Little Pigeon River runs through the Sugarlands valley in Tennessee.
Rusty and Jared – Late April 1865
Rusty felt weak and dazed. Getting as far as Little Pigeon River is his hope and prayer. Lord, give me the strength to reach Little Pigeon River. If we make it, I know Granpa will find us. Rusty had traveled over sixty miles from the battle field. He figured they had about ten miles to go when the horse pulling the wagon died. There was no way Jared could walk, he was seldom conscious. When he did come around he was either delirious or in a lot of pain. Rusty gave him laudanum to ease the pain.
With the left side of his head and left eye still bandaged in the old rags that were now dirty, stained in blood, sweat running down into his right eye, Rusty could barely see. He felt like dropping and dying right there in the middle of the road, but, he could not do that. Jared was still alive, last time he stopped and checked.
He had to keep going and get Jared home. He kept repeating to himself, “One more step,” even though his legs were aching bad. They both had to get home, because if they died, it had to be in their homeland, with Granpa near.
Jared and Rusty had fought many battles in the Civil War under the leadership of Colonel James A. Garfield, commander of the 18th Brigade. In April 1865 the end of the Civil War was near and Rusty Callahan headed for home with his wounded cousin Jared.
The whole world of Jared and Rusty centered in their Granpa, Thomas Callahan. Thomas raised both his grandsons and taught them everything they knew. A few months before Jared’s birth his father had died and Thomas took over the role of father to the babe. Rusty’s father, Gareth, relied on Thomas to raise the boy proper. Rusty loved his Pa, but Gareth sadly failed as a father.
Gareth had married a city gal who hated mountain life and constantly criticized Gareth for his ways and speech. She left Gareth for a “proper city man” and got a divorce when Rusty was nine years old. Gareth turned the raising of Rusty over to Thomas. So, it was Granpa who taught him things a mountain boy needed to learn. Granpa was always there for him every day, for all the scraped knees, the illnesses, the broken bones and bloody noses. And Granpa always knew when a boy needed a hug and understanding. Thomas taught his boys there was no shame in crying and the need to be held for comfort was pure love.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Jared wanted to join the Union army and Rusty wanted to go with him. “I cain’t let Jared go without me, Granpa,” Rusty cried. “Us two are always no further than a holler from each other.” Thomas swung his axe down hard on the chopping block and stared at his youngest. “Well, he ain’t goin’ nowhere and neither are you! Yer both too young to go a’fightin’ in a war. Sides, we have nothin’ to do with that war, it ain’t rattled us none.”
But, when the summer of 1863 was a struggle to survive for folks in the Sugarlands of Tennessee in the Appalachians, Jared and Rusty again told Granpa they were joining the army to fight for their homeland and people. “Ye both be hell bent for leather if’n you do!” Thomas glared at them. His grandsons were no longer little boys. At the ages of 16 and 18, Jared and Rusty stood before their grandfather, the patriarch of the clan, and glared back with pride, courage, and determination. “We goin’, Granpa,” Jared said softly. “The Confederates been raidin’ us, our kin and friends too often. You taught us well. We’s strong, wise, and sharp shootin’ fellers. We have a right and obligation to help save our homeland.” Thomas studied the boys for several seconds, then turned and walked into the woods.
Jadeen waited on the back porch till after dark for Thomas to come home. When she saw him coming out of the woods memories rushed back to her, memories from all the years they had been together, how they raised the boys and how much they loved each other. She could read Thomas by his stance, his walk, and his face. She knew he had suffered in private back in the woods, struggling over the right thing to do. She knew her grandsons were going to war. She got up, went into the kitchen and dished up some hot stew for Thomas and the boys. Jared and Rusty stood up when they heard Thomas step up on the porch. They looked at Granpa with respect and expectation, remaining silent.
Thomas washed up at the sink then stood at the table behind his chair. “We will keep the porch light on for you. Now, we will pray together for your safe return home from the war,” he bowed his head. Jadeen knew the decision to let his boys go hurt Thomas deeply.
Porch Light Burning – Mid April 1865
Thomas and Gareth Callahan sat outside every night after supper, hoping to see their boys coming home from the war. They kept the kerosene lamp that hung above the steps burning and they prayed. They faced their rockers south, watching the long dirt road that took Gareth and Rusty to the battle-torn lands of the Civil War two years ago. They knew the war had officially ended, but, had no word from their boys. Every day they watched and they waited.
Left for Dead – Early April 1865
Rusty looked around at the dead, some with blue uniforms, some with gray who had fought and killed each other for their beliefs, yet were all brothers in death. Rusty had seen Jared go down and thought he was dead. When he turned to go to Jared, one shot took Rusty down. They were both left for dead when the troops moved on to the next battle.
When he came to, Rusty realized he was only wounded, because he felt pain and it hurt like hell. A bullet had grazed the left side of his head, just missing the eye and taking off the top half of his ear. He could not see out of his left eye. A dead soldier next to him had worn a scarf around his neck. Rusty took the scarf and tied it around his own head to cover his eye and ear. When he was able to get up on his hands and knees he crawled to where he last saw Jared. He knew he had to somehow get Jared home to be buried properly with family around. They were in Tennessee about 90 miles from home, maybe less.
Not far from where Jared lay, Rusty saw the small wagon of the unit’s doctor, with the horse still harnessed. Rusty stumbled over to it and saw the doctor lying dead near a soldier. Rusty opened the doctor’s bag and saw it contained laudanum, bandages and small instruments. He put the bag under the wagon seat and led the horse over to Jared.
Thinking he would re-bandage his head, take some medicine and lay down by his dead cousin, he changed his mind when he heard Jared moaning. “Jared!” Rusty knelt down and kissed Jared’s forehead. “It’s me, Jared. I’m gonna give you some laudanum and bandage your wounds.” As Rusty cradled the man he thought of as a brother, his tears fell on Jared’s face.
The medicine helped a lot and Jared fell asleep. Rusty examined him and found Jared had taken two bullets, one in his left shoulder and one just below the stomach. That bullet had gone clear through. Jared’s lower left leg was broken, probably from the fall over the log next to him. Rusty saw a lot of moss on the log and pulled it loose. He poured water on the moss and padded Jared’s wounds with it before he wrapped them good in bandages. Rusty looked around for something to use as braces for Jared’s leg. A wooden box in the back of the wagon had boards about the size he would need. Rusty broke it apart and used four boards to brace Jared’s leg after he set it.
Rusty had his Springfield rifle and Colt 44 pistol as well as Jared’s. He picked up a few more rifles, pistols and all the bullets he could find. He rolled the guns up in a blanket and put them in the wagon. He needed the guns and ammo in case they ran into enemy troops.
Kneeling by his cousin, Rusty prayed then spoke to Jared. “I’ll get you home, Jared.” he cried, “I promise, I will get you home to Granpa. You hang on, Jared. Granpa and Granma will fix us up right quick. And if we die, Jared, our spirits will go home together. We will always be together, Jared.” Each soldier had a blanket rolled up in their pack. Rusty gathered as many as he could and covered Jared to keep the chill off. Then he took a canteen and poured water in a tin bowl for the horse. He unharnessed the horse, led it to a grassy area and hobbled it. He gathered several canteens and filled them from the creek nearby.
When feeling the water run over his hands, Rusty thought about Little Pigeon River, so near their home. Tears fell off his cheeks and into the river as he prayed. “God, if you can help me get as far as Little Pigeon River, we will be almost home. And if that is as close as we can get, it will be okay for me to lie down and die with Jared. If that is fine with you, God, then it is fine with me. And God, if you can help us all the way home alive, that would be more fine.”
He took the scarf off to wash his face and ear. The cool water felt good, but he still had a lot of pain. When he got back to Jared he cut a strip of blanket for his own bandage. He put some moss on his ear then tied the thin blanket strip on. He thought to take a small dose of laudanum for pain but had to save it for Jared, whose pain was far worse. Then he remembered seeing willow trees down by the creek, so he went back and gathered a lot of willow bark, cutting it off with his Bowie knife.
Back with Jared, Rusty sat down and chewed the bark for a while to relieve his pain as he gave thought to getting Jared in the wagon come morning. He spat out the bark then wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and lay down by Jared.
By Horse and by Faith
Morning dawned early. Rusty checked to see if Jared was okay, made some soup and tea, then checked their food supply. They had a good supply of pemmican and hardtack left, now willow bark for tea. Their Granma had made the pemmican. It made good soup when a small amount was added to water and boiled. The hardtack could be soaked in the soup. He would have to mash it all up good to spoon-feed Jared when he roused him. Then gave Jared more medicine along with the willow bark tea.
Rusty had grown tall and husky, but, Jared was even bigger. How to get Jared in the wagon took no thinking, Rusty just did it. He used several blankets to make a soft bed for Jared and covered him. He tore a few blankets in strips and tied Jared down to prevent as much movement as possible.
Just after breakfast Thomas, Gareth, and Julie Ann, Jared’s mother, took up their watch post on the porch. Thomas had dozed off and started dreaming. In his dream, a pigeon had landed on the porch rail. Thomas watched as the little bird limped badly along the rail then flew off south. Thomas awoke with a start. “Gareth, saddle up four horses. I’ll come down and hitch up two horses to the wagon. We be leaving right quick, heading south for Little Pigeon River.” He got up and opened the screen door. “Jadeen, grab our doctoring bag, lots of stew and come with us!” No one questioned him. When Thomas spoke with such urgency they went into action.
Little Pigeon River
Rusty figured they were about ten miles from Little Pigeon River when the horse died during the night. Rusty un-hobbled her and said a prayer. “She was a good soldier, God. I took the hobbles off so her spirit can run free. Thank you for providin’ us with her service, I am grateful for that. I called her Molly and I think she liked the name. Please give her good pasture to graze in, God.”
Now Rusty had to face the difficult task of pulling the wagon himself. It was small and light, he knew it could be done, but it will take a lot of effort and he was weak. He had to do his best, for Jared needed help.
Molly had pulled the wagon up the mountain as he walked beside her holding the reins. The road uphill was well-traveled and easy. He let Molly rest often, making sure she had the needed water, grass, and tender plants. But, still, the long pull was too much for her.
Rusty adjusted the harness for his comfort and held on to the two side poles as he pulled. It was hard getting started, but the wagon suddenly began moving. He sensed Molly close to him. The road was more level now and he settled into a good pace, slow, but steady. It did not take long for blisters to form on his palms and shoulders, yet he kept on, one step at a time. He took the focus off his physical body and let his spirit take over as Granpa had taught him.
Rusty suddenly stopped pulling. Something had alerted him. He listened, trying to clear his mind. His head was pounding and there was a roaring in his ears. He did not know how long he had been working or how far he had come. It was late in the day and the air had changed, it was fresh and cool. Looking behind, he realized they had come a long way since morning. He studied the landscape and saw some large boulders they had passed, then saw several familiar landmarks, which told him they were near Little Pigeon River. The roaring in his ears was the water rushing over rocks in the river. The pounding in his head was actually hoofs of horses running over the old bridge.
Rusty shrugged off the harness and hurried to Jared. Climbing up in the wagon he heard Jared moaning. He knelt down and saw Jared was in agony. Grabbing a canteen he poured water on his fingers and wet Jared’s lips. Jared opened his eyes and with great effort muttered, “Rusty … pain … can’t …”
“Jared, we almost home. The Little Pigeon River is right ahead. We made it this far, Jared, don’t you die now. Hang on, Jared, hang on! Granpa is coming, Jared. You hang on now!” Rusty was yelling and holding Jared in his arms, crying and yelling. He thought maybe he, too, was delirious and imagining the river near and horses coming. Then he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Granpa standing above him. With tears rolling off his cheeks, Rusty cried, “Save him, Granpa. Save my brother,” then passed out.
Rusty awoke to darkness. Vision in his right eye slowly cleared. He saw far above him so many stars. He tried to get up, thinking he had been dreaming. He had to help Jared. Gentle hands held his shoulders down. “Shhhh …,” Jadeen wiped his face with a cool damp cloth. Rusty tried to focus then recognized Granma’s face. “Jared!” Again, Jadeen soothed him with “Shhh … Jared is going to be okay. You rest now. You are in the big wagon with Jared and Granpa is doctoring him. Now, you rest dear boy.” She tucked the blankets around his shoulders.
The presence and smell of Granpa and Granma came to his senses. Tobacco from Granpa, herbs in a hot tea, lavender flowers in Granma’s pocket were the sweetest things in the world to Rusty at that moment. With a prayer of thanks on his lips, he knew they were home and fell into a deep sleep.
© 2018 Phyllis Doyle Burns