The Long Drive

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“Yes, the hoops was burned from the barrels but the salt would not burn.”

I called the men and killed the mavericks, and we filled all the iron kettles with meat and salted it down in all the vessels we could manage to round up.

The women was ashamed to come out before the men but I told them to not be afraid, that not one of my men would dare to mistreat them. I begged the women not to let the children eat all they could at first but to give them just broth at first.

An old, old woman came out with a stick in each hand to help her walk. She was bent over almost to the stick, and her hair was gray and not combed; it hung around her face all tangled up. She was a pitiful sight.

She said, “Mister, do you care if I pray?”

I told the fellows to get off their horses and take off their hats. Gawd, I never heard such a prayer. It was thanks given for an answered prayer, a prayer to send them food, and she had had her prayer answered. I never heard a prayer in all my life touch me like that. I can’t tell it yet without crying.

Now why had them mavericks followed all the way from Texas? We tried to drive them back and to cut them out but they wouldn’t leave. They wasn’t branded and it was against the law to have them in the herd, but we couldn’t drive them back. I would not have dared to kill Bushnell’s cattle to feed these people. Now I know why the strays had followed all the way, but I could not understand it until then.

We drove on over the mountain and passed the little hill where they had buried them that died. Oh, rows and rows of little graves!

We found more near Yellville in caves, half starved. We left them meat and hardtack; that was all we had.

Not all these women were bushwhackers’ wives. Some of them was women who had good homes; their husbands had gone to war. The soldiers burned them out alike. That evening we stopped at an old plantation. No fences, no trees, but rich land that had grown up to grass for the cattle. A girl came out and said we could not camp there.

Old Fred was b-b-b-ing, stuttering so he couldn’t say a word when I come up. There she was, a girl, young and pretty, but awful thin and poor. Her eyes was large, and dark all around them.

She said, “You can’t stop on this plantation.”

Says I, “How far to the next one?”

She says, “A wee bit.”

I knew this was only a mile or two and I says to the boys, “Go on.”

Then I said, “Why are you here alone?”

Says she, “I wouldn’t talk to you a minute but for the pin you wear. My father was a Mason, and my oldest brother. They were both killed on the battlefield. The news killed my mother. Then bushwhackers stole all our horses and cattle and even the chickens. They sent home from the war my youngest brother to die: he had gangrene in his foot. Our buildings were burned by the Union soldiers, and I did not have a spade to bury my brother when he died. I dug that grave there with my hands and covered it with evergreens.”

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“To die.”

“But you are a young woman,” I said. “You might get away and maybe marry and have a family of your own and live a life yet.”

She burst into tears then. All the time she’d been dry-eyed.

“No! No!” she said. “The only man I would marry is dead on the battlefield with my father and brother. We would have been married as soon as the war was over, so I am waiting to die. The only thing that I dread is to die here and have the wild animals eat my body.”

I said, “I won’t leave you here like this. What the devil do you eat?”

She said that she ate wintergreen berries and wild plums, and rolled stones in front of the cave at night.

Then I said, “I will take you back to these people at the crossroad.”

“No!” she said, she would not ride a Yank’s horse. Gawd, she had spunk.

Then I said, “You can walk it?” She said, “Yes,” that she had many times.

Then I said, “I will leave you here on only one condition, that you will promise to go to them.”

She considered this a long time, then she said she would.

I said, “You look like a girl who will keep your word.”

She said, “Yes,” that she would go.

I can’t tell about them all but there was one widow, made a widow by the war, told of the Yanks burning the house over her sick sister. She asked them to spare the house for her sister’s sake, but they carried her out and burned the house. There was not a fruit tree left. They even burned the spring house where the last drink of milk was. She buried her sister with her hands, covered her with boughs and reeds. No wonder these southerners hated the people from the North. We left her hardtack and meat.

Then there was a woman and two boys. Fred said to the boys, “W-w-what do you eat?”

“Oh, we got melons now.”

Fred went down to see their house and took them some meat. The woman put her head out and said not to come any nearer.

Fred asked why.