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By Mary Louise Collin
Truly YoursCopyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Charity Charlotte Morgan reached across the wooden slat seat of the old wagon and touched Joshua's arm.
"Stop a minute, please, Joshua."
Over the past days since Pastor Joshua Holt had, as a favor to Aunt Nell, brought her to North Carolina from her temporary home with friends near Nashville, they had moved to first names.
Joshua pulled the horses' reins to bring them to a stop. He stretched his long, booted legs for a moment before turning to her with an understanding smile. "A lot of the leaves are gone already and you can see some of the lower part of the valley from here now. High summer, about all you see is green leaves from here on up to the mountains. Later this winter you can even see some of the houses. Your aunt Nell lives smack up against the mountain at the top of the valley. We can't see that yet."
Charity couldn't pull up an answering smile. Discreetly, she stretched her own legs, too long to be comfortable in the low wagon seat, under cover of her well-worn linen skirt. The road leading into Falling Water Valley in the North Carolina mountains was covered with leaves, wet with wisps of fog, through which dark trunks of tall trees showed. Above, the bright mixture of green and gold led her gaze back off the road, past a few curls of fireplace smoke in the valley, to the blaze of color racing up the mountains. She watched the domineering bulk of the mountains for a few minutes. They seemed at the same time to tower over her and turn their backs on her. There was a remote beauty about it that Charity wasn't ready for, that she didn't find welcoming. She pulled her gaze closer to their wagon.
A black, dead tree with limbs twisted and twined back onto themselves, standing beside the wagon, seemed to her to symbolize her recent existence. She turned and looked at the pitifully flat canvas in the back of the wagon that held all that was left of her life before the late War Between the States, or, more accurately in Charity's mind, the War of Northern Aggression. Finally, she lifted her gaze back to the tops of the mountains rising up on both sides of the valley. She watched them for a while, then turned back to Joshua's sympathetic face.
"It's so different from Williamson County. The hills there hug you. These mountains dare you to love them."
He nodded. "But once you take the dare, you never get over loving them. You'll see. You may never want to go back to Middle Tennessee."
Charity didn't answer him directly. She couldn't imagine not ever wanting to get back life in the big house on acres of green land in Tennessee where she and Daniel and her mother had lived before the war. And where she had grown up in the tradition of society reserved for the daughters of wealthy and aristocratic families in Nashville and the surrounding plantations. She was sure that her mother must have carried sadness about her father's dying so young, but she didn't let Charity see it, and Charity's much older brother had run the farm and been like a father to her.
She pulled her mind back to Joshua. "What's the name of the road there?"
"You mean the main valley road? No name that I've ever heard," he answered. "They just call it the road. They've named some of the lanes that go down to the farms."
She took in a deep breath. "Then I'll name it to remember Williamson County. Birdsong Road."
He nodded. "It isn't always things we can hold in our hands that we bring with us when we move. Can we go on now? It's been a long, tiring journey and you need to get into your new home."
Charity clasped her hands. "Wait just a little." She felt each hand gripping the other. "I know Aunt Nell was Daddy's younger sister, but nobody has ever told me why she chose to stay here in the mountains. She sent me a sweet letter asking me to come live with her and her husband, but I don't remember her at all, even if she did come to visit us when Daddy died. I was too little then to remember."
"I promise you, Charity, that you will feel like you've known her all your life shortly after she takes you in her arms. Everyone feels that way about Nell Morgan Andrews. She birthed most all the young people of the valley."
"Even though her husband is a doctor?"
"Most of the women would rather have a woman with them. And Nell's been here always. Doc Andrews only came into the valley five or six years ago, then he was gone some in the war. No, Nell still does most of the births. And," he added, "after you get to know her, you will understand why she chose to spend her life helping people. She's a missionary who puts her messages in action, not words, like we long-winded preachers do."
He fidgeted with the reins.
Charity tried not to let him hear her sigh. She was tired after days of riding in the uncomfortable wagon and nights spent wherever Pastor Joshua found one of the families he had become acquainted with in his circuit riding days. But she dreaded having to adjust to change one more time.
She managed a small smile.
"I know why you want to go on, Joshua. You're anxious to see Bethany."
He returned her smile with a wide-open grin. "It's purely been awhile," he answered.
"All right. I will like my aunt. Let's go."
His grin widened. "That's the spirit. And it's true. You will not only like her, you will love her."
She nodded, using her fingers to try to smooth spiraling strands of her curly red hair and push them back under her small bonnet.
"Don't worry about that hair," Joshua admonished, giving her an affectionate look. "You're a mighty pretty eighteen-year-old and Miss Nell is going to love you right back. But she'd love you anyway, even if you were ugly as homemade sin."
"Thanks, Joshua." She knew that he didn't always speak in the down-to-earth comforting jargon he was using now. She had heard him deliver a sermon back in Williamson County while he was waiting for her to get her few things together and be ready to leave. Joshua Holt's goal was for his audience to be comfortable enough with his speaking to hear what he was saying.
"Perhaps we could say thank you to God for getting us here safely before we go on," he said.
She took his hand and sat quietly. There was much to be thankful for in any safe travel across Tennessee and North Carolina in 1865, when the roads were still full of unlawful men; returned soldiers who had lost all vestiges of Southern culture; bushwhackers, some of whom fought everybody, hoping to get the carpetbaggers who were changing the South forever in ways no one wanted, hoping to get even, or just taking advantage of the opportunity to get someone else's possessions as they had done during the late war.
She shuddered, remembering the night she had watched her own home burning, and thought again that the house might have survived being headquarters for a Union regiment if she had accepted a kiss from that captain instead of hitting him with a piece of firewood. But who could allow a kiss from one of the men who had made her brother leave and not be heard from again? Or caused her mother to have a heart attack and die early in the war?
Before she had finished her own thoughts, Joshua had murmured a few words to the Lord and jiggled the reins, starting up the horses. He let the two tired animals pull the wagon slowly up the almost imperceptibly rising road toward the head of the valley. But Charity wished they would take even more time to get there.
Joshua waved his hand to the right. "There's the school where you'll be teaching, over there."
Charity looked at the small, neglected-looking log building set back from the road amid tall, seed-topped grasses that dipped and swayed gently in the slight breeze. The noon sun, filtering through yellow-leafed trees, seemed to surround it with a honey glow that raised her spirits in spite of herself.
"See," Joshua said, watching her, "even our sugar maples want to welcome you. Makes you feel like God is right in there with you when you're under a bunch of them."
She only nodded and they went on past some cabins set barely back from the road and narrow lanes leading down to cleared areas where she could see glimpses of barns and spring houses. Here and there a cow wandered. She saw a woman stirring something in a big, black pot over an open fire and felt a flash of sympathy. The September day was warm and the woman's long dress seemed dangerously close to the fire.
Joshua kept up a running conversation without her doing more than murmur once in awhile, pointing at a lane or a cabin and calling out the name of someone who lived there. "Tabitha and Nathan Ballard live a little ways down there. I've stayed with them sometimes, but now I've moved into the house where Bethany and I will live after the wedding. It's set way back almost to the mountain. Just off the main road ... just off Birdsong Road ... there is Bertie McMillan and her little girl, Sally. Husband went off near the beginning of the war and was killed, so they live alone. There's an empty cabin over on the left here. That's where the church pastor lived before the war. It's been empty since he got scared at the beginning of the war. Run off by the bushwhackers. They despoiled this valley for a while. Worse than what the neighbors did to each other, fighting over who took to the Union and who took to the South."
Charity was grateful not to have to talk, knowing that Joshua was deliberately not saying anything that required an answer. Certainly he knew she wasn't going to join him in talking about North and South. Too soon, she saw the log cabin set under trees against the base of the mountain that Joshua had described to her, on their way over, as Aunt Nell Morgan's home.
It was a stretched-out cabin with an obviously new addition bumped up against the left side of the original and a wide stone chimney at each end. Smoke drifting out each of them made a soft welcome against the trees.
There were people in front of it, three of them. One was wearing a blue uniform. And the tall, wide woman who must be Aunt Nell was hugging that uniform like it was wrapped around a long lost friend.
Almost without her mind's direction, Charity's legs scrambled to climb over the side of the wagon, even though it was still gently rolling.
"No. I won't stay near any Yankee. I'll just go back."
Joshua reached out a long arm and caught her, pushing her down against the seat a little harder than necessary.
"We talked about it. Men from this valley fought on both sides, Charity. But when they come back and take their uniforms off, they'll be wearing the same kind of clothes again. A year from now you won't be able to tell who fought on which side, except by how they feel toward each other. We have a bigger fight now to get neighbors back to being neighbors again. And you have to help. You knew you're going to be teaching children of both Union and Confederate here. You said you could do it."
"I know. But I wasn't looking at that blue uniform when I said that."
"I don't recognize the soldier, but it might be Willie Bowers. He left to join the army before I knew the people here. He must just have come in to still be wearing that uniform. I'm thinking he'll get out of it as soon as he can. He'll be your closest neighbor here. If it is him, his parents' prayers are answered. Can't you be happy for them, Charity?"
"I prayed, too, Pastor. Daniel didn't come home."
"There are still soldiers coming home all over the South, Charity. We won't give up yet. But I think Nell and Doc have seen us." He pulled the horses to a complete stop.
It was true. The woman had let loose of the soldier and her heavy shoes were pushing against the skirt of her baggy homespun dress, hurrying her over to meet them while the man stayed behind with the soldier.
"Well, it's a great day. Two of our wanderers have come home. Come on down, Charity, and let me get a good look at you. I can tell from here that you look just like your beautiful mama did when she was eighteen. I always told my brother that marrying her was the smartest thing he ever did."
All the time she was talking, she was reaching up to Charity's hand, as though her first thought in any situation was to offer help. Meanwhile, Joshua had climbed down and come over to offer his own help in getting her down from the wagon seat.
Ignoring both of them, Charity flung her wide skirt across the side of the wagon, turned her back on them, and climbed down by herself. Better let them know at the beginning that Charity Charlotte Morgan was going to be be-holden to no one.
She turned around to look directly into the mirror image of her own bright blue eyes, looking like the gray-haired woman behind them was struggling not to laugh.
"You're a real Morgan, Charity Charlotte. We'll get along just fine. Am I allowed to hug you?"
Without waiting for permission, she pulled Charity into her arms. Charity started to hug her back, then remembered that those arms had just been hugging that blue uniform. Still, she couldn't turn away from the warmth of her aunt Nell. For the first time in the torment of the last few months, she felt a desire to lay her head on someone's broad shoulder and cry. She shook herself away from such ideas and stood back.
She recited the words she had been mentally practicing all the way across Tennessee and into North Carolina. "Thank you for giving me a home."
"Child, you're going to just make our home better and you're surely a godsend to the valley. We've been worrying at God to send us someone to get the school open again ... as well as the church. And He's done both in His usual perfect way. But come on now and let me show you your room. You'll be sharing with Bethany till she and Pastor Joshua get through that wedding we're all working on, but it's a big room, thanks to Willie's dad. He built it on, you know. You're going to take some time to rest and get over that trip before you even tell me about it. One thing, though, you've got to meet my husband." A sheen of gentle radiance slipped over her face at the word. "And our neighbor, Willie, just walked in today."
Charity stiffened. But when they turned to walk toward the men, only the doctor and pastor stood there. The man in the blue uniform was gone.CHAPTER 2
Willie Bowers tried to hide the feeling of antagonism toward the man who stood before him in Doc Andrews's front yard, holding out a friendly hand. He knew a little bit about this Pastor Holt—that he had been a circuit rider who preached against the war, but not against either side, and who had been physically hurt more than once for his beliefs.
But not hurt like the soldiers who had gone out to fight for what they believed. This Pastor Holt, who had already said, "Call me Joshua," had stayed away from all that. It was almost as if Willie's body, rather than his mind, had decided to turn away from the outstretched hand, letting his own hang by his side, ignoring the pained look on Doc Andrews's face.
He didn't look at Pastor Holt's face to see if he resented being slighted, but the minister's voice didn't change as he invited Willie to the church services on the coming Sunday. Willie thought that he might decline that invitation, too.
"I'm going to get out of this uniform and help Pa in the field," he said to no one in particular. He turned and walked away, refusing to think about the quick words of consolation that Nell would give to Pastor Holt when she came back from welcoming that redheaded girl in the wagon. But he knew that Nell would be too realistic to try to pretend away his anger, and somehow that made him feel more able to deal with it.
He skirted around the homeplace that Pa had kept adding to until now it stretched straight across the bottom of the mountain like a stopped train. It reminded Willie of the barren freight cars that had carried him and his fellow soldiers across the South to fight and kill men who might have been cousins. Some of the house was log; the latest additions were of unweathered boards.
Behind the house, Falling Water Creek came off the mountain, accepted the waters of a smaller, unnamed stream, and widened before it curved to follow the contours of the valley. Early on, Pa had built a sawmill over the stream, using the moving water to turn a mill wheel and run a saw through felled tree trunks to make boards.
Will smiled, remembering watching his father's skilled hands work with the wood and, when he grew older, helping him. Even when he was a child he had helped by sweeping the sawdust off the floor.
"It seemed like your pa had to keep his hands doing something to keep his mind from running crazy," Mama had told him as part of her happy babbling when he walked in this morning. His father had just held onto his hand and not said anything at all.
Mama had finally sent him off to see Nell and Doc while she dug out his old dungarees so he could get out of his uniform one last time. She'd be fixing a meal like he'd dreamed of over and over nights when he was trying to sleep, cold and hungry. They still didn't have a lot here in the valley, but Pa had had a summer to raise crops without the army or outliers confiscating it, and Mama would find a chicken somewhere that she could get along without.
Excerpted from Birdsong Road by Mary Louise Collin. Copyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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