Summary: This story takes place in September of 1865, nine months after Adam’s return from the Civil War, which was chronicled in the story “The Battle.”
Word Count: 4200
The voices were soft, but not so quiet that the two Cartwright brothers couldn’t hear them from the bottom of the hill. Joe jumped down from the buckboard seat and tied the horses while Adam retrieved the smaller of the two packages he and their other brother, Hoss, had earlier loaded carefully into the bed. The words grew more distinct as they made their way up a long, rock-strewn path to the small rickety building that served as a church for this small community.
“What they doin’ here?” someone hissed.
“Be polite,” another warned. “Them’s white folk.”
“That’s so, so why they here?”
“Hear tell the young ‘un was there when it happened.”
A soft, feminine voice, more sympathetic than the others, said, “Maybe he feels bad ‘bout it.”
“He should,” came the hiss again. “It was his fault—”
“No, it wasn’t!” A little girl’s voice chimed in, clear and pure. “He didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”
“Hush, chile,” said a woman, and she pulled the youngster back into the group of about twenty Negroes who were gathered around the entrance to the church, dressed in faded and shabby but painstakingly neat clothes.
Joe Cartwright’s face was flaming by now. He fiddled once with his string tie, then resettled his freshly brushed green coat on his shoulders. It was a cool September day, but the sharp mountain wind wasn’t the only reason he felt chilled. With his oldest brother by his side, though, he was able to keep his steps regular. He figured he wasn’t nearly as conspicuous as Adam anyway, who’d chosen to wear his dress uniform. The Union blue was accented by sash and sword, his Major’s epaulettes a brilliant gold against this otherwise gray Autumn day. He carried a large soft canvas bag in his hand, and though Joe had asked what it contained, his brother had either ignored the question, or, more likely, been so lost in thought he hadn’t heard.
Ever since Tommy Coleman had died saving Joe from a bank robber’s bullet, Adam had been quiet and withdrawn, deep in a silence the family hadn’t seen since he’d returned fresh from the War in the East, just before Christmas last year. Tommy, a tall Negro almost Hoss’ size but of an age with Adam, had appeared in town a few months ago. No one who knew Adam was particularly surprised that he was friendly with the ex-slave, and in fact, all of his family talked with him now and again, but it wasn’t long before Joe realized that Tommy had some strange connection with his brother.
The oldest son of one of the most powerful men in Nevada, someone to be reckoned with in his own right, and a poor black man just arrived from the East . . . Everyone knew the Cartwrights were notional, making friends with the most unexpected people, but even so, there was something different and, Joe could sense, surprisingly deep between Adam and Tommy. Their mutual love of music and singing didn’t even account for it.
The late September sun appeared and disappeared behind the skidding gray clouds as the two men approached the steps of the small church. Adam’s timing had been exquisite. The service was over; they’d passed Reverend Johnson as he headed back to town.
They stopped a few yards from the church steps when an old woman came out of the church to stand straight and unbowed in the doorway. Joe knew who she was – Tommy had introduced his mother to the Cartwrights one day when they happened to meet on a Virginia City street. Her dark face was seamed with age and grief beyond that of the last two days, but her eyes were clear, and her hair – as gray as the bleak and wild sky above – was neatly tied back under a cotton bonnet. She was a small woman, but held herself tall; when she spoke, the whispers died away.
“Massa Joe,” she said, to the younger Cartwright’s intense embarrassment. “Massa Adam.”
Adam nodded his head in acknowledgement, somehow conveying tremendous respect for her in that simple motion. “Miss Lyddie,” he responded in deep, cultured tones.
The wind sighed through the trees, the only sound until Little Joe spoke. “We’re sorry if we’re intruding, ma’am,” he started. Their eyes were level with each other, even though she stood at the top of two steps. “I had to come. I owe it to him.”
Her eyes narrowed and she studied him carefully. Then she nodded once and turned to Adam. “And you?”
“I have my reasons,” he said in his fine, quiet voice.
The hissing voice was heard again, “To protect his brother, most like.”
“Celie,” said the old woman. “Be quiet.”
The young woman, really still a girl, melted back into the group of men, women and children gathered between the church door and the Cartwrights.
Lyddie Coleman turned back to Joe, curiosity warring with grief. “Why you think you owe an ol’ black man?”
“Tommy was more than that, and you know it,” Joe shot back. He clamped his lips together for a moment. “I’m sorry. You’re his mother, of course you know.”
“I’m glad to see that you know,” she replied.
He stretched up proudly. “My father taught me to judge a man’s worth by his actions and his heart, not by the color of his skin.”
She nodded slowly. “I been tole that ‘bout the Cartwrights, and I been waitin’ to see if it’s proved true.”
Joe shot a sideways glance at his brother, but for once Adam didn’t have any comment. In fact, he was even standing back a half pace, letting his little brother handle the situation.
“I don’t know how I can do that, Miss Lyddie. And I don’t want to bring any more grief to you folks today. I just want to make sure you understand what happened. That your Tommy died,” he choked on the word, “a hero. If not to those blind people in town, at least to me.”
A man from the back of the crowd stepped forward, his face stony. “He died savin’ your hide. Mos’ white men would think that was only right.”
Joe winced. “Maybe so. But I guess I’m not one of them. Tommy made the choice himself, and as sorry as I am I can’t undo it. I don’t understand why he took that bullet for me, but he did, and nothing I can do will bring him back.”
“That’s the dam’ truth,” spat Celie. “An’ now we got one less good black man, traded him for no good reason for another useless white one.”
Adam finally spoke. “Thomas didn’t see it that way.”
She turned on him. “What you know ’bout it? And who give you the right to call him by that name?”
Joe looked at his brother, whom he knew hated that snide and snippy tone of voice. Invariably when someone spoke to him like that, they paid, one way or another. But Adam was watching her, oddly enough, with a gentle smile.
“I know quite a bit about your Thomas, Celie. I know he loved you and wanted to marry you.”
A low muttering rose from the group; Tommy had been old enough to be her father.
The old woman raised an eyebrow, as fine a gesture as any aristocrat’s. “That true, gal?”
“An’ what of it? You know we gotta grab for what little bits of happy we can get. You’s been lucky, Miz Lyddie, to have your sons. You know I ain’t seen any o’ my family since I was a baby. Tommy an’ me had somethin’ special.” She stared at Joe, killing hatred gleaming from tear-drenched eyes. “But it ain’t gonna happen now.”
“I see. Well, that clears the air a mite, don’t it?” Miss Lyddie turned back to Adam, gathered Joe in with her eyes, then looked up at the heavens where the clouds were roiling before the coming storm. “You boys best come on inside,” she said to them, then disappeared again into the darkness.
The people stepped to each side, and the Cartwrights followed her into the small building, the wary crowd entering one by one behind them.
It seemed only a few steps to the far end of the room, to the plain, simple casket that lay in front of the rough pulpit, with its lid set off to one side. Miss Lyddie had stopped at the head and now gazed down on the face of her dead son. Joe swallowed once, but his step never faltered as he approached the body of the man who’d saved his life.
Flashes of memory tore at him: His quick wink at the girl behind him in line at the bank. Stepping aside at the door for three men to enter as he took a deep breath, satisfied at completing his list of errands. Wondering which saloon to hit before heading home, but delaying a moment to talk with Tommy, who wanted to ask after Adam. Then the wild gunfire erupting from within the bank, the screams, the sudden rush of men from the doorway, and the clear knowledge, as two guns swung his way, that he was going to die and there was absolutely no way to avoid it.
He’d thrown himself desperately to the side anyway, helped along by a sudden blow to his ribs; then he was lying on the ground, Tommy pinning him to the dirt, and people were rushing to them, trying to help him to his feet, asking where he was hit . . . and then suddenly realizing the blood on his shirt wasn’t his, it was Tommy’s, the ex-slave who’d thrown his body in front of him and was even now dying in his place.
He knelt next to the black man and grabbed his hand, tears running down his face as he asked, over and over, “Why? Why did you do it, Tommy?”
Then Adam was at his side, and relief flooded him. His brother would know what to do. “We have to get him to the doc, Adam.”
But Adam shook his head.
“Adam—” Joe started to insist.
“It won’t help,” his brother said in a strained voice.
Joe’s heart sank. Adam had seen too many men die to be wrong.
“You right ‘bout that, Cap’n, suh,” whispered Tommy, to Joe’s confusion. His brother had mustered out of the Union Army as a Major.
“You remember . . .?” Tommy asked.
Adam took his hand in a fierce grip and nodded. “I remember.”
Tommy raised his hand to Joe’s cheek, a rough-handed caress that surprised Joe in its tenderness. “It be worth it, suh,” he said. “I’d say it’s a right fair trade.”
Adam’s eyes were brimming as he gathered him into his arms. “Thank you, Thomas.”
And the black man known as Tommy nodded once, then the satisfied smile grew to sheer delight, and his eyes opened wide in wonder. “I can see it, Cap’n. I can see it comin’. Tell—”
But Joe never found out what Adam was supposed to tell, because Tommy’s eyes closed and then he was gone.
Joe had looked at the seamed dark face and had the sudden fancy that Tommy was happy now, possibly happier than he’d ever been. He looked up now at the old woman and spoke softly. “I don’t know why he knocked me down, I don’t know why he took that bullet for me. I always liked him, and I hope he liked me, but there was never anything that strong between us.”
“Yes, there was,” Adam said.
Joe jerked his head toward his brother, who was standing at the foot of the casket.
“That why you here,” stated the old woman.
“Partially,” he answered. “You see, I knew Thomas, back in Virginia.”
“No, you didn’t,” snapped Celie. “I was with him back then. He never said nothin’ ‘bout knowin’ no white boy.”
He turned to her and spoke, again more gently than Joe felt she deserved. “No one on those battlefields was a boy, white man or black.” He propped his package up against one of the sawhorses that held the casket and walked down the aisle to where she stood, the long, shining cavalry sword that hung from his belt swaying slightly with each step. “He sent you out here, to Virginia City, to wait for him. Why here? How do you think he learned about it?”
He stood in front of her now, a tall powerful presence, but Celie didn’t back down.
“I pondered it, but anything was better than where we were, so when the money came, we took it and ran. I ‘magine he heard from somebody ‘bout the mines needing workers.”
“That’s right. From me. I told him about Virginia City and the mines, the ranches, the farms, the lake . . .” he gestured toward the mountains. “I told him about my family and how I grew up here, told him stories about the Indians and anything else I could think of. I talked until I was hoarse and then I whispered the stories to him.”
The little church was crowded, but Joe didn’t hear a sound aside from his brother’s haunted words.
“Why?” Celie wailed softly, the grief finally beginning to show through her anger. “Why’d you spend time like that with my Tommy?”
“He was dying.”
“What?” she gasped.
Adam shook his head slowly. “I rarely saw braver men than those of his regiment. They had no education, no real training, but they fought with a will that could hardly be believed. I was in charge of a company that ended up – like Thomas’s – in some hell-hole in the Virginia forests. We were camped next to each other one night, and I heard him singing. I wandered over to see if I could get him to teach me the song. He didn’t want to, didn’t think it was seemly for a black man to be teaching a white, especially those songs . . .”
He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
Miss Lyddie spoke into the quiet. “But the music wouldn’t be denied.”
Their eyes locked in perfect understanding. “No. It wouldn’t. And in the days that followed, he taught me that song, and it has haunted me ever since. He taught me others, and I taught him some as well. Then we broke camp and headed south. We engaged the enemy in a field full of wildflowers, though there were none left by the time we were through. Thomas and his company were in the forefront, taking the brunt of the fight, which allowed my men to circle around and catch the enemy in our crossfire. I lost twenty men that day. Thomas’ company lost three hundred.”
He took Celie’s hand as if she were the finest lady in Virginia City, drew her alongside to slowly escort her back to the casket. Joe stepped out of the way, to let them stand beside the body.
“That afternoon, when the battle was over, I found him staggering among the dying, giving them water, trying to stop bleeding from the stumps of arms and legs that had been blown off by cannon shot, and singing, always singing, bringing comfort to men who were screaming in pain. He was covered with blood, though who could tell if it was his own or from the men he’d tended. He said he was fine, and I believed him until he collapsed right in front of me.”
He still held Celie’s hand and gazed down at the remains of the man before him, but Joe knew his brother well and knew that Adam wasn’t really with them. He was back in an Eastern meadow, living through that hellish day, and as his story unfolded, Joe began to realize that the friendship the two had shared came about from something he might never really understand.
“I carried him to a surgeon I knew, got him to work on Thomas next. He’d been shot in the leg and had shrapnel buried in his arm and side. He must have been knocked flat by a shell explosion, because he also had a bloody bruise on his temple. I sat with him until he woke up, and I talked to him to keep him with us.”
“That’s not how I heard it.” Tommy’s brother stepped forward, a frown drawing lines deeply in his face.
Miss Lyddie lifted her chin, and her eyes narrowed. “An’ just what did you hear, Jimmy, and who tole you?”
“Tommy. Back in Virginia.”
“Tommy! When?” Celie demanded.
“When he come see me after he got better.” Jimmy nodded in Adam’s direction. “He got that part right, anyways. Tommy was hurt bad, but it coulda been a lot worse, if it wadn’t for this white man.”
“I didn’t do anything any other decent human being wouldn’t have done,” Adam said.
“Mebbe so. All that means is they ain’t many decent folk in a war. I din’t know it was you, suh – Tommy never tole me your name.” He turned to the crowd. “Mistuh Cartwright, here, done made that doctor work on Tommy. Them doctors din’t want no truck with no black man, soldier or no. Tommy remembered, an’ he tole me how it was. He tole me, too, how this white man sat with him as many days as he could ‘til his reg’ment left, talkin’ ‘bout this new land. An he tole me how this man here sang night after night ‘til he near lost his voice, keepin’ Tommy wantin’ to get his own strength back to sing the ole songs hisself.”
“That true?” asked the old woman.
Joe hardly dared to move as Adam raised his eyes to hers, but even as so many pieces of his brother’s behavior were coming clear, more questions crowded his mind.
“Yes,” Adam finally answered.
“But why did he say it was a fair trade?” Joe asked painfully. “I’m grateful, of course I am, but to give his life for mine, even if he wanted to pay back what you’d done for him . . . I saw him when he died. He was happy. He was dying, and he was happy.” He looked almost wildly around the room at the dark faces that somehow didn’t seem so closed against him any more. “I don’t understand. Why did he think it was was worth it?”
Adam closed his eyes tightly against some inner pain, but it was Jimmy who spoke, his voice kind and gentle. “Your brother tole Tommy ‘bout movin’ out here. He tole him ‘bout this place where we could all be free, could be men and women with our own lives, raise our chillun’s to grow straight an’ tall an’ proud in who they was.” He put an arm around the shoulders of the little girl who had earlier defended Joe. “By helpin’ Tommy, your brother give us hope an’ a fresh start.”
Joe ran a hand over his face. His life spared, in payment for Adam giving Tommy’s family a new life. The knot in his stomach eased a little.
Miss Lyddie looked at her son thoughtfully. “An’ is that where that money come from, too? That money I’s allus afraid you stole somehow, that bought us food an’ a wagon and got us out here?”
“Tha’s right,” the big man said.
“Tommy paid it back,” Adam added. “He wasn’t satisfied until his debt was clear, though I never saw it that way. He gave far more to me than he ever realized.”
Joe wondered what Adam meant, then saw his brother reach down for the canvas sack that rested by his feet and pull out his guitar. After a single test chord, he began to sing – a single note – a single word – that hung lightly in the air, followed by a softly rising question:
If religion were a thing that money could buy
Then an answer:
The rich would live, and the poor would die . . .
Joe became aware of a soft accompaniment of voices, humming lightly under his brother’s deep voice as he sang the long, prayerful phrases:
All my trials, Lord
Soon be over.
Suddenly the voices of everyone in the small room rang out in full harmony
Too late, my brother!
And dropped to soft gentleness as quickly
Too late, but never mind . . .
All my trials, Lord
Soon be over.
And as Joe listened to the song of tragic hope he began to understand Tommy’s last few words. His chest tightened so he could hardly breathe, and tears streamed down his face as he thought about a life that had been such misery that death wasn’t just a release, but rather was something to be prayed for.
Now, hush little baby, an’ don’ you cry
Your Daddy was born just to live an’ die . . .
The song reached into his heart and twisted, and as it reached its final verse he realized he was seeing these people in a new way – he saw an inner strength in them, even in bitter Celie, and he knew they’d make it; they’d build the life that Tommy had wanted for them and, in his own way, had given his life for them to have.
All my trials, Lord
Soon be over.
In the silence that followed the song, Jimmy and another man placed the lid on the coffin, and Jimmy nailed it shut with swift, sure strokes. They stood at the head, and two others moved to the foot, but then Miss Lyddie pressed her gnarled old hand on the lid for a moment. She looked up at Adam, then Joe, and after a long considering pause, she waved them to the sides of the coffin.
Adam handed his guitar to Celie and moved to take up one side, and Joe stepped forward to help with the other. The six men, white and black together, slowly carried Tommy Coleman out of the church and up the small hill to the deep hole in the ground.
Using ropes, they lowered the coffin into the grave, then stood back as Miss Lyddie took Celie’s hand and moved to the edge.
“Tommy’s gone on ahead to a better place,” she said, her voice strong and sure, “but he made sure we’d have somethin’ here on earth until it’s time for each of us to join him.”
She stepped back, and, along with the other men, Joe and Adam moved for the shovels, but Celie shook her head and mutely held out the guitar.
Joe searched her face for anger, expected to hear her ask them to leave. The wind whipped at her bonnet, sending the ribbons flying in a wild dance. It tore at his hat as well, tried to rip it from his hand with a fury like he’d seen in Celie’s eyes. But now, as he looked for the raging grief he’d seen earlier, what he saw was a young woman who had lost everything, who’d never really had anything, but who had allowed a song to enter her heart and ease her grief. He saw . . . acceptance. And he wondered, suddenly, how often she’d had to bury her hopes and dreams, and where she found the strength to go on.
“All right,” Adam said softly to her as he took the instrument. While he slipped the strap around his shoulders, he turned briefly to Joe. “Bring the wagon up here, would you? There’s something in the back.”
Joe nodded, and though his curiosity about the second package had nearly driven him to fits earlier, he now felt only calm determination to see this through. Tears welled when he recognized the song Adam was playing, Amazing Grace, but he just swallowed hard and led the horses to the gravesite.
When the grave was filled and Adam finished playing, he set the instrument on the seat of the wagon and moved around to the back. “Joe, Jimmy,” he called, and both came forward to help him remove the massive, canvas-covered weight. They carried it to the grave, and though Joe now knew what it was, the engraving on the stone caught him unaware.
“I promised your son,” Adam said to Miss Lyddie, “that if he died before I did, he’d have this marker. Like many of the black men who fought, slaves and freedmen, it was the only recognition of his service that he wanted.”
The little girl ran up to touch the letters, breathing the words softly, hesitantly to herself, and the old woman stood before her son’s grave, tears finally breaking through the awful control.
The Cartwrights led their wagon away, and Joe knew he’d never forget the look on her face when the child read out loud:
Died September 1865