Please welcome guest author Sharyn McCrumb. McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times best sellers The Ballad of Tom Dooley, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and Ghost Riders. She was named a Virginia Woman of History by the Library of Virginia. In addition to presenting programs throughout the US, McCrumb has taught a writers workshop in Paris, and served as writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee, and at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York. St. Martin’s Press will release her newest book, King’s Mountain, tomorrow, September 24. We’re pleased to offer you an excerpt from it:
There is a time in late September when the leaves are still green, and the days are still warm, but somehow you know that it is all about to end, as if summer was holding its breath, and when it let it out again, it would be autumn.
I felt that way about the golden days we had spent racketing around the hills of Carolina, feasting on stolen cattle and swilling the apple wine of the Whig landowners. I didn’t feel too sorry for the Whigs, though, because I knew they’d do the same thing to their Loyalist neighbors when they could, and I didn’t feel guilty because it wasn’t me that did the stealing. It would have happened just the same, whether I’d been there or not. But I kept on having this feeling that the glorious excursion was coming to an end.
I said as much to Virginia Paul, when we were rattling around in one of the supply wagons, on the way to somewhere else, which is what we usually did in the daylight hours, while the regiment went looking for rebels to fight. It wasn’t any use to try to do the sewing in the wagon, for the rocky road jostled us so that we could not hold our needles steady enough to make a proper seam.
When I ventured to say that it felt like things were coming to an end, Virginia Paul stopped combing her hair, and gave me a less disdainful smile than usual. “What makes you say that, Sal?”
It was a feeling, but I couldn’t put it into words. I shrugged. “It just seems like things are changing. There wasn’t much fighting all summer, and most of the time I felt like we were on an excursion instead of fighting a war.
The scornful look returned. “I suppose it was an excursion for you, Sal. Seeing new country and eating your fill every night. Nobody asked you to fight. You didn’t so much as steal a chicken. There has been precious little fighting, at least in your purview, and not many losses. You have yet to see death at close hand, and feel the pain of it.”
That stung me, coming from her, for she couldn’t be much older than I was. She was being awful high and mighty for somebody who hadn’t seen much more of the war than I had. “I suppose you’d be an expert on dying,” I said. “I expect you know all about it.”
Virginia Paul took no offense at my mockery. With a solemn expression, she tilted her head to one side while she considered the matter. “Yes,” she said at last. “I have seen a fair number of deaths, and I reckon I know the way of it better than you do, Sal. But I never could feel it the way you can. You’ll know more of the sorrow of death than I ever will.”
I knew there was no use asking her what troubles she had lived through, for she never would answer any questions about herself. Sometimes she spoke as if she were an old woman who had seen many years of toil and sorrow. But since she was so young, I thought that she must have meant that somewhere she had seen too many horrors to be moved by anything more.
Suddenly she looked up and became still, as if she were listening to something outside, but all I heard was the rumbling of the wagon, and the clop clop of the officers’ horses in front of us. After a moment she sighed. “Well, we shall soon know the truth of it, Sal. Let us see how you feel then.”
She would say nothing more on the subject, and at last she curled up in the blankets at the back of the wagon and went to sleep, but I sat still for a long time, expecting at any moment to hear the crack of gunfire that would signal an ambush. All was quiet, though, and I decided she only been trying to frighten me with her talk of death.
That evening we fetched up somewhere near Gilbert Town, for the regiment had been circling that town for weeks, like a moth to a candle flame. We might go a ways north or west of it, but sooner or later we ended up back again, ready to set off in a different direction in a day or so.
Virginia Paul and I jumped down out of the baggage wagon and went looking for the creek, for we were sweat-soaked and dusty from the day’s sojourn on the road. When we had finished what the major would call our “ablutions” and were heading back toward camp, we heard a piteous wailing, followed by shouts of alarm.
An ambush, I thought, but Virginia Paul kept on calmly walking toward the camp, as if the noises had been no more than birdsong.
I took hold of her arm. “What is it?”
She turned to me and smiled. “Go along and find out, Sal. They’ll have need of one of us, and this time it should be you.”
I hitched up my skirt and ran toward the shouting. When I neared the circle of baggage wagons, I found a cluster of soldiers gathered around something that I could not see. Before I could make my way into the crowd to see what had happened, I saw Uzal Johnson with his black satchel, hurrying along in the wake of one of the farm boys. The crowd parted to let him through, and I followed him into the gap.
I saw the blood in the dirt before I could take in anything else. Sprawled on the ground lay a rawboned boy, one of the local recruits, holding his leg, from which the blood gushed like a stream of snowmelt. I turned to the man beside me. “What happened to him?”
Without taking his eyes off the injured recruit, the soldier said, “That there’s Malcolm Hardie, from over in South Carolina. They say he tripped on something—a rock—like as not, and it pitched him under the baggage wagon, just as the rest of us were rolling it in place in the circle of wagons. One of the wagon wheels ran over his leg. Crushed it, I reckon.”
“Come here, girl!” Uzal Johnson was kneeling next to the wailing boy, probing the wound with his fingers, when he looked up and caught sight of me. I had helped the doctor now and again with the washing and dressing of wounds, so I reckoned he had need of me now.
Pushing my way through the onlookers, I squatted down next to Uzal Johnson. “They say he fell under the wheel of a baggage wagon,” I said. “Did he break his leg?”
The doctor nodded. “That’s not the worst of it.” He grabbed my hand and set it down on top of the fountain of blood spurting out from a tear in the soldier’s britches.
“Keep your hand there, Sal,” he said, “Push hard, while I think what can be done.”
“Won’t you set the bone?” I asked. “I can find you a likely stick to make a splint with.”
Uzal Johnson sighed. “It won’t come to that, Sal. Look closely where the wound is.”
I tried to peer down through the stream of blood, and then I saw what the doctor meant for me to see. A jagged piece of bone stuck out from beneath the skin near the wound.
“Keep pushing down, Sal.” When he saw that I had managed to staunch the flow, the doctor gestured to one of the officers. “Get all these men away, sir. I don’t want them here.”
The officer nodded and began to herd the crowd away from the fallen soldier, shouting orders for them to gather firewood and such.
Malcolm Hardie had stopped wailing now. His eyes were open, and he kept taking in great gulps of air, while he tried to lay still.
“What has happened,” said the doctor, speaking to both of us, “is that the wagon wheel snapped that leg bone in two, and when it broke, the splintered bone poked its way up through the skin, tearing the femoral artery; hence all the bleeding.”
I nodded, fighting the urge to pull my hand away from the pooling blood. “How long do I have to hold the wound like this, doctor?”
Uzal Johnson wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his coat. “Why, for the rest of his life, Sal.”
“But . . . but . . . can’t you sew up the cut and stop the bleeding?”
He shook his head. “He would bleed to death before I could get in a single stitch. His life is draining away now, and all that is keeping him alive is the pressure of your hand upon the wound. When you take it away, this man will die.”
I pushed harder, and tried not to look into the face of the wounded man, but at last I did, and I saw that he was staring at me, calm now. “It don’t hurt too awful much,” he said. “It’ll be quick, won’t it, sir?”
Dr. Johnson nodded. “Quicker than you can say the Lord’s Prayer, soldier. But you have a little time yet to prepare yourself. Sal here can hold that wound shut yet a while, can’t you, Sal?”
I nodded, feeling tears sting my eyes, and then I looked away so that he might not see me cry. Away at the edge of the field I saw Virginia Paul, looking above her into the branches of an oak tree, and paying us no mind at all. She was singing.