Cattle Call - Eddy Arnold
“You may all go to hell… and I will go to Texas.”
As Ned Villines guided his buggy down the narrow, tree-lined lane leading to the Barnes farm, he was pleased to see that it was as clean as he remembered it being before Jack and his two oldest sons had died in the war twenty years prior. Maude was a real stickler for making a good appearance, even way out here in the hills of Tennessee. And it certainly showed.
Pulling into the farmyard, swinging the buggy around and stopping beside the front porch, he was greeted by four women standing on the porch, each with a rifle or shotgun in hand. “Maude, quite a welcome for an old friend, isn’t it?” Ned asked, looking down the barrels of the weapons aimed at his head.
“Lower your barrels, girls. It’s Ned Villines. Ned, we don’t get much company out this way, and them that does come down that lane is usually up to no good. The menfolk are all off working, so we ladies tend to be a tad nervous when somebody comes riding in. Coffee is on, so you might as well get down and have a cup while you’re here.”
“No time for that, Maude. I still need to carry this mail down to the folks along Wilder Creek. But that’s why I’m here. I have a letter from Texas for you,” Villines said, reaching into the large bag on the seat beside him. “Thought it might be word from Aura Lea, so I made a special trip to deliver it to you. Here you go,” he said, stretching up to place the letter in Maude Barnes’ outstretched hand. “Well, miles to go yet today. Maude, Mary Alice, Daphne, Cybil, good to see you’re all well. Girls, tell your men I said hello, will you?” he continued, and then clucked to his buggy horse and began to roll back up the narrow lane.
The four women watched in silence until the buggy disappeared into the shadows, then Daphne, the youngest of Maude’s two living daughters, asked, “Mother, is it really from Aura Lea?”
“I don’t know yet, child. It looks like her handwriting, but I won’t know until I open it and read it.”
“Well, then open it, Mother Barnes,” chirped Cybil, the youngest of Maude’s two daughters-in-law and Jack Jr.’s wife. “Do you want me to get your spectacles?”
“Yes, deary, that might help me read it. Mary Alice, why don’t you bring us some coffee? I’ll sit here in my rocker and read it aloud while we sip that coffee. Daphne, bring you girl’s chairs closer while we wait, will you?” Maude said as she sat down in her rocker, anticipating reading the letter she knew to be from Aura Lea and Bill Porter, wondering what news Aura Lea had to share.
After leaning her ’73 Winchester against the wall, Maude sat down in her old wooden rocker, twitching around until she was comfortable, and then reached into her apron pocket for her trusty Barlow knife. She kept the knife with her at all times, as it was given to her by her “girls,” her daughters and daughters-in-law, and was precious to her. She kept it sharp enough to slice through anything she laid the blade against, and the fold of the envelope was no different than anything else she ever cut with the blade.
By the time she had removed the contents of the envelope and laid them on her lap, Mary Alice, Joe’s wife, had returned with the coffee pot and cups, and was pouring one for each of the other women. Shipping her reading glasses on, after taking them from Cybil, Maude unfolded the letter and began to read.
Much has changed since I last wrote, which was just after Bill came home from that last cattle drive. And even though the money was good, he came home with two bullet holes and a broken leg. The bullet wounds have finally healed well, but the leg became infected and had to be removed at the knee. Jimmy has failed to do as he promised when we allowed him to join us, and has left us in the lurch. I am having to tend to the cattle and the horses, doing a man’s work, while Bill stays here at the house with the children.
And to make matters worse, between the rustlers and the Comanche and Kiowa, though the Indians are less and less of a problem as time goes by, it is all I can do to keep what cattle we still have from disappearing.
I used the money you sent as you wished, and purchased another one and three fourths sections of land beside our two sections. There is a very decent house and a good well on that land, but the barn and corrals need work, and the bunkhouse needs some work as well. Still, it is much nicer than this place.”
I so wish you and the rest of the family were already living here, as I don’t know how long I can hold on alone. As I said, Bill’s worthless brother has left us in the lurch, having gone astray once his pocket was full of money from the cattle drive, and the man we hired to help me while Bill and Jimmy were gone pulled out to go chase some gold rush somewhere.
The good thing is that the kids are healthy and growing. Little Jesse has been doing the simple chores around here, like gathering eggs and feeding the chickens, and is learning to milk our cow (though he still can’t empty a teat-his hands are just too small), and he helps me feed and pumps the water into the tanks for the horses and milk cow.
Billy runs after Jesse as fast as his little legs can carry him, and does his best to help his brother. Jesse says Billy just gets in the way, but isn’t that what all big brothers say? Millicent has three new teeth, and is walking now as well. Oh, I so wish you were here to see them, and that my sisters were all here to tease and spoil them. And now that Bill isn’t able to get around, I need my brothers and Nicholas here to help raise the boys right. Tell Daphne to talk Nicholas into leaving Tennessee and moving out here as well, so that we will all be together once again.
And please, Mother, please don’t wait any longer. The railroad has reached Wichita Falls, just sixty miles from us, so you should be able to take the train nearly the whole way.
And there is lots more land to be purchased here, good land. Water is scarcer than back home, but the soil is good and makes good grass for cattle. It’s also good for food crops, and you should see our garden! That and I need you. My heart, my soul and my mind all need you desperately.
Your loving daughter and family,
Maude dabbed the tears from her eyes before looking up to see that the three other women were sobbing, tears streaming down their faces. She took a deep breath, and said firmly, “I believe it’s time we had another family meeting, girls. You can all do what you want, but I’ve decided to sell this property and move—now—with or without you. Like my third cousin Davy said when he left Tennessee for Texas, ‘You may all go to hell… and I will go to Texas.’”
“Not without Jack and I, you’re not!” Cybil exploded. “We’re ready to go anytime you are. We just need two days to pack.”
“And I know Joe won’t be left behind, so we’ll be going right along with the rest of you,” Mary Alice confirmed. “And I know the boys will love the idea of such an adventure,” she said, referring to her three boys, Thomas, Timothy and Terrance.
“And what of you and Nicholas, Daphne? Will you be going as well?” Maude asked.
“Well, I most assuredly will, and if Nicholas wants to see his child grow up, he’ll need to go as well.” Daphne suddenly realized that she had let the cat out of the bag, letting the other women know she was pregnant even before she had the chance to tell her husband.
Mary Alice and Cybil wrapped their arms around Daphne, squeezing her until she squealed. “Oh, my, I shouldn’t have said a word, as Nicholas doesn’t know yet. Please, not a word,” she pleaded.
“I won’t say a word—as long as you don’t say anything about me carrying Jack Jr.’s baby,” Cybil said, blushing.”
“You, too? Oh, how wonderful!” Daphne exclaimed. “Just think about how many grandchildren you’ll have crawling all over your lap, mother.”
Maude was still sitting in her rocker, slowly rocking back and forth, thoughts of both past and future mingling in her mind. She just wished Jack, Elias and Mordecai were still alive to share in all this. She could only hope they were all watching from above, or that she could stand over their graves to talk to them about it. But only God knew where their bodies lay, or even how they had died during that awful war.
“Mother? Are you alright?”
“Yes, and I’m happy for you both. I truly am. I was just thinking that this journey may be more of an adventure that any of us would like. You know, this is only the second place I have lived in all my fifty-three years. I had never been anywhere outside of the area of Limestone, Tennessee, where I was born and raised, until Jack and I came here. We weren’t even sure where we were going when we left, only that we wanted to start our lives someplace new to both of us. And then we saw this mountain, and the valley below…”
Maude paused for several minutes, her eyes misting, and then she continued. “We fell in love with the place, and were fortunate enough to be able to buy it. Of course, we only had forty acres to start, not the three hundred twenty we have now. Jack started in on this old cabin the second day we were here. Eight months later, we were blessed with Elias, and Jack added on two more rooms that next summer, after clearing the land and laying in the corn and cotton crops. That next winter brought us Mordecai, and the following year two more rooms and another forty acres were added. I remember telling Jack to stop building rooms, because every time he did, we had another child.
“Oh my, we had such a good laugh about that, but it seemed to be true at the time. Case in point, the next winter we had Ezra. That was the winter of ’48, a very bad winter. It was just three days after my eighteenth birthday, and the day before my dear Jack’s twentieth, and we were both deathly ill. We’d been ill for several weeks, and I suppose that’s why Ezra is the way he is… Anyway, Jack didn’t add any more rooms until two years later, when Aura Lea came into our lives. And three years after that, Joe joined the flock, and Jack added two more rooms. In between, I lost two more daughters, miscarriages both happening when I got sick.
“Now Daphne, you were a surprise, joining us in ’59, but the biggest surprise of my life came with Jack, Jr., after having two more miscarriages. Jack had come home for a few days when the army was moving to Shiloh, and left never having any idea that he had given us another son. I didn’t even know we had another child on the way when the word came that Jack had been killed in that horrible battle at Shiloh, along with Elias and Mordeci. And then Jack, Jr. came the December of ’62, along with word from my mother that Papa and my only brother, Jeremey, had also died at Shiloh. But you all already know the stories, so I guess I’m just spinning the wheels of my mind for no other purpose than to just remember. But we must go on, and go to the aid of Aura Lea and Bill while we can.
“Girls, you’d best start fixing supper for the men, as I’m sure they’ll be starving by the time they get home, and the sun is already starting to slip lower in the sky. Dark will be upon us before we know it, and I want to make certain we have all had a good meal before we sit down and talk about making this move. And we’ll need time to make sure George Ellison still wants to buy this property, and see who else we can sell the livestock to as I have no desire to try to haul or drive the hogs or cows all that way. Lord knows it’s going to cost plenty to get it all there on the trains as it is, and I won’t make that trip sitting on the back of a mule like Jack and I did when we came here, or bouncing my old skinny carcass all that way on a hard wagon seat. Go on and get busy. I’m just going to sit here and pray for a time, making sure the Good Lord sanctions this undertaking.”
After the three younger women had scurried away to begin preparing their evening repast, Maude sat quietly for some time before turning her eyes upward and then closing them. It was several more minutes before she began talking silently to the Lord.
Lord, I know I’ve asked a lot of you over these many years, yet here I am again—asking for your blessing and guidance going forward. Jack, if you’re listening in, please forgive me for deciding to leave our land behind. But our Aura Lea and her family need us worse than these Tennessee hills do. I’ve decided, Good Lord willing and the creek doesn’t rise, to follow so many of our people on to Texas. Lord, please help Ezra understand what’s happening. I so worry about that child. If his head had grown like the rest of him did, he’d be the smartest of my children, but that just isn’t the case. He can move trees, but only if someone tells him to do it.
Lord, please help me to get all the money this place is worth, and the same with all our critters. All I wish to take is the furniture and some of the tools, along with the keepsakes I’ve collected along the way. And protect our journey every step of the way, please, oh Lord. Keep Aura Lea and her family safe and out of harm’s way until we can get to her side, and then protect us all as we grow into the new land, this land they call Texas. That’s all I ask for now, Lord, and yes, I know I’m asking a lot. Your faithful servant, Madeleine “Maude” Emeline Click Barnes.
Feeling better now, Maude decided to gather the eggs before supper instead of after, as was her habit. From the door of the henhouse, she looked back at the house and yard, wanting to make sure she would never forget a single detail of what the place looked like. The white chinked logs of the now huge cabin; the whitewashed wood of the barn, needing another coat; the well and water trough; the hog and horse pens; the small pen where the milk cow was kept in the winter; the gates leading out to the various pastures; and the lane carved out of the woods surrounding the overgrown cabin and yard.
Maude paused for several minutes, taking it all in, hoping it still looked just the way Jack had last seen it as he rode out the end of March, 1862. Twenty-one years, it’s been twenty-one years tomorrow since the day he left me. And we never even owned, or thought of owning a single slave. Oh, I so wish he were here with us now, along with Elias and Mordecai, if for no other reason than to see what has become of his family. But that’s just the wishful thinking of a half-scared old woman. Half-scared of leaving here, and half-daft for doing it anyway. Now then, that clutch of eggs should hatch in the next day or so, and I may have to take that hen and chicks with me, even though I already know I won’t do it.
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