As the southbound Virginia and Tennessee train came to a hissing, rumbling stop at the Abingdon railroad station on a September night in 1864, three-year-old Jesse Crowell peered through the passenger car window and—amid the smoke, steam, and night fog—saw a tar-black man holding tightly to the bridle of a cottony-white horse.
Beside Jesse sat his sister, Elizabeth, only a year younger. From under her bowl-cropped hair, her round, brown eyes looked fearful as passengers stirred around them.
From the seat behind them, a tall, broad-shouldered man in a brown suit picked up a satchel and a small, shabby carpet bag and looked down on the two tiny travelers huddled together.
“This is it,” the man announced to them. He hoisted Elizabeth, to carry her in his right arm. With the other hand, he gripped the bags. “Jesse, take hold of my arm,” he said as they walked to the steps of the train car. He set the children and bags on the station platform, and then he gathered everything in the same manner as before and made his way, limping, to the waiting man and horse.
“Welcome home, Mister Pat,” called out the black man. “I see you got yore young’uns.”
“Yes, Worsh, I got them,” he answered in a tired voice. “You been waiting long?”
“No, not very. When I heared the train a comin’, I got down and held tight to Ole
Queenie. I knowed she’d get spooked if’n I didn’t hold on and talk to her.”
Patrick Campbell walked around to the wagon to which the horse was hitched. He loaded the grips, set the children directly behind the seat, and wrapped a blanket around them, for the autumn evenings had already turned rather cool. The children snuggled together and, soon, Elizabeth was asleep. There was minimal conversation between the two men as Jesse listened to the rhythmical plodding of the horse as they traveled for what seemed like hours.
After a while, Worsh said, “It turned off a little cool while you wuz gone.”
“I could tell as soon as I got off the train,” Patrick replied. After several more minutes, he asked, “Everything all right at home?”
“My boys mind their mother?”
“Yessir, as fur as I know. Didn’t hear nothin’out of ‘em.”
“That’s good. I thought they might take advantage with me being gone.”
After another extended silence, Worsh said, “Richmon’ a pretty big place, I reckon.”
“Yes, too big. I was glad to get in there and back out. I don’t like any city, even when there’s not a war going on.”
“I heared a person say onest that the only thing wrong with th’ country was th’ city,” Worsh said, with a laugh.
Eventually, Jesse also gave in to sleep, but he stirred as the wagon rolled across a wooden bridge. He was startled completely awake by the barking of several dogs milling around the front gate of a large, two-story, hip-roofed farmhouse. A short, stout, middle-aged woman, carrying a lantern, emerged and came to the steps to a high-ceilinged porch.
Although it was late at night, Sarah Campbell was dressed in day clothes; she had apparently been waiting up in anticipation of the group’s arrival. She hugged her husband and thanked Worsh for bringing the travelers home. Worsh, his assignment complete, bid everyone a good night and drove the horse and wagon toward a nearby barn. Smiling, the woman turned toward the children, knelt down, gathered them to her much like a mother hen, and kissed them.
“Jesse, Elizabeth, I know you don’t know me, but I’m your Aunt Sarah, and I’ve been waiting for you. You’re both going to live here with us. We’ve been looking forward to you coming for a long time.”
Patrick stood nearby without commenting. Jesse sensed that Aunt Sarah, in her effusive welcome, didn’t speak for everyone.
For the past few weeks, Jesse and Elizabeth had lived at Mount Olive Mission for Homeless Children in Richmond. Three years earlier, their mother, Sarah’s younger sister Eva, had gone with her husband Chris to live with his uncle in the capital. When war broke out, Chris volunteered and served with the 48th. Virginia Regiment. Just the past May, he was killed at Spotsylvania Court House. He never saw his baby daughter. In the summer, Eva contracted typhoid fever and she, too, died. Chris’ elderly uncle then took the children to the orphanage where they would be cared for until he could arrange for Eva’s Southwest Virginia relatives to come for them.
In recent years, Sarah had not had a close relationship with her sister but now felt a
longing desire and a deep sense of obligation to send for the children, her flesh and blood, now orphaned by the war.
She and Patrick had two sons of their own, and she had always wished for a daughter to dress in frilly dresses and to have as a confidante in a household of males. Of
course, taking only Elizabeth, as Patrick had once suggested, was out of the question. There was no way Sarah would separate the siblings. In fact, left to her own devices, Sarah would have taken in a dozen or more in similar circumstances, related or not.
For his part, Patrick Campbell was more than reluctant. He was not a hard man, nor an uncaring one. Rather, he was a practical man, believing in caring for his own and only his own. Furthermore, he and Sarah had both been older when they married and older still when they had their sons, Walter and Buford, who were, by this time, six and nine years old. Patrick did not relish the thought of starting again with two toddlers. It was his feeling that orphans should be cared for in institutions until they could be adopted by adults who were younger, perhaps childless, and, to his way of thinking, better equipped to take on other people’s children.
Book Size: 262 pages
Category/Subject: FICTION / General