Tales Of The Old South : Came A Carpetbagger
Making Money From Misery
It didn’t take long for the Carpetbaggers to show up, even down here in the southernmost parts of Georgia. The vast forests of yellow pine were ripe for the taking, as were the even more coveted swamps teeming with ancient bald cypress.
The victorious rich of the north looked for ways of getting even wealthier from the bad decisions suffered by the sons of the south. And that was the way it was.
My father came back from the war. I felt fortunate because there were many children of my age who could not say the same. Yes he was wounded badly, and at first we thought he would surely die. My mother though, she never gave up on him, never would she allow us to suggest otherwise than he would heal as good as new.
It was almost as if she’d given some of her own wonderful life to him, lent him a few of her later years, as it were. She would give anyone her help without asking for it, anyone at all. And for her family she would do anything.
Mother Always Knew Best
At any rate, it seemed to have worked. My father slowly recovered his health as my brother Pete and I tried to keep our small farm going as best we could. When Pa first left for the war my mother--Eleanor Gates--was left with the chore of making a living as best she knew how.
“Billy Gates,” she said to me after my father had left “you an’ Pete are gonna have tuh do thuh farm cho-ahs now, I’ll hep yuh when I can.” She did too, not only doing her own chores but spelling us with the plowing and hoeing too.
If not for her we wouldn’t still have our mule Jonah, or the cows and chickens either. When the Yankees came through scavenging everything they could find, she had Pete and I take turns hiding Jonah and the other livestock deep in Collier’s Bay. The Yankees were so afraid of quicksand and alligators it was a sure bet they wouldn’t venture too far into any of the local swamps.
Of course, a few well placed tales within earshot of the soldiers didn’t hurt much either. The old men around town made sure of that.
Felling the Giants
Now this was the least of our problems as the Carpetbaggers were planning to cut the forests around our 100 acre farm. Not our trees, of course. Mother would have fought them herself had this been the case, but still she didn’t like the thought of a horizon littered by the broken limbs and jagged tree stumps of this primeval forest.
For tens of thousands of years it had been home to man. No, not all of them good men, but for the most part they had simply lived their lives as they saw fit, and then died without changing the landscape much at all.
But not these men of wealth and power. They cared not for the land in this loser’s country, only looked at it as the spoils of war. Nothing new in this, merely a new land to repeat this time honored tradition of “to the victor go the spoils.”
Often though, the owners never laid eyes on the very living things making them rich. They would simply read the letters and see the figures on paper representing the great trees, never hearing them fall with their last groans of death. My mother hated this and decided to at least save a few of the living giants.
Of Beauty and Virtue
Did I tell you my mother was beautiful? She had a certain effect on most men, and some boys too if the truth were known Unlike most other ladies in the area, she had only given birth to Pete and myself and managed to keep her trim figure.
With her wonderful cornflower blue eyes and auburn hair she could charm any man she happened to meet. My father--Will Gates as he was known--found the whole thing amusing as he watched her bewitch the men folk roundabouts.
Just as soon as we got word of the timber cutting commencing she hitched Jonah up to the wagon and drove over to the other side of the vast timbered plot to see what was going on. She was very charming to the manager, a Mr. Darby Allen his name was. She developed a friendship with him which she filled my father in on.
“Those poah convicts are bein’ worked half to death ovah theah, a sawin’ and a draggin' them heavy logs all day. It’s a wondah they can git outta bed thuh next day. But I jest act like I don’t see nuthin’ wrong and keep on smilin’ my silly little smile.”
Only A Job
Since Pa had fully recovered from his wartime injuries and we didn't need my mother in the fields any longer, she volunteered her services as a nurse to the poor convicts who operated the sawmill. Mr.Allen was a nice man and tried to make it easier on the work crews, and they in turn worked hard for him, but especially they admired my mother. She treated their injuries and illnesses as if they were as good as anyone, and to her they were.
Mr. Allen rode over often to eat meals with us, mainly just to look at mother I think, but then, she was a heck of good cook in the bargain. He talked of other places, of other forests he would soon cut down and ship up north, but he didn't seem too happy about it at the time. It was a job he said, just a job.
It took over two years to cut the plot completely, two years of Mother painstakingly tendering to the convict's hurts, and their heartbreaks too, if I know her like I do. She never feared being amongst them, never was afraid they would harm her at all. Everyone seemed to love her.
On the last day when the timber cutters were due to leave, a parade of scraggly ill-dressed convicts came marching past our little house. Unlike similar gangs seen around the country, this group was smiling and waving to us--to my mother especially--and she couldn't help but rush out and wish them all well. And her eyes told them much.
A Secret Not Known
You might think my father would be the jealous sort, as most men would, but he knew mother was playing a game she was very good at. Getting her way. After all, that’s how she got my father in the first place, and he wasn’t adverse to her using her wiles to better their life, and especially in such an innocent manner.
When the saw teams finally cleared out, moving on to the next plot, a thin strip of giant pines still filled in the horizon all around us. My mother had convinced Mr. Allen it would be best to leave these few old trees as a favor to her. Did I tell you she was beautiful?
I mentioned Pete and I being the only two offspring in our family, and there was certainly a reason why. I was 12 and Pete only 9 years of age at the time Mother became pregnant again. My father was furious--even though it did take two I suppose--but Mother was certainly radiant and seemingly full of joy in expectation of increasing our small family's number.
A Chance For Another Lifetime
“You know what Doc said ‘bout it,” Pa ranted “you may not make it this time.” It was then we heard about how she'd almost died when Pete was born, had almost bled to death afterwards, and now we were scared too.
“Oh pshaw,” she said “that wuz a long time ago, I’m stronger now n’ I ever wuz. Y'all jest worried 'bout nuthin'!” But she wasn’t as strong as she claimed. She died right there in that old farmhouse. Died while my father held her hand gently, while he dripped salty tears onto her beautiful face, while he told her he loved her more than anything else, while she smiled at him with her cornflower eyes.
Her death almost finished my father off, and for Pete and I it was almost as bad. Much of the joy of life left with her, most of the sunshine remaining now dimmed a bit. Laughter never sounded so pure and happy again as once from those lips.
Yes, I am an old man now. An old man who remembers some things clearly from long ago. My mother is one of those things I remember best, and clearest if the truth be told. Yes, she gave too many of her young years away, gave them gladly I'd wager.
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