leah, I'm sorry for you—a troop of hungry soldiers here to be fed."
Leah took the hand he held out and, when he kissed it, blushed. "All you officers talk fancy," she said.
"So do we corporals." Tom Majors, tall and dark like his father, came to shake Leah's hand himself. He grinned at her. "I feel like I could eat a bear."
"Well, we don't have any bears," she said. "But you sit out here on the porch and talk. Supper'll be ready as soon as I call you."
She went back inside and quickly put the chicken on to fry. As it did, she set the table, putting on Uncle Silas's best white tablecloth. She placed a bowl of fresh flowers, including violets and daisies, in the middle of the table. By the time she'd done all that and mashed the potatoes, the chicken was almost done. She went to the door and called, "Come and get it while it's hot."
The four men came in, and Lt. Majors's eyes opened wide as he looked at the table. "Why, this is like eating at a fancy hotel in Richmond, only better."
Tom said almost reverently as he sniffed the air, "That doesn't smell like anything we get to eat in camp. Come on, let's lay our ears back and pitch into it!"
Jeff laughed. "You've got the manners of a wild hog, Tom."
Tom hit his younger brother on the shoulder. "My manners are as good as yours, I reckon, Brother."
The men sat down and spoke of how pretty the table was set.
When Leah had brought the heaping platter of fried chicken and set it down, she seated herself. "There! We can get started."
Silas bowed his head, and the others followed his example. "Father," he prayed, "we thank You for this food. We thank You for these guests, and we pray for our folks at home. We acknowledge that every good gift comes from You. We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen."
"Amen!" Lt. Majors said and looked around the loaded table. "Well, we're not going to be hungry if we get on the outside of this food." He looked at the golden fried chicken, the pork chops, the heaping bowl of mashed potatoes, a bowl of poke sallet, and other vegetables. Then he picked up a piece of freshbaked bread and took a bite. "Oh, my!" He sighed. "I feel like I'm going to commit gluttony."
They all fell to, and Leah was pleased at the way everyone ate. She kept their glasses filled with sweet milk, except for Jeff, who liked buttermilk better. A constant stream of compliments came her way, and she was happy that she'd been able to satisfy them.
When they had slowed down and began shoving their plates back, Leah rose, saying, "You're not through yet."
"Not dessert! I didn't save any room," Jeff protested.
Leah smiled at him sweetly. "That's all right, Jeff. Your father and brother can eat your share."
She left and came back with the cake she had made earlier. When Jeff saw it, he cried out, "Not chocolate-iced cake!"
Leah put down the cake and said innocently, "Too bad you're so full you can't eat any."
"Oh, yeah? Well, you just watch!" He waited as patiently as he could while Leah sliced a piece for each of them.
Jeff started shoveling the dessert into his mouth, and his father said, "Son, you sound like a pig snorting and grunting. I'm ashamed of you."
"I'm sorry, Pa," Jeff said with his mouth stuffed full. "You know how I can resist anything except temptation and dessert."
While the men ate, Leah filled their cups with coffee. "This is about the last of the real coffee," she said. "You'd better enjoy it."
The room became relatively quiet as they ate their dessert. But finally Uncle Silas groaned and said, "Girl, you've done us all in!"
Leah laughed at him, and a dimple popped into her cheek. "It's not my fault you all eat like pigs. You didn't have to."
"Yes, we did, Leah," Tom disagreed. "Any man who wouldn't fill himself up on food like this, why, he's no man at all."
They sat around the table then, enjoying one another's company. Soon they began to talk about the war.
Silas asked, "Nelson, what's the talk around headquarters about this army McClelland's got?"
The lieutenant grew serious. He tapped on the white tablecloth with one forefinger and shook his head. "We've got word that he's got over one hundred thousand men."
"How many do we have, Pa?" Jeff asked.
"Well, not that many—maybe seventy thousand in all."
"Well, one rebel could whip five Yankees," Tom said at once.
His father shook his head. "I've heard that said before. But from what I've seen, it's just not so. Those Union soldiers at Bull Run—they fought just about as hard as men could fight."
"But they ran away—we whipped them," Jeff said, chewing on another piece of cake.
Lt. Majors looked at his younger son. "You know, Jeff, in one way I'm sorry we won that battle."
"Sorry we won!" Jeff exclaimed. "How can you say that?"
"It's made us overconfident, I'm afraid. All you hear is how we put the run on the Yankees, but one battle's not the war."
Silas nodded. "I think you're right, Nelson. From what I hear, the Yankees went back, put their heads down, and started building a big army and lots of war factories. About all we've done around here is brag about how we whipped them in one battle."
Jeff seemed astounded. "Why, I don't see how you can talk like that! We've been training and drilling every day. We'll be ready for them."
"I don't doubt we'll do the best we can," his father said, "and after all, we're fighting for our homes, and they're intruders."
They talked for a while longer about the war, then changed the subject. With a battle coming up, they were all a little apprehensive and somewhat depressed. They talked about Esther, Nelson Major's baby daughter. His wife had died giving birth to Esther, and it had been the Carters, back in Kentucky, who volunteered to take the girl until the Majorses could do better.
"I got a letter from your mother," Lt. Majors said to Leah. He took it out of his pocket. "You might want to read it." He smiled saying, "She claims that Esther's even prettier than you were when you were a baby."
Leah smiled too and took the letter. "Well, she is. She's the prettiest baby I ever saw." As she read, she thought of what a tie Esther had made between the two families. They were divided by the war, but they were together in the task of raising Esther Majors. Handing the letter on to Uncle Silas to read, she said, "I wish I could see her. I miss her so much."
"So do I," the lieutenant said, a frown darkening his face. "A man wants to see his children, and this war won't permit that."
Leah rose and said, "I'll do the dishes."
"Well, I'll help," Tom said. "And you too, Jeff."
"I'm too full," Jeff protested.
But Tom reached down, grabbed him by the hair, and jerked him squealing to his feet.
"You'll help, or I'll strap you." But he laughed.
The young people cleaned up the supper dishes while Silas and Nelson Majors sat on the front porch. The three made a game out of it, laughing and having a good time. Finally they finished and walked out onto the porch too, where they sat until it grew dark.
"Guess we need to go inside. The skeeters are gonna be getting bad," Silas said.
But Jeff said suddenly, "Have you been listening to that big old frog croaking down at the creek?"
"Sounds like a bull, don't he?" Silas nodded. "He's a big one!"
"I'd like to go get me a mess of frogs," Jeff said.
Silas said, "Well, there's a frog gig in the shed over there. It's kind of rusty, but I reckon it'll do. If you want to go, take you a lantern and have at it."
Leah knew he liked any kind of hunting and fishing.
"Come on, Tom," he said. "Let's go."
"Not me. I'm going to go inside and sit down and not do a thing. I've got a feeling we're going to be pretty busy after we go back."
Jeff looked at Leah. "Leah, you come. You can hold the lantern while I do the gigging."
Leah made a face, wrinkling up her nose. "Who'd eat an old frog?"
"I would," Jeff said. He cocked his head to one side and begged, "Come on, Leah. It'll be fun."
"Don't do it, Leah," Tom advised. "He'll have you doing all the work. That's the way Jeff is."
Leah let Jeff coax for a little while, then said, "All right, but I'm going to put on my old clothes." She went to her room and put on a pair of frayed overalls and old shoes.
When she went outside, Jeff was waiting, holding a lantern and a long pole and a sack. "Look! This ought to get 'em." He showed her the gig, which looked like a small pitchfork with four prongs, each having a barb.
Then they walked down to the road, turned, and went on to the creek. The moon had begun to rise—a full moon, like a huge silver dish. By the light of it, Leah could see a small, flat-bottomed wooden boat.
"You get in front," Jeff said. "I'll do the paddling."
Leah scrambled into the boat, holding the lantern carefully.
Jeff got in after her, picked up the paddle, and began to row slowly downstream.
"It's sure quiet," Leah said.
At that moment a huge bull frog said, "Harumph!" and she nearly jumped out of the boat.
"Hold it! Hold that lantern up!" Jeff cried.
Leah held the light high, and Jeff brought the boat to a stop. "Let's sit still," he said quietly. He picked up the frog gig and laid down the paddle. "There," he said, "see there—there he is—look at the size of that frog!"
Leah peered into the night, but the lantern light almost blinded her. Finally she did manage to see two gleaming eyes and made out the shape of a large frog perched on the bank.
Excerpted from The Secret of Richmond Manor by Gilbert L. Morris. Copyright © 1995 Gilbert L. Morris. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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