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Tales Of The Old South: A Last Gift For Matilda
We were awful tired, the Captain and me, as we topped the hill on the old red clay road. I’d promised to see him home as he would’ve never made it by himself. He only had one eye left, thanks to a piece of shrapnel come flying through the air. Now not much of his face was left, barely enough to see he was a man. He never went into the yard of those who tried to give us a bite to eat, or maybe a drop of whiskey if we were lucky.
"You go on ahead, Phillips,” he always tole me “jest tell ’em I thank ‘em for their goodness.” I got used to talking to folks in place of the Captain, got accustomed to telling’ about our sad battles and even worse losses. “The Capn’ ’ud ruther sit out there under that ole tree and eat alone, ma’am. He feels sorta embarrassed like cause of his wounds. I do hope you understand?”
“Oh tosh,” the present owner of the house and voice said “I’ve doctored all mannuh of wounded boys in thuh last few years, seen evah thang there is tuh see concerning bad injuries in this crazy woah. I’ll go sit with you boys under the tree for a bit, sit quietly if it makes him nervous when I talk. Everyone needs to hear another voice occasionally, even me.”
Her name was Matilda Young. A very pretty lady, many men would perhaps even consider her beautiful when she was fixed up. Still was now, as a matter of fact. The Captain kept his back to us, ate his meal by lifting the black cloth from his chin and forking the food underneath. He was listening to every word Matilda said, even though he pretended not to. Her voice seemed to perk him up somewhat, made him sit a little straighter than normal. A pert female will sometimes stir the most stubborn of men it seems.
“It’s so good to jest sit heah and rest a minute,” Matilda began. “Funny how my situation is so different now than a mere few yeahs gone by. I once had hours of leisure time to fritter away. I was boh-ud to death most times, never suspecting how I’d wish to be so carefree again. I bet you and your Captain have similah stories from your formah lives, stories of happiness, I’d wager.”
“Yes Ma’am, I thank we all had better things to ‘member befoah this woah,” I responded. I could tell she was anxious for any news after the surrender. This was a relatively isolated lane leading through the many small swamps and bays of this part of Georgia, wandering through small fields and a few large plantations formerly operated by slaves before the war’s end. Not many soldiers traveled this way going home.
Her ash blond hair was covered with a one-time fancy scarf, now faded a bit, but still evidenced its former festive nature. Her lips, still pink with no evident lines to mar their pertness, were parted as she listened to my responses to her queries. Her green eyes were shimmering with tears as I told her of troubles during the war.
“Yes’m, we been through a bad time. Me and Capn’ got caught alone when we were tryin’ to get back to our boys. I thought we was goners, but “Capn’ brought us through, even though he got hurt real bad with that old shrapnel. He still cain’t see real good outten his one eye. I ain’t got nowhere else to go now, so I’m seein’ ’im home.”
“That’s so very kind of you,” Matilda said “I’m sorry you have no where else to go, though. If you pass back this way please stop and visit. You seem like such a nice young man, perhaps I will have some work for you by then. My father recently died and the man I was supposed to marry was killed in a battle near Atlanta not long ago. I could use the help if you’re a mind to do such labor.”
She was a pretty woman, Matilda was. A bit sad and maybe a bit desperate the way she begged me with her eyes. A man could do worse I suppose, could do a lot worse. Maybe I would come back this way when I got the Captain to where he was headed. I smiled at her and told her I would surely come back this way in a few weeks when I finished my duty to the Captain. She seemed so grateful I felt a bit ashamed for some reason, but I didn’t know why at the time.
We finished our meal and headed on south after Matilda went back to the house. The Capn’n didn’t say anything for awhile but this wasn’t unusual as he seemed to brood a bit after being around other people. I always waited until he got ready to talk until I spoke to him. “We’ll be near McCall’s Bay in a a couple o’ days, Phillips,” he finally said. There’s an ole cabin purty deep in the swamp I plan to live in. I don’t figger nobody will care if an old faceless soldier moves in and lives there for a while. Probly not too long anyhow.”
“I’d appreciate it if you could help me fix it up a bit and get settled in. I know yore anxious to git back and see thet purty Matilda, I don’t blame ye fer it.” And sure enough, we reached the old cabin a few days later and it was just as I pictured it in my mind. It was a sad and lonely place. Just the spot for someone who didn’t want others to stare at his face, to feel pity for a man who had done his duty. Just right for the Captain.
I did return by way of Matilda’s little farm. I helped her out until we married not long after I returned. She was indeed beautiful, both inside and out. What a lucky man I was I thought, what a very lucky man. But somehow I couldn’t stop thinking about the Captain. I suppose my good fortune made me feel guilty about his bad luck. When I told Matilda how I felt about the man who I escorted home, she insisted I go check on him as soon as the crops were in. And so I did.
I had no trouble finding the old cabin, but the Captain wasn’t there. He had disappeared not long after I had left him there in McCall’s Bay, but he had left me a letter in plain sight on the old pine table in the one-room cabin. It said:
The Captain's Letter
I knew you’d come back, Phillips. I learned to tell a soldier’s worth early on in that old war. You have character, as you’ve shown so many times during my brief acquaintance with you. That’s why I chose you for the most important mission I could ever send a man on. In this case, it was to save the person I love the most from a lifetime of sacrifice.
It was fate when the former owner of my coat with the Captain's insignia gave to me after my horrible injuries. I knew the man well, knew he had no family to return to after the war was over. I suppose it was also fate when one of the few surviving boys in our outfit didn't recognize me because of terrible wounds. He told the doctors I was the Captain, and I was too hurt to tell them otherwise at the time.
I was declared dead on the death rosters--another bit of fate--so now my fiance Matilda would not feel duty bound to spend her life looking at my horrible face. She deserved so much more than that. I wanted to see Matilda’s face one more time, and I did. If I know both of you like I think I do, you two will marry soon. Please don’t tell her I didn’t die in the war, even though in a way, I really did. Thank you for everything, Phillips. Take good care of her as I know you will, she’s worth it.
Your grateful friend always,
No, I never told Matilda about how her betrothed had survived the war, or that I feared he had finally succumbed to his heartbreak and injuries. She seemed sad that the person she knew as the Captain had disappeared from his special place of isolation though. Her heart had always been soft for such unfortunate creatures, it was just in her to be so. I always made sure Matilda knew she was greatly loved after we indeed became married. But she never knew just how much.
© 2013 Randy Godwin